Offering: the story of the widow’s mite and Remembrance Day

Scripture: Mark 12: 38-44; Wisdom 3: 1-9

On Remembrance Day, we ‘bring back to memory’ those who served or gave their lives in war. We usually think of peace in terms of what it is not – the absence of war or violence. But Jesus spoke of peace as a gift that we can offer and accept. Before the Last Supper, he told his disciples, “My peace I give you” [John 14: 27]. When he sent disciples to preach in local villages, he told them, “Whenever you enter a house, say, ‘Peace be on this house.’ If anyone is there who shares your peace it will rest on that person, but if not, it will return to you” [Luke 10: 5-6].

Before we exchange the peace each Sunday, I say, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” You reply, “And also with you.” We offer each other the gift of mutual peace. It is much more than “Hello, nice to see you.”

The widow’s offering

In the story of the widow’s mite, to use the old King James words, the widow put two small coins into the Temple treasury. Hers is not a story of piety and faithful stewardship. She gave “all that she had” in order to pay the onerous Temple taxes. That poor widow must have really resented the Temple tax. Her rent and grocery money helped to pay for the scribes’ respect and affluent lifestyles, such as the banquets where they jostled to get the best seats. Jesus contrasted her donation with those of rich people, who had plenty to spare.

Offering is also a theme of Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day this year falls on a Sunday, exactly 100 years since the end of World War I. This makes parallels between the widow’s offering in Jesus’ story and the offering of soldiers who risked or lost their lives in war. The soldiers offered their lives – all that they had. Likewise, their parents and wives offered all that they had.

The church in the small village in England where my sister’s funeral took place has made a special presentation this year. Small crosses line the path from the church gate to the church door. Each carries a plaque with the name of a parishioner who died in WW I.

When Michelle and I visit France, I am always deeply moved by the war memorials. Even in the tiniest villages, the lists of names for those Morts pour la France seem impossibly long. They include many with the same family name, representing families that suffered multiple losses. Those elaborate memorials testify to the memory of those who died. They also symbolized the unfulfilled hope that this would be the ‘war to end wars’: that future generations would never endure such carnage again.  After WW II,  the European nations began to cooperate, to prevent future wars between them.  That hope led, in time, to the European Union.  Seventy years on, re-emerging nationalistic self-interest endangers that aspiration.

We should not limit our remembrance

On Remembrance Day we tend to focus on Canadians who died in the two world wars of the 20th century.  We read the names of those from this parish who offered themselves in those conflicts. But many survivors suffered post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), once called simply ‘shell-shock’.  Society now recognizes that many ex-service personnel suffer PTSD long after their term of service is over.  I cannot give enough thanks that I never had to fight a war, and neither were Charles or Robin.

At this distance in time, we have set aside the demonization of ‘the enemy’. We can now remember sympathetically those on both sides who lost their lives. Like our Canadian soldiers, those ‘enemy’ service people were mostly conscripts. Their families felt the loss of their loved ones no less keenly. We should also not forget those who fought and died in what sometimes seem to be “lesser” wars – in Korea and more recently in Afghanistan. They, too, are just as dead.

But that is not all. Civilians increasingly became unwitting and unwilling participants and targets in war during the 20th century. Horrific examples include indiscriminate fire-bombing of European cities such as Coventry and Dresden. That culminated in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where almost all those who died were civilians. We have recently witnessed streams of refugees from Syria, people who have lost jobs, homes, and loved ones as a result of war. Indiscriminate bombings of schools, hospitals, and civilians has become the norm in the wars in Syria and Yemen.

Many non-believers argue that religion is the cause of war and conflict.

Religion can be a convenient way to distinguish “us” from “them”.  It can separate ordinary people into ‘tribes’ for political objectives. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all had poor records in terms of what we might call the “brotherly love stakes”.  Israelite vs Canaanite in the Old Testament. Sunni vs Shia in today’s Middle East. Jew vs Muslim in the Holy Land. Christian vs Muslim in the Crusades, and again today in Nigeria. Catholic vs Protestant in Northern Ireland. All these conflicts use religious labels to fight what are really struggles for power and control.

The widow’s mite and charitable donations

I want to go back to the story of the widow’s mite in the context of giving to charity. Our parish donations to St. George’s are behind budget this year. However, I am not appealing to every parishioner to cough up more for St. George’s. In today’s Gospel, Jesus did not say or imply that we must give absolutely all we have to the Church or to other charities. He simply noted that the Temple tax was burdensome to the poor widow, whereas richer people gave out of their abundance.  Although St. George’s needs money to keep the lights on, all contributions are voluntary. Church is not a theatre or sporting event. where you pay an admission fee. Your offering to the church is not an obligation. It must never take precedence over providing for food, shelter, and family needs.

With a slightly different perspective, St. Paul wrote about a collection that his Church in Corinth was taking up for the Christians in Jerusalem.  “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, for the rendering of this ministry overflows with many thanksgivings to God.”

Legacy giving: an overlooked area of stewardship

Legacy giving means leaving bequests in one’s will. Many people do not think to leave anything to their church, usually because they were never asked. Often, people leave money to secular charities, but do not think of the work and needs of their own denomination. There are even tax-saving ways in which to make a bequest to the parish or diocese.

Christ reminds us that death in this life is not the end

Speaking of bequests brings me back to Remembrance Sunday. The writer of the Book of Wisdom understood death in a very Christian sense. The souls of the righteous (the saints, we called them last week) are in the hands of God. However disastrous we consider their departure from this world, they are at peace and will be with God for ever. That is also the heart of the Christian message, which we see most clearly in the story of the Resurrection at Easter.  Life is more than what we see in this world.  Jesus called it ‘eternal life’.  Today, we remember all those who have gone before us, including loved ones and those Canadians and others who lost their lives in war-time.  But we also remember that the Gospel message is that our immortal souls live on long after our fleshly bodies have been forgotten.

What makes us saints?

Scripture:  Matthew 5: 1-12

What makes a saint? A cynic might say that they are all dead, and most of them are Roman Catholic. Roman Catholicism continues to declare sainthood, with a particular predilection for sanctifying former popes! Briefly, Roman Catholic canonization requires that the candidate to have lived a specially holy life. As well, he or she either suffered martyrdom or was responsible for two (normally) miracles. Today, these miracles are usually inexplicable cures of illness. The most recently declared saints are Oscar Romero (Archbishop of San Salvador, martyred) and Pope Paul VI (two miraculous cures involving unborn children).

The saints of Lowville (or of your congregation)

The idea of an “aristocracy” of Christians goes counter to St. Paul. He attracted people to his churches on the basis of equality. His message was clear. “Now there is no male or female, servant or free-born, Jew or foreign born.” Paul also expressed this idea in his first letter to his Corinthian church.  It begins with these words.  “To the Church of God in Corinth, to all those who have been called to be saints and sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ …” Although Paul went on to correct problems in his Corinthian church, he began by calling his congregation saints. If he were writing to us here today, he would begin his letter with these words.   “To the Church of God in Lowville, to all those who are called upon to be saints …”

Down the centuries people became very hung up on the idea that saints are only specially holy people. That certainly wasn’t the case for Paul’s congregation in Corinth. One of my teachers at the University of Toronto – a Presbyterian – said that if a church in his presbytery had been so dysfunctional, they would have closed it down. But for all their faults, Paul began his letter by calling them “saints”. Why? I believe that God does not require us to be perfect, but to try our best towards that goal.

Sainthood is not just a remembrance of super-holy people – Gospel writers and early Church martyrs; the Mother Teresa’s and Oscar Romero’s of the modern world, though it surely includes them. Paul’s words remind us that every one of us, all we who turn out Sunday by Sunday – or as many Sundays as we can – is a saint.  We come here to worship God and give thanks for all the blessings of our lives.  Paul’s saints in Corinth had their faults, just like the saints in the Milton and Burlington areas.  But they were, and we are, saints none the less.

Who are the “official” saints of the Anglican Church?

The 16th century Reformers cleaned up an enormous calendar of minor saints. The Anglican Church recognizes the four Gospel writers, the twelve apostles, two Marys, and Paul. Incongruously, the Church of England also made (in 1660) the executed King Charles I a martyred saint. If the Anglican Church followed that rule strictly, we could not call our parish St. George’s! But a typical Anglican compromise permitted existing churches to keep the names of their saints.  We could even to continue to use those names for new parishes — like St. George’s, Lowville!

The Beatitudes and ‘future blessedness”

Today’s Scripture is known as the Beatitudes, or blessings.  It is one of the best loved of Jesus’ sayings from the Sermon on the Mount. It always reminds me of a 19th century sermon by John Henry Newman entitled, “Holiness as a route to future blessedness.” Newman’s point was that can practise good habits, just as easily as we can fall into bad ones. We try to pray regularly, to love God and love our neighbours.  We try to respect the dignity of every human being, and to care for Creation, as we pray in our baptismal covenant. And like St. Paul’s congregation in Corinth, we often fail. But it is the trying that makes us holy (saints).

Both John Henry Newman’s sermon and the Beatitudes look towards the future. Jesus’ statements about what makes a person blessed turn everything in our ordinary experience upside down. One sense of “future blessedness.” might be that if things are going badly in your life, don’t worry, they will get better in the future.  That’s possibly why families in mourning often choose to read the Beatitudes at a funeral.  The poor in spirit become rich. The mourners find a way to laugh. The meek and the shy – kids who are bullied in school and workers oppressed by tyrannical bosses – get to inherit the earth.

Do the Beatitudes refer only to life in heaven when we die?

Was Matthew living in some kind of La-la Land when he reported these words of Jesus? The cynic says instead, “The poor and the meek don’t inherit the earth; they only get what’s left over.” The even more cynical say that Jesus was referring to a future reward for the sad and oppressed in heaven – what’s often called “pi in the sky when you die”.  That interpretation implies that the rich can safely ignore the troubles of the poor while they are here on earth.  After all, they will get their reward later.

I do not agree with the preceding argument. My own theology is that the Gospel message relates at least as much to the here and now as to the afterlife. Jesus was not speaking about a future in eternity – i.e., after we die. He was a 1st century Jew speaking to 1st century Jewish people. They imagined that the Messiah would bring God’s righteous reign into this earthly world. They thought that the Messiah would recreate the earthly paradise.

The Beatitudes imagine the present world being brought to perfection

That idea interprets the Beatitudes as the timeless dream of a world in which heaven comes to earth, not the other way round. In that world — God’s world — people treat one another with kindness, love, and respect. They share the earth’s resources so that everyone has enough. Even the very last verse of the Beatitudes (Rejoice; for your reward will be great in heaven) need not be seen in terms of the afterlife. It can just as easily be Jesus’ vision that the heavenly hosts will look on with joy when the eternal dream becomes reality.

What might that look like in 21st century Ontario? No more homeless people. No-one going to bed hungry. No bullying or discrimination. The sad and grieving will be comforted by their friends and neighbours. It’s not God’s job! Politicians will cooperate.  They will show one another respect, even when they hold different ideas. Hateful comments will disappear from social media. To our south, ‘Medicare for all’ will become a reality, and political leaders will refrain from trash-talking (yes, you know who I mean). Do we really think that these goals are impossible?

We therefore ask what we, the Saints of Saint George’s, can do to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer. On the one hand, we can practise our holy good habits as a route to future blessedness. Actually, I’d like to rethink that as ‘present blessedness’. There’s nothing new in all this. The prophet Micah wrote that God asks of us only that we should love justice, kindness and humility. Jesus reminded (not told) his hearers to love God and love their neighbours. This, he said, summarizes the laws of Moses. He commanded his disciples to love one another. In that beautiful essay on love in his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul explained that love is kind, not selfish or arrogant, or rude.

On this All Saints Day, let us remember that we are all saints, that is, people trying to be holy, trying to achieve future blessedness. In this congregation here, ordinary people get to be saints – holy people. May God’s grace help each of us to see the world through God’s eyes, so that the earthly and the heavenly realms may become united. The old Prayer Book puts it wonderfully well, in one of the Collects from Morning Prayer. “May all our doings may be ordered by thy governance, to do always that is righteous in thy sight, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

The story of blind Bartimaeus is about spiritual blindness

Scripture reading: Mark 10: 46-52

Bartimaeus was a blind beggar. In Jesus’ day there was no welfare or social security net. I imagine him dressed in rags, with an ill-kempt beard. He looks scrawny because he doesn’t get enough to eat. He might be on the streets in Toronto or Hamilton.

Bartimaeus declares that Jesus is the Messiah

Bartimaeus was begging at the side of the road when he learnt that Jesus would be coming by. At first sight, this story is just another of Jesus’ healing miracles.

But it’s much more than that. Bartimaeus said something quite extraordinary. “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” It is the first public declaration in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is the Messiah.  Peter was the only person to have made this claim previously. That happened when Jesus asked his disciples who other people thought he was and who they thought he was. In that case, Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” So where did a blind beggar get such an idea? “Son of David” is how the Jewish people described the Messiah. We recognize the one “born of David’s line” in the Christmas carol, “While shepherds watched their flocks by night.”

What Bartimaeus did was also extraordinary

He was self-confident, something you wouldn’t expect from a blind street person. Of course, people didn’t sit up and take notice of what such a nobody had to say. They just told him to shut up. But he shouted louder, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” until Jesus noticed him. Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want?  Bartimaeus said, ”Teacher, let me see again.” Jesus replied, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

Is this a story about an event, or is it a parable?

Perhaps it is both. I often surprise myself when I find different meanings in a given passage on different occasions. More than that, we all probably approach a piece of Scripture – or any other situation – differently. Each of our brains reacts up differently based on our unique experiences. So there is no one correct way to approach the story of blind Bartimaeus. Perhaps he was physically blind. Maybe he wasn’t sightless but spiritually blind, in which case “seeing” means coming to faith.

Amazing Grace: coming to faith

The second explanation parallels the famous story of John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”

John Newton

John Newton’s blindness wasn’t physical. He was the captain of a slave ship that took slaves from Africa to work on plantations in the Americas.  He returned to England with consignments of sugar. Newton came to realize that he had been spiritually blind to what he was doing. He had viewed his slave passengers as commodities, like sugar, not people. Through God’s grace, he came to see his error. He gave up the sea, and spent the last forty years of his life as a preacher among the poor in London, England. The movie “Amazing Grace” tells his story.

The writers of the Gospels were consummate story-tellers

They had to be.  They told their stories orally, because few people could read. A good story begins with some kind of a problem or conflict that draws us in, and makes us want to read or hear more. A mere narrative – this happened, then that happened, then something else happened – is not interesting. The “hook” in the story that keeps us interested is: “How did the conflict or the problem get resolved, or not?”  Mark’s miracle stories about Jesus follow a formula that suggests we should read them both as miracle and parable.

Besides Bartimaeus, I think of other stories.  Jesus calmed a storm; Jesus healed a woman who had suffered from hemorrhages for many years. Here’s the formula. There is a problem. The disciples are afraid of a storm. The woman is sick. Bartimaeus is blind. Jesus reassures the person with the problem. Then the miracle happens. The woman’s bleeding stops. Bartimaeus receives his sight. The storm calms. The formula almost always end with a comment about faith. Jesus says something like, “Your faith is what saved you.” Or, in the case of the storm, “Why didn’t you disciples have faith?” The repeated emphasis on faith points to the parable-like meaning of the stories.

Jesus’ miracles are miracles of faith

Today’s Gospel story tells us explicitly that Bartimaeus’ faith was what made him well. Jesus did not claim personal credit for the miracle. He didn’t say, “I made you well.” He said, “Your faith – yours, Bartimaeus – made you well.” This is very profound.  Scripture does not tell us to wait around passively for God – or Jesus – to do something magical for us. Coming to faith is work that we must do for ourselves, even though we recognize that it happens through God’s grace. Think of the doxology that we say or sing every week. “Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

In our translation of the Bible, Jesus told Bartimaeus, “Your faith has made you well.” Other translations say, “Your faith has made you whole.” Wholeness – completeness – puts a slightly different perspective on the healing miracle. Bartimaeus became whole spiritually as well as physically.

Bartimaeus was a beggar. He was an outsider. He was dirty and in rags. In Jewish society he was ritually unclean. Other people ignored him, apart from telling him to shut up. But after he regained his sight (or came to faith), we read that Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the way. “Followers of the Way” was what Christians were called before the word ‘Christian’ existed. He became one of Jesus’ disciples. The encounter with Jesus – the encounter with God’s grace – made him whole. It not only brought him back into Jewish society. It made him a member of the community of disciples.

“Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

I want to finish by repeating this doxology, which was written by St. Paul (Ephesians 3: 20).  Many Christians imagine that God can swoop down and do miracles for us. But in the Bartimaeus story and elsewhere, Jesus is very clear.  “It is your faith that has made you well.”

The germ of faith is within us, but God’s grace is what allows that faith to develop. John Newton expressed precisely this idea in his hymn.  Verse 1: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” He came to realize that slaves are people and not mere commodities. But verse 2 of the hymn continues, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”

Neither God nor I is solely responsible for coming to faith, but God and I together. That’s what the doxology says. God’s power must work through us. We have to participate in the drama. We cannot just be passive spectators.

Community, identity politics, and greatness in the Kingdom of God

Mark certainly managed to highlight the disciples’ human foibles. A few weeks ago, we found them arguing about which of them was the greatest. Today, we read that James and John wanted to get the best seats at the heavenly table.  Not surprisingly, the other disciples were more than a little ticked off at James’ and John’s presumption. Jesus reminded them that God’s kingdom is not an earthly empire, like that of the Romans. What counts in earthly empires is who gets to be the top dog.  God’s kingdom is different; a great person is actually someone who serves others.

North Americans have become obsessed with the idea of ‘communities’.

When I drive down to church on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I listen to Metro Morning on the CBC. Someone being interviewed might be introduced as a member of the Somali community or the transgendered community or the Muslim community.  These labels describe geographic origin, sexual orientation, and religion.  These labels give the erroneous impression that the person represents everyone in that community.  They limit how other people see them.

Labels can lead to ‘identity politics’ in which everything, especially all your grievances, are bound up with membership in “your” community. Around the time I was ordained, there was a priest in the diocese whose whole persona revolved about his being gay. Everything that one might talk to him about soon came back to that one issue. Far from having many facets to his personality, he seemed to be locked into the single persona of being a gay priest.  In the US, identity politics between Democrats and Republicans has led to a chasm much deeper than mere disagreement over political ideas.

James and John were members of the “inner circle” of disciples, along with Simon Peter.  They were with Jesus at the Transfiguration, when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and when he cured daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. They had gotten bound up in the idea that they were not just members of the “disciple community” but of the “inner circle community.”

We are all members of many different “communities”

I often say that we at St. George’s come together week by week as a community. But membership in the St. George’s community is not exclusive. We all participate in other groups – golf or bridge clubs, family groups, workplace groups. For example, I am an Anglican priest, but I am also a husband, father, chemist, university teacher, and first generation immigrant. Michelle and I even belong to a square dancing club, hard though Charles and Robin find it to believe!

The mode of dress of the monk with robes and large crucifix, or the burka-covered Muslim woman, identifies them as members of their religious community. But it also risks having other people identify them solely on the basis of that persona. This is a very clear impetus in the policies of the new Quebec government regarding secular values.

The issue strikes home to me personally. I wear my clerical collar when I am at St. George’s on church business, or at an outside nursing home service . My mentor Steve Witcher told me that “when you are representing the parish you should dress as a minister.” But that risks putting me into a single box – that of Anglican priest. In turn, it brings forth certain expectations about my interactions with people I meet. It also risks putting me into “James and John territory” by suggesting that I am somehow special, when I am not.

Should we live our lives as Christians exclusively?

To do so would effectively say that our Christian persona and community should subjugate all others. James and John were so much into being the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples that they had forgotten that they were also fishermen, husbands, and fathers.  That’s why it mattered so much to them as to where they stood in the pecking order.  Which of them would be the greatest or who would be sitting at the head table with Jesus in eternity?

It isn’t heretical to say that we are not exclusively Christians.  Yes, it is important to be part of the wider community of practising Christians.  But we are all members of many other communities – not only too numerous to name, but different for each of us. This frees us from being enslaved by the precepts of our particular community of Christians. At its worst, a narrow and exclusive sense of church community can morph into that of a cult.  Cults force everyone to understand their faith and to interpret the Scriptures in exactly the same way.

That issue is at work when Christian groups split apart over different interpretations of Scripture. It can lead to identity politics, where people define themselves by their theological interpretations.  They can become unable to find any common ground — or even respect — for those with different beliefs.

An open and questioning faith allows our unique and individual gifts to flourish

This approach lets each person and each denomination try their best to follow Christ in their distinctive ways.  But openness to a variety of ideas does not let us off the hook for spreading the Gospel.  In this month’s Niagara Anglican, Darcey Lazerte wrote that we Anglicans are not very good at proclaiming our faith.  We are poor evangelists for Christ.  At St. George’s we need to do better at making new disciples.

First Corinthians Chapter 12 is one of my favourite pieces of Scripture.  Paul tells his readers about spiritual gifts. Some are teachers, others are healers, some speak in tongues, others are miracle workers. But the same Spirit animates all of them.  All are Christians, yet each person brings different gifts to the table. This is just as true for us at St. George’s as it was for Paul’s original readers. Because, as Paul then went on to say, just as the human body has many members – eyes, ears, hands, feet etc – we are all members of the Body of Christ.  This is despite our differences – or perhaps because of them.

God’s kingdom is not an earthly empire or the board room of a Fortune 500 company.

That lead to a final problem with being like James and John. When you get to sit at an earthly top table, someone else is always waiting for you to make a mistake.  Then they can push you out and sit there instead.  Remember that as Christianity developed, James and John didn’t become the most celebrated early Christians. Peter and Paul got the top billing.

Tomorrow we have the privilege of voting in municipal elections.  People from many different ‘communities’ will cast their votes for each candidate.  I hope and pray that all those who are elected will understand the essence of Jesus’ message to James and John, whether or not they are Christian.  As Christians we might say  that the one who is great in God’s kingdom is the one who is servant to others.  But regardless of faith perspective we can say this.  The successful candidates will be elected to serve all the many different constituents in their many and several communities.

The Book of Job and the Question of why the righteous suffer

The Book of Job addresses the question, “Why do the righteous suffer?” in the form of a story.  Job is clearly not a real person. Much of what I will say comes from an excellent summary by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book When bad things happen to good people. Kushner believes that the book’s author took an old morality tale in which the good person suffers but ends up rewarded.  The old fable is the prose sections in most Bibles.  The poetry sections are the reinterpretation.

The set-up to the story

Job has the ancient world’s ideals of wealth and a large family. One day, Satan (who is an angel, not the Devil, as in later Christian thought) says to God, “It’s all very well, Job is a fine God-fearing man. But if he lost everything, he would curse you. Let me test him. I’ll show you.” God agrees, but on condition that Satan does not harm Job personally.

Job’s tribulations

Job learns that his flocks died in a fire, his servants perished in an ambush, and a tornado killed his children. Job does not curse God. He shaves his head, tears his clothes, and says, “Naked I was born, and naked shall I return. The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

God then allows Satan to have Job’s body covered by boils.  Even Job’s wife now says that Job should curse God for what has happened, but he refuses. Instead, he curses the day that he was born. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? For then I would be asleep and at rest.”  At no point were Job or his friends told about the deals made between God and Satan.

Job’s friends  conclude that it must have all been his own fault

Three friends then came to stay with Job. They did not say a word for seven days and seven nights (the basis of the seven days of silent mourning in Judaism).

Job’s friends tell him that bad things always happen for a reason. God must be punishing him for some sin. Job insists that he did not sin. He remains convinced that God still cares about him, but he cannot understand why he has to suffer. His friends stick to their belief about sin and punishment – hence the expression “Job’s comforters.”

Job persists in saying that he did nothing wrong and pleads desperately for help.  But God still seems to ignore him. “I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer,” says Job.

Harold Kushner puts Job’s problem this way. There are three statements that the characters in the book, and most of us, would like to believe.

A: God is all-powerful and is responsible for all that happens in the world
B: God is just. The good prosper and the wicked get punished.
C: Job is a good person.

Can all these statements be true simultaneously?

Th set-up of the fable describes Job as a good man who has earthly abundance. Like Job’s friends, it is easy for us to accept all three statements A, B, and C as true. But what about when Job suffers terrible misfortunes? His friends, like most of us, have been brought up to believe that God is both all powerful and just (A and B are true). They keep telling Job that he must have brought the evil on himself by sinning (C is not true). Job replies that he may not be perfect, but he is a good man nonetheless. The friends explain that the world would be a chaotic place and things would make no sense if God were not all powerful and just. Job must have sinned! They also shy away from the uncomfortable reality that if chance had caused Job’s misfortunes, then they could just as easily have been on the receiving end.

Job replies to his friends’ arguments

Job defends himself as a good man (C is true). His most fundamental issue is that God’s creation seems to be out of whack.  It is a disorderly place that cannot be truly counted on. We all tend to feel that way when things go wrong for us – we would like the world to make sense, and to feel that we are in control.

It isn’t. We aren’t. That can make us think that God isn’t running the world properly. That is tantamount to saying that God is not all powerful (A is untrue). Kushner (and I) argue that God’s role is different.  It is to stand with the poor, the oppressed, the sad, and the lonely in times of difficulty, just as in times when things go well for us. This is the God of Psalm 23.

Job seems to argue that God is not always fair-minded and good (B is not always true). He concludes that although God is all powerful (A is true), he need not always be fair. Otherwise, it would be tantamount to saying that God always rewards our virtues and punishes our misdeeds.  Observation of the world tells us that this does not happen.

A few weeks ago, I said that God does not micro-manage the world. Kushner goes further. God cannot micro-manage the world. God does not do magic tricks like making a terminal cancer disappear.  Cancers do sometimes go into permanent remission spontaneously.  But if that were God’s doing (a miracle), we would immediately be back to asking why God does not intervene that way for everyone.   Indeed the 2018 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded for research into exactly that question.

Ancient world vs modern thinking

Personally (and you may feel very differently), I think that we Christians often take away an unfortunate message from many of the Gospel stories about Jesus. Whenever Jesus meets someone who is ill, a miracle occurs. Their blindness, deafness, leprosy, or mental illness is cured.  It makes us think (even if subconsciously), “if that happened then, why not now?”

Ancient people answered the question, “How could that amazing thing happen?” by saying, “Only God could have done that.” The Gospel writers presented their stories about Jesus accordingly. Unlike people in the ancient world, our culture looks for rational explanations of seemingly strange happenings rather than for miracles. For example, all Job’s misfortunes could have been more or less natural disasters. But the ancient Jewish fable attributed them to the agency of Satan.

God answers Job

As the Book of Job progresses, God answers Job directly, saying essentially, “What do you (Job) know about how to run the world?” God alone is the Creator, whose experiences lie beyond those of mere mortals. God is not answerable to any of his created beings, including we humans.  This is presumably the view of the author of the Book of Job, since no participant’s voice could be more authoritative than God’s.

The ending of the story

At the very end of the story the poetry of Job’s  and his friends’ arguments reverts to the prose of the original fable. It is very unsatisfactory to modern ears. God recognizes Job’s faithfulness, and restores his fortunes to twice as much as he had before.

This “happy ending” is just too far from real experience. We – or our friends or relatives – go through times of great distress. These include death, illness, marriage or family break-ups, job loss, unemployment … Sometimes things turn out all right, sometimes not. But it’s rare that everything turns out twice as good as it was before the disaster.

I think that it’s a mistake to read the Book of Job as a morality tale, in which the good person suffers but gets his just reward in the end. Instead, it reminds us that there is no causal relationship between sin and suffering. Just because people suffer trials or tragedies does not mean that God is punishing them. Bad things happen to good people because … well, bad things sometimes just do happen to good people. But it’s hard for us to grasp that God would let the world be so untidy!

You don’t have to live in the city to help fight urban hunger

Sight as a metaphor for faith

Today’s story about Jesus healing a blind man describes an event, but it is also a parable. The blind man regained his sight in two stages. Jesus first spat on his hand and rubbed saliva in the man’s eyes. He saw, but not clearly. In that wonderful phrase, the man said that he could see people but they were like trees walking. Then Jesus laid hands on him a second time and his sight was restored completely. The parabolic explanation is that few people come to faith in a sudden conversion experience. Most of us come to faith gradually. It is more like the gradual dawning of morning than a sudden flash of light.  Or, it is the drip of water eroding a stone rather than smashing the stone with a hammer.

Why must we always look for a sign?

Today’s Gospel begins, “The Pharisees came and began to argue with Jesus, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign?’” It was a good question. The Pharisees had criticized Jesus ever since he started his ministry. They objected when his disciples plucked ears of grain on the Sabbath, and when Jesus healed on the Sabbath. They complained that his disciples did not wash their hands ritually before eating.

Yet there were plenty signs all around them of who and what Jesus represented. They had presumably heard about the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus’ many healing miracles. Either they couldn’t see these signs or they didn’t want to see them. Jesus simply said, “No, there will not be a sign given to this generation.” In other words, “You don’t need a sign. The signs are all around you. All you have to do is look!”

Mark’s Gospel: the most human Jesus

I like Mark’s Gospel because his portrayal of Jesus seems so ‘real’ – a Jesus who got annoyed when people didn’t understand what he had been teaching them. Like the Pharisees, the disciples had been with Jesus since his ministry began.  They had been present at feeding miracles. Yet here they were, in today’s reading, worrying that no-one had remembered to bring enough lunch. Jesus had to remind them, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?”  Do we?

Urban hunger

To me, the problem of urban hunger is like Jesus’ reactions to the Pharisees and disciples. We do not need to ask for a sign. The signs of hunger are all around us every time we visit a big city – Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa …

St. George’s supports St. Matthew’s House food bank

Ever since I have been in the parish, we have collected and blessed food for the food bank at St. Matthew’s House.  St. Mathew’s House serves people in one of the poorest areas of Hamilton.  I think that we can give ourselves a little bit of self-congratulation. Our parish has been doing an outstanding job of collecting food. The last two donations to St. Matthew’s House from our tiny parish have generated nearly 900 lbs of food. That’s almost half a ton!!

Maybe you could help us — and St. Matthew’s House

But we could do better.  The shelves at St. Matthew’s House are often nearly empty.  We want to kick our efforts up a notch by recruiting other people who might share our concerns. To use the phrase from today’s Gospel, our parish could progress from the parallel of seeing ‘like trees walking’ to seeing clearly.  These helpers do not have to be present or future Sunday attendees. My dream is that if we can manage to publicize what we are doing already, other people will want to join the effort because it is worthwhile.  You don’t have to stand for public office yourself to help in the upcoming municipal election campaign. It isn’t necessary to be a doctor to volunteer at your local hospital.

“You don’t have to live in the city to help fight urban hunger.”  This isn’t a new project that will rely on other people to make it a success.  We want to build on our outreach program that is already successful, to make it more so. St Matthew’s House helps us make the need more immediate, by letting us know their most urgent current needs. Too often, many of their shelves are empty.  We then advertize their needs on our own social media.

How could you help?

There are several approaches we can take and people we can target to help us. First and most obvious are the people, besides our congregation, who already come to use our building regularly. Those of us who live in apartment or condo buildings might be able to get permission to put collection boxes for food in their lobby or activities room. Some of us might be able to get collection boxes at our places of work. In all such cases the boxes would have to be emptied and the contents brought to St George’s each week to show that this is an ongoing commitment, not a one-time flash in the pan.

You can help by dropping off donations at St. George’s

Through social media and through neighbourhood flyers we can encourage donations literally at our door, during our ‘office hours’ 9 am to 3 pm Wednesdays and Thursdays.

 

What are our harvests?

Today we celebrate the harvest. Every religion has always had a celebration to give thanks for the annual harvest of food. Even those of us who buy all our food from super-markets are aware that we depend on the bounty of nature to put food on our plates. We who have faith add the sense of divine goodness to the idea of ‘bounty of nature’ that our harvests represent.

Harvests of money

Most Canadians do not participate in the physical harvest personally. Instead, we use money to shop for food. Money is the harvest we earn through our labours. For those who are retired, it is the harvest of money we stored in our metaphorical barn while we were working. In essence, we barter our harvests of money for the foodstuffs in our grocery stores and supermarkets. In days gone by, farmers with a successful harvest might barter some of the grain crop for a hog. Today they probably “barter” the crop for money with which to buy other necessities.

When you think about it, our money-based society is little different from the agricultural societies of 100 years ago, and even those that Jesus and his disciples knew.

What if your harvest failed? Drought, flood, fire, disease, insect infestations – any of these calamities might leave your family with too little to get through the winter. That is the plight of the unemployed, the working poor, the refugee. Their harvest of money is often too little to get them to next week, let alone the next season.

In the rural economy, the friends and neighbours of the farming family struck by disaster would normally pitch in and help. Food might ‘magically’ appear when a crop was lost; neighbours would join together in a barn-raising to replace a barn destroyed by fire.  Again, that kind of assistance is no different from offering a helping hand with food to those whose harvest of money are inadequate to feed their families.

Hunger hurts, literally and more

Hunger hurts. But more than that, it leaves children unable to fulfil their potential in school. It leaves adults with too little energy to work productively or care for their children as they would like. Food is such a basic necessity that a wealthy society like Canada should be able to spare enough for everyone.

St George’s has a proud tradition of helping in this way. It is our response to Jesus’ challenge, “Did you feed the hungry?” Because whether you did or didn’t, it is as if we had treated Jesus himself that way. We want to kick our harvest of food donations up a notch by recruiting other people who might share similar concerns to help us expand our effort. Remember, ‘You don’t have to live in the city to help fight urban hunger”!!

Why does God allow evil and misfortune to exist?

Jesus healed people, but why did they have to suffer in the first place?

In today’s two Gospel stories Jesus heals a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and a deaf-mute man. But these accounts raise the question of why these people needed to be cured in the first place. Why would an almighty and all-loving God require them to suffer?   Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people, or even allow evil to exist at all? Theodicy is the technical word for trying to find an adequate explanation of this dilemma.

The world of ancient Torah – sin and punishment

The world of ancient Israel had a simple response to this problem. Sin had taken place, so God had to punish someone.  It didn’t need to be the sinner him- or herself. In Torah Judaism, God “visits the fathers’ sins on the children to the third and the fourth generation …” The sinner in the first case might have been the Syrophoenician woman herself or her sick daughter. In the second, maybe it was the deaf-mute man or his parents or his siblings.  Or the sin could have taken place further back.  In this explanation, the Law of Moses presents God as judgemental and even vengeful. That view was largely discarded by later Biblical authors.

Jesus illustrated this new perception when he encountered a man born blind [John 9: 2-3].  The disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” That answer seems to imply that God had deliberately caused the man’s blindness. That allowed Jesus to perform a healing miracle to testify to his divinity. I would be more comfortable with saying that although the healing miracle attested to Jesus’ divinity, the text does not spell out why the man was born blind.

God does not micromanage the world

We have all heard people say, or even said ourselves, things like, “Why did God allow Mary-Lou to get cancer/ have that accident/ lose her job? She was always such a good person.” My explanation, and it may not be a very comforting one, is this. “Mary-Lou’s misfortune was just plain bad luck. God does not micro-manage the world or the people in it.”

Scripture gives us a version of my comment. ‘God sends his rain on the just and the unjust’ [Matthew 5:45]. That is, Jesus comments that rain is beneficent; it falls on the fields of both virtuous and evil farmers.

God does not pick and choose where the rain falls, farm by farm. A humorous verse turns the subject around, referring instead to the misfortune of people stuck in a rainstorm. “God sends his rain upon the just, and also on the unjust fella. But chiefly on the just, because the unjust steals the just’s umbrella.”

Natural and moral evils

Cancer can be described as a natural evil. Mary-Lou’s cancer was the luck of the draw, like whether your house was destroyed or spared in a tornado. Maybe she inherited a defective gene; maybe she was exposed to an environmental pollutant. We will never know. But we human beings try hard to reject bad luck as the reason for our misfortunes. We feel intuitively that there must have been a reason. We could find that reason if we only looked hard enough. But that is exactly the style of thinking that the ancients used when they postulated sin as the cause of misfortune. It is ultimately a losing game; there is no answer.

Other bad luck is the result of human actions like war or murder. These can be called moral evils. Back in June, two little girls were shot and injured while playing in a Toronto park. They were the innocent but unlucky victims of a shooting that missed its intended target. There were eleven children in the park at the time. Why were these two sisters injured? Why them specifically, and not any of the other nine children? Again, it was bad luck. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Theodicy – how can I retain my faith in God in the face of evil and random bad luck?

But if God isn’t an almighty Mr. Fix-it, wouldn’t random bad luck cause us to lose our faith in God? I paid up my insurance policy by going to church and praying regularly. Why didn’t God pay out on the policy? But theodicy does not attempt to defend God against the charge, “Why do you let bad things happen?” It tries to show that it is reasonable to believe in God despite the evidence of both natural and moral evil in the world. Dualistic religions such as gnosticism sweep this problem under the carpet by positing two gods. An evil god operates in this world, opposing the actions of the one true god who operates on a heavenly, spiritual plane.

Even if God allows natural disasters, surely God should step in to avoid moral evils? My near-favourite author Pelagius wrote that even our ability to choose evil is a sign of divine goodness; it shows that God gave us free will. The mythic story of the fall of Adam and Eve [Genesis 3] gives us a remarkably good take on free will, and the Torah’s insistence that sin must be punished (see earlier). God had told the curious and intelligent people he had created that they could eat the fruits of any tree, except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Could God really have believed that they could resist? Not likely!

Adam and Eve were banished from the immortal and perfect garden because they chose to eat the forbidden fruit. Now that they knew the difference between good and evil, they could no longer live the perfect life in the perfect garden. They and their descendants (us) have to live in our slightly imperfect yet still wonderful world.

In a piece of Scripture that we usually read in Advent, the prophet Isaiah wrote of a glorious new creation. There would be no more weeping or distress, and no untimely death. Everyone would live to a ripe old age [Isaiah 65: 17-20]. It was a nice dream, but it cannot become reality because it is predicated on God micro-managing a perfect world. In reality, we blunder about our slightly imperfect world, using our free will to make choices that are sometimes good and sometimes bad. Indeed, our existence would be completely sterile if we were all forced to conform robotically to what was pre-planned for us, as in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World.

Faith, works, and trust in God’s unbounded wisdom

The picture is completed by our reading from the Epistle of James, who tells us famously that faith without works is dead. James then put this argument. If someone says ‘You have faith and I have works,’ it follows that my works are explicit evidence of my faith (or lack of faith!).

That is the essence of Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount, “By their fruits you will know them” [Matthew 7: 20]. Jesus compared a good and a bad tree. James spoke directly about people and their works instead of using the metaphor of trees and their fruits.

The psalms of lament, and especially Psalm 73, illustrate vividly the dilemma that humans face in confronting evil and injustice. At the beginning, the psalmist admitted that [he] had almost lost his spiritual footing. He was grieved because wicked people seemed to get all the good fortune, even though they treated other people unfairly. Why did God let this happen? Yet eventually, he went into God’s house, and considered the fate of the wicked. He realized that any punishment they might deserve had to happen in God’s time, not his own. His role was to trust in God, not to be God, dishing out retribution.

That, to sum up, is also the essence of Psalm 23, The Lord’s my shepherd. God does not offer insurance policies that nothing bad will happen to the faithful. Rather, God walks with us in the good times and comforts us when we must walk through the dark valleys of life.

It’s not a perfect explanation, but it is theodicy – an answer as to why we might trust in God even in the face of evil and unfairness.

You can read more in the book ‘ When bad things happen to good people’ by Rabbi Harold Kushner.  It was first published 1981, but is just as relevant today.

 

Is God’s revelation complete or ongoing?

To me, the showdown between Jesus and the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading speaks to a very contemporary issue.  Did God’s revelation to humanity finish when the New Testament was completed?

The presenting issue: ritual cleanliness

The Pharisees confronted Jesus because some of his disciples did not carry out the proper ceremonies for ritual cleanliness before eating.  Devout first century Jews such as the Pharisees considered ritual cleanliness as extremely important.  They tried to follow all the Laws of Moses, as written in the first five books of what we call the Old Testament.  This wasn’t because they were stiff-necked killjoys.  They understood God’s laws as a gift to them.  They followed these laws joyfully, out of gratitude that God had given them rules to live by.  That is what they meant by following the traditions of the elders.

It wasn’t about a quick rinse with soap and water before dinner.  It was about an elaborate washing ceremony.  Let’s also be clear that this passage doesn’t give small boys a free pass over washing their hands before meals.  We don’t have to fall for the line, “If Jesus and his disciples didn’t have to, why do we?”

The tradition of the elders – we’ve always done it this way

Jesus claimed that the Pharisees had misunderstood the traditions of the elders.  They had become to fixated on following the proper rituals that they had forgotten the reason behind God’s commandments.  They were in danger of making idols of these human rituals.  The matter is parallel to other issues in Mark’s Gospel concerning Sabbath observance.  In that case, Jesus re-framed the question this way – was the Sabbath made so that people could rest from work, or were we created to fit the Sabbath rules?

It wasn’t really about eating food

So the immediate issue about hand-washing is about more than mere cleanliness.  Maybe this seems rather arcane – of interest to first century Jews, but not to us.  But we see the relevance in how Jesus replied.  He talked about what is really clean and really dirty.  It’s not about food at all.  Food is just food.  You eat it.  The waste products go into the sewer.  In today’s reading, we see that Jesus himself overturned tradition by declaring all foods to be ritually clean.

Jesus re-framed the question in terms of being defiled, meaning polluted or corrupted.  The things that really defile a person are those that come from within – from the heart as he put it.  Cleanliness is really about what you say and do.  It’s all very well to talk about being defiled by outward dirt.  People really dirty themselves by what is in their hearts.  It comes out in what they say and do.  Jesus gave examples of what he meant – vices such as adultery, slander, pride, and envy.

Jesus’ perspective was that the Pharisees were stuck in their understandingof God.  They were intolerant of new ideas about God.  They believed that the Laws of Moses had given their people all the revelation they would ever need.  In contrast, Jesus proclaimed a new understanding of the relationship between God and humanity.  His was based on love and inclusion, with more emphasis on what you should do than what you shouldn’t do.  As Christians, we see Jesus’ teaching as promoting this new revelation.

Did God’s revelation stop at a fixed time or is it ongoing?

Is it realistic to imagine that there has been no further change in how we understand that relationship since Jesus lived on earth?  Did God’s revelation to humanity came to an abrupt stop two thousand years ago?  Yet that is exactly the view of those Christians who quote a verse or two of Scripture and claim that they must be right, “because it’s in the Bible.”  I often wonder how carefully they follow every last detail of Scripture.  Do they avoid polyester and cotton shirts (no cloth must be made from two fabrics)?  Do they resolutely refuse to eat shrimps and bacon (no shellfish and no meat from animals with divided cloven hooves)?

I passionately believe that God’s revelation continues to this day.  Today, most of us in the West take for granted ideas about compassion and inclusion.  If it is really true that God has not said anything new to humanity for the past two thousand years, I ask myself where these ideas came from.  Slavery was an accepted institution in the first century.  Jesus told parables about slaves without suggesting that slavery was wrong.  It remained that way for 1800 years.  Christian people – William Wilberforce in England, Harriet Tubman and others in the United States, fought against it, and eventually won.  In the 20th century civil rights became human rights.  Traditions of the elders were overturned.  Those of a Pharisee-like mind-set disagreed.

Christians have always responded to what they have seen as God’s revelation

Christian people like the Roman Catholic Sisters of Saint Joseph set up hospitals across this country.  Our own Canadian Tommy Douglas fought for universal health care out of his Christian conviction that access to health care should not depend on your income.  The Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke forcefully against the apartheid regime in South Africa.  The Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero proclaimed a liberation theology for his people against a brutal right wing dictatorship in El Salvador.  All of us, he said, rich or poor, are God’s children.  As did Jesus.

These events did not happen two thousand years ago.  Many of them happened within the lifetimes of Christians alive today.  I profoundly believe that all these people, acting out of their convictions, responded to God’s continuing revelation to humanity.  New ideas keep welling up.  In this new century, Canada has legalized same sex marriage and authorized medical aid in dying.  Thoughtful Christians have had much to say on both sides of these arguments.  In the 1960s, Time magazine had the famous cover “God is Dead.”  It strikes me that for one who is dead, God has had a lot to say in recent years.

So, parents, take heart.  Mark did not write today’s Gospel expressly for the pleasure of small children with dirty hands.  One morning in church or Sunday School will not undo years of telling our kids to wash their hands before meals.  And who knows what God’s next amazing revelations will be?  What’s for sure is that they will upset lots of people who want to stick to the traditions of their elders.

Bread – Food for the Body and the Soul

Feeding the 5,000

Jesus said to the disciples, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  The so-called “Bread of Life” discourse is a lengthy set piece speech in which the Gospel writer John has Jesus consider the spiritual meaning of the miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand.  We intuitively read and hear Gospel stories about what Jesus said differently from those about what he did.  We look for non-superficial meanings of parables (they are not really about mustard seeds or wicked tenants), but accept the events of Jesus’ life as being more factual.  But if we take the Feeding of the Five Thousand figuratively, we might ask, “Were the people out on the mountain just physically hungry, or were they spiritually hungry for what Jesus had to tell them?  Which did they need – bread for the body, or bread for the soul?  Was it suppertime or a Eucharistic moment?”

Bread as a symbol

Last week, Jan reflected on the possible meanings of the phrase “Eternal Life” so today I would like to focus on the other part of the equation – the Bread of Life.  Bread is a powerful symbol for our physical life’s needs – a metaphor for all food.  Even in concentration camps, in prisons, or in times of famine, people are fed bread when there is nothing else.  Nicolas Madura keeps his hold on Venezuela today in part by subsidizing the price of bread.  ‘Bread’ is even used as a slang expression for money – a metaphor for what you earn to buy actual bread.

One way of thinking about the Bread of Life is that Jesus contrasted the temporary satisfaction of the body that comes from eating ordinary bread at mealtimes with the ongoing satisfaction of the soul that faith can offer.  Indeed, in part of the discourse that we read last week, Jesus referred to an event in the Exodus story – “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, but this is the bread come down from heaven.”  The manna saved the Israelites from starvation at the time, but they got hungry again, and in the end, they died just like everyone else.

“Take; thank; break; share”

In the feeding miracle, Jesus took the bread, he gave thanks, he broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples to share with the crowd.  “Take; thank; break; share” parallels our weekly Eucharistic prayers that recall the events of the Last Supper.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life.”  In the Gospel narrative, the Feeding of the Five Thousand precedes the Last Supper, which occurs at the end of Jesus’ life. Writing long after both events, the Gospel writer John already knew about the Last Supper when he put these words into Jesus’ mouth.

The Jewish leadership was incensed at these words because they – just as we are prone to do – took the words about eating flesh and drinking blood literally rather than metaphorically.  They were aghast at the suggestion.  They did not “get it”.  Seeing how often Scripture gets taken literally, it is hardly surprising that early in the Christian era, many non-Christians thought that Communion was a kind of cannibalistic ritual for Christians.  Even today, our Eucharistic prayers are a barrier to newcomers to accept our Eucharistic liturgies unless they already know and understand the Last Supper story

A Hard Teaching

Later in our Gospel reading, the disciples say, “This teaching is difficult.”  I think most of us can say “Amen to that!” Some disciples found what Jesus was trying to explain so hard that they abandoned him completely.  In college lingo, they dropped the course. Jesus asked whether Twelve wanted to so as well.  Peter replied, “Lord, where shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  You are God’s holy one.”

Meaning of the Eucharist

Today’s Gospel invites us to think about what the Eucharist means for each of us.  There is no one right way to think about the ‘Bread of Life” that we consume at Communion.  At one extreme is the Roman Church’s theology of transubstantiation, in which the prayer of consecration miraculously changes ordinary bread and wine into the actual Body and Blood of Jesus.  The other extreme is that the bread and wine are merely symbols – or memorials – that re-enact Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  Perhaps because Anglicans always tend to compromise, the commonest Anglican theology is that of the Real Presence of Christ – that in an unspecified way, Christ truly meets us at the communion table.  This is why the old Prayer Book gives thanks, in the Prayer after Communion, that “thou dost graciously feed us in these holy mysteries with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.”  The prayer continues, “and that we are living members of his mystical body, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom.”  Much as I like our modern Eucharistic Prayers, they do not quite capture for me this sense of the Eucharistic mystery, which as ordinary human beings, we can never quite understand.

Communion Bread

What kind of bread should be used at Communion?  The earliest extant liturgy spoke only of “the many grains that we have gathered into this one bread” which we will say today in the “Breaking of the Bread”.  When Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, the Lord’s Supper (as he called it), nothing was said about what kind of bread to use.  It was a Eucharistic pot-luck in which everyone brought and shared.  In contrast, the old Anglican Prayer Book demanded “the best and purest wheat bread, either leavened or unleavened” – thus only the best is good enough for Communion.  Our communion wafers have lost a lot in translation!  Martin Luther argued that the Body of Christ should be experienced in the Eucharist by being “pressed with his teeth” – he wanted the Eucharist to be physical, not just symbolic.

What we do with left-over Communion bread reflects how we understand the Eucharist.  In its early days, the Anglican Church allowed the curate of the parish to take the leftover Communion bread home to use in his own household – thus seeming to make the bread of Communion ordinary, and very much of this world.  For those who consider Communion as nothing more than a memorial – or re-enactment – of the Last Supper, the bread is nothing special, and it doesn’t matter whether we take the leftovers home or discard them.  But if we believe that Christ is truly present with us (or believe in transubstantiation), then the left-over bread has a special significance of holiness.  That is why, when we use ordinary bread for Communion at St. George’s, we treat the consecrated bread with reverence, even the crumbs. We make sure that all of it is eaten at or after the service, not just thrown away.  In this context, I notice that in all four Gospel stories of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the bread left over was clearly understood as special.  It was gathered up in baskets so that it would not be wasted.  Besides, to throw it away violates what Michelle and I think of as the Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not waste food.”

It occurred to me this week that today’s two readings are linked by their sense of the opposite.  Solomon carried out the wishes of his father.  He built a Temple, a solid physical structure made of dressed stone. [This was the First Temple, not the one destroyed by the Romans, whose “wailing wall” remains today.]  Conversely, John presents Jesus in a very other-worldly way, in which he promotes building an unearthly (or spiritual) temple in heaven or in our hearts.  Physical and spiritual are alternative and complementary ways of honouring God.  Just like the various interpretations of the communion bread, they are different yet both are completely acceptable.  My belief is that the Scriptures admonish us to honour God and love our neighbours, without prescribing exactly how each of us should approach these tasks.

St. Mary, the Mother of Jesus

St. Mary in the Bible

Most Anglicans don’t often think about Mary, the mother of Jesus.  We meet her in the Advent story of the Annunciation, but at Christmas-time our focus is on the birth of Jesus.  Mary tends to be rather a bit-player in typical Christmas pageants – the shepherds and the Magi usually get better parts. Mary just gets to walk to the inn with Joseph – often, she doesn’t even get a speaking part, no better than the sheep and the oxen!  Outside the Christmas story, we meet Mary in John’s Gospel at the wedding at Cana (water into wine) and at the foot of the Cross.  In the Synoptics she is part of the family who call for Jesus outside the synagogue (when he says that his disciples are his true family).  She is also named among those who devoted themselves to prayer prior to the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost (Acts 1: 14).

Do Anglicans pray to St. Mary?

Today, the Feast of Day St Mary, she is the central figure.  Protestants often think that only Roman Catholics have any regard for Mary, but although the Anglican Reformation removed the large number of minor saints from the medieval church calendar, it kept Mary, along with the twelve named Apostles, the four Gospel writers, and St Paul.   But the Protestant Reformation made one incalculably important change – Christians are all worthy to pray directly to God, as Jesus explained when he taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.  We do not have to use saints such as the Virgin Mary as intermediaries.

Legends about St. Mary

Devotion to Mary existed from the very beginning of Christianity.  Justin Martyr (~100–165) called her the Second Eve.  The early Church furnished Mary with a legendary family; an angel promised her parents Anne and Joachim that they would have a child after years of childlessness.  In return, Anne promised to dedicate Mary to God, parallel to Samuel’s dedication to God by his mother Hannah in the Old Testament.  The doctrine called the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the belief that the Virgin died without suffering, in a state of spiritual peace.  [Our sister Romanian Orthodox Church is named the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary.] In her book Revelations of Divine Love, written in the 14h century, Julian of Norwich wrote that God shows us the essence of what motherhood is all about.  She wrote that since the Blessed Virgin Mary was the mother of our Saviour Jesus, so she must be the spiritual mother of all who believe.

Catholic Doctrines about St. Mary

After the alignment of the western Church with Rome, Church Councils specified several doctrines about Mary required of believers.  These included her virginal conception of Jesus (First Council of Nicaea, 325); her name as the “God-bearer” (Theotokos, Council of Ephesus, 431); and her perpetual virginity (Second Council of Constantinople, 553), despite the clear Gospel evidence that Jesus had brothers and sisters, one of whom, James the brother of Jesus, became the leader of the emerging Church is Jerusalem.  The Roman Church fudged this by claiming that these were actually step brothers of Jesus from an earlier marriage of Joseph – hence Joseph’s portrayal as an old man in Renaissance art.  These doctrines have the effect of portraying Mary as sexless – and therefore no threat to the emerging male hierarchy of the Church.

The doctrines of the Immaculate Conception (that Mary was free of original sin from the moment of her conception), and the Assumption (that upon her death Mary’s body and soul were taken into heavenly glory) were long known in popular piety. Only recently (1854 and 1950 respectively) were they made required Roman Catholic doctrines.  Most Anglicans take these two dogmas as pious beliefs or legends, without Scriptural foundation.  The Assumption contradicts early Christian texts claiming that Mary’s soul was carried to heaven, but her body has been preserved until the ultimate resurrection.

Western art portrays Mary as a distant, aloof figure in a blue dress, a perfect mother, always kind and gentle, a docile role model for keeping women in their place.  Remember the line in the carol Once in Royal David’s city?  “Mary was that mother mild; Jesus Christ her little child.”

St. Mary – a Strong Woman

I imagine Mary as a much stronger personality than this milk-and-water figure.  At the time of the Annunciation, she would have been young, because in those days marriage and family occurred early in life.  She was seriously at risk of being stoned to death in her culture, being pregnant and apparently unmarried.  Yet Luke’s Gospel portrays this young woman as the one who said “Yes” to the angel, despite her initial hesitation.

When Mary went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, Luke put into her mouth the hymn of praise that we know as the Magnificat.  It follows Mary’s Jewish tradition, that God remembers the promises he made to her ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants.  She includes the eternal dream that when the true reign of God will begin, the hungry will be fed with good things, powerful overlords will be displaced from their thrones, and lowly people will be lifted up by God.  I would like to imagine Mary teaching the young Jesus the values he would carry through life, just as we all learn our values from our parents.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says essentially the same things.  In the Beatitudes: that the hungry will be fed, mourners will find joy, the poor and meek will enter the Kingdom; then, again like Mary, he upholds his Jewish background by saying, “I came not to destroy the Law but to fulfil it.”

Judith, Another Strong Woman

Our first reading was an extract from the Book of Judith, which recounts the story of an unambiguously strong woman.  Judith was a daring and beautiful widow who criticized her Jewish compatriots because they did not trust in God to save them from the Assyrian army. She and her maid went to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes pretending to spy on the Israelites.  One night, Judith went into Holofernes’ tent as he lay in a drunken stupor.  She took his sword, and cut off his head, which she took back to her countrymen. The Assyrians lost their leader, and Israel was saved.  Her prayer, from which we read today, carries echoes of the Magnificat in praising God’s might and care for the lowly and oppressed.

What can we learn from these Faithful Women?

Judith was a widow, a mature woman, Mary a frightened young girl who could have had no idea of what God’s calling might involve when the Angel Gabriel first said to her, “Greetings, you that are highly favoured”.  No wonder she asked herself what manner of greeting this might be!  We at St. George’s are also called to be holy, to be faithful like Mary to God’s calling.  Like her, we continually have to try to discern what it might mean for our parish to follow God’s calling.  Saint Mary – that is Holy Mary – has always been associated with a special degree of holiness.  She is not venerated for being a good person in the conventional sense like keeping the Ten Commandments, but for her faithfulness in following what she believed to be God’s will.  So also for everyone in our parish.  In a secular world, the people of this congregation are holy not for being nice people (even if you are), but for coming to St. George’s Sunday by Sunday when the world around places little value on matters of faith and spiritual practice.

Mary the mother of Jesus has been loved and venerated by ordinary Christians through the ages.  Like Mary Magdalene, whose feast day we celebrated last month, she is a feminine presence in a Church most of whose images are male – God the Father, male apostles, male human Jesus.  The late Anglican Bishop of Birmingham (UK) said about Mary, “Christians rightly honour and venerate her as one of the great saints [whom] God had signally honoured by choosing her to be the mother of Jesus.” As we celebrate her feast-day, I ask you to recognize her central importance as one who was faithful to God’s call.