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!

El Poverello, the Little, Poor Man of Assisi

Next Thursday is the Feast of St. Francis.  To celebrate, I thought that this morning we could look at some events in his life and how it might tie into our lives today. [The photos illustrating this homily were taken earlier this year on my pilgrimage to Assisi,]

Francis’ Early Life

View from Assisi

In 1182, Francesco entered this life in the Umbrian town of Assisi, a walled independent commune situated on a spur at an elevation of 1,300 feet overlooking the valleys of two rivers. The hilly town has narrow, winding streets and is surrounded by medieval walls.

 

The Font where Francis and Claire were baptized

Francis was not brought up to be particularly holy. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a merchant. In fact, when he came home from a long business trip and found that his wife had named the baby after John the Baptist, he renamed him Francesco (Frenchman) after his beloved France. He didn’t want his son to be a churchman! As a child, Francis worshipped in the Church of St George which is now a part of the Basilica of St Claire. The font where both he and St Clair were baptized was moved to the Cathedral of St Ruffino.

As he became an adult, Francis was the leader of a group of young people who enjoyed wild parties, “addicted to evil and accustomed to vice” according to a contemporary biographer, Thomas of Celano who knew him well. He was good at business but wanted to be a nobleman, a knight. So he joined the army when Assisi declared war on the nearby city of Pelugia. Francis became a prisoner of war, held in for a year a dungeon waiting to be ransomed. He went back to his old life of business and partying, but still craved glory. His next chance for fame and fortune came with the fourth crusade, and off went the 25 year old Francis  in a rich cloak and gold trimmed armour on a new horse, saying he’d come back a prince.

God Intervenes

a copy of the San Damiano Crucifix

But God had other ideas. Just one day out of Assisi, God spoke to him in a dream, saying he had it all wrong and to go home. Which he did. Can you imagine how the townspeople would have derided him and called him a coward?  He started spending more time in prayer, while still working in his Father’s shop. It was in the ancient run down church of St Damiano on the hills outside Assisi that his life changed again. He was meditating in front of an icon of the crucifix, when he heard speak to him: from the crucifix:  “Francis, repair my church”,

Assuming this was church with a small c and referred to the building,, he took fabric from his father’s store and sold it to buy building materials to repair the church. His father accuse him of theft and took him before the Bishop for judgement. The Bishop told Francis to return the money and that God would provide. Francis not only gave his father the money, he took off all his clothes, also provided by his father, and gave those back. Wearing nothing but a hair shirt, he announced that “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father” and set off into the freezing woods, joyfully singing. This was a turning point in his life. From then on, he had nothing, but he had everything. Begging for stones, he carried on what he believed was his calling, to rebuild the church of San Damiano with his own hands.

The Franciscan Order

He started preaching and soon had a following of people who wanted to follow his simple life, living in the open, begging for food and loving God. This was the start of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor. Realising that, with the growth of followers he needed to provide them with some direction for the new life, he opened his Bible in three places and read how Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to see everything and give to the poor, how he told his disciples to take nothing on their journey, and his command to take up one’s cross daily. Here is our rule, he said!

It would take too long to follow the life of St Francis in detail, so I’m just going to pick out a few key areas

Franciscan Alternative Orthodoxy

One of the things that drew people to Francis was that he offered an alternative to the established Catholic Church, which at that time had become fraught by scandals, greed and heresies.

The large, ornate Basilica of St Francis, built shortly after his death, is typical of churches of that time

His life of poverty and simplicity was the antidote many needed. But that doesn’t mean he gave up on the church – he eventually realized that his calling was to reform the capital C Church, which he did by calling people back to the Gospel as demonstrated by Jesus. He was grounded in the Church, believing the essential doctrines of the trinity, the incarnation etc. His genius, or his gift from God, was sorting out what was perennial wisdom from what was merely cultural (and sometimes downright destructive).

An Alternative Orthodoxy

Rather than rejecting traditional Christian images, history or culture, Francis, and his later followers, chose to focus on what they found deep and life giving. This is recognized by the Catholic Church as an “alternative orthodoxy”. It has much in common with Celtic spirituality. They see God in his first “Bible”, his creation; they understand Christ’s death, not as a vengeful God sending Jesus to be punished as a response to Adam sinning and tainting all of us (substitutionary atonement) but as a loving God’s initial plan from before creation to show us how much he loves us. The Incarnation was a very important part of Francis faith; he saw in Christ the mystical union of the physical and spiritual worlds. When our outer world and our inner world come together, we are whole; we are holy. Part of the genius of Francis is that he was at home in both worlds at the same time and thus made them, in his life, into one world. He lived the gospel in radical simplicity. 

Talking of the incarnation, t’s interesting that he was the first to use a nativity scene (with live animals and a real baby).  To Francis, this represented the hardships Jesus went through in his earthly life. There is now a beautiful church in Greccio, Italy where Francis assembled this first Nativity scene during a Christmas Mass which was held in a cave, so different from the church there now.  The church at Greccio is filled with nativity scenes of different types – statures, pictures, carvings, stained glass, etc.

Francis and the Church

Francis’ Robe

Francis relations with the Church were not limited to differences in lifestyle and alternative theology. The Catholic elite saw Francis as a threat to the infrastructure — for he was not about power, he was about responsibility. Many people of Assisi had left the traditional church to follow the poor out-of-towner, known as El Poverello, the poor little man. The elite was losing money. They went as far as to burn down his church outside Assisi. Summoned by Pope Innocent III, Francis and his companions walked over 100 miles through rocky hilly country to reach Rome.  Everyone expected Francis to get firmly told off by the Pope. But tradition has it that the Pope was so moved by Francis humility and charity,  that he abandoned his golden throne, stepped down to the “audience hall”, fell to his knees, and in an act  of complete humility, kissed the feet of barefooted  Francis.

Francis’ relevance to today

What did the Pope see in Francis? What do we see in Francis? If we look beyond the sentimental pictures of Francis preaching to the birds, we see a man living his faith as he saw Jesus live, in poverty, in simplicity and in joy.  We see a man (and in his companion Claire of Assisi, a woman) born into the world at a time when Western civilization began to move into intellectualism, into consumerism as sufficient for human meaning, and also into a world of perpetual war. The Church was materialistic and power hungry; Italy was in a state of permanent conflict between city states; society was moving into consumerism.

During the 13th century, the modern commercial infrastructure developed in the Italian City states, with double-entry bookkeeping, joint stock companies, an international banking system, a systematized foreign exchange market, insurance, and government debt. Sounds familiar?  Francis himself had been a soldier, and sold his trader father’s cloth. He came from the very world he was then able to critique, but he offered a positive alternative to these systems, right at the beginning of their now-eight centuries of world dominance. He moved from the common economy of merit to the scary and wondrous economy of grace, where God does not do any counting, but only gives.

Exactly when we began to centralize and organize everything at high levels of control and fashion, Francis, like a divine trickster, said, “Who cares!” Right when Roman Catholicism under Pope Innocent III reached the absolute height of papal and worldly power, he said in effect, “There’s another, better way!” Exactly when our society began a style of production and consumption that would eventually ravage planet earth, he decided to love the earth and live simply and barefoot upon it. He epitomized the saying “You do not think yourself into a new way of living; you live yourself into a new way of thinking.”

The Way of Simplicity

Francis lived a life of simplicity and service – that’s one very good way to start. I’m not suggesting any of us should give away even our clothes and set out barefoot and clothed only in rags – although if that is your calling go for it! But we can decide to live simply, not buying or hording more than we need, sharing what we have with those who have less, giving of our time and abilities to others. Franciscan alternative orthodoxy asks us to let go, to recognize that there is enough to go around and meet everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed. Having more of anything or more frenetic doing will not fill up our longing and restlessness. Francis knew that climbing ladders to nowhere would never make us happy nor create peace and justice on this earth. Too many have to stay at the bottom of the ladder so we can be at the top.  So he embraced simplicity, which he called poverty. Simplicity levels the playing field so that there is enough for everyone – a worthy aim for anyone who seeks to follow Christ. So let’s stop trying to think our way to happiness, but let love show us the way to live into a new way of thinking, and Francis way of simplicity is an excellent way to start.

The upside-down kingdom

This week, we had a guest preacher while Nigel is enjoying a well-deserved vacation, so we don’t have a copy of the sermon to post. Instead you’re getting a few thoughts from me, Jan, on the Gospel reading.

Who’s The Greatest?

 

We read in Church yesterday about the disciples disputing amongst themselves about who is the greatest. Don’t you just love those disciples; they aren’t “plaster saints” perfect in every way. They are just like us. Don’t we want to stand out from the rest if the group – to be seen as the best – whether it’s the best athlete, or artist; the best dressed, the one with the nicest house or fancy car?  Or even, as with the disciples, the one closest to God? Yes, our pride can even cloud our faith and devotions, which is perhaps the most insidious way we can try to outdo our friends and neighbours. Jesus wasn’t going along with any of this. He told them:  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. This is so counter cultural. It’s been called the upside-down gospel. Position, power and prestige are not part of following Christ, the one who was crucified for standing up for what he believes, and by that execution, he showed us that suffering and apparent defeat are the way to new life.  This is what St Paul calls “the folly of the cross” in 1 Corinthians.

Turning discipleship on its head

This Upside-downness is central to the Gospel. It permeates Jesus life and teaching: love your enemies; whoever wants to save his life must lose it; the time he spends with the marginalized of society, while calling some religious leaders “whited sepulchers”. He always prompts us to look at our lives, our actions and everything around us with different eyes, the eyes of a servant rather than of the elite. Our culture teaches us that to have more, do more or achieve more makes us better and happier. Jesu says No; blessed (happy) are the poor, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  These are the ones who are blessed. This is how we become children of God. Our ego tells us that popularity and approval are ways to happiness. Jesus says: Blessed (happy) are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. This is the upside-down kingdom.

The Kingdom Come on Earth

This is the kingdom we pray for every week when we pray “Thy Kingdom come …” and it is then up to us, as followers of Jesus, to live the kingdom life. Otherwise, how can it come on Earth? God calls each of us to servant-hood, in different ways, As we listen for his call, he will make it clear to us, maybe in the “still small voice” within our souls; maybe in some words we read or hear; maybe in a need we see around us. As we each meditate on this,

I leave you with the words of the French mystic and teacher of The little Way, St. Therese of Lisieux:

Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.

And with a poem by the Spanish Mystic, St Theresa of Avila:

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

 

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.