Unlikely People, Unlikely Faith

Note: On this Roman Catholic Feast Day of Corpus Christi the Anglican liturgy features the encounter between Jesus and the Roman centurion from Luke’s Gospel. The centurion’s words, brought to Jesus by his friends, have become an integral prayer of the Roman Catholic Eucharist in preparing to receive Holy Communion. From my new Anglican perch, however, it strikes me as ironic that the prayer of the centurion, an outsider by all criteria, has become part of a communion practice that reserves the right to determine who is and isn’t worthy to receive. Jesus makes all of us worthy; I don’t think church membership or our own efforts to become worthy were meant to be part of the deal. Contrition yes, but anything else, no. Is Jesus’ reply to the centurion not a gentle rebuke on any attempt to restrict access to Jesus, the healing Bread of Heaven, not least on our tendency to judge others by “policing” the communion table? I mean, with all due respect, I’m just wondering …

Homily for May 29, 2016 on Luke 7:1-10
St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Humboldt, SK

Today’s Gospel opens the seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel. A very interesting chapter, as it turns out. The chapter begins with a Roman army officer, a Gentile, who believes that Jesus can heal his servant without even being there.  “Just say the word, and I know it will happen.”  Luke says that Jesus was amazed at his faith; he hadn’t seen anything like it in Israel. The chapter ends with an immoral woman crashing a dinner party where she kisses Jesus’ feet and anoints them with perfume. The hosting Pharisee is offended.  Jesus forgives this woman and says, “Your faith has saved you.” She believed that Jesus would forgive and accept her—He did. Not exactly your run-of-the-mill folks… or are they?

Let’s take a closer look at today’s Gospel account…

Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and let my servant be healed. A close variation of these words can be heard regularly still today: Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. It is the Roman Catholic equivalent of what the BCP (Anglican Book of Common Prayer) calls the Prayer of Humble Access, a prayer that occurs in the same place in the Eucharist, and that echoes another healing story, (Mt & Mk) the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. (BCP) (“Yes, Lord, but even the dogs gather the crumbs that fall from the table.”)

How peculiar … how very peculiar that, of all the stories in the Gospels, it is this one of the centurion’s faith (like the Syro-Phoenician woman’s faith) that became a major part of the church’s liturgical prayer. The centurion represents the occupying force of Rome. He is an emissary of the oppressor. Even Luke’s original readers and those who first heard this story knew full well that there is one thing that hadn’t changed across those decades and that was that Rome was still in charge, still occupying the country, still enforcing its will upon people of all ranks and stations. This centurion is one who – as he himself admits – is used to giving orders in the Roman army and having those orders obeyed. He is, then, one of those directly responsible for Israel’s oppression.

But I wonder if that’s not part of the reason that this story is so important and appears in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospel. I mean, just because this man is in the Roman army doesn’t mean that he is incapable of doing good and having faith, does it? Clearly this man, representing the enemy, is already known for having done much good. Even while an outsider to Jewish society, and representing the oppressor, this centurion is clearly choosing not to act as an oppressor. Rather than letting his power and status make him arrogant and hostile, he chooses to have empathy and respect for those in his care, and makes friends with them. He even worries about his sick slave, one who has no power, no voice, no authority at all. He built a synagogue for the Jews living under his jurisdiction and they in turn appreciate his generosity. “He loves our people” (vs.5).  And he’s most considerate and respectful of Jewish religious practice. Anticipating that direct contact with Jesus might compromise  Jesus because of religious purity laws, this Roman soldier decides not to approach Jesus directly. That deference on his part shows profound regard for Jewish religious customs. Instead, he trusts elders and friends to deliver the message on his behalf. Indeed, the Jewish leaders in his town commend him to Jesus. And, the centurion trusts that Jesus, with a word, will heal the beloved servant. Finally, Jesus is amazed: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

What are we to make of this? First of all, we would do well to always and everywhere assume the best in people, no matter who or what they are, realizing that God loves all people – all people.

All people, literally all people, are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, not just Christians. Even if someone doesn’t share our faith in Jesus, they are our sister, our brother, in Christ. Even our enemies are worthy of our kinship and efforts to find common ground in the goodness of their heart. We need to continuously look for the good and the beauty, constantly looking for the gift and desire of faith in whatever way the other person expresses. Some well-meaning Christians get all tied in a knot and dismiss those who do not share our faith. But perhaps what we should be surprised at is not that unlikely and unexpected people demonstrate faith and do good works, but that we consider them unlikely and unexpected in the first place.

After all, Jesus commends the faith of this Roman centurion even though – and here’s the clincher – there is absolutely no indication that the centurion becomes … a follower of Jesus. I mean, he does not ask to follow Jesus or confess him as the Messiah or even seem particularly interested in meeting him. He simply sees in Jesus an authority that he recognizes and, quite frankly, an authority that he needs. Maybe he becomes a disciple, maybe not. Neither Jesus nor Luke seems particularly interested. Instead, Jesus praises his astounding faith and Luke records it. End of story.

So that kind’a makes me wonder …

We all know and love folks who don’t go to church, who aren’t particularly religious, or even Christian. For the most part, we’re talking about really good people. This story of the centurion is a good reminder that such people are also deeply loved by God, even if they don’t recognize or claim this love as coming from God. A priest once had an argument with a young scientist, who claimed that he didn’t believe in God. To which the priest calmly replied, “That’s okay, as long as God believes in you.”

God does not withdraw his love and mercy just because we don’t believe in God. Just because we don’t recognize God in our lives, doesn’t mean God cannot use us to do good in the world. Many of us love family members and friends  whose relationship to the church is sketchy at best. I have at least two of these wonderful human beings in my own life; they happen to be my own son and daughter. They, like the centurion, may not share my love for Jesus, but they sure know, like the centurion, when they or someone they know needs prayers: “Mom, will you say a prayer for so-and-so? They’re good people; they are worthy of having you do this.” Sounds familiar?

I’d like to think that the interaction between the centurion and Jesus reassures us that it’s okay that faith comes in different shapes and sizes, and certainly in different expressions, and that it is our job to recognize this … as Jesus did. I give thanks that centurion-like people are part of my life, people who I may not feel much in common with, yet people who, in their dealings with others, show respect and compassion, generosity and humility, nobleness and integrity just as the centurion clearly shows to the Jewish people,  to the soldiers under his command, and especially towards his slave. I pray that God would use my loved ones to do God’s will in the world (even if they wouldn’t call it that), and I pray that we would all have the grace and courage to affirm their goodness, sharing our gratitude as well as our joyful conviction that God loves them and uses them.

If we could sum up the one overarching lesson in the entire seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel it is this: the people we would expect to have faith, don’t; and those we wouldn’t expect to have faith, do. Today’s encounter reminds us not to put people in a box. God is at work in everyone—even in the most unlikely folk. Next, don’t ever let our religious pedigree get in the way of trusting Jesus. It’s easy to become a Pharisee—self-righteous, trusting in our religious heritage and traditions rather than trusting Jesus.

Can we foster the kind of openness that Jesus shows in today’s encounter? If we do, we too may be surprised by joy when we bump into faith in unexpected places and people. For Jesus continues to turn everything upside down and inside out. The church in fact supports that upside down vision of Jesus, even if it doesn’t always reflect that in its own practice. One of the ways it does that is by allowing the words of two outsiders, the words of two highly unlikely people of faith, the centurion and the Syro-Phoenician woman, to find  their way into major parts of our Eucharistic liturgies. It is with their words that we approach Holy Communion:

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in thy manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. …

Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,
but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

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Thou Shalt Not … What?!

You know when somebody just punctured a hole in your conceptual world when his/her comment ruffles the well-manicured feathers of your pride. Well, that happened to me the other day when a friend sneered that we Christians play fast and loose with what is considered a sin. Nooo, said that stubborn know-it-all little voice inside my head, how dare we do that?

Next, I heard a priest comment on the sophisticated ability of Christians to sanctify evil when it suits them, and he offered the following illustration: “In all my 40 years as a priest, I have never had anyone confess a sin against the tenth commandment. Why am I not surprised? Because we have built an entire economic system on that sin.” Rats, there it was again, another feather-ruffling; my pride started to look pretty shabby.

So I began to reflect more deeply: what is that tenth commandment in Exodus 20:1–17? The first five commandments point to what we must do, followed by commandments forbidding certain acts — you shall not kill, not commit adultery, not steal, not bear false witness etc. So far so good. Finally, the tenth and last one, forbids certain desires: You shall not covet (i.e., desire) the house of your neighbour. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbour, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him.

On first reading, this last commandment seems to be out of place. How can innocent desires be placed next to prohibitions against murder? And yet there it is, even described in great detail, included in a list of dangerous crimes.  To understand the reason why this commandment is included in the first place, I only need to turn to the French philosopher Rene Girard who died last year at age 91.

In fact, Girard’s insight lead him to believe that the tenth commandment is in fact the most important of all, for it cuts to the root cause of all violence in the world. It is human nature to covet, to desire what our neighbour has. And because we desire what our neighbour has and desires, we resort to stealing and killing, oppressing and exploiting, lying and bearing false witness.

The modern western materialistic economy is solidly grounded in insatiable human desires, desires which literally and figuratively make us kill and steal. The Panama Papers reveal the extend of the sin of greed, and the length of deceit individuals travel to rob entire nations of much needed tax income to provide for all people. While these papers are only the most recent example of deceit, each of us is guilty of the same sin somewhere on the continuum of desire and greed. It is thus that we have sanctified the evil in the sin of desire. Desires and coveting make the economy turn and thrive.

Then along comes Pope Francis; his words cut into that abomination, and once again the feathers of human pride ruffle uncomfortably, right into the halls of worldly power and prestige. Francis doesn’t miss a chance to point out that our affluent lifestyles are sinful to the core; they rob the poor of the right to care for their families and they rob the poor of plain human dignity and respect. In a passionate speech in Bolivia (July 2015) he minced no words: “Unbridled capitalism is the ‘dung of the devil.”

“The planet has enough food for all, but it seems that there is a lack of willingness to share it with everyone,” Pope Francis said in one of his homilies. “We ought to set the table for all and ask that there be a table for all.” Citing Jesus’ explanation of the final judgment in the Gospel of Matthew, which includes the line, “For I was hungry and you gave me food,” the pope said, “we must do what we can so that everyone has something to eat. But we must also remind the powerful of the earth that God will call them to judgment one day, and it will be seen if they truly tried to provide food for him in every person, and if they worked so that the environment would not be destroyed, but could produce this food.”

As the CBC article paying tribute to Rene Girard states, peace is the perennial hope of humanity. It is promised in the Bible, where God “extends peace … like a river.” It was promised by the Enlightenment, which had grown tired of religion and thought that reason and mild trade, would soothe our war-like passions. And it was promised again in our time with the promotion of “globalization” as the road to peace through prosperity. But violence is still with us.

Jesus is innocent, the Gospels insist, and his innocence proclaims the innocence of all scapegoat victims. He reveals the founding violence, hidden from the beginning, because it preserved social peace. A choice is posed: humanity will have peace if it follows the way of life that Jesus preached. If not, it will have worse violence because the old remedy will no longer work once exposed to the light.

Oh my goodness, it is true: we do play fast and loose with what we consider sin. My feathers of pride are messed up by the reality check of God’s judgment and my heart’s contrition. Lord, have mercy…

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Mothers and Eucharist

Sometimes I come across someone else’s writing that so captures my own deep sense of what is true and noble that I cannot possibly improve on it. In fact, that happens quite often. On the occasion of this year’s Mother’s Day, I offer below Eileen DeFranco’s homily, a beautiful and poignant reflection on the “transubstantiation” that occurs mysteriously in every woman’s body as she is ushered into the vocation of biological motherhood, and always present in potential in every woman.

Mother’s Day Homily by Eileen DeFranco

The words, “This is my body; this is my blood” are holy words. We need these words in order to become the Body of Christ. The People of God are made holy by these words. They are fed and strengthened in order to do the hard work of building up the Body in the world.

Several years ago, I read about a young mother who wrote of trying unsuccessfully to calm her crying infant during Mass. While carrying the baby out of the church, she heard the priest say the words, “This is my body, given up for you.” She looked down at her child and understood that she had given up her body for her baby.

Like the Eucharist, life and death are intermingled in birth. Many of us who were born prior to 1960 recall stories about relatives and neighbours who died while giving birth. With our current low rates of maternal mortality in the western world, it is almost unimaginable to think that in some places at some times, more mothers died than lived while giving birth.

Before the advent of asepsis, becoming pregnant in some parts of the world was a death sentence. Doctors would go from doing autopsies to attending women in childbirth without washing their hands.  Only in recent history could childbirth practitioners manage anything beyond he most minor deviations in labor and delivery without harming mother or child or both. Many other women died in childbirth because they had too many children in too short a time and had to work too hard to keep them all alive. This was her body, given up for her child.

I never did learn why my great Aunt Helen died in September of 1924 while delivering twin girls who also died. My grandmother, also pregnant at the time, told me of how Helen fearlessly approached childbirth while my grandmother feared for her life. My grandmother delivered my aunt, a ten pound baby, a week after Aunt Helen’s funeral. Sixty-five years of living did not erase the picture of seventeen–year-old Helen lying in a coffin, her dead infant girls cradled in each arm. This was her body, given up for her children.

Some women never recover completely from childbirth. They never lose the weight they gained during pregnancy. Others might develop varicose veins, diabetes, or high blood pressure. Some develop permanent urinary tract or bowel problems from injuries sustained during childbirth. These are our young bodies, which we have offered up for our children.

Each time a woman goes into labour, she travels into the valley of the shadow of death, a place one cannot imagine if one has not given birth. One of my neighbours who gave birth was appalled by the fact that I didn’t use anesthesia during the births of my children. I told her I was more stupid than brave and truly believed that I was giving my children the best possible start in life by not using drugs. This was comfort for my body, which I was willing to give up for them.

Childbirth is always accompanied by a certain amount of blood. The shedding of blood during childbirth used to render a woman, “unclean,” a verdict Christianity inherited from Judaism. Until Vatican II, a post partum woman was supposed to be “churched,” a ceremony which “purified” the mother of childbirth, so that she could return to communion. However, without the shedding of the mother’s blood, there can be no birth and no life. Even Jesus, born of Mary came into this world purple, wet, and slippery, covered with his mother’s blood. Mary gave her holy body and blood to Jesus. This was her body and blood, given up for him.

Two women I know almost hemorrhaged to death after giving birth. After birth, the uterus is supposed to contract and clamp off all of the blood vessels that supplied the placenta and nourished the baby during pregnancy. If the uterus fails to contract, the blood vessels remain wide open and blood gushes out of the woman with each beat of her heart. Both women described lying in a state of suspended animation as their blood poured onto the floor, knowing what was happening to them, but too weak to rouse themselves to call for help.

One looks at blood, at the bright red bewilderment of it, with awe, for it is life itself. How many of our fore-mothers saw this blood, felt it leave their bodies, and understood what it meant to shed every last drop of blood in order to give life to another human being!

On this Mother’s Day, I invite you to image God, who is truly beyond whatever paltry picture we might imagine, as Mother God. Imagine God our Creator as the Mother clothed in the sun, stars in Her hair, groaning in hard labour as She tries to give birth to a new heaven and a new earth where all mothers are forever freed of the sins of patriarchal misconceptions and misogyny.

Today on Mother’s Day, we remember our mother. Honour all mothers in whom unborn babies once lived and moved and developed their very beings. This is our body; this is our blood, given for the life of the world. Happy Mother’s Day!
Eileen DiFranco

My own related reflection was published on this blog last year:
My Body, My Blood

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A Typical Fudge?

One of the crazy contradictions in the English language is the word fudge. As a noun it refers to rich, delicious chocolate that many of us consider an irresistible taste of heaven. As a verb or in figurative speech, however, it carries such a pejorative meaning that none of us would appreciate our words or actions to be judged as “fudged:”

> to fail to deal with (something) in an open and direct way
> to speak or act in a way that is meant to avoid dealing with a problem directly
> to change (something) in order to trick people

Odd, don’t you think? Try to explain that to someone who’s learning English!

The term fudge was used a while back to describe the outcome of a  certain meeting. But before I explore that, a word about us earthlings.

For all our good qualities, we human beings are masters at deceit. We are so perfect at deceit that it’s second nature; most of the time we don’t even know we’re being deceitful, even to ourselves. We can therefore safely and honestly plead ignorance (psst … here’s one to chew on: is it deceit when we’re not aware?). We process experiences and information constantly through layers of unconscious assumptions and judgments, motivations and interpretations, prejudices and stereotypes, all acquired and formed over a lifetime of conditioning, for both good and ill. All these internal filters create what is called a “mental map” which serves as our operating system. We need mental maps; they help us organize, interpret and make sense of the avalanche of impressions, data and sensations that roll into and over us on a daily basis.

Mutual understanding, generative learning and constructive dialogue are often hindered by dissimilar “mental maps” which can create significant conflict and misunderstanding, even leading to mutual condemnation. Some even claim that the unacknowledged, and therefore unconsciously operating, mental maps in people lie at the root of the world’s problems (David Bohm in the Discipline of Team Learning, Peter Senge)

So it seems not only desirable but urgent and necessary that we let our mental maps rise to the surface of our consciousness instead of letting them control our reactions at an unconscious level. This involves becoming aware of our hidden assumptions and motives, attitudes and judgments, and to free ourselves from their destructive effects both in ourselves and in our relationships – which is in effect the task of every spiritual quest. Such awareness can then provide insight into when our mental map needs to change or expand or be corrected, in the hope of growing greater internal and external harmony and understanding, moving us all to a deeper and richer level of relationships.

Since I have been trying to increase awareness of this dynamic in myself, I also strive to increase my ability to see it operate outside myself. And here’s where I come back to using the term fudge. I’ve written in a previous blog about the meeting of the Anglican Primates in Canterbury last January. Applying the notion of mental maps as unconscious operating systems proves to be almost amusing when reading the various reactions to the outcome of this high-ranking Anglican meeting.

At the end it was a classic Anglican fudge, says an article in The Tablet, Jan. 21/16. I did some research on the term Anglican fudge and sure enough, it tends to get applied by those who disagree with whatever the outcome is of what is being commented on, putting the Anglican tradition down. Now before I go on, please remember that I’m just playing with ideas and concepts here, so don’t hold my feet to the fire just yet. Also keep in mind that I`m still a new Anglican, and musings such as these are my feeble attempts to figure out my place in this new faith family. Part of this task is to explore the Anglican gifts of Gospel-centered discipleship as well as its sinful patterns of … well, truly fudging things.

It is rather interesting to observe how perspectives shift when the vantage point of vision changes and you look at the same thing using a different mental map. Fr. Ron Smith, an Anglican priest from New Zealand, tries to do just that when he unpacks the use of the term Anglican fudge in a Roman Catholic publication as follows:

The author of this article speaks of a typical ‘Anglican fudge’ being arrived at – on the decision not to split on the issues of gender and sexuality that had occasioned the Archbishop of Canterbury’s invitation to the Primates. However, there were significant activities that took place in the meetings that allowed the Primates – whatever their particular viewpoint on this issue – to step back from further schismatic action taking place.

If the word ‘fudge’ means that the different Provinces of the Communion can actually agree to co-exist – without formal interference in the affairs of individual provinces – then perhaps this sort of fudging response might be thought to be better than outright schism. What may not be clearly understood by the Roman Catholic commentator, is that there is no ‘Magisterium’ in the Anglican Communion that can enforce the sort of disciplines available, for instance, in the Church of Rome  – whose Pope and Vatican authorities can use the power of excommunication against dissident Church members.  (Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand)

The Anglican Communion is held together by mutual bonds of affection, and by a horizontal model of governance and authority that strives for a balance between moral autonomy and moral assent (instead of juridical obedience to law). That model, as every model, comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, and often risks being misinterpreted by those who do not taste the inside dynamics of its operations. I wonder if this is what happened when many on the outside  (and those on the inside holding exceptionally strong opposite opinions) perceived the Primates`decision to continue `walking together` as wishy-washy or even an outright betrayal of the Gospel.

It behooves both Anglicans and Catholics to know that the two traditions enjoy the longest-standing ecumenical dialogue since Vatican II. Much theological ground has been covered in rich agreements that have yet to be fully appropriated by the people in the pews in both traditions. In a recent article Anglican Bishop Linda Nicholls points out that the Anglican Communion’s internal struggles have resulted in unexpected yet immensely valuable lessons learnt: “One of the things we’ve certainly learned in my own church is, we’ve learned how to have better conversations when we’re in conflict on deeply painful issues,” she said. “We’ve learned how to sit down together and listen in ways we didn’t seem to know how to do before. And that’s not a bad thing.” (April 29, 2016, Catholic Register)

The Primates` conclusions from their January 2016 meeting were borne of costly discipleship ìn response to Christ`s demanding call to love, reconciliation and communion, all of which they experienced viscerally in their week together (see Canada`s Primate Fred Hiltz`account). At the same time those with different, even contrary, `mental maps`quickly criticized those same conclusions as wishy-washy (or harsh, depending on your point of view), and could only perceive … fudge. That begs the question: which type of fudge was it – the deceitful twisting of truth or the heavenly food version?

There is way more to say on all this, but I’ll leave that for another time. It’s more important to stop and distill the larger questions from this example:

1. How often do we perceive another`s choices and decisions in ways that fail to consider and honour the true intent of the individual or the group?

2. How can we help ourselves to grow a greater awareness of our own mental maps and the role these play in how we perceive/experience the world?

3. In what ways are we called to costly discipleship with those who challenge our mental maps?

4. Does right relation trump right belief? Why and how? If not, why not?

5. When is “walking together” a wishy-washy, anything-goes, ignoring-differences type of response, and when is it a call to deeper love, reconciliation and communion that challenges both parties? How can we tell the difference?

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