Sermon 1 November 2015 All Saints Day
A few years ago a friend gave me a book which had made a great impression on her. It did the same to me. It was about a young woman in San Francisco whose 4 grandparents had all been missionaries. Both her parents had reacted against their upbringing and were agnostic. The young woman had been brought up to be thoughtful, passionate about social justice issues, but with no vocabulary of faith or experience of church. One morning, out for her usual jog, she gave a second glance to a church building she often went past. It was unusual in that it was round. She made a spur of the moment decision to go in. She was immediately struck by the modern stained glass windows of saints all around the curve of the sanctuary. But these were not the saints you might expect. Some of those were there, but also figures like Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day. The altar was in the centre of this circular space. She came back again another morning and found that there was a circle of people gathered around the table. She was drawn into the circle and in to a celebration of Holy Communion. As the loaf of bread was passed to her she experienced something, a presence that completely shook her in its intensity. The importance of sharing that spiritual food was linked for her to something fundamental to life in the sharing of bread and in that communion of saints. That church became not just her spiritual birthplace and home but also the birthplace of a ministry, led by her, of feeding the hungry of the neighbourhood at a food bank right there, in the church, beneath the gaze of the saints. It was a ministry in which congregational members worked along with the poor of the neighbourhood, who found there not just food but a role, a place of identity and purpose. The outsiders were no longer outside. All this was inspired by that young woman’s vision, that began with a completely unexpected sharing of the bread of communion.
There is hunger around everywhere. Physical hunger; hunger for belonging, spiritual hunger. Basic human needs, all of these things. And those hungers are there in our Scriptures as well, on page after page. They are there in the story of Ruth, which is really quite an extraordinary story. Why is it there at all? It is a one-off. It is also a hinge between different times for the Hebrew people, between the era of the judges and that of the kings of Israel. It introduces the line of David, who was Ruth’s great grandson. But still, the story could well have been omitted. After the first three verses about the men, it becomes a story about the women, Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law, foreign women of a different religion, women who worshipped other gods.
It is a beautiful story of love, of separation and sorrow and the pain of having to choose between one’s familiar homeland and an uncertain future with someone dearly beloved. It is a story of a hunger to belong. It was a choice of faith, both literally and figuratively speaking. “Your people will be my people and your God my God”, and all those other lovely words which I have heard read at weddings more than once. It is a story that pulls at the heartstrings especially for those who have left the place of their birth to seek a new life, with all of the uncertainties and unfamiliarities that that entails. It makes me wonder about the hundreds of thousands of untold stories of families faced with terrible choices as their homelands fall into violent desolation and they are left with no support.
The book of Ruth is a story of strong women in a man’s world. It becomes a story about all they had to do, to scheme, in order to survive. It is indicative of many other women’s stories that run as an undercurrent and surface occasionally throughout the scriptures. These are the grandmothers of faith, of the house of David. The saints in the background who could well be smiling down from some stained glass windows.
Maybe Ruth could be a patron saint of refugees. I was reading an article from the New York Times last week, written by a journalist who, with a photographer, accompanied a Syrian family who made their way from their destroyed home, through Turkey to Greece and on through Slovenia to Hungary, and eventually to Germany, though they had been hoping to get to Sweden where they had relatives. They were turned back in Denmark. Their dignity throughout was extraordinary, in exhausting, terrible situations, in their struggle to keep clean and fed. There were children and the wife was 6 months pregnant when they left. They found kindness but also were often exploited, charge enormous sums for supposed taxi rides which then dumped them a few miles off in the middle of nowhere.
Such stories become almost unbearable. But how can we not bear them? I suppose they seem unbearable because we feel helpless in our own comfort. So the reading from Mark’s gospel seems to hang over us as it talks about the commandment to love. It is no good feeling helpless, or guilty, or whatever else we may feel, which might even be anger, arising out of something very deep.
The overarching phrase from that reading from Mark’s gospel is contained in those ancient words that have been spoken by the Jewish people down the centuries: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” One God. One Lord and Father of us all. Maybe Ruth learned those words, the language of her adopted faith. And as people of the one God, we are given the imperative to love. We have probably all heard many sermons about this and what that love can mean; clearly not a sloppy romantic thing. It has to be a love that can make hard choices and do what is right in order to unite and not divide. It is easy to divide because what underlies division is fear, fear of that which is different. Yet someone was talking recently about the phrase that says that separation is not caused by difference but by judgement. We judge because we feel afraid when people are not like us or situations seem out of our control. Jesus told his followers not to judge. He refused to make judgements himself because judgement, he said, was up to God. Instead Jesus affirmed the God-given commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. And he affirmed the teacher of the law who had questioned him when that man said that this love of neighbour is more important that any burnt offerings and sacrifices, the ritualized acts of religion.
I think we all want to be able to love in that Christ-like way. I think we are all unsure how to respond in faith like that in the world today. And I think we can all feel trapped in some kind of fear. But I sometimes also think we can make it too complicated because our complicated world lands right into our lounge rooms via our televisions and computers. So I would like to tell you something that Manas shared last Tuesday at a meeting in Parramatta. He and Nita were in Rio on holiday. They went to the beach at Copacabana, just enjoying the place and watching the people. They were very keen to go on a tour to the huge statue of Christ that towers over the city. When they went to book tickets, the man behind the desk swivelled his computer screen around to show them that the statue was enveloped in mist, so it was not worth paying the $63 dollars each at that time. They decided to go back the next day. Meantime they sat at the beach. They noticed an ice-cream seller, carrying his insulated box around his shoulders, trying to make a meagre living. He went and bought some food from one of the many stalls, and sat down to have some lunch. But then he noticed a homeless man. The ice-cream seller got up and gave his food away to the homeless man. Later that day they took a train to an area about half an hour from the beach, a poor area. Here there were ice-cream sellers as well. And the same thing happened again. As Manas said, he and Nita saw more of Christ in these ice-cream sellers than in that statue, though they did get to see that too. They saw love of neighbour in action by people who never knew they had been noticed, and probably didn’t think too much about what they were doing anyway. They were people who saw no difference between themselves and those in need around them. They were hungry human beings together.
We recognize love. We have love all around us. It’s in those candles there. It’s in the countless stories of people of faith who are saints, not because they are especially holy but because they understand that holiness is something that comes about through God, when we really understand our connection with God, who is love. We are part of the communion of saints. Let us not exclude ourselves from it because we fear we are not good enough. And, in a kind of contrary way, let us not try so hard to hold to what is right that we actually separate ourselves off from others because of fear of difference.
Soon we are going to share the bread and wine of communion. Jesus takes the common things of life that were on the meal table, and transforms them into a love feast which has transformed people ever since. It makes us one. One with each other here and one with all those “out there”. It is the joyful feast of the kingdom of God, where all are drawn into the love of God where all belong. Thank God.