Ancient Answers


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Small is Beautiful

 

“In the beginning you created me from nothing and honoured me with your divine image…” sings one of the hymns in the Memorial Service. So also in Liturgy at the Great Prayer of the Anaphora: “You brought us into being out of nothing…” But the Anaphora of St. Basil has this: “For having made man by taking dust from the earth…” Which is right? From nothing or from dust of the earth? Clearly the Liturgy of St. Basil has it right. That’s Genesis 2: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground.” God can and does create out of nothing, but more often than not he prefers to use what is available – it’s the natural order of evolution, after all.

In Exodus 16, we read that the people became hungry in the desert after the exodus from Egypt.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” 

God promised he would send them bread from heaven, but did you notice the instruction he gave? Gather every day what you need for that day – “Give us this day our daily bread” – but on the sixth day they should gather a double portion so as to have enough for the sabbath, the seventh day. Beautiful economics – no excess, and enough to also honour the sabbath law against work.

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning dew lay round about the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And the people gathered, some more, some less. But he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; each gathered according to what he could eat. Now the house of Israel called its name manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. 

Was it bread that God rained down from heaven? Most likely it was some sort of natural phenomenon that God used to provide “bread” for the people. It doesn’t matter. The miracle was in the balance that God ordained – just enough quail and manna to sustain the people, and also honour God’s holy commandments. God uses what is available.

The story of the feeding of the thousands that we read today shows God’s management style. He doesn’t magically create food out of nothing; he uses the resources available. In the sharing, the food multiplies and feeds thousands of men, women and children. In the sharing, the miracle happens. This is undoubtedly the point of this gospel story. There is no emphasis on the miraculous. The emphasis is on the dialogue with the disciples and the actions of Jesus: he looked to heaven, he blessed and broke the loaves and gave to the people. And there was plenty left – 12 baskets of leftovers were gathered up! Sharing is the message to us: Share what you have and don’t worry whether you will have enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whose bread and fish did Jesus use? It’s unclear in our reading today; but in John’s Gospel it’s a boy who has five barley loaves and two small fish. The boy and his family were probably bringing the bread and fish home from the market, but stopped to hear Jesus teach. Did they object when Jesus took the loaves? No, and thus became partners to the miracle. We do not perform miracles; but we can become partners in the miracles that God performs every day!

And God’s management style should also be the church’s management style. Small is good. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neil Armstrong understood small when he stepped on to the surface of the moon on that momentous day 49 years ago this weekend. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was a small step for him to step off the lander module lander on to the surface of the moon; but it was a giant leap for humankind, a leap whose consequences created the modern world we are living in today.

Small is good. Small is beautiful, as one bestselling book announced in the early 1970s, a time of growing ecological awareness – an awareness that many people prefer to reject in our small-minded days. It’s okay to be small – but not small-minded. Small can become great when we share, when we’re open to others, when love grows in our midst and overflows to others.

The question for us today is this: Are we small because that’s all we deserve to be, wrapped up in our small-mindedness? Or are we small in an honourable, loving, open way? Then small is indeed beautiful, and that’s a good message to take from today’s Gospel reading.


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Salt and Light

 

The Lord said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world… began our Gospel reading today.

But why not begin one verse earlier and hear the whole passage? “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16)

That first part, about salt, has puzzled people over the centuries. How can salt ever lose its saltiness? Sodium chloride is a stable chemical compound and does not lose its properties. Many Christians today prefer to ignore science – especially when it disagrees with their politics – so perhaps they can be excused for not thinking in terms of NaCl. But doing a little research I discovered this: In the ancient world what was often sold as salt was highly adulterated and the sodium chloride could leach out in humid weather, in which case the residue would be useless. Another similar possibility is raised by F. Perles in “La Parabole du Sel sourd” – salt produced by natural evaporation on the shores of the Dead Sea is never pure; when dampness decomposes it, the residue is useless. Is this what Jesus had in mind? I doubt it. Jesus uses salt as a metaphor for the disciples. Adulterated, impure salt has no choice but to lose its saltiness. Disciples have a choice whether they will be salt of the earth and light of the world.

So there may be something else going on here. 

The Greek text goes like this:  Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς· ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ, ἐν τίνι ἁλισθήσεται…

ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ. The verbs μωραίνω or μωραίνομαι mean “to make foolish” or “to become foolish,” and derive from μωρία, foolishness. There is no precedent in classical Greek for a meaning relating to salt. In my large Liddell and Scott Lexicon, the only meanings relate to foolishness. So the salt connection seems to be exclusively a result of what Jesus says in Matthew 5:13. But we should also remember that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and what we have in the Gospels are Greek translations of what Jesus spoke or what the Evangelists believe Jesus spoke or meant. Perhaps something got lost in translation. Often in the New Testament we encounter the adjective μωρός to describe various people as fools, unwise, lacking in understanding. So is Jesus warning his disciples not to become foolish, and thus useless?

You are the salt of the earth – τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς. Perhaps it makes more sense to translate, “You are salt for the earth/soil, and if you the salt become foolish/useless how can it [the earth, the soil] be made salty again?” There is a lot going on in this little metaphor. I don’t think Jesus was too concerned with the preservative quality of salt. He didn’t come to preserve the world from spoiling; he came to give the world life, dynamic life! Perhaps he was more interested in the stimulating properties of salt as fertilizer. That makes more sense. Jesus came to bring life, life abundant, life overflowing!

And thus it connects with what follows: You are the light of the world. Or perhaps better translated as, “You are light for the world”! Just as salt cannot lose its saltiness, so also a city on a hill cannot be hidden. Our light as disciples of Christ should shine; it cannot be hidden or put out. Unless we become fools, like salt that is not salty.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Notice how Jesus concludes these statements: We are salt and we are light for the world, so the world will give glory to God! Not to us. We become foolish, we lose our salt, we dim our light, when we seek glory and praise for ourselves. There is no salvation in that. When we receive the praise, we are not guiding the world to salvation. We are only attracting attention and praise to ourselves, to our egos. Dear friends, we are here for the world. And we will not convince the world by words, but by deeds, “that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Salt does not draw attention to itself – unless you overdo it – it simply enriches the taste. A light bulb does not draw attention to itself – it simply lights the path. We are here to enrich the world and to light the path for Christ. Not to draw attention to ourselves.


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What love enjoys to do

Last Sunday’s Epistle reading and today’s Epistle reading both speak of gifts and talents that God gives to members of the church…. Last week’s Clergy-Laity Conference in Boston brought into focus some of the ways God provides for the church to fulfil its mission…..

I’m not including any text today, preferring to allow the audio file to suffice:


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The bottom line according to Jesus – and Paul

 

Sisters and brothers, you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. 

Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. 

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. 

Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Love never ends.

This is perhaps the most familiar passage in all of Paul’s writings. And yet it is not part of the regular cycle of Sunday readings. We read it today because July 1st is the feast of the unmercenary healers Sts. Cosmas & Damian – different from the saints of the same names celebrated on Nov. 1st.

Cosmas & Damian lived up to the teachings of Christ like few did in all history. Jesus told his disciples: Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give – δωρεὰν ἐλάβετε, δωρεὰν δότε. They lived in the third century in Rome. They healed without payment, and they healed not only humans, but animals too. So their Kontakion praises them: Having received the grace of healing, you extend health to those in need, O glorious and wonderworking physicians. Hence, by your visitation, cast down the audacity of our enemies, and by your miracles, heal the world – τόν κόσμον ιώμενοι εν τοίς θαύμασι. 

Healing is at the heart of love. Love is healing – healing for the world! So Paul is able to wrap up all the wonderful things that Christians are capable of with that one single word, agape. If we read further in that chapter from which we read this morning (1 Corinthians 13), we come to Paul’s climactic statement: And now faith, hope, and love remain, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The tragedy of human history is that not only is healing love rarely happens, but it is also rarely received. Isn’t that the message of today’s Gospel reading? Jesus heals the two demoniacs. But in the process he messes up the economic system of the town. So the inhabitants ask him to leave; they don’t want him to mess around with their economy any further.

Whether you want to admit it or not, Jesus was a troublemaker. He messed things up. He had no attachment to the economic and political rules of the human game. And wherever we attempt to fit our conceptions of love into the rules of the game, we end up betraying love. Love cannot be defined by economics, by budgets, by political or religious ideologies.

So we have today two saints who represent the full gospel message of Jesus Christ – not with words and hypocritical platitudes, but with acts of love and healing. We celebrate their memory by reading the portion in Paul’s letters that most clearly elevates love above all other characteristics of Christian life. And we read a Gospel passage that shows the healing love of Christ coming into conflict with money and economics. And the people who see it choose to drive out Jesus. He drove out evil from their midst and they, with ungrateful hearts, drive him out from their midst. How long do you think before demons come back to that town? Nothing attracts evil more than ingratitude. And nothing heals and sanctifies like love. Never place any obstacles to love. Never look for the bottom line when it comes to love – because love is the bottom line with Jesus. Always!