Saturday, November 10, 2012

24th Sunday after Pentecost (Remembrance Day)

I opened the paper the other day – and on the front page was a picture of a very pretty girl wearing a brightly embroidered jacket.  She was also wearing what looked like a bright pink turban.  She had just won some international catwalk competition, and of course the reason she was on the front page of The Australian newspaper was that she was an Aussie girl.  And on being interviewed she had said with that disarming Aussie frankness – 'well I wouldn't really wear it down the street.  It's actually just playing dress-ups'.  And then she said – 'but the real reason I love this outfit is that my grandma sewed it for me'.  And I thought of the grandma, sewing on all the little loops and baubles for her bright model grand-daughter, and I thought – 'that's love'.

We worship youth, don't we, in our society?  When you turn on the TV at night you don't see many mature-aged people, we are entertained by attractive young people, the advertising is for young people with plenty of disposable income, we see images of young people with power and opportunity, we idolise fit young sporting heroes – for the elderly, even in our supposedly enlightened society, options shrink along with retirement incomes, you can't buy sensible clothes and shoes anymore and it gets harder and harder to get the lid off a jar.  Or maybe that's just me.  In any case, with age comes a degree of social invisibility. 

Today we hear two stories about widows – not necessarily particularly old, by today's standards, but remember this is a society where the average lifespan was about 45 years.  But women past childbearing age, not only socially invisible but without means of support.  In the Bible, widows and orphans are held up time and again as examples of society's most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor who challenge our compassion – and in the ancient world, as the Book of Leviticus tells us, there were some flimsy mechanisms for ensuring that these vulnerable members of the community were able to gather just enough to keep from starving.  But let's start with the Gospel.

Jesus is teaching in the Temple – and given the timeline of the first three Gospels this would have been on the Tuesday or the Wednesday of the last week of Jesus' life.  He has been having some heated conversations with his old sparring partners, the Sadducees, but the ordinary people, Mark tells us in the verse just before we started reading today, have been listening to him with delight.  One of the Temple scribes has just asked Jesus for his opinion as to which of the laws of Moses is the most important, and Jesus says – in the words we repeat every Sunday in church – that the greatest law is the law of love.  To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength – and to love your neighbour as yourself.  The scribe agrees with him – 'you are not far', Jesus tells him, 'from the kingdom of God'.  It is starting to sound like a mutual admiration society.

But now, two verses later, Jesus comes out with this – 'watch out for the scribes!' Watch out for this lot who like to walk around in long robes and get called Reverend So-and-So and always grab the best seat in church.  Why is Jesus turning on the scribes, two verses after he has just agreed with one of them about the greatest law, the law of love?  Because, says Jesus – they devour widows' houses, they deprive the poor and vulnerable of even the little that they have.  It's got nothing to do with the wearing of long robes – I hope! – and everything to do with the incident that St Mark tells us about next. 

You know, the widow in this story often gets held up as an example of generosity and an example for us to follow – but I don't think that is so much what Jesus is noticing as the fact that in paying the Temple tax – and given that the Temple authorities controlled the means whereby people could be regarded as socially acceptable she didn't have much choice – this woman is being left destitute.  So essentially Jesus is accusing the reverends of hypocrisy.  It's one thing to talk fine words about love, but when you rip away the meagre resources of the most vulnerable members of society you are not practising what you preach.  Jesus is accusing the scribes of loving power more than people.

The story of Ruth, on the other hand, is a love story in more ways than one.  Both Ruth and Naomi are widows, though Ruth, Naomi's daughter-in-law, is still a young woman and – in her own country – would probably have been claimed as a wife by one or other of the males in her extended family.  Naomi, on the other hand, as an older woman living in a foreign country is in a desperate situation.  But Ruth the Aramite – a native of a country, incidentally, that Judah has had repeated brief and bloody wars with – Ruth refuses to leave her mother-in-law and so follows as a widow and a refugee into a strange and not particularly welcoming country, where her prospects are decidedly bleak.  (Are we starting to recognise this sort of scenario?)  It's a partnership, however, that works.  Ruth is young enough to withstand the gruelling business of gleaning – exercising the right of the widow to gather the stalks and heads of grain that the harvesters leave behind on the field of Naomi's relative, Boaz.  So Naomi coaches her daughter-in-law on how the rules of the game are played, and Boaz is dutifully and predictably besotted, as well as impressed by the young woman's faithfulness to her mother-in-law.  We don't need to ask too many questions about exactly what happens on the threshing room floor – but the point is that the faithful love of Ruth for her ageing and vulnerable mother-in-law – and the generosity of Boaz who rather stretches a legal point to accept his duty to Ruth as a ga-al, or closest living male relative who would have the duty to redeem her – results not only in the sound of wedding bells but a baby who becomes the ancestor of the great king David and Jesus of Nazareth.

Ruth and Naomi and Boaz choose generosity and the sharing of resources and the recognition of the obligations of kinship over tribalism and competitiveness – in other words they choose to love even though the consequences of loving don't immediately look like a good choice, economically at least.  They live the practical love of neighbour that the scribes give lip service to, and that is the whole point.  As disciples we are commanded by Jesus to love – not theoretically and safely, but practically and in ways that take us out of our comfort zones.  We need to take on board Jesus' pointed criticism of the scribes – do we bang on about love but fail to actually put it into practice?  If so, then less talk and more action would be good.

We are reading these stories, of course, on Remembrance Day, which used to be called Armistice Day because it commemorates the moment on which the First World War ended, at 11am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.  It is the only national day of commemoration I can think of that celebrates – not the date of some battle, whether a victory or a loss – but the moment in which war ended because enough people on both sides of the conflict were tired of loss and grief and hatred and bloodshed, and realised the only option left to them was peace.  With the benefit of hindsight it was an ambiguous moment, an armistice and terms of peace that were so vindictive that the continuation of conflict and the outbreak of a second and more appalling war two decades later was almost assured.  An armistice that gave hopeful birth to the League of Nations and the dream of peace, but ultimately failed because the hope of peace was not accompanied by forgiveness and practical expressions of commitment to a shared future.  And so the 20th century, in which most of us have grown up and spent most of our lives, turned out to be the bloodiest and most appalling century in the history of the world - with, it is estimated, more victims than all of the other centuries of recorded history put together.

Peace, like love, takes more than words.  It takes the works of peace – the generous welcome of refugees like Ruth, of men and women and children fleeing from conflicts in which our own military forces have taken sides and have inflicted suffering, for a start, rather than the endless bickering and ungracious competition between both sides of politics to impose policies that deliberately increase suffering and turn away those who in desperation seek our hospitality.  Peace – in the Hebrew, shalom – the seeking for the wholeness and flourishing of former enemies – requires us to see that our best interests lie not in keeping what we've got for ourselves, but in extending a hand to the vulnerable and dispossessed.  How tragic it is that wealthy nations like ours continue to weep crocodile tears over the costs of war, but fail over and over in the basic generosity and common humanity required to build peace.

Today, also, we welcome Josh into the Church in baptism.  This, incidentally, is the most important thing we as a congregation are doing this morning.  Because the works of love and peace don't happen in the abstract, but in the particular.  The way that we, as the people of God, become a community of shalom is not by talking about it, but by practising welcome and hospitality.  Today we welcome Josh – whose name, incidentally, comes from the same Hebrew root as the name, Jesus – yHoshua, 'he saves' – into the family of God and the household of the Church.  We pray that Josh may live up to his name, and that his family and godparents may surround him with the practical examples of Christian living.  And we pray also that we, as the community of God, might live up to our own name - so that, in whatever circumstances he finds himself in his life, Josh may know that he always has a home and a welcome among us.