You can join this week’s worship service by visiting: https://youtu.be/OTbI0-MG-VI
Thank you to Olivia Finnamore for reading scripture, Louise Fyffe for sharing prayers, and to Terri Croft for sharing the gift of music this week.
Below, you’ll find Andy’s reflection and Louise’s prayers for this week. In these exceptional times, please do stay in touch, with us and with each other. The peace of Christ be with you all.
Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture: Matthew 15: 10-28
Music: Come, Come Emmanuel; Ave Maria (Bach/Gounod)
Musicians: Terri Croft
In the field of ethics, hypothetical situations are often used to help people reflect on how to respond to challenges faced in life. One famous hypothetical is called the trolley problem. In this thought experiment, a trolley car is hurtling downhill on the tracks, its brakes having failed. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move; the trolley, headed straight for them.
Now, imagine that you are standing in the train yard next to a lever which, if switched, would send the trolley onto a second track and avoid the people tied up. However, on that second track is another person, unable to move. You have two options: do nothing and allow five people on the main track to die; or, pull the lever and divert the trolley onto the other track, where you will cause the death of the person there. (I never said that these ethical scenarios were uplifting.)
Of course, there is no easy answer. Either you follow the maxim that the right thing to do is to minimize the loss of life, or you follow the maxim that taking the power of life and death into one’s own hands is wrong. Variations on the trolley problem try to make it easier, like: what if you knew that two of the five people on the first track were terrible criminals; or, that the one on the alternate track is a doctor who can save many lives. Ultimately, though, we’re left with a question that has no right or wrong answer, but which pushes us to consider what we value most.
What happens in the Gospel lesson this week is not what we expect. Our understanding of Jesus is often an uncomplicated assertion that he desires whatever is good, and that he does whatever is kind. So when Jesus first refuses to show mercy to a woman pleading with him to heal her daughter, it’s quite jarring. Difficult stories like this challenge simple summaries about who and what Jesus is.
A bit of context can help us approach the story. Jesus and the disciples are walking in the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. This is the land of the Canaanites, a people with whom Israelites share a profound distrust based on a long and complicated history. The disciples are informed by these stories, aware of the derision and danger they face. But this is where Jesus walked; this is where you can find Jesus almost all the time: the places where others would not go, bearing constant critique.
From somewhere in the crowd the disciples start to hear shouting. It’s hard to make out at first, but it becomes clear that it’s directed at them. The source of the shouting is a Canaanite woman, who emerges from behind a group of people already staring at Jesus. Yet, hers are not the shouts of disdain; they are the earnest plea of a frightened mother. She calls Jesus “Lord”; she bends her knee before him; she begs him to help her daughter who is tormented by a demon. And Jesus says nothing.
Eventually, Jesus does speak to her, but it’s to tell her that his mission is to the lost children of Israel, not to outsiders like her. The disciples suggest he send her away. Nonetheless, she persists. She wonders whether there might be a place for people like her in his mission. He tells her that her faith is great and that her daughter is healed. The story ends there and the tension abates – he did what we expected after all.
So, it makes me wonder: what is happening in his initial silence? Interestingly, it isn’t singular; it resonates with other times when Jesus is silent, or slow to act, like when he’s approached by the haemorrhaging woman, or when he hears that Lazarus is dying. I’ve come to think of these kinds of silence not as responses, but as pauses; important moments in which he considers a fundamental question.
The question he often faced, I think, was not what is right or wrong to do, but a question about what his mission was. So that, in any given moment, he had to decide what was most important. Was his mission only to heal and feed those whom he met, or was his mission to encourage people to heal and feed each other? The two, of course, aren’t mutually exclusive. But I imagine that Jesus, like us, had to at times wrestle with which was the best response in that moment. And I find that very reassuring.
Our lives, like the Gospels, often face us with questions whose answers don’t easily fall under right or wrong, but which invite us to consider which good response is required in the moment at hand. During a year like this, we’re infinitely aware that plans go awry, and that not only our lives, but life on a global scale, can change in the blink of an eye. If we’re not to allow stubbornness or uncertainty to paralyse us then, like Jesus, we have to wrestle with who we are and what we’re about.
In a way, for our community at St. Paul’s, COVID has served as a version of the trolley problem. Our two options have been to return to the building and put vulnerable people at risk, or to remain out of the building and suffer the burdens of isolation. Turning to other churches to see what they have done can be informative and presents us with models of how we might respond. But ultimately, we are still left with making a decision that’s faithful to who we are.
To my mind, the question we face is not whether it’s right or wrong to return to in-person worship, or right or wrong to continue to do what we’re doing now. These questions assume a single good response, which is impossible given the variety of personal perspectives and levels of risk aversion we each have.
The way I would frame the question we face is this: what are we about? What is our church community for? At various times, we’re like a hospital, tending to peoples’ deepest needs; but we’re also like a school, learning about God’s world and our place in it; and we’re like an orchard, feeding our souls and enjoying the fruit that is community. The question we face now is, what is most important to us and how will we live that out?
You already know that our COVID response team is working with staff to consider these and other questions, holding in balance our need to be with each other and our need for safety. But I want to add that your reflection on these questions is integral. I invite you this week to take a moment to pause, to pray, to engage the question of what is being asked of us in this moment, and to discuss it with those whom you love. And I ask you to remember that there is no single right answer, there is only honesty with each other about what we feel called to do in this moment. Amen.
God of these summer days, we have come in worship once again — separated and yet together — concerned for each other and for ourselves. We ask that this concern enfold us in the moments we share in this new way.
This morning we have been invited to consider how our decisions shape our lives and the lives of those around us. We pray that we may truly consider how God’s will for a peaceful world can be fulfilled in our small circle.
We hear and we see the pain of the world, the distress in our own nation, the sorrows that beset our community. We see and we hear and then we make decisions about what we DO! And when we have lived with those decisions we may find that we need to make new or different decisions — decisions based on our loving concern for the world that surrounds us. In all these times we ask that You be with us as we consider the small daily actions that may help ourselves and others to live in peace. Help us to be kind, to listen with compassion, to act with generosity.
This morning we have the opportunity to know that our church family is gathered in a hundred special places and that we share these moments in the spirit of love and support.
In the quiet of your special place I invite you now to give thanks for the joys you have experienced in the week just passed, to offer to God the sadnesses you may be living with on this day, and to offer a prayer for the well being of those you love so dearly and we especially remember the family of Chris Townsend and the people of Beirut and their Canadian families and friends. And we gather all these prayers together and offer them in the words Jesus taught, Our Father…