In the name of God who is ever creating us, ever redeeming, and ever sustaining us. Amen.
First of all, I would like to thank you very much for inviting me to join you today, and for the privilege of being asked to preach, and to share in your generous hospitality.
What a wonderful collection of readings for a day on which the Parish gathers in celebration and feasting… in the breaking of bread together in our eucharist this morning, and in gathering for a meal in celebration and thanksgiving of Sister Mary Josephine's 80th birthday!
Each of the readings speaks to us of food, of nourishment – God's gifts to us – both spiritual and physical nourishment, and the interrelationship between them.
From Isaiah we heard:
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
The prophet seems to speak in celebration of the goodness which God provides (and as we know, food holds a place of great honour in the Jewish tradition), then takes it further… as if to say "I will tell you about something that is even better than this!!” and he goes on to talk of the “everlasting covenant” – of God’s faithful relationship with us.
From Psalm 63 we heard:
…my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water…
The psalmist is speaking directly to God but we might imagine him turning to us and saying: "You know how important water is to life in a desert? Our relationship with God is even more live-giving than that!"
Then in 1 Corinthians we are reminded of the food and drink which sustained the Israelites in the wilderness:
They drank from the spiritual rock…
and the rock was Christ.
Today in the eucharist we share in the same spiritual food and drink – as Christians have done through the ages.
Many elements of our liturgies have remained unchanged over the years, but there are a few differences which I would like to draw attention to today.
From about the 5th century, and for many hundreds of years afterwards, if you were to find yourself at a eucharistic liturgy:
You would have seen the [priests and] ministers going down among the congregation and making a very elaborate collection of loaves and wine… from the whole congregation. That was their corporate oblation…
While that was being done there [was]… the spreading of the tablecloth, one deacon taking the end of the long, white cloth and throwing the other end to the deacon at the other end of the altar.
It must have been quite a spectacle!
The bread and wine were then laid upon the altar and the liturgy continued, much as we know it today except for one significant part: the bread and wine which had been gathered from the congregation and consecrated, were then returned to the congregation in the “great corporate communion”: the bread broken and put into bags held by the acolytes, and the wine in the chalice poured into the bowls and flagons.
“The prominent idea was that of the great corporate oblation
offered, accepted, consecrated, and returned
as now Christ’s Body and… Blood
to be the spiritual food for the… souls and bodies of… [the] people and to bind them all into a corporate whole. “
“To bind them all into a corporate whole…” as though the spiritual food and drink are found not only in the breaking of bread, but in gathering and sharing as a community.
As a society, over the last few decades we seem to have lost a sense of the importance and value of community life… that as members of the human family, we are “a corporate whole.” It might be wishful thinking on my part, but I wonder if we are perhaps beginning to reclaim this awareness?
[I say ‘wishful thinking’ because I believe that it is this kind of shift which will help us to address climate change, a fairer sharing of resources, and other major issues facing the world: helping us to recognize that the world and all the creatures in it is essentially one organism (“a corporate whole”) and that individual choices need increasingly to be made ‘for the good of the whole’.]
Though our liturgy today is much simplified from the one I described earlier, following the service we will be gathering together in another form of ritual which ‘binds us together’, as we join to celebrate a special occasion with one of the members of the congregation – today with Mary Jo.
Jesus often gathered with the community of disciples (and others) to share a meal, to eat in celebration – and following in that tradition, our gathering today celebrates and helps to nurture the ‘binding together’ of this parish community.
Mary Jo, as you may be aware, is not particularly known for her association with food! (she can be quite abstemious) – but supporting the life of the community is very much at her heart.
These are the words of George Bernard Shaw, but they might as easily have come from Mary Jo.
As most of you know far better than I do(!) Mary Jo has been a member of this parish community for much of her life. She was raised in the very house where she lives now.
As a young child Mary Jo dreamed of being ordained to the priesthood, but it was not a role open to women in those days so Mary Jo found other ways to offer her life in service to God and in support of other people.
Initially Mary Jo helped the Sisters with the children at the Ormerod Home and later felt called to join the Sisters and also to train as a teacher.
Each of these experiences is rooted in a form of ‘community’ and service.
Mary Jo received high praise for her professionalism as a teacher, and the children loved her. Later she returned to the ‘community’ of her family when her parents were not well, and joined the ‘community’ of the priesthood when it finally became possible for women to do so, and for many years has served in the ‘community’ of this parish and is very much appreciated for her ministry here… while at the same time living as a member of the Community of the Sisters of the Church.
Mary Jo has found a way to belong and to serve in many different ‘communities’, giving generously of herself for the good of other people – and today we give thanks for her 80 years of faithfulness, and we celebrate (as the readings call us to do) with a great feast – both spiritual and physical – in the bread and wine of the eucharist, in the gathering to share as a parish ‘community’ and in the special meal following the service.
The readings, of course, do not only speak to us of feasting and joy – we are also reminded of God's call to repentance.
At the beginning of the reading from Luke’s gospel we heard a couple of times “unless you repent, you will perish” but then we were reminded of the parable of the fig tree: a story of a generous and compassionate gardener who patiently nurtures and tends.
What are the fruits which God the compassionate gardener is attempting to bring forth through our lives? And what kind of tending and nurturing might be required in order for our lives to bear these fruits? Repentance, in this context, might mean turning our lives in the direction which might enable these fruits to flourish.
In a book called Listen with the Heart, a Benedictine Sister, Joan Chittister writes:
"There is no hope of joy… except in human relations." No work is enough to satisfy the human soul. Only the satisfaction of having touched another life and been touched by one ourselves can possibly suffice. Whatever we do, however noble, however small, must be done for the sake of the other. Otherwise, we ourselves have no claim on the human race.
These are the fruits which have been tended and nurtured in Mary Jo – touching others’ lives and being touched by them.
Today, in honour of Mary Jo’s 80th birthday, we give thanks for God’s tending and nurturing – for sustaining her throughout these 80 years – and especially in enabling her ministry among the people of this parish.
Let us bless the Lord! Thanks be to God!
Sister Susan CSC