The Venerable Ronald Harrison
Slideshow image

Proper 20

Readings: Eph 5:15-20; John 6:51-58;  1Kgs 2:10-12, 3:3-14; Ps 111

In Ephesians today we receive this advice, strong enough to be a warning: Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”

Despite modern communication and widespread access to education, some may be naïve enough to believe that progress is always a good thing.  But Ignorance, hatred, envy, maliciousness, carelessness, stupidity and selfishness abound in the human condition and these forces can subvert good discoveries.  In short, evil is a reality with which each generation must contend.  Christians of the first century and those of us here today are no different in that respect. The wisdom of King Solomon is as necessary now as ever.  Many millions still live in poverty, fear and violence. The evils of our societies, intentional and unintentional, are fast destroying the ecology, the health of this planet, and not enough is being done to change this trend.

A television documentary entitled “The Truth is in the Stars” (2017) and hosted by Canadian actor, William Shatner, famous for Star Trek, showed him sitting on a rock on a Vancouver beach with David Suzuki discussing this calamity; Suzuki admitted that he realized to his horror about ten years ago that the acceleration of environmental change and global warming was much swifter than he had predicted many years before.

Newfoundland-born Gwynne Dyer, a syndicated columnist and author, often reflects that the rapid destruction of our environment is the most pressing evil facing humankind today. He goes into detail on the scientific data but concludes that this is leading to more than discomfort; rather, with food a key issue, as warming depresses productivity and turns whole regions into desert, mass starvation is imaginable…. He writes, “It’s also still possible that we will react fast enough to stop well short of mass death. When dealing with the future, you can only deal in probabilities, and even those are very slippery.  The situation is already quite grim.”

So, evil is very much a force on the planet.  Strategies do exist for international cooperation and the finding of creative solutions; the counter to this is that some prominent leaders and countries dismiss the whole question and take a separate path.

What do we do, besides wringing our hands or crying like a Cassandra as Troy burns?  The author of Ephesians advises us to “…be filled with the Spirit”.  To embrace the Creator in our hearts, and to live positive lives bound together as a body, as the Body of Christ, as the Church, which can nourish us in healthy ways and send us out to be agents of love, joy and peace in the world.

For many in our world, the Church militant here on earth is just a club.  At a superficial level, the Church does appear as any other club or society.  There are canons of governance, people attend from time to time, perhaps giving of their substance, and may or may not participate beyond worship. 

Even our language can mask our true purpose: the primary sacrament of the Church is Baptism, and baptism is described as initiation.  That sounds suspiciously like joining a sorority or a secret society of some sort.  The theology of St. Paul dispels this gentle thought, for he sees baptism as drowning to the old self, the self subjected to the control of evil, and the rising out of the waters of baptism to embrace the new life in Christ, and to be embraced by the One who died and rose again.

The powerful Gospel message in John today is familiar yet mysterious; after Jesus says “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  Then this startling interpretation that takes the literal into the sacramental: Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  Very few sayings of Jesus have been so controversial, and at times the trigger of violence and misunderstandings.

But the sacraments of baptism and eucharist are bound together as one: both are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace, the kind of inner spiritual awakening intended in the Ephesians passage.  They represent a radical transformation, a turning away from evil and an embracing the good in the very being of Jesus Christ the risen Lord.  To be in communion is to be nourished and strengthened to fulfil our mission as a Church and as human beings. In communion means to be incorporated, from the Latin corpus, meaning “body”; we become the body of Christ in the world because we are incorporated into his body.  Our lives should mean something, in so many ordinary ways.  A person of hope, of faithfulness, can inspire those around them, encouraging us all to make positive choices, to embrace the spiritual realities of faith so that we act in wisdom and care in daily life and witness.

I want to illustrate this with one example of such a person; this summer I read the memoirs of Violet Jessop, unknown until published in 1997, by editor John Maxtone-Graham.  Violet was born in South America in 1887 to Irish parents.  She grew up in relative isolation and hardship, lost siblings to illness, suffered serious illness herself, and abuse personally from some locals, but was determined to get an education and to be useful to the world.  The family moved to England; with the father’s death, the mother had to support her poor family, so she went to sea in service.  When her Mom became ill, Violet quit her studies and went to sea in her mother’s wake.  From 1908 until the end of World War Two, she sailed the seas and had many adventures, finishing her career with retirement in 1950.  She died in her quiet country cottage in 1971.

Violet Jessop sailed with different companies, and White Star Line became her principal employer with a few interruptions.  She was in service on the Olympic for her maiden voyage, April 15, 1911; in June they collided with HMS Hawke, doing enough damage that she had to return to Belfast for repairs.  In April of 1912, Violet’s experience led her to the sister ship of the Olympic, the maiden voyage of the Titanic.  She was one of the last to find a spot in a lifeboat before the tragic end of that ship; as her boat was lowered, a sailor tossed her a bundle: it was a baby girl, and Violet protected that child throughout their ordeal.

Not to be deterred, Violet Jessop sailed again on the Olympic on June 5, 1912 as World War One drew near; when the battleship HMS Audacious was sinking, the Olympic was on the scene to lower her boats and rescue the sailors.  Violet was one of the crew who nursed the injured.

Nov. 12, 1916, Violet sailed as a nurse’s aide on the Britannic hospital ship, another sister ship to Titanic and Olympic; like the Titanic, she went to the bottom, after hitting German mines.  Violet survived but was tossed in the water and suffered life-threatening injuries.  But after convalescence, she recovered…and went back to sea.

On one of her adventures, after many decades, she was able to visit her childhood home in South America.  She wrote this: “I had mixed feelings about the trip. I knew that returning to places after time and separation have changed one’s perspective, is sometimes joyful but more often sad. … Yet I felt a thrill to be revisiting my childhood’s home…this elation sobered down when I realized for the first time that a place is everything or nothing if it holds or lacks the presence of those who give home a meaning.” – page 86 Violet Jessop: Titanic Survivor

That final line was insightful: “…I realized for the first time that a place is everything or nothing if it holds or lacks the presence of those who give home a meaning.”

I believe that is true for us all.  In a long life, most of us have had many different homes and connections and experiences with people near and far.  But what matters most is not the place but the people.  The relationships. 

Just a reminder that while buildings matter, the Church is not the building primarily, but those who call it home relate to each other in Christ in and through it, for we always need a place of gathering; breaking bread, sharing common concerns and loyalties, before being sent out to love and serve Christ in the world.  That power of the Spirit is what strengthens the Body for service in a world where evil and imperfection exist, and yet a world loved and created by God, and our mortal home for the duration. We are called to exercise wisdom in it through the grace of the Holy Spirit.