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Fr Duncan’s Sermon – 30th Sunday (Year C)

One of the great things about being in an Anglican is the fact that we have the use of a lectionary. This is the cycle of readings that cover every single day of the year and tell us what to read. It is so helpful because it usually themes readings and helps us make links between the Old and New Testaments. If you don’t have access to one and would like to give it a try then I would thoroughly recommend the one we use here; do ask for more details.

Sometimes it is hard to find the theme of the readings, and sometimes it is easy. Today is one of the easier days I am pleased to say. But before we speak about the meaning of the texts, I wonder how many of you noticed that our first reading was the source of great debate and controversy. Well, not the specific reading to be exact, but the book from which it is taken.

Ecclesiasticus is part of what we Anglicans call the Apocrypha. We don’t often hear readings from it at Mass, and I thought it might be interesting to explore why. You may remember a couple of weeks ago I spoke of the origins of our texts. There were hundreds of different texts being used in different churches throughout the Christian world.

Origen of Alexandria, commented on this in his writings. He was a great scholar and theologian who was born in Alexandria in Egypt, but travelled extensively through the area we now know as the Holy Land. He died in Tyre, which is in Lebanon, north of modern-day Palestine. Origen is an amazing character to learn about and there is much I could say here, but I don’t have time and must not stray from my point. If you don’t know who he is, please have a look at him and his life online, or come and read some of those books downstairs in the library next to my office! Points will be awarded to those of you who can tell me what Origen’s greatest contribution to the Christian faith is. It is a legacy that ultimately caused great debate and change.

Anyway, Origen noticed that some of the writings he encountered as he journeyed were of, as he put it, were of questionable value. He used the word ἀποκρύφοις apocrophois to describe these texts. One of the problems of course is understanding what he meant by this word. In Origen’s time, the word almost certainly meant “secret” or “hidden” and it was used to describe works that were considered so profoundly divine that they should be kept from those who were not holy enough to see them.

But Origen seems to use the word differently, he describes a body of texts which he believes are questionable in terms of authenticity and meaning. One of the most interesting legacies of Origen’s views on the Bible are the books that very nearly didn’t make it in. Songs of Songs, or the Wisdom of Solomon, which I think is the most stunningly beautiful text in the Bible, was actually nearly excluded because Origen considered it may be against the true faith. It is basically about love and sex, so it’s good to know that this caused as many arguments 2000 years ago as it does know!

Because of the work of scholars like Origen, and subsequently Tertullian and Clement who developed Origen’s ideas, the word apocrophois, or as we say, Apocrypha came to be re-defined as meaning of doubtful origin, or obscure in meaning. This mattered, because these were the times when there was great turmoil in the church as it began to develop doctrines based on scriptures. So, you can understand why agreement on which scriptures were holy and true was much debated.

Over time the word canon came into usage. It describes the body of the core texts which form the Bible. After Origen, Tertullian, Clement and others had wrestled with the issues; the Bishops of the early church weighed in and met to agree once and for all on what should be included. This was the Council of Rome, and it took place in 382. It agreed a list of books which formed the catholic, or universal Bible.

However, various schisms have occurred along the way and the one that affects us today is the Reformation. In the years leading up to the Reformation there was again much turmoil in the church and disagreement about which books should be considered as core texts. The bishops had another big meeting, this time The Council of Trent, in 1546 and re-affirmed the scriptures they considered to be canonical. And this was when things began to drift. The re-formers wanted change and rejected the texts they did not consider to be authentic. And that is when Protestant Bibles began to be published.

Nowadays, the Anglican church, famous for its desire to find a via media, a middle way, to bridge the gap if you like, chooses to identify these texts as being worthy of study and inspired by God. They do not form part of our core texts, but they occasionally appear in our lectionary. And that is what where we find our first lesson today which is from Ecclesiasticus. Just to confuse us, the Roman Church call this book Sirach, because the author of the text is accredited as Ben Sira, hence Sirach.

The book is very similar in its content and layout to the Book of Proverbs. It belongs to a body of work we refer to as the Wisdom texts. Wisdom is a very interesting concept in the Old Testament. Wisdom was often personified, and usually in the female form. This is fascinating as we so often think of women in Old Testament times as housewives and mothers, yet some of our greatest texts point to Wisdom as feminine, divinely inspired, and teaching on the issues of the day.

In our text from Ecclesiasticus we are told:

12 Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford. For the Lord is the one who repays, and he will repay you sevenfold.

Compare this to the message we hear in our Gospel. Last week in our reading, you may remember that Jesus used the image of the persistent widow to describe faith.

He goes straight on to teach the same group of people about their responsibility. 2 men, 1 a tax collector the other a Pharisee go to pray. The Pharisee is a pious man, he follows the law, takes care to maintain his ritual cleanliness and fasts twice a week. He gives thanks that he has possessions and money and gives a 10th of his income. But the tax collector is too ashamed to enter the temple. He beats his chest and tries to repent for his sinful behaviour.

Jesus tells his followers that it is the tax collector who is justified because

all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Compare these messages from Sirach and Luke. Do they say the same thing? The proverb tells us that when we give to God as he has given to us, God will repay us sevenfold. Surely that is what the Pharisee is doing? He tithes his income, he follows the law? Yet the sinful tax collector seems to come out better.

You see, none of us can live a truly pious life. We are all sinners, no matter how hard we try not to be. But the often overly simplistic message of the Old Testament times got the Jews into a lot of bother. God isn’t binary; it isn’t as simple as giving your money and doing good deeds or facing divine punishment. It is God’s will for us that we should follow him unconditionally and this begins with our hearts. When we open them to God, we realise that nothing is too difficult for him. The deep shame and pain so many of us feel, as well as the feelings of being better than the poor, the needy, the uneducated, the vanity of mind and body, the abuse of ourselves and others, these are the things that we need to face up to. The tax collector opened his heart to God humbly and honestly. He was so broken, he couldn’t even raise up his eyes to heaven.

We have the opportunity to meet God in a number of ways. But being open and honest about our failings and seeking God’s forgiveness is hard. If you are feeling happy and comfortable in your Christian faith, then you need to do a bit of work and examine your hearts. Try to live in a cycle of grace. Take time everyday to consider your actions and the impact you have on others. Be a little more humble, forgive as you are forgiven, and meet God in Word and Sacrament.

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