A Sermon from Joanna Manning
In the spring of 2008, I met Julia Esquivel, whose poem we have just heard. I was in my first year of training for ordination and I had got permission to do part of my internship at the church in Santa Maria del Quiche, high up in the mountains of Guatemala. I was working with the Reverend Emilie Smith, a priest from the Vancouver Diocese, who had established a partnership with Mayan women to run a shared ministry in the area.
Julia Esquivel was Emilie’s spiritual director, so Emilie took me to Guatemala City on one occasion to meet her. What an honour to stand in the presence of such a courageous woman who had been such a key figure in the resistance to the brutal military occupation. Esquivel had received numerous death threats when she spoke out against the massacre of the Mayan people by the Guatemalan military and spent much of her life in exile from, as she write in the poem:
who place the law above life;
the institution above humanity; the personal project above truth;
fear above love: and ambition above humility.
One evening shortly after I’d arrived in Santa Cruz, Emilie invited some of the leaders of the Mayan Women’s movement over, and she asked me to introduce myself. When I mentioned I was from Canada, I was expecting the usual polite pleasantries about how nice Canadians are because we’re not like the Americans and that kind of thing. But instead I got the dressing down of my life.
The woman sitting next to me turned to me with a look of horror on her face that I will never forget. “CANADA?? she said. CANADA??? You Canadians are the worst! You’re worse than the Americans; you’re even worse than the conquistadores who colonized us first. YOU are the country that sends us companies like Barrick Gold to dispossess us of our lands, and rape and ruin our environment. “
Phew! This was a moment of conversion for me on a number of different levels. Like Paul on the way to Damascus, this had knocked me off my high horse of complacency. By the time my curacy in Guatemala was complete this flash of light had morphed into a conviction that that the ministry that awaited me in Toronto after ordination would be pastoral, yes, but also prophetic in a city and a church where financial investments did not always feature prominently on the social justice agenda.
So when I came back to Canada, I requested a curacy placement in one of the most affluent parishes in the city. Perhaps there I would have the courage to preach a message of challenge and change as well as comfort. So shortly after I had arrived there, I mounted the steps of the pulpit and recounted the story of what this experience in Guatemala in a Sunday sermon. I used it as a backdrop to invite the congregation to examine their investments in the light of a prophetic call to include finances and investments as part of the Christian’s mission in the world and to take into account the trail of blood, violence and environmental devastation that undergirds so much of the Canadian economy….
Well, a very indignant couple stood up with a flourish and walked out before I had gone very much further. Was I ever reminded of the rich young man who came to Jesus… His response, too, had been to walk away from an economic challenge..
But after the service was over, two other women came up to me and said: ‘what shall we do? When our husbands died, they left us their investments and some of them are in gold?’ For these two widows, this had been a moment of conversion, a call to follow Jesus more closely by disinvesting themselves of economic resources that were directly connected to oppressive practices.
There are several themes in today’s gospel, and one of them is about money. At first sight, Judas’ critique of Mary’s extravagant breakage of a jar of expensive perfume seems perfectly reasonable. There is a sumptuousness about this gift that on the surface does make it look like a terrible waste. But there is a twist to this story, and it’s about Judas. The evangelist makes it very clear that Judas, the banker and custodian of the disciples’ money, is actually fleecing them on the side. Again, on the surface, his remark about selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor makes perfect sense. After all, didn’t Jesus himself tell the rich young man to go sell all you have, and then come follow me. But the evangelist is very clear on the point that this statement of Judas’ was a cover up for his crimes.
But isn’t Judas’ behaviour just like the reactions today of so many politicians and others on corporate payrolls? They enjoy enormous payouts from investors and others while refusing to raise the minimum wage for their workers who are struggling to make living. Or governments who deny decent pay raises to nurses and others who have held the frontline during the pandemic. Just like Judas, they steal from a common purse that should be shared amongst everyone.
As many of you know, I was a teacher for many years. There used to be an organization in the Roman Catholic School system called ‘Teachers for Social Justice’ which I belonged to. We used to provide curriculum resources for teachers that called in question the values and the goals of an education that simply prepared students to fit into the economic and social system as is, rather than calling into question practices that were stacked against the poor.
Well eventually most of us retired and started to benefit from pensions drawn from our well-endowed teacher pension fund. Hmm – yes. So we decided to continue our advocacy for just investment practices at the annual Teachers’ Pension Fund Shareholders Meeting. Aaah…! It was there that we came up against the impregnable wall called ‘fiduciary responsibility.’ The administrators of the Pension Fund told us in no uncertain terms that they had a fiduciary responsibility which legally binds them to invest our funds in shares that would yield the highest possible returns. If we were to change that, we would have to get the law changed. But what about a fiduciary responsibility of us teachers to future generations of young people?
End of story? Not quite. We did sow a seed at those meetings has now resulted in the adoption of measures to set a goal of shielding Pension Fund investments from companies like Barrick Gold that are engaged in illegal or unsustainable practices.
But there’s also another paradoxical twist in this gospel story. When Jesus hears Jesus carping about the wast of the precious oil, he tells Judas to leave her alone. “The poor you have always with you,” says Jesus. Oh dear oh dear! This single sentence has provided all kinds of weasel words and excuses for Christians to delay or neglect to give to give money or goods to the poor. It’s been cherry-picked from the source by many, many commentators who will preach that Jesus believed that poverty was just a fact of life as we know it, and so we’re absolved from working to address systemic injustice or economic inequality.
But in fact Jesus’ response is a direct quote from the Book of Deuteronomy. Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar with what is written in Deuteronomy Chapter 15, and I quote: “But the poor you will always have with you. Therefore I command you: you shall open wide your hand to the needy and the poor in the land.”
So Jesus’ defence of Mary’s extravagance is a way of teaching his followers that they have a ‘fiduciary responsibility to lavish good things on the poor.To those whom so many of even our friends and families might label welfare cheats or undeserving addicts of one kind or another. We have a fiduciary responsibility to the teachings of Jesus: to witness to our faith in our economic practices as gospel values like any others.
I feel so proud today, as we re-enter this wonderful church again. I am so grateful that the ministry of Holy Trinity in the midst of this city has been maintained all through the past two years through the courage of those who have served the poor and needy at great personal cost during the months of lock down, and freezing weather. They have followed the call of Jesus to practice a fiduciary responsibility on our behalf to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
So here we are today, in person and virtually, gathering courage and support as we enter this new phase in the history of Holy Trinity. The courage to act against the advice of those who occupy the towers of Mammon that surround us: “who place the law above life; the institutions above humanity; their personal projects love truth; their fear above love and their ambition above humility.”
But, in words of Esquivel at the end of the poem: what should Holy Trinity be now, but “ a red coal lighted by the fire of a great love, a burning bush that is never consumed.” Amen.
Reading from Julia Esquivel – I AM NOT POSSESSED!
(Dedicated to the many valiant women of my Guatemala)
I am not possessed
I am not crazy
obsessed with an idea.
I am simply a woman
with a human heart.
I am a rebel
when faced with the cold and calculated
correctness of a bureaucrat.
He who is always bound
by the limits of “the correct”
“the objective’ and “the prudent”
of an always-neutral balance.
The one who avoids taking risks
for the sake of his office
and his prestige.
I am the possessor of
(not possessed by)
the normality of a woman
who rejects and always will reject
the disorder constituted
all of them potential generals.
By all those
who place the law
the personal project
But I must admit
to those obsessed
with such criteria,
I am a red hot coal
lighted by the fire
of a great love.
Sisters and brothers,
Do you know the story
of the burning bush
that was never consumed?
Reading from Gospel According to John
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the
dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her
hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples (the one who was about to betray Jesus), said, “Why was this
perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this, not
because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to
steal what was put into it.)
Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”