Today’s gospel reading represents an ongoing challenge to all who claim to love God and to care for the human family. The tale of the widow whose gift was small in monetary terms but whose generosity was as large as the ocean is set in the final week of Jesus’ ministry, just a few days before his death. He is engaged in theological discussion with temple scholars who want to debate the nature of life beyond death. Jesus’ adversaries are too engrossed in theological debate to even notice this needy woman. As if to make their blindness even more graphic earlier in the chapter Mark describes their agreement that love of neighbour is the glue that holds life together and the proper human expression of love for God. Jesus’ criticism of those known for their long prayers and their disregard for the needs of the poor is strong and compelling. Little wonder that a few days later the privileged, the powerful and the scholarly of Jerusalem shouted out in favour of his death.
The significance of the story for us becomes apparent only if we are willing to ‘cross over’ into the words and challenge of Jesus and then in returning to our own life ask if this might be a story about us - so caught up in our own search for comfort or our own preoccupation with intellectual discussion that we fail to notice those who, like this woman, have been swept to the margins of society. Perhaps they are people from whom we might learn- but only if we have the courage to ‘cross over’ into their world, to feel their pain and appreciate their wisdom and experience.
‘Crossing over’ into the world of others, whether it is the world of Jesus or of the needy in our own community or of those who believe differently, is a much-needed capacity if we are to live together as a caring and compassionate human family. ‘Crossing over’ into the experiences, cultures and religions of others and then returning home with new questions, fresh visions and expanded wisdom is perhaps the most truly ‘spiritual’ capacity we can develop as part of our following of the Jesus way and the deepening of our contribution to the healing of our broken world.
Our developing capacity to ‘cross over’ into the worlds of our neighbours and into the wisdom that nourishes them is at the heart of the ‘St Luke’s inter faith adventure.’ Over two years a significant number of us have gone on ‘pilgrimages into our neighbour’s worlds.’ We are seeking to move beyond the sort of ‘them/us’, ‘we’re right/they’re misguided’ thinking and acting we inherited from our churchly ancestors. Each time we gather in cross religious settings it’s as though we are declaring that we will no longer live in the boxes of believing and living that have for too long kept us apart from traditions and neighbours who have wisdom and experience to share for the building of the justice shaped, peace loving and generous world we have learned in the Jesus tradition to describe as the ‘God-Kingdom.’
Catholic theologian John S Dunne wrote in 1972: “Is a religion coming to birth in our time? What seems to be occurring is a phenomena we might call ‘passing over’, passing over from one culture to another, from one religion to another. Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another way, another culture or religion. It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back’, coming back with new insights into one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion…passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.” Inherited exclusive and excluding ways of living will not suffice if we are to build a genuinely humane future. We must share the wisdom each of the great religious traditions holds in trust for the healing of the world. This is among the great evolutionary tasks of our time. Through our St Luke’s inter- faith pilgrimages we are part of Dunne’s ‘great spiritual adventure of our time.’
Last year we went on pilgrimages into the worlds of our Jewish and Muslim neighbours; this year into the worlds of our Hindu and Zen Buddhist neighbours. Next year we will pilgrim into the worlds of our Sikh and Sufi neighbours. We are not trying to be experts in the religions of the world. We simply believe that we learn through meeting and befriending. Books may help but the primary mode of learning is through meeting, experiencing, receiving, sharing, eating and praying.
The essence of a pilgrimage is that it provides opportunity to think new thoughts, question old assumptions, expand our spirits, hear and ponder different stories, discuss new possibilities. As those who have been on pilgrimage to holy places, like Mecca, Jerusalem or the holy cities along the Ganges know, the experience can change us. All these things have happened for us on our local pilgrimages. Each pilgrimage follows a three- step process. First we prepare for pilgrimage. A person or group from the community into whose world we will enter helps us to appreciate what it means to live within their faith-world. The second step is to experience the world of our neighbour as we visit their temple, centre, mosque or synagogue and participate in worship or other central event. We need guides on this part of our pilgrimage for our knowledge of our neighbour’s world is limited, we easily feel out of place and there are plenty of surprises on the way. The third step is when we gather for reflection on our pilgrimage. This is not a time for criticism of others but rather to share what we have learned from our neighbours, what wisdom we have received, what new insights seek to be grafted into our existing faith and practice.
An aim of our pilgrimages is to grow ‘friendship in the presence of difference.’ It’s another of those essential capacities if the human family is to have a worthwhile future. There is much that the great and enduring faiths have in common and it is always encouraging when we are able to name attitudes and convictions we share. But difference need not be denied. Indeed, the greatest learning takes place when we name and explore our differences seeking as best we can to enter into them and explore them together. There is a Sufi saying: ‘You may follow one stream. Know that it leads to the Ocean, but do not mistake the stream for the Ocean.’ Jesus and the pathways he pioneered represent for Christians ‘the way, the truth and the life’ a stream of wisdom and a pathway into the future we believe to be of universal significance but that in no way denies the truth within other expressions of faith. They and we are parts of the same ocean. When we say Jesus is our truth we need not imply that other ways are untruth. Jesus is true for Christians in the sense that the way he pioneered is embedded in our very being, the standard against which all of life is measured, the rock on which we stand. In a similar way the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed and other spiritual leaders are true for those embedded in the pathways they pioneered and the traditions they generated.
The focus of our pilgrimages has been learning from the spiritual practice of others, helping us to further develop our own sensitivity to the presence of God in all we do and are. We have touched the edges of the Jewish respect for the Torah and for the presence of God who cannot be named. We have experienced and heard of the spiritual disciplines that sustain Muslim trust in Allah the merciful. We have experienced the silence of Zen meditation and been immersed in the silence that in some traditions is called ‘God’. We have been surrounded by the vibrant colour of Hindu deities, each one a doorway, an icon, into the being of Brahma, underlying reality within and around all that is. As we have travelled into our neighbour’s worlds we have found ourselves on a pilgrimage into depths of Christian spirituality that are commonly ignored by the contemporary church. It is confirmation of the insight that inter- faith engagement is a doorway into the spiritual and theological renewal of the Christian faith. For me it has become a primary, perhaps the most important, doorway into Christian renewal and our rediscovery of the Jesus way.
And where does all this lead? Inter faith learning and friendship is no escape from the wounded and divided world that is our shared home. We are aware of communities destroyed by violence, of human induced climate change and the destruction of creation, of racism and sexism, a greed shaped economic system, injustice and hunger. People like the poor and marginalised woman referred to in today’s gospel reading are awaiting us as we return from pilgrimage into our neighbour’s world. There are three levels of inter- faith engagement. First is meeting together and acknowledging we are neighbours who belong together. The second is when we learn to share wisdom and learn from one another. The third is when we discover how we may work together in facing the problems of our world and our nation, applying and embodying the deepest wisdom we bring with us. Third level engagement still seems beyond our reach but it will come – and the world will be better for our ‘friendship in the presence of difference’ and our shared commitment to the healing of the world.
I will conclude by ‘crossing over’ once again into the story of the generous widow. The Scribes, Pharisees and other religious leaders apparently failed even to see her. They were lost in religious debates and dislike of Jesus and his counter cultural ways. While we learn from one another it would be a shame if we had to say to her and others she represents: “sorry we were so engrossed in arguments over the finer points of theology and religious practice that we never saw you.“ Perhaps the day will come when the religions of our world will rediscover our inner energy as together we reach out toward the marginalised, the damaged and the hurting. In such a day the love of justice, peace and harmony that brought each of our great faiths into being will be fulfilled and the vision that prompted Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, Jesus and the saints of the Hindu tradition will be enacted. Why not?