Aug 22 | “Every meal shared,” (Sermon, August 22nd 2021)

On Wednesday August 18th, Muslims around the world observed the day of Ashura. Ashura is celebrated differently between the Sunni and Shia Muslim communities. For Sunnis, the day commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh, and therefore stands for deliverance, primarily from oppression but also in more thematic ways – some also mark it as the day of the Prophet Jonah’s deliverance from the fish.

For Shia Muslims, it is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet, and seventy-two of his friends and family members, at the hands of the Umayyad caliphate in the city of Karbala in Iraq.

I’m on a private WhatsApp group made up of followers and friends of a Turkish Sufi teacher, and at each festival there are always a flurry of posts offering good wishes and reflections – Wednesday was no exception. My friend Shirin, quoting Muzaffer Ozak al Jerrahi as translated by Muhtar Holland, wrote, “Outwardly [Ashura] is a day of misfortune, [but] it is in reality the day that marks the sacrifice made by Imam Husayn in order to teach the community not to obey tyrant or tyranny and, if need be, to offer one’s life in this cause.”

Later that day, my friend Omid Safi, a professor at Duke University, wrote the following,

“How could a religion of justice and mercy have gone so wrong, so quickly? How did the Muslim community go from lovingly gathering around Muhammad to killing his precious grandchildren in less than two generations? And if we are to understand the full meaning of this cosmically significant event, how could the Muslim today kill today’s Hussain? How could the religion of love and justice and mercy be used so savagely in the hands of those for whom it is but a means of domination, violence, and tyranny?”

This hits me hard as a Christian these days. I have all the same questions.

Omid goes on to say, There are events in world history where the significance of what takes place far outstrips its mere historicity. A first-century Palestinian Jew, the son of a carpenter, is hung between two thieves at the behest of Roman authorities, and today over a billion Christians see the crucifixion of Christ as the ultimate symbol of God’s deliverance of humanity from sin. …In all such cases…these events become a symbol, a map, of something fundamental about the nature of universe: that there is sin and it must be redeemed…and that there is injustice and one has the cosmic responsibility to rise up against it. …Christians look not back at the crucifixion of Jesus, but see that act of redemption as shaping their lives here and now. …This is the power of religious imagination, which makes every place a sacred place, and every day a sacred time.”

Omid then references a famous quote:

“Every day is Ashura.
Every place is Karbala.”

I found this reflection so poignant after our discussion last week as we, in the grand tradition of the greatest sages and the unlettered beloveds of God, grappled with the problem of evil.

Jesus explains again to the crowd that the only way they can inherit eternal life is by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This is disturbing enough, but something that doesn’t come through in the English translation is that the word used for “eating” here is different than the one used in the verses we read last week. The word contains violence – one scholar I consulted said it was better translated as “chomping” or “crunching.” YIKES. If we were tempted to avoid the ick factor by imagining a warm, pillowy soft loaf of bread, Jesus never lets us off the hook.

It’s even worse than that, though. Back then, most ancient peoples, and particularly the ancient Jews, believed that blood was the source of life, and therefore belonged to God alone. To consume it was to seek to be, in a sense, like God. It was more than barbaric – it was blasphemous. Remember as well that while we immediately hear Eucharistic overtones in this passage, in the Gospel the Eucharist hasn’t happened yet. This beloved Teacher just suddenly starts talking cannibalism.

Wouldn’t you turn back too?

You can see added nuance in a couple of other phrases: when the crowd says, “This teaching is difficult,” in Greek they’re actually saying, “This Logos is difficult,” a beautiful play on words, because of course Jesus IS the Logos in John.

Likewise when Jesus says, “Does this offend you?” We tend to ascribe a lot of baggage to the word “offend,” especially today. The Greek word skandolizomai is used extensively in the other Gospels, and tends to be translated “stumble,” or “fall away.” It’s used by Matthew in the verse about tearing out an eye if it causes one to stumble, and in Mark’s Parable of the Sower to refer to the one whose faith has no root. There’s a richness here that implies both offense at blasphemy and confusion at Jesus’s words.

But this is directly tied to the same confusion that even his closest disciples, the ones who don’t turn away, experience when Jesus is crucified. Jesus says: ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ Ascension is a direct reference to the Cross, something Jesus alludes to constantly in the Fourth Gospel.

If you can’t handle the idea of eating my flesh and drinking my blood to gain life, how could you possibly understand what I’m about to do?

And do we even understand? So many Christians believe that Jesus had to be crucified because God could only enact salvation through a sinless being. This is one understanding of what happened on the Cross, but it is not the only one. It’s not even the only biblical one. It’s a re-imagining of the scapegoat myth, an ancient belief that we can only be saved by piling our sins and self-hatred onto a sacrificial lamb who will be driven out of the community, thereby cleansing us.

Why is this so often the story of humanity, the sacrifice of innocent lives to a tyrannical or, at best, apathetic God who might as well have fallen asleep or wandered off somewhere, like Joan Osbourne’s lonely “stranger on a bus”?

But that’s the thing. God entered into loneliness to know ours better. Jesus learns hunger and responds by feeding us. Jesus learns trauma to be with us in our trauma. Jesus, like a mother, offers food from his own body to nourish us. This also is stated quite explicitly by John – why else do you think he is so intent on explaining that, at the piercing of Jesus’s side, blood and water, the elements of birth, both pour forth?

Image description: Me, a white person with wide-rimmed glasses and a buzz-cut, wearing a white alb and colourful stole, offering the bread of the Eucharist to a communicant. Photo taken at my first Eucharist (as priest) by Adele Wonnick

Through all of this, God shows us, unequivocally, that They are on our side. They love us so much, that they refuse to only accept us at our best. Indeed, They clothe themselves with our most beautiful – our flesh, our feeding, our justice-seeking, and our yearning for relationship – and yet also accept our most horrific – our rejection, our hatred, our betrayal, and our violence – and not only embody that which is most beautiful but redeem that which is most ugly.

John shows us this in the resurrected Jesus’s return breathing peace with scarred hands and side. We are not to forget what we’ve done, but we are forgiven and then commissioned to embody the same self-giving love and prophetic stance against oppression wherever it is enacted against others.

Every day, we have the chance to remember Jesus’s call to enter into communion with him, not just through the precious ritual of our sacred meal, but through the everyday struggle of trying to leave more peace, more love, more good in the world. And it is a struggle. This is what Muslims mean when they talk about jihad: the struggle between the part of us that would rather be borne along the river of despair and violence and the part of us that seeks to carry the torch of self-giving love, what Sufis call ishq, a love like a purifying fire.

If for our Muslim friends “Every day is Ashura. Every place is Karbala,” for us, beloved of Jesus, “Every Sunday is Easter, and every meal shared in love with others, is the Eucharist.”

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