Warm-up Question: What makes a “modern day saint”?
Nobel Peace Laureate,
Christian celebrity, and a person on the fast-track to sanctification in
the Catholic Church — all of these characteristics describe one woman, Mother Teresa.
For many people, she is the greatest example for someone who lived a
truly Christian life. Now, with the publication of a new book, a few
dissenting voices that have been calling her a fraud all along have
become prominent again.
Mother Teresa was born
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Macedonia to parents who were of Albanian
descent. At the age of eighteen, she left home and joined the Sisters of
Loreto who ran missions in India. As a nun, she first taught at a high
school in Calcutta. Seventeen years later, in 1948, she received
permission to devote herself to the care of the dying in the slums of
Calcutta. She started her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, and
won support of her cause all over the world. Mother Teresa’s work has
been praised by church leaders and ordinary people alike. In 1979, she
won the Nobel Peace Price.
Critics of Mother
Teresa have always pointed out that she represented the most
fundamentalist views of Catholicism. She condemned abortion and divorce,
for example, even in cases of abuse. Her critics also questioned her
order’s fundraising methods and her verbal support of dictators such as
the Duvalier family of Haiti who donated money to her cause. They also
pointed out that, in their opinion, her display of poverty was a show
and that, when it came to her own health treatment, she went to
hospitals in Western Europe and the United States, not to the hospital
run by her order.
While her previous
critics did not have much of an audience, a different kind of evidence
has now surfaced that could damage Mother Teresa’s image of a saintly
human being. It appears that Mother Teresa, after beginning her work
with the poor in Calcutta, lost her faith. For almost 50 years, with the
exception of a few weeks, she did not feel the presence of God in her
heart or when receiving the Eucharist. In one of her letters to her
confessor she wrote: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me,
the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see,
listen and do not hear.”
The people who
compiled this and similar letters in “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light”
want to show that the perceived absence of God can still be a divine
gift that enables people to do saintly works. Yet, Mother Teresa’s
critics and others ask why she was able to smile and talk about the
presence of God in the world if she herself felt nothing but darkness
Could it be that
one of the greatest women among us was actually one of the lowliest? Or
does one of Mother Teresa’s most quoted sentences ring especially true
for her own life: “I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness.”
- Do you think that Mother Teresa will
be considered more or less of a Christian in the eyes of the world when
people find out that she felt further away from God than most of us?
- How can someone who doubts the existence of God still do good works in God’s name?
- Which do you think is better: to
act like a Christian but be a non-believer, or to believe and not act
according to your faith? Why?
- Should charities accept
donations from unethical or questionable sources, even if they use that
money for a good cause? What would be some examples that you’re aware
of? (e.g., tobacco company money being used for health care projects,
social ministry program accepting gambling money, etc.)
- Describe a time or experience in
your life when God felt close, and a time when God felt distant or not
there at all? What or who helped you during these experiences?
- What should people do who work for the church but feel that they have (temporarily) lost their faith?
Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 2, 2008.
(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser.
Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of
readings for Year A at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
Our text from the Gospel of Matthew
is part of a longer speech by Jesus preached against the scribes and the
Pharisees. It leads into a symbolic action by Jesus who leaves the
temple in order to show that it is doomed.
Matthew 23 has been called “the
unloveliest chapter in the Gospel” because it portrays the Pharisees and
scribes in the most negative way possible. The experience of the
Holocaust has taught us that this chapter contributed to anti-Jewish
sentiments among Christians. Even in modern languages, “Pharisee” is
often synonymous with “hypocrite”. This is why we should approach this
text carefully and without preconceived notions about Judaism then and
But our Gospel text is not so much
about what others do wrong and what we do right. Instead, it asks for
humility and a focus on Christ. Most of us are talented and gifted
people, in one area or another. These gifts should be celebrated and
used, for sure. But we often want to use our gifts and talents to show
the world that we are someone special; we want our 15 minutes of fame.
We want to be the fastest, or the prettiest, or the most talented, or
the most watched video on Youtube, or the best in something. But we
should remember that there is only one teacher, only one master, only
one leader, and only one Savior — Jesus Christ. Knowing and accepting
this can lead us to use all of our wonderful gifts and talents for the
benefit of others; not to put ourselves on a pedestal, but to be God’s
hands in the world.
The Jesus who is “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29)
thus becomes our model for a truly Christian life. Matthew imagines the
community comprised of Jesus’ followers to be one that does not have
hierarchies. Instead, it should be a community of equality among sisters
and brothers who serve each other as well as people outside of the
community. This type of community can prosper and live together through
difficult times. Among people who are truly sisters and brothers, times
of personal trial can be survived because when one member is weak,
others can be strong for them.
- Who do you consider to be a great example for the Christian faith?
- Is there a group of people you know of who live out their Christian faith in better ways than others?
- Who are they and what do they do?
- What would a church look like, in which the principles from Matthew 23 are followed closely?
- Discuss the practicality of the vision for the Christian community in Matthew 23.
- Psalms about a distant God
Book of Psalms preserves many voices that complain about a distant God
or ask God to come near once again. Read in small groups or together
some examples for such texts: Psalm 43, Psalm 42, or Psalm 22:1-20.
Then, ask your students to write a “modern psalm” that talks about what
somebody might experience who feels that God has left him or her.
- A modern day saint
students into small groups of two or three and ask them to develop a
schedule for someone who they consider a modern day saint. What would
their day or their week look like? Have a few sheets of paper ready with
an outline of a person drawn on them. Students can write the schedules
in or around that outline, or decorate it to show what a modern day
saint might look like. Display the sheets and discuss the results in the
- Love letters
Teresa is reported to have said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a
writing God who writes a love letter to the world,” and “We are all
pencils in the hand of God.” Ask your students to write, from the
perspective of God, a love letter to the world. What do they think would
God want to say to God’s people in our modern world? You can make this
task more memorable if you get pencils with scripture verses printed on
them that students can take home after today’s lesson.
Dear God, there are times when we
feel that you are close to us. In those times, it is easy for us to do
your will and to be a follower of you and your son. But there are also
times when you feel so far away. We ask you to give us a strong
community and a few “modern day saints” in our lives that will support
us when we feel left alone by you. And give us the strength to return
the favor and care for others when they need it. Amen
Contributed by Pastor Claudia Bergmann