Windows of love – a funeral sermon

Our lives are like windows. Over the course of living, we evolve through at least three stages, like being three different kinds of windows.

Usually, the first half of our life is about being a stained glass window. We spend so much energy trying to get people to notice how exceptional we are. We want people to notice our beauty and see the intricacy, the colour, the ‘picture’ we want to show — how the glass is perfectly constructed, wonderfully arranged. Those closest to us — in family, friendships and work — admire and gaze upon the image we wish to project.

Then, life happens. Whether we like it or not, we can’t hold it all together. We can’t keep our loved ones from also seeing our cracks. So, we become like a cracked, dirty window pane. What people see, and what you show, are your wounds, your brokenness, your pain. When others see you they may want to ignore your dirt and pretend it is not there. They might instinctively try to ‘fix’ you. Or, they might get upset with you and even reject you.

Finally, we can become a clear window — transparent. We have nothing, really, to hide. We are who we are. In all our humanity we are not ashamed to reflect the truth in us — good and bad.

For people of faith, a large part of our identity is the gracious presence of God in us. The spirit of God, we say, “in Christ Jesus”. The divine presence who created us to be who we are shines through us and illumines the world.

Leonard Cohen’s Anthem verse again comes to mind: “There is a crack in everything ; there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And that’s how it gets out, I would add.

This is the transparent window of love. Despite the good, the bad and the ugly in our lives, we cannot deny God’s claim of love and presence within each of our hearts. Saint Paul wrote that we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10-12). This faith, then, can give us courage to be transparent, and communicate God’s love outward.

Whenever I visited Dorothy in her residence over the past few years, and prayed the familiar prayers of confession and thanksgiving ending with the Lord’s Prayer, she did something I haven’t often heard. Even in her steadily declining cognitive ability, she ended each of the prayers not with just one “Amen”, but three: “Amen. Amen. Amen.”

And this practice was consistent over time. It was instinctual for her, to assert the affirming words of prayer in this way. As if she were emphasizing that her connection with God — which is what prayer is all about — was more important than whatever was cracked in her life. “Amen. Amen. Amen” is an assertion of faith: Let it be!

Faith to see in oneself, and in others, the face of God. Faith to embrace the love of God even though, on the surface of things, you might feel undeserving or not very loving. Faith to see the crack as a way for God’s light to shine through your life.

A little known fact about Dorothy’s life of faith: Back in the late 1950s when St John Lutheran Church downtown was expanding its mission, the common desire was expressed to plant a church in Nepean. So Dorothy, along with several other members of St John, committed to this new effort to grow the church.

During a planning meeting the tiny group were deciding what to call this new congregation. Apparently, Dorothy was the first person to suggest “Faith” as the name of the congregation. And it stuck. Thanks to Dorothy, and God’s shining light within her and through her, we have now been identified as “Faith” Lutheran Church for over fifty years.

The community of faith is not a collection of perfect people. It is really an assembly of imperfect people trying to do the will of God. I read recently of a tradition faithfully employed by the native Navajo people of the south-western United States: When the crafters of the community knit their rugs, there is always and intentionally one clear imperfection woven into the pattern of the traditional rug. Not only is this done to remind one another of who they are as a unique community.

But whatever the irregular patterning or tiny hole in the rugs, they believe it is precisely there where the Spirit moves in and out of the rug! It is through the hole where the Spirit enters and moves and where the light shines through. Without the crack of imperfection, the presence of God would in truth be missed. It is the acknowledgement of the imperfection that creates the space for what will be good. (1)

As we remember Dorothy, let her life bear witness to the truth we all share in Christ Jesus. May our lives, like her’s, become transparent windows of love.


(1) Richard Rohr, “On the Threshold of Transformation” (Loyola Press, 2010), p.170

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From memory to presence

Whenever we suffer the stress of living, we naturally reach for ways of coping. Memory can be a healing salve. Not only remembering loved ones and friends from our past. But when it comes to observing traditions and special occasions — at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter for example — we bring the expectations of good times had long ago to bear on the moment.

Indeed, our memory of pleasant past experiences can even act as a narcotic for dealing with current challenges and stresses. We may make it a habit of escaping into our mind’s eye; we linger with a memory until we feel the peace.

While our memories are a key to understanding what is meaningful to us, we get stuck, however, in the rut of our problems if we try creating an exact imitation of the past. Escaping into the past isn’t always the best way for addressing present day problems. The path to healing and wholeness is not about making a simulation of past experiences.

I heard about a man who, in middle age, purchased a Harley-Davidson to try to live in the myth of the youthful, unfettered individual who is free to go anywhere at any time. He felt unsatisfied, however, after his solitary road-trips. Something was missing.

After more reflection, what he was remembering on a deeper level was the positive experience in his youth of the friends he made in a bike shop where he worked a job one summer. The meaning of memory was found in the relationships more so than the motor-cycles. He didn’t sell the Harley-Davidson. But he did inquire about local riding groups of folks his age. His interest shifted to making friends. (1)

Memories of past Christmases, Easters, friendships or treasured experiences can transform each new, present day moment. For example, a memory of a family bike ride on an Easter Monday decades ago can lead to a family train trek through the Rockies. A friendship born from intellectual and emotional stimulation long ago can lead to a rediscovery of a hobby or commitment to personal growth. What’s important is not to re-create the past, but to transform it so it’s meaningful for the present. Not simulation, but translation.

The point, is to recognize and accept the present moment as the most important time and place of our lives. Because even if we are not able to remember any good in our past, or remember anything at all for that matter, God is about the now.

In last week’s Gospel story about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-42), Jesus leaps beyond all boundaries of time to announce God’s intent for humanity is taking place in the present time. Three times in the passage, the words “already” and “now” highlight the importance of now. “Open your eyes and see!” Jesus says. “The fields are shining for the harvest, the reaper can collect his wages now, the reaper can already bring in the grain of eternal life” (v.35-36). Jesus is excited at the possibilities. Why? Partly because it is all happening now! (2)

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees are interested in formulations of the mind which rest on the past. The blind man provides a focus for their cerebral machinations; they want an explanation for his condition: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). A biblically sound question, since the Torah suggests that the “iniquity of the parents is visited upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-8).

Jesus avoids this kind of biblicism that seeks only to make historical, technical arguments that focus only on our righteousness or lack thereof. Jesus turns our sight away from ourselves and onto God’s work in the present. “We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day …” Jesus countered (v.4).

The purpose of our lives, including our suffering, is to point to God. If we are to remember anything from the past, it is to remember God’s mighty acts in relation to the people of God, including you and me. When the Psalmist delights in the past, his memory focuses on what God has done: “I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands” (Psalm 143:5).

God’s vision is expansive and eternal, abounding in steadfast love. Before talking about the iniquity imparted to the third and fourth generations, when the Lord spoke to Moses, he said first: “The Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7) — which is a lot longer than four!

And as we know, generations ago the world was a lot different than what it is now. Recently I was watching on Netflix a show that I remember watching avidly in the 1990s. One detail caught my attention, when the characters talked to each other holding the old, large, clunky ear pieces connected by a spiral, rubber cord to a hand-dial phone. In one generation, so much has changed and people are doing things in different ways.

And yet, one thing remains: The steadfast love of God. Whatever we do in God’s mission today, and however we do it, we can be assured that God is faithful to us, that God is abounding in love for us. After all, God doesn’t look on outward appearances, our resume, our list of past sins, etc. God looks at our heart. When David was chosen to be king of Israel, God wasn’t looking for the one who appeared to have all the desirable qualities; God wasn’t looking for the tallest, the strongest, the best-looking one to be their leader. God was looking at the heart of David (1 Samuel 16).

We can be courageous, then, and bold to reach out and be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. After all, it’s not, in the end about us or our past. We find healing and wholeness for our lives by doing the will of God. It is for God’s sake that we throw ourselves fully into life, in the present moment. It is for God’s sake that we are healed and restored.

We come to the Table of Communion each week, a diverse group of people. But we come as equals on a level-playing field feeling together the weight of our past sins, yet forgiven and showered with God’s mercy and grace, as one. We are empowered through the broken body of Jesus to be his broken body for the world, today.

How that memory shapes us today may be different from decades ago. But memory continues to form us, and reform us. In our lives, the Gospel is translated for the world today.


(1) Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren in “Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, why it mattes, how to become one” (Baker Books, Michigan, 2009), chapters 2-3
(2) Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent” (Franciscan Media, Ohio, 2011), p.60-61

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To see beyond, and go deep

“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

We had a problem. In this perfectly finished renovation, something was not right. The microphone jack, on the floor in front of the pulpit here, was not working.

2_Power

How could this be? Everything was designed and installed as it should be. And yet, something had gone awry. The prognosis was not good. How could it be fixed, without tearing up the carpet, pulling off the baseboard and cutting into the drywall to find out exactly where the wire was shorting out?

For this problem to present months and years from now would be one thing. But to discover this problem in the first week or so back into our ‘new’ space. Uh-oh.

And yet, as you can see and hopefully hear today, it is working. And, as you can see, the carpet has not been ripped and there are no pieces of drywall cut and patched up. How was this problem solved? How were we saved from doom and destruction?

I will say this: For Brian who discovered the problem, it caused him some serious stress, at first. ‘Despair’ might be a word that comes close to describing his feeling, for someone who had already spent hours and hours of his time and energy and resources in the entire renovation project over the last several months.

All that you can see now is a tiny hole on the baseboard no larger than the size of a dime, just above the carpet line on the other side of the chancel. That’s all. A tiny hole, that doesn’t really reveal the depth and breadth of how the problem was solved.

4_TheCulprit

Apparently, a finishing nail had been shot into the wire from outside during the renovation. Unbeknownst to the worker strapping on the the siding, one of the nails embedded into the wire, thus shorting it out. It was, for Brian, a question of finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.

He employed the material resources at his disposal and years of experience in engineering and computer sciences. He brought in an oscilloscope to measure the current, and his infra-red camera, which he ran along the presumed route of the hidden wire. These instruments disclosed an abnormal, irregular heat signature which spiked at the spot of the short-out. From there, it was merely the task to go in with surgical precision, and remove the offending nail. And voila! The microphone now works!

This is definitely a feel-good story with a good ending. Especially because at first, it didn’t look good. It would have been easy to give up, to remain in despair and not do anything about it. And live with, and remain stuck in, some unhappy, dysfunctional space.

The Gospel story about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-42) has a feel-good ending, at least from the point of view of the woman. She starts by being defensive and confrontational — not seeing nor recognizing Jesus for who this man truly is. She leaves the encounter with Jesus, joyous, liberated, un-inhibited, free.

The story reveals God’s character in Jesus. To emphasize the point the Gospel writer John wishes to make about God’s character, John places this story immediately after Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in the previous chapter. Let’s compare briefly the two encounters:

For one thing, Nicodemus has a name. The woman is nameless. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and as such has status, authority and privilege in the social-religious culture of the day. The woman is a Samaritan with whom the Jewish authorities were in conflict. Nicodemus lived in a male-dominated society. The nameless, Samaritan woman is a nobody.

Jesus takes the initiative to cross the boundaries of geography, culture and prejudice to speak with the woman. And not only that, to draw from her the truth, and then empower her to be a missionary for the kingdom of God. The encounter with Jesus transforms her from a nobody to a somebody.

As the dialogue at the well comes to a close, the woman is filled with joy. She is so energized with passion and hope that she “left her water jar and went back into the city” (v.28). We now can see what is not immediately apparent. We can complete the sentence when the Samaritan woman exclaims: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” … and loved me anyway! She does not say these last four words at the end of verse 29, but they are implicit in her action and in the joy with which she runs.

“Everything she ever did” is a long list of sins. It is always before her, in the judgemental expressions of her neighbours and in her mind for the rest of her life; she has had many husbands, and the one she is living with now is not. For Jesus to have intimate knowledge of that list and for him to know her past, and still love and forgive her — well that’s unbelievably new and fresh as anything she has ever heard. The man who told her everything she ever did … and loved her anyway … is what saves her life. (1)

A caution: Her sin is not the main point in the story. (2) While Jesus’ offer of forgiveness is implied in the dialogue, the text itself says nothing of any sin she has committed (as we see elsewhere in the Gospel, for example, John 8:1-11); nor does Jesus ever actually say words of forgiveness to her.

The focus here is not sin. It is rather in the character of God, and the liberating result of a gracious, truth telling encounter with Jesus. In that moment, the woman sees God. She receives Christ — and leaps up to tell.

Would you? When Paul talks about suffering in his letter to the Romans (cited above) he is encouraging the faithful to see beyond their present, often difficult circumstances to the hope we have in Christ. Indeed our society’s values can make us feel, and keep us trapped in believing, we are nothing:

If we don’t have significant financial resources stored away in investments, bank accounts and property; if we don’t have that ‘perfect’ life, secure in our fortress worlds of private privilege and comfort; if we don’t have the perfect-looking body, the disease-free physiology, the magnetic, people-pleasing personality; if we don’t have the high-paying job, the investment-rich retirement plan; if we don’t measure up … the list goes on. The values of society make us feel like nobody.

And yet, Christ comes to remind us that we have everything we need to get through it, and more! We just need to see beyond what is immediately apparent. Jesus breaks all those boundaries of division and exclusion, casting aside our pretence and our cloudy vision. Jesus doesn’t pay attention to what society says is valuable or not valuable. Jesus comes to each and every one of us and says: “Look deeper. I know everything there is about you, and I love you anyway!”

So, what do you have to lose? Take the risk, and do something to make things better in your life, and those around you. Make the hole in that spot you may not be sure about because it’s not visible on the surface of things. And then trust what God has given to you already — the resources at your disposal, the unique gift of your very life, your talents, treasures and time — is worthy of using! And go for it!

Because God will love you anyway.

 

1 — Anna Carter Florence in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 2 (Lousville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.97

2 — Karoline M. Lewis in ibid., p.95

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The long journey – Lent 1A

We don’t often see the humour in the creation stories around Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3). Perhaps because so many centuries of debate and dogma and doctrine-making put such a heavy burden on the sacred text.

But, if we can just lighten our approach a bit, a fresh perspective emerges. There are some funny aspects in the story of the Garden of Eden where the crafty serpent tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, they disobey God, resulting in their rather undignified exit from Paradise.

Here’s a joke someone sent me this very week on the subject: Did you know the oldest computer can be traced back to Adam and Eve?
Surprise, surprise.
It was an Apple.
But with extremely limited memory.
Just one byte.
Then everything crashed.

That joke isn’t biblical in case you were wondering. But these story-lines are rather comedic: We have a talking snake (a la Harry Potter). If anyone is a parent or works with children, you will know that the surest way to get a child to do something, is to tell them not to do it (e.g. “You can eat anything you want from the fridge, but you dare not touch a cookie from that jar on top of the table”). It’s almost as if Adam and Eve were set up to fail. And then God warns them they will ‘die’ if they even touch the tree. They do touch the tree, but they don’t die.

Well, not for another several hundred years.

The scripture records Adam having lived a very long life (Genesis 5:5 suggests 930 years). The threat of death was therefore not a literal one tied to that one, particular transgression. In other words, there must have been a divine purpose in Adam living so long after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

We can assume, therefore, that when Adam and Eve left the Garden, they began a life of maturing and labouring under the weight of their broken humanity. The development and growth of any human being, we know, is bought by the price of pain and suffering. The wisdom writer from Ecclesiastes (1:18) expresses this truth: “For in much wisdom is vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” Suffering, then, must be part of God’s good, created order. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes, “Life depends in some mysterious way on the struggle to be.” (1)

That God did not destroy them both immediately after their unfortunate decision, is an act of grace, of forgiveness. The writer of Genesis is emphasizing an important characteristic of God, here. Whether or not Adam lived, actually, 930 years is not the point; the point is it was a very, very long time. Perhaps the author is, at very least, emphatic in expressing the extent of God’s mercy: Adam and Eve have all the time in the world to practice making better decisions, and of experiencing more and more of God’s grace.

God is forgiving, even more so than we can be to ourselves. God is merciful, even more than we can be merciful to each other. God is gracious, even more than we can imagine being gracious to ourselves.

We begin today a journey of some forty days, which mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). In pursuit of various disciplines we observe the season of Lent, year after year, as we slowly and intentionally approach the most holy of Christian days — Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

The only way to the Empty Tomb of resurrection is through the Cross of suffering. The symbolic destination of the Lenten journey is the Cross, on Good Friday. And so, right off the start, we know this can’t be an easy journey, when we have to face and bear our own cross. But this is what life is about, is it not?

Whenever hardship comes our way in whatever form it does — illness, loss, tragedy, disappointment, conflict and confrontation, failure, guilt, pain. We don’t have to seek it out; Suffering comes to us all. This is a reality we are called to accept.

When Adam and Eve failed God in the Garden, God gave them a chance to confess. As much as disobedience was the problem, so too was their impulse to try to ‘cover up’ their faults by blaming someone else; Adam blames Eve and then Eve blames the serpent (Genesis 3:12-13). 

Are we willing to embark on the sometimes harrowing yet intentional path of some kind self-discipline or challenge to change things for the better? Are we willing to take a long, hard look at our own lives? If so, Jesus’ vulnerability in the wilderness points to the authentic quality and honesty in all our relationships.

We are called to be honest about our brokenness. Being vulnerable is not a weakness, it is a strength. We do not need to pretend our weaknesses away. Our suffering can be a great teacher, an opportunity for growth and wholeness.

Suffering, in the words of Douglas John Hall, “is necessary to evoke the human potential for nobility, for love, for wisdom, and for depth of authenticity of being. A pain-free life would be a life-less life.” (2)

Lent is not a path to ultimate self-annihilation. Ultimately, Lent is not a downer. Because suffering can point to a new beginning. Followers of Jesus are not a people who suffer the pains of life without faith and hope.

This hope ought to give us endurance for the journey ahead. There will be temptations. There will be setbacks. There will be disappointments on the journey of becoming more authentic, more vulnerable, more open, more honest.

But God will not give up on us. Every moment we have is pregnant with the grace of God, even should we like Adam and Eve not always make the best decisions and then have to live with the consequences. But there is always hope. Always another chance. Always a new beginning coming up over the horizon of our lives.

We have every moment given to us — maybe not 930 years. But our faith can assure us that God will never, ever, give up on granting us mercy and forgiveness, no matter the many bad decisions we make over the course of our lives.

Our desert, Lenten journey, may seem long and arduous. But longer, still, is the span of time it takes for God to keep faith in us.

 

1 – cited in Terence E. Fretheim, “Is Genesis 3 a Fall Story?” in Word & World (Volume 14, Number 2, Luther Seminary, St Paul Minnesota, 1994), p.147
2 – Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p.62-63

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Lent begins again: Why?

We begin a journey of some forty days, which mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). We continue to observe the season of Lent, year after year, as we approach the most holy of Christian days — Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

But why do we do this? Why do we continue to do this, it seems, against the flow of society and the dominant culture today? As a child, I remember when it was more popular to ‘give up’ something for Lent; people actually did give something up, like dessert or TV. Some still do, I know.

And yet, it seems from the perspective of our economy and lifestyle today, that planning for March break, and sun-shine, escapist getaways get more attention and energy than any spiritual discipline might.

So, let’s begin our Lenten journey with a close look at why we need to go on this trip in the first place. Speaking of journeys, then, here’s a fascinating one from the history books:

“Early in the twentieth century, the English adventurer Ernest Shackleton set out to explore the Antarctic …. The land part of the expedition would start at the frigid Weddell Sea, below New Zealand …

“‘The crossing of the south polar continent will be the biggest polar journey ever attempted,’ Shackleton told a reporter for the New York Times on December 29, 1913.’

“On December 5, 1914, Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven men set out for the Weddell Sea on the Endurance, a 350-ton ship that had been constructed with funds from private donors, the British government and the Royal Geographical Society. By then, World War 1 was raging in Europe, and money was growing more scarce. Donations from English schoolchildren paid for the dog teams.

“But the crew of the Endurance would never reach the continent of Antarctica.

“Just a few days out of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic, the ship encountered mile after mile of pack ice, and was soon trapped as winter moved in early and with fury. Ice closed in around the ship ‘like an almond in a piece of toffee,’ a crew member wrote.

“Shackleton and his crew were stranded in the Antarctic for ten months as the Endurance drifted slowly north, until the pressure of the ice floes finally crushed the ship. On November 21, 1915, the crew watched as she sank in the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea.

“Stranded on the ice, the crew of the Endurance boarded their three lifeboats and landed on Elephant Island. There Shackleton left behind all but five of his men and embarked on a hazardous journey across 800 miles of rough seas to find help. Which, eventually, they did.

“What makes the story of the Endurance so remarkable, however, is not the expedition. It’s that throughout the whole ordeal no one died. There were no stories of people eating others and no mutiny [to speak of …. Some have argued that ] “This was not luck. This was because Shackleton hired good fits. He found the right men for the job ….

“Shackleton’s ad for crew members was different [from the norm]. His did not say WHAT he was looking for. His did not say: ‘Men needed for expedition. Minimum five year’s experience. Must know how to hoist mainsail. Come work for a fantastic captain.’ Rather, Shackleton was looking for those with something more. He was looking for a crew that belonged on such an expedition. His actual ad ran like this:

“‘Men wanted for Hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.’

“The only people who applied for the job were those who read the ad and thought it sounded great. They loved insurmountable odds. The only people who applied for the job were survivors. Shackleton hired only people who believed what he believed. Their ability to survive was guaranteed.” (1)

Year after year, the Gospel text from Matthew 6 is read on Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten journey. It is a journey, a pilgrimage, you might say. For those willing to embark on the sometimes harrowing yet intentional path, Jesus points to the authentic quality and honesty of community life.

Being the church in the world is not to give a false impression, to show how exceptional we are in the religious marketplace. Being the church to the world is to be authentic and true to what we believe and who we are, whether or not we measure up to some cultural standards of behaviour.

Maybe that explains why Lent is no longer popular in our day. Society has already been for a while losing ourselves in distractions. In 1985 Neil Postman claimed that we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” (2) Over a decade earlier, Ernest Becker wrote a book I read in seminary, entitled, “The Denial of Death” (3) which is a theological reflection on how we live in ‘modern’ North America.

Indeed, we in the West continue on a course of distracting ourselves to death — with stimulating toys, technological advance and even more addictive ways to keep the truth at bay. This strategy, with often tragic consequences, only serves to drive a deeper wedge and division from our true selves.

The symbolic destination of the Lenten journey is the Cross, on Good Friday. And so, right off the start, we know this can’t be an easy journey, when we have to face and bear our own cross. But this is what life is about, is it not? Whenever hardship comes our way in whatever form it does — illness, loss, tragedy, disappointment, conflict and confrontation, failure, guilt, pain. We don’t have to seek it out; Suffering comes to us all. This is a reality we are called to accept.

We are called not to deny that our message is for people who are honest about their brokenness, who in their vulnerability do not want to pretend their weaknesses away. Our suffering can be a great teacher, an opportunity for growth and wholeness.

Suffering, in the words of Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, “belongs to an order of creation insofar as struggle … is necessary to evoke the human potential for nobility, for love, for wisdom, and for depth of authenticity of being. A pain-free life would be a life-less life.” (4)

Lent is not a path to ultimate self-annihilation. Ultimately, Lent is not a downer. Because suffering can point to a new beginning. Followers of Jesus are not a people who suffer the pains of life without faith and hope. We can face what life brings, with a conviction that together, we can do more than merely survive.

On this journey we can experience that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In accompanying each other through the difficult times, we can experience something greater than ourselves. Together we will realize more than we could ever have imagined on our own; transformation, resurection, a new beginning. Together, because God in Jesus goes with us. We are not alone on this journey.

God blesses this journey.

1 – Simon Sinek, “Start With Why” (New York: Penguin, 2009), p.90-93
2 – Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985)
3 – Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death” (New York: Free Press, 1973)
2 – Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p.62-63

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Transfiguration – a launching pad, not a destination

Last Fall, a member of council framed a few pieces of the original cork that lined our walls prior to the renovation. I now show you a piece of this cork as another reminder of what used to be a unique certainty every time worshippers gathered in this space, for over fifty years. Certainty no longer!

You notice, obviously, that this space is fundamentally the same. And yet what we see and what is invisible has changed. No longer cork, but drywall and insulation. No longer narrow windows placed as a trinity, but wider ones that let in more light! The reredos, the pulpit and the ceiling — all retain fundamental elements of the old, but are definitely and without a doubt new at the same time!

These are mysterious, hard to grasp perceptions that can help our understanding of the Transfiguration of Jesus — the same person, the same general shape and size, but different: not only fully human, but also fully divine!

The Transfiguration points to a truth in our lives we often, because of our sin, want to resist: Change happens; it is part and parcel of the process of life.

Before the transfiguration of this space that occurred over the last four months, did you know that this space experienced a previous transfiguration? Perhaps it was more a transfiguration of purpose, than actual bricks and mortar:

In 1965, the sanctuary was originally intended and designed to be the fellowship hall for the ‘new’ church to be built at some future date. The Annual Design Award for 1965 was given to the Schoeler Markham and Hector architectural firm by the Ontario Association of Architects, Ottawa Chapter, for the design of the “Faith Lutheran Fellowship Hall”, as it was originally named. (1)

Change in the church is the norm, not the exception. As we sit, stand and move in this space today, we know there is still work to be done. The narthex hallway is still under construction, and needs some time for its transfiguration to be completed.

Life is a process of change, of coming and going. The last four months were not a vacuum in our existence. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have changed in the time we were not here. Whether you worshipped with us at Julian, whether you worshipped elsewhere, whether you didn’t worship at all, we changed. And that is part of the reason that during midweek Lent gatherings, we will give ourselves time to process our learnings.

Much has been said and written about the extraordinary, supernatural experience of Jesus being transformed in the presence of a few of his disciples. Not only does Jesus’ countenance change, he appears with Moses and Elijah — a couple of Israel’s greats.

The relationship between these characters — Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John — is fascinating to ponder. What compels me in this reading is what happens shortly before they climb the Mount of Transfiguration, and what happens shortly after Jesus’ entourage heads back down the mountain. The movement up and down speaks of a rhythm not only evident in the bible, but in life: a rhythm of coming and going, of ups and downs, of death and resurrection.

Jesus took with him Peter, James and John up the mountain. Special treatment? After all, didn’t have twelve disciples? Were these Jesus’ favourites? I wonder. Well, Peter, in the verses prior to the text for today, gets a scolding from Jesus after Peter suggests Jesus ought not suffer and die; Jesus calls Peter “Satan” (Matthew 16:23) for expressing that opinion. So, Peter is not in Jesus’ good books. Or at least, that’s what James and John probably thought, hiking up that mountain.

And so, after the spectacular event atop the mountain, when they return with Jesus down into the valley of their regular lives, they want to keep and guard their special status among the other disciples. A few verses after the end of this text, they ask Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). The Gospeler Mark portrays James and John in a more aggressive manner, when he records James’ and John’s request more as an order, or demand of Jesus: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you … Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35-37).

The disciples are fighting amongst themselves, and competing over who is the greatest. Of course, they use the world’s standards of greatness. Jesus brings to them children and the Cross, to show them who and what is truly great in God’s eyes.

“‘BANG!’ The gun fires and the race is on. The runners take off across the field. It rained the day before and the ground is still damp. The temperature is cool. It is a perfect day for running. The line of runners quickly forms a pack. Like a school of fish they come together as one. They move as one … As with any race, in a short period of time the stronger ones will start to pull ahead and the weaker ones will start to to fall behind.

“But not Ben Comen. Ben was left behind as soon as the starter gun sounded. Ben’s not the fastest runner on the team. In fact, he’s the slowest. He has never won a single race the entire time he’s been on the … High School cross-country track team. Ben, you see, has cerebral palsy.

“Cerebral palsy, a condition often caused by complications at birth, affects someone’s movement and balance. The physical problems endure a lifetime. Misshapen spines create a twisted posture. Muscles are often withered and motor reflexes slow. Tightness in the muscles and joints also affect balance. Those with cerebral palsy often have an unsteady gait, their knees knock and their feet drag. To an outsider, they may seem clumsy. Or even broken.

“The pack pulls farther and farther ahead while Ben falls farther and farther behind. He slips on the wet grass and falls forward into the soft earth. He slowly picks himself up and keeps going. Down he goes again. This time it hurts. He gets back up and keeps running. Ben won’t quit. The pack is now out of sight and Ben is running alone. It is quiet. He can hear his own laboured breathing. He feels lonely. He trips over his own feet again, and down he goes yet another time.

“No matter his mental strength, there is no hiding the pain and frustration on his face. He grimaces as he uses all his energy to pull himself back to his feet to continue running. For Ben, this is part of the routine. Everyone else finishes the race in about twenty-five minutes. It usually takes Ben more than forty-five minutes.

“When Ben Comen eventually crosses the finish line he is in pain and he is exhausted. It took every ounce of strength he had to make it. His body is bruised and bloodied. He is covered in mud. Ben inspires us, indeed.

“But this is not a story of ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ This is not a story of ‘when you fall down, pick yourself up.’ Those are great lessons to learn, without a doubt. But we don’t need Ben Comen to teach us those lessons. There are dozens of others we can look to for that … Ben’s lesson is deeper.

“…. What Ben teaches us is special … Ben starts every race with a very clear sense of why he’s running. [It’s not about how Ben relates to his ‘competitors’.] He’s not there to beat anyone but himself. Ben never loses sight of that. His sense of why he’s running gives him the strength to keep going. To keep pushing. To keep getting up. To keep going. And to do it again and again and again. And every day he runs, the only time Ben sets out to beat is his own.” (2)

Change is the norm, not the resisted exception. When we face changes in our lives, the only competitor we face is ourselves — individually, or as a group. When we face the changes of life, we misfire our energies if we find someone else to blame, some other entity out there that is the cause of all our problems. When we play that kind of game, we become part of the problem rather then part of the solution. The greatest and most significant competitor we face, is ourselves.

From the mountaintop experience, one must return to the valley, where the real work begins. We need to ponder, now that we have this beautiful space to gather, why indeed we gather here. We need to articulate for a new day in new language and different forms what is our purpose, our mission. What is the purpose of the building?

There is no recording of James, John and Peter ever running back to the place of worship atop the Mount of Transfiguration when things got tough. They didn’t go back there every Sunday, again and again. That’s because the purpose of worship is not a destination, but a launching pad to the world around.

The purpose of this space on Sunday morning is not a destination of our faith, but a launching pad, to go out there and live out our faith in our daily, Monday-Saturday lives. Ekklesia, the Greek word for ‘church’ means literally, ‘a people called out’. We keep going, moving forward, doing what we are called to be and do.

And we don’t give up. We keep in mind that when the stress of change seems overwhelming, there is no one or circumstance ‘out there’ to blame. We are our own greatest enemy, they say; it is true. We, also, are our greatest asset. We only have ourselves to challenge, to change, and to grow.

And Jesus goes with us, and before us, through all the ups and down. Thanks be to God. Ours is the task, now, to follow.

1 – from Church Anniversary 2011, Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church Ottawa, “Some Interesting Facts”.

2 – Simon Sinek, “Start With Why”, New York: Penguin, 2009, pages 222-224.

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Martin Luther & Julian of Norwich

An imaginary meeting between Martin Luther (16th century reformer) and Julian of Norwich (14th century mystic) in celebration of the four-month time of worshipping together in the same space with Faith Lutheran Church Ottawa and Julian of Norwich Anglican Church Ottawa, a time which now comes to an end. Thank you to the Rev. Mary Ellen Berry, Anglican Diocese of Ottawa and incumbent of Julian of Norwich, for co-writing and presenting this dialogue with me, on our last Sunday together February 19, 2017



NARRATOR: I came early this morning to set up, and no one was here. I was tired so I sat down on the chancel steps, and fell asleep. And I had the strangest dream: Julian of Norwich had a conversation with Martin Luther …..

ANGEL: (singing, from the balcony) “I want Jesus to walk with me, I want Jesus to walk with me, all along my pilgrim journey, Lord I want Jesus to walk with me.” (ELW #325)

LUTHER: (appearing from behind the pulpit, holding a large Bible, opened, in one hand, his feather ink pen in the other) “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect!” (Matthew 5:48, Gospel for Epiphany 7A) What does this mean?

JULIAN: (appearing in her cell, sitting on a stool, leaning upon the reading desk) What does this mean to you?

LUTHER: Who are you?

JULIAN: Julian of Norwich.

LUTHER: Are you one of those uber-enthusiasts, I call Schwaermer in my native German tongue? Julian of Norwich, that’s hardly the way to relate to the Lord.

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: How did you learn that you couldn’t be perfect as God is perfect, by your efforts alone? What did you do?

LUTHER: At first, I rubbed the tips of my fingers raw washing the floors in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. That didn’t help my conscience. So, in 1510 I decided to go off to Rome. I crawled devoutly up the stairs of the Scala Santa, as millions of other pilgrims did.

JULIAN: Life, itself, Martin offers its own penance: disappointments, failures, sickness, betrayals. Life, if we but allow it, purges us of all the things for which our habits and affections grasp. Why on earth did you do all those things?

LUTHER: I laboured and sacrificed so much in order to purge myself of sin. It was up to me, I believed, to make myself right before God. It all depended on how hard I worked and the more penitential I became. I tried to impress God. I once believed my good works were the gateway to my salvation; only then, could I be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect.

JULIAN: What happened to change your understanding?

LUTHER: It was on the Scala Santa in Rome as I made my wearisome, guilt-ridden way up those holy stairs, I heard God’s voice saying to me: ‘The just shall live by faith, not by doing penance.’ It was like scales fell from my eyes. I stood up, walked back down, and stalked out to ignite the Reformation!

JULIAN: You heard God’s voice speak to you! How do you know that it was God who spoke? Was it the only time you heard the voice of God speak to you? It seems quite an experience, no? Did you not criticize the ‘Schwaermer’ — as you call them — those ‘fanatics’ who relied on experience alone to express their Spirit-filled faith?

LUTHER: Well, yes .. and no, not just experience alone. I was suffering severe cramps in my room one evening, reading through Paul’s letter to the Romans, when I came across the verse from chapter 3: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, we are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through Jesus Christ” (v.23-24). This word of God is external, and comes to us quite apart from any experience we might have.

JULIAN: But you are not denying that God comes to us and speaks to us through our experiences?

LUTHER: Only when mediated through the Word.

JULIAN: I see, “Only when mediated by the Word.” And what, for you Martin, is the “Word’?

LUTHER: The spoken word, preached and proclaimed. The words in the bible. And, most importantly, the living Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: But the spoken word and the living word touch our souls, not just the ears and mind, do they not? Is not the word something that needs to come into us, personally, experientially?

LUTHER: You are good at asking questions, fair Julian of Norwich. Perhaps you can tell me why it is you sit in your cell, asking questions of the faithful and listening to their stories?

JULIAN: It is in this way that I do my small part in the work of our Lord Jesus. I care for their souls, I tend to their hearts, so the real teacher, our Lord Jesus, can enter. My fondest hope, Martin, is “that when I am no longer in this world my dear ones will soon forget me so that I shall not hinder them, and they will behold Jesus who is teacher of all.”

LUTHER: In German, this pastoral care ministry is the work of the Seelsorger. But you also have written so much — the first book written by a woman in the English language. I wonder what greater impact your writing would have had, if you had Gutenberg’s printing press at your disposal, like I did.

JULIAN: You, too, my dear Martin, have written so much — more than me I should say! You translated the Latin bible into your beloved German.

LUTHER: Your Divine Revelations speak boldly of God’s love and trust.

JULIAN: You once wrote: “Sin boldly”. Do you regret anything you’ve written?

LUTHER: Well, yes. I did write unlovingly about the Jewish people. I have contributed, by my words, unfortunately, to the cause of anti-semitism. I am grateful that the Canadian Lutheran Church in the last century, among others worldwide, have rescinded this hateful language from my legacy. What advice do you have?

JULIAN: All wrath – all that is contrary to peace and love – is in us, not in God, Martin. So, yes you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But you are forgiven, Martin. Grace alone. Is that not what you preached?

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

LUTHER: Your written work is impressive. Do you, Julian regret anything you’ve written?

JULIAN: Well, Martin, I don’t know that ‘regret’ is quite the proper word, but it will do until I can think of a better one. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” are words that were given to me by our Lord, Jesus that I wrote in my Divine Revelations. They are beautiful words and they are most surely true, Martin. I do not regret hearing and writing these words; but I do regret – hmmm, still not the right word – how they are often taken.

LUTHER: What do you mean by “how they are often taken”?

JULIAN: What I mean, Martin, is that I fear these words have been misconstrued. When our Lord Jesus spoke them to me, I, too, was at first appalled and answered, “Good Lord, how can all be well when great harm has come to your creatures through sin.” – don’t forget, Martin, that I lived during times of war, plague, poverty, and famine. Through the grace of God, I came to understand our Lord Jesus’ words more fully.

LUTHER: Really, how so, Julian? Because being perfect, then, is not about a life free from all that ails us, and continues to do so all our lives long, no?

JULIAN: Yes. “All shall be well” is not a promise that God will relieve us of our sin and pain in this life. It is an invitation to trust God, to cultivate new habits of trust in God, and to at least be open to God’s healing love. “Just as by God’s courtesy he forgets our sin from the time we repent, just so does he wish us to forget our sins and all our depression and all our doubtful fears.”Does this speak to you, Martin? Or does it sound like the rantings of a 14th century mystic – a fourteenth century Schwaermer?

LUTHER: Well, you are two hundred years older than I am!

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: ‘Perfection’ then is experienced when we bask in the light of God’s love in, through, for and with us. Loving yourself, and loving others, loving all of creation, despite our suffering. This is the beginning and end of all prayer. How do you pray?

LUTHER: I spend nearly half the day in prayer, each and every day.

JULIAN: Being in the presence of God, whether you use words or not, unites us in Jesus.

LUTHER: I’ve always said: the fewer the words, the better the prayer!

JULIAN: The presence of Jesus, God’s love as a mother’s love, is all gift.

LUTHER: Despite our differences, then, prayer unites us all in this grace of God.

JULIAN & LUTHER: Thanks be to God! (Julian and Luther walk to the centre and embrace, then each walk separately out one of the side doors beside the altar)

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

NARRATOR: (wakes up, shakes his head, stands up and faces the congregation) The words of the Prayers of Intercession are posted on the screen. The Lutherans will with one voice say together their parts; and alternate with the Anglicans who will say their parts. Let us pray in the unity of Christ!

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