Burn, fire, burn


I bought this t-shirt in Italy last month — featuring Andy Warhol’s artistic depiction of an erupting Mount Vesuvius.

There really isn’t anywhere you can go in and around Naples, Italy, without being in eyeshot of Mount Vesuvius. Whether you are boating off the Mediterranean coast around the islands of Ischia and Procida, landing or taking off from the international airport there, or driving one of the many autostradas intertwining a metropolis of almost four million people, the unique double-mound character of this famous mountain is never out of sight, from any direction.

Of course it is still considered one of the most, if not the most, active volcano in Europe. Since the catastrophic, violent eruption that levelled Pompeii in the first century, it has erupted about three dozen times, significantly once in the 17th century and most recently in 1944.

Geologists and volcano experts today expect another eruption from Vesuvius, and believe they will have about a 4-week warning period before the first signs lead to the eruption.

So, you can imagine the horror we felt when we saw smoke pouring from the peak of Mount Vesuvius. Just a couple days after climbing the famed Mount and learning all this history, we were driving into Naples from the north. After holding a sudden, collective breath, we exclaimed together: “It’s going to blow!”

Some of us with phones quickly called our friends. Of course I kept driving, but in Naples it seemed everyone smoked, talked on the phone and held their child in their lap while driving at 130 kms/h. You will be happy to know I kept both my hands on the wheel while my passengers did some quick research to find out that a grass fire on the south side of Mount Vesuvius was sending smoke over the top which made it look, from our point of view, like the warning signs of an immanent eruption.

Indeed we are terrified of fire when it is out of our control. I’m not talking here about the pristine and contained burn of a campfire at the end of a day of leisure play on a lake or in the backyard. People who have seen and witnessed the raging inferno of a forest fire — earlier this year in Fort McMurray, for example — can speak of the palpable terror of a consuming fire.

In the text from Hebrews for today (12:18-29), the writer describes God as a “consuming fire.” Indeed, the writer describes the religious awe from Exodus in the Old Testament as a terrifying experience: “Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.'”

What does fire mean, in the context of faith? When we experience and confront hellfire in our lives — describe it however you will, reflecting on the greatest challenges in your life now — what does the consuming fire mean? 

In the DC Comics recent film, “Suicide Squad”, our super heroes each have a special gift they use for the cause of good. One of them has the gift of fire. El Diablo is his name, and he describes his ability as the “gift of the devil.” Indeed, we make a direct association, through culture, between fire and sin, fire and evil. In Dante’s epic 14th century poem, Inferno, there are references to fire to be sure. But considering all the degrees of hell described therein, fire is not the singularly predominant symbol of hell.

In the last century, Scots preacher George MacDonald in one of his sermons poses a more nuanced reflection on the purpose of fire: “Can it be any comfort to us to be told that God loves us so that God will burn us clean?” How many of us want to be tortured? MacDonald goes on, “We do not want to be clean and we cannot bear to be tortured.” So, the natural, human tendency kicks in — better the devil we know than the devil we do not know. And we take the easy road: we remain stuck in our unhealthy life styles and viewpoints that are far from the honest truth of it all.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that for many of us, fire means punishment.

Either we want it to mean punishment, or we imagine other people do. So, we avoid the all-consuming fire of God’s presence in our lives. We don’t believe we can stand it. In the words of a famous movie line delivered in “A Few Good Men” by Jack Nicholson: “We can’t handle the truth!” And so, in our hearts at least, we run away from God.

But the bible (in Hebrews, Revelation, Exodus, and the Gospels at least) reveals that fire is not God’s punishment; fire is not meant to be torture. 

Fire is purification.

Fire is used to refine metals. The smelter melts and pours off the gold or silver, then skims off the dross until she can see her own face reflected in the molten metal — not a bad metaphor for God’s judgement. The question is, what gets purified? And the answer has to go further than merely ‘sin’. Because sin is so embedded in our lives, and will always be as long as we walk this earth. We have to go deeper. The purification of God goes to that place deep in our hearts that causes sin, that generates those unhealthy behaviours and thoughts:

Our false selves. All the excuses, the lies, the fictions, all the rationalizations, self-justifications, all the official versions and self-diagnoses we attempt to sell to others, all the self-adaptations and defensiveness to escape criticism, all the motivations that are fuelled more by selfish ambition and fear than an honest concern for the other. All these will be consumed in the fire of God’s love.

Ironically, what I often call ‘religiosity’ is also a target for God’s fire. When we are honest about our true motivations for coming to church: Is it to look good, to make a good impression, to merely reflect the group’s ideals taking on manners of speech, dress, belief, common sense, even political opinions that make us fit and feel good about ourselves? The mournful fragmentation of the Christian Church into a plethora of denominations today is an unfortunate testimony to this truth, I believe. Yet, God’s fiery love will clean us from that sort of religiousness as well.

And when all that happens, this is the joyous promise: When God’s presence breaks into our awareness, when we feel ourselves being utterly known, embraced, and accepted as we are. The embraced and accepted self is not the false self that reflects only our perfected self image; it is the real self that God created. In that moment, the false self becomes ashes. In the end, I believe that the harshest judgement of God’s consuming fire (read: mercy, love and grace) is friendlier than our own most lavish self-praise.

But do we want to go there? Do we want to change? Or, are we afraid of what we will find when we take off the masks of our false selves?

Perhaps we cannot do this. Perhaps we are too weak to confront the consuming fire on our own willpower. Perhaps our fear is too great, and we are trapped in cycles of self-delusion. Like the point of view in our sighting of smoke on Mount Vesuvius: It looked like an immanent eruption but in truth it wasn’t. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. In that case, it was better the devil you knew! We choose how we want to look at things. What is our response?

I see a connection with the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:2-14) where you might recall the king threw out a guest who wore no wedding robe even though the guest had clearly not anticipated attending a wedding when leaving home that day. However, a little know fact: it was up to the host to supply suitable robes to invited guests in that time and culture. The truth of the matter was that this man refused the offer, likely insisting he was OK as he was. Invited, yes. Fit to be present, not yet.

The invitation to the marriage feast is given to us. The joy and freedom is promised. Perhaps the consuming fire of God is an unavoidable mercy. And the only thing we can count on, is that this mercy will be offered to us over and over again throughout our lives regardless of how we respond to the events, people and circumstances of our lives. And so, all we can do is take the next step on the pilgrimage with our God, the all-consuming fire.

For that alone, then, thanks be to God.

Much of this sermon is adapted from Gray Temple’s fine piece in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, “Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year C Volume 3 (Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.376-380

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Faith’s fire & water

Please read Psalm 82, and Luke 12:49-56 — the appointed biblical texts for Pentecost+13, Year C (Revised Common Lectionary)

You may have heard some of the old rhymes of how outdoors’ enthusiasts and mariners have interpreted the appearance of the sky: For example,  

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” Or, “Rainbow in the morning sailors take warning; Rainbow towards night, Sailor’s delight.” How about, “If smoke goes high (from a campfire), no rain comes by; If smoke hangs low, watch out for a blow.”

Indeed we have our ways of predicting and managing our lives, based on beliefs and observations over time. We then convince ourselves of the truth of the things we repeat, like the rhymes, in our minds over and over. Even if, like the weather, we can be totally off.

If anything, our ability at self-deception is huge. For one thing, we have convinced ourselves that Jesus and Christianity is not about justice for the weak. If you don’t believe me, just examine our attitudes towards Indigenous First Nations people — how quickly we resort to condemning them as lazy drunkards, self-justifying our own greed and fearing the loss of our own power and property. Even though we are the rich and powerful, and they are the people in our communities who are the weakest, the lowly and the destitute. 

How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute (Psalm 82:2-3)

When God calls us to give justice to the weak, who then are the wicked? Not the weak, the lowly and the destitute. Given the structure and spacing of these verses from Psalm 82 — the wicked are those who occupy the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum: those who are strong, who are in power, who have wealth and security.

Why is that?

Most of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament indeed focuses on issues (and problems) of power, prestige and possession. 

And yet, how quickly and easily we avoid those and focus on issues that Jesus spent little if no time on — homosexuality and abortion, to name a couple recent hot topics in the church.

It’s not that sexuality, addictions and ‘family values’ are not important. But these do not form the core of Jesus’ teaching.

The core of Jesus’ teaching reflects in such notions as: Blessed are the poor and the peacemakers; parables about rich men, selling all, the widow’s mite, the lost sheep, rendering to Caesar, he who has no sin throw the first stone, bigger barns, eating with sinners, praying to be seen vs the humble stance — the list goes on. I remember attending a stewardship event years ago when the main speaker asserted that most of Jesus’ teaching centred, in fact, on money.

And yet, how much these days a disproportionate amount of energy in the church is spent on anything but. We want to avoid talking about money in the church, especially if it means a sacrifice on our part.

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (Luke 12:56).

That’s what Jesus is saying in the conclusion of the Gospel text: You have fancy ways of reading the sky but you can’t even discern the truth of your very own lives and the truth of what I’m all about!

We need to hear again the words of scripture and the Lord God:

Rise up, O God, judge the earth. For all the nations belong to you! (Psalm 82:8).

Ultimately the question is: To whom do we belong? To whom does all of creation belong? We have all sorts of acceptable answers to that: We belong to our spouses, to our families, to our parents and grandparents. We belong to the church. We belong to the nation. Sounds righteous, does it not?

And, we go on: creation belongs to us! Natural resources belong to us. In this line of thinking, belonging morphs into ownership and the commodification of basic things, like water. As long as you have enough money to buy it, you have a right to it.

Speaking of water, these last few days those of us on municipal water in Arnprior were not permitted to use water for anything. Anything — not only drinking. We couldn’t boil it, or wash in it, take a shower or bath in it, wash laundry, do the dishes, even touch it!

The house was a complete mess by the weekend. We were driving into the city to take showers and to buy lots of bottled water. I felt just a little of what it must be like for the First Nations communities in northern Ontario who on a regular basis do not have adequate access to safe, drinking water.

I read here an excerpt from the online description (www.claygathering.ca) of the National Youth Project from 2012-2016 which will culminate in PEI this week at the Canadian-Lutheran-Anglican-Youth (CLAY) gathering:

“What is water? Although this may seem like an obvious question, the answers that we provide often depend on our cultural and religious backgrounds. Traditionally, western cultures, like ours, have treated water as a common property, meaning that water is owned equally by all of us.

“In recent years, however, western cultures have shifted their understanding of water. Now, water is viewed like any other natural resource, like natural gas, oil, or gold, and unfortunately, for the right price, it can be bought and sold by individuals and corporations. But who owns it? The water from the tap, the river, the rain… who owns it?

“As you might expect, this new western understanding of water differs strongly from that of many Indigenous communities. Instead of treating water as a resource that can be bought, it is viewed it as a living being with which all creation has a relationship and a responsibility to protect. 

“For the Ojibway, water is a source of purification, and for the Iroquois, it is a gift from the stars integral to medicine, prayer, and cleansing. In many Indigenous cultures, women have a special association with water: they are the keepers of water, and it is their responsibility to lead water ceremonies which demonstrate a community’s respect for water. What we can learn from our Indigenous brothers and sisters is that water is a force that sustains, and requires respect and protection.

“Although western culture may treat water as a resource that can be used and abused, as Christians we know that it is a very important component of our spiritual life. We know that in the Bible, water is recognized as divine and life-giving. In Genesis 1, we see that the shape and content of all bodies of water are creations of God. In Revelation 21, we are told that, through Jesus, we are freely given a kind of water that sustains our lives and in John 3, we learn that those who enter the Kingdom of God are those who are born of water and the Spirit. Indeed, our very baptism is validated by the Word and Water.

“These parts of Scripture and sacramental practice show examples of the importance of water to us as Christians. It reminds us that, just as our practical life depends on water, so too does our spiritual nourishment.

“Many Indigenous communities do not have access to this vital resource: even where there is access, the quality of water is poor. Understanding that water is important and is a human right, what happens if you have access to water but it isn’t clean, useable, or safe? As Christians, we recognize that water nourishes and cleanses, and now we need to care for it as much as it cares for us; we need to be good stewards of the earth.”

We don’t ‘own each other’ as property to be traded on the open market as much as we don’t own anything in creation. Creation is meant for all people to share and hold in common, for the common good.

That means, in God’s view, no one is alone, no one is left behind, and no one falls through the cracks. This is the Good News: Everyone belongs. Everything belongs. Where we are weak, we belong. When we fail, we belong. When others are weak, they belong. When others fail, they belong. To God.

This Gospel, while good, is not popular for those who have it all we need and more. For us who are fortunate — all things being equal — we have a tough pill to swallow, here.

God’s presence and God’s truth must permeate through our sinful greed, materialism, and lust for control and power. A fire it is, that God sends upon our lives, (“I came to bring fire to earth” – Luke 12:49) to burn through the false thinking, false beliefs. A baptism by fire, some call it.

Like my experience in the dunk tank last week: It’s both thrilling and scary, to let go of control, not knowing when the ball will hit the target and I go for a total immersion plunge.

This is the baptism into which we are called: A lot of turbulence and uncertainty before it gets better; humility comes after being humbled; forgiveness and mercy only after confrontation, honesty and truth; a letting go before new life, new beginnings. Pain before the gain.

A sunset and long darkness in the sky before the brilliance of the sunrise to start a new day.

This is our hope.

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Talking about toast

“I want butter on my toast, but not too much.””You’ve spread it on too thinly. I want a whole wad of it.”

“You’re being wasteful. You’ll use up the tub in a couple of days.”

“If you didn’t burn the toast to a crisp all the time …”

“I don’t like my toast slightly warm.”

” … the butter would melt into the bread.”

“Toast is toast. A slice of bread is a slice of bread. There’s a difference.”

“Lighten up. Just slather it on.”

Of course, the words alone in this dialogue do not tell the whole story. There are other ways that we communicate, that animate the message. They say seventy percent of communication is non-verbal. What does the tone of our voice communicate? What are our eyes looking at when we speak? And, most significantly, what are our bodies doing? What is our body language?

I was attuned more to this truth in Italy during our family vacation. Every culture presents uniquely in the manner of body language during a conversation, to the point of caricature and over-generalization. Of course, not every English person speaks with a stiff upper lip; not every Italian gestures wildly with their hands; not every Canadian looks downward and apologizes. The exercise, nevertheless, of paying attention to a cultural tendency is helpful in bringing awareness to the way we communicate.

We played a little humorous game, somewhat irreverent, whenever we drove by or saw in a distance a couple of Italians speaking to each other — their bodies close, hands waving on either side of their partner’s ears as if guiding a plane on the tarmac to its docking at the gate, eyes piercing the other with intensity, even spittle flying from their mouths. We couldn’t hear what they were talking about. But we made up a dialogue about something the opposite in nature to their serious, even combative, style. We would try to convince ourselves that they were talking about toast.

Communication is essential to any relationship. And it’s not just the words we speak. It’s our behaviour. What we do. How we act. What our bodies are telling ourselves, and the other who is in our presence.

In other words, communication is real. It is not just reserved to the realm of ideas and theory and abstraction. Communication involves our whole lives, our whole selves. We are not by ourselves in the ideas we express and the words we use. 

When we speak about God, and our relationship with God, we dare not relegate our relationship with God to the realm of words alone — whether those words are printed on a page, or spoken during worship in a detached manner as if those words hold power on their own without context or embodiment.

Our God is real. Our God wants relationship with us. And, in the Isaiah text today, we read that invitation: “Come, let us argue it out!” says the Lord (1:18). God is having an argument with the people of Judah and Jerusalem during the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.

It is not a dialogue that is calm and reserved. It is not a cool, collected, disassociated manual of instruction. It is not a legal text. It is throwing down the gauntlet! Come on! You are messing up! But I make an offer. Let’s have it out! says the Lord! You have something to say? Then say it! The Lord can take it. Let’s negotiate. Let’s hear each other out. Let’s be real.

I wonder about our image of God when we shy away from such boldness. Is it because we imagine a God who is passive? Who only does our bidding, or should? Or a God whose job it is only to direct us, judge us and basically order us around?

But what about a God who is more vulnerable than that? There is no more direct and clear message of this vulnerable God than Jesus hanging crucified and dying on the Cross. So, what about a God who seeks our attention by being vulnerable? Who wants us to engage with God in an honest, self-disclosing way? Because the message of Scripture suggests time and time again: 

Not only is God’s company available and deeply important to us, but our company might very well be important to God. Could it be that God seeks our companionship? Could it be that God desires to have us as friends, and that the God who so patiently works with us in every moment rejoices upon occasion to have our undivided attention — even when our attentions are directed to the many particular concerns of our lives? (1) 

God is, indeed, the “great companion” (2). God is present with us, interested in us, and trustworthy. God’s love is receptive and responsive. In other words, we do not pray to an impassive, unmoved mover.

God is in relationship with us. God invites us, when we have a bone to pick about life, about whatever is happening in the world, to “Come, let us argue it out.”

It’s not that God always wants a fight. I will define a “fight” in this context as a bold yet non-combative, mutually-respecting exchange of unique perspectives. What this kind of arguing or fighting reveals is passion, real feelings, and the truth about ourselves. 

And this is a sign of any healthy relationship whether we talk about relationships in marriage, or work, church, community or play. Honesty. Truth. And in the exchange of honest discourse, we bring all that we are, not just our words. Our hearts. Our minds. Our bodies. 

We may not change God’s mind about whatever. But that is not the point. God wants to hear what we have to say. God wants to feel our passion, hear our cries, sense the beating of our strained hearts. God wants to understand us. This is what Jesus was all about. 

God sent Jesus in our flesh so that God could begin to truly understand what it means to be human. And in that humanity, in seeking us, God can bring an outpouring of love, grace and mercy — time and time again.

So, any subject is on the table. Thanks be to God! Anything is on the table, in all honesty. Including talking about toast.
Amen.

1 – Nancy Campbell & Marti Steussy, “Process Theology and Contemplative Prayer: Seeking the Presence of God”, p.87

2 – Clark Williamson, “Learning How to Pray,” in Adventures of the Spirit: A Guide to Worship from the Perspective of Process Theology with Ronald Allen (Lanham: University Press of America, 1997), p.162

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Gospel, Italian style

On the Sunday before I left for a family vacation to Italy, you encouraged me to — “know your history”. I think that message came to me mostly during the children’s chat when we talked about the Canadian flag on my backpack, and why Canadians had been so well appreciated and admired in western Europe, especially, over the past several decades.

The conversations then, as well as following the service over coffee, reinforced to me the value you place upon ‘history’ in general. 

Well, Italy is not exactly the hotbed of Reformation, Protestant Christian history as such. At the same time, the buildings there stand clearly as testimony to the dedication of Christians in certain times and places in history.

It was the first day we walked in the older section of Naples — a sprawling metropolis at the base of Mount Vesuvius on the Mediterranean coast — when I began to feel this history pressing in the air all around me.

I say sprawling because Naples is today the most densely populated urban centre in all of Europe; some 8,500 people inhabiting one square kilometre in a metropolis of nearly four million people — making it the third largest city in Italy, and the ninth most populous urban area in the entire European Union.


The noise was overwhelming: the hustle and bustle of pedestrians, car horns beeping, motorcycles and mopeds buzzing, shouting street vendors, impassioned conversations, two-toned emergency sirens, barking street dogs, screeching tires.

In conrast, the neo-Gothic styled ‘duomo’ in Naples offered a welcome break to this outside clamour. 

The expansive interior spaces of this main cathedral embraced silence and only hushed speech. You could occasionally hear the squeak of rubber-soled shoes and someone dropping a book on the stone and marbled flooring as people sat and wandered solemnly throughout the holy spaces.

Perhaps the most significant feature of this cathedral is the baptistery, which is the oldest baptistery in the world, built in the fifth century, C.E. It is remarkable to connect with such an ancient symbol in a material form. 

When the baptized emerged from the water, looking upward at the ceiling, they would be encouraged in their faith; the first images they saw after being baptized were scenes from the Gospel expressed in Byzantine, mosaic art: Jesus saving Peter from drowning, the women at the empty tomb, the miracles of the multiplied fish, an image of Saint Paul, the Apostle, etc.

Seeing with my own eyes and touching with my own hands this font that was built by human hands only a few hundred years after Jesus, affirmed my conviction in the longevity and validity of the sacrament which has endured as profoundly meaningful for Christians throughout the millennia. 

I felt that faith is not just about the good old days when I was young, but the good old days when the Christian faith was younger. We are part of something much larger than our immediate reality. And, when we connect with that broader history, we realize it wasn’t always peaches ‘n cream and rose-coloured a history.

If you are movie watcher, you might recognize another cathedral we visited — the Duomo in the Umbrian, medieval town of Orvieto. 


This cathedral was featured in the opening scenes of Under the Tuscan Sun. This cathedral’s highlight is the Chapel of San Brizio, featuring Luca Signorelli’s brilliantly lit frescoes of the Day of Judgment and Life after Death. 

Although the frescoes refer to themes of resurrection and salvation, they do so through images not from the bible (that is, stories from the Gospels or Old Testament) but from the turbulent political and religious atmosphere of Italy in the late 1400s. Signorelli told the story of faith through his contemporary human events, rather than the traditional symbols (such as Jesus, God, the Trinity, the Apostles, disciples and other biblical characters) that we see in most other places.

Those frescos in the Orvieto cathedral chapel were snapshots of an historical era particular to a specific time and geo-political reality (i.e. 15th century Italy). And the impression of faith put ‘on it.’ Historical to us. Yet current to those who built that Cathedral in the Midlle Ages.

Faith is more than merely appealing to our past. Coming to worship today is not just about being reminded of something or someone from a long time ago. What we do here today is not just an exercise in recalling historical facts. As if decisions we make today are really not about faith. When we talk about our building renovations, worship practice and art, musical choices, communion, budgets, outreach initiatives  — these issues are very mcuh about the Christian faith ‘in the real world’, so to speak. All of these real things do reveal what we believe in, our values, what is important to us, who we are. How do these ‘mundane’ decisions reflect the Christian Gospel, faith, kindgom values in this time and place?

Lutherans make a similar mistake, I believe, when we define ‘Lutheranism’ as a belief/doctrinal system that is limited to the words and conceptual formulations of sixteenth century Germans. When we say that to be Lutheran is merely to ‘turn the clock back’ to 1537 when the Book of Concord was finally assembled including Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, the Augsburg Confession, and the Apology to the Augsburg Confession.

I prefer a view that is reflected in the Evangelische Kirche Deutschland’s (EKD) logo for 2017, “Celebrating 500 years of Reformation”. Five hundred years of Reformation. In other words, Reformation started happening — in our tradition — with Martin Luther, yes. 

But, Reformation continued through the 500 years following, and continues to this day and beyond. We are always reforming the forms and means by which we express our evangelical, Gospel-centred faith. Always finding new and creative ways to tell the story of God.

What can we say, then, about Christian history? If we can apply a macro view over the ages, we can say that the history of the Christian faith is about a God who loves us. Christian history is about a God whose compassion never fails, who “will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9) — even though the people of God continue to keep “sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (v.2).

The history of the Christian faith is about our lives being “hidden with Christ in God”, being “revealed with Christ in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4), dying daily to ways of sin and being renewed daily in Christ who “is all and in all!” — even though we are imperfect and sin as long as we hold breath. Christ is all and in all — despite us!

The history of the Christian faith is about how each moment of history — including this one right now — reflected Jesus’ love in the fifth century, the fourteenth century, the 21st century in Palestine, Egypt, Italy, Canada, etc. God for all times and places!

We validate the Christian faith by our lives today, now. This is where the rubber hits the road. This in-the-moment approach fuelled the generosity of medieval Catholicism represented in the magnificent building projects for worship as much as it did the passion and commitment of European Christians during the Reformation era.

We do not leave the practice of faith for some distant, utopic and dreamy future. Neither do we rest on the laurels of the tremendous sacrifices made by our forebears in Canada. 

Now is the time. Now is the time to live out of the conviction of God’s grace and love, despite the many and various ways Christians have messed up in history, and continue to do so today. Now is the time to live out of the faith that is full of hope, that despite our waywardness and unfaithfulness, God is faithful. Now is the time to claim God loves us, not because we are good, but because God is good. God is so good!

You know Jesus’ familiar exhortation, most often translated as “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Christians have often interpreted this word ‘perfection’ as being made whole. 

A much better translation might be: “be merciful.” Because this verse comes right at the end of a passage calling Christians to “love your enemies” (v. 43-48). Only God is perfect. But we can participate in God’s perfect mercy, God’s all-inclusive and impartial love.

Echoing Saint Paul’s words from the Epistle today (Colossians 3:11 — “Christ is all and in all”) St. Bonaventure later said, “Christ is the one whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” [1] 

Christ’s mercy is everywhere evident in history. This is the Wholeness, the forgiveness, the grace, that holds you forever and everywhere. You can’t figure this Wholeness out rationally, nor can you control it. All you can do is fall into this Wholeness that holds you when you stop excluding, even the dark parts of yourself. [2] And that, my friends, is the Gospel — good news — for all times and places.

Thanks be to God!

1- Alan of Lille, ‘Regulae Theologicae’, Reg. 7 as quoted by Bonaventure, translated by Ewert Cousins, “The Soul’s Journey into God”, Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press: 1978), p.100

2- Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation on the Spirituality of Imperfection” Week 2 – Perfection of Wholeness, Thursday, July 28, 2016

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Funeral sermon for an astronomer

Read Psalms 136:1-9 & 19:1-8

Rolf worked at many things. My impression is that he accomplished so much. Rolf was always on a project, whether clearing large rocks off his land, growing grapes, gardening, building structures, star-watching and -tracking.

His scientific mind, inductive reasoning and clarity of thought all translated into a degree of productivity not many of us will ever achieve. His gentle, methodical approach to his work reflects a state of mind that mirrors the great, spiritual giants of history.

Yes, spiritual.

Often science and religion have been pitted against each other in the philosophical and doctrinal wars of the contemporary age. And yet, in the lives of common people, we can begin to see that the two are not opposites in the seesaw battle for truth. Science and religion, in all truth, go hand in hand.

Some argue that besides the bible, no other book has likely influenced the course of western history more than the Rule of Benedict from the sixth century of the Common Era. Only some 13,000 words long, The Rule outlines instructions for the monastic tradition including prayer and work. In The Rule, Saint Benedict ordered the monks not only how to pray the Psalms, but how to work.

This work involved primarily manual, physical labour — fixing things, gardening, building. This work also evolved, happily, into artisan endeavours — wine-making, beer-producing, food preparing, and the such. Finally, the intellectual work of scribing and reading.

With singular attention focused on one task at a time, work becomes a contemplation. Even, you could say, a prayer. When it is done with joy and thanksgiving in each given moment. When we are present to our work, it is an offering of the natural rhythms of life, unfettered by distraction and self-consuming narcissism, which is often characterized by the demands and expectations of a hurried, anxious immediacy.

We remember and celebrate a precious life today. We recall moments that reveal a story of a person who reflects some of the best of what life and work is all about. Creation is indeed beautiful. God did good! And it will take eternity for us humans to begin to even scratch the surface of the brilliance and wonder of all that is.

The spirit of expansion, I would say, characterized Rolf’s life — a moving outward to include all, to embrace all, to reach to the farthest limits of all that we can know in God’s creation.

When Rolf was baptized at St James Anglican Church in Gatineau a few months after his birth, he was not only baptized into that particular faith community. His baptism signified his connection to the vast communion of saints. This community of faith spans the globe in all times and in all places. His baptism connected him to what Christians often call the ‘Body of Christ’ which has many members and includes all the baptized around the world: Starting here in the Ottawa region, and expanding outward.

In the funeral liturgy, one of the traditional prayers acknowledges the ‘mystical communion’ we all share in the Body of Christ. It speaks to the connectivity among all creatures.

Rolf’s passion for astronomy demonstrates this expansive spirit beautifully. The stars, of course, symbolize the mystery of heaven and God, and our human yearning for the unknown to become known. To connect to this great mystery, Rolf built his own observatory in the backyard of his house. 

And in 2005 he took a superb photo of Mars, his favourite planet. This image, which you see displayed here today, was possible because in 2005 Mars was in a close approach to earth at a high elevation — which means the angle at which viewing the red planet from the earth’s surface was exceptional.

Apparently Mars doesn’t behave like this every year. But in 2016, this year of Rolf’s death, Mars has again dipped close to the earth. Almost as if it was coming in to scoop Rolf up and connect his spirit once again to the vast universe, where now Rolf can see with his own eyes the expansive realm of God, whose love, mercy, and grace knows no limits.

Although we grieve a particular connection we have known with Rolf on earth these past six-plus decades, we touch today on the truth of the eternal connection we share with Rolf, all people, with all of creation and with God, forever.

Thanks be to God.

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Turning into the wind

We were just down the street from Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Late in the evening after the first day’s sessions at the Synod Assembly last week, I walked along Dixon Road which goes right to the airport. 

At one point on a bridge you can stand directly underneath the path and roar of landing planes. You look west in the direction of the landing, and you see the long runway lighted brilliantly for the descending jets touching down. You look in the opposite direction towards the east, and you can see a long line of planes taking their turn in the landing rotation, the dots of their lights extending in a straight line far into the distant sky.

It was a windy day, the gusts reaching over 50 km/h from the south. What impressed me was how each plane’s nose was turned slightly to the left, towards the south, as they made their final approach. The planes were coming in on a straight line, yes, but turned towards the wind in order to keep their landing true. At the last second before touching down, the jet would straighten out.

Wind, like currents in the water, is a significant if not main factor in affecting the flight or sail of the airborne or water craft. In order to land safely and soundly, the planes had to face the challenging issue head on. In the words of Paul in his letter to the Galatians, the problem must be “detected” (Galatians 6:1) and exposed. 

You will get nowhere in a plane or boat unless you ‘dance with the devil’ so to speak. Unless you look your problem square on, face it and name it, and change your position accordingly. If the landing planes insisted on keeping their plane aligned straight on their approach, they would not have made their landing on the runway, but somewhere to the north of it!

Our guest at the Synod Assembly, Bishop Munib Younan (president of the Lutheran World Federation) spoke of Lutheranism. He warned us, that in these Reformation Anniversary years, we do not celebrate ourselves. We do not pretend that God couldn’t have done anything good without us. We are not the perfect church, but always reforming.

Being Lutheran, he said, is a call to humility, not a spirit of triumphalism. We dare not make an idol out of Martin Luther or his legacy in us.

Paul strongly exhorts the Galatian church to proceed with one another in humility and gentleness, not lording it over others who are ‘sinners’. Because we ourselves are no better. We must learn to face our own demons. This is what is meant by his words: “All must test their own work … for all must carry their own loads (v.4-5).” We dare not point fingers without first acknowledging our own stuff.

This is then, how we bear one another’s burdens. Amidst the conflict wreaking havoc in the early church in Galatia, Paul encourages the people to persist in not losing heart, to have courage and not give up.

As the Gospel text for today describes (Luke 10:1-11), the work of the church doing God’s mission in the world will result in friction and struggle. You cannot follow Christ and not encounter conflict and adversity in your life. 

The famous Psalm 23 so often associated with bringing comfort and evoking peaceful, calming images includes this disturbing verse: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” (Psalm 23:5). It feels like this verse doesn’t belong beside still waters and green pastures along paths of righteousness. But it does belong! It means that God gives us the gift of grace in the presence of all that challenges us, all our demons internal and external, everything that we may not like in our lives — not apart from it.

Paul concludes his letter to the Galatians by focusing our attention on the cross of Christ (6:12,14) — the symbol of death and suffering of a God who goes the distance to love us. This is the only reality about which to “boast”. Why?

There is a treasure in the midst of the suffering. We may not see it right away. Yet, our struggle does yield something good, something meaningful, something liberating. Yes, we are liberated by God’s grace. 

Liberated however not by ‘nicey-nicey, goody-goody’ — a phrase our Bishop Michael Pryse used at Synod to describe an approach to church life that just keeps us stuck. Liberated not pretending to live a charmed life. Not by everything working out perfectly. But liberated through what may be a terrible suffering, a loss, the very pain that would otherwise destroy a person altogether. There is a treasure therein.

That is why we boast of the cross, and nothing else. How can God be found in the painful letting go that marks the various stages of life? How can we even sense or feel God’s presence in the midst of a grief too heavy to bear? How can we move on through the turbulence of change and transformation?

In his short book, “Rules for a Knight”, actor-writer Ethan Hawke recounts the last words of instruction by a renowned knight, Thomas, to his children:

“There is a memory that won’t let me go,” Thomas begins. “Last summer all you children were playing by the ocean. We were with your mother and her sister’s family, do you remember? The weather was sublime, streaks of sun and a deep blue sky. You four and all your cousins were building castles with the warm, muddy sand. Each of you kept your castle separate, announcing, ‘This one is mine!’ ‘That’s yours!’ ‘Stay away from mine!’

“When all the castles were finished, your cousin Wallace playfully stepped on Cven’s. Lemuel, you flew into a protective rage. You were only looking out for your sister, I know. Mary-Rose, you thought Lemuel was over-reacting, and you threw him to the ground. Next, everyone was fighting, throwing sand, howling with tears, and pushing one another. Young Wally had to be taken home, sobbing in your aunt’s arms.

“When he was gone, you all went back to playing with your castles for a little while but quickly moved on to swimming. It grew cloudy, and soon it was time for us to begin the journey home. No one cared at all about their castle anymore. Idamay, you stamped on yours. Cven, you toppled yours with both hands. We all went home. And the gentle rain washed all the castles back into the surf.

“Please be kind to one another,” Thomas concludes. (1)

What are the castles in your life? Things or issues that in five to ten years won’t really matter anymore? Things for which you might lay your life down now in heated, compulsive reaction, but really won’t endure — material possessions, opinions that merely shore up a vulnerable ego, beliefs that have outlasted their use? A spirit of judgement and condescension towards people who do not experience life like you do? A reputation to defend at all costs? etc. etc. What are your castles in the sand?

“My friends,” writes Saint Paul, “if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” Around the same time Philo of Alexandria wrote: “Be kind: Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Turning into the wind may be a basic operation for landing a plane. When I face the wind and continue paddling or cycling into it, tears will come to my uncovered eyes. There are tears that come in the face of God’s Spirit, a Spirt that will blow down castles built in the sand.

This wind also has the power, like the Spirit of God, to build endurance, strengthen my inner life and take me where I need to go. If I stay with it, often more rapidly than I would on my own!

May God’s wind blow surely and true in your life this summer. May you receive grace in turning to the wind.

(1) – Ethan Hawke, “Rules for a Knight”, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2015, p.148-149

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Summer video message

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