Even there your hand shall lead me

Later this summer I will be going on a 10-day canoe-camping trip on the French River. Last summer my friend and I did three nights and four days on a smaller portion of the French; this summer we want to challenge ourselves to do the whole, or at least most, of the river all the way from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay.

Because the challenge is greater, I felt I needed to take a First Aid Course in preparation, so I could be of some use to the company with whom I travel.

I learned some interesting facts about providing First Aid. Did you know that in all of Canada, except Quebec, you and I are not legally obligated to provide First Aid to anyone experiencing a medical emergency? In Quebec, however, we are legally bound to help someone who is in distress. It is, from Quebec’s point of view, a basic human right for any person to receive first aid in an emergency.

In class we discussed reasons why we may choose not to give First Aid: For fear of hurting them more, for fear of harming oneself, and of course for fear of legal repercussions. Our instructor countered this latter objection by reminding us of the “Good Samaritan Act” which governs any attempt in good faith to help someone in an emergency. So, legally, we were off the hook.

But we may still hesitate to take the risk and commit ourselves to helping someone. It would be easier to pretend we didn’t see it, get on with our busy day and avoid the added stress and responsibility.

Every time I read the wonderful story of the so-called “Walk to Emmaus” (Luke 24:13-35), something else piques my interest and causes me to reflect. I believe there is so much depth to this story while it provides a summary of what we believe as Christians. Particularly, this time, I wondered what Cleopas and his friend had to do with this incredible encounter with Jesus.

It seems they really had nothing to do with making this encounter happen, when Jesus appeared to them on the road that first Easter day. As far as we can tell, they weren’t expecting to meet Jesus let alone praying for it. And, ironically, when they do finally recognize the living Lord Jesus at the breaking of the bread, Jesus disappears from their sight! Truly, this event happened to them.

But were they merely passive recipients of this encounter? There is one turning point in the story, where things could have gone one of two opposite directions. Up until that point, they had not yet consciously recognized the man walking with them as Jesus himself. After that point, the table was set — literally — for their full recognition of Jesus.

Had they not invited Jesus to stay with them, for the evening was nigh, they would have missed out on a wonderful conclusion to their day. “Abide with us, for it is evening,” they invited this still stranger to them into their home. They could have chosen to let the man on his way. They could have chosen not to pay attention to their burning hearts. They could have ignored the subtle yet real ‘promptings of the Spirit’ we may call it today, within them.

I learned some thought-provoking statistics on my First Aid course this week. There we were, some twenty-five of us stuffed into a tiny room above a car repair shop in Renfrew. We were from all walks of life. Local businesses paid for their employees to take this course; therefore, my class mates were prompt and motivated to learn their First Aid techniques, principles and procedures. Certificates were issued upon successful completion of two exam periods and practice with bandages, splints and manikins.

Then, our instructor posted these statistics after asking us: Presuming it was done properly, what was the success rate of providing only chest compressions (sets of thirty thrusts downward over the chest) to someone who was unconscious and not breathing? What was the success rate of doing just that? 1.2%.

Without the aid of an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), adding ventilation to the chest compressions (pinching the nose and breathing in sets of two into the casualty’s mouth) raises the chance of recovery to only 5%.

I thought to myself: There is hope to humanity! Because it would be easy to just not bother! No wonder we may feel unwilling to commit to providing First Aid to an unconscious stranger on the street! What’s the point of doing that, let alone learning how to do it?! The chances of success are so slim!

And yet, there we were. These classes, I am told, are usually full. Businesses and organizations require their employees who engage with the public to know First Aid. They employ resources to make sure their employees have this training. All this effort for at best a 5% success rate.

But the ethics of it would argue: It is worth trying. Better to do something, than do nothing at all.

Sometimes I wonder whether being the church feels a bit like that. We expect the church to function at a 100% success rate; and when we fail the odd time, well — the church is no good, don’t bother. What is the worth of it all?

People are still bad. Failures in humans abound and seem to persist against all good intentions and efforts to be good. The message of the Gospel doesn’t always seem to make any positive difference in our lives. So, what’s the point?

Driving on Clyde Ave the other day, I noticed the sign outside the Reformed Church that reads: “Growth doesn’t come without change. Change doesn’t come without some risk.”

Following the example of Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, the only thing we can do, it seems, is learn to pay attention to those rare moments whenever our hearts are burning with love. And then, practice making the invitation in response to that nudging of our hearts and open our lives to those moments when we sense something shift within us. We may not be able to put our finger on it just yet, but respond nonetheless.

And then the rest is up to God. God is free. God enters our lives and walks with us whether we know it or not. God then ‘disappears’ from our awareness whenever God wants. But whether we feel God near or far, God is there. “Am I a God nearby and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” says the Lord. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:23-24).

The God of Easter is alive and present with us no matter where on earth we go. This is the good news of the resurrection. God is alive, and so we are called to rise up in renewal and joy. “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:9-10).

It is worth it. Even though we fail time and time again. There is the hope. There is the promise. There is the opportunity. There is the constant presence of God.

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Buen Camino!

When in Sunday School decades ago we played the roles of well-known bible characters, I remember the only thing worse than being a “Judas” was to be a “doubting Thomas”.

We wanted to be Abraham, Moses, Kind David, Samson, Queen Esther, Rachel, Ruth, The Magi, Peter, Paul, John. We wanted to be Joseph or Mary, or even Jesus himself!

But Judas the Betrayer, or Thomas the Doubter? No. Indeed Thomas has been treated quite negatively in much of Christian preaching and teaching. He is often held up as a negative role model.

Let’s take a closer look at the text about Jesus’s resurrection appearance to his disciples (John 20: 19-31). Because there is no condemnation of Thomas. Recall the disciples are hiding behind locked doors in Jerusalem fearful of the authorities. Unless Jesus’ words to Thomas are inflected in an accusing way, they do not need to be read as a condemnation: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). They simply affirm that those who believe without first-hand experience of the risen Jesus are also blessed. (1)

But can we blame Thomas? Thomas only desires his own firsthand experience of the risen Jesus. He is unwilling to accept the secondhand testimony of others. And, his desire is granted: Jesus appears to him. Prayer answered!

I wonder if Thomas today doesn’t really represent so many of us who deeply yearn and seek for a first-hand experience of God, and are simply and naturally unsatisfied with hearing it ‘second-hand’. Hearing someone else’s first-hand experience of God is inspiring and instructional to be sure. We learn about someone else’s experience of God’s presence, healing, grace and wonder — whether that person is from the bible or our grandparents or the person sitting next to us in worship. But someone else’s experience of God can never be a substitute for our own.

What we may be looking for, is to be more like Thomas: Honest in our desire for a first-hand experience of the living God. Yearning to taste and feel more of the goodness of God in our own lives and in the world. Striving ourselves to make the world a better place for everyone. We may be unsatisfied with basing our commitment to a life of faith on someone else’s testimony. We may, like many people today, be seeking our own experience of God and suffer from what I would call the ‘second-hand syndrome’. Perhaps Thomas needs to be our role-model more than anyone else in the bible today!

Of course, the benefit of the Reformation was to teach us an important distinction in all our striving: Our motivation is important to be aware of, because if we strive to do good all in order to make ourselves right before God we will most certainly miss the mark. “We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves,” we say in our Confession. God initiates the saving relationship. God moves; we only second the motion.

And yet, our striving, our trying, our good work as response to God can help create the space and the climate in which God’s grace is made clear to us, is given to us, and in which we are most ready, then, to receive God’s forgiveness, love and mercy. Being pro-active, doing things with one another in the church, yearning and striving for God — these are antidotes to the ‘second-hand syndrome’ and a prescription for a healthy life of faith.

Last week on the first Sunday of Easter, I emphasized the words from Matthew’s account of the Resurrection of Jesus outside the empty tomb that first morning. Jesus instructs the women: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:9-10).

When resurrection happens today, as it always has beginning with that first day, there is movement forward. Not backward. As I said last week, there is no turning back once resurrection happens. The disciples are not instructed to meet Jesus in the empty tomb where the miracle happened. No. The instruction is quite clear: Get moving! Get out of here! Go to Galilee. Go to where I wait for you. In other words, don’t stay where you are! Do something!

In 2017 the Lutheran Church worldwide celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We call it Reformation 500. ‘Five hundred’ is an important number in all the dialogue surrounding this momentous occasion. The national church has even set up the Reformation Challenges for the church across Canada to meet. And each of those goals are pegged at some variant of 500:

Five hundred refugee sponsorships (which already has been exceeded), five hundred scholarships for school children in the Holy Land, five hundred thousand trees planted in Canada, and five hundred thousand dollars raised for the Lutheran World Federation endowment. You can visit elcic.ca for the most recent update on where we are at in meeting all those goals. And please consider making a personal contribution towards any one of those worthwhile causes.

I’d like to up the ante. Let me call it the ‘Reformation 800 Challenge’. Eight hundred is the new Five hundred. Not only are we celebrating 500 years of Reformation this year; we turn to the future and pray not just for 500 more years but … 800. Why not?

Let that number, eight hundred, symbolize a confidence and hope-filled trust that God has more good than we can ever imagine in store for us in the church far into the future. And this is what I propose in this year’s Reformation 800 Challenge:

Next month, I begin walking the 800 kilometres from Irun, Spain to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The route I follow skirts the northern coast of Spain from East to West. This is my Reformation 800 Challenge.

I walk a pilgrimage route, one of the most ancient on the planet. This Camino (which means the “way”) has been an important spiritual discipline for almost a thousand years for millions of Christians.

A pilgrimage means that what happens on the outside of us in our physical reality mirrors the change and challenge that happens on the inside of us. In other words, outer and inner realities find some kind of resonance on a pilgrimage experience. It’s on a pilgrimage where many discover or re-discover their ‘walk’ with God in life, are renewed on their ‘path’ and/or are ‘re-directed’ to new ways of living.

I would like you to do this with me. Yes. I invite you to consider doing a Reformation 800 Challenge with me, in your own way, with your own resources and plan.

For example: In order to reach the goal of 800 kilometres in under two months I plan to walk at least 20 kilometres a day. So, while I’m gone would you consider a physical discipline whereby you, for 20 minutes a day, do something intentional for your own health and well-being: walking, cycling, lifting a small weight, stretching, doing yoga, etc.? It doesn’t have to be ‘extreme’; something simple even if you are confined to a chair or bed — for 20 minutes a day, do something that involves your body in ways you have not normally been accustomed. Be creative.

A piece of wisdom for pilgrims that has guided my preparation and planning is: Walk Your Way. Walk your own Camino. This is nobody else’s walk but yours. Do what you want and need to do, in your own way, according to your own pace.

You can interpret this challenge in many ways. For example, if you are very active and move about a lot in your daily life already, perhaps sitting still and quietly for twenty minutes a day in silent meditation and prayer is your way. Or, take twenty steps a day. Do twenty reps of a particular exercise or stretch. But whatever you do, the important thing is that you are challenged to attempt and remain faithful to a daily, body-involving discipline. Do it your own way.

Keep a journal or write your notes on a piece of paper that you stick to the fridge door. Write the date, and the accomplished task, so that over time, you can track your progress.

Your goal: 800 of something before the end of this year — whether eight hundred minutes, steps, kilometres. And here’s the good news. You already have a head start on me. I don’t begin until mid-May. You can start this afternoon, on your Reformation 800 Challenge! And, you have until the end of the year; I need to be finished my walk by early July.

After I return from my sabbatical, I would very much be interested in having a conversation with you about our experiences on our pilgrimage. They say that for pilgrims close to reaching their destination in Santiago, many confess that by the end it was no longer them walking the Camino, but the Camino was walking them. In other words, the experience of doing it created deeper trust in the way of God, of faith and peace within them. The physical reality converged with their inner life in positive ways.

As you contemplate what your discipline will be, as you think about what you will do, as you plan your own ‘pilgrimage’ — here are some questions for your own reflection and which can provide a basis for our own conversation when I return. Ask yourself:

In Preparation

What will you do to reach ‘800’ by the end of the year? In time? Kilometres? Steps? Reps? And how will you do it on a daily basis? (for example, 20 minutes/kms/reps/steps, etc. per day)

What are your intentions for this experience? What do you hope for by the end? The first recorded words of Jesus to his disciples in John’s Gospel are: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). How do you know you will find it if you don’t know what you are looking for in the first place?

What do you think you will discover about yourself? Saint Augustine once said that knowing yourself is a stepping stone to knowing God.

How will you record your journey?

On the Journey

Where did God find you? What experiences along the way brought you close to God?

What was the best part of the experience so far? What has been the greatest challenge?

Who did you meet along the way? Or, describe your relationships with others during the experience.

What were you grateful for?

Nearing the end / Getting close to the goal

What does it mean ‘to arrive’?

How does it feel to be reaching a destination after great effort and clear motivation for the journey?

What sacrifices did you make in order to get this far on the journey?

How will you celebrate and honour the ending of the journey?

After the Journey

What was the most memorable part of the whole experience?

How did you deal with disappointments and/or failure during the journey?

How do you now view God?

How will you keep what you learned alive in your regular life now that the journey is over?

Has anything shifted within you as a result of the experience? If so, how would you describe this change within yourself?

How will you share your journey and what you have learned with the important people in your life?

As we soon begin our pilgrimages, may God bless us on the way. And to all we meet along the path, may we wish them, “Buen Camino!”
1 — Marcus Borg & John Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: Harper One, 2006), p.202-204.

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Cornered?

Have you ever wondered why this building was designed to be more-or-less round? Well, don’t you know, “The devil can’t corner you in here!” we say.

Like in the boxing ring, the combatants in the corner are at either end of the victory-defeat spectrum: In the corner they either have the upper hand, literally. Or, they are on the verge of collapsing in a heap.

Being in the corner is an undesired position. Cornering someone is to put them at a disadvantage. The one being cornered is vulnerable. Being cornered is to admit there are no options left.

We also use the phrase to mock contractors and builders worried only about the bottom line when they ‘cut corners’. Cutting corners may serve the bottom line, but in the long run cutting corners is a prescription for guaranteed repair and reconstruction work sooner than later.

At the same time, the latest fashion in contemporary urban design values right angles and sharp lines. The new buildings are rather square and boxy, aren’t they? Meaning, lots of straight lines. But a straight line can’t go on forever. Therefore, lots of corners.

People in many non-Western cultures don’t build as many corners as we do. The Zulus in southern Africa, for example, live in a less-carpentered world. They live in a history and culture where straight lines and right angles are scarce, if not entirely absent. (1)

What would it be like to live in a non-linear world? Where our material culture presents more rounded, softer, curved constructions such as our building!

And yet, there is a gift in the message of a corner. Not only can corners get us stuck. But they also are an indisputable sign that there’s always a corner to be turned. In truth, this is what we say, don’t we, when things are just starting to get better: “We’ve turned the corner on this.” When things are not yet better, we wonder: “When will I turn the corner on my illness, my fear, my problem, my troubled feelings, my strained relationships?”

Turning the corner means, nevertheless, there’s no turning back. Once you’ve crossed the line, there’s no going back to the way it used to be. That could be good. It can also be scary. Corners are necessary to find a way through a predicament, such as in a maze. Corners define clearly where one eventually needs to go, like it or not.

The story of Jesus’ resurrection is a huge corner turned in the cosmos of all that was, and is, and is to come. History is forever changed by the empty tomb. The ether of our very existence is transformed into the triumph of good that can be, for all time, for all people, and in every place. All the evil forces that led to Jesus’s crucifixion no longer need to triumph in the world today.

They say any lead in playoff hockey is a dangerous lead, as the first few games of the NHL playoffs have shown. More often than not the lead does not stand. If a team does have the lead however small, they are coached to employ the killer instinct:

Don’t let up. Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t sit back. Finish off your opponent with indiscriminating, ruthless power. Once they’re down, make sure they stay down. Hate your opponent. Don’t give them a chance to come back. Don’t be merciful, kind, generous, compassionate. Above all, don’t feel sorry for your opponent’s misgivings.

This is the philosophy of competitive play in professional sports. Why professional athletes and teams are so popular and generate billions of dollars in our economy is precisely because we humans are really good at believing this philosophy if not doing it from time to time.

Easter is God’s come-from-behind victory. The way of non-violence, of loving self-giving, and of trust in God is a victory against all the odds. It is, frankly, an unbelievable, unexpected move from our human perspective. Jesus’ demonstration of non-violence, of loving self-giving, and of trust in God is validated and redeemed by his resurrection. The surprising, brilliant victory of Easter morning is a poignant witness to what God is really all about.

The way of violence of our will/my will over yours, of greedy acquisition for more, of cynical mistrust of others — this is the way of the world that crashes in a heap of defeat in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. Now, the way of God is before us.

Resurrection says a lot about the nature of God’s purposes. Because Jesus lives. And Jesus is Lord. We therefore gather today to affirm that God’s purposes are good. And, in the end, it is not all doom and gloom. In the end, God comes through.

One thing I like about the re-modelled communion rail around the chancel, is that we have those corners at both sides. Some have said they don’t like it at the corner, because they feel squeezed out. Well, we can help each other with that. What the corners force us to do is pay more attention to who is standing beside us; and make room for them. And that’s not a bad thing!

What these corners force us to do, is to face and look at each other when we are standing or kneeling at the altar. We are not just individuals coming to face the Lord God one-on-one in a straight line, not seeing nor even respective of who comes along beside us. Now, it’s no longer just about ‘me and sweet Jesus’.

It’s about ‘us’ and sweet Jesus. And Jesus is not always sweet. We are a community gathered around one table, a people who embody the living Body of Christ in the world today. We are also the broken body of Jesus, whose power is shown through human weakness (1 Corinthians 1:18-29). What better place than to see our sisters and brothers in Christ, eye-to-eye, and practice right here what it means to pray for others, to encourage them, to recognize our unity in the living God.

And then take in word and deed that awareness and message from this place, into the world out there: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

1 — Wayne Weiten & Doug McCann, “Psychology: Themes and Variations” 3rd Edition (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2013), p.168

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Something always has to die …

(The following is taken from Richard Rohr’s commentary in his book “Wondrous Encounters; Scriptures for Lent”, with my added words.)

The crowds were gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. This ritual is described in Exodus 12, and provides the basis of the Holy Communion in Christian practice.

In the original ritual, people were to procure a small year-old lamb for each household. They were to keep it for four days — just enough for the children to bond with it and for all to see its loveliness — and then “slaughter it during the evening twilight”! Then they were to take its blood and sprinkle it on the doorpost of the houses. That night they were to eat it in highly ritualized fashion, recalling their departure from Egypt and their protection by God along the way.

This practice was meant to be a psychic shock for all, as killing always is. Thank God, animal sacrifice was eventually stopped. The human psyche was evolving in history to identify the real problem and what it is that actually has to die.

The sacrificial instinct is the deep recognition that something always has to die for something bigger to be born. We started with human sacrifice (Abraham and Isaac), we moved here to animal, and we gradually get closer to what has to be sacrificed — our own beloved ego — as protected and beloved as a little household lamb! (1)

We will all find endless disguises and excuses to avoid letting go of what really needs to die for our own spiritual growth. And it is not other humans (firstborn sons of Egyptians), animals (lambs or goats), or even ‘meat on Friday’ that God wants or needs.

It is always our beloved passing self that has to be let go of. Jesus surely had a dozen good reasons why he should not have to die so young, unsuccessful (sentenced to death, a criminal), and the Son of God besides!

By becoming the symbolic Passover Lamb himself, Jesus makes the movement to the human and personal very clear and quite concrete. It is always “we” — in our youth, in our beauty, in our power and over-protectedness and self-preservation instinct that must be handed over. Otherwise we will never grow up, big enough to ‘eat’ of the Mystery of God. In short, we have to ‘get over ourselves’, individually and collectively as the church, before we can be effective and authentic followers of Jesus in the world today.

Good Friday is really about “passing over” to the next level of faith and life. And that never happens without some kind of “dying to the previous levels.” This is an honest day of very good ritual that gathers the essential but often avoided meaning of Good Friday: Necessary suffering; that is, something always has to die for something bigger to be born.

One of the Gospel stories repeated every year during Holy Week is the anointing of Jesus by a woman named Mary at Bethany (John 12:1-11). Even though the text does not identify her as a sinner, this has been the common understanding. This alone should reveal our rancid preoccupation with sin.

The point in this story, again, is not the sin but the act of love towards Jesus, whom the woman correctly accepts (unlike the twelve disciples) the coming death of Jesus. She anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive nard, which is the anointing oil for death. Jesus’ favourable response to Mary’s act clearly suggests her act of love trumps any failing on her part, or the part of the poor, or on our part!

As always, love of Jesus and love of justice for the neighbour are just two different shapes or sides to the one Love, that gets us beyond our over-thinking sin. A simple act of love gets us beyond our negative self-obsession, which only keeps us stuck in selfish, egoistic preoccupation.(2)

May our praise of God this day, in Jesus’ acceptance of his death on a Cross, invite each of us into commitments and acts of love toward God, toward one another, and to the world in need. Then, we get the point of the story. And we affirm, that something bigger indeed is just around the corner.

 

1 — Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters; Scriptures for Lent” (Cincinnati, Ohio: Franciscan Media, 2011), p.133-135

2 — ibid., p.126-127

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Trust the down

I hate roller-coasters. It’s about the fear of letting go of control on the way down, that’s the problem. The couple times I’ve had the guts to go on a roller-coaster, I didn’t enjoy the experience because I couldn’t let go on the way down. Someone took a photo of me and my friend in the middle of one of those rapid descents: My friend who loves roller-coaster — his arms were up in the air and a big smile beamed across his face.

Sitting beside him, I was the opposite: My hands were glued to the bar in front of us, and my lips were pursed tightly and my eyes looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets. It looked as if I were staring death in the face, going down that roller coaster.

I read this week: “Humans are the only creatures who have knowledge of their own death. Its awareness creeps on us as we get older. All other animals, plants, and the cycles of nature themselves seem to live out and surrender to the pattern of mortality.

This places humans in a state of anxiety and insecurity from our early years. We know on some level that whatever this is that we are living will not last. This changes everything, probably more than we realize consciously. So our little bit of consciousness makes us choose to be unconscious. It hurts too much to think about it.” (1)

We humans find ingenious ways to avoid this journey, especially through Holy Week, that invites us to contemplate not only human death but the death of God in Christ Jesus. No wonder, especially among Protestants, attending services through Holy Week is not popular. This is not easy work, to face Jesus’s and our own mortality. No fun in that.

One way we avoid and deny this awareness of our own mortality is to find a scapegoat — by focusing all our negative energy on something or someone else. Our scapegoat is that which deludes us into believing that its destruction will somehow solve all our problems and make everything better again. Our scapegoat also shields us from taking responsibility for and dealing with our own problems.

Today, the scapegoats are easy to identify: The immigrants, the newcomers to Canada, the Muslims, the gays, the corrupt politicians, the government, the media, the church hierarchy — you name it. The blame game is alive and well, even in the church.

And then what happens is what many wise teachers through the ages have said: When we deny our own suffering we make others around us suffer. Which is unfair and unjust. Because the Gospel was given first and foremost to the followers of Jesus. 

“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near,” The Gospel Mark thus records Jesus’s first words to his own people in Galilee. And to them he said, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). We are the ones addressed by the Gospel — those who are already in the church, in the family of God. Not those so-called ‘bad’ people out there.

Jesus was the scapegoat whose destruction would solve the high-priestly authorities’ problems. By having Jesus put to death, the religious authorities could maintain their power and privileged position in Jerusalem, the Roman Emperor’s fears of insurrection would be temporarily alleviated, and the Pax Romana (the Roman rule) would continue in the land.

As unjust as killing Jesus was — for many even in authority including Pilate saw that Jesus was innocent — Jesus was the convenient scapegoat whose death on a cross would make it easy on those in power. And maintain the unjust status quo in the land.

After hearing of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, the high priest, Caiaphas, advised the rest of the leadership in Jerusalem: “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Rather than do the right thing in the moment, the end — a false peace — justifies the unjust means. Classic scapegoat -ism: Jesus became the convenient victim in the human power play of first century Judean politics.

It’s ironic that our fear, denial and avoidance of death is actually that which keeps us stuck in scapegoating, in blaming others, in all the motivations for war and violence in the world. You could argue that all of what is bad in the world today stems from humanity’s continued ambivalence and denial of death.

What’s amazing is that Jesus, knowing all along this human condition, chose to become a victim to it. From his privileged unity with God the Creator, he chose to connect with humanity. The reading on Palm Sunday from Philippians 2:5-11 describes this downward movement of God in Christ into the “enfleshment of creation” (2), and then into humanity’s depths and sadness, and final identification with those at the very bottom, “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7), to death on the Cross.

Jesus represents God’s total solidarity with, and love of, the human situation. It’s as if God is saying: “Nothing human, now, is abhorrent to me.” This is incredible.

The Cross represents the divine choice to descend. It’s almost total counterpoint with our humanity that is always trying to climb, achieve, perform, justify and prove itself. The witness of the Cross is the divine invitation to each of us to reverse the usual process.

Christians worldwide have a great gift and witness in the Gospel of Christ crucified. The divine union with humanity suggests that everything human — including death, losing and letting go that is so much a reality in all our lives — is embraced by God’s love. The reason God loves even our shadow sides, is because God experienced the fullness of its brutal and unjust consequences, in the death of Jesus.

Jesus is like the human blueprint for our own transformation. Because who would have presumed that the way up could be the way down? It is, as Saint Paul writes, “the secret Mystery” (Romans 16:25).

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. The hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 says that Jesus leaves the ascent to God, in God’s way, and in God’s time. Because Jesus went to the bottom of all that is human, “God lifted him up, and gave him the name above all other names” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Of course, they say the joy of a roller coaster’s twists, turns and rapid descents is knowing and trusting that the ride eventually and surprisingly goes up. What an incredible rush! Carl Jung wrote: “Not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die.” (3) The roller coaster analogy suggests that when we refuse to descend, when we avoid facing our own mortality, and avoid taking responsibility for our own suffering, we also don’t really live.

Conversely, we can only truly live when we have faced and come to terms with the reality of our own mortal, imperfect human lives. Being fully human is being fully spiritual, faithful and alive. Saint Irenaeus was first to say in the second century that the glory of God is human being fully alive.

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. When challenges, disappointments, defeats and failures come your way, don’t rush into avoidance techniques, distractions, denial of the problem or blaming others for the circumstance you find yourself in. What do these events have to teach you? Where is God in the midst of your suffering? What are the signs of grace therein? Christian faith asserts that God is revealed precisely in those lowest moments. Jesus believed this. It was trust in his Father that got Jesus through his passion, suffering and death.

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. Resurrection was just around the corner.

 

1 — Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent” (Cincinnati Ohio: Franciscan Media, 2011), p.100.
2 — Rohr, ibid., p.123
3 — cited in Rohr, ibid., p.123.

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The good crowd

I was ten years old when my parents shuffled me and my brother into one of the front rows of the main, outdoor theatre in the small, Bavarian town. The crowd pushed and shoved for privileged seating to watch the story of Jesus’s last days acted out daily by the town’s folk every ten years.

In fact, the crowd on the large stage did not appear any different than the tourists who got up very early in the morning for tickets to the Oberammergau Passion play.  

This coming Holy Week is rich with story. And when we read the stories about the last days of Jesus — full of drama, plot, and character — we will naturally identify with elements of the story-telling. Our worship is designed to help us identify, for example, with the crowds.

This morning, we sing “Hosanna” and wave our palm branches identifying with the enthusiastic crowd that first day when Jesus entered the city. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees …” (Matthew 21:8). Some years in Holy Week we dramatized and therefore simplify the trial scenes. We have individuals and groups speaking the various parts of the story. So, for example, ‘the crowd’ is played by the whole congregation who chants those lines together, such as “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:23) and “He deserves death!” (Matthew 26:66).

Undergoing some mysterious metamorphosis sometime between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, the crowd turns to the dark side. In a tradition that goes back centuries, Christians have most often portrayed the Jewish crowd around Jesus during his last days as rabidly and violently against him. We see it in Passion plays, the most famous of which is at Oberammergau in Bavaria. The evil crowd is also central to Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

This over-interpretation has unfortunately led to harmful, anti-semitic justification against the Jewish people throughout the dark side of Christian history.

It may be easy to identify with these ‘bad’ crowds more than anyone else in the stories. Through the journey of Lent, we have struggled with the shadow self of our own lives, carrying our own cross so to speak, alongside Jesus. We have confessed our sin. Indeed, at the climax of Christ’s Passion, we pound nails into the cross on Good Friday. We so readily identify with the crowds, even saying that ‘we’ have crucified Jesus by our sin. It is little wonder why we come to these rather negative views, from Scripture.

What these portrayals fail to address, however, is this: Why, if the Jewish crowd was so against Jesus, was it necessary to arrest him in the darkness of night with the help of a traitor from among Jesus’s followers? Why not arrest him in broad daylight? And why do they need Judas?

What we discover is a positive, more balanced approach to the identity of the crowd. First we need to understand why the high-priestly authorities wanted to do away with Jesus.

“[The chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him …” (Matthew 21:46).

If the chief priests and Pharisees let him go on like this, everyone would believe in him, and the Romans would then intervene and execute them (John 11:48). Moreover, the authorities were not just afraid of the Roman Emperor, who was the recipient of Judean tax money and demanded political allegiance from those put in a position of power by the Emperor to keep the Pax Romana in the region. Insurrection in Judea would not be tolerated by Rome.

“… but they feared the crowds …”

Pilate and the high-priests also felt threatened by the whole crowd of people who, if they didn’t do something about Jesus, would eventually turn on them, which in 70AD (around the time most of the Gospels were written), did in fact happen. (1)

The Gospels reveal a clear disconnect between the high-priestly authorities who wish to execute Jesus, and the “whole crowd” who are “spellbound by his teachings” (Mark 11:18) and who “regarded him as a prophet” (Matthew 21:46).

This favourable support of Jesus by the predominantly Jewish crowd does not stop after the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday. It continues throughout the days leading to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem.

The crowds aren’t perfect, to be sure. Their motivations for supporting Jesus may very well have missed the mark, especially those who still sought in Jesus a violent solution to the end of Roman rule in Judea.

Yet, they are captivated by his teachings. There is some good, therein. The ‘whole crowd’ can be personified by each of us. Which part of ourselves identifies with the crowd that is for the most part good and supportive of Jesus, even during his last days on earth?

I ask this question, especially in the midst of the most penitential season of the church year. I ask this question, and make this point as a spiritual antidote to what can easily, and so often does, slide into self-hatred on account of all our sinfulness.

We must remember we live in Christ Jesus, and the living Christ lives in us through the Holy Spirit. There is some good therein. We don’t need to be so hard on ourselves.

“The secret of life,” say the American Indigenous people, “is in the shadows and not in the open sun; to see anything at all, you must look deeply into the shadow of a living thing.” (2)

We may begin Lent and Holy Week — indeed our Christian pilgrimage on earth — by confronting our shadow self. It’s important to do so. But by the end of Holy Week we cannot avoid the open sun and see the empty tomb. The ending is always as it was in the beginning when God created everything and everyone, and said that it was good. “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

 
1 — Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), esp. p.87-91

2 — cited in Joyce Rupp, “Walk In A Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino” (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), p.161

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Place for all – a funeral sermon

“Lord, when the shadows lengthen and night has come, I know that you will strengthen my steps toward home, then nothing can impede me, O blessed Friend! So, take my hand and lead me unto the end.” (1)

I wonder if in her last days in the hospital, May if she weren’t singing the words she certainly meant them when she declared a few times to those attending to her, “I’m soon going home.”

In saying this, did she mean her home in Osgoode — the homestead and first family home? Or in Bel Air Heights on Cannon Drive, where she and her family lived for 52 years? Or, was a more nuanced meaning of ‘home’ coming to mind? For example, when home wasn’t so much a specific place, as it was being with family in any place — such as the campground at Silver Lake, which I hear you frequented quite often and created so many cherished memories together.

“I’m soon going home.” Or, as I suspect, didn’t she already know that she soon was going home to be with all her loved ones gone before her — in her heavenly home?

A prayer on her lips and a well-known hymn’s words: So, take my hand and lead me, Lord, strengthen me in my steps toward home.

Indeed, home life was so important to May. You have told me, dear family, how your home — however imagined — was always a place of welcome to all your friends. It was a place of unconditional acceptance of each of you and your friends. Your home became a destination place for the community. A basement brimming with energy and sounding of laughter was a common occurrence. A tone of inclusiveness and openness surrounded home life.

Today as we gather to celebrate May’s life, we can affirm that God’s house is now home for May (John 14:1-3). This is a dwelling place which has a room for her, and all her loved ones in the heavenly host. 

May feels at home, I am sure, because her homes on earth seemed very much like what Jesus described in the kingdom of God: A place of inclusion, where all feel welcome. Food for everyone! An acre of vegetables that had to be tended, comes to mind, as you shared precious memories of treasured places like the large garden in the back yard.

In the Gospel reading, when Jesus says: In my Father’s house there are many rooms, read “a room for you” as “a place for you.” It goes beyond a mere belonging. It means “you can be yourself fully, here”. It means “you can come just as you are and be as you are.” “You can participate fully in everything this family is about.”

This participation is not isolated individualism. Because a house has shared space. A house has many rooms, yes. But a house means you are in a community of a certain kind. There are spaces in a house that must be shared — a living room, family room, dining room, kitchen, hallways, bathrooms.

Your parents were leaders in this shared space. They valued certain things in the family. They taught you what you know about being in relationship with one another: respecting the other, being responsible for your actions, being accountable to one another. Each of you had ‘room’ in this family to participate fully in your own unique way, and still be mindful of the other. 

The journey which continues today for May in her heavenly home begins on earth. However we find our way from this day onward — different for each of us — the same God who walked with May on earth walks with us. The God who blessed May with the joy of family relationships leads us toward bright horizons — the dawn of a new day.

Lord, take my hand and lead me upon life’s way; Direct, protect, and feed me from day to day. Without your grace and favour I go astray; So take my hand, O Saviour, and lead the way. (2)

Amen.

(1) – Julie von Hausmann, “Lord Take My Hand and Lead Me” in #767 Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, MN, 2006

(2) – Ibid.

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