Mirage gates

When we stayed at our friends’ house in Lago Patria — a suburb of Naples — we felt safe in the gated community in which they lived. Nearly a dozen homes lined the little neighbourly and upscale street where mostly stationed officers and NATO personnel lived during their posting to the base there. We called it, ‘the parco’ — the Italian for ‘park’. An oasis it truly was.


Lining the perimeter of the parco was a tall wall. A large sliding metal door would guard entrance to this haven, and then release us again to the urban jungle that is Naples, where stray dogs roamed and garbage lined the roadways. You get the picture.


In Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall”, he wrestles with our desire to have clearly defined boundaries of what is my place and what is yours; and, why we divide ourselves so. He concludes his poem with a challenge: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out” (1). Good advice.

Indeed, fences and walls serve to keep us from seeing ‘what’s out there’ — and perhaps we want it that way. We don’t want to see what might disturb our comfort. We don’t want to see who might be out there, lurking on the perimeter of our safely constructed lives. We don’t want to see because we are afraid of what truly seeing them might do to change, disrupt and unravel us.

The Gospel text today (Luke 16:19-31) can unravel us, for sure! A poor man named Lazarus makes his temporary home at the gate of a rich man’s house, eating crumbs off the rich man’s table.

The story suggests that the rich man never even sees Lazarus is there, begging, at his gate. Even in the afterlife, as the rich man burns in hell, he doesn’t talk directly to Lazarus, referring to him only in the third person (v.23-24). Even serving his due in hell, the rich man still hasn’t learned his lesson!

Indeed, as Jesus says later in Luke, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (18:25). How can the rich and the poor bridge the gap? How can we break down the barriers that separate us? How can we ‘see’ better — by this I mean: develop the eye of the heart and mind?

My brother tells the story of what happened at the beginning of the CLAY gathering this past August (Canadian Lutheran-Anglican Youth gathering). All nine-hundred participants did a certain exercise in the large group gathering that unnerved him:

They were asked to find someone they did not know; and then, to go over to that person, sit next to them; and then turn to look directly into their eyes…. and keep looking into their eyes for as long as possible, without turning away.  It’s hard enough to do this sort of thing with someone you know well… let alone a complete stranger!!


So, my brother David found a young person he didn’t know. And the two of them – complete strangers – began to look into each other’s eyes. It was unnerving! He felt vulnerable. Exposed.

While this was happening, the leader at the front said something like: “The person before you has a story, and has experienced happiness, as well as sadness, perhaps even deep hurt and pain. Who knows? Life may’ve been very hard on the person in front of you.”

As these words were being said, David noticed the slightest hint of tears welling up in his partner’s eyes. And he wondered…. He wondered …. What’s my partner’s story?

It’s said that the eyes are the ‘window into the soul.’In a sense, they were peering into ‘each other’s souls’.

A natural connection is formed. Two people, connecting on a human level, affirming the fact that we’re all united in our common humanity and life’s experiences – of sadness and laughter and humour – which we all go through at some point in our lives … no matter our differences in age, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation or religion.

I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind to everyone you meet — you don’t know the battle they are fighting.”

Author and theologian Diana Butler Bass tells the touching story of what happened in an airport when she was flying from Albany, New York, to Washington D.C.

As you know, typically airports can be cold, heartless places, where everyone seems absorbed in their own rushing around, wrapped up in their private worries, nerves or plans, ignoring others around them.

This time, as passengers milled around in the gate area before boarding the plane, there sat alone at the far end of the row of seats, a middle-aged man.

He looked distraught, perhaps ill. Maybe, he needed help.

His whole demeanor was one of sorrow, and he was bent over, slumped in his chair as if falling toward the ground.

Diana walked over to him, and sat down beside him. She gently began asking him questions and listening to him.

With deep, heavy sobs, he told her how he buried his wife that morning, and now he was going home. To nothing.

For the next half hour, he told Diana about his wife, her illness and untimely death.

The man and his wife had no children.

She had been his best friend since high school.

Their parents had all passed away.

He had taken her to be buried where they had grown up in New York State, a place they both loved.

Most of their childhood friends had moved away.

There had been no funeral, just him and a priest at a graveside to say a few prayers and good-bye.

Now, he was going home, back to work. Other than a few friends, he was alone.

Diana listened, and then went to get him some water.

On the way back, she found a flight attendant, and told her about the man and his wife, how he had buried her that day. The flight attendant thanked her for sharing, and said ‘they’d take care of him.’

There were only about fifteen people on the flight that day on that small plane.

Somehow word got around, and soon everyone knew about their fellow passenger in mourning.

By the time everyone was boarding the plane, people were going out of their way to be kind to the man.

A crewmember escorted him aboard.

With courtesy and attention, they seated him at the back of the plane to be alone with this thoughts and whatever tears might come.

When they landed, some silent agreement formed between the passengers to let him exit first.

Instead of the usual rush and urgent calls on cell phones, everyone stood silently, forming two lines of respect, as he walked down the aisle toward the cabin door…

Some nodded respectfully as he passed.

One woman reached out and touched his shoulder.

When he reached the front of the plane, he turned back, and looked at everyone, to acknowledge the sympathy offered.

The pilot came out of the cockpit, and took the man’s hand, and together they descended the steps to the tarmac.

All the passengers followed in silence.

A private car, dispatched by the airline, waited there beside the plane, to deliver him home. (2)


The irony is that no amount of gates, fences, walls or clearly defined dividing lines however constructed will keep us separated from each other. When there is love. When we can ‘see.’

Boundaries are important. But they don’t guarantee the self-serving security we seek. Shortly after they were posted to Naples a couple of years ago, our friends’ house was broken into despite the impressive protection their gated community seemed to provide. 

These kinds of gates are really only illusions — like the proverbial mirage in the desert. Gates and fences that separate the rich from the poor, the privileged from the underprivileged, the employed from the the unemployed, the bum on the street and the senior executive in the top floor corner office are at best a mediocre interpretation of reality. Because they are constructed out of fear.

Jesus is about breaking down those barriers. And we are called to bridge the apparent chasm separating us from each other. Better now in this world while we can still do so, then whine about it like the rich man does in hell after it is too late.

We are called to look into each other’s eyes, and see the connection we share with all humanity, in the love of God. We are called to work together, like the community of care that formed on that short plane trip. We do not do this work individually, by ourselves. Not separately, but we work together at this task of reaching out and mending what has been broken. 

We do this in the mission of God who broke down the greatest divide between God and human: when Jesus was born a human child. When God became human the ultimate gap was bridged. And now, we live in that flow of God’s love, continually binding us together, and all people.

(1) Robert Frost cited in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word” Year C, Volume 4; Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 118-120

(2) Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution”, HarperOne, 2015, p.256

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Relationships over Resources

A member of this congregation sent me an email including a list of short phrases called paraprosdokians.

A paraprosdokian, according to my online dictionary, is a derivative of a Greek word which means, ‘beyond expectation’. It is a wordplay, a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence is unexpected. Here’s a smattering:

 · A neighbour knocked on my door and asked for a small donation towards the local swimming pool, so I gave him a glass of water.

 · Take my advice — I’m not using it.

 · Ever stop to think, and forget to start again?

 · He who laughs last, thinks slowest.

 · I was going to give him a nasty look, but he already had one.

 · Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

 · I was going to wear my camouflage shirt today, but I couldn’t find it.

 · If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.

 · No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.

 · Money is the root of all … wealth.

Indeed, the Gospel today (Luke 16:1-13) has at least one major, unexpected twist. And unlike most of these paraprosdokians, this twist is not humorous. 

A manager has been wasteful of his boss’ riches, and consequently will lose his job. So, the manager figures on a scheme to look out for his own interests in his impending unemployment. The ‘dishonest manager’ — as some bibles entitle this parable — puts himself first at the seeming expense of his boss: he will go to his boss’ debtors and demand only half of what they owe. He shrewdly seeks to curry favour with them, and anticipates to be in their good books, once he is unemployed.

Smart move, you might say, eh? But what will Jesus say? Especially keeping in mind that this passage comes to us on the heels of the ‘golden’ chapter of the bible, Luke 15. Therein we read the familiar and heart-warming stories of the lost being found, of celebration and belonging, of unimaginable grace and mercy shown to the poor, the wayward, those who are not easily counted in the economy of the day. 

In Luke 15, we get the strong impression that the values of God’s kingdom — mercy, inclusion of others, unconditional love — stand in sharp contrast to the values of the world — competition, self-centredness, individualism. And, now, in Luke 16, the set up leads me to anticipate Jesus will come down hard on the ‘dishonest’ manager. I expect Jesus to say how unjust, unethical, and selfish the manager was. Don’t be as self-centred as he is!

In verse eight, the rug is pulled out from underneath me: “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” What ?!! Commended?

And yet, I should expect that the bible does that to us from time to time. The bible does not present a tightly knit, unequivocally clear and coherent storyline. You can justify anything from the bible, if you want — even murder. But that is not what we are about, when we approach the bible. 

After all, there is an important reason why the New Testament includes four, different, renditions of the life and times of Jesus. If uniformity was the goal in the inspiration behind putting together the bible, then we would have only had one Gospel, not four. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — the first four books of the New Testament — basically follow a similar plot line about Jesus’ birth, baptism, calling, choosing disciples, healing, teaching, passion, death and resurrection stories.

And yet, each presents variations, slightly different orders, and yes, sometimes even these unexpected twists and turns in what needs to be emphasized. There are, after all, different people listening in — the religious leaders of the day, his disciples — people like you and me who live different lives and face different challenges. Each of us needs to hear something unique to what our needs are, apart from our neighbour. And each faith community needs to hear a unique word spoken to them.

So, while the story of the dishonest manager twists and puts our expectations on their head, perhaps there is something here worth paying attention to. “You cannot serve God and wealth” concludes the passage. And yet, the manager was looking out for his own material well-being in his shrewd and commendable actions.

Well, what is the wealth that is talked about here? For what treasure do we Christians — called the “children of the light” in this text (v.8) — search? What is the golden nugget that we seek, above all else? Again, perhaps the broader context can help us, again.

As I said, the previous stories of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost sons suggest that what is valuable in the economy of God, stands in sharp contrast to what is valuable in the economy of the world. These are treasures that are worth uprooting what is hidden, putting in the light what is shrouded in darkness, lifting up what is normally considered not worth the effort, forgiving what is unforgivable.

What does the shrewd manager value, even more than making money? He values relationships. He values keeping connected with others even though he loses what the world values — jobs, financial security and material wealth:

He reduces the amount of debt owed by the amount of his commission — as some biblical commentators suggest. He reduces the amount of interest owed, according to the Torah Law in Deuteronomy 23:19-20 — as other commentators suggest. Regardless of how we interpret the manager’s actions, we can see how much the manager values being in relationship, above all else.

The wealth described here is the treasure of being inter-related in a season of loss and disruptive change. Relationships over Resources, you could say (1).

And this truth hits us unexpectedly in the telling of the Gospel. Another classic reversal. I started this sermon with a Greek word to describe a form of speech that ends unexpectedly. Of course, the New Testament was written in Greek and influenced by Greek culture.

Greek culture often reflects this image of having a feast in the midst of famine. Another contrast of expectations, when during a famine you would not expect people to throw a large feast, and celebrate. Remember, after finding the lost sheep, the lost coin and when the Prodigal returns home, there is much rejoicing. And a feast is prepared for the whole community.

This does not make sense. To have a feast in the midst of famine. And yet, this is what we are called to do. To be children of the light, in the midst of darkness. Not to be a slave to our circumstances and meagre resources, as we may see them to be. But to release them, distribute them, relinquish our seeming control over them, all for the purpose of maintaining and strengthening our relationships.

Celebrating the gift of each other and those we meet. Relationships first, then resources. The horse before the cart, not the other way around.

We may by lying in the gutter of our lives, but we keep our gazed fixed upon the stars. We may be wallowing in an ocean of despair, regret, fear or pain — but we begin with a spoonful of water. In other words, there is always hope. There is always room to grow, to change, to something — anything — in order to make things better. This is the quality of faith.

We are never lost, abandoned and left for dead in the economy of God’s grace. After all, the rich man gives his irresponsible manager a second chance. Normally when charges are brought against an employee, charges that incriminate and prove wrong-doing to the degree of ‘squandering’ the owner’s property, the person in question is fired immediately, without question.

But something odd happens here: The rich man allows his soon-to-be-fired worker to continue doing his job for a while. The rich man gives his delinquent employee some ground, some space, to do something — anything — in order to make things better. The rich man demonstrates some grace in a relationship that has gone awry. 

Not only are the relationships in life our priority over everything else including our material resources, the quality of those relationships — according to the New Testament — are defined by grace, compassion, and love. 

An unexpected twist of the stories of our lives in the world, perhaps. Yet, these are the hallmarks of the children of light following Christ in the world.

Thanks be to God!

(1) David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 4, WJK Press; Louisville Kentucky, 2010, p.92-97

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Foolish advice

The following sermon is adapted from one preached by The Rev. Dawn Hutchings of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Newmarket, Ontario. You can read her excellent sermon on pastordawn.com. In her introduction she thanks a couple of professors from whom we both learned — Eduard Riegert and Donna Seamone. Dawn writes that preachers today stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before; today, I will add that we also lean on each other as we journey together in the ministry of preaching! 

The ‘fool’ isn’t normally taken very seriously. In period books and films set in Medieval times especially, the court jester is the character to whom nobody pays attention beyond their ability to make people laugh. These are the fools we relegate to the realms of distraction and mindless entertainment. And then they are dismissed with an impatient wave of the hand.

Who are fools in our day and age? Who do we pay lip service to, or not take seriously? Who do we seek for a little distraction for entertainment purposes — but whose advice or thoughts or words we do not heed? Because they are fools!

In the recent home release of the film, “Now You See Me 2” starring Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson, the main characters reflect on the role of “the fool” symbolized on a playing card which figures significantly in the plot of the movie. No spoilers; you have to see it!

The whole movie is structured around the power of perspective. By the end of the movie, we are dazzled by how the same words spoken at the beginning of the movie can mean the total opposite by the end. At the end of the movie, here is what they say about “the fool” (I paraphrase): “The fool starts with a blank slate. Therefore, for the fool it’s not about who they are, it’s about who they are becoming.”

Let’s turn to the Gospel reading for today in Luke 15:1-10. Among the teachings of Jesus, the parables of the lost and found are so well known, so familiar that we are in peril of failing to hear the foolishness they advocate.

Today, we just focus on the lost sheep (but the parables of the lost coin and lost sons which follow in chapter 15 of Luke can also be understood in the same way — as foolish advice!): Whether we are relating to co-workers, clients, customers, students, friends, or children none but the foolish among us would leave ninety-nine to the perils and dangers of the wilderness in order to go looking for one idiot who’d been stupid enough to get themselves lost.

These parables of the lost and found are outrageous. None of us would get very far in life if we lived by these teachings. Because we live by a different code; you know it: It is better to put the welfare of the many above the needs of one. Sometimes its better to cut your losses and move on.

The wisdom of the world lurks in us down to every last maxim: – charity begins at home. – God helps those who help themselves. – Count the cost or pay the price. – “They should just pull themselves up, by the bootstraps.” You fill in the rest…

And yet along comes Jesus, spouting such foolishness that even we who are predisposed to agree with him, even we can sympathize with the self-righteous and wonder how anyone could be expected to live like this. The chaos that would ensue if we followed the teaching of these parables as law would be horrendous. What Jesus is advocating is foolishness itself. It makes no earthly sense.  

And so the foolishness that Jesus advocates remains on the pages of our Bibles, or in the sanctuaries of our churches, or in the halls of the academies where they busy themselves arguing of the historical minutia and we smile as the familiarity of the text washes over us from time to time.

But we know full well that this is not the way for any self-respecting, 21st century person to live in the world. These are just parables after all and we can’t be expected to live by them. We’d be fools to try. After all we are not Jesus! And anyway look what happened to him! So, the foolishness that Jesus taught is reasoned into irrelevance and confined to the recesses of our consciousness. 

But what if we didn’t approach these parables with the idea of pinning down their meaning. What if we approached these parables without feeling the need to wrestle the wisdom they contain to the ground so that we can extract from them rules to live by. 

What if we allowed these parables to simply touch us? What might the foolishness they prescribe evoke in us? How might we respond to their touch? In brushing up against these parables of the lost might we feel the touch of the ONE to whom they point?

I have come to believe that only those who have known the fear, the pain and the joy of losing and finding can really feel the touch the parables of the lost. But then again, I’ve come to know that it is impossible to go through life without knowing the fear, the pain and the joy of loosing and finding again and again and again. 

Jesus came teaching in parables. The parables of Jesus come to us to “show” us what God is like and to call us to a way of being in the world. These parables, simply, have about them a “ring” of foolishness.

Because not only would a fool leave ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost. Not only would a fool leave the ninety-nine unguarded to wander aimlessly, to be ravaged by some unknown predator, to fall prey to God knows what. Not only would a fool leave to search for the stray who might be wounded, damaged, dying, not interested in being rescued. And not only would a fool risk a reputation as a wise shepherd, a careful guardian of the known and secure, to seek one lone sheep. 

But a fool would also find, restore, and be foolish to care enough to save the lost, the wandering, the lonely, the one outside the bounds of the flock. Jesus teaches by showing us in these parables: in such foolishness this God has broken into our world and does so again and again. 

The parable of the lost sheep points us in a direction of foolish and passionate abandon. The seeking shepherd who rushes off to find one sheep shows us the God who cares for us so much that the safety of the secure flock is risked so that the stray might be brought home. The mark of the reign of God will be foolishness such as this.

In the time of God’s reign shepherds will care less about flock security and principles of good management, and more about the vulnerability of the odd one out. In the time of God’s reign everyone will counted valuable enough to be cared for. In the time of God’s reign every stone, every clump of dirt, every thing, every one will be counted as valuable.

Today, as we do every Sunday, in worship, we gather in thanksgiving for the reign of God. In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. If only our lives could embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love.

In the telling of these parables, we remember that none of these stories is of the stuff of everyday fare. None of us can do this kind of relentless, reckless abandon constantly. But there are times, there are times when … The risk must be taken. The grasp on the known must be released to reach for, find and restore the lost the abandoned the wayward and yes even the self-righteous. Those we have every right to leave alone. 

In one frame of reference the shepherd should have been guarding the flock, faithful to home duties. But there is a moment that grips, a moment in which what might be choice is no choice. There is only abandon and care, compassion and joy… There is only a moment of foolishness; and then…. love.

These are not only words for individuals they are words for the collective, words for institutions and those of us who make up institutions. The parables were spoken to the Pharisees by Jesus whose comfort with the outcasts and sinners made those keepers of the gates of righteousness squirm in their holy seats. It was foolish action Jesus was about. 

The wisdom of the righteous was ossified righteousness. Theirs was the wisdom of those entrenched in their own role and task so deeply they could not see some new foolishness of God, as wisdom. These were people lost and in exile for most of their history over and over again called and delivered by God. These were the ones whose memory of deliverance could not release them to be deliverers. These people were very much like us.

The Apostle Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:20-27). These parables challenge us to be reckless and relentless in our loving and in our witness.

We are called to be vulnerable in our ministry, vulnerable to those outside the boundaries of our private lives and our community of faith: to give with no expectation of reward, to love without demand for return, to reach out to those in need with unrelenting care, to release preoccupation with the cares and concerns of our own lives (or perhaps through these cares) to reach out in love to those who are not easy to love. We are called to do all this in delight and with joy and in so doing we mirror the foolishness of God. 

St Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. By God’s grace we are the weak and the foolish. We are ‘the fool’; starting over again with a clean slate, becoming who God created us to be.

In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. We pray that our various ministries in the worlds in which we live will embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love. 

May we declare the foolishness of God by reaching out in love recklessly, and with great joy. Moment by moment….let it be so!

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Rooted in the earth, rising to the sun

Recently I have been reading about people’s experiences on the Camino de Santiago — the eight hundred kilometre walking pilgrimage through northern Spain. This walk has become more and more popular among Christians of all stripes over the past couple of decades. It seems Christians around the globe are finding the pilgrimage a good place to work through personal issues, find focus in life again and seek re-connection with God, the world and themselves.

This past week I met with one such pilgrim from Ottawa who goes at least once a year to walk some part of the Camino; in fact he is leaving today for Barcelona. I sought his experienced advice for some practical considerations for the trek. His first rule of thumb: Pack only ten percent of your body weight. For me, that would mean no more that 20 pounds in my back pack — of all that I would need for the thirty to forty day hike. Twenty pounds is not a lot!

His second rule of thumb: What you wear on your back, put only one in your pack. That’s all. For example, if you are wearing a t-shirt, pack only one other t-shirt in your back-pack. If you are wearing a pair of shorts, pack only one other pair of shorts. And so on.

He laughed when he told me that about four days in — some one hundred kilometres into the journey — you find bins and bins full of personal items people left behind. These pilgrims had realized, thankfully sooner than later, that they were simply carrying too much — stuff they didn’t really need (extra shirts, pants, sweaters, books, jackets, bed mats, blankets, etc.). A final rule of thumb from my friend: If you do take something extra, then you need to have a good reason for it besides, “I might need it.”

This discipline reflects the quality of being able to let go. It can be described as a total self-surrendering, a giving up. The term “Kenosis” has been used among Christians throughout the ages to connote this sense of releasing that which we normally feel we need to hold onto tightly.

Fourteenth century German theologian Meister Eckhart said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” (1) In our consumer culture, religion and spirituality have very often become a matter of addition: earning points with God, attaining enlightenment, producing moral behaviour. In the ‘prosperity gospel’ so popular in North America, we often hear the message that Jesus approves of you when your material and financial wealth increases; the more you have, the more in favour you are in God’s eyes.

Yet authentic, Christian faith is not about getting, attaining, achieving, performing or succeeding. The solution is not just “work harder” or “get more” of something. Our culture and economy, indeed, is based on more and more. Whereas true faith suggests: less is more. Martin Luther’s theology of Justification by Grace through Faith suggests the very same: We cannot by our own efforts achieve anything worthy of God.

So, stop trying. In fact, start doing the opposite: Let go of your pretence to manage your life according to the creed: Bigger and More is Better. Let go of a paralyzing negative body image. Let go of the inner talk that is putting yourself down, that tells you you are no good. Let go of attitudes of hatred against people who are different from you. Let go of those material aspirations that tease you into a false sense of security. Let go of being paralyzed by fear.

Instead, focus on what is essential. Appreciate that you already have enough, all that you need. When Jesus gives instruction in the Gospel text for today (Luke 14:25-33) he is travelling out on a public road, on his pilgrimage to the Cross. Remember, ever since Luke 9:51, he is already on the way to Jerusalem, his final destination. When Jesus is walking towards his death and resurrection in Jerusalem, he offers what sounds rather harsh to our ears. What is called-for here is a ‘single-mindedness’ that is needed when you travel with Jesus.

Discipleship is about being single-minded about the purpose, the goal and the mission of Jesus in the world. It is about prioritizing what is important to life in the public realm where culture, consumerism and a whole host of other distractions can keep us from this focus.

This single-mindedness demands that we think ahead, and anticipate the cost of our journey. Setting out on the road to follow Jesus requires at least a little forethought and reflection. This journey is not a light matter. Sit down and think about it a bit. Reflect.

There is not only the blessing of the assets promised, but there are the liabilities, too. Discipleship is not just one more hobby or extra-curricular activity to add to a well-rounded, prosperous life. It is not merely “a matter of pure passion and abandon” (2).

Followers of Jesus should count the cost, but also realize this is not just about counting the cost of a church building renovation or a church fund-raising project. The cost of discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer first coined the term, is about prioritizing our whole lives, not just our “church” or “Sunday morning” lives.

If someone told me a year ago that I would spend four days cut off from civilization, in the bush without cell-phone service, hauling all my food and everything I need to survive in a canoe that I would have to navigate through rapids and rocky, snake-infested portage routes — I would say they were dreaming … or talking about someone else.

Well, that’s precisely what I did last week, along the French River Provincial Park between North Bay and Sudbury. Fortunately I was not alone; I journeyed with a more experienced wilderness survivalist. 

We ended up taking more than we needed. We could have packed less food, and less clothing. The exercise, nevertheless, was confident-building for me in realizing I really don’t need that much stuff.

Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

To live life well, and faithfully, is to recognize one’s place in the world, and not to over-reach, over-extend, to be someone you are not — all on the basis of wanting more and more, bigger and better. To live faithfully, we are called to examine our dependencies, count the cost of it all, focus on what is important, and then make room in our lives for what is important by letting go.

A sojourn into the wilderness may indeed by the antidote to visions of self-aggrandizement embedded in the prosperity gospel message. Try doing without, for some time, what you may have taken for granted for too long. Try doing without what you always have believed you needed in order to live. Try Letting go. Releasing. Forgiving. 

This is not about doing away with personal boundaries. Letting go is not about condoning injustice or cruelty. Kenosis/letting go is not about being blind optimists, repressing or denying or not caring, or ‘giving up’ in frustration.

Forgiveness is a good example of letting go of the misery caused by holding on to the pain of resentment or holding a grudge. This kind of letting go brings a positivity that is based in honest struggle and prayer born out of compassion and love for self, the other, and God. The end result is a freedom and peace that cannot ever be realized through a program of simply working harder or getting more.

The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote about the contrast between the law of gravity and the rising of the trees. He writes about the gift of letting go into a place of trust: Trusting that the gift in you is enough. So that you can rise up, rooted like trees: 

How surely gravity’s law,

strong as an ocean current,

takes hold of even the smallest thing

and pulls it toward the heart of the world.


Each thing —

each stone, blossom, child —

is held in place.

Only we, in our arrogance,

push out beyond what we each belong to

for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered

to earth’s intelligence

we could rise up rooted, like trees


Instead we entangle ourselves

in knots of our own making

and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again

to learn from the things,

because they are in God’s heart;

they have never left God.

This is what the things can teach us:

to fall,

patiently to trust our heaviness.

Even a bird has to do that

before he can fly. (3)

In the poetry of scripture, the Psalmist describes beautifully the blessing we are, created in the image of God — so “wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). God would know intimately each part of our lives only if we were valuable to God and to the rest of creation. Otherwise, why would God care?

In other words, we are and have everything we need to enjoy and live to our fullest potential. We are beautiful. We don’t have to strive and strive to become someone we are not. We don’t have to ‘add’ anything to our lives to be well. In fact, when we have the courage to risk letting go, and “fall”, as Rilke poetically expresses, trusting in our “heaviness”, we will find a freedom and peace that will be the joy of all creation, and the glory of God.

We will live our lives at the same time rooted in the earth, and rising to the sun.

(1) Translated by J. Clark & J. Skinner, “Meister Eckhart: Selected Treatises & Sermons Translated from Latin and German with an Introduction and Notes”, Faber & Faber: 1958, p.194

(2) David Schnasa Jacobsen, Commentary on Luke 14:25-33 in “WorkingPreacher.org”, 2016

(3) Rainer Maria Rilke, “Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God” translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Riverhead Books: 1996, p.116-117; cited with permission in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for August 28, 2016

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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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