On the way

For years now, amid the changing realities facing our lives in the church, I have found comfort and hope in a prayer — popular among Lutherans — from Evening Prayer in the old, ‘green book’ (The Lutheran Book of Worship). It goes goes like this:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

It is a beloved prayer. The risen, living Jesus indeed goes with us.

But do we go “by paths as yet untrodden”? Yes, in the sense that each of us experiences the journey uniquely; and yes, we can’t know exactly how we will experience that journey. And yes, frankly, that’s how it sometimes feels — like we’re all alone on this journey.

I think in North America especially, the journey of life here carries with it a “frontier” mentality. We are, after all, pioneers — this is part of our history: clearing bush from the land, forging paths never trodden through the wilderness.

And more often than not we are blazing this new path on our own. It’s up to us. This vision, I believe, has captured our imagination and plays a large role in motivating our work and our identity in the church, even.

No wonder we fell so isolated and alone when things change in our lives. No wonder we are so afraid.

The first Christians in the time after Jesus rose from the dead were not called “Christian”. In fact, they were called “Followers of the Way” — the way of Jesus. It wasn’t until in Antioch years later that those who identified with the way of Jesus were labelled, “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Those first disciples — like Cleopas and his friend, that we read about in today’s Gospel (Luke 24:13-35) — were associated with a faith that was predominantly about a journey.

I like how the King James Version of this text concludes: “And they told what things were done in the way …” (v.35). The presence of Jesus is experienced together on the journey of life, following in the way of Jesus.

What if we re-claimed our original identity as “followers of the way”? What if we re-considered our image for this journey of faith we are on? What if this way was not so much about “blazing a new path, not so much a “pioneering/frontier” mentality where we create the path?

What if the journey we are on is more of a caravan route, where we follow where another has already trod?

A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St Peter meets him at the pearly gates.
St Peter says, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.”

“Okay,” the man said, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.”
“That’s wonderful,” says St Peter, “that’s worth three points!”

“Three points?” he says. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service.”
“Terrific!” says St Peter, “that’s certainly worth a point.”

“One point?” Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.”
“Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,” he says.

“TWO POINTS!!” the man cries. “At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!”

“Come on in!”

For a caravan journey to work, it is by the grace of God. It is a pathway through the wilderness, to be sure. As one plods along its winding route, we nevertheless follow the tracks of the carts and wagons and footprints etched on the roadway and left by others who have gone before us.

Jesus beckons us forward, to follow along the path he has made. Jesus is the main focus on the caravan route.

Let’s not forgot who joins the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Let’s not forget who does most of the talking — the teaching — on the road. Let’s not forget who is the host at the evening meal, and who initiates for the disciples their recognizing the living Lord when Jesus breaks bread. It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus.

There are some characteristics of this caravan journey, of note; to summarize:

First it is not a journey undertaken alone. In fact, on the caravan route it is folly to travel alone. One would do well to travel together with others for mutual support, consolation and protection along the way.

The caravan route is not a journey of isolation, but of ever-expanding community. From these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, the church moves out into the world. From the disciples’ faith emerges a mission “to all nations” (Luke 24:47). It is not a caravan that goes in circles around Jerusalem; rather, the route winds itself around the world. The Greek word for church is “ekklesia” which literally translates — “a people called OUT”. Yes, the momentum of Christianity is centrifugal — the journey is an ever-expanding mission towards the places where Jesus will be.

When asked about his success, Wayne Gretzky once said, “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.” He explains why: Imagine the fast-paced ebb and flow of the hockey game; Gretzky says, “Skating toward where the puck IS will always guarantee your arrival at a place where the puck HAS BEEN” — and that’s no good.

By following the caravan route, it is possible to discover where the risen Jesus is going in our world and not just keep going back to the empty tomb. As a popular American preacher once wrote, “Vision is not about looking in tombs for a risen Jesus. It is about listening to where he says he is going to meet us and striking out for it.”

Second, the journey’s value does not depend on our doing all the right things. For the seven mile journey to Emmaus, the disciples didn’t even know it was Jesus walking with them. Whether we know it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, even in our sadness or fear, and even when all around us everything points to the contrary of what we believe “should be”, Jesus is with us and walking with us, and talking to us. Are we listening? Are we following?

All the disciples do is practice some basic hospitality and welcome this intriguing stranger into their home. It is our job only to trust in the presence of Jesus when we gather to hear the word of God, listen to it, and break the bread at Holy Communion — and leave the rest to God.

It is our job sometimes to pay attention to however our “hearts burn”, because just maybe, it is of God.

Here is a variation of a blessing you may have heard. It is also popular among Followers of the Way today, sometimes requested at wedding ceremonies when two people embark on the journey of married life:

“The Lord go before you, to show you the way. The Lord go beside you, to hold you and protect you. The Lord go behind you, to keep you safe from all harm. The Lord go beneath you, to catch you when you fall, and show you the way up. The Lord be within you, to comfort you when you’re sad. The Lord be above you to give you grace.”

Hope in the scars

For people who are approaching retirement, or anyone else who benefits from higher interest rates, these last seven years or so has been brutal. Even in the slow recovery since 2008, the Governor of the Bank of Canada has maintained the prime lending rate at historically low levels. In a recent interview with a small business owner who has been trying to retire for several years now, cynicism was beginning to creep into his voice.

Because he told a CBC reporter that while for the last couple of years those in power have been hinting at interest rates going up, they have remained level — and could even still go down further. When asked if he believed the promise of an interest rate hike, which would better his investments for retirement, he said: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Indeed, we use this popular cliche often, especially about someone who does not have a good track record: A neighbour who constantly behaves in ways contrary to his stated good intentions — “I’ll believe it when I see it”; a teenage son or daughter who says they will complete their chores at home before going out — “I’ll believe it when I see it”; a politician who promises local infrastructure investment — “I’ll believe it when I see it”.

It seems apparent that cynicism fits like a comfortable old slipper or jacket. We go there naturally. Even though expressing it really doesn’t help the situation, and keeps us stuck in negativity and despair. Hope appears a distant relative when cynicism lives next door.

The cynic depends entirely on proof. If anyone or anything does not prove the point in question, I will not believe it to be so — especially if the proposition is positive.

So, I think we can very easily relate to the disciples of Jesus. Thomas the twin, the ‘doubting’ Thomas (John 20:19-31), is likely for us folk living in the first decades of the 21st century the most relatable character in the New Testament.

Perhaps we can relate to the men who came to the tomb after Mary’s announcement that the tomb was empty (John 20:1-18). It seems they didn’t hear the message of the angel that the risen Christ was to meet them in Galilee, and NOT at the tomb (Matthew 28:1-10). Maybe they didn’t listen because they were fixated on finding ‘proof’ of Mary’s claim: Her words “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).

Of course, they were disappointed. The ones who come to the tomb for answers don’t see Jesus there; they don’t get any proof in the empty tomb. They just find more fuel for the flames of cynicism and despair.

It is into the darkness of this mood that Jesus appears to his disciples. And when Jesus comes to them, what he does first is show them his scars. Thomas doesn’t need need to believe in propositions of glory based on proof; he needs to hear Jesus say, “Touch my wounds — see here the evidence of the lowest point of my human life, the time in my life when I was defeated and overcome and when I had been beaten down and I was myself questioning, ‘why would God forsake me’.” (Rev. Pam Driesell, http://www.day1.org “Beyond Bunnies and Jelly Beans)

This is what his wounds point to — not his triumph but his tragedy, not his victory but a time when he was vilified, a time of pain and struggle.

And this perspective turns the tables on ‘proof’. Seeking proof in the religious life is a hand-tool of ‘religion’, not of faith in a God who decided to die on a cross in order to release God’s greatest power of love for all people.

Imagine for a moment how else this story could have gone. Jesus could have said, “Look, friends, it is I — completely healed. Nothing the Romans and religious leaders did to me has any lasting effect. I am perfect again.”

Instead, Jesus said, “Hey, I am scarred and wounded. But these wounds will not keep the power and life of God from flowing through me to you! And guess what! Just as God has sent me into the world, so I send you, not to cover up your scars, not to deny your wounds, but to show people that the same power that raised me from the dead is alive in you.”

Easter is not a promise that your retirement fund and your investments will be like “it used to be” in the ’80s and ’90s when 20% was expected. Easter is not a promise that the church will be like “it used to be” in the ’60s and ’70s when everyone went to church. Easter is not a promise that your family will be like “it used to be” when the children were young and the world was so sweet and innocent. Easter is not a promise that you will be cured from all your disease and that your pulse will continue beating on this earth forever.

Easter IS a promise that the power that gave you that pulse will never abandon you. Easter IS a promise that the power that raised Jesus from the dead can raise you from despair and cynicism. Easter IS a promise that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is still at work in the world doing a new thing in you, and in the church, and in the world. Easter IS the promise that nothing in your past, present or future has the ultimate power to define you.

Because you are defined by the light, the life and the love of God that flows through you and that flows through all creation, making all things new!

We don’t find Jesus in the ‘tomb’ of proof, because proof won’t satisfy our longing for life anyway. You don’t prove love, you embrace it. You don’t prove power, you experience it. You don’t prove life, you live it. You don’t prove new life, you receive it — and share it with the world.

The divinity of our risen Lord is linked, as it was during his life and ministry on earth, with his willingness to empty himself with his radical humility (Philippians 2:5-11), and with his ready willingness to identify with “the least of these” (Matt 25:40,45). When he reveals – not hides – his scars as the risen Lord, God continues to confound the wisdom of the world by the ‘foolishness’ of the Cross (1 Cor 1:25-28). To this day.

In her short story entitled, “Revelation”, Flannery O’Conner describes a vision of souls climbing upward into the starry field, and shouting “hallelujah!” Wonder turns to shock as she discovers that all the people she had considered inferior to herself — those wounded, scarred and beaten up by life — are leading the procession. And that reputable people like her are pulling up the rear.

Perhaps Thomas’ confession of tears is a coming-to-terms with that Christ-like identity and mission. Perhaps when Thomas finally believes and on his knees worships the risen Lord, he understands that he is now called by name to join the triumphant procession to honour the crucified and risen Christ. Thomas is, as we are all, invited to join Jesus on a heaven-bound journey that requires the humility to join the back of the line, to be vulnerable with our wounds, and to give up our conceited, self-centred, and cynical ways.

Let us pray: Life-giving God, may the power that raised Jesus from the dead fill us anew this Easter season, that we might boldly embody your love in all the world that you so love. Amen.

The Pilate problem and the gift of God’s perfect action

In Pilate’s actions (Matthew 27:11ff) we witness how we can be so divided, inside ourselves, between what we believe/what we say — and what we end up doing.

Pilate is convinced Jesus is innocent. He tries all manner of techniques — appealing to tradition to free one prisoner, even having Jesus flogged — all in order to keep him from being crucified. Even Pilate’s wife intervenes to try convincing Pilate to release Jesus.

And for this we can sympathize with Pilate. We can appreciate the political struggle. He is caught between a rock and a hard place: He can use his authority to do the ‘right’ thing but incur the wrath of the crowds and incite rebellion; or, he can do the ‘wrong’ thing but keep political stability in the occupied territories, not to mention his job.

Self-preservation seems to be a guiding motivation for Pilate. But, in the end, when all has been said and done, we hang our heads low in confession that Pilate failed. In contrast to the bloodied and tortured man that stood across from him, he was no man of integrity.

When Pilate washes his hands, he does so symbolically making himself innocent from the crucifixion of Jesus. But Pilate deludes himself from taking responsibility as the governor of the region; because, in truth, the authority to condemn someone to death rested on his shoulders. Even though he washes his hands to try to rid his conscience of the truth, he is culpable. Ironic, isn’t it, that in John’s gospel, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

We have heard the saying that not doing anything is doing something. There is no such thing as ‘abstaining from life’. Whether this problem is manifested in pretending not to see something happen on the road or in the mall that would require us to take a risk to help someone in need; whether self-preservation motivates us to hide or run away when what is called upon is our help; when we ignore a text or email from someone because what they say exposes us or asks us to deal with an uncomfortable truth.

These are some examples of the Pilate problem showing up in our lives — when we delude ourselves into believing there can be no significant consequence from our inaction; when we deceive ourselves into not doing anything, as a strategy for dealing with a difficult situation that requires our attention and action; when we fool ourselves to think that by ignoring someone or something we are doing some good.

Not doing anything is doing something. The question then, is: What is ‘doing nothing’ actually doing? Is not doing anything making the problem worse? Is not doing anything keeping people stuck in unhealthy habits and relationships? Is not doing anything enabling evil to accomplish its diabolic purposes?

We compulsively lay judgement on our’s and others’ actions that result in bad things; these are traditionally known as the sins of commission. But how much have we considered bad things that have resulted in not doing anything at all? The sins of omission are failure to do what one can.

This Good Friday is a good time to reflect personally on what our action, and our inaction, actually accomplishes in our families, marriages, our workplaces and church. More than what our words say, what does our behaviour communicate? Because when it’s all been said and done, our lives are a testimony to our actions.

As Dumbledore advised Harry Potter — in J.K. Rowling’s popular children’s books: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Who God truly is, was shown no more clearly and profoundly than in the Passion of Christ. But ‘Passion’ is not passive. God is doing something in the Passion of Christ. And there’s no way Pilate knew what was afoot — what his waffling was actually leading to, in God’s great work. So, in the end, the Passion story is not about the failure of Pilate, Peter, Judas and the deserting disciples. In the end, this is a story whose principle character is God, in Jesus Christ.

What does Jesus do, before Pilate? You will note that Jesus remained predominantly silent throughout his trial (Matthew 27:11-14). It’s not about what he says. Though he admits he could have called upon his disciples to fight to save him (John 18:36), though he confesses he is “the king of the Jews”, he knows what he must do.

When it’s all been said and done, Jesus against certain torture, mutilation and humiliation, had aligned his inner compass on true north. He was “a man despised and dejected” (Isaiah 53:3). But because he never wavered in his actions at the end, God “allotted him a portion with the great” (Isaiah 53:12).

God, in Jesus, showed us that our God is trustworthy, faithful and true to us, no matter how dire the consequence or even how divided in our lives we are. Nothing will stop God from trying to reach out to us in love. God, if anything, is persistent. God in Christ Jesus is, in the famous words of 19th century English poet Francis Thompson, the “hound of heaven”, who wont stop at anything to accomplish what is good, and what is right.

After all, when it’s all been said and done, nothing we can say nor do can even come close to what God accomplished on the Cross.

In this Good Friday liturgy, we have been focusing on the symbols of the Passion of Christ, culminating in the Cross, which is of greatest value in Christianity.

In the German, Lutheran tradition of worship on Good Friday, special effort is made to emphasize and cover as much as possible with the colour black.

In late medieval times, the colour black became the popular fashion choice for royalty in Europe. The more common, least expensive methods of pigmentation resulted in a brighter array of colours. But ‘vine black’ — obtained from burning the twigs of grape vines — was according to the 15th century painter, Cennino Cennini, “the perfect colour.”

Hard, laborious work was employed to extract even a little bit of this perfect colour. In order to yield the perfect result on a canvas or in clothing, a sacrifice of comparable worth was made.

Black was gold. Black signified a valuable and, above all, worthwhile expression of faith on “Good” Friday. While the colour black can signal temperance, penitence, sorrow and a mournful mood, it also points to a greatness beyond any human effort. This colour, as a symbol of faith on Good Friday, points to the greatest, most perfect, sacrifice of love by God that yields the greatest power, even over death itself.

God is not passive. God doesn’t sit around. God is active. That is why we adore the Cross — to symbolize the ultimate triumph of God.

Let us give thanks this day, that Christ’s action made all the difference in, and changed, the world forever.

Easter: Reset on Life

Much of this reflection is adapted from the Rev. Pam Driesell’s excellent sermon, “Beyond Bunnies and Jelly Beans” (Easter A, April 24, 2011) found at day1.org. Thank you!

Easter is fun. And like Christmas, we say that these holidays are for the children.

Anticipation brightens our mood. Lilies and new clothes and family visits and Easter dinner preparations consume our attention.

But there’s a reason for the fun. So, I sympathize with the Mother who tried with very little success to convey to her four-year old daughter the meaning of Easter. It went something like this:

“Mommy, will the Easter bunny bring me purple jelly beans?”

“I am sure he will bring you jelly beans, love. But, remember, Easter isn’t about the bunny. It’s about Jesus.”

“But will they be purple?”

“Yes, honey, I am sure there will be some purple ones in there. Honey, the important thing about Easter isn’t the bunny. Easter is about how much Jesus loves you and me and the whole world.”

“Mommy, HOW MANY purple jelly beans will the Easter Bunny bring me?”

“Sweat heart, I think he will probably bring plenty of purple jellybeans. Do you know how much Jesus loves you?”

“Mommy ….”

“Yes, dear?”

“Will he bring me tootsie rolls, too?”

For a four-year old, Easter bunnies and purple jelly beans and tootsie rolls are just way more interesting than JESUS, and they are enough to make Easter fun. And fun is, for a four-year old, enough!

But my guess is that, unless you are four, you are also looking for something beyond candy-coated cliches added to the assortment of jellybeans we consume, purple or otherwise. We want to know something of what poor Mommy was trying to convey to her daughter.

Because Mom knows that her daughter won’t always be four, and sooner-AND-later all of us will encounter those changes in life that challenge us and often bring us to our knees. Life happens: In addition to all the joys and satisfaction and blessings of life, we encounter the dark night of heart-wrenching grief, devastating disappointment or smothering guilt. And when we do, we will need MORE than bunnies and jelly beans.

The story from the bible we read every year during Easter is the single most important reason we ever get together. It is the heartbeat of the Christian community. It is the hope to which we cling and the promise upon which we stand. It is the very essence of the Christian faith. It is much more than cliche.

Easter is about life. And what is more, Easter is about putting meaning in our lives once again. The message of the resurrection of Jesus is about new life, and starting over. Easter is about being given the permission to press the reset button on life. And this is a great and valuable gift.

How valuable?

Scientists have studied the mineral and chemical composition of the human body. The chemical and mineral composition of the human body breaks down as follows: 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, 1.5% calcium, 1% phosphorous, and less than 1% of potassium, sulphur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium, iron and iodine; oh, and there are trace quantities of fluorine, silicon, manganese, zinc, copper, aluminum and arsenic.

If we took all those parts and sold them on the common market, it would be worth about a dollar (Canadian). Now, our skin, I read, is our most valuable physical asset; it’s worth about $4. So, added all up, we’re worth just over $5!

But take a moment now to place your hand on your wrist or on your lower neck on either side of your windpipe; go ahead. Let’s all be quiet and still together for a moment.

What do you feel? You feel your pulse. You feel the mystery of biological life beating through your $5 worth of chemicals and minerals. And that mystery is worth much, much more.

Easter is about the power and meaning of life — the power and meaning and purpose that makes $5 worth of elements, priceless. The gift of life, and its meaning for each of us, individually, is priceless.

The Brazilian writer, Paulo Coelho, used the image of a sword to describe the gift given to him as a mark of graduation. After all, he was graduating from a magical order and the sword would befit such an accomplishment.

At the last moment, alas!, it was snatched from him, and he was ordered to go on the road. “Somewhere on this journey,” he conceded, “I will find my sword.” Because he felt strongly that he deserved such as prize, he was determined. However, all along the sometimes tiresome, sometimes dangerous and ever-adventurous journey, the sword proved elusive. He couldn’t find it.

He arrived at his destination disappointed and dejected. He thought himself a failure. And then, in a moment of inspiration, the doors were flung open and the purpose of his pilgrimage came to light: The very reason he was called upon this journey was to make him ask the question: “What am I going to us my sword for?” He realized in this moment of epiphany that a sword is pointless unless you have asked, and answered, that question.

That point of destination was no ending, but only a new beginning. He knew he had to return home to discover the meaning and purpose of his prize — to know how he would use this very special gift. (Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey, p.188)

As followers of Christ, we have been given the gift of resurrection. Jesus is alive, today. That is what we celebrate: Not only the joy of that first Easter morning over two thousand years ago. But to reflect and get ready for a re-start in our lives today, wherever we are.

Easter addresses that human longing to start over, but this time with renewed vigour for life. Saint Augustine called the restart a longing for God, the restlessness that only finds rest in God. Paul Tillich called it the ground or the power of being itself. Kierkegaard called it the leap of faith that quells anxiety. Easter is the Christian answer to the desire to live life ever abundantly, as Jesus willed for us (John 10:10).

This is not an easy accomplishment.

Mary came to the tomb thinking that death was the end for Jesus. She goes in the dark, presumably to prepare Jesus’ $5 worth of minerals and chemicals for burial. She is resigned to the finality of the journey — death. She is grieving. At first she does not even recognize new life when it is in front of her. But when the Risen Christ speaks her name (John 20:16) she knows.

The Lenten journey is symbolic of our journey of life: It isn’t always easy to trod the path that Jesus made to the Cross — the Cross of personal self-reflection, the Cross of confessing our sins and our ultimate dependence on God, the Cross which symbolizes a profound letting go of all that inhibits life in us and in the world. It isn’t always easy to look at the suffering and dying Jesus in our midst.

Maybe you can relate to Mary? (Or the disciples who when they first hear the news from Mary, “they don’t believe” — Luke 24:11). Maybe on this Easter 2014 you are resigned to the futility of life and the awful pain of death, the finality of death: perhaps the death of a beloved friend or family member, perhaps the death that pervades our culture, tragic deaths that come as a result of war, terrorism, violence, natural disasters the world over; perhaps the death of a business, friendship, even the church.

Maybe even one or more of these things has convinced you that not much makes sense in this life and although you are breathing, your heart is beating, but it is also breaking. There’s been so much sorrow and loss in your life that you showed up here today not looking for life but expecting to find more of the same … Easter bunnies and jelly beans … some candy-coated cliches that do not touch the real questions of your life or bring comfort to your deep grief.

As Jesus called Mary’s name, so the Risen Christ calls each one of us by our name. We are called by name to stand up and receive the gift of his new life. We are called by name to stand up, and press the reset button on our lives. We are called, each of us by name, to stand up and embrace the deep meaning of what this gift of new life means to us: to live abundantly in Christ whose life breathes and lives in us, now. And, then, we are called to share that new life in the world.

The living Jesus is always one step ahead of us, beckoning us to the future. The angel in the tomb instructs Mary to go ahead to Galilee where they will see Jesus (Matthew 28:7). And when Jesus suddenly appears to his disciples behind locked doors, he instructs them to share the news that Jesus will meet with all the disciples in Galilee (Matthew 28:10). New life in Christ is forward-looking; Jesus awaits us in God’s good future. There is hope in the possibilities of God’s future for us.

And that, my friends, is better news than bunnies and jellybeans. It is the reason for all our alleluias!

So, let us in this Eastertide, press the re-set button on life. The life of Jesus is our precious gift. A journey may come to an end, in a sense. The journey of Lent is behind us; it is done, for now. The darkness has cleared.

But it is the dawn of the day. A new journey begins.

It is time to begin, again.

Hallelujah! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

You shall know them by their food

School children were asked to bring, for show-and-tell, a symbol that would describe best their religion. Each would take a turn to stand in front of their class, hold up their object and first, without saying a word, wait until one of their peers would successfully guess to which religion they belonged.

The first child held up some prayer beads — a rosary. “Roman Catholic,” someone called out. Later, the second child held up a picture of the Star of David. “Judaism,” another said. There was an awkward pause before the third child rushed through the door to the front of the classroom. In her oven-mitted hands she held up a piping hot casserole dish. There was silence.

The girl’s mouth hung open in disbelief. “You mean you can’t tell?” she croaked. “I’m Lutheran!”

After this month’s well-attended men’s breakfast group where we basically took over a whole corner of the restaurant, we joked that pretty soon the men’s breakfast group might have more out for their monthly gatherings than we get out for midweek worship! So true — if there is food on the agenda of any social gathering, you’ll likely find at least one Lutheran in the crowd.

Indeed, eating together is central to not only Lutheran identity, but for Christians in general. Someone once noted that in each chapter of the Gospel of Luke you will find at least one reference, directly or indirectly, to food or eating (Kelly Fryer, The Lutheran Course).

And that explains why when Christians gather to worship, the Holy Meal is a cornerstone of the liturgy. What distinguishes us from every other religion in our worship practice is that we eat together. Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., don’t differ from Christians when it comes to practicing their faith in word, song or spoken/unspoken prayer. But the Holy Communion — the meal — distinguishes a truly Christian worship service.

And a truly Christian worship service is done together, with others. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). The author of Hebrews exhorted the followers of the Christian way to meet regularly: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together …” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Because around the table where bread is broken and wine is poured, the love and presence of Christ is experienced.

The Holy Communion is the climax of Christian worship because it best embodies a communal experience of God. We can eat alone. But sharing food causes us to love another.

Last month the Lutheran clergy in Ottawa met for lunch. We went to a restaurant where they serve Dim Sum: This method of sharing food is truly a communal act: We all sit around the same, round table — a rather large one. Then, from menus, we choose the food.

But what we choose is not an individual dish. It is a plateful of the same food that we share by circulating the plate around the table. When we order, we need to check in with all the others to see if that’s also something they would like to try. Eating Dim Sum, as unfamiliar as it may feel, and challenging to coordinate, is worth the work. It is an experience of community building and of practising a self-giving kind of love. Because we need to compromise, give-and-take, and take some risks — all for the sake of the community.

Lutheran worship is not about creating a space for private, individualistic encounters with Jesus. Lutheran worship is not about providing individuals with a what-is-in-it-for-me kind of entertainment. Lutheran worship is not about removing ourselves from the actual social context of the service.

In other words, when we kneel at the railing and come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ, we are doing so in a profound awareness of who is standing or kneeling with us, beside us, at the table of The Lord. We seek their forgiveness, as we forgive them. We are doing this together — sometimes a hard work, but well worth it.

On Maundy Thursday we pause to consider that last evening Jesus had with his followers, his closest disciples. And we recall what he did: He had a meal with them to assure them, and us over two thousand years later, that whenever we eat this meal in his name, Christ is there with us. To underscore his ever-present promise, Jesus kneels in humility and love to wash his disciples’ feet (John 13), and then prays for their unity (John 17) in the Garden of Gethsemane.

On this night we gather not as individuals seeking private, abstract encounters with an imagined God, but as the broken Body of Christ — his body, the church. We gather together to receive the assurance of his forgiveness of our sins, to regard one another in love as co-travellers on the journey of faith, and to share in the food which is his loving presence in our lives. In so doing, we bear faithful witness to the world, that Christians are united in the passion of Jesus.

Cross directions

In response to the changing realities of the church, the Eastern Synod this year is making a significant change to the way it organizes itself for ministry and mission

No longer will there be Conferences — like the Ottawa / St Lawrence Conference to which we belong. This Spring the Conference structure gives way to smaller units called ‘Ministry Areas’. This transition will likely be the focus of church-wide meetings over the next couple of months. We will be a part of about 8 or so congregations forming the ‘Ottawa Ministry Area’ whose local leadership will be appointed by the Bishop.

How will this new structure operate? Certain technical aspects of how elections to Synod and national conventions will work, for example, are part of these constitutional changes that will be considered. But how will it work in the sense of achieving the mission of the church?

Lately, again, I sat around a table of pastors and lay leaders of Montreal Ministry Area congregations who, literally, are up against a wall — for their shrinking resources and inability to afford ministry the way they used to. They know they have to work closer together, and share resources such as church buildings and pastors. And they have come up with some small, concrete plans for the near future: They are planning some combined worship events and more focused leadership meetings. But how will this new cooperation function and look like? That’s still up in the air.

And it’s not too long into our future in Ottawa when more and more of our congregations here will be pressed into a greater need to look at different models for ministry. How will that work? What will be the end result?

In reviewing the results of the pastoral care survey that was circulated over the last month here, one of your top choices for workshops was to get more information and help around making a housing change — downsizing — when physical limitations increase with age. You instinctively know that this is the direction, eventually, that many of us eventually take. But, for you who haven’t yet made that big change, how will that look? Where will you go? You may not know precisely how that will pan out, especially when spouses and their health are in the equation as well. You just know that a change will need to be made at some point.

Palm Sunday is just that day in the church calendar where the need to know the end result is tempered by the realization of what it will take to get there. On Palm Sunday, we focus on the direction more than the goal itself.

And this may be why Palm Sunday and especially Holy Week worship is not a very popular draw for Christians in our day. Because we are saving all our church energy for Easter, right?

Our culture, and the dominant belief system of the secular world today, is mesmerized by goals, and goal-setting. I was sitting around a table with Lutherans from the Missouri Synod, ELCIC and CALC. We are planning together a musical event to celebrate the Reformation, later this year. It was at our last meeting when someone said: “What is our goal? I need to know what the goal is for this cooperative effort.”

Management by results seems to be these days the methodology of choice, evidenced by how our politicians govern to how churches run their activities. While I believe time is never wasted in clarifying purpose, we may need to practice exercising a bit of humility when it comes to anticipating certain results.

A man and a woman were married for many years. Whenever there was a confrontation, yelling could be heard deep into the night. The old man would shout, “When I die, I will dig my way up and out of the grave and come back and haunt you for the rest of your life!”

Neighbours feared him. The old man liked the fact that he was feared. Then, one evening, he died when he was 98. After the burial, her neighbours, concerned for her safety, asked: “Aren’t you afraid that he may indeed be able to dig his way out of the grave and haunt you for the rest of your life?”

The wife said, “Let him dig. I had him buried upside down … and I know he won’t ask for directions.”

Perhaps it is time for Christians to ask more questions about the direction of our faith. We know the ultimate end, as Christians. We know that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. We know what our destination is. It is the direction that causes us trouble no matter how often we affirm in our creeds and sing from our hearts about heavenly glory.

Palm Sunday, as it ushers in Holy Week and the Passion of our Lord, may be a good time to reflect on the way, the direction, that Jesus calls us in our lives on earth. While Jesus may very well have know for certain the end result of his passion and suffering, Holy Week emphasizes the direction — the humility, the emptying, the letting go, and the loss — that the Cross of Christ stands for.

The children’s video we viewed this morning ended significantly: the path Jesus saw from his vantage point atop the donkey amid the Hosanna-cheering crowds was leading Jesus not to the glory of resurrection, but to the condemnation of the religious leaders and Roman authorities awaiting him.

It’s the direction we are asked to consider during Holy Week, not the goal.

What does this approach ask of us?

In a recent, popular, healthy-living book by Maria Brilaki called “Surprisingly Unstuck”, she makes the argument to focus on a lifestyle change as opposed to fixating on results. Rather than motivate or will yourself towards a goal — for example, lose five pounds in a week — instead practice making small choices: Eat an apple for a snack instead of a chocolate bar; walk up the flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator; refrain from that second helping at dinner, etc. Greater success comes to those who focus on small, healthy habits in the moments of daily living rather than forcing or willing some grandiose change based on a perceived goal.

Making small steps in the direction and according to the values of one’s faith, is better than expecting that by our strength alone we can engineer our salvation and the salvation of the world.

In the lectionary study this past week, we reflected upon the second reading for today from Philippians. One of the very good questions arising from our conversation was: How do we become humble, like our Lord? It’s hard to imagine what a humble life might look like in the manner of Jesus. Because, after all, none of us is Jesus. So, what does it mean to be Christ-like, or “little Christs”, as Martin Luther put it?

Saint Paul described the character of a humble lifestyle in the context of this reading from the second chapter of Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (v.3-4); “…for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v.13).

The result of this life-style may look very different, person from person. Mother Theresa in the 20th century exercised genuine humility differently from the martyrs of the early church or from millionaires today who sell off their riches in order to serve the poor in developing countries, or from a teenager who volunteers tirelessly in a nursing home, or asking a neighbour her viewpoint on something you hold near and dear to your heart, even if that opinion is different than yours.

While the result of our work may not be clear, from our vantage point now, we have enough to go on in the direction of our faith. Call it instinct. Call it conviction. Call it the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is God’s work enabling us in the direction of our faith.

So, if down-sizing is inevitable, what to do? If we can’t see exactly how it’ll turn out in the end, perhaps we can practice now little habits of letting go — whether in the way we pray, or giving away treasured possessions little by little.

If we can’t see now how the church will be organized in twenty years, but instinctively know significant things will have to change, perhaps now we can do little things to share ministry with other congregations, build friendships with those from other congregations, organize events with other churches and share space.

That path set before us, as it most definitely was for Jesus over two thousand years ago, may be difficult, challenging and uncomfortable. But perhaps by focusing on the little ways we can share the love of Jesus with each other and the world around us — we will, in the end, experience God’s work and power in our lives.

Let it so be. In Jesus’ name.

A sob story

When Martin Luther said that “the fewer the words the better the prayer”, I wonder if that could also be applied to reading the bible. In Luther’s summary of prayer, he implies that a deeper, more meaningful, connection with God is made when we get more of ourselves out of the way; namely, our words.

Considering the lengthy Gospel texts from John assigned for these Sundays in Lent, I am immediately drawn to what is conventionally known as the shortest verse in the bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35 ESV/KJV). Coming to this point in the reading (John 11:1-45) is like stumbling on a diamond in the rough, landing at an oasis in the midst of the Gospel’s drawn-out narrative. At verse 35, I am permitted to pause, even for a breath.

The phrase is abrupt, unpolished and unrefined. In its simplicity nevertheless is revealed a precious nugget of understanding Jesus – his person and purpose.

Last summer, photos of the “crying cop” went viral following a tense stand-off between protestors and police. During the protest, which became violent, police clashed with crowds who objected to human rights abuses by the government of President Aquino in the Philippines.

The police officer, Joselito Sevilla, was among hundreds of armed military police facing the protestors. As the photo shows, he’s a big, intimidating man. And yet, for most of the protest, he made the peace sign, and wept. Many commentators have reflected on what brought about those tears – and the message sent by his unexpected behavior.

A king is not saved by his great army;

A warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

The war horse is a vain hope for victory,

And by its great might it cannot be saved. (Psalm 33:16-17)

If not by physical might, strength and intimidating power, then by what?

Jesus’ dear friend, Lazarus, teaches Jesus to cry. The Gospel writer makes clear that some of Jesus’ closest friends were Mary, Martha and Lazarus (John 11:3,5). Friendships of love (translated in this text from the Greek, philio) literally bring Jesus down to earth, and make him human, as well.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as a divine being sent by God. Repeatedly John emphasizes Jesus’ direct relationship with God the Father. For example, in this story, Jesus looks heavenward and prays, “Father, I thank you for having heard me …” (v.41-42). But it is an act of humanity that starts the rock rolling, again literally, to the cross.

There is so much in this story that links the death and rising of Lazarus to the anticipated death and resurrection of Jesus – symbols like the stone sealing the burial tomb, and then rolling away. It was the raising of Lazarus that initiated the plot to kill Jesus (v.46-53: “From that day on they planned to put him to death”).

The shortest verse in the bible precipitates the greatest divine act in all of history. Jesus’ humanity – his compassion and his ability to feel loss and grief as we all do – is the anchor in the unfolding divine drama.

What does it mean to cry? There is power in tears.

Emotional tears often result in peace. Crying erases the competitive edge between people. Divisions are dissolved. Hearts of cold stone melt and crumble. Biologist Oren Hasson suggests that humans evolved emotional tears as a way to show others that we were vulnerable, that we would prefer to make peace (http://chealth.canoe.ca/channel_section_details.asp?text_id=5742&channel_id=11&relation_id=27878).

When most people see a crying face, don’t we feel an urge to ask what is wrong, to offer help or empathy? Hasson claims that “emotional tears signaled our willingness to trust and become bonded into supportive, protective communities. And crying when we felt fearful or vulnerable or when we felt a sense of unity could then have developed into the kind of emotional crying we all do now and then.”

He goes on to distinguish between good and bad crying. A good cry happens when criers receive support from those around them. Moreover, criers get a boost if they come to a realization, a new understanding, or resolution regarding the thing that made them cry.

Crying cleanses. It releases what’s pent up. It lets go. And therefore, spiritual guides over the millennia have identified what they have called, “the gift of tears”. Shedding tears has become a valuable spiritual gift not only in the contemporary world of pastoral care and counselling, but as an experience of God’s deep love for all people in the midst of human misery and suffering (http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20717226?uid=3739448&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3737720&uid=4&sid=21103926560643). Pope Francis recently extolled the ‘gift of tears’ as an appropriate expression of prayer for approaching great mysteries of life (National Catholic Report, September 16, 2013).

Authentic tears welling from the heart promote peace where humans are bound by division and hatred. Lazarus was raised because Jesus’ tears evoked a faithful response by those gathered around the tomb with him. People responded to Jesus’ request for help to “take away the stone” (v.39) and “unbind him and let him go” (v.44). Jesus’ own vulnerability leads to the building of a community, where each one of us is called upon to unbind and set free wherever people – including ourselves – are shackled by chains of hatred, fear, rage or shame.

It was Jesus’ actions, in the end, that got this ball rolling. It’s his action of raising Lazarus that results in the Passion. It’s his crying that evokes the response of the crowd to help move the stone and unbind Lazarus.

Martha, too, says all the right things. Before Jesus does anything in this story, she is confessing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God (v.27). But it’s not enough. She also has to experience, personally, the power of Christ’s humanity and divinity. The experience of Jesus’ presence counts here, not just all the right words, doctrines and confessions of faith that one says.

It’s not enough to say we believe. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus admonished his followers (Matthew 7:21). We have to ACT in ways that reflect the truth and presence of Jesus. Even if it means being vulnerable, and crying in the presence of others.

And in that perceived weakness, we will witness the loving power of God. It is the power of God shown in human weakness (1 Corinthians). It is the cross of Jesus where death will be overcome. It is an act of supreme love that conquers the powers of the world.