Changing your mind on faith

This past week I was finishing up on my monthly calls to shut-ins and those who are not easily able to attend worship services here. And it was in a couple of conversations where I felt particularly moved. Of course, I am not mentioning any names or specific circumstances.
“Sometimes I wonder if I have enough faith,” said one.
“When is it that you feel that you might not have enough faith?” I asked, prompting further: “What kinds of things are happening when you think you might not have enough faith?””Whenever things are not going well for me. When I’m suffering, or in pain. When it hurts. When I’m afraid that the worst will happen.”
Speaking Lutheran to Lutheran, I mentioned that the 16th century reformer was an anxious person. Martin Luther was terrified, for example, of dying. “I think that’s probably very normal,” I said. “Even people we consider giants of the faith, were afraid and scared especially when they thought they were going to die.”
Our conversation continued until we concluded that to have faith was not apart from all that scares us or causes us suffering and pain. Faith happens inspite of the difficulties of life. The challenging circumstances of life don’t define and determine our faith or lack thereof; Our faith or lack thereof is expressed amidst the realities of living.
“Faith is real only when we face and embrace the suffering of our lives.”
And it is here that we encounter what Jesus is getting at in the Gospel text today: We are not harmed by what comes from outside of us — including difficult circumstances — but by what is going on inside of us: what we think and say (Mark 7, James 1).
I like the more positive way the Deuteronomist expresses the same lesson — this to the Israelites entering the Promised Land: “Take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen [that is, the great acts of God to free the people from slavery in Egypt and sustain them through the desert wanderings] … nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life…” (Deuteronomy 4:9). Don’t forget! Don’t forget who and whose you are! Because what we do comes straight from what and how we think.
If we are honest, this life can take a toe-hold on our imagination — with values, goals, material aspirations and selfish projects that affect our way of thinking. I would add, cultural values that lead us to conclude that only if everything is perfect in my life — no pain, no tears, no suffering and lots and lots of money — then and only then can I have faith, believe in God and be active in my faith.
The Gospel message of Jesus Christ enduring throughout human history is all about a renewing of the mind — embracing a whole new way of thinking. Paul expresses this in one of his letters to the early church: “Be renewed in the way you think …” he counselled the Ephesians (2:23). Because often the way we think — our attitudes and opinions — are downright unhelpful and evil. “All these evil things come from within,” Jesus warns (Mark 7:23).
Sometimes we hold on to our opinions as if they were sacrosanct even though they may be unhelpful. But have we ever really examined our opinions? We often look down upon others (and ourselves), and dare I say politicians, who ‘change their mind’ about something or other. Waffling, we believe, or changing our mind about controversial subjects especially, is bad and suggests a weak personality. And yet God, even, changed his mind about bringing disaster upon the people when Moses and other prophets engaged God in passionate debate (eg. Exodus 32:14). If God is able to change directions, could we not too?
To change our way of thinking to be less self-centred and more other-centred.To change our way of thinking to find meaning more in serving others than serving self.To change our way of thinking about doing something good not out of fear or shame but more out of a heart filled with compassion.
“Once upon a time a king was strolling through the forest and he saw an old man, a poor man, bent over a furrow. He walked up to him and saw that he was planting seeds for chestnut trees. He asked the old man why he was doing it and the old man replied, ‘I love the taste of chestnuts.’
“The king responded, ‘Old man, stop punishing your back bent over a hole in the ground. Do you really not know that by the time even one of these trees has grown tall enough to bear nuts, you may not be around to gather them?’
“And the old man answered, “Your Majesty, if my ancestors had thought the way you do, I would never have tasted chestnuts.'” (Juan Gomez-Jurado, God’s Spy, Orion Books, Great Britain, 2007, p.164-165)
I had another inspiring conversation this week with someone who is caring for a loved one suffering with illness. She decided to invite some friends struggling with similar challenges over for a meal. These friends, especially, were down and depressed about their mutually-shared, tough circumstances.
And yet, over the tasty meal and dancing to music and laughter, something shifted in the climate of the meeting. The next day, the host received an email from one of the friends who visited: “Thank you for your generosity and love. I was so encouraged by the visit, that when I returned home, I changed into my gardening clothes, went outside to the front yard and trimmed the bush that had gotten way out of hand.” It was like the fearful, anxious, angst-ridden Martin Luther who said that if he knew the end of the world was going to happen tomorrow, he would still go out and plant an apple tree today. Now, that’s faith.
Here’s my confession today: Often I wonder whether it’s even possible. Whether we can change our minds towards God and God’s ways in Jesus Christ, no matter what circumstance of life in which we find ourselves. Sometimes I doubt that our minds can be renewed into the likeness of Jesus when we are sick, when we feel destitute and deprived, when things don’t go our way. When times are tough, we often knee-jerk into old, often destructive patterns of thinking. Will we, indeed, have enough faith, to see things differently and not despair?
It is here when, despite how I feel, I affirm a faith that says: No matter what you think, Martin, no matter what anyone else thinks, God will not forget you. Even if I have a lapse of memory and forget who I am and whose I am, even though our minds may go completely, this is the promise of the One who created us: “I will not forget you; I have inscribed you on the palms on my hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16). Because of who God is, I can therefore act boldly on a way of thinking that is based in trust. Trust this loving God who will not let go of us. Ever. And no matter what.
Thanks be to God!

‘One little word’

“Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods …. Now … choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:2,15)

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places … ” (Ephesians 6:10-12)

My mother told me the story of a dramatic stand made by Christians against Hitler on Easter Sunday 1942 in Norway: The Nazis had insisted that every Lutheran congregation praise God for Hitler’s rule over the Norwegians. The Lutheran Church considered this blasphemy, and refused. Every Norwegian Church closed that Easter Sunday morning. And instead they agreed to worship in the afternoon.

Later that day in one of the villages the people assembled in the market place. And because they were scared, they began singing what Lutherans have sung for over 400 years when they were afraid: “A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing …”

And they slowly began to walk to the steps of the village church — only to find the doors locked and guarded by a company of SS soldiers with submachine guns trained at them. When the Christians arrived at the front steps, having finished the first verse of Martin Luther’s famous hymn, an SS officer grabbed a woman holding a baby in her arms and said: “One more verse and she gets it first”, pointing the weapon at her head.

In the tense silence, the people, not knowing what to do, looked down at their feet.

And then, a single, soft, quivering voice began … 

“Though hordes of devils fill the land, all threatening to devour us, we tremble not, unmoved we stand, they cannot overpower us. Let this world’s tyrant rage … his might is doomed to fail. God’s judgement must prevail. One little word subdues him.”

It was the voice of the woman holding the baby. “One little word subdues him.” The soldiers were the ones in a moment of indecision who looked down at their boots. And then quietly they shuffled out of sight to let the worshippers enter the church.

One little word subdues him. Not a loud trumpet call. Not an explosion of spectacular proportions. Not an air strike obliterating the enemy. Not a bravado that denies human frailty and vulnerability. Not eloquent oration. Not a motivational speech rallying the crowd into a frenzy. One little word subdues him.

The themes of ‘standing up against evil’ and ‘taking a stand’ pervade the scriptures assigned for this Sunday. We must choose our god. We must stand up. Especially in the context of a multi-faith community. But how do we do this when all we want to do is stare down at our feet, immobilized with fear?

Because we are surrounded by diverse peoples. And that isn’t going to change. At least we can relate to the Ephesians. The Christians in Ephesus were probably taken to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of Domitian; Ephesus in the first century was also a thriving commercial city and the cultic centre of goddess Artemis. (Haruko Nawata  Ward, Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 3 Fortress Press, 2009, p.376). Christians were challenged to be confident in their faith amidst challenging times. Change some of the names, and it feels a bit like Canada in the 21st century!

And as simple as we sometimes may want to reduce the question of evil, the scriptures present a more subtle and systemic view of evil. In other words, evil is not just a little red man with a pitch fork sitting on your shoulder tempting you to do something bad. Evil is also, and more significantly, about forces beyond the immediately ‘individual’, into the realms of politics, world history, economics. 

More than against “flesh and blood” evil is also about certain patterns of thinking. Our attitudes and underlying beliefs and assumptions about people of other faiths and values.

Standing up against evil and taking a stand is just is as much to do with changing the way we think about ‘them’. Standing up against evil is about repudiating ways of thinking and unspoken assumptions that have only served to hurt and damage other people. Sometimes the way we think — the common sense assumptions of our culture — are downright evil and wrong. Let me give you an example:

This past summer at the national convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), the church voted to repudiate the “doctrine of discovery”. This doctrine is different from our normal understanding of a statement of faith. But it was a belief that resulted in untold damage to the aboriginal populations of North America. It was the reason aboriginal children were taken from their homes, families and communities to suffer — many of them — in the so-called Indian Residential Schools in the last century.

The doctrine of discovery was the underpinning belief that resulted in the first explorers labelling Aboriginal people as “beasts of the field and forest”, and prompted governments to justify “killing the Indian in the child.” The doctrine of discovery made the residential schools places where native children were not permitted to speak their own language, practice their own religion, nor attend with their own siblings or have any contact with their parents while they were at school. How evil is that!?

So what is this doctrine of discovery that the ELCIC repudiated? Basically, it was a system of belief based in the discovery of North America, as if nothing of inherent value existed here before ‘we’ arrived. When the explorers landed on the shores of Iceland and then Turtle Island (i.e. North America), the land appeared to be unoccupied in the ways of western Europe. The explorers therefore believed it was theirs to acquire and own. When the explorers encountered native bands, there was this immediate disconnected with their values and culture and relationship with the land, understandably. Still, the settlers felt superior in their relationship to the native culture, believing — “What we have is better for you.” And moving from that doctrine into practices and policies of assimilation and subjugation like the residential schools.

I can anticipate your objection: But what to make of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 — when Jesus instructs his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”? Isn’t this what we have been supposed to do? – make others, force others to be like us? Aren’t we supposed to impose our values on the world, using any means at our disposal? Another English translation of the word, disciples, changes the tone significantly. When we read, “Go therefore and make learners of all nations”, we can see our task as learning. Disciples are essentially ‘learners’. Learning involves challenging current patterns of thinking, and going out into the world to share our faith. (Kristin Johnston Largen, Interreligious Learning &  Teaching, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2014, p.109)

When I visited Jerusalem years ago, I was surrounded by at least three different world religions day in and day out. Muslim minarets blared out regular calls to prayer; orthodox Jews bowed at the wailing wall. And I, with a small group of Christians found a little apartment in the old city to gather around bible, cup and bread, to pray  and sing together. Few other times in my life have I ever felt as confident and grateful for my Christian faith than in a context  where other faiths and cultures came and tried to live together, even clashed.

Sharing our faith is not about one-up-man-ship. Sharing our faith is not a competition. It is simply being confident to talk to others when appropriate about what is most important to you. And, giving the other the freedom to do likewise. I think we still need to work on that in the church because I think we still believe it’s about a competition. That we have to fight, even, if necessary, to defend God — or our ideas of God. Be the winner, not the loser, in a winner-takes-all kind of world. It was in Jerusalem when I first realized that if there was any evil in the world, it started in me and my selfish, materialistic, self-acquiring vision for life.

Paul’s armour-of-God metaphor, like all metaphors, has limits and can even be problematic. Such a text has been interpreted throughout two thousand years of church and world history often as justification for violence against others. It is challenging maybe even impossible for us today to engage this text without the lens of history and the development of society and human culture through the ages — particularly with respect to warfare.

And that is why, as Lutherans especially are taught to do, I would not want to interpret this text without placing it beside another text from Paul’s letters, in this case, to ‘let scripture interpret scripture’. Listen now to another clothing analogy, where Paul speaks of what we ‘put on’ in Christ:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful …. And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:12-15,17)

Indeed, in this light, the belt of truth is the Gospel. The helmut of salvation is God’s eternal promise of love for us. The breast-plate of righteousness is a heart of compassion. The boots are actions that bring peace and goodwill to the world. The shield of faith is trusting in God’s grace. The sword of the Spirit is proclaiming the word of forgiveness, mercy and love.

One little word subdues him. An act of humility, not military aggression nor forceful imposition.

One little word subdues him. A word of forgiveness rather than condemnation, racism and judgement.

One little word subdues him. Something unexpected, surprising and even looked down upon by the world’s winners — that changes history. One little word — not born of competition, comparison and control, but born of surrender, release and trust. One little word, “I love you”, changes everything.

One little word is Jesus. God becomes human. A baby. A prophet. A teacher. A lamb taken to slaughter. One little word is greater than anything the world lives by. One little word whispered in a storm. One little word sung softly into the barrel of a machine gun. One little word nudging gently our hearts, saying to you: I love you. I forgive you. You are free. You will forever more be a child of God.

Now, tell the nations of the world the same. And act like you believe it. Because it’s true. Thanks be to God.

Marriage: valuing difference

I am an identical twin. Whenever people see my brother and me together, usually the first reaction is to express how similar we look and act. People, it seems, naturally start with what appears to unite us and make us ‘the same’.

When two people celebrate a marriage, again what seems to be the focus is on what they must share in common, what makes them ‘one’. In various marriage traditions the unity of the couple is, obviously, presumed. In Christianity we read the scriptures about ‘two becoming one’; leave in order to cleave (Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31).

We may therefore read into such a coming together a complete blending of the individuals, almost as if the two people in marriage must dissolve their separateness into one kind of amorphous blob. Somehow, it feels like individuality needs to be ‘erased’, we feel, in a proper marriage.

As a twin, I am continually intrigued by what challenges not only my twin relationship but other kinds of relationships as well: It is more difficult to consider our differences, what is dissimilar, between people as something to celebrate and lift up.

I am impressed by your differences that stand in sharp relief this weekend as you exchange wedding vows. Because, the very foundation of the way you are getting married is based on your differences. Not on something you share as the same.

Each of you come into the marriage union with a different and distinct set of religious beliefs. One is baptized Christian and the other is Hindu. In order to celebrate the marriage, you participated in a Hindu ceremony on Saturday, and then a Christian worship service on Sunday.

Using this experience as an important marker on your journey of life, I want to encourage you to continue celebrating the differences between you. Stand on your own two feet, albeit side by side. A healthy marriage will reflect two, distinct points of view. Don’t deny the individual journeys and identities of each person that brought you together in the first place, lest not those identities be diminished, ignored, suppressed or repressed in the course of your marriage. A healthy marriage will reflect an activity and character that results in two sets of feet moving in tension as in a dance, albeit in the same direction.

Kahlil Gibran, born in northern Lebanon, was an early twentieth century philosophical essayist, novelist, poet and artist whose 1923 book, “The Prophet”, is considered a classic in Arab literature. It is in this book that his poetry on marriage highlights the paradoxical nature of a true coming together, and a true unity of separate souls:

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.

You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.

Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a …[smothering] of love;

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,

Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.

For only the hand of Life [God] can contain your hearts.

And stand together yet not too near together:

For the pillars of the temple stand apart, 

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.[emphasis mine]

“Let their be spaces in our togetherness.”

What you are showing us is that we need not be afraid of what is different in the world today. We need not be afraid of what we don’t understand, just because it is a ‘mystery’. A mystery is not something we can’t understand; a mystery is infinitely understandable. Always unfolding. Always yielding and revealing new insights. Always inviting us to learn more, appreciate more, and love more. This is the true adventure and ongoing discovery of marriage and love.

You see, there is really only one reason, one motivation, one activity that gives charge, energy and purpose to your differentiated union. It is love. It is the passion and pure first love, born in the human heart, despite all the differences of our lives. Not denying them. Simply placing those differences in the perspective of love. The movement of love in your heart brings you into conversation and dialogue in the first place. And then, this love leads you both into deeper expressions of joy and intimacy.

Without needing to control the other, or force the other to change into our likeness. Love does not demand subservience. Love does not force another into submission. Love is not controlling of the other. Instead, love respects another who is different, seeks to understand the other. Love forgives the other and listens to them.

God is love. And that is why we are here today. As Lutheran pastor and teacher, Dr. Kristen Johnston Largen, writes, there is “inherent value in difference – even religious difference” (Interreligious Learning & Teaching, Fortress Press Minneapolis, 2014, p.79). Religious difference, in truth, is “part of God’s plan, rather than an obstacle to it.”

Love calls us out of our comfort zones, into the sometimes challenging and messy realities of being with another and participating in another’s field of life. On the one hand respecting one’s own integrity in doing so; at the same time, boldly entering another’s life. Marriage, in this way, is one of the best schools of love.

Raimon Panikkar, who was one of the most creative voices working in the area of interreligious dialogue encouraged people of different faiths to remember that “We belong together, even if our notions and codes are incompatible” (quoted in Largen, ibid., p.81). We belong together, in relationships of love. The scriptures you chose for your Christian wedding reflect this central tenet of Christianity (1 John 4:9-12, 1 Corinthians 13:4-13).

In the Christian faith, God is understood in a relationship. We call it, “The Holy Trinity” – three persons as one God. The truth of our lives is demonstrated most clearly in relation to one another. Because each of us has gifts and strengths to offer the other. In marriage, you individually have something the other needs, and the other can teach you a thing or two – I am sure! Each can learn from another, each from our own areas of strength.

For God bringing us together today.

For God bringing you both together in love.

Amidst the diversity, difference and distinctions of our common lives.
We give thanks. And praise be to God.

Amen.

Part B

I don’t have many bad memories from my youth. But recurring is one from exam time in highschool. This memory brings back desperate feelings of failure, despair, and shame. The exam was for a history or English course. And it was only a one-pager!

I recall sitting down in the large gymnasium at the start of the exam period looking down at the simple Part A question, and thinking to myself: ‘I got this one in the bag!’ Instead of writing my answer down on that page underneath the question, I wrote down about five pages on extra sheets I asked from the exam moderator. Usually, I took the entire allotted time to write my exams. I remember, however, with this one I finished much earlier.

After checking over my in-depth and complete answer, feeling satisfied and even smug with my work, I signed off on it and left the room with a hop in my step. I felt confident that I had performed to my usual high level of competency in a subject matter that I liked.

You might imagine the horror I felt shortly thereafter when I learned from others why it was that I happened to finish so early.

“Martin,” a friend asked me, “What did you write for the Part B question?”

“Part B?!!”

“Yeah, on the second page.” 

Alas! The one-pager was double-sided. I didn’t think to turn the question sheet over to do Part B. I had only completed the first half — Part A — of the exam. I didn’t finish the entire test. I. Was. Doomed.

In the Gospel for today (John 6:51-58), Jesus uses carnal language that borders on the cannabalistic. “Eat my flesh. Drink my blood.” What are we to make of this arresting, vivid, corporeal language?

Well, the Pharisees have an answer. But theirs is the usual mind-tripping, logical finagling. They take everything literally! “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask. This style of intellectual, rational mind-gaming is reminiscent of when earlier Jesus spoke of being born again — and again the Pharisee Nicodemus gets trapped in his head: “How can a man go back a second time into his mother’s womb and be born again?” (John 3:1-4).

The Gospel of John and especially this text (6:51-58) evokes images of ingesting, chewing, and gulping — and relates this to our relationship in Christ Jesus. Language like this pervades the Gospel, right from its inaugural, tone setting words: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14).

The Word is not just a doctrine or idea. The Word is not just a mental picture that we frame with rational explanations, logical arguments and eloquent words about Jesus. That is only Part A.

There’s a Part B that needs to be completed in order to get at the fullness of truth of Jesus relating to us and the world God creates. When we talk of Christian theology and even Christian discipleship, we must go beyond saying: “Let’s follow Jesus” or merely have conversations about Jesus, or think about Jesus, or construct nice ideas about Jesus. 

We must learn to confess that Jesus not only wants our thoughts, Jesus wants all of me/us — every aspect of our lives including our bodies, our exercise, our diets, our play, our work, our relationships. Jesus wants more than our Sunday mornings. He wants Friday night and Wednesday morning as well. A local church had this message on their front-lawn sign last week: “Jesus doesn’t want weekend visits; he wants full custody.” 

Worship is only Part A. Part B is when we walk out that door when worship is over. If our prayers and songs and statements of faith during worship on Sunday morning — as glorious and uplifting and inspiring as they may be — do not translate into meaningful, concrete action consistent with our faith Monday through Saturday, then our worship is really, in the words of Saint Paul, “a noisy gong or clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthian 13:1). The Psalmist confesses to God: For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)

“People often daydream, and even share their fantasies, about what they would do if they won the lottery. Still, most people choose to keep their money in their wallet. In response, lotteries south of the border run commercials reminding us, ‘You can’t win if you don’t play.’ In a sense, Jesus is saying something very similar: ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’ (v.56). In these verses, Jesus demands more than intellectual assent, more than fantasies of eternal life. Jesus asks for high-stakes, all-in participation, here and now.” (Sundays and Seasons, Augsburg Fortress, 2014, p.261) Jesus wants all of me. Part A and Part B.

I still passed the course, both because I did well during the term on assignments and such; and, because I passed the exam with a 50% score. Even though I messed up and had my blinders on, even though I did not complete the expectations of the exam, I could count on the grace of the instructor.

You see, I did not get a perfect score on Part A. Close, but not perfect. I should have therefore failed the exam. But the instructor knew me. Knew me well. And she knew I deserved to pass the grade. Despite my mistake, I still got credit for the course.

Where there is suffering in the real world. Where there is blood spilled and bodies broken. Perhaps it did take the Christian movement some centuries to work through their natural repulsion against the unadorned cross — an instrument of torture and death — to finally embrace the Cross as the central symbol of our faith. Because there is an important point to it.

That is where Christ is, in our lives and in the world. And it is there that we must go to find Jesus in the faces of those bloodied by war, by displacement, by injustice and violence — in whatever kind. It is there that we must go to witness by our giving and our own brokeness the truth and hope of the Gospel. It is there that we must go. The life stronger than death that God gives to the world in Jesus Christ always comes to us “in the flesh” and blood sufferings of the present time. It is there we must turn the page, and go.

Part B.
Lord, you have searched me out; O Lord, you have known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting places, and are acquainted with all my ways. Indeed, there is not a word on my lips but, O Lord, know it altogether. You encompass me, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast. (Psalm 139:1-10)

  

Amen.

Marriage: Read the fine print!

   

Standing outdoors in this beautiful location to celebrate your marriage naturally brings me to the first story of creation in the Bible (Genesis 1). God created Adam and Eve to love one another. Their home was truly an outdoor Paradise.
And when we imagine a Paradise, it is perfect, isn’t it? True, God intended creation to be good. Just read the number of times each act of creation is punctuated by: “It is good…. It is good” ….. It is good!”
It is true, God gives what we need in marriage, too. God gave Adam and Eve each other and the Garden of Paradise, where so many good things surrounded them. There was a bounty of fruit and trees all around them. They could have their fill!
But not of all the fruit! There was that one tree at the centre of the Garden whose fruit they were forbidden to eat. Well, we know how the story goes from there. “Adam and Eve were the first people to not read the Apple terms and conditions.” — those of you have these iPhones might appreciate the metaphor about first-world issues of responsible reading of all the fine print before clicking on ‘update’. Who has time for that?!
I think sometimes when we celebrate marriage we might forget that damn tree right at the centre of our Garden of Paradise which is supposed to be perfect, right? We may therefore be disappointed because we get caught up in the idealism and feelings of love at the expense of the reality and sometimes pain of human interaction. They say that marriage is made in heaven, but so is thunder and lightning!
I say this to you today not to discourage you both. Quite the opposite. Getting married is an act of great courage, especially these days. We need more people to do courageous things. And when we can accept the truth of our limitations as individuals and couples, we can navigate the adventure of married life with enduring commitment, forgiveness and mutual understanding much better.
And God certainly understands the challenge for us, I believe. Having that forbidden tree — whatever limitation, personal issue or suffering it may represent for you — having that forbidden tree in Paradise was, after all, God’s idea of ‘perfection’. Even before Adam and Eve sinned, God’s creation included imperfection, if you will. Or as Saint Paul, the author of that familiar passage of love we heard today described elsewhere in his letter to the Corinthians “the thorn in his flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:6-9) — something imperfect, incomplete and unsatisfied with which he had to live.

Don’t forget to read the fine print in life and love! Because it isn’t always peaches and cream. At the same time, as we stand in this beautiful outdoor setting today, I want to remind you both that God does give you all that you need — and more! In the gift of each other and this assembly of loved ones gathered with you today, in the gift of being able to work as you do in the great outdoors caring for the environment, in the gift of health, in the gift of the material blessings of your life — may you be, day by day, encouraged in your gratitude for all the good things you are and have.

The Lord spoke to Saint Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9)

Seeing Jesus

Jesus says, “the person who sees me and believes will be raised up” (John 6:40). 

If I polled the assembly gathered here this morning and asked you to raise your hand if you ‘believed in Jesus (or God)’, my guess is I would get a decent showing.

But if I asked you to put up your hand if you recently saw Jesus, I’m not sure I’d get the same kind of response. If you did raise your hand to that question I might look at you with some degree of skepticism. I might not take your statement at face value. I would want to ask you more questions. 

Seeing Jesus sounds like a conversation for the mystics and contemplatives. If our faith is limited merely to a conversation about the historical, biblical Jesus, we will be challenged at this point of acknowledging the living, immanent Jesus who is also always more — an unfolding Presence in the course of all history.

Where do we see Jesus? This is an important question. How can we see the living, resurrected Lord in the world and in our lives today? How can we account for the presence of Jesus?

There is the problem of sight. Here, Jesus obviously is not talking about physical vision. Otherwise why would he even say, “the person who sees me …”? Of course the people to whom he originally spoke these words standing on the sandy, rocky ground in first-century Palestine saw him. Jesus is talking more about a perception of the heart, mind and soul — an internal dynamic.

If you follow any of my social media sites online, you might have noticed there recently some sunset photos over Lake Huron where my family vacationed over the past couple of weeks. Aside from the inspiring sunsets, this is not what I remember the water to look like:

  
Normally, as I recall from my childhood summers spent on these shores, Lake Huron is fairly active. More days than not you would see a lot of wave action, and white caps carving up the horizon and rolling in over the surf. You would feel the constant high winds buffeting the tree-lined shore.

For the fourteen days we lived by the shore last month, however, the Lake was mostly calm. The water was placid, where there would be no more than a ripple on the surface and a splash on the shore line. In fact I would be hard pressed to say there was more than two days of wave action that came close to my childhood recollections. Needless to say, the quiet, peaceful waters made for much stress-free sea-kayaking and swimming along the coast.

  
At sunset most evenings we sat around the fire pit a stone’s throw from the shore, enjoying the very soft breezes and the relatively flat surface of the water.

And, if you watched the water, once in awhile you would see a large white fish breach the surface and flap it’s broad tail. The slapping sound often caught my attention if I wasn’t looking at the exact spot on the water. 

This sudden sound, amidst the relative quiet of the expansive scene of resting water, air and land before us, also caught the attention of the other members of my family (I would add, they were preoccupied by their hand held devices, swatting the bugs, and chatting incessantly with one another!). 

“What was that?” they looked up.

“Oh, a fish, jumping out of the water,” I responded.

“Cool! Where? Where? I wanna see!”

“Well, you need to be watching the water. Keep scanning the water up and down the shore line close to the edge.”

“I don’t see anything!”, one says, scratching another mosquito bite.

“You need to keep watching the water. There,” I point over the water toward the island, “there was another one!”

“Where?”

“Were you watching the water?”

“Uh, no.”

And on and on it went. I had a restful holiday. No, I did. Really!

The problem is not so much an incapacity to see. It is first to confess how distracted we are as a people in a culture that is impatient, anxious, that does not want to slow down, that keeps us from seeing what is already there. Perhaps Jesus is there for us to see. And we, like the Pharisees with whom Jesus often sparred, are “blind” to this truth. Jesus gives us precisely what we need to live, fully (Matthew 23; John 10:10). Do we not see it?

Before the cross became the central symbol of Christianity, the sign of the fish identified the early Christian movement. In fact, the cross was for centuries rejected by Christian who naturally recoiled at the thought of having an instrument of torture and capital punishment the central symbol of the faith. 

The fish was a symbol for Jesus Christ. Food. Like bread, fish gave faithful people ongoing strength, sustenance and nourishment for life. No wonder the miracle of multiplication of bread and fish became a popular Gospel story about Jesus feeding the multitude on a hillside in Galilee (Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6).

The new logo of the Eastern Synod reflects this original, early Christian identification with fish:

  
In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John especially, Jesus compares himself to bread — bread that sustains us and feeds us everything we need. Everything. Not more. Not less. In the Old Testament, it was manna that God provided to the people in their desert wanderings. 

The desert was the place where the people had to learn to give up control, which is mostly what ‘making plans’ is all about. “Like us, the Hebrews weren’t initially too excited about all this vague mystery. The people didn’t just complain that they were out of food, they also began to romanticize about the good old days back in Egypt where they ate their fill of bread …

“God responded to the people’s anxiety about food in a very tangible way. He provided the daily blessing of bread from heaven called manna. It was a fine, flaky substance which appeared every morning. And it came with some instructions (Exodus 16:1-8). Every family had to gather their own. You couldn’t store it up or hoard it, or the worms would eat it. So you had to gather it every day, except on the sixth day of the week when you could gather an extra portion for the Sabbath. It wasn’t much — just enough to keep you going on the journey.

“All of these descriptions [like bread and fish] are wonderful metaphors for how God cares for us along the way in the desert journey: daily, tangibly, personally, and sufficiently, although never enough to remove our anxiety about tomorrow. We have to trust there will be more manna when we need it [emphasis mine].

“This is what Jesus had in mind in teaching us to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. To pray those words is as if to say, ‘No matter how hard I try to secure my life with money, exercise, relationships, or work, I know that only you can give it to me. And you will do it one day at a time.

“The best reason for seeing the manna as a blessing [of Jesus’ presence, I might add] comes from its name. The literal translation of manna is ‘What is it?’ This means that every morning the people would go out and gather the ‘What is it?’ The mothers would prepare it as creatively as they could, which was tough because there was no ‘What is it?’ -helper. The family would sit at the table to eat. The kids would ask, ‘What is it?’ The mother would sigh and say, ‘Yes.’ They’d bow their heads and pray, ‘Thank you God for What is it?'” (Craig Barnes, Insights from the Desert, “Nurtured in Mystery” Shadyside Presbyterian Church, 2010)

What if we lived out of gratitude for what God has already given us? What if we made decisions — even small ones, each and every day — based on trust in Jesus being there for us, just beneath the surface of our lives? There for the watching. There for the catching and gathering. Grace and Gift, available to us. Before we even lift a finger.