An impossible call

After months of deadly fighting, the four tribes on post-apocalyptic, war-ravaged earth have achieved a tenuous peace treaty. The band of new comers barely catches their breath before they receive a signal for help. The distress call comes from somewhere in the borderlands, forbidden zones marking the territories occupied by the combative tribes. 

The earth’s inhabitants avoid these areas altogether now, anxious that any movements within the borderlands may be construed as aggressive. Those venturing into the forbidden land may be seen as provoking another war.

The distress signal calls the young troop into action. As they prepare to leave the relative safety of their compound, the elder statesman turns to the leader of the rescue mission and says, “We’ve lost people and shed blood to make peace. Don’t mess this up.”

Of course, such dialogue functions as foreshadowing — meaning, yeah, they’ll likely do just that: mess it up. Such a story line, or a variation thereof, sounds like many in popular fiction and TV today.(1)

When the stakes are high and there is so much to lose, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah: “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). This is no walk-in-the-park calling. The appointment from God is not a nice, extra little job to do as a hobby. This is not a proposition for an easy, comfortable life-style. This is not an extra-curricular weekend, work-life balance proposal.

The stakes are high. Your life is on the line. Everything you have and know is placed at great risk. You are more likely to fail. You can really mess this up. Not only for yourself, but for a whole lot of people.

Can we really be hard on Jeremiah (oh, and Moses, Sarah, David, Isaiah, Mary, Zechariah, Timothy and others in the Bible) who first questions the call from God? Doubt the veracity of the claim. Question the wisdom of such a move. Balk at the incredulous proposition of this word. Jeremiah understandably doubts his ability, and knee-jerks into finding excuses: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (v.6). 

It is the natural, human response. God, though, does not give up on us.

A caution: This is not a word just for the professional religious. Another excuse today would be for the people of God to dismiss this text as irrelevant, pertaining only to those discerning a call to full-time ministry and ordination. There is here a word to all who face seemingly insurmountable odds:

A call to attend with care, compassion and dedication one who is dying. A call not to give up, but persevere in a course of action. A call to leave an unhealthy relationship behind in order to embrace an uncertain, unclear future. A call to stop doing something without being certain about what will replace it. A call to change one’s mind and adopt a different approach, perspective and opinion on a long-held belief. A call to do something or go somewhere that you had never thought possible in your life.

Now, we are all saying, “Oh, Lord, I can’t do that. Impossible!”

“Do not be afraid … for I am with you to deliver you” (v.8).

When against all the odds we are faced with an incredible task, our relationship with God is brought into sharp focus. What we really believe about God rises to the surface. Our faith is exposed. What do we see there? 

I wonder whether in anxious moments of life we expect God to do something for us — intervene with thunder and lightning to show the way unambiguously in a booming Charlton Heston voice from above; or, more to the point, do the thing that needs to be done while I stand on the sidelines, spectating.

I wonder whether in the anxious moments of life what we really need to ask is not what can God do for us but who can God be for us? (2) When we are down-and-out, will God be our comfort? When we face a decision, will God be “the source of our courage, the keeper of our troubles, the teacher of our prayer, the guide of our pathway, the nurturer of our virtue, the companion of our soul”? 

The being God, rather than the do-ing God, keeps the boundaries clear as to who needs to do what job, and whose job it is anyway to work as prophet “over nations and over kingdoms” (v.10). The being God won’t give in to our responsibility-shirking tendency to pass the buck on the job we are called to do. When we actually risk doing it, nevertheless, God will be there for us. God will not forsake us. No matter whether we fail or succeed.

There is a wonderful grace that comes with the promise of God, as it did to Jeremiah, to be with him through it all. Yet, this grace comes not in words alone. This grace is not reserved nor exclusively confined to the realm of the abstract — a dis-embodied, disconnected cerebral, mental event. This grace is not the purview solely of an internal process.

God’s grace is embodied. It comes to us in the real world. “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth …” (v.9a). Touched. The image is rather odd, yet similar to the burning coal that touches the mouth of the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his call (Isaiah 6:6-7). 

God validates, confirms, and communicates the call through the concrete, material aspects of our lives. Some may call it a ‘sign’. I prefer seeing it in terms of what you need in order to do the job. God supplies us, gives us the resources and personal support we need, to get the job done.

When we confront and respond to an impossible call, God will have already given us the gift we need to do it. We may not see it, acknowledge it or make sense of it right away. Yet, God equips those whom God calls to do what seems impossible. A poster used to hang in my home office: God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called. We are qualified to do what we must.

What has God already given to you, in order to do the impossible thing standing between you and God’s beautiful vision for your life, and the life of the world?

(1) – such as “The 100” CW TV, season 3 episode 1, based on the books by Kass Morgan

(2) – Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door” Green Press Initiative, 2008 digital version, Week 2 – Knocking on the Door, p.18-19

Today

In Andy Weir’s book and movie entitled, “The Martian”, the character played by actor Matt Damon – Mark Watney – is stranded on Mars. And he decides to survive using whatever scientific means possible and using whatever resources are at his disposal until a rescue mission is mounted. 

The book and movie differ in some ways — although the deviations in the movie aren’t as pronounced as in other script to screen adaptations. The most significant difference is, perhaps, the last scene. In the movie, the rescued and now teacher, Mark Watney, gives advice to a classroom full of students in astronaut school.

He counsels that in the face of almost certain death, the way forward is to focus all your energy on solving the next problem, and then the next, and then the next. After all, he survived almost two years alone on the red planet on account of his determination, and despite the odds to remain focused on the immediate task at hand. And not get lost in imagining future outcomes, or wallow in past mistakes.

His advice points to the importance of being present to the current moment of existence, paying attention to what is (not what might be or what was), and acting in confidence for all his efforts.

In the Gospel story, Jesus uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to announce his mission, his purpose (Luke 4:14-21). Jesus will bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners and good news to the oppressed. In summary, he declares his mission to bring compassion and healing to people. And significantly, he closes his public reading in the Nazarene synagogue in 28 C.E. by announcing that “today” this scripture has been fulfilled.

For all who wonder about who this Jesus is, this season after Epiphany ought to give us some clues. Epiphany means ‘revelation’, as Jesus is revealed to us. And, in this text his purpose is made clear. In fact, the writer Luke throughout his book de-emphasizes moral correctness, and rather underscores acts of compassion (1). The underlying question in Luke is not so much: “What does God demand?”; Rather, “Who needs attention and compassion?” This line of questioning can re-focus the purpose of any follower of Jesus.

If someone asked you today, “What is your purpose in life?”, what would you say? Could you describe your mission, specifically and in concrete terms? And, how does your life today reflect the values of your mission statement?

These questions cannot be directed solely at individuals, but the church as well. In the reading today from 1 Corinthians 12, our ministry and purpose finds purchase in the context of the collective. Saint Paul describes the church as a body with many members. The church is the Body of Christ, today. Do you know what your faith community’s mission is, to which you belong?

In coming to terms with his own ministry, Jesus had to make some decisions. He omits a phrase from the Isaiah scroll handed to him. While Jesus cites Isaiah 61:1-3 word for word, he excludes the second part of verse 2 — “… and the day of vengeance of our God.” In order to be true to his purpose, Jesus also needs to be clear about what he will not do. He needs to leave something out of his life altogether in order to remain on the path of healing and compassion. How can he reconcile divisions and heal the brokenhearted by bringing punishment and vengeance upon the people? Impossible.

In pursuing your mission, what do you need to omit? What do you need to stop doing? What are things you need to let go of, in order to make room for the new life which is calling you to grow in the Body?

And we can’t put it off or rationalize it away. There is a sense of urgency in the life of faith. Almost a dozen times in his Gospel, we find the word “today.” The writer Luke emphasizes the importance of the present time. Jesus says, “Today” the scriptures have been fulfilled (Luke 4:21). To Zacchaeus, Jesus announces that “today” salvation has come to his household (Luke 19:9). Hanging on the cross moments before he dies, Jesus turns to the criminal hanging beside him and says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Today, not yesterday. Not when I was young. Not in the heyday of church planting and growth. Not in some glorious vision of the past to which we hang on, pretending it was perfect, wishing to turn the clock back.

Today, not tomorrow. Not at some future date when things will be better. When we will have enough money. When I will have more time. When the kids are old enough. When I retire. When I die. When the church will be full again. When I/we find healing or deliverance from whatever hinders me/us from pursing my/our mission.

God gives us no other day than today to do what we must, what we need to do.

What in my life is it too soon for, too late for, just the right time for? (2)

The Holy Spirit gives us something to do for God. And God doesn’t leave us bereft of resources. The solution may very well be under our eyes, very near to us. Everyone seems to want to know these days: “How are we doing as a church?” and “How are you doing as an individual?” Perhaps the questions need to change. The real questions may be: “As a church, what are we doing for God?” and “What are you doing for God, today?”
This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! – Psalm 118:24


(1) Carol Lakey Hess in Barbara Brown Taylor & David L Bartlett, eds. “Feasting on the Word” Year C Vol 1, WJK Press Kentucky, 2009, p.286

(2) Dawna Markova, “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life” in Joyce Rupp, “Open Door: Journey to the True Self”, Kindle version, 2008, p.18 of 36 in Week 1

Children’s Sermon – different gifts, same Body

I bring my bright, neon-green hard shell suitcase on rollers to show the children. On the handle, dangles a baggage tag. On one side of the tag I write my name and address. On the other side of the tag I write the the words: “You don’t belong to me!”

“When you go on a trip far away from home, or stay overnight at a friend’s place or your grandparent’s house — do you pack a suitcase?”

“What colour is yours? What does it look like? Is it small? Is it big? Is there a design or picture on the front of it? Does it have a handle, or roll on wheels?”

“I have this one because it is easy to spot at the baggage claim in the airport — when all the suitcases fall on a conveyor belt and go around a concourse where air travellers stand and look for their own to pick up. Most suitcases are dark-coloured, so it’s harder to spot your own from afar if it is black or brown or dark green. Sometimes, just to make sure, you have to read the tag as it goes by. If you don’t, you might walk away with someone else’s suitcase, or someone may walk away with yours!”

“That’s why on this tag I wrote these words — can anyone read it out loud? What does it say?” …..

“‘You don’t belong to me!’ Leave me be! Leave me alone! – that’s what I want to tell anyone trying to take my suitcase, even by mistake!” 

“Thankfully, we are not suitcases. We are people. And people can stand out and be bright and noticeable. They can be big. They can be small. Some have a hard shell, others not so much! … All these differences make us who we are, make us interesting, make us individuals. And this is good! This is how God made us.”

“We live in a world that wants to tell us: ‘You don’t belong!’ — even our friends can be nasty sometimes and say things to us that make us feel like we don’t belong to them or anyone else. When we make mistakes, our teachers, our parents, the police can make us feel like we don’t belong. The world makes us feel like we are not good enough the way we are — that we have to be like someone else.”

“But being part of God’s family, we belong! Each and every one of us, no matter how different we are — what we think, how we look, what we can do or not do, even when we make a mistake or feel sad or happy — we belong to God and to each other. Like part of a body, every member is different and has a different use; yet, we belong to the same body.”

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ –1 Corinthians 12:12

“Thank you Jesus, for making me a part of your Body, the church. Help us to care for everyone, and value their gifts. Amen.”

Gifts to the public & for the common good

On Christmas Eve in worship, the congregation wrote down the gifts they would like to bring to Jesus in the New Year. They then put these printed offerings into the plates when the gifts were gathered. Here is a list of what they wrote down — promised gifts to the public in 2016:

-to volunteer at “Bible’s for Missions” 

-to help the unprivileged through Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR)

-self-determination for myself and any interested

-offer thanks for my continued health and for my parents

-give love, hope, peace for all

-give more love

-worship and love, be kind, attend church regularly

-to help [someone] who is dying of cancer

-I would like to offer myself more often in prayer and service to God

-helping refugees

-to spend more quiet time with God and worship God our Father, the Almighty and Merciful, the Loving , the. Wise ever-present God

-to be a better brother

-abundant health, love, blessings

-help to eliminate child poverty

-to help bring peace to our Syrian refugees

-visit shut-ins

-my dear loving family

-try to attend church/Sunday School more often

-patience

-helping someone

-to live more ‘on purpose’, making more informed and conscious decisions

-commitment to a church

-peace

-I offer the gift of my willingness to be kind and understand more

-good health for myself and family

-live more Godly life

Working for the public good

Ever so often in the lectionary a text comes to us, a text that I find particularly relevant for us today in the Christian church. On this Second Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C (Revised Common Lectionary) the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians shines a bright light on the church. And specifically on how we use our ‘gifts’ (1 Corinthians 12:1-11). 

This is the first Sunday in the calendar year that is ‘ordinary’ and liturgically coloured green — as during the long season after Pentecost in the summer when the focus is on the Holy Spirit’s activity in the lives of the faithful. During that time we read and reflect on how believers grow in the Spirit and expand the mission of God across the globe. 

It is fitting, at this start, to read those words of St Paul: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:4-6)

In George R.R Martin’s epic “A Game of Thrones” story, we witness the power struggles of several families vying for the throne in the fantasy kingdom of Westeros. The Lannister family is by far the current play-maker and leader of the pack. They have placed their caliph on the throne and fight tooth-and-nail to defend his reign.

In a scene early in the story when we first meet the father Lannister, Tywin, he speaks to his son Jaime who killed the former king according to their nefarious plans, and consequently now carries the reputation in the land as the ‘kingslayer’. Jaime has an inflated ego and often brandishes his glorious abilities with the sword and swagger.

But Tywin puts him in his place. The father, not incapable and unwilling himself to acts of betrayal and murder to achieve his ends, places their actions in a much larger context:

He says there were Lannisters that came before us, and there will be Lannisters that come after us. He brings Jaime down a notch or two not to dissuade him from ruthless means, but only to remind him that what they do is not merely to satisfy personal ego needs and compulsions. What they do is not just for the sake of private glory or personal gain. They have to keep the long view in mind to ensure the Lannister name lives on successfully beyond the confines of any individual Lannister’s life span.

This is a grim story that reveals the dark underside of human nature and enterprise. To flip it, however, would be to suggest something for the benefit of any human organization, including — and especially — the church.  

The current Pope Francis is known to have critiqued his own church for being far too ‘self-referential’ in matters of faith and practice. That is to say, the problem exists whenever we rely solely on ourselves; and, whenever we express our gifts, our opinions, our actions and decisions solely from the perspective of our own needs. That is, we act and speak out of our own, limited, life experiences without first thinking of what may exist beyond the boundaries of our own life. We can be so wrapped up in our private lives that we lose the value of the public good. We do things first to meet our own needs, rather than consider the needs of those we don’t yet know.

To a degree, admittedly, being self-referential is impossible to avoid completely. We cannot deny ourselves. Nevertheless, in our individualistic, narcissistic culture that is so rooted in me-first and what’s-in-it-for me economics and social order, we are particularly prone to this disease of the heart.  

Christianity is not a religion of Lone Rangers. Rather than nurturing a purely private ecstasy, the gifts of God are given in order to build up the church — not merely for our own pleasure and use, and for the span of our lives. The gifts of God are intended to be “publicly communicable, publicly shared, and publicly enjoyed” (1)  beyond our individual lives. In other words, we know and believe “the end” is beyond us. 

What would it look like if we started by trying to be ‘other-referential’? If we started by considering the other, first, what the Goal is, and work backwards from there — from the outside-in, from the future-vision to the present reality? 

In the introduction to Paul’s famous credal words from Philippians 2, he writes: “Let each of us look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus …” (4-5)
A pastor in today’s world, I see myself more and more as working for the public good in everything I do. Meaning, I surround whatever ministry activity I do with awareness and prayer for God’s Spirit in and around me and in others in and beyond the walls of the church, and for the sake of God’s mission (not mine own!) on earth. I try to appreciate the diversity of people in the variety of gifts expressed as valuable in some way to this overall, expanding mission of God.

All of us here receive gifts from God, not just an elite few. The Christian life and ministry are not the private, personal property of an exclusive class of spiritual superheroes. The Spirit is part of the life of every person who is in Christ. It is therefore incumbent on us to encourage each other to work together to find out what those gifts are, and how we can use them for the common, public good.

(1) Lee C. Barrett in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word” Year C Volume 1, WJK Press Kentucky, 2009, p.258

I am loved, therefore I am

During this season of Epiphany – which means ‘revelation’ – we will again uncover the identity of God made flesh in Jesus.

How will we do that? While Epiphany is a positive celebration of the meaning of the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14), this season also introduces an identity crisis swirling around Jesus throughout the centuries. It also confers that same identity crisis upon his followers. Who is this Jesus? And who are we?

Who is Jesus? It may comfort, or disturb, us to realize that even while Jesus walked the earth over two thousand years ago, those around him didn’t always ‘see’ him for who he was. Even at spectacular events such as the transfiguration or after Jesus performed miracles of healing, some confused him for the prophet Elijah who in the tradition was promised to return (Mark 9:9-13; Matthew 11:2-15). Some mistook Jesus for a political Messiah who was expected to liberate the oppressed Jews from Roman occupation of the Holy Lands (Matthew 21:1-11). And, even when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his death and resurrection, “some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). The scriptures do not hide this confusion about Jesus’ identity.

So Christians today need not be perplexed nor overly hard on themselves if they, too, struggle to understand this Jesus whom God announces at his baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Paradoxical doctrines claiming that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, are not easy for the human mind to grasp.

Which suggests to me that to understand Jesus’ identity is not so much to get vexed and lost in doctrines about Jesus. It is rather to see what he does and listen to what he says. Brother David Vryhof of the Society of the Saint John the Evangelist writes, “If you would know what God is like, discover what Jesus is like. Listen to his words, observe his actions, notice his values and priorities, see how he lives his life. And follow him.” (1)

French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes’ famous claim, “I think, therefore I am”, is not helpful here. More appropriate for the Christian today is, “I do, therefore I am”. Or, better yet, “I am loved, therefore I am.” This latter statement especially reflects the values demonstrated in Jesus’ life. I am loved, therefore I am.

Vryhof goes on to tell a story by Soren Kierkegaard: “Once upon a time, there was a powerful and wise king who fell in love with a beautiful maiden who lived in his kingdom. The king’s problem was this: how to tell her of his love?

“He called for the best and brightest of his consultants and asked their advice. He wanted to do this in the best and most proper way – and, of course, he hoped his love would be cherished by the maiden and returned. But when all of his advisors had had their say, the king was left disappointed. For every one of them had counselled him in the same way:

“‘Show up at the maiden’s house,’ they said, ‘dressed in all your royal finery. Dazzle her with the power of your presence and with your riches. Overwhelm her with expensive gifts. What girl could resist? Who would reject such an opportunity, or turn away from such an honor? Who would possibly refuse a king? And if need be,’ they added, ‘you can always command her to become your wife.’

“But the king, being wise, was unhappy with this advice. He wanted the maiden to love him for himself and not for his position and power. Love freely given must be freely returned or it isn’t really love. Certainly, the girl could be impressed, even overwhelmed. And of course she could be coerced and might even ‘learn’ to love the king eventually. But the king saw that if he followed this counsel he would never know if she really loved him for himself or simply for the comforts and privileges that queenship offered.

“So the king decided against the advice of his counsellors. He chose instead to strip himself of his glory and power. He put on the clothes of a poor peasant and walked to the maiden’s cottage to declare his love for her.” (2)

This story by Kierkegaard parallels closely the meaning of Christmas — of why Jesus came, and what kind of person Jesus is — “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7). 

Who is Jesus? Jesus is God in love with us, and in us. And how do we know Jesus lives with and in our lives today? These questions lead to: Who are we?

We are who we are because of Jesus’ love for us. We are beloved, because of what God did in Jesus. Therefore, we are given the gift of God’s presence in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We have it in us. Yes, we do! And we exercise that gift in relationship with others. Who we are with, with whom we spend most of our time, where we commune with others — these are vital questions of spiritual, personal growth.

Who we are in Christ also begs the question of our nature — our growth, our changing, our transforming: Do we change? Can we change, for the better? Does being a Christian change our lives? Do you believe that?

I have over the years heard some argue that we do not change, really. We are locked in for life, the way we are, regardless of circumstance, regardless of where we are and with whom we live our lives. Nature. 

Others are more optimistic. On my good days I believe in the capacity of humans to change for the better. But this depends, I believe, on the quality of our relationships. Whether or not we change for the better depends largely with whom we spend most of our time. Nurture.

I believe most of us contain all the parts necessary for a healthy existence. Even a faithful one. At my baptism as an infant I believe God gave me the gift – the seed – of the Holy Spirit. At which times, or to which degree, that seed would mature and be expressed has depended largely on with whom I spend my time. 

Our families, our friends, our communities have a great influence over our lives. Because just by being with them, they will bring out of us the good and/or the bad. Their presence in relation to us hooks into some aspect of our life and pulls that aspect out. It is the quality of the ‘links’ between us that will determine what emerges from our souls. The old adage is true: “Show me your friends, and I’ll know who you are.”

Which also signifies the importance of hanging out with Jesus, in prayer. Jesus is integral to our relational world. Being intentional is critical here. The more you spend time with Jesus in the Body of Christ – the church, the more you spend time with Jesus in prayer and contemplation, the more you connect with Jesus in his mission to care for the poor — all of these things will over time bring out the good that is already in you.

The bottom line message of Christianity is that all creation matters because of God’s creative love in Jesus. We are created each of us from the spilling out of God’s love to the world. Therefore we are. Therefore we do.

(1) Br. David Vryhof, posted on the front page of the website of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist (www.ssje.org) on Tuesday, January 5, 2016

(2) cited by Br. David Vryhof, “God Has Spoken to Us By a Son”, posted on December 25, 2009 on the website of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist (www.ssje.org)

After the holidays ‘Christmas’ begins

A poem written by Howard Thurman former dean of the chapel at Harvard and a Quaker pupil caught my attention today –

The Work of Christmas
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flocks, The real work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken,To feed the hungry, To free the prisoner,To make peace between nations, To bring Christ to all, To make music in the heart.