Advent blessing for the journey

When flying from Ottawa to London or Frankfurt, you leave late in the evening. Almost immediately after departure it is dark. And while most of the journey transpires in the dark of night, the flight over the Atlantic eastward nevertheless goes with the expectation—the promise—that you are heading into a new day. After four or five hours of darkness, a thin pinprick of light first lines the horizon ahead. It isn’t too long afterward that the journey is completed in the bright daylight.

The journey of Advent recognizes the darkness in which we walk and the time it takes. We can’t get where we are going without journeying through the night. Each of us are somewhere on the flight path, using the time we have to be reconciled to our losses and the suffering we bear.

Whether we carry the burden of grief and loss, of suffering and pain, of anxiety and fear, we are nevertheless heading towards a new day. On this long journey in the dark we wait, as it were, for the sun to shine again.

May this journey of Advent be hope-filled, that as you make your way towards the new dawn, the expectant joy of the coming of the light will give you strength and courage to keep going in the grace, peace and love of God.

Pastor Martin

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Prayer as Growth – Advent sermon series 1

In the movie, “Good Boys”, three young friends explore the meaning of friendship and growth. On the journey towards maturity, Max, Lucas, and Thor discover what it means to be in a healthy relationship that can change over time.

Everything is going fine until each boy begins to pursue individual goals. At the same time, they realize that what one of them wants to do is not necessarily what the others like to do. It looks like they are going their separate ways. And the friendship group appears to dissolve.

When Lucas sits down with his parents in tears, bemoaning the breakup of his friendships, his parents offer some sage advice. They recall an old pet Lucas used to have – a hermit crab. But, when Lucas was much younger he wasn’t told how exactly his hermit crab had left them. His parents, now, tell him the truth:

The hermit crab had to find a new shell, they say. And died on its way to the beach. They explain that a hermit crab eventually outgrows its shell. And must find another shell that is larger into which it can continue to grow. If it doesn’t find a larger shell, it will die one way or another.

Lucas makes the connection that he is growing, and may need to find a larger shell to grow into – a larger social group, new friends, other activities. Leaning on this truth, Lucas is freed from the self-blame for the recent troubles with Max and Thor. It is normal and healthy to go through these growing pains in relationship. As it turns out, the boys learn to find a new way of relating with one another – a way that respects each other’s unique talents and personalities.

Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul describes a healthy relationship to God.[1]And as we grow in this relationship, we change. And the way we relate to God changes.

In this first part of the series of sermons in Advent on prayer, I would like to underscore this theme: Prayer as growth, in our relationship with God.

There are times in our lives, events and circumstances, that give us this sense that our whole person–our deepest desires, the core of who we are–is actually waking up. At first some experiences may not feel particularly enlivening. Ironically, it is often difficult, challenging times in life that cause this re-birthing within us.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “Wake from sleep, now is the moment! Shed your clothes of darkness and ignorance and be clothed with Christ.”[2]This imperative is a common theme in Paul’s writings; to the Ephesians he writes: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead!”[3]

And in our Gospel text today, Matthew records Jesus’ instruction to “Keep awake!” especially at the time when you are in the darkness of not knowing, or in grief, or loss or some kind of suffering. This is the time to wake up, for God is doing a new thing for you.[4]Do you not perceive it? It is time to get up. It is time to slough off the old and make room for the new. It is time “to live into the reality of the new age about to dawn.”[5]

We hear the call at this start of a new church year and the first Sunday in Advent. We hear this call to spiritual renewal as we seek to deepen our lives of faith and wait upon the coming of the Lord into our lives. The call to renewal starts with prayer.

I started by saying there are occasions in our lives that become opportunities—divine invitation, you could say—to try a different way of praying.  Like spokes on a large wagon wheel, there are different ways to pray—intercessory praying, devotional prayer, prayers with lots of words, prayers without using any words, imaginative prayers, body prayers, sacraments, song, music, art.

A variety of prayer forms give us ways of growing and deepening our relationship with God in Christ. Because at the centre of every wheel—even one with several spokes—is the hub, which is Christ. The ever-present, living Lord, moves with us and in us down the road of life.

As we grow older, for many of us, the only real question is: Why doesn’t  God answer my prayers? Because of this conundrum alone, many of us frequently just stop praying and hope for the best. Hopefully on our life’s path, when we meet others we listen to them and discover that no two of us have exactly the same spiritual journey.[6]So, why would we believe there is only one way to pray or only one way of understanding what happens in prayer?

We are each like the hermit crab, seeking to find a larger shell to grow into.

But how can we be encouraged to find a larger shell? How can we even believe that we are growing, that our broken lives so weak and stained by life’s hardships be the place wherein Christ makes his home and through which Jesus’ light shines? How is this even possible?

I heard this week the story of someone recently walking through the woods. Without yet any snow on the ground to brighten things here in Ottawa, the landscape is shrouded in browns and darkish colours. Blah. While walking the forest path, she stopped at large, oak tree which still held its leaves.

But the leaves weren’t full and vibrant with life as you would see in late Spring. They were curled at the edges, no longer pulsing with life-sustaining chlorophyll. Like crumpled, dried paper, these leaves hung there, lifeless and dead. Just waiting for the inevitable drop to the ground.

In that instant, the clouds high above suddenly broke. And streams of sunlight immediately penetrated the darkened woods and shone upon these listless leaves. In that moment of brilliance the leaves were clothed in the light. They were animated in the sunshine and restored to an incredible vision of renewed life. They absorbed and reflected the light. Their previously deadened state was transformed.

In the darkness of predawn, it is indeed hard to believe there is anything but the night. But arise, awake! The light is coming. And when the son comes as it does every morning, we are transformed and renewed in the light. And our lives reflect again God’s grace and love.

 

[1]Patrick J. Howell in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.18.

[2]Romans 13:11-14; ibid., p.16.

[3]Ephesians 5:14.

[4]Matthew 24:42; Isaiah 43:19.

[5]Howell, ibid., p.14.

[6]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within: Contemplative Prayer for Prisoners (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.1,41.

God in the lowlands

These last moments of Jesus’ life stand in stark contrast to what is valued in the world.

I find it ironic that we read today a text that is normally read on Good Friday – the day Christians worldwide pause to recall and remember the brutal death of Jesus on the cross. It is the day Christians confront the God who is deeply humiliated, a man who suffers injustice to the extent of his gruesome and painful suffering and torturous, drawn-out dying.

It’s ironic because a text that is normally read on Good Friday comes just days before what North Americans call Black Friday. Despite the various reasons why that day has come to be called Black Friday – it is commonly known to be the day the malls and commercial districts are crowded, busy and congested bustling with deal seekers and shoppers. It is the day the consumer in us is stoked. Big time.

Indeed, these last moments of Jesus’ earthly, humanity all seem to be in vivid contrast to what is valued as great in our world – this world presented to us in colourful, catalogue-thick inserts and pop-up internet ads promoting incredible sales and savings.

It is not poor, but a world of glamour and glitz.

It is not selfless, but a me-first world of acquisition and accumulation.

It is not vulnerable and generous, but a miserly, defensive and self-preservationist world.

Today is also what the church calls, “Christ the King”, on the last Sunday in the church year. At the end of time, we assert in faith that Jesus is King and his reign lasts forever. But, what kind of king are we talking about here? Certainly not a kind of king the world knows.

In response to Pilate’s question “Are you the King of the Jews?”[1], Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

That Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world is proved in what this ruler wants to happen and makes happen that other powerful rulers are not willing or able to do.

Let’s face it: Part of our inability to believe and trust the forgiving power of God’s grace and mercy is our inability to believe that other people deserve mercy. We want to judge whom God lets into heaven. Many of us are more comfortable not knowing what happened to the thief who scoffed at Jesus than knowing that an undeserving thief was let into paradise.

Would we not rather have had Jesus say that  God loves the people we like that God does not love the people we do not like? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the crackheads, the homeless, the refugee and Muslim immigrant? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the addicts, the adulterers, the thieves, the gays, the prostitutes, the rebellious and the disgruntled? Would we not prefer it if paradise were exclusively for the nice people, the clean people, the polite people, the well-behaved people, the right people?

How different is Jesus? There was a very strange novel published in England in the late 19th century called Flatlands. It is a story about a world that is flat, everything is two-dimensional. The chief character in the novel is Mr. Square, who is, of course, only in two dimensions.

One day, Mr. Square is visited by a Mr. Sphere who is, of necessity, in three dimensions. Square regards Sphere quite apprehensively. Sphere speaks to Square about a world of three dimensions, a world that is not flat. But Square is unconvinced. Living in a two-dimensional world, it is impossible for him to imagine another dimension. Eventually, Sphere is persecuted and driven out by the outraged flatlanders.

I propose to you that that is how different Jesus is from us. We are flatlanders. We live in a world of two dimensions, unable to grasp the possibility of a reality beyond that which we have experienced. We have been unable to believe, for instance, that love and forgiveness is a better response to evil than brute force. God’s power of love is three-dimensional to our two-dimensional thinking.

Notice with the second thief hanging beside Jesus on his cross, the thief does not ask to be saved, to be rescued. He only asks once, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Perhaps his plea is meant to echo these words from the Psalm: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”[2]– which is to say: Do not remember me according to my faults, but remember me according to your goodness.

We have faith not because we are weak but because God is strong and God is love. There is grace for us and for the people we do not like. Our salvation is dependent on a loving, grace-filled God.

So why can we hope in this goodness when we look around us at all the evil? Because Mr. Sphere did come among all of us Squares and we did persecute him and drive him out.

But he wouldn’t and couldn’t stay away. No, his three-dimensional existence couldn’t be flattened out by us. He is alive! And he comes to us again today in this meal we are about to share.

Again, it’s so hard for us to understand because he is like three-dimensions to our two. But he comes again with a word of love and forgiveness that promises the power that will finally take care of all that’s troubling in this world. It won’t be easy. He predicted that, too. But it is the only way. He comes to us again today to lead the way. “I have seen the future,” he says to us. “The future is not some cold grave, some hard, lifeless tomb. The future is the glorious triumph of God’s love.”

This man whom we follow is the king not of the flatlands, but in the lowlands. Spheres always roll to the bottom of things. Christ is king in the lowlands because God does not want us to die and suffer in that dark and sad region. Maybe you are today in a sort of darkness. The darkness of grief, loss, physical pain or emotional pain.

But the Holy One is with you today and for you today in that darkness. And, therefore, you will be with him today, and forevermore, in paradise. Thank God! Amen.[3]

[1]John 18:36

[2]Psalm 25:7

[3]Thank you to the writers for ‘Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) Luke 23:33-43’ in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.332-337 for many of the words and ideas expressed here.

The house built by fear

Reading from the bible can be scary. Sometimes a faithful reading of the bible will not bring calm and assurance. Just the opposite!

Today’s scripture can evoke fear.[1]When Jesus talks about Herod’s glorious temple crumbling to the ground and being betrayed by family members, our eyes widen in apprehension and we shift uncomfortably in our seats. Fearful of the future. What will it bring? Is God’s future good or something to fear. We do know, the way there won’t be easy.

From the Gospel, Jesus exposes two false ways in which people of faith try to deal with our fear. By that, I mean, strategies that we have employed for thousands of years in order to combat our fear. While these methods may be effective in allaying our fear, they also serve to block the way we connect with God.

The first such strategy Jesus exposes is our attachment to, and almost exclusive dependence on, what we build. Even, as we say, to the glory of God. These buildings. Glorious, adorned with carvings, intricate stained glass, spires making confident bids to the sky, and arches perfectly rounded and balanced. Architectural master pieces. To say the least.

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The pulpit alone, in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, is a wonder to behold. It is a sermon in itself – its spiraling, narrow staircase winding itself up into a small yet regally appointed platform high above the nave.

King Herod, for Christians reading the bible, was a paranoid despot. He killed innocent children was ruthless in defending and protecting his hold on power. Because he was afraid, afraid of losing it.

For historians and archeologists, however, he was a builder par excellence.

King Herod started building his temple in Jerusalem two decades before Jesus was born. During the time of the build he more than doubled the size of the temple mount. The temple proper was completed in eighteen months. But work on the outer courts and decorations continued throughout Jesus’ lifetime and still some thirty years after his death and resurrection. During this impressive season of building the temple, people gathered under the large colonnades and porches to hear speeches and witness healings.[2]

It was a gathering place, a central focal point for people’s identity in faith and source of authority and guidance for life. It was where you went to listen to and engage religious debate. It was where you went to deliberate truth. It was where you made animals sacrifices. Here, you found the rules and regulations and laws for a good life.

Less than a decade after everything was completed on the Herodian temple, it was pretty much destroyed by the Romans in the late first century. Jesus’ words in the Gospel text for today, calling for a day “when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”, speak to events that were happening in the lives of Jesus’ followers during this time of the destruction of Jerusalem and its glorious, magnificent temple.

In reading this text carefully, however, I realized this is not just about buildings. Jesus isn’t just criticizing those who put all their religious stock in bricks and mortar. Jesus is exposing yet another related strategy for dealing with our fear. Not just in the glory of the buildings, but in the way we speak to one another and relate to one another. Not just in glory. But also in power.

It was, after all, the authorities who made the rules, sold the animals for sacrifice and mediated the people’s connection with God.

At root, the religious authorities persuaded the people that their relationship with God could only be mediated by the authority’s permission. If you didn’t follow the rules and authorities, you were not justified or in right relationship with God. The whole culture, the spiritual climate, surrounding the temple served to choke out freedom of a personal and direct intimacy with God.[4]

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote the dismaying story with the title, “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. The old cardinal of the church hears that the real Jesus has come suddenly to his town. The cardinal is alarmed that Jesus healed a blind man who had been coming to his church. Then, he hears that the real Jesus who has come to his town raised a young girl from the dead.

When the cardinal confronts Jesus he asks him: “Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?” He wants to rid the town of Jesus, because in his mind what Jesus did long ago is done far better by the church today. In other words, the cardinal has to admit to himself, the church does not need Jesus.[3]The cardinal really couldn’t give up the power he had. Not give it up for anyone. Even Jesus. The cardinal was afraid of losing his job — what it would mean for him and the church …

Seeking glory and defending power seem to be effective ways of dealing with our fear.  We attach ourselves to symbols and expressions of glory in our culture – the tallest buildings, the fastest cars, celebrities, newsworthy leaders and victories on the battle fields of life. This brings comfort, though momentary and fleeting. Because we can never be satisfied operating in this consumer and acquisition-fueled culture. There’s never enough, or it’s not good enough. Ever.

Jesus suggests we must learn a new language. A new way of being, with God and with one another. A way, marked not by successes in the eyes of the world—there were lots of tourists in those houses of worship we visited in Montreal. The world approves. But will we walk a different way – a way marked by love, faithfulness in suffering, and generous giving in the face of poverty, suffering and our fear?

Throughout the Gospels, the religious authorities asked Jesus for a sign of his authority. And, he never satisfied them with his answer. His answers usually appear to disturb their sense of right and wrong.

The truth, when it comes, seems to turn upside down our initial ways of thinking and doing. Here, Jesus says, “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[5]

These opponents were neither stupid nor un-educated. In fact they were the most articulate and brilliant of the age. So, there is something altogether different going on here. A different way of being with God. A way not encumbered by discursive thought and debate. A way not intimidated by rules and regulations and conditional statements of belonging. A way not defined by glory-seeking persuasion nor forceful coercion.

The confirmation class the other night reflected on the meaning of the Trinity—God the Father who creates all, God the Son who is with us, God the Spirit who gives us strength. On this poster they cut out images from magazines to place in one of three designated areas on the poster. These images evoked for them the meaning and feeling of what God is up to in the world today, through the various persons of the Trinity.

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In reflecting on the experience of doing this exercise afterwards, we pastors admitted this was rather an abstract exercise. We weren’t just memorizing definitions of the Trinity from the Catechism, difficult enough as that is! But in engaging the confirmands on another level, we began to see more than we thought possible.

We discover that we don’t find God by building glory or defending power — ways we use to avoid confronting our fears of the future. Rather, the good news is that God has already found us. In this world. In our lives. And in a multitude of ways.

Making this link, this connection, is much simpler than all the methods we have devised to combat our fear. We don’t need the tallest and most beautiful buildings to assert God in this world. We don’t need to merit, or qualify for, our relationship with God by building skyscrapers or getting straight A’s in school.  We don’t need degrees and a long pedigree to justify ourselves in faith. We don’t need to arm ourselves with book knowledge in order to defend against some opponent whether a family member or stranger.

All we need is an open heart and a desire to love and trust. Following Jesus is about going directly to intimacy with God in our deepest selves. And God is there, right there, all along.

We can respond, then, not out of fear. But out of the love of Christ for all and in all. Forever.

 

[1]Luke 21:5-19

[2]Acts 3:11; 5:12

[3]Cited in Eberhard Busch, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.310-312

[4]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.93-96

[5]Luke 21:15