Mirage gates

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man and his wife had no children.

She had been his best friend since high school.

Their parents had all passed away.

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

Most of their childhood friends had moved away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A crewmember escorted him aboard.

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

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

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

Some nodded respectfully as he passed.

One woman reached out and touched his shoulder.

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

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

All the passengers followed in silence.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laetere!

“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24)

Lent is a journey through the desert. It is dry. And there’s little for comfort. Let alone luxury. It is a time of self-reflection, of letting go, of pacing ourselves through disciplines that humble us and peel back the layers of our habits and beliefs.

The famine provides a turning point in the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). His wasteful, dissolute, squandering of money — his lifestyle — is brought to an end by a famine, probably caused by drought.

Up to this point the Prodigal continued down the course of his delusion, believing he could be happy by pursuing this lifestyle, even when he runs out of money. His mistaken and self-indulgent strategy for fulfillment is derailed and heightened by the onset of famine.

After the famine grips the land and its people, he has to work among the pigs. He might have had to do this anyway. But because of the famine, nobody can even spare change to throw at his feet when he begs. This famine-ridden reality leads him to a place of brutal honesty. And he falls on his knees in confession.

This is not the only time a famine in the land affects the course of the history of the relationship between God and God’s people. The famine illustrates a pervasive motif in the bible: The famine acts as a significant motivator for people to move in their lives, physically and in their hearts as well (1).

Famine is the reason that Abraham and Sarah leave Ur for Canaan. Once they are there, famine is also the reason they leave again for Egypt (Genesis 12). Famine appears twenty times just in Genesis (eg, Genesis 26). The story of Joseph and Jacob revolve around the reality of the famine.

Famines represent those times in life when forces beyond our control dictate the course of our lives. Famines remind us that we are not the masters of our own destiny. Famines expose the truth of our own poverty. Famines make us honest for our own need. Famines cause us to reach out for help, and let go of our pretence of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

Famines will lead us to confession – honesty about what we need, what we lack, what limits us. Famines will move us to depend on something/someone beyond our capabilities and industry. Famines will bring us to our knees at the throne of God’s grace (Hebrews 4:16).

Maybe that’s why famines happened a lot in scripture.

The famine, otherwise not usually considered an important part of the parable of the Prodigal Son, serves to underscore the central message of Scripture: It’s not about us, it’s about God. We can act irresponsibly like the Prodigal, or we can follow all the rules of life and be good citizens and good people like the resentful elder son — this has no bearing on the freedom of God to dispense grace as God will.

It almost doesn’t feel fair, what happens. We can sympathize with the elder son, I suspect. Yet, whenever we feel the pangs of ‘It’s not fair’ — how much of that objection, when we are honest, is based on the presumption of our own righteousness, our own ability, our own deserving, our own industry to earn our rightful place?

There’s this delightful short book by Francois Lelord, which was translated into English and adapted for the big screen starring Simon Pegg, called “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” Simon Pegg’s character, Hector, goes on a journey around the world to observe what makes people happy. As he travels to distant places and meets different people, he writes down in his little notebook a short list of what makes people happy.

His very first observation — the first lesson he learns about what makes people happy — is: “Making comparisons can spoil your happiness” (2). Is that not what the elder son does — compare his righteousness to the wayward squandering of his younger brother? He is justifying himself, based on the less-than-stellar behaviour of another.

“Making comparisons can spoil your happiness.” This is Gospel truth, in fact. Remember the other parable Jesus tells of the workers in the vineyard? The ones who work the shortest amount of time earn the same wage as the ones who worked from early morning (Matthew 20:1-16). The ones who worked all day grumble that they made the same wage as those who only worked a short time, even though the early workers had already agreed on the rate they would receive.

Another characteristic of people who are not grateful for what they have, and who continually make comparisons: Resentful people do not feel like a party. People who are continually comparing themselves to others who have more, keep themselves from enjoying life and having fun from time to time. People who are judging others and pointing fingers, will not easily relax and accept the good in them and others.

The Father begs the resentful elder son to join the party he has thrown for the Prodigal. What the Father reminds the elder son are words from God to us and the church today: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” In other words, rather than incessantly compare our lot with others, focus on the gifts, the resources, the passions, the energy, the interests we have already been given to you. And we have been given much, indeed!

We have musical gifts in this congregation, and talented singers and instrumentalists. We have people passionate about social justice, and caring for the poor nearby. We are well-read, educated and earnest in our pursuit of truth. We are warm-hearted and dedicated to one another.

Moreover, we have an abundance of material resources. Yes, we do! A building assessment was done last year. And the replacement cost of this small building alone was valued at $1 million. With the property around the building, the value is much higher.

We have been given so much in this community alone. Imagine the potential human and material resource we have here for the purpose of God’s mission in the world today!

Accept with thanksgiving what we have been given. And, when it comes to what others have received, rejoice in God’s generosity and grace towards them. After all, God is free to do what God will.

And we are free, to do what we must do. Whether we make mistakes, or do good. Whether we are led astray for a time in our lives, or we keep the faith through thick and thin — God says, “You count! You are beloved! I am with you always. I will go the distance for you. I will wait for you — no matter what you have done, good or bad. You count!” So much so, it’s worth throwing a party — an extravagant party.

There is cause to celebrate. And be happy! For God is good, and God’s love endures forever.


(1) Lutherans Connect, Lenten devotional, Day 6 — found at lc2016lentdevotional.blogspot.ca
(2)Francois Lelord, “Hector and the Search for Happiness”, Penguin Books, Toronto, 2010, p.19

Love confronts violence

You can feel the tension rising. As we make the slow yet certain journey with Jesus to his eventual arrest, trial, sentencing and violent death on the Cross, the assigned texts for Lent heighten the tension between Jesus and his scrutinizing opponents in the religious institution of Jerusalem. This short Gospel from Luke (13:31-35) reflects the tone.

It starts with a warning from the Pharisees. “Get away from here; Herod wants to kill you!” they say to Jesus. They are alarmed yet perhaps enjoying the drama unfolding around their competitor in the religious marketplace. They don’t care about Jesus. They are just pressing his buttons to see his reaction.

Immanent violence is in the air. It’s the only way we know to resolve conflict. Whether with our words, our manipulative behaviour, our compulsiveness and in some cases our outright physical abuses — violence is the unfortunate reality whenever and wherever human beings mix.

I’ve learned in a course on conflict I have been taking, that violence is not just played out on a battlefield between warring groups. Violence does not only happen in a physical way between people or nations, as sure and as horrific as these examples are.

Violence is also something that occurs in our verbal communication — whether of a bullying, judging, teasing, condemning nature, or intentionally hurtful put down. Violent communication creeps into any competitive or self-defensive motivation. Which is usually fuelled by a deep fear.

Not outside of this escalating situation for Jesus, the obvious underdog in the power struggle, he announces words of love. He describes God’s favour towards precisely those who wish him harm. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings …” (v.34)

This maternal, protective, embracing, comforting image of God’s love for us intervenes into a world of violence and abusive cravings for power and corruption. This passionate love of God for us is not because we don’t sin, but especially because of our sin. This love of God is undeserved, and it is almost impossible to fully explain or justify. Precisely because it is exercised amidst a violent world.

“On April 16, 2007, the Virginia Tech massacre occurred in which a distraught student went on a shooting rampage, coldly killing fellow students. As many as fifteen were saved from death by an instinctively protective and caring English professor. 

“Liviu Librescu pressed his body against the door to his classroom while he urged his students to jump out a window to safety. This professor, a Romanian Jew who survived the Nazis in his homeland years earlier, died in his classroom after the killer shot through the door that Librescu was holding shut.

“Selfless love is real. In spite of the horrors of war and other brutal ways that humans treat one another, love is possible. Unselfish people reside everywhere. They love unconditionally, dedicate themselves to alleviating suffering, are willing to give their all for another, intent on being life-givers and spirit-transformers. 

“These are not do-gooders, holier-than-thou people. No, this kind of love is seared by trials, purified by personal growth, shaped by persistent rededication and self-giving that goes beyond required duty. Each day people on this planet open the door of their hearts and love pours forth. No matter how discouraged we might get about the world’s violence and hatred, let us remember that generous love thrives in kind souls and expresses itself daily.

“Caryll Houselander writes: ‘This is the first and last vocation of every Christian, to love, and all other vocations are only a shell in which this vocation, to love, is protected.’

“Our deeds of love may not be as enormous as Liviu Librescu’s, but they still contain great value. The unselfish giving and support we offer occurs within our homes and workplaces, in local grocery stores and on the highways, in hospitals, restaurants and other common places of personal encounter.

“Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was convinced that each act of love had a far reaching effect: ‘If we all carry a little of the burden, it will be lightened. If we share in the suffering of the world, then some will not have to endure so heavy an affliction … You may think you are alone. But we are all members of one another. We are children of God together.'” (1)

Librescu could have heeded warnings, and jumped out the window to safety himself. He could have heard the killer coming closer to his classroom, and acted in self-preservation. But, love for his students overcame his fear. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). 

The first words God speaks to Abraham, the god-father of three world religions, in this version of God’s Promise to Abram is “Do not be afraid” (Genesis 15:1). You would think the more important words of God at this point in the Scriptural tradition is the great Covenant God establishes with the people of Israel through Abraham and Sarah.

Yet, God knows us humans. We are a fearful lot, when propositioned with promises of greatness but which require letting go of seemingly important things. And Abraham would need to lose a lot — home, familiarity, security — in order to travel to the new place God was calling him. “Do not be afraid.” The most often quoted divine instruction throughout the whole bible! “Do not be afraid/Fear not!”

The journey to the Cross, and beyond the Cross is ultimately a journey of love. We can only carry our own crosses the whole way because of the love of God which sustains us. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” writes Saint Paul (Romans 8:38-39). Nothing. Not even all the violence in this world.

Thanks be to God!

(1) Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door”, Sorin Books, Notre Dame IN, 2008, digital copy Week 6 ‘Beyond the Door’ Day 2 ‘Bringing Love’ p.12-13

It’s ok to fall (4): It’s the only way

It’s only the second Sunday in Lent. Time seems to drag during this long, hard season. At least Advent — a similar season of preparation, repentance, and waiting — is only four weeks long; things seem to go faster in December.

The pace for Lent is perfect for Sarai and Abram. They are old — in their nineties, now in the twilight of their lives (Genesis 17). They are, likely, slower in moving about and more reflective than the young. They are, likely, more contemplative and more aware of the mistakes they have made and the wounds they have caused — all of which is appropriate for the Lenten journey (Craig Kocher, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Vol 2, Westminster/John Knox Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.50). I agree — although it’s hard to admit — sometimes we need a slower pace, and a place to listen and pray carefully, to confess our sin, as we turn toward God.

I tried something for the first time this past week which goes against the grain of my personality. When I go for my 45 minute walks, my route takes me along streets, roadways and eventually into a beautiful multi-acred forest called ‘the Grove’ whose trails lead to the Ottawa River. 

But I always carry my smart-phone with me. I have justified doing so for safety reasons. My hyper-vigilant personality loves this — no matter where I am on this planet I am only a text or phone call away! If there is a crisis or emergency, I can respond with efficiency and lightning speed to get help.

As I pondered leaving my phone at home, before going for my walk, I reflected on how dependent I have become on this device. Addicted, perhaps? I wondered what I would have done before the smart-phone era — not long ago, but long enough! If there was an emergency, I would have sought a neighbour’s help by knocking on their door; I would have paid more attention to my surroundings and where I might find help. I would have prepared better for my walk. I would have rested more in the moment, trusting more in the interrelated fabric of life around me.

So, here’s the good news. (But the structure of this sermon goes like this: There’s good news, then bad news, then really good news. Stay with me!) First good news, from this experience: I felt liberated. Leaving my phone behind wasn’t really that hard to do — and yet, it was a small step in a healthy direction, a simple sacrifice for evaluating my life-style and making concrete changes for the good. I will now practice more often ‘leaving my phone behind’, for its obvious benefits.

These are the ‘small’ steps we can make during Lent. Others give up chocolate, sweets, meat. Others still will ‘add’ something to their lifestyle — exercise, working out, volunteering more, coming to church more often, giving more money for some overseas mission, spending more time in prayer — all these good disciplines that are popular for Christians in Lent. And these are good!

During Lent, however, we are called also to contemplate the journey of Jesus to the cross — and the implications of that kind of sacrifice on our own lives. And so — and here’s the rub, the ‘bad’ news: Giving up chocolate or the cell phone is not ultimately what the Lenten journey is about. Jesus’ death on the cross was not making a ‘convenient’ sacrifice. Jesus’ death on the cross was not a little discipline that pinched but really didn’t change anything significant when Easter morning came around.

Jesus’ sacrifice goes to the jugular of our lives; it demands a costly cost; it means a radical change and giving up of something that is near and dear to us.

God calls Abram and Sarai to change their names. And it was a big deal in their day. In our times, names are often considered nothing more than labels. In our world, names are often chosen based on nostalgia, diction or popularity.

In the ancient world, however, names reflected the character and destiny of that person. To be called by your name, was a big deal. To change that identification was radical! Names were wrapped up in the core of one’s identity and purpose.

The name of God, above all, was untouchable — literally. The Jewish people withheld from spelling God’s name in scripture, from saying God’s name out-loud in worship. To call ‘on the name of the Lord’ was an act of profound devotion. To call ‘on the name of the Lord’ was a radical act of identifying with an un-nameable God.

And yet, in this text, even God is given a new name. For the first time, God is given the name “God Almighty” (Genesis 17:1). It is transliterated from the Hebrew, “El Shaddai” which might be translated, “God of the Mountains” (ibid., p.52).

So, here is my invitation to you today: Consider what profound and deep aspect of your life God is calling you to change. You may object, on the grounds of scriptural interpretation alone: “This text is not about us needing to change! God called Abram and Sarai to change their names. That was them. But not us!” 

Yes, we may think on occasions — even religious in nature — where we do still change our names — at weddings, some women will change their last names; and in Christian baptisms practised in some churches, babies take on their “Christian” name for the first time.

And yet, when we read this Old Testament text, and while we would do well to acknowledge its original context and meaning to the first people who received it, we are still asked today: What does it mean to us? How can this text become alive for us today?

And when we relate this text to the Gospel for today (Mark 8:31-38), where Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, where Jesus challenges us to ‘lose’ our lives in order to ‘gain’ life — what does that mean? It’s not just about throwing a little more cash in the offering plate, or not indulging in sweets.

What may God be calling us to change, in our own lives? What may God be calling us, whispering into our hearts, to ‘lose’? Are we prepared to fall? Big time?

Jesus shows us that it’s okay to fall, because it’s the only way to go: The Cross. If anything, don’t skip opportunities in Lent to worship — during mid-week studies, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. Why? Going to the Cross, through the Cross, is the only way for us to know and experience the joy and truth of resurrection. Being uncomfortable by facing our fear, anger and shame is the only way for us to know and experience the joy of life. If you yearn for true joy, satisfaction and rebirth in your life, being uncomfortable is the only way for you to be healed, to be redeemed and forgiven, to find your way in this world.

You can’t have Easter without Good Friday. We need to be prepared to ‘lose’ ourselves — to fall — in order to ‘find’ ourselves — to get up, again. In Christ. “El Shaddai”, God of the Mountains. Mountains define valleys. You can’t have mountains without valleys. Mountains encircle valleys — valleys of despair, valleys of impatience and sorrow, valleys of Lenten confession and discipline. Wherever you have a range of mountains, you will have valleys. But whenever you find yourself in a valley, don’t give up. Don’t get stuck in the valley. Don’t get comfortable there, either. Get up and keep on, because there’s a mountain just up ahead pointing our vision to the skies. 

And here comes the really good news (after the bad news, after the first good news): Abram is ninety-nine years old when ‘the big change’ happens. Ninety-nine! It’s never too late. Never too late for God to call us to change. Never too late for God to call us into ‘losing’ something that we have for a life-time believed to be important. Never too late for God to give us the strength we need to endure and follow-through on that change. Never too late for God to bless us with a wonderful gift of the new thing God is doing for us — whatever that may be.

God will never give up on us. God will wait a life-time, and then some! God is the God of Mountains. And mountains are steadfast and true. Mountains point upwards to the vastness and infinite beauty and glory of the sky and the stars. God pointed Moses’ vision upwards to see the Big Picture of God’s promises and God’s future.

Mountains will remind us, I pray, that God’s promises are sure. God’s covenant to us cannot be broken, even as we follow Jesus down this long, slow road. But, “whose destiny is our destiny: the cross, the grave, the skies” (ibid, p.54).