The Shepherd, and Creation

In the midst of this season of Easter, the extreme winter weather that has plagued this part of the world recently has been the topic of conversation. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that April 22 is Earth Day. The public, as well as Christians, are invited to pause and reflect on our relationship with all of creation.

Earth Day coincides with the Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is traditionally called “Good Shepherd Sunday”. Familiar readings from the bible populate the liturgies of this day.

The imagery from the Psalms, particularly Psalm 23, calls forth in me a context of creation that is stable, healthy. The Psalmist walks beside still waters, green pastures, verdant valleys. And if we expand the Psalmist’s repertoire we can include the hills and mountains (Psalm 121), the moon and the stars (Psalm 8), breaking waves (Psalm 42,89), expansive seas (Psalm 139) and sky-reaching trees (Psalms 1,148).

In scripture, grace is mediated through creation, not apart from it. The message of the Gospel cannot be communicated in spite of creation but in and with it. All of creation, like the Sacrament, is a beloved conveyor of God’s grace and purpose.

When in the Gospel Jesus says to his disciples that he is the “good shepherd” (John 10:11), we are invited to consider what it means to care for creation. The Greek word for ‘good’ in this text, kalos, means ‘model’. In other words, Jesus is the model shepherd. Jesus models for us, in his life-giving love, how it looks to be a follower of Jesus.

Jesus will stop at no cost to care for us and for the world that God created and so loved. What does it mean for us? What are we called to do, as followers of Jesus?

This weekend, as the weather finally warms up and feels more like Spring, please reflect and act on what it means to follows Jesus in today’s world. Start by reading the Earth Day statement prepared together by the ELCIC Bishop, the Rev. Susan Johnson, Anglican National Indigenous Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald, and the Anglican Church of Canada Bishop, the Most Rev. Fred Hiltz:

Earth Day statement by church leaders

Martin Luther & Julian of Norwich

An imaginary meeting between Martin Luther (16th century reformer) and Julian of Norwich (14th century mystic) in celebration of the four-month time of worshipping together in the same space with Faith Lutheran Church Ottawa and Julian of Norwich Anglican Church Ottawa, a time which now comes to an end. Thank you to the Rev. Mary Ellen Berry, Anglican Diocese of Ottawa and incumbent of Julian of Norwich, for co-writing and presenting this dialogue with me, on our last Sunday together February 19, 2017



NARRATOR: I came early this morning to set up, and no one was here. I was tired so I sat down on the chancel steps, and fell asleep. And I had the strangest dream: Julian of Norwich had a conversation with Martin Luther …..

ANGEL: (singing, from the balcony) “I want Jesus to walk with me, I want Jesus to walk with me, all along my pilgrim journey, Lord I want Jesus to walk with me.” (ELW #325)

LUTHER: (appearing from behind the pulpit, holding a large Bible, opened, in one hand, his feather ink pen in the other) “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect!” (Matthew 5:48, Gospel for Epiphany 7A) What does this mean?

JULIAN: (appearing in her cell, sitting on a stool, leaning upon the reading desk) What does this mean to you?

LUTHER: Who are you?

JULIAN: Julian of Norwich.

LUTHER: Are you one of those uber-enthusiasts, I call Schwaermer in my native German tongue? Julian of Norwich, that’s hardly the way to relate to the Lord.

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: How did you learn that you couldn’t be perfect as God is perfect, by your efforts alone? What did you do?

LUTHER: At first, I rubbed the tips of my fingers raw washing the floors in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. That didn’t help my conscience. So, in 1510 I decided to go off to Rome. I crawled devoutly up the stairs of the Scala Santa, as millions of other pilgrims did.

JULIAN: Life, itself, Martin offers its own penance: disappointments, failures, sickness, betrayals. Life, if we but allow it, purges us of all the things for which our habits and affections grasp. Why on earth did you do all those things?

LUTHER: I laboured and sacrificed so much in order to purge myself of sin. It was up to me, I believed, to make myself right before God. It all depended on how hard I worked and the more penitential I became. I tried to impress God. I once believed my good works were the gateway to my salvation; only then, could I be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect.

JULIAN: What happened to change your understanding?

LUTHER: It was on the Scala Santa in Rome as I made my wearisome, guilt-ridden way up those holy stairs, I heard God’s voice saying to me: ‘The just shall live by faith, not by doing penance.’ It was like scales fell from my eyes. I stood up, walked back down, and stalked out to ignite the Reformation!

JULIAN: You heard God’s voice speak to you! How do you know that it was God who spoke? Was it the only time you heard the voice of God speak to you? It seems quite an experience, no? Did you not criticize the ‘Schwaermer’ — as you call them — those ‘fanatics’ who relied on experience alone to express their Spirit-filled faith?

LUTHER: Well, yes .. and no, not just experience alone. I was suffering severe cramps in my room one evening, reading through Paul’s letter to the Romans, when I came across the verse from chapter 3: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, we are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through Jesus Christ” (v.23-24). This word of God is external, and comes to us quite apart from any experience we might have.

JULIAN: But you are not denying that God comes to us and speaks to us through our experiences?

LUTHER: Only when mediated through the Word.

JULIAN: I see, “Only when mediated by the Word.” And what, for you Martin, is the “Word’?

LUTHER: The spoken word, preached and proclaimed. The words in the bible. And, most importantly, the living Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: But the spoken word and the living word touch our souls, not just the ears and mind, do they not? Is not the word something that needs to come into us, personally, experientially?

LUTHER: You are good at asking questions, fair Julian of Norwich. Perhaps you can tell me why it is you sit in your cell, asking questions of the faithful and listening to their stories?

JULIAN: It is in this way that I do my small part in the work of our Lord Jesus. I care for their souls, I tend to their hearts, so the real teacher, our Lord Jesus, can enter. My fondest hope, Martin, is “that when I am no longer in this world my dear ones will soon forget me so that I shall not hinder them, and they will behold Jesus who is teacher of all.”

LUTHER: In German, this pastoral care ministry is the work of the Seelsorger. But you also have written so much — the first book written by a woman in the English language. I wonder what greater impact your writing would have had, if you had Gutenberg’s printing press at your disposal, like I did.

JULIAN: You, too, my dear Martin, have written so much — more than me I should say! You translated the Latin bible into your beloved German.

LUTHER: Your Divine Revelations speak boldly of God’s love and trust.

JULIAN: You once wrote: “Sin boldly”. Do you regret anything you’ve written?

LUTHER: Well, yes. I did write unlovingly about the Jewish people. I have contributed, by my words, unfortunately, to the cause of anti-semitism. I am grateful that the Canadian Lutheran Church in the last century, among others worldwide, have rescinded this hateful language from my legacy. What advice do you have?

JULIAN: All wrath – all that is contrary to peace and love – is in us, not in God, Martin. So, yes you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But you are forgiven, Martin. Grace alone. Is that not what you preached?

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

LUTHER: Your written work is impressive. Do you, Julian regret anything you’ve written?

JULIAN: Well, Martin, I don’t know that ‘regret’ is quite the proper word, but it will do until I can think of a better one. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” are words that were given to me by our Lord, Jesus that I wrote in my Divine Revelations. They are beautiful words and they are most surely true, Martin. I do not regret hearing and writing these words; but I do regret – hmmm, still not the right word – how they are often taken.

LUTHER: What do you mean by “how they are often taken”?

JULIAN: What I mean, Martin, is that I fear these words have been misconstrued. When our Lord Jesus spoke them to me, I, too, was at first appalled and answered, “Good Lord, how can all be well when great harm has come to your creatures through sin.” – don’t forget, Martin, that I lived during times of war, plague, poverty, and famine. Through the grace of God, I came to understand our Lord Jesus’ words more fully.

LUTHER: Really, how so, Julian? Because being perfect, then, is not about a life free from all that ails us, and continues to do so all our lives long, no?

JULIAN: Yes. “All shall be well” is not a promise that God will relieve us of our sin and pain in this life. It is an invitation to trust God, to cultivate new habits of trust in God, and to at least be open to God’s healing love. “Just as by God’s courtesy he forgets our sin from the time we repent, just so does he wish us to forget our sins and all our depression and all our doubtful fears.”Does this speak to you, Martin? Or does it sound like the rantings of a 14th century mystic – a fourteenth century Schwaermer?

LUTHER: Well, you are two hundred years older than I am!

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: ‘Perfection’ then is experienced when we bask in the light of God’s love in, through, for and with us. Loving yourself, and loving others, loving all of creation, despite our suffering. This is the beginning and end of all prayer. How do you pray?

LUTHER: I spend nearly half the day in prayer, each and every day.

JULIAN: Being in the presence of God, whether you use words or not, unites us in Jesus.

LUTHER: I’ve always said: the fewer the words, the better the prayer!

JULIAN: The presence of Jesus, God’s love as a mother’s love, is all gift.

LUTHER: Despite our differences, then, prayer unites us all in this grace of God.

JULIAN & LUTHER: Thanks be to God! (Julian and Luther walk to the centre and embrace, then each walk separately out one of the side doors beside the altar)

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

NARRATOR: (wakes up, shakes his head, stands up and faces the congregation) The words of the Prayers of Intercession are posted on the screen. The Lutherans will with one voice say together their parts; and alternate with the Anglicans who will say their parts. Let us pray in the unity of Christ!

Sanctuary

For a year and a half my wife and I took dance lessons. We learned Latin dances such as the Salsa, Rumba, Samba, Triple-Step, Merengue, and the Cha-Cha. 

I was motivated, at the start, by a beautiful vision in my imagination: I could see my wife and I swinging to the music, sweeping across the dance floor, effortlessly. I had a vision of us moving in complete sync with one another, twirling and swaying together in perfect rhythm and harmony. What a vision!

When I first proposed we take these lessons together, she was all game. So, every week we dutifully went to our lesson and met with our dance instructor who showed us the steps and taught us the moves. We were doing this together!

After a few lessons, however, I was becoming a little bit disappointed. My vision was not panning out. We weren’t always in sync with each other. Indeed, more often than not, we were stepping on each other toes! Oh yes, we giggled about our missteps, but it seemed we were not getting anywhere.

Our instructor calmly yet persistently reminded us that we needed to practice. Before the fun would come, she said, we had to master the steps. And for me, the lead, I had to memorize the patterns and in my mind always be one step ahead, knowing where we were going with each and every move. And this took work! And persistence. And time. The fun would come later, I held on to the promise.

It wasn’t as easy as I imagined it would be, working towards that vision. In fact, it was my wife who grew into the love of the dance and often had to cajole and encourage me to keep up with the program.

The Gospel text (Luke 18:1-8) today describes a woman who is persistent in her pursuit of justice. Jesus tells this parable to illustrate what it means not to lose heart. In the story, persistence is not just about building up the courage to do something beyond one’s comfort zone just once, and then give up because it doesn’t turn out. 

How often, isn’t that how we operate when trying something new for the first time? Something doesn’t please us the way we expected or wanted the first time we try, and so we just give up on it. No, in the story, she goes back “continually”. The vision of justice never wavers in her commitment to do the hard work.

This relentless pestering is accomplished in adversity, and really against all odds. Why the woman would even consider trying, up against someone in power who has no fear of God and no respect for anyone, is remarkable. At the onset, we would say she is hardly setting herself up for success!

Setting up a contrast of visions to describe God, is what Jesus is up to in telling this story. The place where we meet God is a place of mercy, of sanctuary. People, in the course of history, could enter a church and find respite from the condemnation of the law. The police, the authorities, the powers that be, even the force of the law could not touch you in the holy space. Here, you found immediate relief and mercy, just by entering the space.

The place where we exercise our prayer is a place where we receive forgiveness, despite the imperfection and sordid realities of our lives in the world. That is why Jesus tells of a woman receiving justice, not because she goes to the temple per se, but a court of law in the secular world: Even there, you can find justice, despite the unjust and sinful people involved. God’s love is greater even then the most powerful, unjust judge.

Indeed, this is our challenge today. God is not just in one, holy place that we have cherished for the past fifty-five years. God is out there, too! In the imperfection of our Monday-to-Saturday lives. In the imperfection of our secular world. In the seat of government. In the marketplace. And, would you believe it, also in other churches. The truth of the Gospel resides in a worshipping community that is far from perfect. That, in fact, has weakness and brokenness imbedded in our very being together.

When Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the River Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-31), he didn’t hold back any punches, so to speak. He let God have it, and prevailed! His encounter with God, nevertheless, left him with a physical reminder of relationship with God: A bad hip. He would live the rest of his days, “limping because of his hip.” 

To be in communion with the Holy One is to bear the physical, real mark of sacrifice, of weakness, of imperfection. Followers of Christ, if you want to know them, are not perfect people. And if you meet Christians who appear to be perfect — or you want them to be — you are missing the truth of it I am certain. In fact, we would throw our lot in with the unjust judge, more than anyone else in these stories I would guess.

I read recently a story told by Marianne Williamson in her most recent book: “Tears to Triumph”. It’s “about a chimpanzee troop in which a portion of the population displayed depressed behaviour. They didn’t eat with the rest of the chimps, play with the rest of the chimps, or sleep with the rest of the chimps.

“A group of anthropologists wondered what effect the absence of these depressed chimps would have on the rest of the troop and removed them for six months. When they returned, they found that all of the other chimps, those who remained in the troop, had died! Why?

“According to one analysis, the chimps perished because the so-called depressed chimps among them had been their early warning system. The depressed chimps had been depressed for a reason; they registered that a storm was coming or snakes, or elephants, or disease. The presence of the depressed chimps had been an aid to the survival of the entire population … ” (1)

We need each other. We need our faults, you could say, just as much as we need our strengths. To remind us of what it’s all about. To point us to the Cross and the Empty Tomb. To help us remember that the church is not about our mission, but about God’s mission. To emphasize the grace of God under which all of us stand. To encourage us to work together with others that appear different from us. Going to, and persisting with, people that do things differently from us — in some ways better, in other ways not so much — is vital for the health and survival of the whole church.

So, after today we begin an adventure. Worship and faith and life-in-our-community does not stop now because this particular space becomes a construction zone for a couple months. We will continue to worship as a community, as Faith Lutheran Church. Yes we will! 

Our prayer will continue, and we will persist with others who are different from us (and I suspect we will soon discover they are not that much different from us!) at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Being outside our comfort zone is a critical, healthy, spiritual exercise. Should we persist together in this adventure, I believe we will grow in ways that are both vital and healthy to the future of Faith Lutheran Church; persisting together in this adventure will also deepen our walk with God.

I want to encourage you over the next two months to embrace this challenge, not shy away form it, maintain the vision, not lose heart, and pray always! Because God is already and always merciful and just.

(1) Marianne Williamson, “Tears to Triumph; The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment”, HarperOne, New York, 2016, p.84-85

The paralysis of analysis

When I was in university some years ago now it seemed to me that if I wanted, it was possible still, at that time, to read everything that had ever been written about any particular topic.

This sounds like good methodology. After all, in order to write a research paper on some subject you must first master the material and know all there is to know about it, right? Before developing your thesis you need first to gather and consume all the data and information out there.

Today, however, that strategy is impossible. With the democratizing effect of the World Wide Web over the last decades, you can no longer pretend to have all the information you need before acting on a plan. Because there’s always something more that someone has written.

A couple of weeks ago I sat around a table of a group of local Lutheran pastors talking about some of the things being planned for the Joint Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada this summer in Ottawa.

We were considering the suggestion of the national bishops of both churches to act boldly. One afternoon during the Joint Assembly, both church bodies would be invited to walk together peacefully to Parliament Hill and make public witness of our unity and mutual support of some pressing social justice issues of the day; namely, showing our support for First Nations people and for social/affordable housing initiatives — given the growing disparity between rich and poor and the escalation of child poverty rates, even in our city here.

Well, that was interesting. Some raised concern that before we can act on something like this, we need to have all the information: we need to see both sides of the issue, to gather all the opinions and data and perspectives which exist among our diverse membership — to be sure.

This position, I must admit, appealed to me impulsively. You see, I grew up in a family where, in order to do something together, it felt like we all had to agree on the course of action. I mean, each one of us had to agree to it for it to be okay. Our unity of action depended on conformity. Unless we were all like-minded on a position, we held off acting on it.

Now, there are times in the life of a family or community when waiting to act on something is appropriate. Other times, not so much. And when we hesitate, when we look the other way, because we need more information, we may miss out on experiencing something wonderful from God. And that’s tragic.

At root of this paralysis of analysis, I believe, is fear. Fear of the unknown.

In my life as a pastor I’ve also witnessed families sitting around a dinner table where they argue passionately against each other, expressing with loud words and wildly flying hand gestures their divergent opinions. And yet, each and every one of them around that table could never imagine NOT remaining part of that family. They work it out — together, and openly. They’re not afraid of baring their souls, being vulnerable to one another, laying it on the line — lovingly, firmly, respectfully. They are family no matter their disagreements. And, those disagreements don’t hold family members back from acting on their convictions when those opportunities present themselves.

Notice the action of the father of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel text for today (Luke 15:1-3,11b-32). A younger son leaves home with his inheritance and squanders it. Destitute, he decides to risk going back home hoping he will be received.

You can imagine Jesus’ listeners expecting — as in other parables where rebels are dealt with harshly — that this young son will be severely punished. If the steward who failed to invest was cast into outer darkness (Matthew 25:26-30), how much more will a greedy son suffer!

We may be so familiar with this story that we overlook something that would have surprised its original audience: the father hasn’t even heard his son’s expression of remorse. The father doesn’t first hear what his son had to say for himself. The father doesn’t first demand an apology from the lips of the wayward son. Jesus says that the father was only “moved with compassion” simply upon seeing him. Actions speak louder than words. There’s no analysis going on here.

The father does something wondrous — something that might very well have struck listeners as odd. He runs, undignified, and puts his arm around his son and kisses him -uncalled for. Who could not feel confused by the father’s apparent approval of sin? (thanks to Fr. James Martin, SJ, for this insight). What’s going on here? The father even throws a party for his lost son that has come home.

I find it interesting that the end of the story in Luke’s Gospel does not say how the resentful elder son responded to the father’s invitation to join the family celebration. Perhaps this question mark at the end of the story was intentional – as now each and every one of us is invited to reflect on whether or not we will act.

Will we act, first out of compassion and mercy? Will we join the new thing God is doing in our family in the church? Despite disagreeing on some things, despite feeling miffed or frustrated by something, despite not having gathered all the data and information on something, despite our desire first to feel justified in helping people in need.

But as we must make that decision on our own, remember who is inviting us. And, remember that our Father God desires the healing not just of individuals in our own private worlds. But ultimately, our God desires the healing of the whole family of God. And God promises to welcome each of us around that table, in this world and in the world to come.

What a party that will be!