Who’s counting?

I think it was Albert Einstein who said that we can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. In other words, we can’t move forward with solutions into the new thing God is doing using a frame of mind that also contributed to creating the fix we find ourselves in today.

The Gospel story today (Matthew 25:14-30) is a good example of a parable that challenges a materialistic way of thinking, a mentality that has contributed to a problem we face today. It also introduces — if we pay attention to it — the Gospel way of thinking. And I believe, the Gospel way of thinking not only judges the ways of old, it paves the way for entering God’s future.

A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the silent treatment. Suddenly, the man realized that the next day, he would need his wife to wake him at 5:00 AM for an early morning business flight.

Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and LOSE), he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5:00 AM.” He left it where he knew she would find it.

The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover it was 9:00 AM and he had missed his flight. Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t wakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed.

The paper said, “It is 5:00 AM. Wake up.”

On several levels this story exposes the kind of way we operate when facing difficulties: It’s a tit-for-tat world we live in. There have to be winners and losers. It’s really the only game we know well. When someone, or some group, or some other religion or denomination poses a threat, we respond in kind. Because someone must win and someone must lose. During the Cold War Era, we called it ‘mutually-assured-destruction’; or, as the acronym accurately suggests, when we give ourselves into this compulsive way of behaving, we are indeed MAD.

On the surface this parable looks like it contains a good stewardship message. And, admittedly, there is this theme of valuing personal industry and action as part of what it means to follow Jesus. By comparing what the three servants do — one turns five talents into ten and the other turns two into four by bold, risky investment; but the third doesn’t do anything with his talent — we may be left merely with the notion that the solution is by just upping the ante of all our spiritual work. Just do more. Work harder, and spin those wheels faster.

All of this to get more of what we think we want; that is, more of the same thing we’ve always known. I like to joke that when someone in the church suggests we do something today the same way the church did it 50 years ago — whether it is about a strategy for getting more people in the pews, some outreach program all intended to bring people in — it’s like advising someone who has car trouble they should really trade it in for horse and buggy. It just won’t work today! The church today really needs to do something altogether different from the ways of thinking fifty years ago.

I wonder what would have happened if the first two slaves had put the money in a high-risk venture and lost it all. Jesus didn’t tell the story this way, but I cannot imagine the master would have been harsh towards them; he might even have applauded their efforts. The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth. (John M. Buchanan, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, WJKP 2011, p.310). The point is not about achieving a desired result, and being congratulated for your success, materially. This is not management by objective. This is not ‘the ends justify the means.’

This is about living — living in a way that demonstrates a willingness to take risks not knowing how it will all turn out. The Gospel way is not win-lose, it is both-and. Because in being faithful, we may try things, and sometimes fail in the world’s eyes. But emphasizing risk-management may sometimes impede our action to do the right thing when we have to do it, despite the sordid circumstances of life. We can’t wait until everything is hunky-dory before we take action; otherwise we never will. The reason the third slave received judgement was because he wanted to play it safe, be cautious and prudent; he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t lose anything; low risk, no risk.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility. Bonhoeffer, who was a pacifist, took his own responsibility seriously, so much so that he joined the Resistance and helped plan an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. His sense of responsibility cost him his life. (ibid., p.311-312)

We, as Christians, are not called to be ‘counters and measurers’. God knows, if we do anything well in times of institutional crisis and constriction, we count and we measure — we do this very well. But in all our counting and measuring and bottom line conversations, are we not being judged? We just need to look around and count the heads in our churches today, for that answer.

When we arranged for this pulpit swap, the purpose around doing so was to provide an opportunity to share about how we reach out. In the congregation I serve, in the last couple of years, we have done “Back to Church Sunday”. Practically, this event boils down to each member of the worshipping community being challenged to ask a friend, “Would you like to come to church with me?” And it’s not as easy as it may seem on the surface.

Success in the program is not based on how many first-time visitors walk through the door on B2CS. Success is not measured by the number of people who agree to come. No-one may show up on that Sunday. But the event could still be considered a success IF … If at least one member — one of you — actually asked someone, actually invited someone, to come. Because the result is not something we have control over. How a person responds is not in our control — it is the job of the Holy Spirit to move in the heart of the person.

Yes, we have some work to do in the process — developing a friendship with that person, praying for that person — these are things we can do to prepare ourselves for asking that question to them. And had we done all those things, culminating in actually asking that question — then we are successful.

This calls, admittedly, for a radical shift in our mentality and in our approach. It necessitates, I believe, some uncomfortable letting go of the way we have seen ourselves. But in the unravelling, discomfort and vulnerable places we put ourselves in living the Gospel way, we can be encouraged.

For one thing, in reading this Gospel text, have you ever noticed how trusting the master is with his resources. God, like the master, has faith in us. God gives according to our abilities — not more, not less. God puts no condition on what we do with this bounty. Even the one talent was worth — in those days — 15 years of wages. Converted to today’s average salaries, that would be around a million dollar value! But who’s counting?

The point is, God entrusts us with an abundance of wealth, gifts and resources. God is so generous to us. Do you see the good in your life? I hope you do, because this ‘seeing’ calls us to respond in kind. God believes in us, and will ever be faithful by God’s gift of abundant grace. Just maybe, then, we can trust God when we live boldly using those gifts in the world for good, and as we step out into the unknown, as we move out of our comfort zones to do great things that God can accomplish in us.

Saintly connections

Celebrating my birthday last weekend with my twin brother accentuated the fact that we rarely see each other, let alone on our common birthday. He and his family live in Kitchener; he’s a pastor, and so, too, works on weekends and holidays. If we see each other twice a year – and usually in the summer – we’re doing very well.

I’m probably not alone having this sentiment, since in this mobile day and age, many people experience the geographic fracturing of family ties. Even in good relationships, physical distance becomes an obstacle to regular contact.

Until Scrabble. Yes, I’m talking about the internet and all the benefits of online gaming. Growing up, we used to play Scrabble on a board with real letter blocks. And playing board games was one way we enjoyed each other.

Now, we can still play Scrabble in a virtual world on our mobile phones wherever we are! And even though we are separated by six hundred kilometers. What I find particularly enjoyable is the fact that my phone notifies me whenever he makes a move. In real time. Wherever he is.

That little, red marker appearing on my phone’s screen reminds me that David is there, making a move. Even though I can’t see him, or talk to him face-to-face, we are connected in that moment. And that connection is real. It’s in the heart. And every time I make another move and tap on ‘send’ I know he is receiving it immediately and reacting either with a disapproving grunt or a fist-pump ‘yessss!’

That connection we have with those whom we cannot see in this moment is not something easily appreciated, understood and celebrated. I suspect that is why our contemporary culture in the West has turned the celebration of ‘all the saints in heaven and on earth’ into something scary and gory at Halloween. It’s not easy to appreciate the real yet mysterious connection we share.

It’s easier to retreat comfortably into our own individual, materialistically-driven private worlds. Indeed, one of the both good and bad results of the Reformation in the 16th century was to emphasize making faith a personal thing, which was good.

But I think we also slipped into embracing an individualistic faith that lost this strong sense of communal ties. The community of faith matters; a corporate body of faith whose head is Jesus. We’ve become fragmented as Christians; often the only response to any difficulty, it seems, was to blame the community and leave it.

There was once a brother in a monastery who had a rather turbulent temperament; he often became angry. So he said to himself, “I will go and live on my own. If I have nothing to do with anyone else, I will live in peace and my passions will be soothed.” Off he went to live in solitude in a cave. One day when he had filled his jug with water, he put it on the ground and it tipped over. So he picked it up and filled it again – and again it tipped over. He filled it a third time, put it down, and over it went again. He was furious: he grabbed the jug and smashed it. And then came to his senses and realized that he had been tricked by the devil. He said, “Since I have been defeated, even in solitude, I’d better go back to the monastery. Conflict is to be met everywhere, but so is patience and so is the help of God.” So he got up and went back where he came from. (p.69, Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

Though you may have found some ‘distance’ with the church over the years, though you may harbor some real ‘disconnects’ with the life of faith, though you may feel distant from God and the saints of heaven – be encouraged, today. Be encouraged to know that the connection you have with your loved ones now in heaven is real. Be encouraged to know that the loving and forgiving connection you have with God in Christ Jesus is real – this is what the Holy Communion communicates to us week after week.

And be challenged to know that the saints on earth may very well be those who do not appear to us at first sight ‘saintly’ – a distant relative, a homeless person, the poor, the rejected, the marginalized, biker gangs, First Nations, immigrants, youth ….. There is a deeper connection we share in our communities, a connection that calls forth from us loving attention and action.

In our opening Litany of Remembering for All Saints Sunday, we read together that “the links of life are broken [with those who have died] but the links of love and longing cannot break.” How true!

When my brother and I played Scrabble on a board, we often argued about whether or not a word was legitimate. Often these kinds of disagreements distracted us and left us feeling frustrated, tricked and unsure.

Thankfully, playing the virtual, online game now means we don’t have these distractions anymore because the computer determines whether or not a word is real. Fortunately, even though we cannot see each other face to face, at least we can now focus on the essence of the game – strategically placing letters to maximize points and using as many of our letters as possible. This is the fun part of Scrabble.

Biblical scholars and theologians claim that the Sermon on the Mount, and specifically these Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-31), reveals the essence of Jesus’ teaching. I suspect we can all think of everything else in the church that can so easily distract us, and about which we argue. Not that those other things aren’t important. 

But placed in a proper perspective, they need not cause the acrimony nor dissension often associated with attending church. Because when we, especially as Lutherans, focus on the grace and love of God and the teachings of Jesus who says, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” we may truly experience grace and enjoy belonging to the sainthood on earth.

And relish in the promise of our ultimate link with God and the saints of heaven, a connection of love that will never break.

Thanks be to God!

What ought we do?

In the Gospel text from Luke 17:5-10, the disciples are likened in the parable to “worthless slaves”. Yet, this is a misleading translation, since a servant who will work all day ploughing or tending sheep in the field, and then make supper, don an apron and serve the meal – is hardly worthless! Better those translations that render the word to mean “unprofitable”.

Because in our relationship with God, we can toil and do good works – for God and for the church. We may expect reward or at least recognition for our good works. Yet, Jesus reminds the disciples this kind of approach is like a servant doing what is expected of a servant – and then the servant feeling they deserve a profit, an extra bonus.

“Teach us simply to do what we ought, Lord” – a relevant prayer today. When facing a crisis or stress, either personal or institutional, our impulse may be to do something – anything! Last week someone at the Christian Meditation seminar in Arnprior told me that their father taught him as a young person: “When you don’t know what to do, do something, anything!” This impulse to action is so inbred in our cultural and economic psyche. NOT to do anything is foreign territory. NOT to buy something new. NOT to jump into the newest, latest fad. To refrain from activity is at very least, counter-intuitive.

Admittedly, it would take some self-discipline to hold back. And be silent. Be still. And wait upon God.

Paul’s words to young, active Timothy in our second reading today (2 Timothy 1:1-14) may help us in understanding this complex Gospel text: “For God …[gave] us a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline… [so] join with me … relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.”

We so easily get wrapped up in what we need to do in our lives of faith – to make it better, to save ourselves, to save the church, to save the world, to save our friends and family. I suspect that is what has been so challenging – for me, anyway – in inviting someone to church. Because we so naturally think that if they do come, it’s our success. Conversely, if they don’t come, we have failed.

But haven’t we crossed the line there – falsely taking on more than is our calling? Our job is simply to issue the invitation – and not just for “Back to Church Sunday” – but for every successive Sunday after that. Those first-timers who came last week – how many of them were invited to come back again? We certainly do have a job to do; are we focusing on the right thing?

The response of those whom we invite, however, is God’s job – not according to our works but according to God’s own purpose and grace.

“Teach us, Lord, what we ought to do.” It’s not a question of not ever doing anything. It’s not about staying stuck in a rut. Being still, waiting on God, is not passive complacency. Rather, it’s about growing a discernment about when to act, and when not to. When to wait, and when to move.

I suspect God is ready to show us something beautiful and what we need, should we simply get out of the way for a moment, stop, and be still – just for a moment.

“Teach us, Lord, what we ought to do.” Amen.

Joy -erism

Last week an online article cited a new study that suggests “religious” people are more depressed than atheists. The study was published in the October issue of Psychological Medicine.  The researchers surveyed thousands of rural and urban people from seven countries over the course of a year to arrive at their conclusions.

Apparently those who claim to be religious tend to respond to life’s challenges, disappointments, failures and tragedies no differently than atheists — those who claim no belief in a God. Apparently, if we take this study for what it’s worth, Christians are just as prone to depression — if not more so — than those who have no faith.

Does this surprise you? After all, aren’t we believers supposed to live the ‘better’ life? Didn’t Jesus come to save us from sin so that we can live life “abundantly” (John 10:10)? Isn’t a life of prayer supposed to bring peace to our life? When we confess our sin, and receive the assurance of forgiveness — aren’t we supposed to be happy for that?

What is more, we often hear from those popular preachers on TV and in our local mega-churches a prosperity-gospel; basically promising the sweet, successful and affluent life if you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.

The prosperity preachers line their sermons with conditional promises — a self-help type of message — if you confess your sins, if you turn your life around, if you make better choices — then Jesus will come into your heart and make everything better. In other words, it’s all about us. Our salvation really hinges on our action, first.

But what happens if we do accept Jesus, and life still seems hard for us? What happens if we do confess our sin — day in and day out — but we still feel burdened by
temptation? What happens if we do express faith in a loving God, but we continue to fail — fail in our relationships, fail in our work, fail in our health? What if we do not prosper, even though we say we believe?

Have we done something wrong? Is our faith not strong enough? Are we not trying hard enough? Now, will we feel guilty? No wonder Christians are depressed!

I do not mean to make light of the clinical depression with which so many good people suffer. But I wonder why it should come as shocking that Christians, among those of other faiths, should be denied their humanity by implying that if religion was to be so good for us, religious people shouldn’t suffer like the rest of the world?

In the Gospel for today (Luke 10:17-20 St Michael and All Angels), Jesus draws a distinction between what can distract us from the most important thing. Jesus, while not denying the abilities of the missionaries to perform great acts “in his name”, cautions them not to lose focus and clarity in their faith.

We could interpret that news article from Psychological Medicine as yet another attack by secular society on the Church. But in our self-righteous defensiveness do we continue to look away? Is there not some truth here? I take an article like that more as an opportunity to do a reality check. If society is holding up a mirror in front of us, what do we see?

A joy -erism that is kinda fake? An artifice joy-mask that we put on just on Sunday mornings when we go to church, saying everything is hunky-dory when deep down we are feeling deep pain? A set-up-for-failure message that pretends I’m okay-you’re okay because it’s all up to us to make things right, if only we tried harder?

What is the ‘joy’ our faith speaks of? Haven’t we lost our focus?

A fourteen year-old told me this past week about her family’s annual summer trip to the property they own overseas. It is a beautiful spot to which she looks forward going every year.

This year, however, the trip had extra special meaning: her ninety-year-old grandma was coming with them, likely making the long trip for the last time. As this girl described to me the joy of seeing her grandma walk in the places where she was born, grew up and lived most of her life — a tear welled in her eyes.

True joy is not far removed from the painful realities of life.

Julian of Norwich, living during the so-called “dark” ages in Europe, gave people who came to her cloister window these simple words: All will be well. And this ‘wellness’ of which she spoke, I believe, was not based on being lucky or shrewd in avoiding the mishaps and dangers of life. “All is well with my soul” is a confidence that we are not alone amidst the mishaps and dangers of life.

The truth is, we are already saved. In the Gospel text, Jesus tells the seventy missionaries to “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v.20).

The truth is, I’m-okay-you’re-okay not because we are good at pretense. The truth is, I’m-okay-you’re-okay not because we have somehow conquered the demons in our lives, once and for all. The truth is, I’m-okay-you’re -okay not because we are super-Christians with an incredible faith to overcome everything bad in our lives. The truth is, I’m okay-you’re-okay not because everything is perfect in our lives and therefore we can always be happy and never sad.

The truth is, Jesus did all those things we delude ourselves into thinking we must do in order to be saved. Jesus saved us “while we are sinners” (Romans 5:8). Jesus loves us and saves us not in spite of our sin, but because we are sinners.

This is good news: We have an eternal relationship with the God of all creation because of who God is, and not because of anything we have done. This is cause not only for meaning, inspiration and motivation in a life of faithful service “in his name”, but of unspeakable joy.

Jesus was clear in his admonition: Don’t rejoice in what you have done — defeating demons, stepping on snakes and scorpions without getting hurt. This will only lead to a self-centered disappointment and depression. Because while our successes may give us a temporary high, what we do is ultimately not the point of Christian Faith.

The joy I have discovered in a life of faith is this: I’m not alone on this journey called life. My life is connected to something much larger than me and beyond what I can do. My life belongs — to the community of faith with whom I share opportunities to grow, to learn, to serve, to shed tears, to have fun, to find meaning in life; and, to God who holds all of creation ultimately with loving intention and purpose. I’m an important part of that whole; but it’s not just about ‘random’ me and what I make of it.

There’s this integrity to all of life that gives me profound joy, a confidence that our names are already written in heaven.

I thank you, God, for the gift of faith.

 

Not a prize to win but a gift to celebrate

When the lost sheep is found, and the lost coin is recovered, there is much rejoicing in heaven (Luke 15:1-10). God celebrates. God is pleased. God is honoured. And all are invited to the party.

The shepherd’s friends and neighbours are invited to the celebration. The woman calls her friends over to rejoice together. For what has been found is so precious to the one who finds.

A couple of months after I was married, my wife and I raced to the beach in Goderich Ontario at the end of the workday. Because the bluffs overlooking Lake Huron there are high, you can watch the sunset twice. First at the beach level; then, as soon as the sun sets you run up the stairs some fifty feet to the top of the bluff, turn around and see the sun go down again.

That evening, we arrived too late to watch it twice. The sun was setting from atop the bluff when we got there. But we didn’t drive all the way there not take a short walk along the beach. So, after the sun set, we descended the steps and walked onto the sand as the day’s light quickly dissipated.

Because it was getting dark, we decided not to walk far, but just to sit down on the sand and watch the amazing array of yellows, blues, reds, and orange in the sky. Not only was it getting dark, but the late summer temperatures quickly plummeted. And it was getting cold.

And when our hands get cold, the blood vessels restrict and our fingers narrow somewhat. After about 10 minutes of sky-gazing, we went to get up to go, and with shock and horror I realized my wedding band was no longer on my finger. It had slipped off.

At first we froze in indecision. What do we do? Give up? Accept the loss? After all, to find a ring in a 25 square foot area buried in soft sand full of pebbles and wood chips in the waning light of day seemed impossible. Despair began to creep into my heart.

We said to each other that rather than just give up, we should at least try. So with a stick we drew a square in the sand, and on our hands and knees raked with our fingers every square inch of that boxed area.

It was nearing pitch black as we approached the last corner of our ‘fenced’ area. Suddenly the tips of my fingers felt something cold and metallic. I scooped up my ring and we darted up those steps feeling giddy and light on our feet. The joy, the relief! All was not lost!

In Luke 15, Jesus responds to the Pharisees with stories whose climax is a party, a rejoicing, a celebration. The upshot of the these parables is an invitation to all people, including the sinners and the tax collectors to join together in the celebration of God’s kingdom.

But what about the Pharisees? Are they included, too? I wonder about the 99 sheep left behind.

I wonder what the 99 sheep must have felt, when the shepherd leaves them alone to go after the one who has broken all the rules? What is the shepherd thinking? A crazy risk, wouldn’t you say? 99% of the shepherd’s assets are left unprotected, vulnerable. And, for what? One, lost, misguided, rebellious lamb?

I see a similar dynamic here to the elder son in the story of the Prodigal Son which immediately follows these ones in Luke 15. The elder son who has faithfully remained and worked on his father’s land resents his brother who is shown so much love and attention. And, for what? For running away, squandering his father’s inheritance, shaming the family only to return to the biggest party ever thrown? For him? How fair is that?

We see here that God’s economy is not based on merit, but on mercy. God’s economy is upside down. While our culture is built on merit, God’s kingdom is built on grace. For, God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8).

What Jesus is saying to the Pharisees is that the sheepfold – the family of God – exists primarily for those who are not yet members of it – especially those we would consider ‘lost’.

Here we see some values that emerge from a focus on God’s character, values that we would do well to consider in the church.

Let’s say we are the sheepfold, the flock whose Savior is Jesus, the great Shepherd. Where do you think Jesus will be found? Based on this scripture, I’m thinking the attention of our Lord is focused, relentlessly, on those who are not yet here.

By implication then, whatever we decide to do in the church, we would do well to ask this question: Whose purposes does a certain action serve? Ourselves? Whom are we serving, in all our work in the church? Do we make decisions on programs and worship practices that serve our needs? Or, do we see things from the perspective of those who are not here every Sunday? — who are on the fringes of the community, who are somehow distant? What would benefit them?

Because that’s where Jesus is. He’s out there. Looking. Searching. And we know the end of the story: He invites everyone to the table for a celebration. Even the religious types.

When Jesus leaves the 99 in order to search out the one, when you think about it, the shepherd must be putting a whole lot of trust and faith in those 99. He wouldn’t leave them for a while without believing in his flock, believing they had the ability and the resources to do what they had to do during his absence.

God has faith in us all. God believes in each one of us. And God will have faith in anyone who returns home to live in loving relationship with Jesus – whether the sinners, the tax collectors, the Pharisees …. [complete the list]

Because it is a gathering for everyone to celebrate not a prize won, but a gift given by an all-inclusive God whose sights are set beyond the pen, beyond the borders of safety, beyond the walls of any church.

Mission Audit: A CornerStore Church?

We are familiar with financial audits – a somewhat detached assessment of ‘what is’ and ‘what has been’ regarding the use of an institution’s money over a period of time.

Large urban centers conduct periodic transportation audits to examine how traffic flows throughout a city.

Some of us in the church may also be familiar with the Green Building Audit – an examination of the stewardship of each square foot of a church building.

Despite the various applications, all audits serve a similar purpose: to plan for future directions. We take stock of the current reality in order to make good decisions about the future of the community according to its highest held values and identity.

In mainline Christianity many today express concern about institutional atrophy and limited resources.

Before tumbling headlong into some knee-jerk, expedient, compulsive and convenient plan of action, would it not be wise to examine our situation? An ancient proverb puts it well – ‘Vision without action is daydreaming: but action without vision is a nightmare’.

Would it not be wise for each congregation to take an honest, careful and thoughtful look at what we do and why? Arriving at an institutional crossroad, is it not high time for churches to conduct a mission audit?

In the first of a series prefaced by the title ‘Mission Audit’, I want to begin this conversation by using the metaphor of an independent, neighborhood corner store.

I suggest that the independently owned and operated corner store is a dominant metaphor capturing our imagination about the church. Even for those of us who belong to regional or national denominations, the corner store has pretty much defined what we really think about the institution of our local congregation. And therefore how we ought to run it down the line.

In the rural community of my first parish, on the crossroads bordering two concessions stood a hallowed institution: the local, family-run corner store. It had everything – from nails to stamps, rakes to frozen veggies, litter boxes to engine oil and Legos.

The joke conveyed some truth: If they don’t have it, you don’t need it!

I can list the stand-out characteristics of this economic metaphor: Exclusive. A one-of-a-kind, niche market. You will only find it here. A small business. An entrepreneurial prospect.

The cornerstore-mentality affects also the kind of leadership expected. The success of this enterprise hangs on the owner-operator. If they play their cards right, theirs can become a booming business, literally like no other.

Sound familiar? The more I think of it, the more I believe individual congregations regard themselves like the proverbial corner store. And worse yet, their leaders see themselves like small business owners.

It may be culturally in vogue to herald the values of small business as the building blocks of a strong economy. However, whether or not we in the church have come to confess our fascination with creating yet another small business for an elitist clientele, I believe the church is more than building ‘niche’ congregations reflecting corner store entrepreneurship.

Recently I was in Ottawa for a church-wide convention. One morning when we had some free time, a couple of us walked downtown to find a place to eat brunch.

My friend from out West who travels extensively likes to surf the Internet to research the best places to eat, wherever he goes. So we were in good company, you might say, because he was to lead us to enjoy the best brunch in Ottawa (according to Trip Advisor).

We walked for at least a couple of kilometers down Elgin Street, past many what seemed fine establishments that could have nicely met our needs, I am sure.

But my friend led us to a corner of a building where, not easily visible from the street, there was a staircase leading down to the basement level. I felt like I was entering Diagon Alley through a mysterious, invisible hole in a wall.

Notwithstanding its non-accessible, hidden entrance, the doorway was narrow and, frankly, uninviting. Once inside, however, the place was packed with energetic university students and local residents. The food was excellent, well deserving of its high rating.

Such elitist, exclusive, niche-market establishments – whether a country corner store or urban deli could be a jewel on the culinary itinerary of the fortunate and/or discriminating traveler. I can remember times in my travels I have lucked out or simply happened upon these gems.

With this approach, from the perspective of the traveller, visitor, or consumer, such a find can be an absolute delight. Or, an unmitigated disaster.

On the journey of life, there is a better way for the institutional, mainline church which has always espoused more inclusive, accessible and socially leveling, values for any community.

Not based on luck. Nor dependent on some elitist notion of ‘who you know’ or the hard work of a prospective visitor.

Food with Focus

Very few other texts from the Bible generate such passionate discourse in my family and extended family as this one (Luke 10:38-42). So, out of awareness, love and respect for especially the women in my life, I must confess I approach this sermon with a little trepidation. Because this story about Jesus is fraught with some interpretive pitfalls.

To begin, I think it must be said that Jesus is not against being busy and active when helping others, regardless of gender. After all, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus self-describes as a “servant” (Luke 22:26-27; 12:37). So it hardly makes sense to suggest he is admonishing Martha – one of his best friends – for being busy, serving. The first verse of the Gospel text today announces that Martha “welcomed” Jesus into her home; she “opened the door” as some translations have it, to let Jesus in.

Thank God for Martha! She initiated this encounter and made possible, by her invitation, Jesus’ presence and teaching. This story is not about either service or prayer; it’s not choosing one over the other. Both characterize the people of God; both are necessary, holy, and good.

What is more the point, here, is acknowledging and re-connecting – in all our contemplation AND action – with the centre and source of our faith: God, in Christ Jesus.

When serving others in your home, the focus, while mediated through the gift of a shared meal together, is not about the food. It’s about presence of mind and heart. What’s important is being with and connecting with your guest, not fretting and fuming over the food preparation and setting – nor your guest’s reaction to your food.

I know, for some, this might seem a no-brainer, self-evident. But especially for those who can easily get caught up in perfectionist expectations and compulsive people-pleasing ways of being – this is particularly difficult.

The most important thing is the very reason we are making the effort to prepare the food in the first place – the relationship you have and the blessing of the other’s presence with you in your home, your space. First things first.

We don’t know what happened after Jesus spoke. Again, the Gospel leaves it up to us. How did Martha react to Jesus’ admonition? Did she continue fluttering about in her anxiety, cursing under her breath? What did Mary do? For all we know, Mary could have gotten up and started helping Martha. We can only speculate, of course. But would Mary engage the act of service better grounded in purpose and aware of the presence of Jesus in all her busy-ness?

The Gospel story doesn’t tie it up neatly. We may wish the Gospel writer concluded Jesus’ teaching here with a nice, satisfying ending where both Mary and Martha are seen behaving in ways reflecting the teaching of Jesus. But it’s not so, because the transformation – the change – is meant for our lives. How do we act? How will we respond to this scenario? How does this story affect and change our lives?

First, may I suggest that we can apply Mary’s approach to our whole life – not just those prescribed ‘holy’ moments in formal worship on Sunday mornings. But more importantly – as the setting of the Gospel story implies – in our very homes and among our regular, daily relationships with those closest to us. We need to simply observe what is going on. And, in our simple and honest observation, as people of faith, we must first confess that – for one thing, we are distracted.

Some years ago now, Tom Friedman had a column in the New York Times (Nov 1, 2006) entitled “The Taxi Driver”. He told of being driven by cab from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. During the one-hour trip, he and the driver had done six things: the driver had driven the cab, talked on his cell phone, and watched a video (which was a little nerve-racking!), whereas he had been riding, working on a column on his laptop, and listening to his iPod. “There was only one thing we never did: talk to each other.”

Friedman went on to quote Linda Stone, a technologist, who had written that the disease of the Internet Age is “continuous partial attention.” Perhaps it is not only the disease of the Internet age; perhaps it has always been with us, and just the causes of our inattention have altered (cited from James Wallace in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Proper 11, page 267). That is why today, one of the most confounding verses in the Bible is Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) because how can we pray always when we are plagued with “continuous partial attention”. Antidote – we need to pray more, and focus our mind and heart.

Laurence Freeman, leader in the World Community for Christian Meditation, suggests that the problem we find today among even good Christian people is this division between heart and mind. The heart wants to do, and the mind is distracted. Once the mind is focused and aligned with the heart, a person can discover the peace of Christ. And then, all activity is done mindful of the presence of Jesus – in all situations and circumstances of life.

A posture of listening before speaking. An approach to another that communicates – “I first seek to understand you” before spouting YOUR opinion. An attitude of inner stillness that is focused and undivided on the intent and purpose of whatever it is that you do.

In many ways the history of this congregation, from the early days in the 1950s when this space we sit in today was built, through the 1990s when the addition was built and then early in the last decade the parsonage was sold – in many ways our history has revolved around bricks and mortar. Has this been the ‘food’ of our ministry?

There is little doubt in my mind now that I’ve been with you over a year that the issue of ‘building’ has been not only front and foremost in your minds in recent years. But, also, the energy for this project is gathering momentum again.

The question is – and perhaps this text can serve for us some guidance – is it going to be just about the ‘food’? Or, will the ‘food’ be guided by the ‘focus’? Will any plans to build or renovate be fueled by a mission focus? I hope so. With the understanding that first and foremost Jesus is found both in here and out there? That the Jesus in me sees the Jesus in you? That any building be grounded in purpose and function and Christian vision.

You heard the famous Japanese proverb? That vision without action is daydreaming; but action without vision is a nightmare.

How do we change the mind? “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind …” (Romans 12:2) Paul writes in his letter to the Romans. In contemplating a changed life offered by Jesus, I think we need to appreciate the very possibility and health around changing the way we think; that is, changing our attitudes, our beliefs, that underpin all that we do. Especially those beliefs and attitudes that serve only to keep us stuck in unhealthy ways of being.

Michael Harvey, in his book, Unlocking the Growth; You’ll be Amazed at your Church’s Potential (Monarch Books, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2012, p.18), writes about neuroplasticity, which looks at how our brains work. Scientists have discovered the brain is ‘plastic’ and ‘malleable’. In other words, our brains are not simply ‘hard-wired’ from childhood. Life experiences beyond those critical early years can change the brain.

When they study stroke victims, they discovered that each time someone repeats a movement or action, a neuro-pathway in the brain is formed initially as a scratch. But each time it is repeated it becomes deeper and deeper until it becomes automatic, a habit. You may have heard the advice that if you want to start a new, healthy discipline – like exercise or some diet – you need to do it on each of 21 consecutive days before it’s a habit.

The concept of neuroplasticity suggests to me that should we focus our attention – our minds – on what we want to change, and then repeat it frequently enough the thought or belief will take root, and then affect our behaviour. That’s the power of the mind.

How do we change the heart? Those like Martha usually start with action. So, simply start behaving in better ways. Start acting “as if” you are healed. As if we are thriving. As if we are transformed people of God inheritors of the kingdom. As if we are children of God – loved, redeemed, forgiven, saved. Start acting it! That’s the power of the heart.

And when the mind and heart are aligned in the awareness of the steadfast, constant, unconditional presence of Jesus, peace reigns in our lives and our action and contemplation are grounded, clear, and focused.

In Saint Paul’s words, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).