To the coastlands

In the second of four, so-called ‘servant poems’ in this section of Isaiah,[1]we encounter a person who is called from before his birth for God’s purposes. But the servant is “deeply despised” and “abhorred by the nations” for something he had done that caused the people to heap judgement and even violence against him.

Whatever this servant had been doing was frustrating even for the servant. He complains that his work had been a complete waste of time, that he had “labored in vain.” Can you relate?

Have you “labored in vain”? Do you feel as if all the work you’ve put into something was in vain, wasn’t worth it, or it felt like it was all for naught and didn’t make any difference? Have you once felt the shame of futility, frustration and failure?

Mahatma Gandhi, during his student life, suffered from frequent panic attacks. He had a particularly agonizing experience during a speech he was asked to give to a vegetarian community in London. After reading one line from the message he had prepared, he could no longer speak and asked someone else to read the rest of the speech for him.

“My vision became blurred and I trembled, though the speech hardly covered a sheet of foolscap,” he recalled.[2]How can someone who is barely able to utter two sentences together in public lead an independence movement? You’d think he must have grieved his shortcomings and fear. Even doubted his ability to lead. 

What will God say to us? How will God answer our prayer born out of our frustration, feelings of futility and anxiety about the changing and scary world within and outside of us?

God’s answer surprises and is often counter-intuitive. We think, perhaps, the solution lies in scaling back, lowering expectations, isolating ourselves in cocoons of introspection and introversion. We think, perhaps, the solution lies in moving away from what causes our fears and anxieties in this changing and scary world out there.

But God’s way isn’t what we think! You thought the solution to your problems was to circle the wagons of your world, make it narrow and easily controlled. You thought the solution to your problems was to constrict your vision to stay within the walls you have constructed in your life between you, your loved ones and the changing and scary world around. To retreat into the safety of a like-minded ghetto behind fortress walls.

God’s answer is cued right at the beginning of this servant poem, in verse one: “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!” The servant is not speaking to his own folk, nearby. The servant is not addressing his words to his like-minded cohort. The servant is not preaching to the choir. 

The servant may not realize it at the beginning, but buried in his first words is the seed for his own transformation, his own healing, the answer to his own problem. God only puts a punctuation mark at the end of the sentence: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (v.6). Not only are his sights set on raising up the tribes of Jacob and restore Israel; his destiny lies with people from far away, at the far reaches of his vision.

After God hears the servant’s lament, “God not only renews the servant’s original calling but enlarges the scope of it, so that it encompasses not only the restoration of Israel but the salvation of every nation on earth. Rather than looking upon the servant’s failures and adjusting the call downwards to meet diminished expectations,”[3]God offers an antidote to the servant’s inner struggles.

If the servant is to be healed from his inner turmoil and outer struggles, here is the antidote: reach out to others to meet them, serve them, learn from them and live together with them. Get out of yourself and the self-preoccupation born from too much navel-gazing, and meet God out there in that changing and scary world.

Gandhi found a cause that inflamed a passion in him so great that it overrode his anxieties and fears. His desire to see a free India moved him to stand up for what he believed in. Ghandi’s life echoed the expansive vision of God to care not just for those closest to him – in his family, village, township or province. But to care for the entire country!

Maybe when we’re anxious, we would do well to set our sights on the coastlands. Maybe, when are afraid, we would do well to consider a strategy that goes in another direction than ‘the way it used to be’. Maybe, when we feel all our work has been in vain, we would do well to try to reach out rather than just reach in. Maybe, when we are frustrated, we would do well to resist the temptation to retreat into the comfort zones too quickly.

Because maybe our healing lies in this expansive vision of God. Maybe our growth lies in setting our sights on the coastlands, to meet with people from far away, to make meaningful connections with peoples from all nations.

I think what we need to remember is that what has brought us here today—in the first place—is love. What brings us to this point of confession—confessing our sins, confessing our fear, feeling all those wants and unmet needs and grievances … we can only do that because love lives in our hearts. The small, spark of love – the love of God in us – opens our hearts to be who we are, warts and all.

But God doesn’t stop there. The love that brings us to honesty also sends us out to share God’s love in the world. The love of God will not stop in us but will radiate outwards, a centrifugal force that cannot be stopped, a force that will shine to the farthest corners. God won’t lower the bar with us, but raise it.

When we find the balance, when our outward reaching stems from the depths of our hearts in Christ, when the centrifugal force of the Spirit of God’s mission in the world emerges from the deep wells of God’s love within, then …

Our work will not be in vain. God will bring to completion the good work already begun in us.


[1]Isaiah 49:1-7

[2]https://visme.co/blog/amazing-leaders-who-once-had-crippling-stage-fright-and-how-they-overcame-it/

[3]Stephanie A. Paulsell, Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.244-246

You are blessed

(We can better understand the beatitudes of Jesus[1] alongside the texts from the Hebrew scriptures assigned for today[2]. Read together in light of the imagery we find there, we begin to make sense of Jesus’ challenging words. Both the Psalmist and the Prophet paint the picture of a tree or shrub in a state of dryness, and in a state of blessedness, shall we say?)

6They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places.[3]

Being in a “parched place” suggests the unfortunate state of our lives when misfortune and adversity come our way: when we fail at something, when we lose someone or something, or through circumstances beyond our control life hands us lemons.

But the problem is not so much that we are in the desert. It’s not the condition nor circumstance in which we find ourselves. When we are in a bad way, it’s not where we are.

When we are ‘dried out’, the problem is we don’t see the relief that comes our way. We have a vision problem:

We don’t perceive the grace, the gift, and the solutions that present themselves. We, for whatever reason, do not appreciate what we already have. We are blind to this grace.

The sight of which Jeremiah speaks is not merely physical, but of the heart—an attitude, an inner stance—that leans towards what is good within us and in the world around us. It is the intention of our minds and hearts to search for what is good, what is life-giving. And, we nurture this disposition despite what may appear to the contrary on the surface.

Of course, to search and yearn for something means there is something missing in our lives. It is to admit something is amiss. It is to be honest and open about our needs. The longing of the heart exposes our vulnerabilities. But also our hope.

7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream
.[4]

Our searching for what feels lost in our lives are like the roots of a tree that naturally expand, grow and spread out towards the source of life—in water, in light. It’s the search itself, the persistent, dedicated and committed journey towards the water that keeps the tree alive, even against the odds.

On the Washington State coast along the Pacific Ocean, you will find the famous Kalaloch Tree, otherwise known as the Tree of Life, or the Runaway Tree.Underneath the webbed roots of the Kalaloch Tree is the Tree Root Cave. Inside, a stream falls into the cave and flows out into the ocean.

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(photo from pinterest.ca)

Many question how the tree continues to grow and the leaves continue to stay green. These questions have been asked so many times with no one really knowing how it keeps on going. So it became known to some as the Tree of Life. Because it continues to live by the stream and the ocean, even though where it finds itself is hardly the ideal spot for stability and longevity.

The Sitka Spruce tree, common along the lush, verdant Pacific coast under the constant influence of moist-laden trade winds, has lived a long time balanced precariously over these rocks. Even though it’s immediate circumstance is fragile, its roots are never far from the source of its very life.

There’s the story about a man searching for his keys under a street light. A friend comes by and asks, “What are you doing?” The response: “Looking for my keys.” The friend says, “Where did you drop them?” The man replies, “Around the corner but I’m looking here because the light is better.”[5]

It’s interesting that in order for the man to actually find his keys, he would eventually have to go around the corner into the dark to find them. But he starts under the light. He starts his search where the light is. Where his confidence rests. Where he can see. And he will go from there, on his journey.

Today, it is common for people to say, “I am blessed” when talking about good fortune. When expressing joy and thanksgiving about all the good in life, we say that “we are blessed.” And, on one level, it is true.

But when Jesus gives a list of characteristics describing those who are ‘blessed’, that’s hardly the case. We find it hard to attribute blessedness to the poor, to the downtrodden, to those who experience misfortune, bad luck, who are given life’s worst circumstances imaginable. We can’t easily make that connection when we associate blessedness with material prosperity, or excellent health, or good fortune.

In Jesus’ teaching, ‘blessedness’ is not absence of trouble. Blessedness, here, is not a reflection of good luck and prosperity. Blessedness, in Jesus’ sense, is not a result of peachy circumstances, fortune and material wealth in the way the word is used in common parlance today.

Rather, to be blessed is “to live through such opposition aware that the struggle is temporary”[6]and that in the end, God will stand by the faithful.

In Luke’s version of Jesus’ great sermon, Jesus stands not on the mountain (as is the case in Matthew 5-7), but on “a level place.” In the bible the word “level” often refers to places of disgrace, suffering, misery, hunger and mourning.[7]

Jesus does not ascend to some high place to give his teaching. Instead, he descends not only to where we stand, but he goes deeper. Jesus descends into the dark recesses of the most difficult, challenging corners of our hearts in order to teach, guide and lead us through. He comes down to that ‘level’.

To be blessed is to be that Kalaloch Tree on the precipice of destruction, and still yearn, search and reach for the water. To be blessed is to pursue the good despite all the bad that is evident all around you. To be blessed is to start that search wherever there is light, and go from there. To be blessed is to trust God to be there in the dark with you. To be blessed is to grow into God’s holy purposes despite adversity, setback and misfortune.

In short, to be blessed is to bear the scars of life proudly. It’s not the absence of difficulty, grief, pain, poverty and suffering that mark a Christian. It is following Christ in his way, despite the suffering that path brings. It is depending on God alone for life, because there is nothing else to rely on.

We thus journey on with hope, joy and trust, bearing witness to the goodness of God to sustain, to nourish and to grow us in the light of Christ.

 

[1]Luke 6:17-26

[2]Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17:5-10, according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

[3]Jeremiah 17:6 NRSV

[4]Jeremiah 17:7-8 NRSV

[5]Dr. Earl A. Grollman, “In Search of a Lost Faith”, Frontline (Winter 2019), p.4

[6]Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary on Luke 6:17-26” in http://www.workingpreacher.org

[7]Allen, ibid.

A spirituality of fierce landscapes

The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. (Psalm 97:1-2)

Which is mountain? And which is cloud?

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. When cooler air temperatures carried by strong wind collide with a warm land mass in wide open, exposed landscapes, what we see is not always clear. The lines between the two are not certain.

I am reminded of Moses meeting God in a could atop Mount Sinai in the wilderness. I imagine the dove dropping from the heavens and God’s voice booming at Jesus’ baptism. I sympathize with the disciples seeing Jesus change before their very eyes atop the Mount of Transfiguration. Biblical stories of God colliding and communicating with creation and humanity in a volatile mix of potent energies, some clashing and some joining in a mysterious dance of meaning and purpose.

And we’re not always sure what to make of it. Can we trust what we see? Is our perspective clouded? What is real?

Mountains convey a sense of certitude and stability, a rock and fortress we can count on and lean on. What are the rocks in our lives? Those things, beliefs and people that anchor us in the construct of our lives?

Clouds are ethereal. We cannot grasp the cloud. It is there and yet it isn’t. It is not solid. It is a vapour that we can see, yes, but that which we cannot contain. A cloud is free to form and reform, free to move, free to be and not to be. After all, it belongs in the sky. What are the clouds in our lives? Events, circumstances and situations that have arisen quite outside the realm of our control, good and bad?

Then, as we reflect on the journey of our lives, with all the twists, turns and unexpected happenings, which has more sway in the course of our lives? The mountain? Or, the cloud?

While the mountains of our lives give us a sense of security and well-being, comfort and confidence — all important in life — what role do the clouds play? The bible shows that God speaks through the cloud, even when our main characters find themselves on top of the mountains! Despite all the securities we afford in our lives, those things we strive for to make us feel in control, God clouds those places.

Not that God is against those things, per se. But that the only way God can get into our hearts and bring meaningful change is from the cloud. An anonymous fourteenth century spiritual writer called her work, “The Cloud of Unknowing”, to talk about a way of prayer in which God encounters us in the depths of our hearts.

It may feel, at times, like we don’t know much. It may feel, in these out-of-our-control experiences of life, that we don’t know anything. And we ask, “Why me?”, and “Why this?”

It is in the cloud of our unknowing, nevertheless, where our re-birth and renewal begins. It is here, in the cloud, where all we need to do is not turn around and go home. In the cloud of unknowing, we must not give up. It is called faith.

Faith, to know, that in the fiercest landscapes of our lives where everything seems uncertain, there is hope. We are held in a greater, larger purpose of which we cannot see the whole, big picture right now. We are held in a loving Mystery. And that’s ok.

Because the very reason we can ask the questions, struggle in the uncertainties and take the next, tentative, step on the path is because the sun gives the light for all this to be possible in the first place.

Reforming Remembrance

In the last couple weeks, we have worn our poppies and have been challenged to remember.

There is little to question about what actually happened in the First, Great War, the Korean War, The Second World War and all the military conflicts in the last century including Afghanistan. We have the numbers, the maps, the results, the casualties. We honour the soldiers and veterans who made sacrifices in service to their country. We recall the horrors of war and pledge to be agents for peace in the world.

Remembering is important to do. How we remember and what we remember is another question worth pondering.

In recent years whenever my twin brother and I have gotten together we are intentional to remember times especially with my Father, growing up, travelling, spending ordinary days doing ordinary things. As with any life, there are lots of stories to remember.

And what is almost always the case, is that David remembers one aspect of the same event that I don’t; and, I remember a completely different part of that event – which David doesn’t. For example, David remembers the imaginative story Dad told us when we were about ten years old about Mr. Black fighting Mr. White. While he remembers more the content of the story, I remember that when Dad told us that story we were sitting on the back porch after having gone for a bike ride together.

We spend these times reminiscing by ‘filling in’ each other’s gaps in memory. Same event. Just different things remembered. And different things forgotten or overlooked.

In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches have attempted a different tact from the way we have ‘celebrated’ Reformation anniversaries in the past. Listen to what the Lutheran World Federation scholars and Roman Catholic leadership wrote together recently about the task of how we remember the Reformation events of the sixteenth century:

“What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change. Remembrance makes the past present. While the past itself is unalterable, the presence of the past in the present is alterable. In view of 2017 [the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation] the point is not to tell a different history, but to tell that history differently.”[1]

That same history, you will know, was used for centuries to incite conflict and division between our churches. Reformation was traditionally a time to celebrate how good we are and how bad they are. Today, in a changed context reflecting globalization, ecumenism and a pile of new research and study about Martin Luther, his times and his theology — these have yielded fresh approaches that emphasize unity rather than division.

Perspectives have changed. And continue to change.

This year in Canada we are also celebrating our 150 years of history with more of a critical eye. We acknowledge publicly, perhaps in a new way, the fact that Canada was already occupied by people long before the first Europeans settled here. This understanding may be challenging for us settlers because for so long we have reaped the vast material benefits of settling and working here.

Part of my sabbatical journey took me to Lisbon, Portugal. On the far westernmost coast of continental Europe, Lisbon was a natural launching point for the various expeditions and voyages made by Europeans during the “Age of Discovery”.

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On Lisbon’s extensive waterfront at least a couple of impressive monuments stand in celebration of the achievements of European explorers and aviators. There is the looming Monument of Discovery which depicts the personalities of various explorers making their way across the ocean.

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And there is an airplane monument commemorating the historic first south Atlantic crossing in 1922 flown by Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral.

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In the decade following Coutinho’s and Cabral’s inaugural south Atlantic flight, another adventuring aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who is perhaps most well-known for writing the children’s book “The Little Prince”, reflected on what flying did to our understanding of the land upon which we live:

The airplane, he writes, “has revealed to us the true face of the earth. Through all the centuries, in truth, the roads have deceived us … They avoid barren lands, great rocks and sands, they are wedded to the needs of men and go from spring to spring …But our perspective has sharpened, and we have taken a cruel step forward. Flight has brought us knowledge of the straight line. The moment we are airborne we leave behind those [winding] roads …  It is only then, from high on our rectilinear course, that we discover the essential bedrock, the stratum of stone and sand and salt…

“Thus do we now assess man on a cosmic scale, observing him through our cabin windows as if through scientific instruments. Thus we are reading our history anew.”[2]

As we retell our history, as we seek understanding of what and how it happened, do we take the winding road, or do we take to the skies?

Amos the reformer was a prophet in ancient Israel. He challenged especially the northern kingdom in the eighth century B.C.E. to accept a new way of worshipping God. No longer where they to worship at the old shrines established by earlier prophets Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha at Beer-sheba, Bethel and Gilgal. Now, they would have to learn to worship God in a central location, at the temple in Jerusalem.[3]

In order to persuade them, he railed against the rituals and heartless pomp often associated with worship in that day.[4] The Israelites’ understanding of their own history needed changing. Without denying or changing the history itself, Amos helped them grow into an appreciation of the centralized worship which was not inconsistent with the Hebrew faith, a faith that had always emphasized care for the poor, the widow, the destitute. As such, Amos was “an agent of reformation”[5].

Whether we speak of ancient Israel, or the Reformation, or the Age of Discovery, or World War Two, or present day Canada, our remembrance is being reformed.

This first week of November is Treaties Recognition Week in Ontario. Listen to what perspective is offered in the writing of our history. Again, this perspective is not untrue. It simply offers a fuller understanding of what happened when Europeans ‘discovered’ this land:

“This native land was the home of many peoples, who have lived here for centuries and millennia. There is extensive archaeological evidence to confirm this statement. North America was occupied long before European strangers from across the ocean ‘got lost’ on their way to India and ignorantly named the inhabitants ‘Indians’.

“The residents of this new land had a deep regard for the practice of hospitality. So they welcomed the strangers to come ashore and opened their lives to these ‘lost’ explorers. This invitation to step out onto the land conveyed a message that did not make sense to the newly-arrived who had their own primary interests; wealth and resources.

“These alien visitors were nominally Christian. They were supported by ‘Christian’ interests intermingled with commercial and imperial motives. The biblical foundations and the practice of hospitality had been lost or buried under the exercise of abusive power that appears to be the inevitable companion of empires seeking to expand their influence and control. Equally forgotten or ignored was the fundamental biblical concept of covenant whose goal is establishing and nurturing respectful relationships that honour the Creator.

“These European strangers had been told by their highest authorities that any people unlike themselves actually were nobodies. The Doctrine of Discovery … reminded the newly-arriving aliens that they were superior to the ‘nobodies’ greeting them in hospitality. The rest is history and now we are trying to ‘get it right’ so that we can discover what it means to live in peace and mutual respect. It is time to set aside suspicion and abuse so that we can again become hospitable to one another as well as to contemporary visitors.”[6]

This anniversary year we sing “O Canada” and this Remembrance Day we’ve worn our poppies. It is important that we remember. It is important that we commemorate our history, good and bad.

How we remember is important, too. What aspects of our remembrance we emphasize speak loudly about the kind of people we are and aspire to be.

Amos presented a pretty bleak picture of Israel’s plight in the eighth century B.C.E.  The tone of his message is harsh, doom-and-gloom. It seems the Israelites can do nothing to avoid the inevitable calamity that awaits. It’s easy to lose hope and despair in the present circumstances. It doesn’t look good, what with all that’s going on in the world today.

From the perspective of history, though, we know how the story ends for them. We know the people of God are headed to the trials of Babylonian exile a couple of centuries later. We also know that one day, they do return to Jerusalem to restore the temple worship and re-build their lives at home.

Antoine Saint-Exupéry tells the story of when he and his friends from northern Europe invited some north Africans from the Sahara to visit with them in France.[7] These Bedouin, up until this point in their lives, never left the desert; they only knew the scarcity of water that defined so much of their lives and perspective.

When they climbed in the foothills of the French Alps they came across a thunderous waterfall. The French explained to their astounded friends that this water was enhanced by the Spring run-off of melting snows high above them. After minutes of silence during which the Africans stood transfixed before the bounteous and gorged scene before them, the Europeans turned to continue on their mountain path.

But the Africans didn’t move.

“What are you waiting for?” Saint- Exupéry called back.

“The end. We are waiting for the water to stop running. A stream of water always runs out. We are just curious to see how long it takes.”

They would be waiting there a long time. The prophet Amos concludes his diatribe by doing what so many other prophets of Israel do: They call on the people to have faith in God’s action in the world, God’s righteousness and justice. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[8]

God’s justice never runs out. The waters of God’s grace, mercy and truth never cease flowing. Our perspectives, our experience, our opinions are limited and sometimes scarce, if we rely on these alone.

But God’s work continues to gush forth in and all around us. Let us trust and have faith in the never-ending flow of God’s love and presence in the world today. So we may grow into the fullness of God’s vision for us all.

 

[1]  “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017” (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt/Paderborn: Bonifatius, 2013), p.16

[2] Antoine Saint-Exupéry, “Wind, Sand and Stars” trans. by William Rees (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), p.33-34.

[3] Wil Gafney in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 4” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.266-270

[4] Amos 5:18-24

[5] Wil Gafney, ibid., p.268

[6] Reconciling Circle: reconcilingcircle@execulink.com, Daily Readings for Treaties Recognition Week: 5-11 November 2017, Day 1 “Have You Ever”

[7] I summarize and paraphrase his telling from “Wind, Sand and Stars”, ibid., p.54-55

[8] Amos 5:24

Slave to none, servant to all

Especially at the beginning of a new school year, the gospel story of little children sitting on the lap of Jesus warms my heart. This saccharine image speaks to Jesus’ welcoming the children as we would welcome them to church and the start of a new year of Sunday School programming. 
We tell ourselves, “So should we be towards the children, like Jesus was.” Or, “We should be like the children.” Here perhaps lies the genesis of any motivation and focus of children’s ministry in the church. This act of Jesus witnessed by the bible’s words becomes our authority for action.
Indeed, the Gospel text for this Sunday (Mark 9:30-37) is about God’s view on power and authority. How does authority work, in the kingdom of God? What does it look like?
And it is here, admittedly, we Lutherans get into trouble. We say that authority for a congregation in the Roman Catholic Church is the Pope. We also say that authority for a congregation in the Protestant tradition is the Bible. For Lutherans, it is a former pastor! 🙂
This Gospel story is more about Jesus’ stance vis-a-vis the powers-that-be in society. This is revolutionary and counter-cultural. He makes irrelevant the political-economic-cultural pecking order, as far as the kingdom of God is concerned. The root of the Greek words “servant” and “child”, spoken in the same breath, is virtually the same (pais/paidon); on the basis of vocabulary alone, those who first received this story were principally hearers and not readers. Mark’s Greek-speaking audience would have made the close connection between servant and child. Neither had any real social value.
Therefore, this story describes more a stance towards people in general, an attitude and approach for relating to those who do not have power, who are of particularly low social status. Contrary to what the economic and political powers espouse, Jesus assigns worth and importance to every person (Sharon Ringe in Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 4 eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, WJK Press 2009, p.97).
This is no longer a sweet, warm-fuzzy message as much as it is a direct stab at our social hierarchy of values. And the disciples know it, deep down in their hearts. But they are afraid. In their silence, they betray their weakness and fault in not ‘getting’ Jesus nor willing to ‘go there’.
Jesus didn’t come to pander to power. He didn’t come to play the game. He didn’t come to compete in the smorgasbord of religions in the first century Palestine. He didn’t come to prove that he is right and everyone who doesn’t agree with him is wrong. 
He came to show that God loves everyone, including the lowly servants and children.
Jesus came to turn on its head the regular way of thinking about power. He lifted up children and servants as those who receive the grace and love of God, not just those deserving it because they happen to be higher up on the social pecking order. 
We know how Jesus’ earthly story goes. Jesus was a victim of his ministry of unconditional love, compassion and healing. And how did that go, for Jesus? The Cross. To say he was misunderstood is an understatement. Even his closest friends didn’t understand, or were too afraid, to face the truth of their hearts.
Perhaps we may take from this some measure of comfort, in tough times. For example, if you are ‘thrown under the bus’ by your closest friends, when you are misunderstood, when you are derided and put down for trying to do right, maybe you are indeed on the right track?
On the other hand, when you become puffed up in your righteous defence of the status quo of your life, when you engage in defensive, combative and competitive stances against those who differ — then, well, how is this the way of Jesus? It is not. It is a way, to be sure, heralded by the prevailing culture of human achievement, reputation-defending self-righteousness, one-up-man-ship and glory, yes. But far be it from being the Christian way.
We are asked by the Gospel message to examine our relationships with those in society with little economic or social value. How is our relationship with the physically disabled, the mentally ill, the refugees and newcomers to Canada, young people without direction, those who live on the streets, the poor, the Indigenous people of this land? 
I listened recently to how a graduating university student was deciding which job to take. Upon graduation he was offered a high-paying job from two different well-respected companies at the same time, one in Chicago and one in New York. The student sought advice from his pastor.
“Which job should I take?” he asked. “Both offer similar compensation. But I’m torn as to where I should go — Chicago or New York. Both have pros and cons. What do you think, pastor?”
The pastor hesitated, for a moment. Then he said, “It’s wonderful you have been given the privilege of a job offer. Many young people today don’t have one, let alone two. You are very fortunate.”
“Yeah, right,” the student responded. And quickly added: “But where should I go?”
“I really don’t know,” the pastor mused. “Does it matter?” It’s usually at this point in the session that people realize why pastoral counselling is free. 🙂
I think we tend to lose energy, even waste it, on these kinds of first-world problems. After all, the truth is there is no place we can go, no decision we can make that is out of the reach of God’s grace, love and healing (read Psalm 139). Where there is a fork in the road … take it! 
In most, if not all, of our dilemmas do we acknowledge that no matter what we decide, even for less-than-stellar motivations or for high and righteous ones, God will not abandon us? Because God’s grace will not come up short, ever.
In the end, the Gospel story of Jesus welcoming little children comes to us not a word about how we should act. It’s not primarily about us serving others. Rather, the Gospel is about Jesus serving us.
Jesus asks each of us: How can I serve you? Jesus reflects God’s favour towards us, and all people. Jesus will not do what we so regretfully and naturally fall into — a tit for tat food fight with whatever first-world problems we wrestle, about which we complain, and over which we fight for ‘the advantage’. That’s not what Jesus is about. 
At the same time, Jesus will not stop at our human divisions. If you are at the bottom of the ladder, Jesus will come to you. If you are at the top of the world, Jesus will come to you. Jesus will make the ladders of our lives irrelevant. These ladders of success, upward-mobility and power are nonsense in the kingdom of God. Jesus comes to us all, and asks us — “I will welcome you and serve you. What do you need today, in order to follow me?”

(Hoping for) A happy ending: Why not?

“God will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:4)

When the prophet Isaiah promises salvation to the people, people who are “weak, feeble and fearful” (Is 35:3-4) what does he mean? What does he mean when he says: “God will save you”? Does he mean, the promise of heaven? Does he mean, remission of sins?

In the news this week we have seen images of desperate people risking their lives to escape the dire situation in Syria. Refugees are literally dying for the sake of finding a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people dispersed from their homes. He spoke to a people who were displaced for political reasons. Emerging empires, such as Assyria, Babylon and then the Greeks, swept through the region in the centuries before Christ leaving those without power or privilege to fend for themselves in foreign lands. Sound familiar?

The Bible gives us Christians a broader perspective on ‘Salvation’. Because when we look carefully at texts such as Isaiah 35, salvation is not about heaven and remission of sins. The people who are exiled, lost and experiencing the worst circumstances of life, will be saved from those circumstances. In real time, earth-bound, flesh and blood realities.

From the perspective of Jesus Christ, of course, we can express, in all truth, the promise of heaven and remission of sins. For sure. And yet we cannot, if we engage the bible honestly, limit the concept of salvation to these albeit abstract notions of faith. Salvation in Christ has just as much to do with our lives on earth, and the lives of others, “in the flesh”.

We may despair, watching the news. What can anyone do to make the situation right for the millions of refugees now flooding Europe? How can there be a happy ending, in this mess? We can be paralyzed in our fear, and look away, despondent.

And yet we have this fantastic story of restoration. We know how the story ends for the remnant of Judah in Babylonian exile. We know that their earthly suffering ends happily. On earth. They eventually return to Jerusalem and restore their fortunes. We can get giddy with faith at this happy ending. Surely, this is the promised outcome for all who suffer in any way!

Listen to how Professor of Old Testament, Patricia Tull, writing in workingpreacher.org, expresses the puzzling truth of this story:

“Events as deeply woven into our history as Jerusalem’s restoration take on for us an air of inevitability. Yet they cannot be taken for granted. Other nations destroyed by great empires — including Aram, Moab, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel — failed to reestablish when their crises passed. We have Judah’s story only because it transcended destruction. Every time our scriptural reading brings us to Jerusalem’s phoenix-like restoration 2500 years ago is a moment to stop for gratitude and wonder. As Isaiah 34 and 35 vividly show, reversal of fortune isn’t guaranteed. But it is possible. Judah’s success story sets a precedent for hope, showing that happy endings have occurred and can occur.”

The first prime-minister of the modern state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, said, “Anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.” To be hopeless, however grave the circumstance, is unrealistic. It works both ways: To believe that there is a happily-ever-after for each and every person in every situation imaginable is unrealistic; we know that’s not the way life works. At the same time, to dismiss altogether the possibility of happy endings and miraculous turn of events is unrealistic as well. For God, all things are possible.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Some people see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ Others see things as they could be and ask, ‘Why not?’

As Christians, as people of faith, aren’t we a people of a ‘Why not?’ -capability?

Why not be grateful at the start and end of each day — grateful for all things that have gone well in life?

Why not focus on the blessings and abundance rather than the scarcity?

Why not celebrate the victories of God that you see in the world in the lives of others even if those victories don’t benefit you personally?

Why not rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep?

Why not sing a song of gladness when the underdog takes it all?

Why not see the face of Jesus in the stranger, the immigrant, the Muslim neighbour, the un-churched youth and mid-lifers?

Why not envision a future for your life and the life of the church that is better than what it is now? Why not? Why not? And then, see where that leads …

We are not in the business of faith for what we make of it or get out of it. We are in the business of faith for what God has done, and continues to do all around us, and even despite us.

We can be strong and do not need to fear because God keeps promises. God keeps God’s word. As Isaiah foretold, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped … the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:5-6). 

In the Gospel today we read about Jesus doing precisely this: Jesus brings miraculous healing to the lives of those distraught and torn apart by illness and disease (Mark 7:24-37). Jesus is the glory of God shining through the brokenness of our lives. Jesus is the majesty of God embracing the sweat and tears of our lives. Jesus is the active presence of God working in us and through our poverty and pain, amidst the blood and grit and earthy, daily activity of our lives.

The story of the Quilt Holes inspired me recently at a funeral I attended. The preacher told the story of one who faced God at the last judgement, as spoken through the first person: “I knelt before God, as did everyone else. Our lives lay before us like the squares of a quilt in many piles. An angel sat in front of each of us sewing our quilt squares together into a tapestry that is our life.

“But as my angel took each piece of cloth off the pile, I noticed how ragged and empty each of my squares was: They were filled with giant holes. Each square was labeled with a part of my life that had been difficult, the challenges and temptations I had faced in every day life. I saw hardships that I endured, which were the largest holes of all.

“I glanced around me. Nobody else had such squares. They just had a tiny hole here and there. Their tapestries were filled with rich colour and the bright hues of worldly fortune. I gazed upon my own life and was disheartened.

“Finally the time came when each life was to be displayed, held up to the light, the scrutiny of truth. My gaze dropped to the ground in shame. There had been many trials of illness. I had to start over many times. I often struggled with the temptation to give up. I spent many nights in tears and on my knees in desperate prayer, asking for help and guidance that took a long time coming.

And now, I had to face the truth: My life was what it was, and I had to accept it for what it was. I rose and slowly lifted the combined squares of my life to the light.

An awe-filled gasp filled the air. I gazed around at the others who stared at me with wide eyes. Then, I looked upon the tapestry before me: Light flooded the many holes, creating an image, the face of Christ. Then Jesus stood before me, with warmth and love in his eyes. He said, “Each point of my light shone through the holes, the rips and ragged, empty squares of your life. When you were down and out, and honest and still trusting, my light continued shining through you.”

At the end of it all, we may be threadbare and worn. It may look like a failure, a sad ending. And yet, Christ in us is the end of the story, not us.

Why not, then, just be the Body of Christ in the world today? Why not be, together, the hands and feet of Jesus? Holes and all? What do we have to lose? Why not be the answer we are waiting and hoping for — for others who have no hope, for the refugees of the world? 

I recently read the story of a woman who had walked seven hundred miles as a refugee to escape a violent war. She was finally able to cross a national boundary out of the war zone. She walked all that way and brought with her an eight-year-old girl, who walked beside her. For seven hundred miles, the child held her hand tightly. When they reached safety, the girl loosened her grip, and the woman looked at her hand: It was raw and bloody with an open wound, because the little girl had held tightly in her fearfulness. This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. (Walter Brueggemann, “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now”, WJK Kentucky, 2014, p.88-89)

God’s hands do not let go of us, even though we may fear, even though we may be scared to take the risk and do the right things. This is the promise that God will never break.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) was onto something when in convention this past summer we adopted the Reformation challenges — one of which is to sponsor, by 2017 (the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses, or arguments, on the doors of the Wittenberg Church in Germany thereby launching the Reformation), 500 refugees coming to Canada.

We are the people we are waiting and hoping for. We have a responsibility, in faith, to be grace, forgiveness, mercy and compassion to those who are unloveable, undesirable, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the refugee, the marginalized. Can you imagine what a show of grace might do in the lives of those to whom the unexpected is given?

Why not?

Marriage on the Rock

What first comes to mind when you think about a rock? There is, for me, something about the stability, constancy and reliability of a rock that suitably describes the durability of a 60-year long marriage.

No doubt, some of that requires that both husband and wife can stand their own ground, from time to time.

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.”

But ultimately that kind of inflexibility wont help the marriage succeed. A win-lose mentality will wreck any relationship over the long haul, I believe. Eventuality, for marriage to work, there is this subtle, instinctive but sure balance that is achieved between stability and flexibility, between constancy and fluidity — in various roles we take, in responding to crises over the years, in dealing with the ups and downs of life. In other words, what we want is a win-win mentality. Both of you are winners here today!

Clara and Ian, for sixty years you have danced this dance of maintaining your integrity, individually, but also of learning how to bend, compromise and yield. The rest of the world can learn so much from your witness as you stand here today.

Biblical images abound of this kind of paradox — rocks yielding water (Exodus 17), the foundations of the earth being shaken (Psalm 18:7), and hearts of stone melting (Isaiah 36:24-28).

To be a rock, in other words, is not synonymous with stubbornness, unyielding intransigence, digging your heals in. Of course, this dynamic is fluid — there are times together when one partner will get his or her way. But, you know, it can’t always be the one partner always getting his or her way.

God is a fortress and a rock for us (Deuteronomy 32:4, 2 Samuel 22:32, Psalm 18:31). This biblical image for God has been a comfort for those who seek protection, safety and comfort. It has also, unfortunately, led some to believe God is this cold, distant, impenetrable being. Not so.

We say, God is the third partner of a faithful couple relationship. God is the anchor, the corner stone in Christ (Matthew 21:42), upon which to lean in hard times, and upon which to build an enduring house. But Jesus is our friend who loves us. And who are our friends? Our friends are those who are true, who will take our venting, who will listen to our cries, who will sometimes sacrifice for our sake.

I believe today stands as a testimony to both the enduring, grounding and stabilizing values of relationships in a life of faith, as well as those tender aspects of divine love, grace and mercy which bends a listening year and yields much compassion, grace, forgiveness and mercy. And this, my friends, is a love and presence which lasts forever.