In the Other

When we moved into our new house last Spring, there were no trees in our backyard. And so I went to a local nursery and bought a beautiful looking Norway Spruce tree, about four feet high, which I planted at the fence line. And I remember choosing this particular tree because it looked healthy; its deep and thick, verdant green branches were bursting with fresh, full buds, all over.

I watered it all summer long and fed it with fertilizer. In the winter I covered it with a folding board to protect it from the harsh winds and biting temperatures — which we had! I was going to make sure this tree would prosper!

So, tell me what you would do if you saw what I saw this Spring once all the snow melted: What would you do? (scroll down to see photo).

I must confess that my first instinct was to rip it out and start over. Find another tree. I thought, at first, that this tree was surely dead. There was no life in it anymore. Hopeless cause. Forget it.

But, for some reason or other I just let it be. I left it alone for awhile. And about a month ago, I noticed something remarkable. Do you see it? There are indeed signs of life showing: the green buds atop, and amidst the what looks otherwise like dead wood.

And I thought of my tree when reading the Gospel text for today (Matthew 10:24-39). Jesus seems intent on reminding his disciples of their worth, their value (“You are of more value than many sparrows” v.31) — despite everything that seems to the contrary. Remember, these disciples are not getting it; they misunderstand Jesus left, right and centre! They are imperfect, some would say — hopeless causes! Why would God even bother with those stupid disciples from Galilee? Riff-raff. Blue collar. Uneducated … the list goes on!

There is the story of a certain monastery — a monastic community which had fallen upon hard times. Only five monks remained in the motherhouse and all of them over the age of 70. Clearly, it was a dying order.

In the woods surrounding the monastery was a little hut, where a wise bishop lived. One day, the abbot thought it would be a good idea to visit this bishop, and ask him for any advice he might be able to offer, in order to save the monastery.

And so the abbot went and explained the problem to the bishop. The bishop commiserated with him: “I know how it is,” he said. “The spirit has gone out of the people. No one knows the joy and love of God anymore.” And so the old bishop and the abbot wept together. They read parts of the Bible, and quietly spoke of deep things together.

The time came for the abbot to leave. They embraced each other, and as they parted the abbot said, “It’s been wonderful that we should meet after all these years. But I must ask: Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me to save my dying order?”

The bishop looked straight into the eyes of the abbot and said, “The only thing I can tell you is this: One of you at the monastery is the Messiah.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery, he told his monks: “The bishop couldn’t really help me. We only read some Scripture and wept together. But he said some cryptic thing as I was leaving — he said that one of us is the Messiah. I really don’t know what he meant by that.”

In the weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered the bishop’s statement, and wondered among themselves if there could possibly be anything of significance to the bishop’s words. The Messiah? One of us? But which one? The conversations went something like this:

“Do you suppose he means the abbot? Surely if he means anyone, it is Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.

“On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Without a doubt, Brother Thomas is a holy man.

“But certainly he could not have meant Brother Eldred! Eldred can get really crotchety at times. But you know, come to think of it, even though he can be a thorn in people’s sides … when you look back on it, Eldred is virtually always right about anything. Often very right. Maybe the bishop means Brother Eldred.

“But surely not Brother Philip. Philip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, he has got a real gift of somehow always being there when you really need him. He just, like magic, appears by your side. Maybe Philip is the one ……”

And so, as they contemplated this matter together, the old monks began to pay greater attention to one another. They regarded each other with fresh eyes. They began to treat one another with respect, love and extra care. They related to one another keeping in the back of their minds always, that just maybe one of them might be the Messiah. Or, perhaps that each monk himself might be the one.

A beautiful forest surrounded the monastery, and people still occasionally came to visit the monastery — to picnic on its lawn, to wander along some of its paths, and even now and then to go into its dilapidated yet charming chapel, to pray.

And as they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of respect and grace that now began to surround the five old monks …

And radiate out from them.

There was something strangely attractive and compelling about the atmosphere about the community. Hardly knowing why, these visitors began to return to the monastery to picnic, to play, and to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of these visitors started to talk more and more with the old monks, and ask them questions: “Why are you here?” “What are you all about?” “Who are you?” etc. etc.

After awhile, one asked if he could join them. Then another. And yet another. And within a few years, the monastery had once again become a thriving order focused not on its own self nor plight — but in others with whom they came into contact in their daily routines about the community.

This story touches on the practice of being church. Community in Christ is not about navel-gazing and conformity. It’s not about seeking a gathering of the “like-minded”. Belonging in the family of God is not about being the same, or tying to be the same, with everyone else in the community.

Being in a church is about meeting others who are not like me. Being part of the church is about discovering God in difference, in others who are different from me and my ilk. Often that comes about by first noticing what you might not choose to be like, yet seeking to understand from where the other is coming, and appreciating their gifts.

And perhaps this story might give us a clue as how to appreciate the disruptive words of Jesus in our Gospel text — about loving God before loving our family. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about forming exclusive communities or clubs of like-minded people.

Rather, the Gospel is continually calling us to go out into the world in order to discover what God is already up to in other people who are not ‘part of our family’. Our worth and our value has a purpose — “to proclaim [the Gospel of Jesus] from the housetops” (v.27). As we have heard from many church leaders in recent years — “the church exists primarily — it’s primary focus — for those who are not members of it.”

This challenges each one of us, first to see the Christ in one another, and also see Christ in the stranger. And remembering that if God doesn’t give up on us who are far from perfect — if God sees the value and worth in us even when we might only see the blemishes — so God asks us to value an outsider as potentially being visited upon by Jesus himself.

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Politics and church unity

At one point during this provincial election campaign, I believe I saw some lawn signs for local candidates stuck in the ground in front of the church. And I must confess, at first, it didn’t sit right with me!

Indeed, should religion and politics mix? If someone asks you, “Should Christians be involved in politics?” “Should politics be preached from the pulpit?” What would you say?

I guess I’m the product of an age when it was taught that religion and politics don’t mix. My reaction, I guess, is based in the constitutional value of separating church and state; that is, the leader of the church should not simultaneously be the leader of government, right?

But does that mean Christians shouldn’t be involved at all in politics? The reason I question this is because God is interested in every detail of our lives. God is interested in what happens not only in church on Sunday morning but what happens in our lives from Monday through Saturday as well.

But not only is God interested in all aspects of our lives — including our political activity on an individual basis — God comes to us in community. You will notice in the readings over the next few weeks as we celebrate the Day of Pentecost and coming of the Holy Spirit that only when the disciples are together does the Holy Spirit descend upon them.

My neighbour told me this week that he found refuge in the words of a tour guide in a cathedral in Italy he recently visited. When his tour group asked the guide whether he was Protestant or Catholic, the guide said, “It doesn’t matter whether I am Protestant or Catholic; that’s just politics!” He practically spat out that word: politics!

It seems there is a growing appreciation that what is most important is not the label we wear — whether Protestant or Catholic — but what is the meaning of it all, and the unity we already share in Jesus Christ. And that is good!

At the same time, there is still something there that begs us to respect boundaries, respect our differences and not just white-wash them away. On the one hand, is respecting our differences; on the other hand, acknowledging – yes, even — celebrating our unity. The two tensions must be held.

I was always taught in school that there are no bad questions, only bad answers. I suppose this was told to young people especially to encourage us to be inquisitive and explore the meaning of things. What better way than to ask questions.

It would be a mistake for teachers to reprove anyone for asking a bad question; this would be seen as shutting someone down and discouraging them from thinking for or being themselves. Moreover, especially for grown-ups, we would take it as a criticism of our intelligence. And, normally we do not take too well to criticism, do we? Especially in front of others.

In the first chapter of Acts which describes the Ascension of Jesus, Jesus and the two heavenly beings appear to commit a pastoral care faux-pas, precisely when you would think the disciples needed some comfort and encouragement in anticipation of Jesus’ departure from them.

If we examine the dialogue in this biblical text (v. 6-14), we will see that first Jesus, then the two angels, reprove the disciples. First, Jesus reprimands the disciples for asking the wrong kind of question. It is not for them to know these things — referring to the timing and events surrounding the wished-for defeat of Roman occupation of the Holy Lands. This is the liberated kingdom which was anticipated by the coming of a Messiah.

Indeed, from our vantage point, this was a terrible question. It reveals a continued misunderstanding of the whole purpose of Jesus coming to the world in the first place. It wasn’t to be a political-military leader. And these disciples, after spending three years with Jesus, still don’t get it!

We may agree with Jesus’ reproof. But imagine being one of those disciples at the receiving end of their Lord’s censure. How would you feel getting criticized in front of your peers and colleagues — again?

And then, after Jesus ascends and disappears in the clouds, two angels appear standing beside the disciples as they are gazing into the heavens. The disciples of Jesus are on the cusp of a great mission and work; they will be the hands and feet of Jesus to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8); they will be witnesses to the message of Jesus Christ. And what are the first words from the mouths of these angels? Another reproof: Why are you looking upwards? Stop day-dreaming! That’s not where it’s at! Get going. Do your job!

You know, I wonder if it were us 21st century Christians standing there on the mountain, how well we would take to being – pretty much – constantly barraged and berated with critical words from Jesus and the like. I don’t think we would take much of it, quite frankly. When the work of the church gets a little heated and stressful often one of our first reactions is to throw up our arms in frustration and say, “I don’t need this!”, “church politics!” and walk away.

How did those first disciples stick to it? How did they restrain themselves from fighting back: “You can’t talk like that to me!” Why didn’t we see more disciples quit following Jesus. Because — and I don’t mean any disrespect to our Lord, but — Jesus didn’t seem to be practising good leadership skills here by being critical of their questions. Or, perhaps, there is such a thing as a bad question….

We may do well to notice that, using Lutheran language, the “Law” here has not the last word. Recall that the ‘Law’ is anything that reminds us of our failing, of our weakness, of our sin and inability to do that which only God can do. In contrast, the “Gospel” is the good news of promise; it focuses on the action of God.

In this case, the ‘Law’ can be these words of criticism, from the lips of Jesus and the angels. But there is more, here.

We will notice what follows both these statements of reproof are also words of promise. In the first dialogue, immediately following the reprimand is Jesus promises the disciples that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. After the second question when the angels criticize the disciples for looking up into the heavens, comes the promise that Jesus will return one day.

Words of promise and hope, comfort and empowerment. And maybe, just maybe, because of this good news of hope, the disciples didn’t abandon their community, they stuck to it, they believed the promise, they expected great things from God.

But they were able to see that the power given would only be realized in the community, not apart from it. They had to get over themselves; they had to get past their own, individual, pride, and embrace the bigger picture of God’s vision. They had to understand that being in community didn’t mean, on the one hand a bland, idealistic masking of all differences between them; and, on the other hand, quitting the community whenever anyone didn’t get their way.

When the disciples returned to Jerusalem, they waited in the upper room, together. And while they waited for the day of Pentecost to come, they prayed together. In prayer, then, they experienced a real connection with the living Lord. They remained united, in the prayer of Jesus now re-united with his Father. And what a great reunion that must have been: Imagine, since the birth of Jesus, God the Father had been separated from his Son. And now, at the ascension of Jesus, Father and Son are reunited once again.

This is the foundation of prayer — this unity between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The disciples praying together in the upper room must have sensed this real connection with God by waiting for God’s action, and paying attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit, together. They must have finally realized tat their discipleship wasn’t about themselves, individually; it was about something much greater than them.

They had a real sense of the community, that they were part of the body of Christ. The meaning of religion is to be in communion and in unity with God. As followers of Christ, this unity is realized in the Body of Christ, the church on earth. Christian unity is a profound witness to the power of God in the world today. Especially today, when sadly structural fragmentation and division describes the church more than anything else.

The Holy Spirit still blows today among people of Faith. The church continues to be re-formed and renewed. It is a work that is experienced corporately, not individually. Author of the book, “Introducing the Missional Church” (Baker Books, Michigan, 2009), Alan Roxburgh, writes: “We are being formed as the people of God, not simply individuals using God for some process of self-development in the midst of trying times” (p.158).

We are changed into God’s people, together. That doesn’t mean we are conformed into like-minded robots marching to the same tune. That also doesn’t mean we splinter into another church whenever there is a disagreement. It means we celebrate our unity within the diversity of the church.

I think if the church would have political lawn signs in front of it, there should be a lawn sign from every political party campaigning in this election. Because that would say some very important things about the identity of the church: First, we take seriously our calling, as Christians, to be concerned and involved in the well-being of the wider community; that is to say, we are interested in what goes on in the world, and therefore we vote and are politically active. We are interested because God is interested in every aspect of our lives, not just what happens here on Sunday mornings.

Second, the church is much more than political divisions, because sitting in this room are people representing the vast array of political orientations anyway. We are not here because we share the same political mind-set but because what unities us is greater than what divides us.

And finally, what holds us together is not that we agree on everything, but that God loves us all despite our differences. This is the basis of our unity in Christ, a unity for which Christ prayed (John 17:11):

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. Amen.

The wrong sign

When a road sign indicates something that you don’t expect is the case, it makes me wonder who is behind the seeming prank. What are they up to? What’s their point?

A couple of summers ago when we drove to Florida, a road sign caught my attention. It was hot when we passed through South Carolina and Georgia on the I-95 where many bridges line the route over various waterways and rivers. I can still remember the heat radiating off the hard-top on the interstate.

So you can understand why I did a double-take coming on to several of these bridges seeing a road sign that depicted a thermometer whose temperature hovered around freezing; above the thermometer was shown a car sliding out of control: “Bridge freezes first,” the sign warned.

Are you kidding me? Seriously? On the one hand, the image is true; as a Canadian surviving and driving on our highways during a rather hard winter, I know that when the temperature is below freezing, the highway can be very slippery. But in the southern U.S.? Perhaps last month that was the case there. But I have to confess a deep reservation that they would experience this danger on a regular basis even at this time of year. In fact, we could use some more of that signage up here in Canada.

One of my favourite Old Testament scholars, Walter Brueggemann, once joked in lecture that a metaphor, or a sign, is only good to a certain point. When you make an argument that is supported well by a metaphor, we say it’s a good metaphor. But when the limits of the metaphor become apparent, the one making the point uses the excuse, “Well, it’s just a metaphor.”

I wonder if that’s not the case with some of the metaphors, or images, we read in the bible. Let’s look at the image that describes Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29-42) in our Gospel text today. There is something about that metaphor, that sign, that rings very true. But there is also something about that sign that just doesn’t make sense.

For example: A lamb in the temple rituals of the ancient Israelites was offered as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people. But if Jesus is now that lamb, why does a wrathful God have to be satisfied by the death of someone, let alone His only begotten son?

After all, God is Almighty. God can do anything. God is fundamentally loving and forgiving (1 John 4:7-21). If God needed to be satisfied by the death of Jesus to atone for our sins, why couldn’t God have simply exercised what Jesus instructed his disciples to forgive “70×7” (Matthew 18:22)? Why couldn’t God forgive, as many times as is necessary (i.e. infinitely), every person on earth in every place and time?

I read this week (pastordawn.wordpress.com) that the actual phrase, “Lamb of God” comes from the Jewish religious rites of Yom Kipper. It was during this festival celebrating the Day of Atonement that two unblemished lambs were brought to the temple to bear the sins of the people. But one was then set free into the wilderness.

The ritual around the Day of Atonement had at its central aim, to be united with God, to be reconciled with God. People were aware of and acknowledged their sin. That is what sin is – when we ‘miss the mark’ in faith. This confession was understood as a way towards that ultimate goal of reconciliation with God, a reconciliation that begins in our life on earth.

What happened to Jesus was an injustice. Jesus dying on the cross was a bad thing. He died wrongfully. Just like so many people today suffer injustice on a large scale – dying in wars, brutalized unjustly. God the Father was first to shed a tear when Jesus died; God is first to shed a tear when one of his followers – that’s us – suffers.

But as is often the case, God makes something out of nothing good. The willingness on the part of Jesus to give his whole self unto a wrongful death carries an important message to us. This is the good news, the Gospel: Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission to live life fully in our humanity. Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission to respond positively to Jesus’ invitation – as he made to Andrew and Simon – to “come and see” what God is all about, to embrace our walk on earth with others in faith. Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission even to embrace our own earthly death.

Because this life on earth matters. We are on the path to reconciliation with God that begins in this time and place. We are together on this faith journey to be united with God. Our lives are being transformed in the waters of baptism and in daily walk in faith. This is good news. As I said, one of the first disciples of Jesus identified in this text is Simon; already, early on in his discipleship, Jesus invites him into the transformed life, symbolized by changing his name from Simon to Cephas – the Rock, Peter.

As the liturgy of Holy Communion articulates it well: Jesus, “who on the Cross, opened to us the way of everlasting life” that is to say, to become fully united with God; to respond to that earthly journey towards union with God, a union that will one day be complete, beyond death.

The word “diabolical” comes from two Greek words meaning “to throw apart.” If something or someone is diabolical, that someone or something is dividing and separating that which could be united and at peace. The evil one tears the fabric of life apart. In contrast, the Spirit of God seeks to make one out of two; the Spirit comes to mend, soften and heal.

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” cries the Baptist. How does Jesus ‘take away’ the sin of the world? The Son of God accomplishes this through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the M.O. of Jesus. Jesus gives his life for us, on the Cross. His sacrifice is an act of forgiveness. And, as such, unyielding love.

Richard Rohr points out that about two-thirds of Jesus’ teachings are about forgiveness; about a third of all the parables of Jesus, directly and indirectly, have to do with forgiveness (p.133-134, Everything Belongs). The growth and positive change that we experience in our lives because of following Jesus come about not because of a fear of punishment from a wrathful, legalistically-bound God who demands sacrifice in order to be satisfied. The growth and positive change in our lives happens through tears of confession and assurances of forgiveness more so than through threats and punishments.

That’s the powerful and most important meaning of the images of Lamb and Cross that we associate with Jesus: Forgiveness is God’s entry into powerlessness, humility. When we encounter the living Jesus in our own lives, we find someone not against us, but someone who is definitely for us!

The goal of faith is not separation, but union – union with God. We may call it getting to heaven, or being saved – however we describe it. But, ultimately discipleship is about bringing together, rather than dividing. True religion is about union. To live in conscious union, relationship, with God is what it means to “be saved”. To be restored, united, in Christ today is to be restored, united within the living Body of Christ, which is the Church. We are the hands and feet and eyes of Christ in the world today.

To exercise a ministry of reconciliation can only be done with great humility and grace. This was the dominant posture of Jesus’ work on earth: that he submitted himself to be baptized by John, that he knelt to wash the feet of his disciples, that he willingly made himself vulnerable in every human way possible, even unto death on a cross (Philippians 2).

Going into the World Junior Hockey Tournament or the Olympics, Canada is always one of the strong favourites. And given the high expectations, and with the entire nation looking on – there is, to say the least, a lot of pressure on the Canadians to win it all. I heard on the news that during the preliminary round of the World Juniors in 2010 in Buffalo, rather than making the mistake of being over-confident and arrogant, the coach then, Dave Cameron, taught his players to be humble in the face of all the attention and competition. Be humble. Interesting – especially in the highly competitive dog-eat-dog culture, we have the Canadian coach teaching his players the value and wisdom of humility.

In the church, and in the faithful living-out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, it’s not some winning and some losing. It’s about doing both, winning and losing – doing both not apart and divided and competitive – but doing both together with grace and humility.

In humility, we can forgive and let go. In humility, we can see the other’s point of view. In humility we can see others as they are, created and loved in God’s image. In humility we can grow in faith in the ministry of reconciliation.

Let us pray that in all that we are and do, we seek to mend, to heal, and to unite that which has been divided in and among, and around us.

The visible signs of unity in the church can be today the most significant. Let’s watch for these signs.