In worship, we pray regularly for problems in the world. We do this partly because we are not disconnected from the consequence of conflict in far-off places. Neither are we, in large part, innocent from the causes of these conflicts.
The growing conflict in the Ukraine affects the whole world. This problem is not isolated in its implications for the well-being of people everywhere. For example, a couple of days ago, the markets in Europe and North America tumbled. Especially in Moscow – where the rubble sank to its lowest value in decades and their stock market lost 11%, or some 60 billion dollars, of value in one day. Russia holds the highest reserve of natural gas in the world.
We might very well feel the effects of this crisis in our global economy. The markets dipped because of the fear that shipping of natural resources from Russia through the Black Sea will be disrupted. Hence, the price of oil goes up.
I mention the economic problems not to neglect the more important issues surrounding violence, loss of life, and respect for nationhood that is being stripped from the people of Ukraine at this time. But, only to underscore the truth of our inter-connected, inter-related and interdependent reality – both for good, and for bad.
Both the texts from Isaiah (58:1-12) and Matthew (6:1-6,16-21) that we read this evening on Ash Wednesday call our attention and some criticism to practicing our faith apart from a social awareness. It’s not so much to condemn fasting per se, for example, but what is motivating that fast.
After all, Moses fasted for 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:27-28); Elijah fasted for 40 days and nights on that same mountain in response to the call of God (1 Kings 19:7-12); And Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness before being tested by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). During his earthly ministry, Jesus often went off to be by himself to pray (e.g. Luke 6:12).
But the difference is whether that fast or prayer is motivated ultimately by self-interest; or, an interest to help others. Isaiah (58:3-7) is quiet clear to focus the attention of the Israelites on acts of social care. Isaiah is among those prophets who say that the Lord does not want our ritual sacrifices (Micah 6:6-8), but the sacrifice of our hearts (Psalm 51:16-17) for the sake of others. Matthew reiterates the pious, self-centred worship when he records Jesus’ indictment: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
Over these forty days and forty nights that we call Lent, our mid-week worship will focus on the healing ministry of our church, according to the liturgy in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Book (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2006, p.276).
The discipline of healing is an important theme in the Christian life; and we will be fortunate to hear the testimonies of several people from the church who will share their experience of healing; we will also practice the laying on of hands and anointing with oil that grounds our practice in tangible ways. We come to this discipline freely, unforced, and open to the promise of God (e.g. Isaiah 58:8-12).
But lest we, too, fall in the trap of making healing something that is the sole purview of our individual, abstract, isolated, disconnected-from-the-real-world selves, I encourage us to reflect on the way we do this work for one another, and its effect on the world around us.
Yuriy Derkach is the chaplain at Algonquin College. He is a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Community here in Ottawa. We met last week to get caught up, reflect on the situation in his homeland. And, pray together.
He told me of an Orthodox discipline that some practice every year on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, around the giving and receiving of forgiveness. In addition to recognizing the personal aspect of forgiveness between people that know each other, they also ‘ritualize’ the inter-connected effect of forgiveness on the community.
So, a few of them go into the downtown core of Ottawa, walk the streets, and meet total strangers. There, on the street corner, and quite genuinely, they ask the homeless for forgiveness, recognizing their own complicity in creating the problem of poverty in the world today. After receiving a word of forgiveness, they also offer forgiveness.
Yuriy believes this practice has a domino or butterfly affect. We may not go into downtown Ottawa and meet total strangers with words of forgiveness. But reflect, for a moment, on the power of forgiveness: When you throw a pebble into a still pond of water and see the ripples expanding outward, so, too, when you give and receive forgiveness the stratosphere is affected. Similar to the proverb you may have heard that when a butterfly bats its wings in Japan, a tornado is spawned in the American mid-west. When we pronounce words of promise, forgiveness and affirmation – as we do intentionally to one another in the liturgy for healing – we affect the atmosphere and ‘climate’ of the community around us.
It goes both ways: When we carry around anger and express hatred to those we meet during the day, it may very well have a net negative, global consequence. But imagine, should words of affirmation, healing, and love come from our hearts to those we meet and relate to on the streets of our daily lives, and in the church – what affect that may have in the world? Not fear. But hope.
One of the passages from the bible that has also challenged me from the lips of Jesus, is when he said: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). Yuriy gave me a wonderful interpretation of that passage. Using the analogy of running the race, which St. Paul uses (1 Cor 9:24), he said if those at the front hold hands with those at the back; and those at the back hold hands with those at the front; then, everyone can cross the finish line together. Then, indeed, the first are the last, and the last are the first.
Healing is not done alone. Whatever that healing is, it doesn’t happen in an earthly vacuum, by ourselves and in our heads alone. Very likely, there are always people around, people who care, people who reach out to touch another with loving intent.
We are as much a part of what is happening across this world, for good and for bad. We are, each and every one of us, in need of forgiveness and healing for what we have done, known and unknown, to cause hurt in another. And we are, each and every one of us, capable of affecting the world positively in small acts of kindness with God’s love.
Let it be so, this Lent.
And though we may at times stumble and fail, we will not give up. Because God’s word is true: Our light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly; the glory of the Lord shall be our rearguard; we will call, and the Lord will answer; God will satisfy the needs of the afflicted; our light shall rise in the darkness; the Lord will guide us continually, and satisfy our needs in parched places and make our bones strong; we shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail; our ancient ruins will be rebuilt; we shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:8-12).
Let it be so, this Lent.