Prayer: “Help”

When I heard this prayer I thought it related well and in a humorous way to how well we follow the ‘rules’ of our faith:

“Dear Lord, I am happy to report, so far this day has gone well: I haven’t coveted anyone their belongings; I haven’t harboured ill-will to my neighbours; I haven’t spoken hateful words or done anything out of spite to harm anyone; I want to help out in the church food-bank this week; I’m even praying to you now! I am thankful that this day has been going so well, Lord. But I think I’m going to need some help, once I get out of bed. Amen.”

Indeed, how well do we follow the commandments of God? The very act of getting out of bed almost guarantees we will make mistakes no matter our good intentions. It is our common humanity.

One of the functions of the Law, from a Lutheran point of view, is to make us realize that we totally depend on the grace of God. Let’s be honest. We need help, and we can’t do it on our own. No matter how hard we try, we will always miss the mark and mess up in some way. If there is anything good that comes out of our work, it is a gift and a grace.

This morning’s Gospel (John 13:31-35) was also read at the Maundy Thursday liturgy last month. Maundy means the commandment to love. It is fair to say that these words of Jesus capture the essence of who we are called to be and what we are called to do: In all we are called to be and do, is to personify love.

In this love, we see the glory of God. Glory. A statement attributed to Saint Ireneus of the early church comes to mind: “The glory of God is a human fully realized”. 

I take that to mean that God’s glory is not something other-worldly so much as something discovered in the ordinary, real, weak, broken life of a person who is able to receive with open heart the gifts of another, the gifts of grace and love. That is the glory of God. So intertwined with Jesus’ suffering as a human on the night of his betrayal (v.31-32), when Jesus needed to depend on his Father.

Faith is not just about believing and thinking doctrines and dogma, it’s more than that; it’s not just about believing, it’s about behaving. We have to pay attention to the behaving part. We must remember something I have heard our bishops say for many years now: Those who claim the greatest truth must demonstrate the greatest love.

Peter Steinke, who has given much thought, books and workshops about healthy churches and leadership today, told the true story of mega-church pastor whose congregation in the southern U.S. was doing really well. By all counts, Pastor Chase was enjoying unprecedented success in his vocation. 

And yet, he had confessed to Steinke, he was suffering from a malaise of the spirit. You could call it, a crisis of faith. Chase was losing a sense of personal direction in his work. 

Hearing about his struggle, a brother-in-law who was a member of a Franciscan order invited Chase to visit him in Italy. And so, Chase took his leave and spent that time resting, reading and visiting his extended family. 

Nearing the end of his time away, the brother-in-law invited him to come for a day to the AIDS hospice which the Franciscans managed and served the several men who were terminally ill. After working in the kitchen a couple of hours, a care-giver invited Chase upstairs to help with one of the residents. The man he looked upon was emaciated. His skin looked like it would fall off the bone. He couldn’t have been more than 90 pounds.

The care-giver greeted the man with a kiss on the forehead, and then looked at Chase: “Could you please lift him into the bath for me?” Chase carried the man and laid him into the bath water. The care-giver then asked, “Would you please wash him?” At first hesitant, Chase understood that this man needed a thorough wash. And so he did.

When they were finished and walking down the stairs the care-giver thanked Chase for his help. She indicated they were short-staffed that day and Chase had provided a real service to the hospice. “I can tell you have a Christian background,” she said. Chase responded: “It is I who need to thank you, Sister, because today I became a Christian.” (1)

“They will know we are Christians by our love,” goes the song. We have a choice to make. We need to be intentional as Christians. We cannot afford not to be, in this day and age. We can choose whether or not to love. 

We can’t save ourselves, or do anything to garner points for heaven, for we will always fall short no matter how heroic, self-giving or impressive our good deeds of faith appear. This is not about doing these things in order to make ourselves right with God. It is not about not doing anything at all. It is, however, about choosing actions that demonstrate care, compassion and love for the sake of others, and so, for God. 

It won’t ever be perfect. But that’s not the point. It is about behaviour that flows genuinely from a heart of love. And understands that all is a gift: The gift of faith, the gift of each other, the gift of community, the gift of Jesus Christ who is alive and lives in the Body of Christ, the church, and in the world he so loves.

(1) – adpated from a video entitled, “To Make a Difference”, presented in an upcoming workshop called “Apple Tree” by the Eastern Synod-ELCIC. Apple Tree is a workshop to help stimulate conversations about purpose and mission

The Glory of God

Just ten days after the attacks in Boston, one of the victims gave a chilling testimony to the media about what happened in the moments after the bombs exploded.

She and others standing at the bar overlooking the street were blown off their feet and against the wall. Then, she remembered the smoke and screams which reminded her of 9-11. In an unwavering voice she spoke of how her foot suddenly felt like it was on fire, and she couldn’t put any weight on it.

Everyone started running for the back door of the bar. She called out for someone to help her, because she couldn’t move. She recalled how frightened she felt because no one seemed to be listening to her pleas for help. And then, everything went dark.

Reflecting on the trauma we watched on TV last week, my wife and I have talked about what we might have done if we found ourselves on that sidewalk in Boston watching the race when the bombs went off. Had we not been physically damaged by the shrapnel what would we have done? Started running away, focused on escaping the mayhem? Would we have been primarily motivated by self-preservation?

Or, would we have looked around us? Would we pay attention to where the greatest need was, and offer help? Would we have run against the crowd?

I must confess, I didn’t imagine I would be so altruistic and ready to help. I must confess, I would likely be one of those people running headlong to that back door focused on nothing else but getting out.

And for us Christians who have received Christ’s commandment “that we love one another,” we may be embarrassed, as I have been, at how poorly we put this command into practice.

In the Gospel passage today (John 13:31-35), we hear Jesus’ commandment to love. And what I find remarkable is that Jesus gives this commandment precisely at a time when everything but love was swirling about him. It was the night before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus was a marked man. A target was on his back. And while Jesus was eating the Passover Meal with his disciples, Judas had just slipped out from the group to carry out his dastardly deed to betray Jesus.

And right after Jesus speaks the commandment to love, Peter falsely predicted that he would always be faithful and committed to Jesus – we know later that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.

So Jesus command to love is spoken right in the very midst of betrayal and violence. Not an easy situation in which to be preaching or practising love.

But it is precisely at these times when it matters the most. Jesus calls us to do this not in some abstract, ideal, fantasy world when it’s easy to love, but rather in the real world of violence and broken-ness. And that’s not easy.

This is one reason why we need to gather for worship from week to week –

We need to hear over and over again God’s good news in the midst of all around us that is un-loving.

We need to hear once more the story of the resurrection, the affirmation that life and God’s love is more powerful than death and sin.

We need to hear once more God’s undying love for us all, so that we can be strengthened to practice love toward others, when it counts the most.

I find it significant that we read the word “glory” some five times in this short Gospel text. Odd – even counter-intuitive – you would think, that “glory” is associated with the pretext of Jesus’ suffering and death. Perhaps this emphasis on the glory of God is to underscore that love is not just some Valentine’s Day, romantic, warm fuzzy feeling shared between people in a comfortable, safe place.

Love, on the other hand, is in the Christian faith, self-giving. It is something realized, and practiced, for others – especially when the going gets tough.

As difficult as it is, coming to that place of self-giving love often, in the testimony of people’s lives, happens right in the valley of the shadow of death: amidst loss, stress, disappointment, suffering and pain. The transformation people experience towards a renewed sense of God’s love in Christ Jesus occurs usually at their lowest point in life.

For a long time, the accumulation of personal wealth was the single most important goal for Millard Fuller. During the 1960s, making a pile of money was his singular goal from which he never wavered. Amassing a personal fortune, Fuller was the ultimate “success” story.

But he paid a high price for this. Fuller admitted later how it affected his personal integrity, his health, and his marriage. When his wife Linda left him and informed him that his Lincoln, the large house, the cottage on the lake, two speed boats and a maid did not make up for his absence from his family, he realized what he had sacrificed for money.

It was at that moment when a transformation occurred in his life – when he began focussing less on himself and more on others, more on living out God’s great love for himself, and for others.

In 1976, Millard Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity, one of the most transforming forces around the world today, drawing on local volunteers to build houses for those who have need.

From someone who was once only focussed on himself, Fuller was transformed to someone focussed on others, living out Jesus’ commandment to love one another. “I love God and I love people,” Fuller says now, “this is the focus of my life, and that is why I am doing it.”

I like the story of two young boys playing church. One of them was explaining to the other what all the parts of the liturgy were about.

“So, do you know what the pastor does at the end of the service when he does this?” And he made the sign of the cross.

“Yeah, sure,” the other boy chimed in, “it means some go this way out and the others go that way out!”

The boy was right. The cross sends us out and scatters us out into the world with Christ’s command to love, where we would least expect to do so. The really important thing for any church is not how many people the church can seat, but how many it sends out to love in real, practical ways. A self-giving love, in moments of human hardship, is the glory of God.

The victim of the Boston attacks who recently spoke to the media was told some days after her foot was amputated how she was rescued from the mayhem of that smoke-filled bar. She was told of how a couple of people risked their own lives to drag her to safety. Those two people resisted the temptation to run en masse with everyone else. They had the presence of mind to look around to see if anyone needed help. Amidst the chaos, they were able to express the love that Jesus was talking about, whether they knew it or not.

Glory be to God!