Easter: what is life-giving

When Sherlock Holmes and John Watson go tent camping for the first time, the two detectives unexpectedly encounter a ‘mystery.’

They hike deep into the woods all day until they find the ideal place to pitch their tent. They start a roaring campfire, roast marshmallows, tell favorite stories, sing some tunes and as the last embers flicker in the fire pit they pack it in for the night.

In the wee hours before dawn, Watson wakes the snoring Sherlock. “Look, Holmes, look at the billions of stars in the sky! What a glorious sight! Praise to the Creator!” Watson’s eyes remain transfixed on the expanse above them. “What would you say about this wonder, my friend?”

“I would like to know,” Sherlock mumbles, looking around their campsite, “who stole our tent.”

Were Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson victims of a prank, an April Fool’s Day practical joke?

Nevertheless, consistent with their personalities, each chose to notice a different aspect of their reality: Watson immediately taken in by the glorious night sky – probably something both sleuths weren’t accustomed to seeing in their busy, urban lives.

Sherlock, on the other hand, ever the deducing genius, notices what is amiss, and automatically goes into ‘fix it’ mode, seeking solutions to the trickiest, mind-stumping riddles of life.

In their shared situation one beholds life, joy and beauty; the other, the problem, and its attendant logical, calculated explanation. One looks up, the other, down.

What do you notice? And dwell on? Are you looking up? Or, still down?

The joyous, life-giving message of Easter does not deny nor avoid the harsh realities of living. The Christian’s journey on the road of life does not float over the potholes, ignore the accidents, nor glibly get a free pass over the traffic jams.

Yet, Easter declares something greater than all the suffering, pain and death has happened, and continues to happen every moment we dare to notice.

Jesus is alive! Amidst the hardships. Despite the necessary suffering. Jesus is alive! Right in the middle of the mess. Even in our complicated, self-contradicting lives. Despite our mistakes and our failures. The life of God in Christ resides within and all around us. Martin Luther famously said, the sun shines even on all the manure piles in our lives. Sherlock Holmes AND John Watson. Both/And.

The question is, do we now, as Easter people, notice the Life? Do we see, as Watson does – the victim of obvious theft – the stars in the glorious sky? Do we pause amidst the hectic, hurly-burly of life to, actually, smell the roses and give thanks? Can we believe that the Light that has come into the world now shines in the darkness? A darkness that can never overcome the Light?(1)

Can we assert that our hurt has become home for our greatest hope?

The good news of resurrection hope is that we don’t see this alone. The life and light of Christ shines in the Body of the living Christ — the church today. We are here for each other and for the world in order to discover and celebrate the presence of God in and around us.

We are not alone in discovering the gift of Life in us. In truth, the life of Christ resides in each and every one of us, despite the imperfection of the church and this community. When one of us falls, the other lifts up. We don’t have to suffer alone in the misery of alienation, feeling useless, or being crushed by failure. As if we must carry this burden alone, and heroically solve all by ourselves.

Easter means that now, “Faith does not occur in isolation. Despite the rugged individualism of our culture, faith is not just something private between God and me. Rather, faith is, by its very definition, communal.”(2)

God gives life. That’s God’s job. Where is God’s in yours? In the world? Where do you see it? Because, it’s there!

A woman asked her local Lutheran pastor for advice. “Pastor”, she says, “I have a boy who is six months old. And I’m curious to know what he will be when he grows up.”

The Lutheran pastor says, “Place before him three things: A bottle of beer, a looney, and a Bible. If he picks the beer, he’ll be a bartender. If he picks the looney, a business man. And if he picks the Bible, a pastor.” So, the mother thanked him and went home.

The next week she returned. “Well,” said the pastor, “which one did he pick: the beer, the looney, or the Bible?”

She said, “He picked all three!”
“Ah,” said the pastor, “a Lutheran!”(3)

Of course, we can substitute any Christian, here, not just Lutherans. The point is, living in the resurrection of Jesus means our lives reflect, resonate and echo the life of the living God. We rejoice and sing Alleluias for the beauty in life, despite the difficulties, through our human desires, and amidst the realities of life.

Now, we can see the life in the world – its beauty and glory – without denying the real. Even though someone may very well have stolen our proverbial tent, this cannot stop or take away the Life that is in us and all around us. Forever.

May our lives reflect a sense of wonder, trust in one another and in ourselves, and hope for God’s glorious future. Good news, indeed!

 

1 — John 1:5

2 — Stephen R. Montgomery in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.166.

3 — Adapted from James Martin , SJ, “The Jesuit Guide To Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), p.317.

Repeat performances

Once again during the Christmas season, I experienced this strange cultural phenomenon:

How many decades has it been that every December, movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Elf”, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “The Bishop’s Wife” get replayed and replayed over and over again, year after year? And only at this time of year? You can probably add several more of your favourites to this list.

That is why I was a tad apprehensive last month when we received tickets to attend the National Art Centre (NAC) Theatre production of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol.” I know the story. I’ve read it several times. I’ve watched television renditions of the story over the years. What could the NAC Theatre do to bring it to life, once again, for me? Same old, same old, right?

On the other hand, I believe there is a good reason why we turn to these stories every year. There’s a reason for our culture’s yearning for their repeat-performances. A higher reason, I might add. Perhaps there’s something in those stories that we need to take to heart, and make positive changes to our lives. Perhaps, we need to see the story-telling as more than a mere syrupy, sentimental “Isn’t that nice” tradition.

So, I was surprised and intrigued by what the NAC Theatre troop did with the story. It was introduced by two actors who came on stage — one was blind and one was deaf. In the introduction they invited the audience to participate in a simple activity with our hands, both to show that the two actors needed each other in accomplishing their jobs; and, what is more, near the end of the story everyone in the audience was needed to give the sign with their hands in order to encourage Scrooge finally to embrace a more compassionate approach to life.

Without taking anything away from the traditional story-line plot, the meaning of Dickens’ famous “A Christmas Carol” was conveyed to me in a fresh way.

We encounter in young Samuel and the elder Eli one such repeat performance story in today’s text from the Hebrew scripture.(1) It is a story many of us know — of the boy Samuel in the temple who is called upon by God. It gets told many times in the life of the church over and over again — every three years at least. It is true: it is a nice, little story, isn’t it?

At first, Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice, believing instead that it is his old mentor, the priest Eli, who is calling him. Finally, with Eli’s help, Samuel responds to God’s call by saying, “Here I am. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”(2)

Well, as I said, many of us are familiar with these very words. We even like to sing a popular hymn (3) reflecting the words of one responding positively to God’s call — a call that changes the life of the recipient. How does this familiar story speak to our lives today? How is it more than just ‘a nice, little story’ from the Bible? How can this story change our lives?

In this story, an old man and a young man collaborated to hear God’s vision for a new Israel. For God was about to do a new thing: Soon to emerge in the life of God’s people was a new lineage of kings, beginning with the inauguration of King Saul.(4) What was passing, was the rule of Judges along with the sinful house of Eli. What was emerging was the likes of King Saul, King David, King Solomon, and so forth.

In God’s message to Samuel, God condemns Eli’s lack of restraining his sons’ immorality. Eli’s sin was his aversion to do something even though he recognized what was happening. Even though Eli knew the ongoing problems in his household, Eli turned a blind eye and ignored it all.

He did not act. And no matter what Eli would do now to try to redeem himself by making various sacrifices to the Lord, God was intent to establish a new order of leadership over God’s people starting with the demise of Eli’s household.

Doing nothing was the problem. For us, today, doing nothing about a problem we know exists is the problem. How do we begin to move out of the prison of this self-inflicted inertia?

We need to recognize that growth and healing is a process. The birth of the new thing God was doing began as a cooperative affair. It took the attentiveness of the young Samuel’s ears and the wisdom of the old priest’s heart and mind to bring about God’s purpose. It took both the authority of the failing, feeble priest and the obedience of his youthful protégé to bring about God’s purpose. In other words, it takes a community to bear such a task.(5)

Responding to God’s actions and call in the world and in our lives today is not a solo effort. Religion is not a solitary practice. Indeed, it takes a village. It takes the various gifts of people in our lives. What one has and the other does not, what the other is good at that the first is not — it takes everyone’s attentiveness and participation.

How do we live into this collaborative way, especially challenged by our society’s emphasis on individualism, privacy and self-reliance? We are, indeed, up against a culture that is at odds with the Christian vision. How do we live the way of God’s reign? Where we value mutuality, diversity, common purpose in the mission of God for the good of all people?

In contrast to the way in which God spoke to the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah and the later prophets of Israel, God does something unique with Samuel. You will notice that God does not enjoin Samuel to deliver God’s message to Eli. God does not charge Samuel to tell Eli what God is telling Samuel with words like: “Thus says the Lord, tell the people Israel”, etc., etc. No.

Rather, God wants simply to confide in Samuel. Basically, God expects Samuel, first, to listen. Just listen. It seems, Samuel first needs to learn how to do this. And it will take some time and some practice, evidently.

Can we have the courage, and the patience, to learn how first to listen to God and the other — without jumping in too soon with the energy of our own bravado, our own opinion, our own self-justifications, our own visions of what must be? The simple act of listening, can change our lives. Because listening first means we believe that the other has something of value to offer that we don’t have.

God works at a slower pace, it seems, compared to the hypersonic rhythms of life in 2018. Not only does God give Samuel and Eli one chance to figure it out, but two and even three opportunities to get on the same wavelength as God.

The story-telling is both appealing and intentionally slow early on. Dialogue is repeated. The action of Samuel getting up from sleep and going to Eli are repeated. We have to slow down with the narration and feel the build-up to the great reveal of God’s message.

Even though both Samuel and Eli are slow in finally getting it, even though they are encumbered by sleep, drowsiness, denial and avoidance, even though their response to God is compromised by vision and hearing impairment, by youthful pretence and the attrition of old age …. God still finds them. God still speaks. God still acts in the way God will act.

Despite human arrogance and self-delusion, despite all our toiling and pride, despite all our ego compulsions, God keeps at it to tell us, guide us, and instruct us.

We may not like the answer. We may not like what God has to say. We may be challenged to the core of our being by what God is telling us. Regardless of our hesitation, denial or self-delusion, God finds a way. God doesn’t give up on us. God gives us people, and stories, and experiences — even the same ones, over and over again — to help us finally get it.

God doesn’t give us just one chance. God is not just a God of second chances, as we often say. God gives us many chances, as many we need. May we, like Eli, finally come to accept what God has to say to us, with his words: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”(6)

 

(1) 1 Samuel 3:1-20, the first reading for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Ordinary time, Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary.

(2) 1 Samuel 3:4-10.

(3) “Here I am, Lord”, Hymn #574, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006); also, for the Christmas cycle, this hymn is also appropriate in singing Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s visit to her, announcing Mary’s role in the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:38).

(4) 1 Samuel 8-10.

(5) Richard Boyce in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.245-247.

(6) 1 Samuel 3:18

Stick-to-it-ness of love

Terrorist bombs going off in Brussels during Holy Week should get our attention. Not only and primarily because of the sudden horror and tragic, senseless loss of life.

But also because Christians this week, the world over, are reflecting and imagining the path Jesus took to his own senseless, horrific death hanging on a cross.

Death is on the mind and heart of many these days. How can we approach this reality common to us all? How can we accept the truth of our own mortality, which will be realized some day in some unique way?

In a popular book about near-death experiences, people reported on how they saw a review of their life — the cliched ‘life flashing before your eyes’.

The people who had momentarily died detailed every single encounter they had had with another human being throughout their life. They not only re-lived it, they were able to feel what the other person had felt. In that life-review they knew what others felt because of the near-dead person’s words or actions in that particular encounter. (1)

You may be able to imagine how surprised some felt to know how their behaviour and words actually affected other people. To know what impact our lives have on others. We may not think that a simple action like a smile, or a scowling face, a gracious word, or an angry outburst, could affect someone else’s day — let alone their life.

A friend recently suggested that this is what they thought Judgement Day would be for us — to understand and feel fully what influence our lives had on people around us. And how much our lives mean, in relationship.

I attended my brother-in-law’s retirement reception last week. He was retiring from the military after about twenty-five years. In his speech to the gathered friends, family and colleagues he concluded by saying something that stuck with me: “There’s lots that I’ve done over the years that I’m not proud of — as I stand here today. But, I’ve always and will always be proud of who I did it with.”

On Maundy Thursday, the main theme behind the actions of Jesus with his disciples is love. The commandment to love one another infuses the ritual of washing his disciples feet, of eating with them and instituting the Holy Supper, of instructing them and praying for them that ‘they may be one’.

The motif of loving one another is strangely underneath the surface of the high-tension, escalating conflict surrounding Jesus as he nears the cross — the ultimate place of his suffering and death. You wouldn’t think this is a love story, at first glance.

Yet, Jesus does not seek retribution for the injustice he endures. As Simon Peter did by taking a sword and cutting off the ear of one of the high priest’s servants who came to arrest Jesus (John 18:10). Instead, Jesus is about a restorative type of judgement — one that through love seeks to make right what has been divided or tarnished by sin. Judgement is ultimately always about restoring us, not avenging us for all our mis-deeds. To whom are we restored?

Our religion is not one of individual moral performance and accomplishment for our glory alone. The judgement we individually meet at the end is not considered in a vacuum. Our religion is constituted in a community. Our religion, more to the point, is practised and validated in the context of human relationship. Christianity is a social religion. You can’t do Christianity apart from others.

On Maundy Thursday, the focus is on the disciples meeting together for the last time with Jesus. And they do so around a Meal. This is the context, the meal and the companionship, however flawed and fragile. Sharing food, here, is not an individual indulgence as it is a communal sharing.

For many, in our culture today, to simply sit and eat and talk and to remain together until the end of the meal seems a quaint custom, perhaps incomprehensible, even an empty game: There’s always something else to do in my room — download something, fix something, watch something, communicate in some other media. The community of the table seems far less interesting once you have eaten your fill.

Yet eating with others is what prayer is all about. It is the time — like meditating with others or celebrating a ritual as we do this evening at the Sacrament of the Table — when we are fed and nourished by the One who is the food itself. We need to stay and wait and allow ourselves to be waited upon. (2)

And so, we need to practice doing things together. Practice. Not perfectly. Not always the right way. And not just when all is smiles and joy. Sometimes, in practising our faith together we end up hurting others, and being hurt ourselves. This is nevertheless the nature of practice. 

Like in any endeavour, physical exercise, any discipline, anything that is of value to us. It sometimes hurts. We need to challenge ourselves. We need what coach Dave Cameron of the Ottawa Senators said once in an interview explaining what his team needs in order to be successful in the NHL: ‘stick-to-it-ness’. 

‘Stick-to-it-ness’ is the quality of staying with the game plan, playing with the team; not, individual heroics as they and we are want to do. Stick-to-it-ness, even in the face of adversity or failure, or disappointment. Not running out the back door when things get tough or uneasy or uncomfortable. Not giving up on others or on yourself, even when they disappoint you. Staying with the game plan. Being persistent. Even when things are less-than-perfect or ideal in your life, and life with others.

‘Stick-to-it-ness’ is a quality sadly lacking in Christian culture today. We are so individually-minded that we delude ourselves into thinking we can go it alone. That we don’t need others. That we can live our Christian lives without being faithful to the community — the hassle or complication of others who will only disappoint and annoy — 

That we can leave a group of people and join another church. That religion is like a smorgasbord; and “I” am the centre of the universe, determining my destiny, choosing what I want and leaving behind what I don’t want. And being in total control.

In the acclaimed film, “The Way”, starring Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez, father and son together experience a walking pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. They begin their journey in conflict, estranged from one another. The son tells the father a truth that he learns by the end of the movie: “You don’t choose a life, you live a life.”

Practising our faith is not something we do by ourselves. Practising our faith is not motivated by trying to earn favour from God by all our good deeds. Practising our faith is not creating for ourselves the life we want. 

Practising our faith is first and foremost something we do together, for the sake of the other, and for love of the other. Even in the face of death.

We follow Jesus, who walked the way of life and death as we know it. We worship Jesus, these holy days, who showed us the motivation and stick-to-it-ness of love, of grace, of leading with a heart of mercy. For the sake of the other.

I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call upon the name of the Lord.

I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord,

in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!

(Psalm 116:17-19)
(1) Raymond A. Moody, “Life After Life”, HarperCollins, New York, 2000, p.55-65

(2) Laurence Freeman, “Sensing God”, Novalis Press, Toronto, 2015, p.110

The gift of the Beatitudes

There is the story about a little girl who was one day drawing a picture. She was so engrossed in her work that her mother asked, “What are you drawing?” “Oh, it’s a picture of God,” said the youngster. “A picture of God?” “Darling, no one knows what God looks like!” “No,” said the little girl, “but they will when I get through.”

Even though we know, deep down, that God cannot be put in a box of our own devising – our own imagination – we will still try. However imperfect our efforts may be at explaining God — and imperfect they often are! — we live, like the little girl, with the confidence and sometimes arrogance that says: We know it all! I am in control! And that’s good, to a point.

But then we grow up and life happens — we suffer, we mourn, things don’t go according to our plan — and we question God’s very own existence. Usually, our response is very individualistic. When we struggle with end-of-life realities, for example, I often hear questions about whether or not “I” am worthy for heaven. And people struggle, sometimes on their death beds, with their own, individual, deserving, as if their salvation hangs on their own merit and achievements, or lack thereof.

First, let me say that challenging events in our life need not be signs of God’s displeasure –presuming God is out to get us for our misdeeds. Rather, challenging events are invitations to go deeper into the truth of life and death. And therein we discover the wonder of God and God’s loving stance towards us.

The church has always understood our rising and dying in Christ as a collective experience, not an individualistic enterprise. All Saints Sunday which we acknowledge today emphasizes ALL the SaintS (plural) — not just one or two. Moreover, every Sunday when we celebrate the sacrament of the table, we connect with the “communion of saints in heaven and on earth”. We are part of the Body of Christ, members of something larger than us, individually.

In the reading from Revelation (7:9-17) we hear about “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (v.9). As members of the body of Christ we are primarily a people, not individuals that can be counted or measured. This truth is not meant to diminish our individuality but to encourage us in faith.

I pondered a photo recently taken of my godparents standing with my twin brother around the very font I was baptized in with him on November 30, 1969, about a month after my birth. Looking at the faces of my 5 sponsors now in their senior years, I was struck by how at my baptism — even though I couldn’t make those promises by myself at that time — the communion of saints held me in my faith and belief. Even though there are times in my life when my faith is weak, by myself, I can rest in the faith expressed by the larger faith community which holds me in prayer and membership. And this, to me, is of great comfort and encouragement.

Admittedly, it’s difficult for us to understand such a mystical and communal truth, in a highly individualistic culture bent on individual achievement and autonomy. But a life of faith in Christ Jesus invites us to consider reality and truth in a paradoxical way: That the poor are blessed, and so are the peacemakers, and those who mourn. In a world that lifts up those who achieve individual success and power by their own merit, the Beatitudes introduce a way of life that sees God in precisely the kinds of circumstances and communal expressions we would rather avoid, deny or at best tolerate.

Some have compared the 8 Beatitudes with which, in Matthew’s gospel (5:1-12) Jesus begins his teaching — what is called the Sermon on the Mount — with the 10 Commandments in the Old Testament.

This is an interesting comparison, on many levels. Someone mentioned in the lectionary study this past Monday how little airtime the Beatitudes get in our churches of late; much more emphasis is on the 10 Commandments. They remembered a time decades ago when the Beatitudes where enshrined on church bookmarks, wall-hangings, posters, cards in the narthex. They were all over the place. But no longer.

I wonder, is it because in recent times, especially, we have downplayed the subtle, albeit unpopular, aspects of the faithful life. Is it because we are uncomfortable with the humble truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ — who gave up his whole life on the cross for the sake of all people? This is the essence of the Gospel which is captured in the Beatitudes, a way of life that faces the challenges of life head on and embraces those struggles as integral to, as the fodder of, the faithful life.

Conversely, the 10 Commandments are easier to comprehend, rationalistically, aren’t they? After all, here a bunch of rules to follow. And rules are easier to grasp than paradoxical sayings. Rules have cut and dry consequences. Rules are wrapped up in rewards and punishment. And we get that. We live in a culture that is driven by meritocracy.

Maybe it’s time we take another look at the Beatitudes. Because life happens. And when it does, we have some choice and a responsibility in the matter of how we will respond. We don’t have to search out suffering for suffering’s sake. The tough times come. And when they do, what will we do? How will we respond?

By saying, “We don’t deserve this? It shouldn’t happen to us?”

We can only go so far with the 10 Commandments — and the ‘Law” for that matter. Because while the Law provides a good order for living, no one individual can fulfill the demands of the law perfectly. The function of the law is to drive us to the throne of grace — to lead us, in the words of Martin Luther — “as beggars”, to God who is the starting and ending point of our lives.

One of Martin Luther’s greatest contributions to theological thinking is a paradox: he said that we are simultaneously saint AND sinner. Now, you can’t rationalistically explain that ‘both/and’ formulation — just like you cannot easily explain other sayings of Jesus; like, in order to find your life you need to lose it; or, just like you cannot explain that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine; or, just like you cannot easily explain the mystery of the real presence of Jesus we may experience with God in the Holy Communion. That is why the prayer of the day for All Saints Sunday emphasizes ‘the mystical union’ we share with the whole body of Christ on earth and in heaven. These are all precious paradoxes that describe — like the Beatitudes do — the fundamentals of our faith.

The gift of the Beatitudes — these fundamental teachings of Jesus — lies in their promise to us. What are the promises to those who courageously follow in the often messy, inexplicable, uncertainty of Jesus’ way of the Cross?

Ours is the kingdom of God, we will inherit the earth, we will be filled, we will receive mercy, we will see God, we will be called children of God, and our reward will be great in heaven.

Here is a wonderful, true description of faith that is full of promise, not condemnation; that is about hope in the midst of despair, not a fearful avoidance of reality; that is about affirmation and encouragement, not judgement and punishment; that is about blessing with an eye to new life.

Are you an honest sinner?

A Christian leader (Laurence Freeman) commented on the 25th anniversary edition of “Rolling Stones” magazine. It contained interviews with pop music icons over that time period, starting with John Lenin all the way to Madonna.

He was wondering why young people especially were drawn to these, their idols. Of course, many pop stars are not exemplary people. They are not saints.

But they are, what he calls, ‘honest sinners’. Which reminds me of what Martin Luther said about us: That we are at the same time: Saints AND Sinners.

In the church, I think we get the ‘Saint’ part. But how do we validate the ‘Sinner’ part of ourselves?

In the Gospel text for Ordinary Time on this last Sunday in September 2014, we continue to work through the parables given by Jesus, in the latter part of the Gospel of Matthew.

In the assigned pericope, the authority of Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees (Matthew 21:23-32). In response, Jesus tells a story of a Father who asks both his sons to work in his vineyard. The first son says he wont do it, but does. The second son says he will do it but doesn’t.

What do we make of the first son who does his Father’s bidding? He does not want to obey. And he is honest about it.

The verb in the original Greek in this text (v.29) for “changed”, as in, “he changed his mind” (or as many English translations have it — “he repented”), is not the common one usually associated with the idea of a total transformation of character (as is implied in, for example, Matthew 3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”).

In fact, the only other place in the Gospel of Matthew where the exact same form appears is in Matthew 27:3, when Judas experiences a regretful change of purpose that ends in despair, remorse and his demise (see Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers).

Perhaps a better translation would have it as “a caring change of heart”; or, “a change of heart burdened with care.”

This form suggests that a heart nurtured in the love of God leads to action that not only obeys the call of God, but does it willingly. Even though the first son’s mind and his words at first are contrary to the will of the Father, his follow-through redeems him in the end. An imperfect confession it is, to be sure. But, ultimately, words are not enough.

Although in the case of both sons words do not match the deeds, “the repentance of the former is preferable to the hypocrisy of the latter;” Kathryn Blanchard says it best: “True righteousness is in the doing, rather than in the confessing” (in “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, WJK 2011, p.118).

I see a possible link here with the alternate first testament text assigned for this Sunday, from Exodus 17:1-7 (We also encounter this text on the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A). The Israelites are on the journey to the promised land, and yet again (for the fourth time in the sequence of these texts from Exodus) they complain to Moses about their lack of food; and in this, case, water.

They are thirsty. They are without a basic need for human survival. We are not talking here about typical ‘first-world problems’ — complaining about the weather, or unable to sync online calendars among family members with different smart phones, or dealing with a dilemma of how to invest money in competing markets, or having to cancel a credit card that was stolen, etc. These are things we complain about, and may even pray about.

But the Israelites’ complaints to Moses are about a basic, human need that they lack. I cannot blame them for being upset! They will die without water. They are being ‘honest sinners’, aren’t they?

Scientists, medical professionals, and child care workers will agree today that love is such a basic human need. If a person, especially at a young age, lacks love in their life, this absence of love will even stunt their physical development. They will be underdeveloped, physically, because of love being absent. The giving and receiving of love is a fundamental, human need.

Jesus tells the Pharisees that the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter heaven before they will. Maybe because these ‘lowest rung’ folk in the religious hierarchy of the day certainly don’t present themselves in a religiously acceptable way. There is no pretence, performance, pious evasion. There is no making appearances, no self-denial nor self-repression. There is no saying-the-right-things, no artifice, no self-consciousness to their being and behaving. They are truly ‘honest sinners’.

Both of Moses and of Jesus, the people demanded ‘signs’ of God’s presence. The Exodus text ends with those ominous and faithless words: “Is God with us, or not?” Even after the visible and tangible sign of water was given to quench their thirst, the Israelites still doubted. Even though Jesus performed miracles; even though the resurrected, bodily form of Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee following Easter morning, they did not ‘believe’ (Matthew 28:17).

The ‘signs’ are not the point of the Gospel — God’s love IS. Acts of love demonstrate our Christianity more than dogmas and creeds.

And when we participate in loving, caring action …

We are truly free. Free to be ourselves. And free to do the right thing. Perhaps whatever good things honest sinners do, they do it then from the heart. Their giving of love, however unnoticeable and seemingly irrelevant acts of love, is authentic and real — something the Pharisees so stuck in their heads and dogmas could not grasp.

You might notice that the Father — who in this parable may represent the attitude of God — does not condemn the first son for saying the wrong thing. The Father does not ‘correct’ the son’s imperfect words. The Father accepts him just as he is. And in the freedom of God’s love, the son then experiences a change of heart.

God accepts you as you are. God has faith in you. Because of God’s steadfast love and unwavering faithfulness in you, what will you do?

Cultivating God’s imagination in us

Cartoons today are not like the cartoons I watched on TV when I was a kid. Back then, the story lines were straight forward, and characters behaved in ways that were expected. Even though their world was animated, it was easy to relate to the real world. If you ran off a cliff, like the coyote did chasing the road runner, you would pay the price and fall to your doom. Yes, these cartoons were funny and often the characters made mistakes — and that was entertaining.

But today, when I watch the Teletoon channel, it is crazy! More often than not the characters behave in ways that are unpredictable, excessive and even absurd. When you expect a certain consequence for a behaviour, the opposite happens! And this style gets kids laughing. This medium has little if no connection to the way people normally operate in the real world. It is meant to shock, and display the impossible rather than convey the probable.

At the same time, this is precisely the style of the story presented in our Gospel text today (Matthew 18:21-35). Yes, it is! Bear with me. Jesus tells a story in response to Peter’s question about how often should he forgive someone who has done him wrong.

Reading in between the lines, it’s as if Jesus answers Peter’s question with another rhetorical question: “How could you ask such a stupid question?” So Jesus tells an extreme, over-the-top parable to startle Peter into recognizing the absurdity of his assumptions and to call him to a new way of seeing and living (Charles Campbell in “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, p.71).

Jesus’ story is really excessive, when you think about it. First, Jesus says that we should forgive always, without limit, certainly more than seven times. And yet, the king in the story (who for some interpreters is analogous to God and therefore an example to us) — how many times does he forgive his slave? Just once! The king doesn’t give his slave a second chance, doesn’t forgive him more than once, even though that’s the moral of the story, right?

Then there is the matter of the ten thousand talents that the slave owes the king. In Greek, “ten thousand” and “talents” indicate the largest possible number; the amount is so absurd that in some early Greek manuscripts of this text reduced the number (Lewis Donelson, ibid.). There is no way that any slave would ever have ten thousand talents to begin with — otherwise he would not be a slave if he did. How could a slave even get to a position of owing that incredibly huge amount of money, and then pretend that he could pay it back in his lifetime. Absurd. We really can’t take this story too literally.

The rest of the parable continues in this vein: The slave who was forgiven this unimaginable debt load refuses to forgive the comparatively minuscule debt of another slave. He acts in an extreme way, seizing the debtor by the throat (v.28).

All in all this parable reads just like a modern-day cartoon. It’s excessive; it doesn’t follow the norms of social interaction — in Jesus’ day as much as in our own. We are left shaking our heads, “Ridiculous! Impossible! How could anyone do such a thing?”

But that’s the point. What we consider here is an imagination that is beyond earthly probabilities and rationalizations. The parable turns on us, as it surely did on Peter: How often should I forgive?” As the church, we should know better. For we know how much we have already been forgiven.

What we encounter in the Gospel text today is a Godly imagination that is presented in contradistinction to the world’s. Most of our lives operate according to probabilities and possibilities, measurable criteria, tit-for-tat, and certainties. Not so in God’s kingdom of grace. Mercy, forgiveness — these are undeserved, incalculable. Yet given.

How do we forgive? Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a woman in his congregation who is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. Since her husband walked out on them, every month, she says, it is a struggle to pay bills. She says, “I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?”

The Rabbi answers, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically. But you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”

Presbyterian Minister, writer and retreat leader Marjorie Thompson gives a helpful definition of what it is to forgive. She writes: “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgement, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such retribution may seem …

“Forgiveness involves excusing persons from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behaviour. The behaviour remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.”

You’ve maybe heard the story of one prisoner of war, after being freed, who asked another, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?”
“I will never do that!” the second one answered.
“Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?” the first one replied. (These stories are recited in Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, ibid., p.71-72)

The ability to forgive has more to do with ourselves than it has to do with the perpetrator of our wounds. This realization makes the impossible, possible; the improbable, probable. Holding on to resentment and a desire for revenge keeps us stuck in the false belief that somehow we can change the other person.

But perhaps who needs changing is ourselves! Peter got an earful from Jesus as Jesus held up a mirror to Peter when he asked the question, “How often should I forgive?”

We are not alone on this journey. Jesus talks about forgiveness in the context of the relationship of people in the church, among his disciples as they jostle for power and deal with in-house conflicts. We are not alone in this struggle to forgive our debtors. After all, the Body of Christ, the church, has a role to recognize the sin together, demand accountability together, and exercise forgiveness together. This takes time and it isn’t easy.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them,” said Jesus just before Peter’s question (Matthew 18:20). God surprises us, yes, even sometimes shocks and startles us with undeserved love and steadfast faithfulness. This is the imagination, the hope, and the longing that motivates us to keep on.

Of God’s forgiveness, we can be sure.

Engage the 4-wheel drive!

Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).

What do Lutherans and Jalapeño peppers have in common? When just two peppers are ‘gathered’ in a dish, they enhance the taste with just a bit of a kick. But a whole plateful brings tears to the eyes!

“Yes, Jesus, where two or three are gathered, we can handle…. but not a whole room full, please!” We joke about the challenge of trying to be and work together. And because of the difficulty, we may take the easy road and just avoid getting too involved. After all, nobody wants to step on anyone’s toes.

In a way, this Gospel reads similarly to the injunction in the book of Hebrews encouraging the coming together of people as necessary in a life of faith. “… let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together …” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

But this is not easy! For where two or three are gathered we have two or three different opinions, and hence the hard work begins! If we took Jesus’ words literally, churches would have only two or three people in them! Maybe in some small churches it’s starting to look like that anyway! The more people, the more conflict, after all. The context of the Gospel text is how to deal, in an orderly fashion, with conflict. Conflict will happen whenever people get together. This is normal even if for many in the church, undesirable.

I’ve never been a fan of Football. I’ve always had this prejudice that the sport is just all about testosterone-induced aggression. Every play, it seemed to me, ended up looking like a flock of vultures diving into each other with bodies lying in heaps on the ground.

However, after attending several practices, now that my son plays, I’ve watched the coaches interact with the kids in the various drills and reps they do. And what struck me is how, essentially, being successful as a team is about first being aware of what to do in each and every contingency: whether the ball is carried in a running game, turned over; when the ball is kicked; or, in running some kind of coverage; or, in completing passes; or, creating a wedge wall, etc.

More to the point, it’s not about individually knowing what is going on, but critically it’s about the whole line — defensive and offensive — being aware and employing a certain tactic together. They may look like a flock of vultures, yes, but they have to fly in formation, together, in order to be successful. This takes practice. The team has to gel.

How we deal with our differences, between one another, that is the real question. We, in our families, in our workplaces, on the sports field, driving in traffic, in the church — we need to practice working together. We are not individuals doing our own thing, in our own individualistic worlds, even in our prayer life; I can tell certain drivers on the road when, even though hundreds of cars are in the mix, they behave as if they are the only ones on the road.

Speaking of driving, I like to think God has given each one of us a special gift. This gift is like God created each one of us to be a 4×4 Jeep to drive on the road of life. You know what four-wheel-drive on a car is: Basically, if you have four-wheel-drive, you have the option when you need it to engage all four wheels in the power-train instead of just the two front wheels. Four-wheel-drive comes in handy especially in snowy, icy winter conditions, or when you drive off-road in mud, over rocks and in fields.

Now, I believe most of us who have this four-wheel-drive option don’t really need it for 99% of the time we drive, even in winter.

For most of our lives, things may go reasonably well for many of us. Life is good. We get by. We may even enjoy many of the blessings of a good life. And let’s face it: We were not born in Iraq and we are not being persecuted and murdered and displaced from our homes because of our faith. Let’s face it, we were not born in Africa where drought and ebola threaten our very lives and the lives of our children. Let’s face it, most of us here are not homeless or hungry, or part of any disadvantaged minority in our society. We have it good: We have schools to go to. We have caring communities and friends we can lean on. We have disposable income, most of us, to give us leisure, pleasure and a comfortable life.

But there will still be times in our lives when we will suffer. There will be times in our lives when our health will fail and we come face to face with our limitations. We will suffer loss and even tragedy. We will suffer the pressures and stresses of family and work and the conflicts of being in a community.

And when we do, we will need the four-wheel-drive option that is built right into our make-up. We do, so God created each of us, have the capability to engage the off-road bumps and potholes. We do, so God created each of us, have the capability to engage those slippery, icy, even dangerous road conditions.

Yes, using four-wheel-drive burns more gas. It’s not the most fuel-efficient way of driving. We use up more energy. It will be difficult, trying, even exhausting. Following Jesus pushes us past our comfort zones, to be sure. But we do have the capability, this gift, and we should use it.

And here’s the wonder of it: When we must engage the four-wheel-drive option and drive down that unknown, sometimes scary, road, being jostled about on the uneven, narrow way, we discover that God sits right beside us in the car.

You see, the engine won’t ever fail, because the capability for off-roading is the quality of God’s love. Love is the fuel, the energy, the power behind this effort. And this love is shown to us by God. God loves us, even when we make mistakes, when we falter, even when crash, even when we will have an accident. God is with us. And God’s love and unfailing presence sustains us.

Saint Paul writes, “Salvation is nearer to us now, than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11). This verse from the second reading today is both astounding, and comforting. When we first became aware of the love of God for us, and accepted this love as the fuel for our lives — that was great! This may have been our baptism, or some significant turning point in our lives of faith when the beauty, joy, peace and glory of life radiated all around us.

But the point is, now that may be off-roading, now that we may be using that 4×4 capability on the rough patches of the road of life, God is even closer to us. Now that we may be suffering and enduring in faith with one another, God is even closer to us, “… and will not forsake his people; God will not abandon the work of his hands” (Psalm 94:14).