Christmas Eve – the greatest gift for getting it wrong

For over five centuries, Lutherans have asserted and proclaimed: grace is a gift. Meal time, especially during the holidays, is a great opportunity to experience grace.

Many of us will get together with friends, family, and coworkers for Christmas meals and potlucks. We sit at the same table and eat food that is shared among everyone at table. 

Where’s the grace? (besides the pre-meal prayer)

The grace in that experience, is being together. How often does that happen in today’s world? When family members are separated by vast distances unlike in any other time in human history. When coworkers can suspend their usual activities and work routines to just sit down and eat a meal together. When effort is made to make and/or bring food for all.

The grace is sharing food together despite the conflicts, the dislikes, the divisions and lines drawn between those around the table on account of political opinion, social standing, personality, past hurts.

The grace is found in those moments when, unexpectedly and surprisingly, a kind word is said between combatants, a genuine smile of thanksgiving is offered when ‘gifts’ are exchanged, or tears of forgiveness given and received are expressed.

On the surface, these moments may not change a whole lot, at least not immediately. But repeated often enough – Christmas comes every year – the seed sown deeply in the heart will one day sprout. ‘Mary treasured all these things and pondered them deeply in her heart’,[1]the scripture says. Sometimes, in the face of grace, all we can do is find a moment to appreciate and digest this gift. And let it grow in us. We are, each of us, the innkeeper who will decide whether or not to let Jesus in.

Celtic Thunder, the Irish, male group sings a powerful version of Silent Night that tells the story of Christmas at the Western Front in 1915. German and British soldiers stopped their fighting for a few moments Christmas Eve when one of the German soldiers – a lad of 21 years of age – started singing Silent Night.

Before long, combatants from both sides that had been avowed to killing each other were walking across no-man’s land. For a few moments they left their weapons behind, hugged each other and gave each other gifts of cigarettes and pots of wine.

But alas, the moment of grace passed. And before long they were shooting at each other again. And the 21-year-old soldier who had started the singing, did not make it to the morning.

Grace was given to those boys amidst the battle. In the singing of Silent Night, in the exchange of gifts, in the hugs and laughter, grace was still given.

Grace is a gift not for getting it right, but for getting it wrong.[2]And we human beings, throughout history, can get it awfully wrong. But this does not stop God.

God came into the world not at an ideal time when everyone was getting along. Herod was a paranoid despot about to wreak havoc in the land. In short, there was unrest in Palestine. Beneath the surface of all that might have appeared genteel in the little town of Bethlehem that holy night was broiling a call to arms by discontented zealots against Roman occupation. The military conflict would finally erupt some seventy years after Jesus’ birth with the destruction of Jerusalem.

God chose a particularly dark and disruptive time and place in history to enter in, as a vulnerable little baby boy born to a teenager in a barn for animals. Not a strategy for success, you might think, eh? On earth, nothing was going right.

But the grace of God knows no bounds. The grace of God enters into the thick of it. Not when everyone is getting along. But especially when everyone is getting it wrong.

The message of Christmas, in the end, is one of hope. Because no matter how bad or sad things get, it won’t stop God from prying into our consciences from time to time to tell us that God is never too far away. No matter how bad it gets, God is always with us. Emanuel. God with us.

Once we can accept that God is in all situations – not just the warm fuzzy moments decorated with visions from Hallmark – then everything becomes an occasion where some good can happen. God can and will use even bad situations for good.[3]This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”[4]

Our task this Christmas – however you are observing it – is to look for and find the good, the true, and the beautiful in everything, even and most especially the problematic. Because the bad is never strong enough to counteract the good, however small or short-lived. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot and never will overcome it.”[5]

Amen.


[1]Luke 2:19

[2]Richard Rohr, “Accountability Is Sustainability” Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part One (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org) Friday, December 13, 2019

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Like Knows Like” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation (www.cac.org, Monday, December 23, 2019).

[4]Psalm 118:24

[5]John 1:5,9

The house built by fear

Reading from the bible can be scary. Sometimes a faithful reading of the bible will not bring calm and assurance. Just the opposite!

Today’s scripture can evoke fear.[1]When Jesus talks about Herod’s glorious temple crumbling to the ground and being betrayed by family members, our eyes widen in apprehension and we shift uncomfortably in our seats. Fearful of the future. What will it bring? Is God’s future good or something to fear. We do know, the way there won’t be easy.

From the Gospel, Jesus exposes two false ways in which people of faith try to deal with our fear. By that, I mean, strategies that we have employed for thousands of years in order to combat our fear. While these methods may be effective in allaying our fear, they also serve to block the way we connect with God.

The first such strategy Jesus exposes is our attachment to, and almost exclusive dependence on, what we build. Even, as we say, to the glory of God. These buildings. Glorious, adorned with carvings, intricate stained glass, spires making confident bids to the sky, and arches perfectly rounded and balanced. Architectural master pieces. To say the least.

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The pulpit alone, in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, is a wonder to behold. It is a sermon in itself – its spiraling, narrow staircase winding itself up into a small yet regally appointed platform high above the nave.

King Herod, for Christians reading the bible, was a paranoid despot. He killed innocent children was ruthless in defending and protecting his hold on power. Because he was afraid, afraid of losing it.

For historians and archeologists, however, he was a builder par excellence.

King Herod started building his temple in Jerusalem two decades before Jesus was born. During the time of the build he more than doubled the size of the temple mount. The temple proper was completed in eighteen months. But work on the outer courts and decorations continued throughout Jesus’ lifetime and still some thirty years after his death and resurrection. During this impressive season of building the temple, people gathered under the large colonnades and porches to hear speeches and witness healings.[2]

It was a gathering place, a central focal point for people’s identity in faith and source of authority and guidance for life. It was where you went to listen to and engage religious debate. It was where you went to deliberate truth. It was where you made animals sacrifices. Here, you found the rules and regulations and laws for a good life.

Less than a decade after everything was completed on the Herodian temple, it was pretty much destroyed by the Romans in the late first century. Jesus’ words in the Gospel text for today, calling for a day “when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”, speak to events that were happening in the lives of Jesus’ followers during this time of the destruction of Jerusalem and its glorious, magnificent temple.

In reading this text carefully, however, I realized this is not just about buildings. Jesus isn’t just criticizing those who put all their religious stock in bricks and mortar. Jesus is exposing yet another related strategy for dealing with our fear. Not just in the glory of the buildings, but in the way we speak to one another and relate to one another. Not just in glory. But also in power.

It was, after all, the authorities who made the rules, sold the animals for sacrifice and mediated the people’s connection with God.

At root, the religious authorities persuaded the people that their relationship with God could only be mediated by the authority’s permission. If you didn’t follow the rules and authorities, you were not justified or in right relationship with God. The whole culture, the spiritual climate, surrounding the temple served to choke out freedom of a personal and direct intimacy with God.[4]

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote the dismaying story with the title, “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. The old cardinal of the church hears that the real Jesus has come suddenly to his town. The cardinal is alarmed that Jesus healed a blind man who had been coming to his church. Then, he hears that the real Jesus who has come to his town raised a young girl from the dead.

When the cardinal confronts Jesus he asks him: “Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?” He wants to rid the town of Jesus, because in his mind what Jesus did long ago is done far better by the church today. In other words, the cardinal has to admit to himself, the church does not need Jesus.[3]The cardinal really couldn’t give up the power he had. Not give it up for anyone. Even Jesus. The cardinal was afraid of losing his job — what it would mean for him and the church …

Seeking glory and defending power seem to be effective ways of dealing with our fear.  We attach ourselves to symbols and expressions of glory in our culture – the tallest buildings, the fastest cars, celebrities, newsworthy leaders and victories on the battle fields of life. This brings comfort, though momentary and fleeting. Because we can never be satisfied operating in this consumer and acquisition-fueled culture. There’s never enough, or it’s not good enough. Ever.

Jesus suggests we must learn a new language. A new way of being, with God and with one another. A way, marked not by successes in the eyes of the world—there were lots of tourists in those houses of worship we visited in Montreal. The world approves. But will we walk a different way – a way marked by love, faithfulness in suffering, and generous giving in the face of poverty, suffering and our fear?

Throughout the Gospels, the religious authorities asked Jesus for a sign of his authority. And, he never satisfied them with his answer. His answers usually appear to disturb their sense of right and wrong.

The truth, when it comes, seems to turn upside down our initial ways of thinking and doing. Here, Jesus says, “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[5]

These opponents were neither stupid nor un-educated. In fact they were the most articulate and brilliant of the age. So, there is something altogether different going on here. A different way of being with God. A way not encumbered by discursive thought and debate. A way not intimidated by rules and regulations and conditional statements of belonging. A way not defined by glory-seeking persuasion nor forceful coercion.

The confirmation class the other night reflected on the meaning of the Trinity—God the Father who creates all, God the Son who is with us, God the Spirit who gives us strength. On this poster they cut out images from magazines to place in one of three designated areas on the poster. These images evoked for them the meaning and feeling of what God is up to in the world today, through the various persons of the Trinity.

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In reflecting on the experience of doing this exercise afterwards, we pastors admitted this was rather an abstract exercise. We weren’t just memorizing definitions of the Trinity from the Catechism, difficult enough as that is! But in engaging the confirmands on another level, we began to see more than we thought possible.

We discover that we don’t find God by building glory or defending power — ways we use to avoid confronting our fears of the future. Rather, the good news is that God has already found us. In this world. In our lives. And in a multitude of ways.

Making this link, this connection, is much simpler than all the methods we have devised to combat our fear. We don’t need the tallest and most beautiful buildings to assert God in this world. We don’t need to merit, or qualify for, our relationship with God by building skyscrapers or getting straight A’s in school.  We don’t need degrees and a long pedigree to justify ourselves in faith. We don’t need to arm ourselves with book knowledge in order to defend against some opponent whether a family member or stranger.

All we need is an open heart and a desire to love and trust. Following Jesus is about going directly to intimacy with God in our deepest selves. And God is there, right there, all along.

We can respond, then, not out of fear. But out of the love of Christ for all and in all. Forever.

 

[1]Luke 21:5-19

[2]Acts 3:11; 5:12

[3]Cited in Eberhard Busch, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.310-312

[4]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.93-96

[5]Luke 21:15

Pray, in Christ

In 1970, Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich expressed his support for artistic freedom and human rights in a letter to Pravda, the state-run newspaper of the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviets sharply curtailed his ability to travel. After Rostropovich and his wife decided not to return to the Soviet Union when travelling abroad in 1975, the Soviets stripped him and his wife of citizenship.

The political conflict in which the Rostropovich’s were embroiled reflected the larger geo-political strife of the Cold War from the last century.

When Rostropovich later played a Dvorak cello concerto in Chicago, the audience was treated to a brilliant performance. As the last note faded, the audience sat mesmerized. Rostropovich then did an extraordinary thing: he stood up and kissed his cello. The audience erupted. Then he hugged and kissed the surprised conductor. Then he hugged and kissed the entire cello section before moving on to the violins. He hugged and kissed most of the orchestra.[1]

With deeply felt gratitude, especially when circumstances are not ideal. When a home country—betrays, rejects. When suffering the consequences of some internal battle. When divided, separated from our home on earth and true home within. And still feeling grateful and expressing a profound thanksgiving. Does this not describe the experience of prayer?

I must admit upon reading the scripture from 1 Timothy I did not at first catch that this text is fundamentally about prayer. This text from Paul’s letter to Timothy announces the theme of prayer in the first verse: “First of all, then,” writes Paul, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone …”[2]

What follows in seven verses reads like a creedal statement of belief. This is what initially distracted me. But without the basic context of prayer undergirding that confession we can easily miss the deeper meaning by getting derailed by arguments about universalism and atonement theories.[3]

Starting with prayer gives us a practical, experiential basis for engaging questions of faith. Because it is in our personal communion with God that sets those questions in better, more productive, perspective.

Basically, religion is about realigning, reconnecting with God—that’s the meaning of the word, religion. Prayer is the means, the way, by which we connect with God. Our journeys of faith begin in the practice of prayer. And that is what we do every week in worship on Sunday. Everything that happens in the liturgy—in the order of worship—is prayer and flows from prayer.

At the Regina convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) this past summer, national bishop, Susan Johnson articulated a four-year vision for “Living our Faith”. She writes that “God is calling us into a deeper relationship …” and invites the church to focus, each of those four years, on one aspect of our spiritual journey. The first is prayer.[4]

Everything else (scripture, worship, love) flows from the beginning point of prayer. Why? Living our faith starts with communion in God, relationship with Jesus, personal connection with the living Lord.

While in worship we find many forms of prayer—different ways to pray (confession, petition, song, silence, sacrament, community, etc.)—there is only one prayer. And it is the prayer of Jesus. At its core, prayer for Christians is, as Paul often describes it, ‘in Christ Jesus.’ Paul uses the phrase, ‘in Christ’ dozens of times in his letters to the early Church. In Ephesians alone Paul uses ‘in Christ’ some twenty-seven times.

Christians believe in the living Lord. Jesus is not dead. Yes, he died on the cross over two thousand years ago. But since then, Christ is alive. And still is! We assert this every Easter season: Christ is risen! And Jesus’ communion with his ‘Abba’ (Father) through the Holy Spirit continues to this day, to this very moment.

When we pray we join in Christ’s ongoing prayer, in our hearts, like deciding to step into a river that continually flows towards the ocean. That river flows through our hearts. That is where the consciousness of Jesus resides through the Holy Spirit. In prayer, we incorporate with, enfold in, the prayer of Jesus with the Creator.

In our verbal prayers we will often conclude our words with, ‘in Jesus’ name.’ We pray ‘in the name of Jesus’. We pray, ‘in Christ’. This is the fundamental understanding of Christ as intercessor, as ‘mediator’ for us and for all people – as Paul writes here to Timothy. “Prayer is not an act resulting from our own autonomous will,”[5]but an act resulting from the good will of Jesus—a prayer that is ongoing regardless of what we do.

That is also why, prayer is not about us. Prayer doesn’t turn us back onto ourselves. Christian prayer may start by consciously locating our attention within our minds, our words and hearts and bodies. But ultimately, prayer leads us beyond ourselves. To others.

When Paul writes to Timothy that prayers “should be made for everyone” because God “desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth”, the emphasis is so made because of the real conflicts in the lives of those early Christians. The Christian community of Timothy’s time was persecuted for proclaiming Christ; they were not an accepted part of the social fabric in Gentile or Jewish community.[6]

I opened with a real story of conflict in the context of the Cold War. We can only understand our lives of faith in the context of our real lives which daily encounter some conflict—whether within ourselves, with our spouse, our children, our grandchildren, our neighbours, our hockey coaches, our teachers, our community leaders, our politicians, and whomever we label ‘our enemies’.

It is in the context of conflict and yes even strife where the instruction to pray bears down upon people of faith. “Love your enemies,” Jesus instructed more than once I am sure.[7] “Pray for those who persecute you,” he said.

We follow a God who is not immune from controversy and confrontation. Remember his earthly destination was death by a state-sponsored, capital punishment on the cross. This God we follow stretches us beyond our comfort zones and calls us to love in surprising situations. This God calls conservative evangelicals to pray for their liberal sisters and brothers, and vice versa. Trudeau Liberals are called to pray for Scheer Conservatives, and vice versa!

Maintaining healthy boundaries are important. And, some hurts go so deep that so much work and time are required in the process of healing. Without minimizing nor denying the harsh consequences of divisions …

“When you’re able to open your heart to your ‘enemy,’ allow God’s love to flow through you to them. Picture their face and send them warmth and tenderness. If this is a struggle, begin by focusing on someone that is easy for you to love, for whom you feel natural affection. Then broaden that circle of compassion to friends, acquaintances, and strangers.  [Because] no one is outside the embrace of God’s loving presence!”[8]

 

 

[1]William P. “Matt” Matthews in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.89; www.britannica.com

[2]1 Timothy 2:1

[3]For example, God ‘desires everyone to be saved’ (verse 4); and, ‘Christ Jesus … gave himself a ransom’ (verse 6).

[4]www.elcic.ca

[5]Stephane Mar Smith in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.88.

[6]Jane Anne Ferguson in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.86.

[7]Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27

[8]Richard Rohr, “Following Jesus” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, January 26, 2019).

Resurrection in community

In the artwork of first centuries, for example, we see a striking difference between western and eastern portrayals of the resurrection of Christ. From western art we see pictures focusing almost exclusively on the risen Christ. Jesus emerges from the tomb alone as if to say, “Look at me! I made it!” Light glows from behind him. Whatever else there is in the painting, it is background material. Resurrection is primarily and exclusively about Jesus. And we declare “Jesus rose from the dead” as an individual.[3]

A good example is The Resurrection by Italian artist Andrea di Bonaiuto found in the Spanish Chapel, Florence, Italy.

Contrast this western artwork with the East. From eastern Christians, we see greater emphasis on the resurrection community. Resurrection is depicted more as a corporate event in the overcoming of death, evil and sin. Without denying the work of Christ in all of this, the implications are emphasized. So, it’s not so much about Jesus-the-individual conquering the grave as it is about all of creation rising from death to new life.

A good example is the painting outside the Church of St George in Romania.

The Eastern interpretation makes sense of challenging scriptures as one from the Gospel of Matthew; at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection: The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After Jesus’ resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.[4]  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus has implications for the whole people of God. Including us.

Both our tradition and the bible challenge our western bias. Instead of focusing only on the individual, we can learn how to be, and embrace being, in community.

Being and remaining in community is not easy. Relationships are messy. We would rather avoid having a crucial conversation.[2]We would rather not commit to a community because it’s easier to just leave when it gets tough. Especially when we can fall back to our individual, autonomous, private lives and independence. We would rather escape the boiling cauldron of community life.

We need to come clean with our natural bias towards individuality. That we value it. Really value it.

Let’s look briefly at today’s scripture. The story we read from Acts, chapter eleven, is actually a repeat of the same story in the previous chapter ten in Acts. The story line remains consistent: Peter has a vision from God and then meets three emissaries from Cornelius. And the message in both is the same:

Peter is called by God to expand his vision and mission of the Gospel to include Gentiles. Peter is challenged to overcome his stereotypes and distinctions between the Jews and Gentiles, and see God’s mission in more universal terms. No issue was more important to the early church than whether their newfound faith was intended only for Jews, or whether it was to include Gentiles while allowing them to remain Gentiles.[5]

The same story, told twice, in successive chapters. In fact, some of the words in chapter eleven are taken verbatim from chapter ten. Why did the author repeat the same story? Obviously this story was very important to the early church that it was re-told. Maybe a way to understand why, is to note what is different between the two. What’s the difference?

What changes in chapter eleven is the confrontation with ‘the apostles and the believers’ in Jerusalem.[6]Peter has been called before them, has heard their criticism, and now responds to it by telling them the story first conveyed in chapter ten. The difference is the context; and that context is Peter being called to task for his eating profane foods with those uncircumcised Gentiles.

We learn from the early church that believers were not reluctant to voice their differences. Peter did not escape. He didn’t go hide in the anonymity of a large shopping mall, airport or Caribbean vacation. He didn’t jump in his fishing boat and disappear on Lake Galilee.

Peter entered Jerusalem and squarely faced his critics. Too often, we try to be ‘nice’ at church. We try not to be confrontational. We try to sidestep controversy. We closet our differences. We paint smiles on our Sunday-morning faces. Even as we know deep down there may be an elephant in our collective room, and even as we suspect in our hearts irreconcilable issues. And, if we can’t handle this posturing, we leave. Get out of dodge. Back to being individuals in our private lives.

This text reminds us that controversy and difference needs to be voiced, not avoided. Conflict needs to be transformed, not ignored and swept under the rug. Living in Christ does not mean putting our heads in the sand. It means looking each other in the eye. It means accepting the other is unique, different from you.

What does this mean for us? First, when we say that we participate in the resurrection of Christ, we begin to see with fresh eyes the whole world not as risk or threat but as gift, invitation and trust. There’s what we call a ‘mutuality’ that informs our relationships—the way we relate with one another and especially those whom we may dislike or are fearful of.

In other words, mutuality can be described this way: what I see in you I see in me; what I see in me I see in you; seeing myself both in those I love and those I dislike.

Jean Vanier, the creator of the L’Arche Communities around the world, died a couple of weeks ago. He was the founder of homes for the disabled after he realized that all people, especially those with severe disabilities, have something important to offer to the world. In his writing entitled, “Ten Rules for life to become more human”, he said:

“The big thing about being human is to meet people. We need to meet people who are different and discover that the other person is beautiful.”[7]

To make this discovery for ourselves, especially in people we dislike, we need to practice paying attention for the gift in others.

The disciples are commanded by Jesus to love one another.[8]The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus means the focus will shift to the community. The spotlight of faith is now not on some heavenly, other-worldly reality. It is on the Body of Christ. The focus now is not so much the individual, historic Jesus. Jesus now lives in the Body of Christ—the church, the community, wherever the Spirit of the living God blows in all creation, in every time and every place. This is the expansive vision of being a follower of Christ today, in real time.

When we share the Peace of God—a tradition in our preparation for receiving Communion—we can practice paying attention to the diverse ways in which we communicate that Peace of Christ and participate in vastness of Christ’s presence. We practice how it is to love. An analogy, you might say. Because we are all different.

And just because some may wish not to share the Peace in the same way as you do—shaking hands, or giving/receiving a hug—doesn’t mean they don’t want to participate.

Our intention comes from the heart. The desire to participate emerges from inside of us. I suggest the first thing we pay attention to is eye contact. When we turn to the person beside us look them in the eye. These eyes of ours are windows into the soul. They reveal this good intention in our heart to communicate the love and peace of Christ. This is when you can say, “the Peace of Christ be with you.”

The second thing is, pay attention to what you do with your hands. When you open them outward and upward you are giving a cue that you are open for a hug. Mind what the other is doing with their hands after making eye contact. Are they also opening their arms? If not, they are giving you a cue not to hug. What else can you do?

Your hands can come palms together in a prayerful pose—the namaste. While keeping eye contact and bringing your hands together over your heart, you may bow slightly, saying, “Peace be with you.” You can also give a fist-pump/shoulder-pump if you do not wish to shake hands. Obviously if both of you are reaching to each other in a motion to shake hands, your cues are mutual.

Two assumptions to review: First, please do not assume everyone will do it the same way as you. That’s Community 101 and it applies to lots of things. Pay attention to body language. There’s more to this liturgical act than saying the words. Second, just because you receive different cues from the other doesn’t mean they don’t wish to participate in conveying the love and peace of  Christ to you. We just have to work harder at discovering and respecting their way.

There are various ways we can communicate to another that we participate in the life-giving activity of God in the world that God so loved. And continues to love, through us.

 

[2]Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High (Toronto: McGraw Hill, 2012), p.11-14

[3]Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Resurrection (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org), 21 April 2019.

[4]Matthew 27:52-53

[5]Stephen D. Jones in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 2 (Louisville: WJK Press, 2009)  p.451-455.

[6]Acts 11:1-3

[7]Jean Vanier cited in Canada Lutheran Vol 34 No3 (April-May 2019), p.8

[8]John 13:31-35, the Gospel reading for Easter 5C, Revised Common Lectionary.

The loved migrant: a ‘washing feet’ analogy

The disciples need to have their feet washed.

It was not only customary in ancient times to wash the feet of guests into your home, but necessary. Calloused and muddy feet were the norm in an age of open-toed sandals and pedestrian highways. Providing this service was a kind and appreciated gesture offered to the weary pilgrim.

But no one else had volunteered to do it. The disciples had followed all the Lord’s instructions to prepare for a meal in the upper room. They had bought what they needed in preparation for the Passover. They had gathered the bread and wine. Check. Check. Check.

So, what made them miss this important act of hospitality, friendship and welcome? What blinders did they have on?

Perhaps, we can’t underestimate the state of affairs among the disciples. Recall, they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.[1]And for any one of them to volunteer to wash feet would be to lose the argument. Because only servants and slaves washed the feet of their superiors.

So Jesus got up to do it—shocking them all by his disregard for social and cultural convention.[2]

And then, as if that wasn’t shock enough to the system, Jesus looks up at the disciples, looks them square in the eyes and says:

“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (v.14)

How good are we at ‘washing one another’s feet’? We’re not doing it in worship tonight on Maundy Thursday. I don’t believe we’ve ever done it here at Faith. But maybe we need the practice.

Since my father’s death earlier this year, I’ve been reviewing his life story, going over certain details. Especially in his formative days when he migrated from Poland to London, England, in the mid-1960s, I see a pattern emerge.

The small town in southern Poland where he was born and raised was and has been the largest concentration of Lutherans in a predominantly Roman Catholic nation. They called themselves the Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession. And, the church whose bishop he assisted later in London was the Lutheran church ‘in exile’ from Poland. This church was taken care of by the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

Even though commissioned to serve ELCIC congregations when he and my mother immigrated to Canada in 1967, Dad was still called upon to serve Polish-speaking Lutherans once a month in an independent Lutheran Church in Toronto during the 1980s. This congregation has since become part of the Missouri Synod.

When our long-time family friend from Toronto visited us here in Ottawa a couple weeks ago, I was reminded again of this pattern: My father had been, in the first part of his life certainly, born and bred in the culture and beliefs of the Missouri Synod/Confessional Lutheran Church, worldwide, you could say.

The question I’ve pondered is: What made him change his allegiance? Why not continue to remain serving the denomination and church culture of his childhood and youth—even in North America? Why did he change? What made the difference?

It wasn’t doctrinal, by and large. I remember several debates we had around the kitchen table over the hot button issues in the church during the past few decades. And he usually tended towards the more conservative stance. It wasn’t doctrinal. It wasn’t about beliefs and confessions of faith. It was something else.

When he was serving the Missouri Synod church in London, he met someone over lunch after worship one day. This man, William Dase, had been a pilot in the war. A Canadian flying with the British Airforce, he had made many runs over London. And, after the war, decided to make London his home.

He was also a major benefactor of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. In conversation over lunch, my Dad expressed a desire to learn English, and not anywhere people knew him. Somewhere far away from any Polish-speaking Lutherans, he felt he could master the English language. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he also didn’t believe he could ever return to Poland a free person.

And so Dase posed a simple question, with significant consequence: Why not spend a study year at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Canada? Dase would sponsor my Dad’s study and booked passage for both my parents on the ocean liner, Maasdam, to set sail from Southampton to Quebec.

Before my parents landed in Waterloo, the Dean of the Seminary at the time, Professor Dr. Hauser, had already arranged an apartment in student housing and a job in the cafeteria kitchen for my mother which paid $75 a month. This was just enough to cover the rent for the apartment.

After completing his master’s degree at Waterloo, my Dad was appointed to serve a small rural parish north of Stratford, Ontario. He needed a car. So, Assistant to the Bishop, Dr. Berner, of the Eastern Canada Synod, went with my Dad to the bank to arrange a loan to buy a VW Beetle. Dr. Berner used his standing with the bank as collateral for the loan.

However, after the year was up, my parents’ temporary student and visitor VISAs were expiring. And so, the Dean of the Seminary, Dr. Hauser, promptly took my parents to the immigration office in Kitchener to vouch for an upgrade to landed immigrant status— ‘my parents would make excellent citizens in Canada’, he told the immigration officer without hesitation. They received their immigrant status on the spot.

When my brother and I came along a couple of years later—twin boys—thus creating an instant family that doubled in size literally overnight, my parents experienced a sudden strain on the household budget.

The bishop of the Eastern Canada Synod, then Bishop Lotz, immediately arranged for a changed call to the three-point parish in Maynooth, Raglan and Denbigh—because these parishes were able to offer a higher wage.

That was then, this is now. I understand. Nevertheless, I am impressed in reviewing this history how church people who were in a position to do so could make such a positive difference in the lives of those in need. No just once. But consistently. Over time. And in response to various needs.

I can say with certainty that it was the love shown in practical, simple, ordinary ways to my parents when they immigrated and settled into Canada, that made all the difference.

The disciples needed their feet washed, after all. Despite all their debating and power struggles and determining who was right and who was wrong. Jesus showed his disciples, and shows us, that to help another is to put oneself on the same level as the other. Not to ‘lord it over’ in a condescending manner, but to recognize the common humanity we all share.

Jesus shows us what it means to fulfill the ‘new commandment’ of love.[3]If the world will know that ‘you are my disciples’, it has nothing to do with agreeing on doctrine, creedal statements, confessions of faith. In fact, arguing about these things, as the disciples tended to do, hinder this expression of true discipleship.

In the Gospel of John, the disciples do not and cannot understand the significance of Jesus’ actions until after Easter.[4]Even then, their faith still falters.[5]In John, “the disciples’ divine election and sustenance do not depend on how much they understand. Their faith is perfected, not in knowledge, but in how much they love their fellow lambs (21:15-19; cf. 1 Cor 13:12-13).”[6]

Jesus tells his disciples after washing their feet, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”[7]

It’s about loving action, not knowledge/understanding.

St John of the Cross wrote: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” I concur. When all is said and done, at the end of the road, we will be asked: “How have you loved your neighbor?” not “Did you believe the right things?”

Just like washing one’s feet is messy, and uncomfortable, so at first it may feel out-of-sorts to be so vulnerable to one another. There are boundary issues when it comes to feet, to be sure.

We are not used to small and ordinary acts of self-giving for another. We need to practice. In an age when congregations and denominations are significantly divided over doctrinal, social, and other issues, and sometimes have difficulty even gathering at the same table for a meal with one another—what do we need? What do we really need?

More debate? More information? More knowledge? More convincing arguments? Really?

The disciples just needed their feet washed.

 

 

[1]Luke 22:24-27

[2]Jim Green Somerville in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.276

[3]John 13:1-17,31-35, the Gospel text for Maundy Thursday, according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]2:22; 7:39; 12:16; 14:26

[5]20:19-29; 21:20-23

[6]C. Clifton Black, Feasting on the Word., ibid., p.279

[7]John 13:17, emphasis mine.

Surrender, to be free indeed: a sermon for Reformation Sunday

I am grateful that by some coincidence the choir sang today a piece whose title was, “I surrender to Jesus”. And, indeed, the thread that runs through the whole song is the act of of surrendering. This theme might, on the surface, appear incongruent and disconnected with Reformation Sunday.

As a child, I remember Reformation Sundays in the Lutheran Church were indeed ‘celebrations.’ As if we were remembering and celebrating a victory on the battlefield of religious truth. Against our opponents in the religious marketplace.

When we retold the stories of Martin Luther who five hundred years ago stood up to communicate his theological emphasis — that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to scripture alone — the upshot was that those who didn’t believe this were lost, even despised. Worthy of our judgement. Illumination translated into pressure to conform, need to compete and become embroiled in violent conflict.

Indeed the history of the Reformation in the decades and centuries following Martin Luther’s assertions reflects violence. Wars, based more on political and economical divisions, were fought in the name of Protestant or Catholic truth. Blood was shed. Common folk lost their livelihoods even their lives in the upheavals of the so-called religious wars across Europe. Marching into battle to defend truth became the vision and basis for ‘celebrating’ the Reformation.

Martin Luther’s unfortunate anti-semitism whose words the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada repudiated became grounds for hatred against Jewish people to this day, such as in Pittsburgh yesterday. Indeed hatred and violence are as much a legacy of the Reformation as anything else.

Surrendering is indeed counterpoint to the flavour of victory. The cross always stands in contrast to the wiles of glory-seeking fanatics. It is not an easy path: Waving a white flag in the wind may feel like we are ‘giving up’ on who we are, or not caring anymore, or losing our identity. And, here, it doesn’t matter whether we surrender spiritually to Jesus or surrender to anyone on earth. It is the act of surrender that offends our sense of being. And scares us.

That is why, perhaps, we react to this notion that surrender is a good thing. And so, we keep fighting, defending, being all self-righteous. And violent against others, in word and deed. When all along, the truth of it and the real problem is: We find it difficult to admit that in some things we were, and are, wrong.

Martin Luther didn’t want to create a new church. If he knew today that his actions resulted not only in the proliferation of some 30,000 Christian denominations and a plethora of Protestant churches across the globe, but that there was even a church named after him—he would be rolling around in his grave. And yet we trust that despite Luther’s good intentions to merely reform the Roman Catholic Church of which he wanted to remain a member, what has happened is part of something much larger than Luther himself.

The truth is, when we take the risk to do what we are called to do, we fall into a larger reality, a larger good, that is beyond our control. Do we do good, or even pray, in order to control the outcome? Do we do good, and pray, so that what we want to happen will turn out? And if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with the prayer, or God? Is the religious life about an escape plan from this world into heaven? Because following Jesus is not management-by-objective. We don’t pray and do good to get an insurance policy for heaven.

Rather, we do what we must do because we are stepping into the flow of a greater good in which we participate. We move into active response to God’s love and grace because whatever we do is not for our sake alone. When we do good and pray, for example, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Following Jesus is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water.

The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. It enlivens us with refreshment and purpose. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is the ocean of complete, loving union with God.

We can also learn from the example of Jesus. In the Gospel text for Reformation Day (John 8:31-36) , those who oppose Jesus try to draw him into an argument. Jesus suggests they are not free. They are slaves to sin. His opponents reply by saying they are descendants of Abraham and therefore have never been slaves to anyone.

They are blind to their own inner captivity. They can’t see how enslaved they actually are. Indeed they are not free to grow, in Christ. Because they are right. And everyone else is wrong. They are their own worst enemy.

When Jesus hangs on the cross, and prays to God, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” (Luke 23:46) he expresses a profound and deep surrender, a letting go, into the immeasurable vastness that is God. From his moment of ‘forsakenness’ (Mark 15:34) that we all must one day experience we learn that faith is not about belief at all. It is about trust and love.

This is a surrendering that does not compromise in any way who we are. Letting go is not ‘giving up’, as if we don’t care anymore about whatever it is we’ve been so inclined to manage and control.

Surrendering to God is releasing our managerial faculties. It is like forgiveness, when we let go of the resentment that keeps us trapped in wanting revenge and retribution. Surrendering to God is an expression of complete trust in that which is wonderfully greater than anything we can imagine let alone accomplish on our own.

Over twenty years ago, Carl Sagan’s book, Contact, was made into a movie. This is basically a story of aliens who send the makings of an interstellar vehicle to earth. Engineers and scientists figure out how to complete this egg-shaped pod that would transport one person through gateways and wormholes to other worlds in the universe.

It is during the inaugural flight that the character played by Jodie Foster discovers a solution to a serious problem. She discovers that what humans think is a sensible, reasonable thing to do actually is the problem.

You see, in this orb that would be Jodie Foster’s mode of travel, there was at first no chair, or anything to keep her in place. And how could someone travel at untold speeds to unimaginable, unknown places without some way to secure her body? Otherwise she could seriously hurt herself tumbling about inside.

So the engineers and scientists construct an elaborate chair which they fasten to the inside of the capsule.

As expected, during the initial flight, Jodie Foster’s character experiences an excruciating degree of turbulence and vibration, to the point where she might expire from the stress of it.

At the height of the extreme shaking, a pendant that had been around her neck comes loose. And floats in front of her eyes. Surprisingly it isn’t subjected to the violent turbulence. It isn’t moving at all. Just floating, suspended in space. It is still. Peaceful.

An idea comes to her in a flash. Without hesitating she unbuckles her chest strap, and releases her body from the chair. From that moment on, her body is finally free from being confined to the chair. She could then fully appreciate, enjoy and embrace the wonder of her interstellar experience.

She understands now that the aliens knew what they were doing in sending a chair-less vessel to earth. They had indeed done their homework before coming to make contact with humans. In unbinding herself, she discovers she can trust them, the experience, and the greater good of what was happening to her.

Had she fixated on remaining bound in the chair, she would not have been able to discover the wonders of the universe to its fullest. Worse, she could have died.

She had to let go. She had to surrender any notion of security to survive. She had to take the risk to unbind herself. She had to trust, and have faith, that in the letting go, she would find peace. And be free.

We don’t have to be right. Only faithful. That when we surrender to Jesus we express in our praying and in our work a trust that we, and the whole universe, are held in the loving embrace of God.

From the scrap heap of metal, we find two pieces. These pieces are ready to be disposed of. The bare bones. The raw material. Broken pieces. These pieces represent our broken, common humanity.

We can do something with these pieces, to be sure. These scraps of metal can be used to brace structures of our own doing—reinforce supporting walls, strengthen sides in a piece of furniture, cover holes and be painted over in appealing colours.

But when these scraps are left alone, God makes something out of nothing. From the ‘scrap’ consciousness. You see, it is no good when these pieces are already made into something by our own hands. But in our dissembled lives, when either the world only sees just scraps and/or we only see the broken dissembled pieces of our lives.

It is only when we let go and let be ‘just as we are’ that God does something with us through the cross. We then become part of the greater flow of love running forever towards God.

A wedding sermon: To expand and include

In a moment, we will share candlelight in this circle of friends and family. Sharing the light is a symbol of the meaning of marriage. Just as one candle shines its light in the darkness and with other candles expands the field of vision, so the nature of the rose bud is to open and expand into the world. Each of you receives a rose from the bridal couple.

Like the rose bud, the human soul defines itself in the same way. The soul’s nature and purpose is to expand and include, by offering a courageous ‘yes’ to life.[1]The soul, in all human goodness, always says ‘yes’. Wherever and whenever ‘no’ must be said, it will follow the initial ‘yes’. ‘No’ never leads in a life of faith, and love. ‘No’ will find clarity and effectiveness only after the gracious lead of ‘yes’ – to any and all of life’s circumstances and situations, marriage included.

The primary words in a wedding service, traditionally and effectively, are spoken by the bride to the groom, and the groom to the bride: “I do.” In other words, “Yes! I will.” You cannot come to a wedding service without the energy of the “yes” defining this very moment. Thanks be to God!

In the time I have journeyed with the bridal couple in preparation for this day, I have witnessed in them a celebration of who they are as a couple. I have witnessed an emerging and resilient joy at their union. And the gift within them.

Each of us has a gift inherent and living within us. I invite you to participate now in a brief guided meditation to experience and touch that gift within your life. You may close your eyes or focus on the rose in front of you:

‘Imagine, for a moment, a rose bud. At first, the rosebud is closed and enveloped by its green sepals. Now, imagine that the sepals start to open, turn back, and reveal the petals inside – tender, delicate, still closed.

‘Now, the petals themselves slowly begin to open. [Such is the process of growth in us.] As you imagine the petals slowly begin to open, perhaps you can become aware of a blossoming also occurring in the depths of your being. You may feel that something in you is opening and coming to light.

‘As you keep visualizing the rose, you feel that its rhythm is your rhythm, its opening is your opening. You keep watching the rose as it opens up to the light and the air, as it reveals itself in all its beauty. You smell its perfume and absorb it into your being.

‘Now gaze into the very center of the rose, where its life is most intense. Let an image emerge from there. This image will represent what is most beautiful, most meaningful, most creative that wants to come to light in your life right now. It can be an image of absolutely anything. Just let it emerge spontaneously, without forcing or thinking.

‘Now stay with this image form some time and absorb its quality. The image may have a message for you – a verbal or a non-verbal message. Be receptive to it.’[2]This is the gift of the rose for you today, on this joyous occasion of the your union.

There is something beautiful emerging out of this expanding and inclusive circle. From the union of two, comes the growth of an emerging new family, including more and more people, an expansion born out of the ‘yes’ of love, life, and light.

In your opening notes about the service, dear couple, you quoted from the bible a verse from Proverbs (17:17). “A friend loves at all times.” The verse goes on to say that these relationships bear together not just the good times but the challenges of life, too. Despite the dissonance inherent in all relationships, someone stands by you. This, too, is an important image for the journey of marriage.

When I bought the same Sony receiver that you have in your home, I connected them to some old Sony tower speakers that I’ve used for years. You’d think that the same brand would create a perfect compatibility. But, I neglected to consider what connected these two parts. To connect the speakers to the receiver, I used the same, old speaker wires whose ends were frayed to put it mildly.

As a result, whenever the receiver is plugged into the electricity, I can hear this faint but persistent humming sound. For some reason, the wires inhibit a perfect compatibility between speaker and receiver. For a perfectionist such as myself, it drives me crazy. Needless to say, I’m on the hunt for some new wire that will, hopefully, more adequately convey and balance the connective energy between speaker and receiver.

In other words, the connection will not always be perfect. In truth, conflict is part of healthy life. “A life without conflicts is by necessity only half a life,” I read recently. “A certain degree of stress is good and necessary; and shows you inside of the true Mystery”[3]of all relationships, even good ones.

The healthiest of relationships will carry some subtle dissonances. But, when the marriage focuses intentionally on its fundamental purpose and nature to ‘make music’ – staying with the analogy – then the grace of God is experienced in all beauty and wonder and goodness. Because when I crank that receiver, the whole neighbourhood can hear what I’m playing! And it’s a sweet, clear sound.

When light does what it is meant to be – despite the darkness all around …

When the rose bud does what it is designed to do – expand and include …

When the human soul, before anything else, says, “Yes!” to love and life …

When, in the midst of the hard realities of life, the music of love and gentleness and compassion sound to all the world around …

Then, we know that we do and are, what we were meant for.  Then, your marriage communicates to yourselves and to those around all that is good in this life we are given.

[1]Richard Rohr, “Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer” (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2014), p.23-24.

[2]Jacqueline Syrup Bergan and Marie Schwan, CSJ, “Love, A Guide for Prayer” (Maryland: The Word Among Us Press, 2004), p.78-79.

[3]Richard Rohr, ibid., p.19.