Not a prize to win but a gift to celebrate

When the lost sheep is found, and the lost coin is recovered, there is much rejoicing in heaven (Luke 15:1-10). God celebrates. God is pleased. God is honoured. And all are invited to the party.

The shepherd’s friends and neighbours are invited to the celebration. The woman calls her friends over to rejoice together. For what has been found is so precious to the one who finds.

A couple of months after I was married, my wife and I raced to the beach in Goderich Ontario at the end of the workday. Because the bluffs overlooking Lake Huron there are high, you can watch the sunset twice. First at the beach level; then, as soon as the sun sets you run up the stairs some fifty feet to the top of the bluff, turn around and see the sun go down again.

That evening, we arrived too late to watch it twice. The sun was setting from atop the bluff when we got there. But we didn’t drive all the way there not take a short walk along the beach. So, after the sun set, we descended the steps and walked onto the sand as the day’s light quickly dissipated.

Because it was getting dark, we decided not to walk far, but just to sit down on the sand and watch the amazing array of yellows, blues, reds, and orange in the sky. Not only was it getting dark, but the late summer temperatures quickly plummeted. And it was getting cold.

And when our hands get cold, the blood vessels restrict and our fingers narrow somewhat. After about 10 minutes of sky-gazing, we went to get up to go, and with shock and horror I realized my wedding band was no longer on my finger. It had slipped off.

At first we froze in indecision. What do we do? Give up? Accept the loss? After all, to find a ring in a 25 square foot area buried in soft sand full of pebbles and wood chips in the waning light of day seemed impossible. Despair began to creep into my heart.

We said to each other that rather than just give up, we should at least try. So with a stick we drew a square in the sand, and on our hands and knees raked with our fingers every square inch of that boxed area.

It was nearing pitch black as we approached the last corner of our ‘fenced’ area. Suddenly the tips of my fingers felt something cold and metallic. I scooped up my ring and we darted up those steps feeling giddy and light on our feet. The joy, the relief! All was not lost!

In Luke 15, Jesus responds to the Pharisees with stories whose climax is a party, a rejoicing, a celebration. The upshot of the these parables is an invitation to all people, including the sinners and the tax collectors to join together in the celebration of God’s kingdom.

But what about the Pharisees? Are they included, too? I wonder about the 99 sheep left behind.

I wonder what the 99 sheep must have felt, when the shepherd leaves them alone to go after the one who has broken all the rules? What is the shepherd thinking? A crazy risk, wouldn’t you say? 99% of the shepherd’s assets are left unprotected, vulnerable. And, for what? One, lost, misguided, rebellious lamb?

I see a similar dynamic here to the elder son in the story of the Prodigal Son which immediately follows these ones in Luke 15. The elder son who has faithfully remained and worked on his father’s land resents his brother who is shown so much love and attention. And, for what? For running away, squandering his father’s inheritance, shaming the family only to return to the biggest party ever thrown? For him? How fair is that?

We see here that God’s economy is not based on merit, but on mercy. God’s economy is upside down. While our culture is built on merit, God’s kingdom is built on grace. For, God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8).

What Jesus is saying to the Pharisees is that the sheepfold – the family of God – exists primarily for those who are not yet members of it – especially those we would consider ‘lost’.

Here we see some values that emerge from a focus on God’s character, values that we would do well to consider in the church.

Let’s say we are the sheepfold, the flock whose Savior is Jesus, the great Shepherd. Where do you think Jesus will be found? Based on this scripture, I’m thinking the attention of our Lord is focused, relentlessly, on those who are not yet here.

By implication then, whatever we decide to do in the church, we would do well to ask this question: Whose purposes does a certain action serve? Ourselves? Whom are we serving, in all our work in the church? Do we make decisions on programs and worship practices that serve our needs? Or, do we see things from the perspective of those who are not here every Sunday? — who are on the fringes of the community, who are somehow distant? What would benefit them?

Because that’s where Jesus is. He’s out there. Looking. Searching. And we know the end of the story: He invites everyone to the table for a celebration. Even the religious types.

When Jesus leaves the 99 in order to search out the one, when you think about it, the shepherd must be putting a whole lot of trust and faith in those 99. He wouldn’t leave them for a while without believing in his flock, believing they had the ability and the resources to do what they had to do during his absence.

God has faith in us all. God believes in each one of us. And God will have faith in anyone who returns home to live in loving relationship with Jesus – whether the sinners, the tax collectors, the Pharisees …. [complete the list]

Because it is a gathering for everyone to celebrate not a prize won, but a gift given by an all-inclusive God whose sights are set beyond the pen, beyond the borders of safety, beyond the walls of any church.

Mistakes transformed not avoided

“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel …” (Jeremiah 18: 6)

Entering the lab, I was panting even though I had not climbed steps or walked very far. I used the usual tactics to calm down — deep breathing, focusing my mind on something else, concentrating on an image of peace, paying attention to the gentleman sitting beside me in the waiting room.

It wasn’t working.

When my number was called out, I stood on wobbly legs and approached the chair, the arm band, making the fist …. the foot-long syringe.

Yup. I suffer from what they call ‘white-coat syndrome’. That’s the polite way of putting it. Neurotic and spineless is another. I would rather avoid any situation that involves needles or other instruments of bodily invasion being employed on me.

No matter how hard I try to control — okay, suppress — those feelings of fear, no matter how much praying, contemplating and meditating I do ….

Friends and family might press me on this: “What is the worst case scenario? What is the absolute worst thing that would happen in those institutionally-sterile situations about which I am always anxious (besides dying!)?”

Well, that I would pass out, lose control, collapse in a heap upon the cold laminate flooring of the windowless, basement lab. That I would make a fool of myself in front of others. Ah — being vulnerable to others I hardly know. Showing the very less-than-perfect side of me. Revealing that I am not always the ‘finished’ and ‘polished’ Martin. That I, too, may join the human race and literally fall and stumble.

Figuratively, as well.

We are told, as God spoke through Jeremiah to the people of Israel, that the faithful life is not about mistakes avoided, but mistakes transformed.

In some sense, the warning we get from the prophets of the Old Testament is to avoid messing up. Otherwise God will punish us.

But then, I wonder, why God would have us hear a story about a potter forming a spoiled piece of clay if the message of the bible was simply to get rid of (read, ‘deny’ or ‘avoid’) our mistakes? There’s more to the life of faith then avoiding sin out of fear of punishment.

Because the truth is, we are not Jesus, nor God for that matter. The truth is, we continue to sin even though we are saved by the cross of Jesus. So, what’s the point of a saved, redeemed life? I wonder if what God is doing here is giving Jeremiah a way to understand the paradox of life in relationship with God. God is preparing Jeremiah for what Judah and Israel were heading into … exile, loss, banishment …. and then salvation. This pattern of death and resurrection is already imprinted on the life of God’s people.

Being a hope-filled and faithful Christian is not about avoiding mistakes we will make, but about seeing those mistakes transformed into God’s purposes. In this pattern of death and resurrection we fall and we rise. We don’t just fall, and stay there, as people of Faith. We rise, too. How so?

First, it’s about a changed and changing life.

Clay in a potter’s hand is not static. It is continually being formed in rhythmic motion. Faithful living is movement, growth, transformation. It is marked by a yearning for deeper communion with God and with others in love, compassion and grace.

Second, it’s about owning your mistakes, not denying them or pretending them away in fits of self-rejection, despair, even self-hatred. The vessel which the potter used in Jeremiah’s experience started as a “spoiled” piece of clay. The beauty into which it became started out “a mistake”.

We don’t often think of the places of pain, imperfection and failure as the fodder for our salvation, do we? But it’s true.

We give God glory when we offer our whole selves to God, not the perfection of it. In all our vulnerability and weakness, God is glorified. When we have the courage to expose our weakness and confess honestly within the Body of Christ – the church – then the Spirit of God draws us to God’s purposes, God’s mission, for others most effectively.

As Christ’s body was broken in love for us — what we give thanks for in the Holy Communion — so the Spirit of Jesus shines through us as we offer our brokenness to “go in peace to serve the Lord” in the world.

Again, counter-intuitive. I think we’ve gotten so used to the un-Christian idea that the only thing worthy of giving to God and showing to the world is what we pretend to be our ‘perfect’ selves — untainted, unblemished being and acting of moral purity. Only when we’ve finally gotten rid of our sin. Only when we can prove our worthiness, achieve some moral standard, then God is glorified. Then we can belong in the church.

But this is not biblical. Stories from the bible of men (especially) with tragic flaws — despairing, backtracking, blind spots, denials, and betrayals fill the Scriptures; As Richard Rohr writes, “they are the norm” (p.360, On the Threshold of Transformation). Think about Adam, Abraham, Jacob and Esau, Moses, David, Solomon, Peter and Paul, etc., etc. And yet these overtly flawed people were used by God to convey the truth.

Truth-telling is indeed the purview of the prophet. As unpopular a role it is. I’ve heard of many churches named “Christ the King” but tell me if you’ve heard of a “Christ the Prophet” church, even though Jesus never rejected or denied, and even claimed as his dishonored position (Mark 6:4). The New Testament twice lists ‘prophet’ as the second most important role for building up the church (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Corinthians 12:28) (p.328, Rohr). A prophet tells the truth.

The Gospel text for today (Luke 14:25-33) truly takes a punch at what many Christians in North America identify with ‘family values’. A prophetic word, perhaps.

Jesus is not calling us to reject relationships characterized by compassion and grace, especially within families. But Jesus adds an essential and often sorely-missed ingredient into the mix of what we could describe as ‘Christian values’ in relationship: courage.

Courage reflects truth-telling in relationships. The root of the word, courage, is the Latin word for ‘heart’; courage originally meant: “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart” (Brene Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, p.12).

To tell one’s heart is an act of vulnerability, isn’t it? And when we make ourselves vulnerable in telling the truth, especially to those we love, we need to be prepared to reveal not only our good points, but even our flaws.

“To take up one’s cross” as Jesus instructs in this Gospel text, is to courageously embrace one’s vulnerability, and give it to God. “Spirituality in the best sense,” writes Richard Rohr, “is about what you do with your pain” (@RichardRohrOFM). Will you hide it from others, pretend that you are okay when you are not? I can’t imagine healing can happen when you close yourself off to others.

Healing doesn’t happen if we try to avoid those sources of fear, imperfection, vulnerability and shame in our lives. Only by leaning into those feelings of fear and anxiety, by courageously going to those places of brokenness with love, compassion and honesty will we begin to experience the dew drops of transformation in our lives.

Just as fear can be a contagion, a virus spread from one to another, so is courage and compassion. More so.

Even the resurrected Jesus — the victorious one — he showed the scars from his wounds he bore. Jesus didn’t hide them from his disciples. The resurrection of the crucified Jesus was God’s promise to humanity that the final word on all human ‘crucifixions’ — the crosses we bear — will also be resurrection.

I think the nurse sensed my anxiety in the basement lab, as she held my hand drawing blood from my arm. There really was no hiding my elevated everything. But there was something about the way she spoke to me and respected me that, in the end, got me through it with flying colours.

I couldn’t do it on my own, wrapped up in my own anxiety. But being in the presence of a compassionate, gracious person, however, made all the difference.

Amazing grace. Thanks be to God.

 

Doing God Thanks

The birds can teach us a thing or two about life. Especially those ground feeders. Have you noticed chickadees and sparrows feed? As soon as they peck downward to capture the seeds with their beaks, they immediately throw their necks upward.

Quite possibly to aid in consumption, the birds’ movement during feeding suggests to me, symbolically at least, an attitude of gratitude while receiving what is good, what is needed, for life. The bird looks to heaven in between each peck to thank the Creator for the gift of food.

It is born into the fabric of our nature to give thanks. On the one hand, we work and take responsibility to delve deeply into our lives and the world around us for what we and others need. At the same time we pay attention, mindful of the gift of life and what we receive out of the grace of God.

Not to do both would be unnatural, even unhealthy, for the creature. And this is the initial problem for the rich man in the Gospel text for today (Luke 12:13-21). His total lack of concern for any other person mirrors his total disregard for the source of his life and abundant material possessions.

He is pecking at his food, alright. And, making the most of that! But he is not at the same time looking upward. He is not mindfully paying attention, alert, for what is real, what is true, in that moment of living.

But what if we feel we don’t have enough or anything at all for which to look heavenward in thanksgiving?

A fear of scarcity may very well be what motivates the rich man to build bigger barns and plan for increasing profits in the first place. Planning for a rainy day is what it’s all about, isn’t it? And when that rainy day comes, you don’t want to be found wanting.

Whether it’s fear of having nothing, or destitution in the present circumstances of your life — these attitudes may keep us from looking upward in faith, in thanksgiving. Our hearts are cold stone towards others and God, and/or we believe it’s all up to us to make something happen. God has nothing to do with our material concerns, one way or another.

Have you heard the joke — “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” The rich man in the Gospel makes plans. But they don’t turn out exactly the way he had planned, did they? Earthly death is God’s final say. At some point on our journeys of life, we need to acknowledge that at the end of our days it’s not about us, but about God whose promises stand forever.

I don’t think God actually laughs at us when we tell God our best-laid plans. But perhaps we are called upon by this Gospel to turn our hearts and minds outward, and upward, with some humility.

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This is what is left of my mother’s inheritance: One, crumbling brick. When my mother grew up in pre-Second-World-War Poland, she belonged to a large and very wealthy German family in the south-west. She lived in an estate-sized home whose family owned large tracts of land and had servants waiting on them 24-hours a day.

Then, as the Soviet army pushed westward across Europe in the mid-1940s, the Soviets expropriated any properties owned by Germans. My mother’s father was taken to far eastern Ukraine where he later died, and her mother and siblings were put out on the street. For days they lived in corn fields trying to evade marauding soldiers on the hunt. Finally they were able to find shelter with a relative where they were able to live in safety until the end of the War.

Literally, in a matter of days, from riches to rags. The American Dream, in reverse.

Decades later after the iron-curtain (the physical and symbolic wall that divided East and West) fell, my mother traveled to her home town with her brother and sisters. They visited their old property where nothing besides piles of rubble from the old homestead remain.

For my mother, this brick symbolizes why not to place eternal value in material possessions. It points to the need to view life as much more than a selfish grab of as much stuff as possible.

Moreover, it represents the basis for a life of gratitude. For, if it weren’t for the experience of doing without, she may have never come to the realization of and the attention towards a life lived for the sake of others and of God.

You might recall a Hebrew story from Scripture sounding a similar theme to our Gospel for today, when Joseph in a dream is instructed to tell Pharaoh to save food in barns for seven years of plenty in order to prepare for a subsequent seven years of famine (Genesis 41:32-36). This is a wonderful scriptural precedent for gathering in a bountiful harvest and saving it for the future.

The critical difference, of course, is that in the case of Joseph, the purpose of doing so is for the benefit of many people — indeed an entire nation.

Echoes of previous stories from the Gospel of Luke resonate. In the case of Mary and Martha — where Mary has chosen the better way — the point is not that preparing food and being busy is bad. It’s just that Martha was distracted from remaining centered on the whole point of being busy: serving with prayerful attention to the divine guest.

In the same way, there is nothing wrong with acquiring material wealth. It’s more a question of what purpose it serves and to whose benefit. The answer to that question will determine the value of the entire activity.

What is the purpose of this building in which we worship today? What will its purpose be in not only seven years from now, but twenty-five and fifty?

There’s nothing wrong with food. There’s nothing wrong with money. There’s nothing wrong with buildings and properties and abundance of material wealth. It’s being very clear and motivated by the mission, the vision, the purpose that’s at stake. Form follows function, not the other way around.

Someone in the bible study group on this text summarized the message of this text for us today, as being: “Allowing what we have now to be used for God’s purposes.” It may not be much, from our perspective. But it’s what God has given us in this time and place. How are we using it for God’s purposes? And where may the Holy Spirit be leading us?

I entitled this sermon “Doing God Thanks”. I think viewing our mission in light of God’s purposes requires of us discipline around our attitude of gratitude. And it’s not just in the feeling of thankfulness, it’s in responding, in doing, in putting muscle to the task at hand. We look up, and we look out, and actually move our bodies in that direction — and then see what God has in store.

But we start with what we know we have, for which we can offer hearts of thanksgiving.

Listen to what Richard Rohr writes about on the topic of “Day-to-Day-Gratitude” (p.285, “On the Threshold of Transformation”):

Things go right more often than they go wrong. Our legs carry us where we are going, our eyes let us see the road ahead, and our ears let us hear the world around us. Our bodies, and our lives, work pretty much as they should, which is why we become so unsettled when we confront any failure or injustice. This is not so true for people born into intense poverty or social injustice, of course. And we had best never forget that.

Nevertheless, we must stop a moment and look clearly and honestly at our life thus far. For most of us, life has been pretty good.

We shouldn’t be naive about evil, but perhaps the most appropriate attitude on a day-to-day basis should be simple and overwhelming gratitude for what has been given. From that overflowing abundance will come the energy to work for those who have a life of scarcity and sadness.

From what are you grateful, in the midst of your full and complex life?

God is the source of life and all things good. God will give us what we need to work towards God’s ends, God’s kingdom on earth. May we dig deep and never forget to look up — to see how rich God is toward us.

Thanks be to God!

The cost of invitation? Still, love.

A preacher I heard once illustrated the Gospel text (Luke 9:51-62) by giving his farming community the analogy of tilling straight rows in a field. When Jesus says, you can’t plow a field by looking backwards, the challenge is put to keep looking forward. Good advice, especially if you are interested in making your rows straight.

But, you can’t be looking just in front of your feet, the preacher went on to say. You look at a tree or fence post at the opposite end of the field you are tilling, and aim for that. The trick is, you have to keep your eyes set on that tree in the distance — without wavering — while you make your way across. This is the best way of making sure your lines are straight. A good illustration for living the Christian life, right?

But, I’ve wondered, what happens if the fog rolls in or the heat of the late day causes the horizon to shimmer? What happens when the goal in the distance is blurred by climatic circumstances you have no control over? What to do when you can’t see or experience the ‘goal’ even though you know what that goal is supposed to be?

I’m no farmer. But I remember in my first parish in southern Ontario, I was immersed in the farming culture of working the land. Most of the farmers in the region between London and Stratford worked on large swaths of land.

The farmers in the area also worked hard to introduce me, a city-boy at heart, to their pastoral lifestyle. And they were very patient and loving about it. Once I was invited to sit for hours in an air-conditioned, hi-tech cabin of a gigantic tractor as we traversed the rolling fields tilling the land.

One aspect of following Jesus that jumps out in the Gospel text (Luke 9:51-62) is the cost of being a disciple. It’s hard, because attachments to material security are jeopardized in the mission of Jesus — “Foxes have holes and birds have nests” but Jesus has no place to call home. Jesus implies that those who would risk following him must expect and count on losing something of value to them. Are they up for it?

Last week when Michael Harvey spoke to a large group of Lutherans and Anglican in Ottawa, he put it out there that he didn’t know how Canadians — who are so concerned about offending everyone and apologize for everything — would deal with the challenge to invite people to church. He said that we’re so worried that we might lose a friend, our reputation, or upset someone.

Consequently, we lock ourselves into un-healthy and un-Gospel patterns of uninviting. And he challenged us to consider not so much our IQ (a quotient signifying intelligence) but our NQ (our ability to deal with rejection when people respond, ‘no’, to our invitation).

He also reminded us that the challenge is to invite — and not worry or be concerned about whether or not people respond positively to our invitation. That’s God’s bit, he said. It’s not about us — whether people come to Christ or the church or ‘arrive’ at their spiritual awakening. Our job is simply to invite and remember we are part of God’s larger plan that we can’t fully see right now.

The disciples want to bring the fire of God down upon the Samaritans who rejected them. Recalling the prophet Elijah’s act of vengeance when he called upon fire from the heavens to usurp his enemies (1 Kings 18:36-40) and eventually destroy them, the disciples of Jesus feel justified in their request. Good on them, right?

But Jesus turns the impulse on its head. God’s thoughts are not human thoughts; God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). This Lukan Gospel reminds us again, and again: The way for Christians to deal with detractors is not revenge and violence, but a ‘letting go’ kind of love. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says (Luke 6:27-35). This is what we’re about, as followers of Jesus. In case anyone was wondering.

Moreover, the table-turning, rug-pulling response of Jesus gives us a clue to the character of God, and God’s kingdom.

Under God’s reign, even when we don’t get it right, we need not fear the fury of God. God’s response to our misdeeds and disobedience is not punishment and vengeance. God will not send down fire to incinerate us and our evil ways.

God will heal us by the ‘no strings attached’ method of love. Not forced upon us nor coerced out of us by obligation, guilt, slick marketing or manipulation, Jesus’ approach is nevertheless uncompromising. Jesus ‘sets his face to Jerusalem’ amidst the conflicts of his earthly journey.

In Jerusalem awaits the Cross — the place of his self-giving, costly love for us. We need not fear God. Only an opportunity missed for extending the message and gift of hope and the experience of unconditional love. Do we bind ourselves in our sin? Do we lock ourselves into patterns of self(ish)-preservation? Or, do we freely give of ourselves in acts of hospitality and generosity towards others?

Even though southern Alberta suffered greatly in the wake of the floods there, what has astounded so many is the generosity of people there and across Canada to help. So many invitations to find shelter in other people’s homes not affected by the flood rendered some of the temporary shelters irrelevant. In the time of crisis, people just helped where they could. The gifts of hospitality were given by invitation to those who had no place to lay their heads.

What we do in worship is a sign and symbol of what we do in the world. For example, in the Christian ritual and sacrament of Holy Communion, the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar by the people gathered. Later, the consecrated food comes back from the altar to be served to those who first brought it forward.

Whenever we are willing to give and hand over for the sake of others, is returned to us as the gift of Jesus Christ in us. I am sure that many affected by the floods in Alberta experienced the loving presence of Jesus through the invitation of others in their act of generosity.

In the early grades especially, when my kids brought their scribbles and drawings from school, they showed and offered us parents their artwork. We put their work on the fridge door for all to see. I noticed how much pride they had, brimming with satisfaction and delight.

The gift (not perfect), when given, is returned, hundredfold; when we exercise some courage and risk-taking to share the gift of Christ with others (not alone), we will be blessed to receive Christ’s loving, forgiving, gracious presence in us — and people will notice.

I don’t know what motivated my farmer friend in southern Ontario to invite me to ride with him in his tractor. It can be a lonely job, farming, all by yourself on acres and acres of fields. He was proud to tell me the tricks of his trade, tilling the earth row upon row. It was a gracious exchange, a friendly encounter and ultimately affirming for both of us. Out of that invitation and experience together, I believe, we both were encouraged on the ways of our unique and separate lives.

Whatever challenges we face or losses we endure on the field of life and on our journeys towards the goal, when we take those risks and do it together, I believe we will experience the affirmation of our journey and be blessed by the steadfast, uncompromising love of God in Christ Jesus.

Who are you gonna call?

The induction, or installation, of a new pastor is a day to celebrate not only leadership in the church, but an occasion to review the role and function of the relationship between pastor, people and God.

Recently I was elected as “Dean” of the Ottawa/St Lawrence Conference. I have spent some time reviewing and reflecting on leadership, as a result. The jokes in comparison to ‘Dean Martin’ are interesting. I may be too young to appreciate the entertainment of ‘King Cool’ — member of the infamous ‘rat pack’. But I am old enough to remember watching the original, iconic Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd film ‘Ghostbusters’.

A nerdy tween in the early 1980s, I easily got hooked on the catchy theme song whose repetitive mantra was: “Who are you gonna call? — Ghostbusters!” The team would respond to complaints and investigate paranormal activity. Then, they would eliminate any potential threats. If ghosts appeared in someone’s house, “Who are you gonna call? — Ghostbusters!”

Every individual, every family, every community, every nation, every church — has ‘ghosts’ in the closet. And I think the ghostbuster culture has influenced the culture of church leadership today. For example, when there’s a change in pastoral leadership often people expect the new guy or gal to exterminate any proverbial ghosts in the church closet. The new pastor will swoop in, identify all the problems and miraculously make things better. “Who are you gonna call? –A new pastor!”

He or she will use the tools of their trade — their exceptional skill sets at conflict resolution, their managerial and organizational abilities around the council table, their charisma and eloquence in the pulpit, their compassion and listening skills by the hospital bed. When congregations — as they all do — bear the emotional weight of past failures, unrealized dreams or struggle with scars of past conflicts or fears about the future … “Who are you gonna call? — A new pastor!”

Here comes Pastor (fill in the blank) in his flowing robes and swagger! Glorious! “Who are you gonna call? — A new pastor!” Save us!

Well, I hate to break it to you… but I think you know: YOU, and anyone else in this room, are not gonna do it. Because alongside our unrealistic expectations and pressures we place on ourselves to be successful and perfect, is the Word of God which states in no uncertain terms that it is God who will bring to completion the good work begun in us (Philippians 1:6). Alongside our fervor and toil is the Sacrament of the Table whose host is Jesus, reminding us that this thing we do in church is not about us but about God, God’s mission and God’s work in us.

The job of pastor and people working in mutual ministry is to pay attention to what God is doing, and respond honestly and with love to God’s call. We are in this together. Who are we gonna call? Let’s call on God!

Covenant: a relationship of truthfulness and fidelity

In order to learn the faith, many Christians of the first centuries traveled into the desert of North Africa to the monasteries where the solitary monks lived and worked. There, a kind of contract was made between disciple and teacher.

On the disciple’s side, he or she promised to be completely open with the master — trusting to tell the truth about everything going on in her or his life. This wouldn’t always be easy — to make oneself vulnerable, to lay one’s emotional life down on the line, and to confess those secrets harbored deep in the recesses of the heart.

On the other side, the teacher promised to be faithful to the disciple and never abandon them in their journey of learning, discernment and maturity — through all the struggles that journey would bring. There was nothing the student could say about themselves or what they were thinking that would shaken or jeopardize the steadfast faithfulness of the teacher.

This contract between disciple and teacher was one of truthfulness and fidelity. From the early days of Christianity, learning the faith thus represented came to express the relationship Christians have with Jesus. Jesus is our Teacher, our Master, the Lord of all.

Discipleship means to follow Jesus. For us to follow in the Way of Jesus, are we not called upon to be completely truthful and honest to God about who we are? Personal, spiritual growth is enhanced when we are honest and vulnerable with each other and with Jesus in prayer.

Since the Scriptures were written down, the concept of Covenant has been used to describe the relationship between God and God’s people. This ancient, early Christian understanding from the Desert Fathers and Mothers can help us grasp how we relate to God.

A conviction of God’s everlasting, unwavering faithfulness to us opens the door of our hearts to be completely truthful about not only the good and righteous parts of our lives but especially the dark parts we normally wish to hide from others.

Thank you to Laurence Freeman for giving this example about the contract between disciple and teacher in his taped dialogue with the Dalai Lama in January 2013

Together, now!

When we feel, however, that in our lives we are neither on a vacation nor able to fulfill our vocation, what then?

Perhaps we are at a loss for words. Perhaps we are so dis-spirited and dejected that we feel hopeless and without purpose and meaning. Perhaps our spirit can do nothing other than cry to God for help: ‘Abba! Father!’

Saint Paul had something to say about that: When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spiritbearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God … (Romans 8:16)

The very fact that we turn our selves to face God, the very fact that we think about God – good or bad thoughts! – the very fact that we lift our hearts to God even in pain and suffering, is God’s Spirit touching ours. We are indeed ‘children of God’ before we do anything remarkable, life-changing or effective. We are already given our inheritance before we can earn it or prove somehow we are worthy of it, before we are rid of all that ails us.

One salient fact in the Pentecost story from the Bible stands out – right at the beginning: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place …(Acts 2:1)

Normally when we read or hear this text, we hurriedly breeze through this first verse to get to the sensational parts of the wind blowing through the place and the tongues of fire appearing on the disciples’ heads. We so readily go to what stimulates and excites us, don’t we?

Yet there is a gentle, subtle truth here, which also reveals the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives: We cannot do it alone.

Sometimes we seek renewal in nature, in solitude, by ourselves, secluded, isolated – in nature, on a vacation. And we feel God’s presence. We say, “the spirit of God is here.” Maybe so.

But Lutherans and Christians in general, I believe, would affirm that the Holy Spirit’s power is not primarily individualistic. The Holy Spirit, based on the biblical witness on the Day of Pentecost, comes to those gathered ‘together in one place.’

The only way we can truly and effectively live out our vocation, is to be with others, engage the world around us, and do it together.

Apart from the ever-expanding community of faith, the Christian Gospel cannot be effectively witnessed and proclaimed. Apart from the community of faith, you and I may do good works and be good citizens. Apart from the community of faith, we may find comfort and solace in distractions and the seductions of our materialistic culture.

But, if you want to see true, spiritual power and healing in your life and those around you – let’s do it together, and watch God’s Spirit change the world!

Even on a vacation, let’s live out our vocation – together!

To be Lutheran, to be ‘both-and’

What is our vocation? Professor Mary Jane Haemig at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis/St Paul describes it this way: Our vocation was born in us when we were created by God. When we were born, we received our vocation to care for others in creation, to serve a world in need.

Basically, our common vocation as human beings is mutual support and care, which reflects our interdependence with one another and the importance of all our relationships – with creation, with ourselves, with others, and with God.

Professor Haemig goes on to say that at our Baptism, God forgives us our sins of failing to live out our vocation. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are forgiven and set free to live for the sake of others. The cross of Christ not only saves us from our sins, it saves us for serving the needs of others.

Reflected here is something that characterizes the Lutheran brand of Christianity. Those of us who undertook the “Lutheran Course Two” this past month – including our new members whom we receive formally this day – discovered this “two-handed” style of thinking that is prevalent not only in Lutheran theology but in our practice of faith. For example, one of Martin Luther’s famous sayings was that we are simultaneously saints and sinners.

Not either/or, this or that, black or white. But both/and.

Rather than pit a vacation apart from vocation, then, we would affirm that vocations can still be lived out during a vacation. Martin Luther was very clear to state that all people in society were members of the ‘spiritual’ class – not only bishops, pastors, and religious people. Even the most mundane of jobs can be living out our God-given vocation. It’s not so much what we do, but how we do it.

With what attitude and attention to others around us do we approach and do our jobs? Can we be on vacation and still exercise our vocation – when we spend time with our family and nurture our friendships and build healthy relationships reflecting the love and truth of God? On the other hand, can our vocations be fun, at times – as are vacations?

Yes, and Yes!

Am I on vacation or living my vocation?

It’s a church joke that during a religious service whenever something happens that is somewhat serendipitous or unexpected it must be the Holy Spirit!

In my former parish where the church gathered in a hundred year-old building, bats were a problem; I can now laugh at memories of the most poignant moments of funerals, weddings and sermons where a bat would swoop down from the heavens …. The Holy Spirit!

Or, at an emotional high of a sermon, or during the Holy Communion, or at the dramatic climax of a bible reading – the power would go out, a lightning would flash and the clap of thunder would boom, or a gust of wind would rattle the windows and whistle through the eaves ….. The Holy Spirit!

The joke always reveals a slice of truth. When the Holy Spirit comes, we are indeed surprised, rendered speechless and startled, even. We laugh, maybe because the timing couldn’t be better.

But, on Friday when the magnitude 5.1 earthquake struck just kilometers from my home, I wasn’t laughing and I didn’t think the timing was the great.

Because it was my day-off, and I was trying to relax and enjoy a stress-free ‘vacation’, so to speak. When dishware and glasses startled rattling and the floors started heaving, I was pulled out of my dream-like state and escapist reverie into a moment of stark reality.

I was forced to face the reality of life and death. In a split second, I wondered if I should vacate the house and save my skin. And in that second I wondered if our two-story duplex would collapse over me.

When the shaking subsided, I couldn’t help but be brought out of my ‘vacation’ and into an appreciation of my ‘vocation’. I had to be grounded – excuse the pun – and re-orient myself in who I am and my purpose in life. So, I looked outside my window to see if there was any damage on our street and/or distressed neighbors in need. I remembered that, deep down, my calling in life draws me to others and serving their needs.

At this time of year, indeed, being the first long weekend of the unofficial summer season, I’m dreaming of vacations. Maybe you are, too. I look forward to a time to rest, restore, get away from it all and enjoy God’s beautiful creation.

At the same time, I realize yet again that just because we may be on a vacation, we are still living out our vocation. The word, ‘vocation’, comes from the Latin word which means “to call”. Our vocation is what God calls us to be and do. And, we cannot escape that vocation – even though we may try.

The Glory of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glory be to God!