The Passion of Christ – a Good Friday sermon

The heaviness of it all weighs on our souls. Good Friday is a sombre day. The tormented images of the torture and death of anyone, let alone Jesus Son of God, flash across our minds-eye in the hearing of the texts describing the Passion of Christ.

We hear the lament from Isaiah’s poetry known as the Suffering Servant poems. If we let it, Good Friday pierces our denial of suffering and death. And we face squarely the reality of the situation. The very word, “Passion”, is from the Latin, one meaning of which is suffering.

If you, like me, have watched some contemporary video portrayals of Jesus’ Passion, probably the foremost image is the bloodiness of it all. Not only do we see the violence of the Jewish rebellion heating up during the Passover in Jerusalem, but we are intimately involved in the trial and torture of Jesus – beginning with the bloody cutting off of the servant’s ear in the Garden, to the whipping, flaying, kicking, slapping and piercing in Jesus’ torture while being held in Roman custody.

If that is not enough, we shiver at the pounding of the nails into his hands and feet, see the blood and water gush out of his side when the sword strikes him. Watch as blood trickles over his bruised face from the crown of thorns. Blood all over.

Blood all over. The blood of Christ given for you.

Suffering, Passion, is a great letting go. And acceptance of Christ suffering, even for us, is a great letting go. We cannot possess the gift of life. We cannot own or control this gift for us.

“For three days, the child bled profusely from the nose. She was six years old, and doctors had no idea what was causing the bleeding. What’s more, they understood that if the bleeding didn’t stop, her life was in grave danger.

“The year was 1913. The doctors knew little about transfusion, but they understood the importance of somehow getting good new blood back into the little girl’s system, so they asked her father, a preacher, to give his daughter some of his. He did, one of the first blood transfusions in the state of Michigan.

“The yellowed newspaper story is titled ‘Minister Saves the Life of Daughter By Giving Blood’, and ends by explaining how the father ‘was considerably improved and was able to dress.’ Then it adds, ‘The child was also considerably better and hopes are entertained for her recovery.’

“Two weeks later she was dead. Little Agnes Gertrude … succumbed once the hemorrhaging returned. For a time her father’s blood had brightened her face and her possibilities, but his gift – as unusual and strange to the newspaper readers as it must have been to him – wasn’t enough to save her life.

“Doctors knew very little, back then, about blood-typing. Her father … was as good as choice as the doctors could have made, but what coursed in his veins was not a match. Agnes Gertrude … died two weeks after that strange new procedure the doctors called ‘a transfusion.’

“Her father, a man of God, lay face down on the rug of the living room for almost a week after Agnes’ death, unable to move. Who could blame him – for an entire afternoon, he lay there beside his little girl, his blood flowing into her veins. He was lost in profound grief, was lethargic, depressed, his whole countenance darkened by the death of his child.

“Nothing changed … until he accepted a call to another congregation, a small country church up north. He and his family rode in a horse-drawn wagon up to that country church, their possessions packed up behind them. And there being greeted by the entire congregation there on the lawn, all of them waiting for the new preacher and his family.”[1]

The blood of Christ shed for you. Still, a mystery. Source of life. Beyond comprehension. The blood of Christ shed for you.

We hear these words during the Eucharist, Holy Communion. The word, Eucharist, from Greek, means “Thanksgiving”. Martin Luther, the great reformer, insisted that this sacrament is centrally about the gift of God, in Christ Jesus. The Holy Communion is God’s gift in Christ to us.

This, in contrast, to his contemporaries many of whom insisted that the sacrament of the table was more about what we humans must do to make sacrifice in order to appease God. Instead of making Holy Communion about what we must do for God, Luther preached that the Eucharist was what God does for us. It is a gift.

And a gift we cannot control, manipulate, engineer, manage. Only receive in thanksgiving.

On Good Friday, significantly, we abstain from the Holy Communion. It is one of the only days in the church year that calls for us to withhold collectively this gift. It, in our tradition, is the climax of the Lenten fast, the discipline to ‘do without’ and ‘let go’ and ‘surrender’ our claim on the gift. After all, we do not control God. God is free. And God gives what God will. When God wills. We are not in the driver’s seat of life and death.

Part of our lament, and suffering prayer, is to recognize that we are finite human beings, that we cannot do it alone. And can’t ever get it right. On this heavy day, the low point you might say of the Lenten journey, we put our ultimate trust and hope in God’s promise. As Jesus trusted his Father to the bitter end, we follow in his way, trusting that death has not the last word.

The blood of Christ shed for you.

Christ bled in his suffering, death and burial for three days. But God has other plans. The other meaning of the word “Passion” of course is love. Great suffering and great love. The Passion of Christ is ultimately about God’s great love for Jesus and for us. That is why God gives the gift of life to us. Love.

We will once again feast on the gift of life in Christ’s blood coursing through our veins. We will be transfused again with the life-giving spirit of God. It will be a perfect match! And our lament can become a song of praise and hope, bringing us home at last, as to a lawn on a bright day full of smiling people who open their loving arms.

 

[1] James Schaap, in Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, eds., “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), p.119-121.

The human face of a vulnerable God

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote a play entitled: ‘The Living Dead”. The climactic scene is set in the attic of a house in France during World War II, where a half dozen captured members of the Resistance are being kept. The prisoners anxiously await the morning, when they will be executed.

An unexpected thing happens, however. The attic door opens, and the Nazi soldiers throw in the leader of the Resistance. The Nazis don’t know who he is. As far as they are concerned, they simply caught a man out after curfew.

The prisoners’ anxiety turns to courage. They tell their leader, “Don’t worry. We will hold our tongues.” The leader responds, “I thank you, for myself, for the Resistance, for France. Your courage and your sacrifice will not be forgotten.”

Suddenly, one of the prisoners says, “Oh, shut up. Nothing you have to say could possible mean anything to us. I am not blaming you … the fact is that you are a living man and I am a dead woman after tomorrow morning. The living and the dead have nothing to say to each other …and that fact puts an impenetrable barrier between us.”[1]

The Leader of the Resistance is an example of who God is NOT. Until Jesus, there indeed stood an impenetrable barrier between the divine and the rest of us. This is precisely why God became human. If God couldn’t bridge that divine-human divide, how could we love God? How could God love us?

When we look at the world today, we may just the same want to get angry at our human leaders if they lack authenticity. Scenes of African poverty, the chaos of Middle Eastern refugee camps, the evil of human trafficking, the growing divide between rich and poor, the scandals and fake posturing in politics – these all make us angry.

Indeed, in life we sometimes feel like shouting at God: “Shut up!” And working through that anger is good, I believe, because we will realize that many of our gods are not God: The god of domination. The god of violence. The god of consumerism. The gods of competition and combat. The gods of politics and superiority. Which lead us in the opposite direction when it comes to the God of the cross, and God’s relationship with us and the world.

We arrive soon at the climax of Jesus’ earthly, very human story. And this man who reflects the face of God says something very different from the gods of this world.

German Reformed theologian, Juergen Moltmann, tweeted this week: “We discover his glory in his humbleness, his greatness in his poverty, his power in his self-surrender, from the wretched manger in Bethlehem to the desolate cross on Golgotha.”[2]

In today’s Gospel reading[3], Jesus says, “…My soul is troubled.” Jesus can say this. He is fully human and authentically relatable to us, as a human being. “Jesus had the full spectrum of emotion and experience. He was sad and had compassion for those who suffered. He wept with a broken heart including upon the death of his friend Lazarus. He got mad at injustice and hypocrisy (“you brood of vipers!”) and got frustrated at his disciples who were continually arguing and not getting his point. Jesus changed his way of thinking as with the surprising confrontation with a Syrophoenician woman. Jesus learned and developed. Jesus was human!”[4]

God does not bypass the humanity and death we too must endure. God is now capable, because God became fully human, of removing the inseparable barriers between God and the world. Our Leader is one of us!

“…My soul is troubled,” says Jesus. Thank God for these words! These are the kind of things Jesus said that reveals the truth of the Christian God. Jesus says this in response to the inquiry of Gentiles during the Passover Festival in Jerusalem, just days before Jesus dies on the cross. Everything has been accomplished in his ministry and mission, even now to all the nations represented by the seeking Greeks.

Nothing is left now for Jesus to do other than his final surrender to death. Jesus is now ready to succumb to the evil gods of the world which will condemn and crucify the upstart prophet from Galilee.

When Pilate, the regional governor of Palestine, later confronts Jesus during his trial, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world. If it were, his followers would be fighting to protect, defend and save Jesus.[5] Obviously, the method of God is not violence however justified. The way of God, is vulnerability and surrender. Not combat, not force-on-force, not physical strength, not invincibility nor violent justice.

Yes, we hear the human Jesus in that honest, vulnerable statement: “My soul is troubled.” In these words, Jesus crosses the divide between divine and human. He identifies with all our troubled souls however afflicted. He knows what is coming.

In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart. God became someone we could love. We don’t and we can’t fall in love with abstractions. So, God became a person “that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at, and touch with our hands”.[6] The brilliant Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) said the only thing that really converts people is “an encounter with the face of the other.”[7]

This is why to this day Christians have sought God among the faces of the poor, the destitute, the refugee, the homeless – and have tried to do their part in alleviating the plight of the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Because that is where God is discovered.

“Just giving people commandments on tablets of stone doesn’t change the heart. It may steel the will, but it doesn’t soften the heart like an I-Thou encounter can. We are mirrored into life, not by concepts, but by faces delighting in us, giving us the beloved self-image we can’t give to ourselves. Love is the gaze that does us in! How blessed are those who get it early and receive it deeply.”[8]

The prophet Jeremiah says it best: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”[9]

The good news is that the vulnerable God we worship and follow suffers with us. This vulnerable God in Christ Jesus lived in poverty and died in shame and torment. This God embraced our humanity. And has earned the right to ask us to hold on a little longer until morning comes … until resurrection.[10]

[1] Cited by Michael Battle in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.141-142.

[2] @moltmannjuergen, March 15, 2018

[3] John 12:20-33, Lent 5B.

[4] Brother Luke Ditewig, “Brother Give us a Word”, daily meditations from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), 20 January 2018.

[5] John 18:36

[6] 1 John 1:1

[7] Cited in Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditations”, 15 January 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeremiah 31:33-34

[10] Michael Battle, ibid., p.144.

Lifting up

Imagine the path slick with rainfall and mud. I took this photo at the end of a beautiful, clear day, on the Camino de Santiago (del Norte). But just as often as there were dry, sunny days on the way, I encountered trails that were treacherous in rain.

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It was at the end of my longest hiking day in northern Spain that I met with such a descent – almost a full kilometre straight down on uneven cobblestone into the coastal town of Deba. The rain had started moments before. And I had just walked thirty-three kilometres in the hilly Basque country, all the way from Orio, near Zarautz.

I was exhausted. My mind was obsessed with getting to the pilgrims’ hostel as soon as possible. I was ready to collapse in a heap on my bed. Negotiating a tricky, slippery path was the last thing on my mind.

I had read and heard from fellow pilgrims these horror stories of unsuspecting pilgrims breaking their ankles on these kinds of descents. It was all too easy to cut short a pilgrimage after such an unfortunate accident. The practiced and seasoned hikers would know that one had to be very mindful of each step made. Even when they were tired. Even when being mindful of placing one foot in front of the other was the last thing they wanted to do.

On the last couple of Sundays we’ve encountered stories from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’ healing ministry.[1] Indeed, during Ordinary (“green”) time in the church – both during the relatively shorter season after Epiphany in January and early February, and during the longer summer months in the season after Pentecost – the Gospel focus is the ministry of Jesus which includes healing.

In Lutheran circles we tend to look only at his proclamation; that is, we focus on what he said and taught the disciples about the kingdom of God. From this, we emphasize that Christian ministry is primarily about the proclamation of the good news. Mission, then, becomes more about ‘telling’ others about God, thus spreading the Word.

We miss an essential aspect of work-in-the-name-of-Christ with this limited vision of mission. Because, as elsewhere in the Gospels, we find that healing has equal prominence in Jesus’ ministry. Not only do we read about the miracles of Jesus curing disease, but more an inner healing for people battling their demons, so to speak. Healing has just as much to do about a renewed mind, a refreshed heart, a changed spirit. A reconstituted identity.

Healing is emphasized in the Gospel story today. Not just through words. But changed lives. Jesus came not only so that we might ‘believe’ with our minds in the good news, but that we might be healed in our earthen bodies and spirits.

How does this happen? What does Jesus do? From the text given to us today, Jesus’ took the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law, and “lifted her up.”[2] Jesus touches the person, physically. Taking someone by their hand is a sign of accompaniment. God is not remote from our human struggles. God is with us, Emanuel, in the person of Jesus. God takes our hand, and then lifts us up.

Faith can be described as movement. Last week we looked at the movement of ‘leaning into’ what we are afraid of, as a step in the direction of our healing – and finding Jesus is there. This week, the focus on the movement of ‘lifting up’, being ‘lifted up’, by God. As Jesus took the woman by the hand and lifted her up to be healed.

The Psalmist knew intimately this uplifting aspect of faith. “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”[3] Many of the Psalm writer’s verses are called “psalms of ascent” because they were sung on the way ‘up’ to Jerusalem. The ancient pilgrim faithful needed to ‘look up’ as they made their way up the mount to the gates of the holy city. You know the hymn: “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.”

Faith is a ‘look beyond and upwards’ movement. In other words, the life of faith is not characterized by remaining stuck in the valley of our own suffering and misery. A faithful life, of course, does not deny our suffering nor is it pretending or distracting ourselves away from accepting its harsh reality.

Despite life’s imperfections, and struggles, however, to be faithful is to remain focused on others, on the promise of God, and on the hope we have. God takes our hand and is with us, and God sees it all. As Paul wrote, “we only see dimly now”.[4] Because we cannot understand all of life’s complexities, we need to trust in life, trust in good, trust in God’s time, in God’s way, that “all things work together for good for those who love and trust in God.”[5]

We are not just lifted up for our sake alone. We are called to lift others up, especially the downtrodden. Ours is the calling to lift others up – physically, emotionally, spiritually and materially.

We all know people who are ‘the lifters’. In their presence you feel lighter, lifted up. Whether it be their life story, their non-judgemental presence, their desire to show mercy and compassion, their interest in listening to you – they are an inspiration to us. They inspire us by their discipline, their focus in life.

The Gospel message is: We don’t need to be continually burdened by our suffering and narrow focus. We can be lifted up and transformed to be a reflection of God’s light to the world. In being truly ourselves, we can be ‘lifters’ too.

Remember: Resurrection is the end game of our faith. I mean not only of Jesus’ resurrection over two thousand years ago. I mean not only of our resurrection after we die our physical, earthly death. Because of Jesus’ healing ministry, we know that God also wants us to experience ‘resurrections’ in our own lives – on our earthly pilgrimage of living.

We can change, yes. It won’t be easy. It will take work. It will challenge us. We will need to move outside of our comfort zones. We will need to endure our momentary afflictions. On this journey of transformation, it will get harder before it gets easier. The truth will set us free, but it will first make us miserable. This is Christian truth. There is a cost. It is first the Cross of Christ; it is then the empty tomb of Easter.

There’s a woman from Tennessee whose name is Margaret Stevenson. She was in her nineties when I first read about her passion for hiking. You see, Margaret Stevenson used to hike ten or fifteen miles every day. She was a legend in the Smoky Mountains. She knew every trail and every plant and tree by its Latin and colloquial name.

Bill was much younger than Margaret when he hiked with her one day up Mt. LeConte. Now, Mt. LeConte is the third highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park peaking at just over 6500 feet.

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Bill’s first trip up Mt. LeConte was Margaret’s seventy-fifth. When she finally stopped hiking she had climbed Mt. LeConte more than 700 times. Her husband rarely went, even before he got cancer.

When Bill and Margaret set out, they came upon what Margaret described as the most unrelenting two-mile ridge in the whole area – two miles up with no break. And this after a hard six miles on a very hot day.

Bill liked to hike in spurts, so he said, “See you later, Margaret,” and took off in his usual fashion and got way ahead of her. At some point, he found himself lying flat on his back in half delirium. A blurred Margaret passed him by at her steady pace. Bill can still hear the click-click of her cane and with no pity at all in her voice, she said, “One more mile to go, Bill. I’ll see you at the top!” And so, she did, arriving well ahead of Bill without stopping once.

Not long after that, Margaret’s husband finally died of cancer. But because of her daily walk with God, their last few hours were spent not in sadness or remorse, but in joy and celebration. For when Margaret says, “I’ll see you at the top!” she means it. For her face is fixed on Christ. Her step is steady and sure. And she knows the meaning of Isaiah’s words:

Even youth’s will faint and be weary,

And the young will fall exhausted;

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

They shall mount up with wings as eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.[6]

[1] Mark 1:21-28, Mark 1:29-39

[2] Mark 1:31

[3] Psalm 121:1-2, NRSV

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[5] Romans 8:28

[6] William J. Carl III in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.318-319.

Surprise ending

The Arnprior Rapids were destined to lose. If you asked me, midseason, to write the history of the 2017 Fall season of the Lanark-Renfrew Highschool Football League, it would sound completely different than it actually turned out in the end.

After playing five games, the Rapid’s opponent, the Almonte Thunderbolts, was undefeated. What is more, in all their games they did not have one single point scored against them. They were that good. By all counts, they were destined to be the League’s champion.

When a couple of weeks ago Almonte faced its arch rival and 2nd place Arnprior Rapids in the final championship game, many – even the players themselves deep down – felt this was a pointless exercise. Why bother even playing the game? Because the last time these two teams clashed Almonte thrashed Arnprior 40-0. And the time before that, 24-0.

So, you tell me. What will the history books have said about the outcome?

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These kids are learning an important life skill. Because as is often the case throughout life when things happen, it is easy to focus on what is wrong, what seems impossible, what appears a waste of time and energy. And give up.

Over the past several weeks, we have been reading some parables of Jesus recorded in the latter chapters of the Gospel of Matthew.[1]

These apocalyptic[2] parables sound somewhat harsh towards the human project: It seems human beings cannot help but eventually get it all wrong, whether it be the wicked tenants, the foolish bridesmaids or, as in today’s parable, the fearful investor.[3]

What is more, you get the feeling that the line between doing the right thing and the wrong thing is awfully thin. Even those that do get it right in Jesus’ telling are not that much different from those who get it all wrong – those who are doomed to the hell fires “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”[4] In short, there is a heavy, dark pall of negativity hanging over these stories.

It’s hard to remain enthusiastic about a life of faith when presented with these doom-and-gloom scenarios. It’s easier to become more fearful than hopeful.

When reading from this section in Matthew, I think we need to be mindful of the context of Jesus’ storytelling. We need to remember that Jesus told these stories while he was heading right into the middle of his own personal, high-risk venture, which led to arrest, torture, suffering and horrible death.

That is, he had decided to leave the relative safety of rural Galilee and head to Jerusalem, the capital city, where the authorities would regard Jesus as “a threat to the status quo and their own power.” The Romans would regard him as a “disturber of the peace” and condemn him to capital punishment on the Cross.[5]

We have the benefit of hindsight to help us better interpret these challenging parables. That is, because of the new life given to Jesus on Easter morning, we can now believe in resurrection, which is the end game of all of history. The benefit of Christ-faith is the hope and promise we discover on the other side of risk-taking, of losing, of failing and of taking responsibility. All the things that make us human.

Despite what may look impossible, a sure failure, a likely defeat and a waste of time and energy, this parable today encourages us to take heart and simply put our gifts, our talents on the line.

The sin described here is the sin of not risking anything, of not caring, not investing, of playing it safe and being overly cautious with what we have been given.

Whatever we have, “each according to their ability”[6], even if it’s only one, measly, tiny “talent” – when we risk giving it away to the world, allowing it to engage the world with positive intent, only then can good things happen. There are no guarantees good things will happen. But then again, we wouldn’t know unless we try. And take the risk.

But it’s well worth it! Because one talent is neither measly, neither is it tiny. One talent, according to some interpreters, was worth fifteen years wages or $1.25 million in today’s valuation. Just imagine the wealth of the entire property of the master who was placing it all in the care of his stewards.

Let’s take that to be God and us. When we can first appreciate all that wealth and riches that God has given us, and can begin to acknowledge the great faithfulness of God to entrust all that is God’s to us … now that’s something special about the God we worship. What a great joy! What a great responsibility!

In the end, this parable is not about money, essentially. Because even if the first two stewards who invested the little that was given them lost all that they invested on the market, Jesus would still have applauded them for trying. The attitude of risk-taking and putting it all on the line is the important thing, not the results of their monetary investment.

And then, when you try despite the odds stacked against you, you never know. How resurrection happens, and when, in the context of our own lives, will be a surprise.

When the Arnprior Rapids faced off against their arch rivals, the Almonte Thunderbolts in the Lanark-Renfrew Highschool Football League championship game, it was truly a David and Goliath show-down. The end looked bleak for Arnprior.

By all counts, Almonte should have won that game.

But, life is full of surprises. God is full of surprises. We can never know for sure what unexpected things await us when we put ourselves out there and invest our gifts on the playing field of life.

Not only did Arnprior score two touchdowns in the game – thus breaking Almonte’s bid for a clean sheet season – Arnprior did not allow a single point scored against them.

History is being written anew.

[1] Matthew 25:1-13, Matthew 22:1-14, Matthew 21:33-46; a parable is simply a fictional story Jesus tells to reflect some truth

[2] when the ‘end time’ promises of God are fulfilled

[3] Matthew 25:14-30

[4] Matthew 25:30

[5] John M. Buchanan in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 4” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.308

[6] Matthew 25:15

God-talk

Last week in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Ottawa RedBlacks receiver Diontae Spencer set a CFL record in a game against the Hamilton Ticats for most overall yardage gained — just under 500 — in one game. His incredible feat was truly remarkable in a game where his team didn’t score any points in the first quarter.

When asked afterwards about his record-setting accomplishment, Spencer mentioned God several times. He emphasized that the praise was ultimately for God. He couldn’t have succeeded along with his team in that game without God. God was the reason and source of his victory.

Such a witness gets a lot of mileage, especially on national TV covering a professional sports league in Canada. It is true: the public, general impression of Christians is their often-exuberant witness to an all-powerful, almighty God who authors and reflects anything and everything that is glorious, successful, impressive and spectacular. This is the dominant belief and main flavour of the kind of God-talk in the public arena when it comes to Christian witness.

Years ago, a parishioner in a former parish declined my invitation to her to give a testimony of faith during a mid-week Lenten program. I knew she was struggling with some personal challenges at the time. When I asked her why she said no, especially as I recognized in her the strong gift of faith, she said she wanted to wait until things were going better in her life before sharing her faith.

While I understood her reasoning, and was mindful of the delicate situation in her life, I wondered to myself if her attitude didn’t reflect a more general disposition among Christians today. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could talk about how good your life was. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could point to external circumstances that were favourable, impressive, even enviable.

After all, how could you get up in front of people and talk about God when all was not well in your life? How could you talk about God if you had nothing impressive to show for it? More to the point, would you be giving faithful testimony to God if everything in your life was broken, damaged, failed?

Is God only mentioned when humans achieve something great? Is God only a God who wins contests on the football field and battlefield of life? Can God be talked about only among folks who have succeeded and are healthy and rich? Only when things are going super well?

Or, could God also be present and real to us when we fail, when we are down, when we lose our earthly battles? It seems to me Christians call themselves Christian because we follow the way of Christ. And so, don’t we believe in the God of the Cross? God, by all human standards, failed — being branded public enemy number one and condemned to death. Jesus’ broken body is the iconic symbol for Christians. It is precisely in the suffering of life where God finds us.

On this All Saints Sunday, we understandably focus on what human beings have accomplished: the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. Blessed are those who demonstrate the qualities we read in the Beatitudes[1] — the Gospel text for this festival in the church calendar.

“Blessed” is not the word we might associate with being poor, persecuted peacemakers especially if we use the often-translated English word, “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[2] also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in providing the first beatitude, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit.”[3] I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state.

Should we take these beatitudes as moral rules for living, as with the Law, we can never fulfill it perfectly. And therefore, we can easily despair and give up. Being on the way, however, gives the long view and big picture. It implies the need for trusting that we are headed in the right direction even if the present circumstances in our lives suggest otherwise.

What is more, as much as we want to make the Beatitudes into the Ten (or rather, Nine) Commandments of the New Testament, this speech from Jesus — given at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel — is not primarily about ‘rules for moral behaviour’ as it is facts about God. These Beatitudes really and fundamentally describe God.

Matthew’s narrative builds towards this awareness, if you can appreciate the classic reversal that Matthew sets up in the first five chapters of his Gospel:

In the first chapter, Matthew’ genealogy firmly plants Jesus “the Messiah” in the lineage of the great Israelite King David. In the second chapter, exotic magi from the East come to pay homage to the newborn king. In the third chapter, King Herod takes seriously this threat to his power and tries to eliminate a contestant to his throne by killing innocent, Hebrew two-year-old boys in Bethlehem. Then, John the Baptist comes on the scene, announcing that he was making way for one who was greater than he. Finally, Matthew has Jesus ascend a mountain where he, like his predecessor Moses, would dispense the Word of God and give his inaugural address.[4]

You can see the build-up, I hope, of an expectation that Jesus would come to bring justice to the wicked and set things right. He, the Messiah, would turn back Roman oppression and occupation of Palestine. But, these words from Jesus’ mouth announcing who is “blessed” pull the rug from under our expectations of who God is. “The one who was supposed to lead revolutionary armies or bring down heavenly fire shows up in Galilee building hospitals and telling people not to hit back.”[5]

Can you imagine the surprise and shock among his disciples! Even the imprisoned John the Baptist does a double-take on his faith and later questions Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we keep looking?”[6] It is no wonder, then, that Peter later rebukes Jesus when he talks of his impending death: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”[7]

These beatitudes must have seriously disappointed his listeners and most ardent followers who had such ‘high’ expectations of their would-be Messiah King. How could they now continue following this man?

Is the reason why we may have trouble conforming our lives to the way described in the beatitudes is that we really don’t believe in these words as giving an accurate and trustworthy understanding of God? This is, after all, Jesus, who we know was persecuted and reviled as the prophets were before him.[8]

Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed in human flesh, born a vulnerable baby to a teenage couple? Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed dying a grotesque and brutal death on a cross showing the world a bruised, beaten, broken and bloody body?

If we did, perhaps we would hear more from the losers in our society. Perhaps TSN would hear the faithful witness of locker room players talking of a God who knows how it is to lose a big game and still keep faith. Perhaps we would hear more from street people, addicts and the impoverished, vulnerable people talk of their simple yet honest faith in a God who walks with them. Perhaps we would hear more from children declare their love of a playful God who carries our burdens for us, freeing us to be who and how we are without judgement and punishment.

Perhaps we would listen more to the murmurs of our own hearts whisper the love of God for us especially when we suffer the turmoil of life. Then, I gather, the world will open its eyes to the God of grace and love.

Because they will see people who live in hope. They will see people who know they have found the right road where they find God most present in helping people who suffer loss and pain, a road on which Jesus has walked himself, a road upon which God will always first find us.

 

[1] Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV

[2] Psalm 1:1, NRSV

[3] Earl F. Palmer in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.238

[4] Allen Hilton in ibid., p.239

[5] ibid., p.239

[6] Matthew 11:3

[7] Matthew 16:22

[8] Matthew 5:11-12

From Loss to Life

“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little … and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

 -Paul, to the Philippians 4:11-13

One of the basic truisms of pilgrimage walking is that first-timers usually pack more than they need for the journey. The general rule is ten percent of your body weight. For most people, that means no more than fifteen to twenty pounds in your backpack.

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I read in one of the Camino de Santiago guidebooks, in preparation for my walk last summer, that for most first-time pilgrims five pounds in their pack is unnecessary; these items amount to five pounds of fear: that extra sweatshirt, pajama onesie, that tub of moisturizing cream or the proverbial electric hairdryer. It is not long on the journey before at least five pounds are left behind or mailed home.

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If we use the pilgrimage as a metaphor for life, then the pilgrim on the journey of life, to be true to the journey, needs to learn how to let go.

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When I began I thought I had it down to the bare minimum. Nevertheless, I was still anxious. Those first few days I worried about where I was going to sleep that night. Not knowing how far I would walk, and not wanting to put the stress of expectation by booking ahead, I had to go with the flow and improvise in the moment. Even though I found a place every night, I was still preoccupied, distracted and fretting. Perhaps I had put too much faith in what I carried.

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Before I knew it, I lost some of my belongings those first days on the path. The first night I left behind my head lamp. The second or third night – I don’t know which – I lost my very expensive self-inflating bed roll for underneath my sleeping bag.

If the story ended there, you might say I was in an unwanted, growing state of crisis. If the story ended there you might say my pilgrimage was headed towards disaster, defeat, loss and failure. If the story ended there, you might say that everything was falling apart in my journey, collapsing into the rubble heap of destruction.

But the story didn’t end there. And it doesn’t end there.

The truth is, as Richard Rohr explains it best, that “through loss, through crisis, through stress, limitation, we move to a better place in our lives.

“Physicists today would say that loss is not real. There is only transformation. The metaphor of the liquid world is that this element simply moves from liquid to solid to vapor and back again.

“It looks like a death, a loss, in each case. But, in fact, it’s a becoming. Now we recognize that Jesus was saying this all along. In Christianity, it was called the ‘Paschal Mystery’. It was a phrase used by Saint Augustine that in fact dying leads to resurrection. Jesus became the icon, the living image, of that mystery – that his crucified body transformed into the risen Christ. That they are both the same person.

“Creativity, newness of life, has a cost. And the cost is what always looks like death. But really isn’t. The cost is loss. Which is perceived as an enemy, or affliction, which always looks like what we don’t want. Somehow to embrace loss, spiritually speaking, is to achieve eternity. Death allows us to be united with what is real. But, of course, it only looks like death from our side. Apparently from the other side – we call it heaven, or eternal life – is in fact the really real.

“The really real is already beginning now. And that’s what we need to trust. That’s what we need to allow. Fourteenth century Italian theologian Catherine of Siena once said: ‘It’s heaven all the way to heaven; and, it’s hell all the way to hell.’ And the way to heaven begins in this world, all the way to heaven.

“To avoid all loss, to avoid all letting go, is to avoid transformation into union with God. If you spend your entire life avoiding ‘dying’, Jesus would say you never get there. It’s hell all the way to hell.

“‘Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.’[i] We now know that this phrase was used in the initiation rites of Asia Minor. Perhaps one of Jesus’ most enigmatic lines is: ‘You must lose your life in order to find your life; you must lose your life in order to gain your life.’[ii] And if you don’t let it go, you will never find it.”[iii]

This is what Paul is talking about when he says he can do all things in Christ who strengthens him. That is, he can also ‘let go’. Not only does he know what it is to have plenty. He can also lose.

Philippians 4:13 is a popular well-loved verse in the New Testament: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” It is often used to bolster self-confidence in accomplishing heroic goals and aspirations. It is often quoted on posters, billboards and bumper stickers to indicate a glory, success and prosperity gospel message of human achievement more reflective of current self-help pop psychology. It is also used to undergird impressive mission goals in the church.

Moreover, the first nine verses of this chapter – the famous “Rejoice always!” text – are read on their own, as unfortunately prescribed in the Revised Common Lectionary, without including verses 10-13 for context. And the context is Paul’s suffering and need and persecution.

He is rejoicing and expressing his confidence in living precisely because he has travelled through the valley of the shadow of death. Precisely because he has learned to let go. You can’t have resurrection without death. You can’t experience the joy of transformation without first feeling the pain of loss. You can’t do mission unless you have let go, done without, lost — in some fundamental, real way.

Later this month on Reformation Sunday when all ELCIC Lutherans in Ottawa will gather to worship together, we will sing together Martin Luther’s well-known hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Frederick Hedge’s English translation is closer to the original German when in the last verse we sing: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.”[iv]

Here, we get a peek into an under-emphasized aspect of Luther’s theology which included the practice of letting go. Not only is salvation realized at the moment of our mortal death, it is something that begins in the midst of living. That is, during our life we the practice the art of dying – of letting go, of losing – as an essential experience in the way of salvation, of transformation.

When I realized I had lost my head lamp and bed roll several days later, a couple of things were happening within me:

First, it took a while for me to notice these losses. I didn’t notice my loss right away perhaps because I really didn’t need those things. Second, and maybe more significantly, I was less stressed the farther I journeyed along the Camino. I was relaxing more into the pilgrimage, even without what I had deemed essential kit when I began.

Some Christians in the West today make the mistake, I believe, of confusing loss of privilege with persecution. Wealthy, financially advantaged Christians say they are being persecuted by a politically correct movement to recognize other religions and different people in a growing multi-cultural and pluralistic society, something Luther could never have envisioned in his day.[v]

We are not being persecuted. Rather, we are being confronted with the prospect of losing our privileged place in society, a status that we have admittedly enjoyed for centuries in our country. What the real issue is, is whether we will resist and avoid this loss, or whether we will accept it.

What is ending in your life? What are you facing that deep down you know is a loss? What are the failures and defeats and suffering in your life? Where is there suffering in the lives of the vulnerable, the underprivileged, the poor?

Pay attention, and wake up. These may, in truth, be invitations. Invitations to enter the gate of loss and letting go. Invitations to let go and trust that through dying, it is heaven all the way to heaven.

 

[i] John 12:24

[ii] Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, John 12:25

[iii] Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis” (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Audio CD Learning Course, 2010), Session Three.

[iv] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 2006), Hymn 505

[v] The Rev. Dr. Gordon Jensen, “Luther’s Legacy” in Canada Lutheran (Volume 32, Number 6, September 2017), p.10-14

Something always has to die …

(The following is taken from Richard Rohr’s commentary in his book “Wondrous Encounters; Scriptures for Lent”, with my added words.)

The crowds were gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. This ritual is described in Exodus 12, and provides the basis of the Holy Communion in Christian practice.

In the original ritual, people were to procure a small year-old lamb for each household. They were to keep it for four days — just enough for the children to bond with it and for all to see its loveliness — and then “slaughter it during the evening twilight”! Then they were to take its blood and sprinkle it on the doorpost of the houses. That night they were to eat it in highly ritualized fashion, recalling their departure from Egypt and their protection by God along the way.

This practice was meant to be a psychic shock for all, as killing always is. Thank God, animal sacrifice was eventually stopped. The human psyche was evolving in history to identify the real problem and what it is that actually has to die.

The sacrificial instinct is the deep recognition that something always has to die for something bigger to be born. We started with human sacrifice (Abraham and Isaac), we moved here to animal, and we gradually get closer to what has to be sacrificed — our own beloved ego — as protected and beloved as a little household lamb! (1)

We will all find endless disguises and excuses to avoid letting go of what really needs to die for our own spiritual growth. And it is not other humans (firstborn sons of Egyptians), animals (lambs or goats), or even ‘meat on Friday’ that God wants or needs.

It is always our beloved passing self that has to be let go of. Jesus surely had a dozen good reasons why he should not have to die so young, unsuccessful (sentenced to death, a criminal), and the Son of God besides!

By becoming the symbolic Passover Lamb himself, Jesus makes the movement to the human and personal very clear and quite concrete. It is always “we” — in our youth, in our beauty, in our power and over-protectedness and self-preservation instinct that must be handed over. Otherwise we will never grow up, big enough to ‘eat’ of the Mystery of God. In short, we have to ‘get over ourselves’, individually and collectively as the church, before we can be effective and authentic followers of Jesus in the world today.

Good Friday is really about “passing over” to the next level of faith and life. And that never happens without some kind of “dying to the previous levels.” This is an honest day of very good ritual that gathers the essential but often avoided meaning of Good Friday: Necessary suffering; that is, something always has to die for something bigger to be born.

One of the Gospel stories repeated every year during Holy Week is the anointing of Jesus by a woman named Mary at Bethany (John 12:1-11). Even though the text does not identify her as a sinner, this has been the common understanding. This alone should reveal our rancid preoccupation with sin.

The point in this story, again, is not the sin but the act of love towards Jesus, whom the woman correctly accepts (unlike the twelve disciples) the coming death of Jesus. She anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive nard, which is the anointing oil for death. Jesus’ favourable response to Mary’s act clearly suggests her act of love trumps any failing on her part, or the part of the poor, or on our part!

As always, love of Jesus and love of justice for the neighbour are just two different shapes or sides to the one Love, that gets us beyond our over-thinking sin. A simple act of love gets us beyond our negative self-obsession, which only keeps us stuck in selfish, egoistic preoccupation.(2)

May our praise of God this day, in Jesus’ acceptance of his death on a Cross, invite each of us into commitments and acts of love toward God, toward one another, and to the world in need. Then, we get the point of the story. And we affirm, that something bigger indeed is just around the corner.

 

1 — Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters; Scriptures for Lent” (Cincinnati, Ohio: Franciscan Media, 2011), p.133-135

2 — ibid., p.126-127

Lent begins again: Why?

We begin a journey of some forty days, which mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). We continue to observe the season of Lent, year after year, as we approach the most holy of Christian days — Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

But why do we do this? Why do we continue to do this, it seems, against the flow of society and the dominant culture today? As a child, I remember when it was more popular to ‘give up’ something for Lent; people actually did give something up, like dessert or TV. Some still do, I know.

And yet, it seems from the perspective of our economy and lifestyle today, that planning for March break, and sun-shine, escapist getaways get more attention and energy than any spiritual discipline might.

So, let’s begin our Lenten journey with a close look at why we need to go on this trip in the first place. Speaking of journeys, then, here’s a fascinating one from the history books:

“Early in the twentieth century, the English adventurer Ernest Shackleton set out to explore the Antarctic …. The land part of the expedition would start at the frigid Weddell Sea, below New Zealand …

“‘The crossing of the south polar continent will be the biggest polar journey ever attempted,’ Shackleton told a reporter for the New York Times on December 29, 1913.’

“On December 5, 1914, Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven men set out for the Weddell Sea on the Endurance, a 350-ton ship that had been constructed with funds from private donors, the British government and the Royal Geographical Society. By then, World War 1 was raging in Europe, and money was growing more scarce. Donations from English schoolchildren paid for the dog teams.

“But the crew of the Endurance would never reach the continent of Antarctica.

“Just a few days out of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic, the ship encountered mile after mile of pack ice, and was soon trapped as winter moved in early and with fury. Ice closed in around the ship ‘like an almond in a piece of toffee,’ a crew member wrote.

“Shackleton and his crew were stranded in the Antarctic for ten months as the Endurance drifted slowly north, until the pressure of the ice floes finally crushed the ship. On November 21, 1915, the crew watched as she sank in the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea.

“Stranded on the ice, the crew of the Endurance boarded their three lifeboats and landed on Elephant Island. There Shackleton left behind all but five of his men and embarked on a hazardous journey across 800 miles of rough seas to find help. Which, eventually, they did.

“What makes the story of the Endurance so remarkable, however, is not the expedition. It’s that throughout the whole ordeal no one died. There were no stories of people eating others and no mutiny [to speak of …. Some have argued that ] “This was not luck. This was because Shackleton hired good fits. He found the right men for the job ….

“Shackleton’s ad for crew members was different [from the norm]. His did not say WHAT he was looking for. His did not say: ‘Men needed for expedition. Minimum five year’s experience. Must know how to hoist mainsail. Come work for a fantastic captain.’ Rather, Shackleton was looking for those with something more. He was looking for a crew that belonged on such an expedition. His actual ad ran like this:

“‘Men wanted for Hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.’

“The only people who applied for the job were those who read the ad and thought it sounded great. They loved insurmountable odds. The only people who applied for the job were survivors. Shackleton hired only people who believed what he believed. Their ability to survive was guaranteed.” (1)

Year after year, the Gospel text from Matthew 6 is read on Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten journey. It is a journey, a pilgrimage, you might say. For those willing to embark on the sometimes harrowing yet intentional path, Jesus points to the authentic quality and honesty of community life.

Being the church in the world is not to give a false impression, to show how exceptional we are in the religious marketplace. Being the church to the world is to be authentic and true to what we believe and who we are, whether or not we measure up to some cultural standards of behaviour.

Maybe that explains why Lent is no longer popular in our day. Society has already been for a while losing ourselves in distractions. In 1985 Neil Postman claimed that we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” (2) Over a decade earlier, Ernest Becker wrote a book I read in seminary, entitled, “The Denial of Death” (3) which is a theological reflection on how we live in ‘modern’ North America.

Indeed, we in the West continue on a course of distracting ourselves to death — with stimulating toys, technological advance and even more addictive ways to keep the truth at bay. This strategy, with often tragic consequences, only serves to drive a deeper wedge and division from our true selves.

The symbolic destination of the Lenten journey is the Cross, on Good Friday. And so, right off the start, we know this can’t be an easy journey, when we have to face and bear our own cross. But this is what life is about, is it not? Whenever hardship comes our way in whatever form it does — illness, loss, tragedy, disappointment, conflict and confrontation, failure, guilt, pain. We don’t have to seek it out; Suffering comes to us all. This is a reality we are called to accept.

We are called not to deny that our message is for people who are honest about their brokenness, who in their vulnerability do not want to pretend their weaknesses away. Our suffering can be a great teacher, an opportunity for growth and wholeness.

Suffering, in the words of Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, “belongs to an order of creation insofar as struggle … is necessary to evoke the human potential for nobility, for love, for wisdom, and for depth of authenticity of being. A pain-free life would be a life-less life.” (4)

Lent is not a path to ultimate self-annihilation. Ultimately, Lent is not a downer. Because suffering can point to a new beginning. Followers of Jesus are not a people who suffer the pains of life without faith and hope. We can face what life brings, with a conviction that together, we can do more than merely survive.

On this journey we can experience that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In accompanying each other through the difficult times, we can experience something greater than ourselves. Together we will realize more than we could ever have imagined on our own; transformation, resurection, a new beginning. Together, because God in Jesus goes with us. We are not alone on this journey.

God blesses this journey.

1 – Simon Sinek, “Start With Why” (New York: Penguin, 2009), p.90-93
2 – Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985)
3 – Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death” (New York: Free Press, 1973)
2 – Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p.62-63

Sanctuary

For a year and a half my wife and I took dance lessons. We learned Latin dances such as the Salsa, Rumba, Samba, Triple-Step, Merengue, and the Cha-Cha. 

I was motivated, at the start, by a beautiful vision in my imagination: I could see my wife and I swinging to the music, sweeping across the dance floor, effortlessly. I had a vision of us moving in complete sync with one another, twirling and swaying together in perfect rhythm and harmony. What a vision!

When I first proposed we take these lessons together, she was all game. So, every week we dutifully went to our lesson and met with our dance instructor who showed us the steps and taught us the moves. We were doing this together!

After a few lessons, however, I was becoming a little bit disappointed. My vision was not panning out. We weren’t always in sync with each other. Indeed, more often than not, we were stepping on each other toes! Oh yes, we giggled about our missteps, but it seemed we were not getting anywhere.

Our instructor calmly yet persistently reminded us that we needed to practice. Before the fun would come, she said, we had to master the steps. And for me, the lead, I had to memorize the patterns and in my mind always be one step ahead, knowing where we were going with each and every move. And this took work! And persistence. And time. The fun would come later, I held on to the promise.

It wasn’t as easy as I imagined it would be, working towards that vision. In fact, it was my wife who grew into the love of the dance and often had to cajole and encourage me to keep up with the program.

The Gospel text (Luke 18:1-8) today describes a woman who is persistent in her pursuit of justice. Jesus tells this parable to illustrate what it means not to lose heart. In the story, persistence is not just about building up the courage to do something beyond one’s comfort zone just once, and then give up because it doesn’t turn out. 

How often, isn’t that how we operate when trying something new for the first time? Something doesn’t please us the way we expected or wanted the first time we try, and so we just give up on it. No, in the story, she goes back “continually”. The vision of justice never wavers in her commitment to do the hard work.

This relentless pestering is accomplished in adversity, and really against all odds. Why the woman would even consider trying, up against someone in power who has no fear of God and no respect for anyone, is remarkable. At the onset, we would say she is hardly setting herself up for success!

Setting up a contrast of visions to describe God, is what Jesus is up to in telling this story. The place where we meet God is a place of mercy, of sanctuary. People, in the course of history, could enter a church and find respite from the condemnation of the law. The police, the authorities, the powers that be, even the force of the law could not touch you in the holy space. Here, you found immediate relief and mercy, just by entering the space.

The place where we exercise our prayer is a place where we receive forgiveness, despite the imperfection and sordid realities of our lives in the world. That is why Jesus tells of a woman receiving justice, not because she goes to the temple per se, but a court of law in the secular world: Even there, you can find justice, despite the unjust and sinful people involved. God’s love is greater even then the most powerful, unjust judge.

Indeed, this is our challenge today. God is not just in one, holy place that we have cherished for the past fifty-five years. God is out there, too! In the imperfection of our Monday-to-Saturday lives. In the imperfection of our secular world. In the seat of government. In the marketplace. And, would you believe it, also in other churches. The truth of the Gospel resides in a worshipping community that is far from perfect. That, in fact, has weakness and brokenness imbedded in our very being together.

When Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the River Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-31), he didn’t hold back any punches, so to speak. He let God have it, and prevailed! His encounter with God, nevertheless, left him with a physical reminder of relationship with God: A bad hip. He would live the rest of his days, “limping because of his hip.” 

To be in communion with the Holy One is to bear the physical, real mark of sacrifice, of weakness, of imperfection. Followers of Christ, if you want to know them, are not perfect people. And if you meet Christians who appear to be perfect — or you want them to be — you are missing the truth of it I am certain. In fact, we would throw our lot in with the unjust judge, more than anyone else in these stories I would guess.

I read recently a story told by Marianne Williamson in her most recent book: “Tears to Triumph”. It’s “about a chimpanzee troop in which a portion of the population displayed depressed behaviour. They didn’t eat with the rest of the chimps, play with the rest of the chimps, or sleep with the rest of the chimps.

“A group of anthropologists wondered what effect the absence of these depressed chimps would have on the rest of the troop and removed them for six months. When they returned, they found that all of the other chimps, those who remained in the troop, had died! Why?

“According to one analysis, the chimps perished because the so-called depressed chimps among them had been their early warning system. The depressed chimps had been depressed for a reason; they registered that a storm was coming or snakes, or elephants, or disease. The presence of the depressed chimps had been an aid to the survival of the entire population … ” (1)

We need each other. We need our faults, you could say, just as much as we need our strengths. To remind us of what it’s all about. To point us to the Cross and the Empty Tomb. To help us remember that the church is not about our mission, but about God’s mission. To emphasize the grace of God under which all of us stand. To encourage us to work together with others that appear different from us. Going to, and persisting with, people that do things differently from us — in some ways better, in other ways not so much — is vital for the health and survival of the whole church.

So, after today we begin an adventure. Worship and faith and life-in-our-community does not stop now because this particular space becomes a construction zone for a couple months. We will continue to worship as a community, as Faith Lutheran Church. Yes we will! 

Our prayer will continue, and we will persist with others who are different from us (and I suspect we will soon discover they are not that much different from us!) at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Being outside our comfort zone is a critical, healthy, spiritual exercise. Should we persist together in this adventure, I believe we will grow in ways that are both vital and healthy to the future of Faith Lutheran Church; persisting together in this adventure will also deepen our walk with God.

I want to encourage you over the next two months to embrace this challenge, not shy away form it, maintain the vision, not lose heart, and pray always! Because God is already and always merciful and just.

(1) Marianne Williamson, “Tears to Triumph; The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment”, HarperOne, New York, 2016, p.84-85

Foolish advice

The following sermon is adapted from one preached by The Rev. Dawn Hutchings of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Newmarket, Ontario. You can read her excellent sermon on pastordawn.com. In her introduction she thanks a couple of professors from whom we both learned — Eduard Riegert and Donna Seamone. Dawn writes that preachers today stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before; today, I will add that we also lean on each other as we journey together in the ministry of preaching! 

The ‘fool’ isn’t normally taken very seriously. In period books and films set in Medieval times especially, the court jester is the character to whom nobody pays attention beyond their ability to make people laugh. These are the fools we relegate to the realms of distraction and mindless entertainment. And then they are dismissed with an impatient wave of the hand.

Who are fools in our day and age? Who do we pay lip service to, or not take seriously? Who do we seek for a little distraction for entertainment purposes — but whose advice or thoughts or words we do not heed? Because they are fools!

In the recent home release of the film, “Now You See Me 2” starring Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson, the main characters reflect on the role of “the fool” symbolized on a playing card which figures significantly in the plot of the movie. No spoilers; you have to see it!

The whole movie is structured around the power of perspective. By the end of the movie, we are dazzled by how the same words spoken at the beginning of the movie can mean the total opposite by the end. At the end of the movie, here is what they say about “the fool” (I paraphrase): “The fool starts with a blank slate. Therefore, for the fool it’s not about who they are, it’s about who they are becoming.”

Let’s turn to the Gospel reading for today in Luke 15:1-10. Among the teachings of Jesus, the parables of the lost and found are so well known, so familiar that we are in peril of failing to hear the foolishness they advocate.

Today, we just focus on the lost sheep (but the parables of the lost coin and lost sons which follow in chapter 15 of Luke can also be understood in the same way — as foolish advice!): Whether we are relating to co-workers, clients, customers, students, friends, or children none but the foolish among us would leave ninety-nine to the perils and dangers of the wilderness in order to go looking for one idiot who’d been stupid enough to get themselves lost.

These parables of the lost and found are outrageous. None of us would get very far in life if we lived by these teachings. Because we live by a different code; you know it: It is better to put the welfare of the many above the needs of one. Sometimes its better to cut your losses and move on.

The wisdom of the world lurks in us down to every last maxim: – charity begins at home. – God helps those who help themselves. – Count the cost or pay the price. – “They should just pull themselves up, by the bootstraps.” You fill in the rest…

And yet along comes Jesus, spouting such foolishness that even we who are predisposed to agree with him, even we can sympathize with the self-righteous and wonder how anyone could be expected to live like this. The chaos that would ensue if we followed the teaching of these parables as law would be horrendous. What Jesus is advocating is foolishness itself. It makes no earthly sense.  

And so the foolishness that Jesus advocates remains on the pages of our Bibles, or in the sanctuaries of our churches, or in the halls of the academies where they busy themselves arguing of the historical minutia and we smile as the familiarity of the text washes over us from time to time.

But we know full well that this is not the way for any self-respecting, 21st century person to live in the world. These are just parables after all and we can’t be expected to live by them. We’d be fools to try. After all we are not Jesus! And anyway look what happened to him! So, the foolishness that Jesus taught is reasoned into irrelevance and confined to the recesses of our consciousness. 

But what if we didn’t approach these parables with the idea of pinning down their meaning. What if we approached these parables without feeling the need to wrestle the wisdom they contain to the ground so that we can extract from them rules to live by. 

What if we allowed these parables to simply touch us? What might the foolishness they prescribe evoke in us? How might we respond to their touch? In brushing up against these parables of the lost might we feel the touch of the ONE to whom they point?

I have come to believe that only those who have known the fear, the pain and the joy of losing and finding can really feel the touch the parables of the lost. But then again, I’ve come to know that it is impossible to go through life without knowing the fear, the pain and the joy of loosing and finding again and again and again. 

Jesus came teaching in parables. The parables of Jesus come to us to “show” us what God is like and to call us to a way of being in the world. These parables, simply, have about them a “ring” of foolishness.

Because not only would a fool leave ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost. Not only would a fool leave the ninety-nine unguarded to wander aimlessly, to be ravaged by some unknown predator, to fall prey to God knows what. Not only would a fool leave to search for the stray who might be wounded, damaged, dying, not interested in being rescued. And not only would a fool risk a reputation as a wise shepherd, a careful guardian of the known and secure, to seek one lone sheep. 

But a fool would also find, restore, and be foolish to care enough to save the lost, the wandering, the lonely, the one outside the bounds of the flock. Jesus teaches by showing us in these parables: in such foolishness this God has broken into our world and does so again and again. 

The parable of the lost sheep points us in a direction of foolish and passionate abandon. The seeking shepherd who rushes off to find one sheep shows us the God who cares for us so much that the safety of the secure flock is risked so that the stray might be brought home. The mark of the reign of God will be foolishness such as this.

In the time of God’s reign shepherds will care less about flock security and principles of good management, and more about the vulnerability of the odd one out. In the time of God’s reign everyone will counted valuable enough to be cared for. In the time of God’s reign every stone, every clump of dirt, every thing, every one will be counted as valuable.

Today, as we do every Sunday, in worship, we gather in thanksgiving for the reign of God. In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. If only our lives could embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love.

In the telling of these parables, we remember that none of these stories is of the stuff of everyday fare. None of us can do this kind of relentless, reckless abandon constantly. But there are times, there are times when … The risk must be taken. The grasp on the known must be released to reach for, find and restore the lost the abandoned the wayward and yes even the self-righteous. Those we have every right to leave alone. 

In one frame of reference the shepherd should have been guarding the flock, faithful to home duties. But there is a moment that grips, a moment in which what might be choice is no choice. There is only abandon and care, compassion and joy… There is only a moment of foolishness; and then…. love.

These are not only words for individuals they are words for the collective, words for institutions and those of us who make up institutions. The parables were spoken to the Pharisees by Jesus whose comfort with the outcasts and sinners made those keepers of the gates of righteousness squirm in their holy seats. It was foolish action Jesus was about. 

The wisdom of the righteous was ossified righteousness. Theirs was the wisdom of those entrenched in their own role and task so deeply they could not see some new foolishness of God, as wisdom. These were people lost and in exile for most of their history over and over again called and delivered by God. These were the ones whose memory of deliverance could not release them to be deliverers. These people were very much like us.

The Apostle Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:20-27). These parables challenge us to be reckless and relentless in our loving and in our witness.

We are called to be vulnerable in our ministry, vulnerable to those outside the boundaries of our private lives and our community of faith: to give with no expectation of reward, to love without demand for return, to reach out to those in need with unrelenting care, to release preoccupation with the cares and concerns of our own lives (or perhaps through these cares) to reach out in love to those who are not easy to love. We are called to do all this in delight and with joy and in so doing we mirror the foolishness of God. 

St Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. By God’s grace we are the weak and the foolish. We are ‘the fool’; starting over again with a clean slate, becoming who God created us to be.

In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. We pray that our various ministries in the worlds in which we live will embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love. 

May we declare the foolishness of God by reaching out in love recklessly, and with great joy. Moment by moment….let it be so!