Advent blessing for the journey

When flying from Ottawa to London or Frankfurt, you leave late in the evening. Almost immediately after departure it is dark. And while most of the journey transpires in the dark of night, the flight over the Atlantic eastward nevertheless goes with the expectation—the promise—that you are heading into a new day. After four or five hours of darkness, a thin pinprick of light first lines the horizon ahead. It isn’t too long afterward that the journey is completed in the bright daylight.

The journey of Advent recognizes the darkness in which we walk and the time it takes. We can’t get where we are going without journeying through the night. Each of us are somewhere on the flight path, using the time we have to be reconciled to our losses and the suffering we bear.

Whether we carry the burden of grief and loss, of suffering and pain, of anxiety and fear, we are nevertheless heading towards a new day. On this long journey in the dark we wait, as it were, for the sun to shine again.

May this journey of Advent be hope-filled, that as you make your way towards the new dawn, the expectant joy of the coming of the light will give you strength and courage to keep going in the grace, peace and love of God.

Pastor Martin

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Prayer as Growth – Advent sermon series 1

In the movie, “Good Boys”, three young friends explore the meaning of friendship and growth. On the journey towards maturity, Max, Lucas, and Thor discover what it means to be in a healthy relationship that can change over time.

Everything is going fine until each boy begins to pursue individual goals. At the same time, they realize that what one of them wants to do is not necessarily what the others like to do. It looks like they are going their separate ways. And the friendship group appears to dissolve.

When Lucas sits down with his parents in tears, bemoaning the breakup of his friendships, his parents offer some sage advice. They recall an old pet Lucas used to have – a hermit crab. But, when Lucas was much younger he wasn’t told how exactly his hermit crab had left them. His parents, now, tell him the truth:

The hermit crab had to find a new shell, they say. And died on its way to the beach. They explain that a hermit crab eventually outgrows its shell. And must find another shell that is larger into which it can continue to grow. If it doesn’t find a larger shell, it will die one way or another.

Lucas makes the connection that he is growing, and may need to find a larger shell to grow into – a larger social group, new friends, other activities. Leaning on this truth, Lucas is freed from the self-blame for the recent troubles with Max and Thor. It is normal and healthy to go through these growing pains in relationship. As it turns out, the boys learn to find a new way of relating with one another – a way that respects each other’s unique talents and personalities.

Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul describes a healthy relationship to God.[1]And as we grow in this relationship, we change. And the way we relate to God changes.

In this first part of the series of sermons in Advent on prayer, I would like to underscore this theme: Prayer as growth, in our relationship with God.

There are times in our lives, events and circumstances, that give us this sense that our whole person–our deepest desires, the core of who we are–is actually waking up. At first some experiences may not feel particularly enlivening. Ironically, it is often difficult, challenging times in life that cause this re-birthing within us.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “Wake from sleep, now is the moment! Shed your clothes of darkness and ignorance and be clothed with Christ.”[2]This imperative is a common theme in Paul’s writings; to the Ephesians he writes: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead!”[3]

And in our Gospel text today, Matthew records Jesus’ instruction to “Keep awake!” especially at the time when you are in the darkness of not knowing, or in grief, or loss or some kind of suffering. This is the time to wake up, for God is doing a new thing for you.[4]Do you not perceive it? It is time to get up. It is time to slough off the old and make room for the new. It is time “to live into the reality of the new age about to dawn.”[5]

We hear the call at this start of a new church year and the first Sunday in Advent. We hear this call to spiritual renewal as we seek to deepen our lives of faith and wait upon the coming of the Lord into our lives. The call to renewal starts with prayer.

I started by saying there are occasions in our lives that become opportunities—divine invitation, you could say—to try a different way of praying.  Like spokes on a large wagon wheel, there are different ways to pray—intercessory praying, devotional prayer, prayers with lots of words, prayers without using any words, imaginative prayers, body prayers, sacraments, song, music, art.

A variety of prayer forms give us ways of growing and deepening our relationship with God in Christ. Because at the centre of every wheel—even one with several spokes—is the hub, which is Christ. The ever-present, living Lord, moves with us and in us down the road of life.

As we grow older, for many of us, the only real question is: Why doesn’t  God answer my prayers? Because of this conundrum alone, many of us frequently just stop praying and hope for the best. Hopefully on our life’s path, when we meet others we listen to them and discover that no two of us have exactly the same spiritual journey.[6]So, why would we believe there is only one way to pray or only one way of understanding what happens in prayer?

We are each like the hermit crab, seeking to find a larger shell to grow into.

But how can we be encouraged to find a larger shell? How can we even believe that we are growing, that our broken lives so weak and stained by life’s hardships be the place wherein Christ makes his home and through which Jesus’ light shines? How is this even possible?

I heard this week the story of someone recently walking through the woods. Without yet any snow on the ground to brighten things here in Ottawa, the landscape is shrouded in browns and darkish colours. Blah. While walking the forest path, she stopped at large, oak tree which still held its leaves.

But the leaves weren’t full and vibrant with life as you would see in late Spring. They were curled at the edges, no longer pulsing with life-sustaining chlorophyll. Like crumpled, dried paper, these leaves hung there, lifeless and dead. Just waiting for the inevitable drop to the ground.

In that instant, the clouds high above suddenly broke. And streams of sunlight immediately penetrated the darkened woods and shone upon these listless leaves. In that moment of brilliance the leaves were clothed in the light. They were animated in the sunshine and restored to an incredible vision of renewed life. They absorbed and reflected the light. Their previously deadened state was transformed.

In the darkness of predawn, it is indeed hard to believe there is anything but the night. But arise, awake! The light is coming. And when the son comes as it does every morning, we are transformed and renewed in the light. And our lives reflect again God’s grace and love.

[1]Patrick J. Howell in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.18.

[2]Romans 13:11-14; ibid., p.16.

[3]Ephesians 5:14.

[4]Matthew 24:42; Isaiah 43:19.

[5]Howell, ibid., p.14.

[6]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within: Contemplative Prayer for Prisoners (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.1,41.

Behold, I bring you joy!

The Gospel — good news — of God comes to us, as it did two thousand years ago, not on a bright, sunny day. Not as the sun’s rays stream down from a cloudless sky.  The word, both spoken and the Word made flesh, came into the world at night. God’s love became incarnate right in the darkest of times. This message was conveyed by a heavenly host in the dark: “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …”[1]

Today, in the season of Advent at literally the darkest time of year, we observe the Sunday of Joy: Gaudete Sunday, traditionally called. With the shepherds who keep watch at night, on this long, dark journey of waiting, and preparing and watching—the message of joy pierces our longing, our yearning and even our despair.

Joy is a consistent theme among new Testament characters:

“Rejoice!” is the angel’s greeting to Mary.[2]In her song of praise, Mary proclaims: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.[3]When Jesus begins his ministry, John the Baptist cries out: “For this reason, my joy has been fulfilled.”[4]To his disciples Jesus’ message brings joy: “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”[5]And, Jesus promises: “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”[6]Even amid persecution his disciples continued to be “filled with joy.”[7]

The New Testament abounds with the language of joy.

Shortly after his election, Pope Francis challenged the church, “Why should wenot also enter into this great stream of joy?”[8]

How do you respond to such an invitation for your life to reflect this joy?

You may react as do I. On the surface, such a juxtaposition seems unnatural, even offensive. For, how can we feel joy in the midst of sadness? How can we feel joy when we have such a long way to go, still? How can we “Rejoice! Again I say rejoice!”[9]when confronting the darkest night of our soul—where we are most vulnerable and where it hurts the most? We may object to the phony feel of this call to be joyful, dismissing it as a fake and artificial expression that denies the hard realities of life.

We are not alone on this journey. We join the followers of Christ from the beginning who in their own ways traversed this uncertain territory that somehow brought them from suffering to a place of true joy. What did they do? How did they do it?

An early Christian theologian, Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, explained Christian faith and believers in this way; listen to his words:

“We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies …”

What accounted for this radical change in the life of first centuries Christians? Even Emperor Julian—who was the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman Empire and against Christianity—wrote:

“Christianity has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care of the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the godless Galileans (Christians) care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render them.”[10]

Clearly, the early Christians were known as people who cared for the stranger in need. And not at a time when Christianity was privileged in society. Not at a bright, glorious time in Christian history when Christianity was growing around the globe in leaps and bounds. Not when Christianity occupied throne-rooms and halls of power in governments. Not in the world’s measures of success.

Rather, this care for the other was given when Christians were persecuted and driven underground. Their greatest witness to the living Lord came at the darkest time for Christians.

Maybe those early Christians understood a truth about the Christian path: That our most vulnerable prayer is the path to our deepest relationship with God.[11]When we cry out simply, yet from the heart: “Help!”; when our tears soak the pillow and we can’t see a way through but know that somehow God is somewhere in this; when poverty, violence and death continue to populate the media and the world around us, we lament and shake our fist in anger towards the heavens. Why, God?

Pay attention in this darkness. Keep watch. For, our most vulnerable prayer is the path to our deepest relationship with God.

“Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …”

For a week in April 2015 Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited the Dalai Lama in India. Their dialogue and interactions became “The Book of Joy”. In it, they write: “Suffering is inevitable. But how we respond to that suffering is our choice. Not even oppression or occupation can take away this freedom to choose our response.”

In “The Book of Joy” they outline the four qualities of the heart that lead to joy: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. At the end of the book, they offer this blessing:

“God, who is forever pouring out God’s whole being from all eternity, wants you to flourish. God wants you to be filled with joy and excitement and ever longing to be able to find what is so beautiful in God’s creation: the compassion of so many, the caring, the sharing.

“And God says, Please, my child, help me. Help me to spread love and laughter and joy and compassion. And you know what, my child? As you do this—hey, presto—you discover joy. Joy, which you had not sought, comes as the gift, as almost the reward for this non-self-regarding caring for others.”[12]

Perhaps, then, there is a way in and through the darkness.

“Behold, joy!”

 

[1][1]Luke 2:8-10

[2]Luke 1:28

[3]Luke 1:47

[4]John 3:29

[5]John 15:11

[6]John 16:22

[7]Acts 13:52

[8]Cited in Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation (Center of Action & Contemplation, 25 Nov 2018) http://www.cac.org

[9]Philippians 4:4

[10]Cited by the Rev. Riitta Hepomaki inThe Eastern Synod Lutheran (Kitchener: Eastern Synod ELCIC, Volume 44, September 25, 2015), p.1

[11]@lutherans.connect, “Faith in the Night”, DAY 1, Advent 2018

[12]Cited in Richard Rohr, ibid., 29 November 2018

A wedding sermon: To expand and include

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

funeral sermon – Epiphany

Something of eternal consequence had already started the day before Derry died.

As is customary in the weekly bible study at Faith, we take turns reading the scripture for the day. And we read that same scripture over three times, in the tradition of lectio divina – a meditative, prayerful approach to the bible.

I think I speak for everyone in that group to say that we all wanted Derry to read. He read well. Derry articulated the words with nuance and meaning. His deep, rich voice brought the scripture to life.

The day before Derry died, he attended our last session before the Christmas break. We were reading, as you can imagine, the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke chapter two. At the beginning of our time together, I asked Derry if he would read that scripture. But he needed more time to get settled, and he would read it later. “We’ll get back to you,” I announced.

But, for whatever reason, we never did. Whether it was the turn of the conversation, the character of the group that day, or innocent forgetting, Derry didn’t get his turn to read that day.

A couple of us reflected briefly on this over Christmas. And we felt badly that we missed an opportunity to honor his gift one last time.

In retrospect, it feels like unfinished business, something left hanging, incomplete. On this side of death, we can’t yet fully realize and appreciate what Derry’s gift of faith means beyond death’s door.

Last summer in my travels I found this quote printed on the window of a restaurant: “Life is not measured by how many breaths you take, but by the experiences that take your breath away.”[1]

What are these experiences that ‘take our breath away’? When we behold something beautiful. When something outside of ourselves ignites and inspires something from within us, we taste glory. We are moved. Deep speaks to deep[2]. Emotions, memories, feelings stir within us.

This is the purpose of art. The creative impulse is to fashion something material outside of us to reflect the beauty and glory within. Our outer world and its inner significance – those moments that take our breath away – come together with resulting joy and a sense of coherent beauty.[3]

Art is not something that can be used. Its primary purpose is not functional. A sculpture cannot be part of a mechanism to make something work. Art does not bring water into a community, heat our homes, transport goods and services across the continent. Art isn’t meant to be a cog in the wheel of our economy. It’s not easy to make a good living in our culture doing only art. From this perspective, art is unproductive — even useless.

So, why do we bother to spend so much of our time in our flower gardens? Why do we exercise extraordinary patience in painting something that is called from within us? Why do we write poetry? Why do we travel across this globe to visit cathedrals and art galleries and artifacts that bespeak of unspeakable beauty?

Like a verdant garden bursting with variety and the fullness of life, Derry’s artwork was rich in diversity – sculpting, painting, ceramic and wood-carving and gardening. Derry’s gift of art not only reflect his astounding creativity but also the witness of one who reflected the light and glory of Christ to the world in his own, unique way. The ‘likeness of Christ’, we say.

Today is the church’s annual observance of the Epiphany. Every year on January 6th, Christians further contemplate the mystery of the incarnation, of word made flesh.[4] During the season of Epiphany that follows, we discover again how God is made flesh in Christ, in the world today.

Whether we want to believe it or not, we reflect the light of Christ, the light even the darkness of death cannot consume.[5] Today we stand in the shadow of death. We grope in the darkness of grief, trying to find our way forward but not sure because it is an unknown path. We mourn at this occasion of profound loss.

Yet, the light continues to shine. And what is more, that light shines within us. If Derry leaves a legacy, it is to witness to this light – the light of glory, the light of Christ risen, the light of life that is now, because of Christmas, in the world and in us. Second century bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, said that “the glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

Derry, in his artistic expression, was surely ‘fully alive’. We can trust this. We may not feel it all the time, especially in grief. But not feeling God’s light within us doesn’t make it untrue.

Derry was also a teacher. He taught many student teachers at the university. Derry teaches us something important about life and death. Derry’s teaching to us now is to witness to the glory of God, reflected in each one of us.

The darkness does not overcome the light. The light endures forever. In God’s reign, there is no unfinished business. Derry continues to bask in the light and glory of God’s eternal reign. Today, Derry deepens his connection with the Word, reading and living the stories of God made flesh in Jesus Christ. In this time, God brings to completion the good work begun in Derry’s life with us.

Thanks be to God.

[1] T. Paul’s Restaurant in Astoria, Oregon

[2] Psalm 42:7

[3] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, January 1, 2018

[4] John 1:14

[5] John 1:5

Christmas – God comes anyway

Do you remember ‘grumpy old uncle Stan’?

Eleven-year-old Nadia couldn’t believe that her recluse uncle fell asleep under the Christmas tree during the family gift exchange. He snored louder than any squeals of joy from other family opening presents.

Nadia complained to her Mom that she didn’t want to sit beside him at the Christmas dinner table any more. His burps and other inappropriate sounds coming from him embarrassed her to no end.

“I just don’t get it,” Nadia said. “Even though we make his favourite mash potatoes every year and wrap up all sorts of yarn for his knitting projects – he still acts all weird-like.”

“We only see him once a year, dear,” said her Mom. “We need to be patient.”

Nadia took a bite from left-over ginger bread. “Yeah. I don’t remember a Christmas without him.”

“You’re right,” Mom said. “He comes every year. He has a present for each of us. He listens to us more than he talks. I think he is just happy to be invited.”

“And sometimes he will ask me questions that make me really think.” Nadia continued eating her cookie. “I missed my cousins this year.”

“Yeah,” Mom sighed. “Other family members will sometimes find reasons for not coming. Uncle Stan comes anyway. Regardless of the weather. Regardless of who does or doesn’t have colds. Even when it would be better not to come. He comes anyway.”

“Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Grumpy Uncle Stan.”

Christmas teaches us how God is present to us. I believe that everything that Jesus says, everything that Jesus does, and everything that happens to Jesus reveals to us how God is present in our life. And the way Jesus responds to the situations and people in his life reveals to us how we are to respond to God’s presence in our life.

It is in that spirit then, that I read and hear again this holy night the Gospel story of Jesus birth: When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem the time came for Mary to give birth. And probably because of all the people in Bethlehem because of the census, there was no room in the inn. And so, they had to go to a small stable where Jesus was born. Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and put him in a manger. And he was born there out in the dark in the stable with the animals.

What does this story teach us about how God is present in our life? To me, it seems that a lesson is that there was no room in the inn, but God came anyway. The fact there was no room in the inn did not stop God from being born into this world, and that’s the lesson because that’s always true:

That sometimes in today’s world, whether it be through mass media or just the things that are going on internationally, and the way we as human beings treat each other, or sometimes just in our daily life, the hectic pace that we have to keep to just stay ahead of the day’s demands, along with the complexities of it all, it seems that there’s no room in the inn. That there is no hiatus from it all.

It’s true sometimes, not just in the world but in our own families, or sometimes just what we’re going through ourselves and all the ragged unfinished business of things. It seems that there’s no room in the inn. That it’s just all like closed up or too filled up with too much complexity and maybe things that shouldn’t even be there in the first place.

And as true as that might be we can take reassurance that God comes anyway. That God is being inexplicably born in our hearts moment by moment, breath by breath, as the interior richness of every little thing that happens to us and everyone around us.

As much as we may think it is all up to us – the good work we do, the important, business of our lives, striving after all that we believe is important – then come times and circumstances in our lives that confound and disrupt our self-inflated, self-constructed, neatly-tidied world –

A sudden death, a broken relationship, health problems, some failure, job loss, bad news, an unsolvable problem – and our neatly-packaged lives unravel.

And so, the Christmas message is really for those who seek more comfort than joy at this time of year. Some mercy. Some grace.

The Christmas message is for you who have tried oh-so hard to make things right but do not reap nor see the benefits of your toil; to you who by no fault of your own find yourselves in the middle of heart-ache; to you who continue to flounder in fields of despair when it seems there is no end in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel; to you who carry on, lifting head high despite the significant impairments of your lives. The Christmas message is for you. So, hear this: God comes anyway.

Christmas is not an escape from those hard realities, an escape we must engineer somehow by all the numbing stimulations of holiday ‘cheer’. But that God comes right into the midst of the darkness of our lives.

But here’s the thing: In order to discover the presence of God, we have to leave the hurly-burly of the inn, the superficiality and the chatter of it all, and find our way in the dark, back to the stable. That is, we have to enter into the humility and the simplicity and the patience and the delicate nature of what’s unfolding in our heart to discover where God is being born in our life.

And in this kind of prayerful attentiveness we are then asked to bring that delicate simplicity back out into the hurly-burly of the world. “It would be so much easier if we were asked to live a simple life in a simple world. But we’re asked to live a simple life in a complicated world.”[1] And I think this is how God is born in our hearts: In simplicity of heart we do our best to live with integrity in a complicated world.

James Finley relates one of his earliest memories of Christmas: His mother would take him to mass on Sunday and they always sat right up in the first couple of rows, off to the side altar. He was maybe three years old. He knew it was Christmas time because there were Christmas trees up in the sanctuary and there was a nativity scene.

He remembers the church was very crowded and a little baby started to cry near the back. And he remembers whispering in his mother’s ear: “Is that the baby Jesus crying?” His Mom leaned down and whispered in his ear, “Yes, it is.” And little James believed her. And today at 74 years old he still believes her. Not in the naïve way that a small child would believe it. But knowing that in Christ it is revealed to us that every child is worth all that God is worth.

And the truth is, for all the complexities and things of which that simplicity has been buried under, these so many things, there is in our heart this childlike purity, this childlike God-given Godly nature of who we simply are because God loves us.

And so, for us Christmas is us being awakened to this birthing of God in the simplicity of our hearts, in the depths of our life; and, into the awareness that despite the complexities of whatever each day might bring, we can take reassurance that God comes anyway.[2]

[1] Katagiri Roshi, Contemporary Zen master.

[2] I’ve adapted his words to my preaching context and am ever grateful to James Finley, “An Advent Meditation” (New Mexico: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2017), for sharing and emphasizing the Christmas Gospel message, that God comes anyway.

Dialogue sermon – Epiphany 3A

The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned (Matthew 4:16)

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined (Isaiah 9:2b)

Voice 1: We confess that we sit in darkness (Matthew 4).
Voice 2: We confess that we even have the gall to walk around in the darkness (Isaiah 9).

Voice 1: Whether we are moving, or staying put, the darkness of sin clouds our vision, purpose and value in the world. We stumble and fall —
When we exclude, and draw lines of division between the haves and have-nots;
When we ignore, avoid and despise those different from us who press into our private places, disturbing the darkness and isolation.

Voice 2: We confess our longing to sit and walk in the light.
A place to be, free from our stuck-in-the-rut-ness,
free from what holds us back — our prejudices and fears.
A place to affirm and re-affirm our call.

Voice 3 (from balcony):
Bethlehem.
Egypt.
Nazareth.
Jordan River.
Wilderness.
Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee.

Voice 4 (from balcony):
The places where Jesus had his beginnings —
moving,
interrupting,
disturbing,
challenging,
calling.

Voice 1: Where are we now? What place inhabits our vision?
We long to return soon to our home, at 43 Meadowlands (Faith Lutheran Church).

Voice 2: We long to identify our place in the mission of God to the inadequately-housed (Julian of Norwich Anglican Church).

PLACE IS IMPORTANT.

Voice 5:
Our place in this world.
Our purpose.
Where we pray, sing, do mission together.
Where we affirm week after week who we are in Christ,
the light of the world.

In relationships, where we act boldly, and immediately, as did Christ’s disciples of old.

Jesus comes into the places of our lives to change us, challenge us.
No longer complacent,
but urgent following.
No longer passive,
but active response —

Voice 1: to the God who has, does and will continue to shine
God’s light and love in Jesus Christ
upon all who sit and walk in the darkness of the world.

God is always up to something

“… you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” Romans 13:11-12

When the first spell of wintery weather hit last week, I instinctively plugged in the new lawn ornament we purchased for display during the holiday season. Normally, we wait until later in December to light it all up. But with the advent of the storm, and the dissipating daylight by mid-afternoon, I felt I needed a boost of light to distract me from the dark thoughts of coming winter.

We had a family gathering that afternoon. And as family members gazed  out the picture window at the front of our house onto the lawn now covered by a couple inches of snow, they laughed. I didn’t anticipate that this six-foot tall Christmas tree would blink in sequences and bright colours enough to light up the whole yard. “Looks like the Vegas strip now on Ida Street,” I joked, thinking of all the shopping still on my ‘to do’ list and all the things that needed to be done. I felt the shroud of stress envelope my being.

That’s why Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, may be one of the most difficult seasons for Christians to observe. Most attempts in our culture to cover the darkness, literally and figuratively, only ramp up the anxiety, the fear and even the feelings of isolation that the festive season brings.

And yet, annual celebrations like Christmas are meant to transform our lives for the better. The message of God’s incarnation (Jesus, the Son of God, being born into human flesh) is transformative since now, in faith, we know God has entered our reality and changed forever the fabric of creation.

But how can the stress and incessant activity of the season contribute positively to our well-being, healing and growth? I don’t think it can, unless we give ourselves permission to hold off from fully embracing the joy of Christmas. Holding off may seem counterproductive and counterintuitive. Yet, the wisdom of the ages suggests that in order to see the new thing, we must first be willing to let go of what is not helpful. In other words, there’s some work we first have to do.

The prophet Isaiah announced the new thing which ushered Israel’s return to their homeland around Jerusalem. In order to start on that path, however, they would have to release their attachments to Babylon. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

The Israelites, apparently, had a ‘vision’ problem. They, as the way opened for them to return home, could not visualize such a Godly freedom and transformation of their lives for the good; they could not see God at work making a way out of their problem for them.

This pattern of being blinded to God’s work has repeated throughout the sacred stories of scripture: The same we read when the Israelites, centuries before, escaped bondage in Egypt, but spent decades wandering in the desert to find their “promised land”. Rev. Riitta Hepomaki, assistant to the Bishop, quoted on twitter this week the words of Peter Steinke who wrote: “It took one year to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but forty years to get Egypt out of the Israelites. We like familiar patterns” (@RiittaHepomaki).

Perhaps we, too, are like those ancient Israelites. We get stuck in familiar patterns. We limit ourselves, therefore, from seeing what God is up to.

So, we have to practice letting go. This is what liturgical season like Advent, and practices of prayer like Christian Meditation offer to us: Opportunities to contemplate, reflect and surrender those habits of the ego that merely gloss over the darkness of our lives.

How do we let go of fear, isolation, cynicism and defensiveness? How can we lay aside those things that do not, in the end, satisfy? How can we put on that which is good and wholesome?

Well, we first have to embrace the darkness, not circumvent it. God will make a way through the desert, not around it. We need to acknowledge the fear, the defensiveness, the isolation and the cynicism which normally hides the true light from shining. Like a piece of clothing, in order to take it off, we first must get a good grip on it. We need to ‘own’ it in order to cast it away.

This is why Advent is the time for confession, silence, stillness, penitence, waiting and preparation. These weeks leading up to Christmas give us an opportunity to prepare our hearts for the true joy, the true light that always comes into the world — not to get distracted by the glitz and hustle that, in the end, only keep us stuck in those familiar patterns of blindness to the truth.

When we pause to take stock, and honestly confess the truth that we are afraid, that we are defensive, that we are cynical, that we are isolated, etc. — the true light and joy comes not because of anything we can muster up, fabricate, manipulate or engineer. True happiness does not come in me plugging in that blinking Christmas tree on the front lawn — as much as I thought instinctively it might.

True joy comes when we wait for it. In the slowing down, pausing, and calm presence of ourselves, we can see better the gift that comes to us in the moment. Saint Paul seems pretty adamant  in his letter to the Romans to stress that it is “NOW”, in this moment that our salvation has come. It is in the ordinary, commonplace, unspectacular activities of our daily lives that matters most to Christ’s coming to us. Do we not see it?

The story is told of a wise Rabbi who had many students come to him for advice. Once, a younger student came to the Rabbi and asked, “How can we tell when the dawn has arrived? How can we tell the difference between night and day?” It was a good question, the Rabbi acknowledged, since early in the morning the change is not easily perceptible: One moment it is night, the next it is already day — but when is the exact moment when it changes over?

“You know the night is gone, and the day has arrived,” the Rabbi responded, “when the faces of those around you in the dark are no longer mere shadows that all look the same, but when you can finally recognize who that person actually is, standing in front of you, when the light allows it.”

The Light of Christ is coming. God is always up to something good, even in the darkness. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when the stress amps up for the season. Even when we have difficulty letting go of familiar patterns. God is up to something, always.

So, in the meantime as we struggle to let go, let us learn to wait in the darkness, standing together. And then rejoice, when the light does come to illuminate our way and the gift of those near to us. In Christ.