Resurrection in community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[4]Matthew 27:52-53

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

[6]Acts 11:1-3

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

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

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

Better together

The story is told of a wide-eyed enthusiast who visited Mother Theresa in Calcutta. Over the last century, Mother Theresa has been admired by Christians worldwide for her dedicated, self-giving work for the poorest of the poor in India.

The young man approached Mother Theresa and said, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do what you do.”

Mother Theresa, not missing a beat, replied, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do what I do either. I do this because I was made to do it.”

When we speak about the Holy Spirit in this season after Pentecost, we speak about the breath of God breathing in us. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, which means “breath.” 

Breathing is one of those automatic, biological responses that we don’t even have to think about. It is natural and does not really take any effort at all. We are seldom aware of our breathing. And yet, it is vital to our health. Breathing is critical to our very life and purpose.

You could say, we are made to breath.

And yet, though breathing is integral to our life we may forget the gift that is in us: The gift of the Holy Spirit. We forget that living in the Spirit is as natural as breathing.

The Spirit of God is like our breath. “God’s spirit is more intimate to us that we are to ourselves,” writes Henri Nouwen. “We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a spiritual life. It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy.” (1) 

Breathing is so essential for life that we only think about it when something is wrong with it. When disease, shock or accident leaves us without breath. When breathing becomes laboured. When oxygen levels are critically low in our bodies. When something we have taken for granted for so long no longer works, then what?

The way to arrive and remain in the Holy Spirit of God is both very simple and very hard: We have to remain in love. Breathing the Spirit of God’s love nips negativity, hatred and violence in the bud. It begins by retraining our initial thoughts.

We can’t risk walking around with a negative, or resentful, or gossipy, or critical mind. Because if we let the mind operate in a paranoid, angry, and resentful way, we aren’t going to breathe the Spirit of God. We won’t be breathing. We can’t be God’s usable instrument. 

That’s why Jesus commanded us to to love. It’s that crucial for life. Like breathing. That love can begin in the mind. As Eleanor Roosevelt apparently said: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” (2)     

In Jewish tradition only the consonants for Yahweh were printed in the Hebrew text – YHWH. As such, this most holy name for God was unspeakable. Interestingly, even the Hebrew consonants used in YHWH do not allow you to close your lips when you try to speak them.

We cannot confine God in one place as much as we cannot contain breath. We cannot point to one specific place and say, “God is there!”, turn around, point in the opposite direction and say, “And God isn’t there!” We can’t dare try to close our lips over breathing and pretend we have God all figured out! Identifying with God since ancient times was simply the intake and exhalation of breath. The great “I AM” was the breath itself.

It is the great mystery we enter into when we follow Jesus. Someone said, “life is a mystery to embrace, not a problem to be solved.” God is always beyond us but totally around us, within us and outside of us. And we all share in that same air and that same breath. It is the first thing we did coming out of our mother’s womb, and there will come that moment when we will do it for the last time.

But in between, we continue to take in the breath of God and exhale the breath of God – the totally accessible One, the totally given One, who like breath just waits to be received. Waits to be engaged. In bold acts fuelled by love for the other.

The late Swedish Lutheran bishop, New Testament scholar, and pioneer in Lutheran-Jewish relations, Krister Stendahl, gave helpful advice in this regard. How is it we can love others who are so different from us, so unlike us? Because it is easy to ignore, write off, dismiss and be critical of them.

To Christians living in a diverse and multi-religious environment, Stendahl encourages us to cultivate an attitude of ‘holy envy’ (3) towards the other. That is, we first recognize the gifts, the positives, that the other offers by their life. Rather than thinking first we need to persuade them that ‘they are wrong’, we first seek understanding based on admiring a gift they have. What does the other offer that I/We do not have? Because others have gifts I/We do not have. So, what is it the other has, that is good?

In such a way we begin to see the image of God reflected in creation — in others who are different. We begin to practice seeing Christ in the other. We begin to see the unity we share in the purpose of God, the mission of God. It takes us working together, each with their gifts, to make it happen.

This mysterious God we worship chooses to self-reveal as the Trinity — three persons in one. In other words, this one God we worship is a holy relationship. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit must function together by nature.

So, too, we must learn, practice, be intentional, about being in relationship with one another: working together, breathing in together and breathing out together the love and purpose of God on earth.

Once there was a Washer-man (a man who washes others’ clothes for hire) who was raising two donkeys. One he called Donkey-A and the other Donkey-B.

Donkey-A felt he was more energetic and could do better than the other donkey. He always tried to get the Washer-man’s attention by taking more of the load and walking as fast as he could in front of him.

Donkey-B was just a normal donkey. He tried as hard as he could, but he couldn’t carry as much as Donkey-A or impress the Washer-man by walking in front of him.

One day Donkey-B was crying and asking Donkey-A to help. He said, “Dear friend, it is only the two of us. Why do we compete against each other? If we worked together we could carry an equal load at a normal speed.”

Donkey-A became even more competitive after that. The next day he boasted to the Washer-man that he could carry more and run faster than Donkey-B, and he did.

Under the pressure Donkey-B collapsed in great fatigue and quietly passed away. As a result of the collapse, Donkey-A felt like he was on top of the world, having proved his superior skills and abilities. 

But now he also had to carry Donkey-B’s load.

For a short time Donkey-A was able to carry both loads, but he eventually became fatigued and weak. Finally the day came when the Washer-man was tired of this fatigued and no good donkey. He put him to pasture, and went searching for some other pack donkeys to get his work done.

The moral of this story is, you can’t do it alone. If we are made to breathe the Spirit of the triune God, we are by nature ‘relational’. It is important to learn how to work well together.

Worrying more about individual performance, taking all the credit and trying to do more than you are capable of doing eventually comes back and bites us one way or another. Christians, at their best, are team players.

Donkey B may not have been the strongest nor the fastest, but he was consistent. Everyone brings something valuable to the table. And so do you. Just because you may be different from others, doesn’t qualify you or them to be in competition nor be shunned.

Stronger together. Better together. This is what we were made for.


(1) Henri Nouwen, “Bread for the Journey; A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith”, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, May 18

(2) cited in “Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation” Centre for Action and Contemplation, May 19

(3) cited in Kristin Johnston Largen, “Interreligious Learning and Teaching: A Christian Rationale for a Transformative Praxis” Fortress Press, 2014,page 4

Marriage: valuing difference

I am an identical twin. Whenever people see my brother and me together, usually the first reaction is to express how similar we look and act. People, it seems, naturally start with what appears to unite us and make us ‘the same’.

When two people celebrate a marriage, again what seems to be the focus is on what they must share in common, what makes them ‘one’. In various marriage traditions the unity of the couple is, obviously, presumed. In Christianity we read the scriptures about ‘two becoming one’; leave in order to cleave (Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31).

We may therefore read into such a coming together a complete blending of the individuals, almost as if the two people in marriage must dissolve their separateness into one kind of amorphous blob. Somehow, it feels like individuality needs to be ‘erased’, we feel, in a proper marriage.

As a twin, I am continually intrigued by what challenges not only my twin relationship but other kinds of relationships as well: It is more difficult to consider our differences, what is dissimilar, between people as something to celebrate and lift up.

I am impressed by your differences that stand in sharp relief this weekend as you exchange wedding vows. Because, the very foundation of the way you are getting married is based on your differences. Not on something you share as the same.

Each of you come into the marriage union with a different and distinct set of religious beliefs. One is baptized Christian and the other is Hindu. In order to celebrate the marriage, you participated in a Hindu ceremony on Saturday, and then a Christian worship service on Sunday.

Using this experience as an important marker on your journey of life, I want to encourage you to continue celebrating the differences between you. Stand on your own two feet, albeit side by side. A healthy marriage will reflect two, distinct points of view. Don’t deny the individual journeys and identities of each person that brought you together in the first place, lest not those identities be diminished, ignored, suppressed or repressed in the course of your marriage. A healthy marriage will reflect an activity and character that results in two sets of feet moving in tension as in a dance, albeit in the same direction.

Kahlil Gibran, born in northern Lebanon, was an early twentieth century philosophical essayist, novelist, poet and artist whose 1923 book, “The Prophet”, is considered a classic in Arab literature. It is in this book that his poetry on marriage highlights the paradoxical nature of a true coming together, and a true unity of separate souls:

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.

You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.

Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a …[smothering] of love;

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,

Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.

For only the hand of Life [God] can contain your hearts.

And stand together yet not too near together:

For the pillars of the temple stand apart, 

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.[emphasis mine]

“Let their be spaces in our togetherness.”

What you are showing us is that we need not be afraid of what is different in the world today. We need not be afraid of what we don’t understand, just because it is a ‘mystery’. A mystery is not something we can’t understand; a mystery is infinitely understandable. Always unfolding. Always yielding and revealing new insights. Always inviting us to learn more, appreciate more, and love more. This is the true adventure and ongoing discovery of marriage and love.

You see, there is really only one reason, one motivation, one activity that gives charge, energy and purpose to your differentiated union. It is love. It is the passion and pure first love, born in the human heart, despite all the differences of our lives. Not denying them. Simply placing those differences in the perspective of love. The movement of love in your heart brings you into conversation and dialogue in the first place. And then, this love leads you both into deeper expressions of joy and intimacy.

Without needing to control the other, or force the other to change into our likeness. Love does not demand subservience. Love does not force another into submission. Love is not controlling of the other. Instead, love respects another who is different, seeks to understand the other. Love forgives the other and listens to them.

God is love. And that is why we are here today. As Lutheran pastor and teacher, Dr. Kristen Johnston Largen, writes, there is “inherent value in difference – even religious difference” (Interreligious Learning & Teaching, Fortress Press Minneapolis, 2014, p.79). Religious difference, in truth, is “part of God’s plan, rather than an obstacle to it.”

Love calls us out of our comfort zones, into the sometimes challenging and messy realities of being with another and participating in another’s field of life. On the one hand respecting one’s own integrity in doing so; at the same time, boldly entering another’s life. Marriage, in this way, is one of the best schools of love.

Raimon Panikkar, who was one of the most creative voices working in the area of interreligious dialogue encouraged people of different faiths to remember that “We belong together, even if our notions and codes are incompatible” (quoted in Largen, ibid., p.81). We belong together, in relationships of love. The scriptures you chose for your Christian wedding reflect this central tenet of Christianity (1 John 4:9-12, 1 Corinthians 13:4-13).

In the Christian faith, God is understood in a relationship. We call it, “The Holy Trinity” – three persons as one God. The truth of our lives is demonstrated most clearly in relation to one another. Because each of us has gifts and strengths to offer the other. In marriage, you individually have something the other needs, and the other can teach you a thing or two – I am sure! Each can learn from another, each from our own areas of strength.

For God bringing us together today.

For God bringing you both together in love.

Amidst the diversity, difference and distinctions of our common lives.
We give thanks. And praise be to God.

Amen.

In the Other

When we moved into our new house last Spring, there were no trees in our backyard. And so I went to a local nursery and bought a beautiful looking Norway Spruce tree, about four feet high, which I planted at the fence line. And I remember choosing this particular tree because it looked healthy; its deep and thick, verdant green branches were bursting with fresh, full buds, all over.

I watered it all summer long and fed it with fertilizer. In the winter I covered it with a folding board to protect it from the harsh winds and biting temperatures — which we had! I was going to make sure this tree would prosper!

So, tell me what you would do if you saw what I saw this Spring once all the snow melted: What would you do? (scroll down to see photo).

I must confess that my first instinct was to rip it out and start over. Find another tree. I thought, at first, that this tree was surely dead. There was no life in it anymore. Hopeless cause. Forget it.

But, for some reason or other I just let it be. I left it alone for awhile. And about a month ago, I noticed something remarkable. Do you see it? There are indeed signs of life showing: the green buds atop, and amidst the what looks otherwise like dead wood.

And I thought of my tree when reading the Gospel text for today (Matthew 10:24-39). Jesus seems intent on reminding his disciples of their worth, their value (“You are of more value than many sparrows” v.31) — despite everything that seems to the contrary. Remember, these disciples are not getting it; they misunderstand Jesus left, right and centre! They are imperfect, some would say — hopeless causes! Why would God even bother with those stupid disciples from Galilee? Riff-raff. Blue collar. Uneducated … the list goes on!

There is the story of a certain monastery — a monastic community which had fallen upon hard times. Only five monks remained in the motherhouse and all of them over the age of 70. Clearly, it was a dying order.

In the woods surrounding the monastery was a little hut, where a wise bishop lived. One day, the abbot thought it would be a good idea to visit this bishop, and ask him for any advice he might be able to offer, in order to save the monastery.

And so the abbot went and explained the problem to the bishop. The bishop commiserated with him: “I know how it is,” he said. “The spirit has gone out of the people. No one knows the joy and love of God anymore.” And so the old bishop and the abbot wept together. They read parts of the Bible, and quietly spoke of deep things together.

The time came for the abbot to leave. They embraced each other, and as they parted the abbot said, “It’s been wonderful that we should meet after all these years. But I must ask: Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me to save my dying order?”

The bishop looked straight into the eyes of the abbot and said, “The only thing I can tell you is this: One of you at the monastery is the Messiah.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery, he told his monks: “The bishop couldn’t really help me. We only read some Scripture and wept together. But he said some cryptic thing as I was leaving — he said that one of us is the Messiah. I really don’t know what he meant by that.”

In the weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered the bishop’s statement, and wondered among themselves if there could possibly be anything of significance to the bishop’s words. The Messiah? One of us? But which one? The conversations went something like this:

“Do you suppose he means the abbot? Surely if he means anyone, it is Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.

“On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Without a doubt, Brother Thomas is a holy man.

“But certainly he could not have meant Brother Eldred! Eldred can get really crotchety at times. But you know, come to think of it, even though he can be a thorn in people’s sides … when you look back on it, Eldred is virtually always right about anything. Often very right. Maybe the bishop means Brother Eldred.

“But surely not Brother Philip. Philip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, he has got a real gift of somehow always being there when you really need him. He just, like magic, appears by your side. Maybe Philip is the one ……”

And so, as they contemplated this matter together, the old monks began to pay greater attention to one another. They regarded each other with fresh eyes. They began to treat one another with respect, love and extra care. They related to one another keeping in the back of their minds always, that just maybe one of them might be the Messiah. Or, perhaps that each monk himself might be the one.

A beautiful forest surrounded the monastery, and people still occasionally came to visit the monastery — to picnic on its lawn, to wander along some of its paths, and even now and then to go into its dilapidated yet charming chapel, to pray.

And as they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of respect and grace that now began to surround the five old monks …

And radiate out from them.

There was something strangely attractive and compelling about the atmosphere about the community. Hardly knowing why, these visitors began to return to the monastery to picnic, to play, and to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of these visitors started to talk more and more with the old monks, and ask them questions: “Why are you here?” “What are you all about?” “Who are you?” etc. etc.

After awhile, one asked if he could join them. Then another. And yet another. And within a few years, the monastery had once again become a thriving order focused not on its own self nor plight — but in others with whom they came into contact in their daily routines about the community.

This story touches on the practice of being church. Community in Christ is not about navel-gazing and conformity. It’s not about seeking a gathering of the “like-minded”. Belonging in the family of God is not about being the same, or tying to be the same, with everyone else in the community.

Being in a church is about meeting others who are not like me. Being part of the church is about discovering God in difference, in others who are different from me and my ilk. Often that comes about by first noticing what you might not choose to be like, yet seeking to understand from where the other is coming, and appreciating their gifts.

And perhaps this story might give us a clue as how to appreciate the disruptive words of Jesus in our Gospel text — about loving God before loving our family. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about forming exclusive communities or clubs of like-minded people.

Rather, the Gospel is continually calling us to go out into the world in order to discover what God is already up to in other people who are not ‘part of our family’. Our worth and our value has a purpose — “to proclaim [the Gospel of Jesus] from the housetops” (v.27). As we have heard from many church leaders in recent years — “the church exists primarily — it’s primary focus — for those who are not members of it.”

This challenges each one of us, first to see the Christ in one another, and also see Christ in the stranger. And remembering that if God doesn’t give up on us who are far from perfect — if God sees the value and worth in us even when we might only see the blemishes — so God asks us to value an outsider as potentially being visited upon by Jesus himself.

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