Children’s Sermon – different gifts, same Body

I bring my bright, neon-green hard shell suitcase on rollers to show the children. On the handle, dangles a baggage tag. On one side of the tag I write my name and address. On the other side of the tag I write the the words: “You don’t belong to me!”

“When you go on a trip far away from home, or stay overnight at a friend’s place or your grandparent’s house — do you pack a suitcase?”

“What colour is yours? What does it look like? Is it small? Is it big? Is there a design or picture on the front of it? Does it have a handle, or roll on wheels?”

“I have this one because it is easy to spot at the baggage claim in the airport — when all the suitcases fall on a conveyor belt and go around a concourse where air travellers stand and look for their own to pick up. Most suitcases are dark-coloured, so it’s harder to spot your own from afar if it is black or brown or dark green. Sometimes, just to make sure, you have to read the tag as it goes by. If you don’t, you might walk away with someone else’s suitcase, or someone may walk away with yours!”

“That’s why on this tag I wrote these words — can anyone read it out loud? What does it say?” …..

“‘You don’t belong to me!’ Leave me be! Leave me alone! – that’s what I want to tell anyone trying to take my suitcase, even by mistake!” 

“Thankfully, we are not suitcases. We are people. And people can stand out and be bright and noticeable. They can be big. They can be small. Some have a hard shell, others not so much! … All these differences make us who we are, make us interesting, make us individuals. And this is good! This is how God made us.”

“We live in a world that wants to tell us: ‘You don’t belong!’ — even our friends can be nasty sometimes and say things to us that make us feel like we don’t belong to them or anyone else. When we make mistakes, our teachers, our parents, the police can make us feel like we don’t belong. The world makes us feel like we are not good enough the way we are — that we have to be like someone else.”

“But being part of God’s family, we belong! Each and every one of us, no matter how different we are — what we think, how we look, what we can do or not do, even when we make a mistake or feel sad or happy — we belong to God and to each other. Like part of a body, every member is different and has a different use; yet, we belong to the same body.”

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ –1 Corinthians 12:12

“Thank you Jesus, for making me a part of your Body, the church. Help us to care for everyone, and value their gifts. Amen.”

‘One little word’

“Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods …. Now … choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:2,15)

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places … ” (Ephesians 6:10-12)

My mother told me the story of a dramatic stand made by Christians against Hitler on Easter Sunday 1942 in Norway: The Nazis had insisted that every Lutheran congregation praise God for Hitler’s rule over the Norwegians. The Lutheran Church considered this blasphemy, and refused. Every Norwegian Church closed that Easter Sunday morning. And instead they agreed to worship in the afternoon.

Later that day in one of the villages the people assembled in the market place. And because they were scared, they began singing what Lutherans have sung for over 400 years when they were afraid: “A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing …”

And they slowly began to walk to the steps of the village church — only to find the doors locked and guarded by a company of SS soldiers with submachine guns trained at them. When the Christians arrived at the front steps, having finished the first verse of Martin Luther’s famous hymn, an SS officer grabbed a woman holding a baby in her arms and said: “One more verse and she gets it first”, pointing the weapon at her head.

In the tense silence, the people, not knowing what to do, looked down at their feet.

And then, a single, soft, quivering voice began … 

“Though hordes of devils fill the land, all threatening to devour us, we tremble not, unmoved we stand, they cannot overpower us. Let this world’s tyrant rage … his might is doomed to fail. God’s judgement must prevail. One little word subdues him.”

It was the voice of the woman holding the baby. “One little word subdues him.” The soldiers were the ones in a moment of indecision who looked down at their boots. And then quietly they shuffled out of sight to let the worshippers enter the church.

One little word subdues him. Not a loud trumpet call. Not an explosion of spectacular proportions. Not an air strike obliterating the enemy. Not a bravado that denies human frailty and vulnerability. Not eloquent oration. Not a motivational speech rallying the crowd into a frenzy. One little word subdues him.

The themes of ‘standing up against evil’ and ‘taking a stand’ pervade the scriptures assigned for this Sunday. We must choose our god. We must stand up. Especially in the context of a multi-faith community. But how do we do this when all we want to do is stare down at our feet, immobilized with fear?

Because we are surrounded by diverse peoples. And that isn’t going to change. At least we can relate to the Ephesians. The Christians in Ephesus were probably taken to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of Domitian; Ephesus in the first century was also a thriving commercial city and the cultic centre of goddess Artemis. (Haruko Nawata  Ward, Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 3 Fortress Press, 2009, p.376). Christians were challenged to be confident in their faith amidst challenging times. Change some of the names, and it feels a bit like Canada in the 21st century!

And as simple as we sometimes may want to reduce the question of evil, the scriptures present a more subtle and systemic view of evil. In other words, evil is not just a little red man with a pitch fork sitting on your shoulder tempting you to do something bad. Evil is also, and more significantly, about forces beyond the immediately ‘individual’, into the realms of politics, world history, economics. 

More than against “flesh and blood” evil is also about certain patterns of thinking. Our attitudes and underlying beliefs and assumptions about people of other faiths and values.

Standing up against evil and taking a stand is just is as much to do with changing the way we think about ‘them’. Standing up against evil is about repudiating ways of thinking and unspoken assumptions that have only served to hurt and damage other people. Sometimes the way we think — the common sense assumptions of our culture — are downright evil and wrong. Let me give you an example:

This past summer at the national convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), the church voted to repudiate the “doctrine of discovery”. This doctrine is different from our normal understanding of a statement of faith. But it was a belief that resulted in untold damage to the aboriginal populations of North America. It was the reason aboriginal children were taken from their homes, families and communities to suffer — many of them — in the so-called Indian Residential Schools in the last century.

The doctrine of discovery was the underpinning belief that resulted in the first explorers labelling Aboriginal people as “beasts of the field and forest”, and prompted governments to justify “killing the Indian in the child.” The doctrine of discovery made the residential schools places where native children were not permitted to speak their own language, practice their own religion, nor attend with their own siblings or have any contact with their parents while they were at school. How evil is that!?

So what is this doctrine of discovery that the ELCIC repudiated? Basically, it was a system of belief based in the discovery of North America, as if nothing of inherent value existed here before ‘we’ arrived. When the explorers landed on the shores of Iceland and then Turtle Island (i.e. North America), the land appeared to be unoccupied in the ways of western Europe. The explorers therefore believed it was theirs to acquire and own. When the explorers encountered native bands, there was this immediate disconnected with their values and culture and relationship with the land, understandably. Still, the settlers felt superior in their relationship to the native culture, believing — “What we have is better for you.” And moving from that doctrine into practices and policies of assimilation and subjugation like the residential schools.

I can anticipate your objection: But what to make of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 — when Jesus instructs his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”? Isn’t this what we have been supposed to do? – make others, force others to be like us? Aren’t we supposed to impose our values on the world, using any means at our disposal? Another English translation of the word, disciples, changes the tone significantly. When we read, “Go therefore and make learners of all nations”, we can see our task as learning. Disciples are essentially ‘learners’. Learning involves challenging current patterns of thinking, and going out into the world to share our faith. (Kristin Johnston Largen, Interreligious Learning &  Teaching, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2014, p.109)

When I visited Jerusalem years ago, I was surrounded by at least three different world religions day in and day out. Muslim minarets blared out regular calls to prayer; orthodox Jews bowed at the wailing wall. And I, with a small group of Christians found a little apartment in the old city to gather around bible, cup and bread, to pray  and sing together. Few other times in my life have I ever felt as confident and grateful for my Christian faith than in a context  where other faiths and cultures came and tried to live together, even clashed.

Sharing our faith is not about one-up-man-ship. Sharing our faith is not a competition. It is simply being confident to talk to others when appropriate about what is most important to you. And, giving the other the freedom to do likewise. I think we still need to work on that in the church because I think we still believe it’s about a competition. That we have to fight, even, if necessary, to defend God — or our ideas of God. Be the winner, not the loser, in a winner-takes-all kind of world. It was in Jerusalem when I first realized that if there was any evil in the world, it started in me and my selfish, materialistic, self-acquiring vision for life.

Paul’s armour-of-God metaphor, like all metaphors, has limits and can even be problematic. Such a text has been interpreted throughout two thousand years of church and world history often as justification for violence against others. It is challenging maybe even impossible for us today to engage this text without the lens of history and the development of society and human culture through the ages — particularly with respect to warfare.

And that is why, as Lutherans especially are taught to do, I would not want to interpret this text without placing it beside another text from Paul’s letters, in this case, to ‘let scripture interpret scripture’. Listen now to another clothing analogy, where Paul speaks of what we ‘put on’ in Christ:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful …. And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:12-15,17)

Indeed, in this light, the belt of truth is the Gospel. The helmut of salvation is God’s eternal promise of love for us. The breast-plate of righteousness is a heart of compassion. The boots are actions that bring peace and goodwill to the world. The shield of faith is trusting in God’s grace. The sword of the Spirit is proclaiming the word of forgiveness, mercy and love.

One little word subdues him. An act of humility, not military aggression nor forceful imposition.

One little word subdues him. A word of forgiveness rather than condemnation, racism and judgement.

One little word subdues him. Something unexpected, surprising and even looked down upon by the world’s winners — that changes history. One little word — not born of competition, comparison and control, but born of surrender, release and trust. One little word, “I love you”, changes everything.

One little word is Jesus. God becomes human. A baby. A prophet. A teacher. A lamb taken to slaughter. One little word is greater than anything the world lives by. One little word whispered in a storm. One little word sung softly into the barrel of a machine gun. One little word nudging gently our hearts, saying to you: I love you. I forgive you. You are free. You will forever more be a child of God.

Now, tell the nations of the world the same. And act like you believe it. Because it’s true. Thanks be to God.

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.

Diversity in unity: A Reformation sermon

Of all that can be said about the tragic events of October 22, 2014 at the War Memorial and Parliament Hill, one thing we can agree on: something changed. In the aftermath of the shootings, we are still figuring out exactly what.

The day started for me with great anticipation that evening of the ‘battle of Ontario’ between the Senators and Maple Leafs at the Canadian Tire Centre. The day certainly didn’t end that way.

As I drove past the quieted Canadian Tire Centre with its vast, empty parking lots on my home late that tragic day, I marvelled how a single act of cowardly violence could alter the psyche of a city: The anticipation of a sell-out, jam-packed arena was suddenly silenced. Instead, I along with the rest of the city was eager to get home to be with family and loved ones after a day of anxious and often chaotic lock-downs in schools and downtown buildings.

Images of armed officers and special police units swarming familiar and beloved symbols of national remembrance, barricaded Members of Parliament, horrific visions of a slumped body at the foot of the war memorial ricocheted in my mind. Sounds of gun shots from security personnel in the Hall of Honour in Centre Block echoed in my head.

And then, words from the Prime Minster and other party leaders assuring Canadians that this attack was aimed at undermining our values. It seems times of collective crisis, such as this one, burn through all our usual distractions and reveals what is truly important to us. Indeed, now is the time to affirm, and attempt to clarify, what is the nature of our identity and community.

Earlier in the day I went to the Ottawa Civic Hospital where the victims of the violence were taken. The place was streaming with extra security personnel at the entrances and in front of the emergency department. What struck me was the way in which the medical staff went about their usual business of caring for the patients in the hospital. Obviously aware of the ongoing, ‘dynamic’ operation downtown and the possibility of many more injured to arrive any time, they nevertheless kept to their scheduled procedures with smiles and loving attentiveness to others. Their jobs, however routine, became infused and enlivened with caring compassion, in the moment.

On the eve of the shootings, Bishop Munib Younan — president of the Lutheran World Federation and Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Lands — spoke in downtown Ottawa to a diverse group of Lutheran leaders and laity about peace. He described an image often portrayed in the media of young people in his part of the world throwing stones at their enemies. Bishop Younan prays for a day when those stones could be used to build bridges of peace.

How appropriate. He was, after all, speaking to Canadians whose international reputation is one of peace-keeping and building, respecting the humanity dignity of all people.

In all the media reporting on Wednesday, I heard an American security official comment on what he saw to be a typical Canadian response: He observed how RCMP officers and Ottawa Police communicated with the public on the streets of downtown Ottawa in the hours following the shooting; they would often say ‘please’ move to the other side of the street. Politeness and consideration continued to be hallmarks of our public interaction, even in the midst of a crisis.

Some say now we should no longer be so ‘laid back’ as Canadians. We should be tougher, more aggressive. On Reformation Sunday today we sing with pride Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”. Let us, dear friends, not become the fortress where we exclude others who are different from us. Let us, dear friends, not become a fortress where violence escalates and hatred is encouraged — which is precisely what the haters want. Now is the time to affirm what has always characterized us for the good.

But what is that, as Lutherans? Martin Luther affirmed that we are saved ‘by grace through faith’. What is a good metaphor for grace? Where does it come from, and where does it go?

Grace pools like water at the bottom of things. Water flows naturally into the lowest recesses of a land’s topography. Vast rivers seek their way downward towards the ocean. The grace of God is like water, whose primary direction is downward.

The cross of Christ is a symbol that God is discovered precisely where it hurts the most, where we feel the most vulnerable and shamed and exposed. This was central in the thinking and theology of Martin Luther — the Cross: God is found where we least expect it, when we least expect it. This is relevant especially to Canadians and Ottawans in particular, in light of what has just happened.

Could we respond not just with pronouncements of who we should be more like, but with a sober affirmation of who we are? Could we respond with a commitment to paying attention to what is reality for most of humanity around the globe, and not just for the rich and famous, privileged and elite? Could we respond by embracing again a faith that proclaims resurrection and new life through the ‘momentary’ suffering that comes to us all?

Martin Luther experienced the devil, at which he threw ink wells and much profanity, while alone in his study at Wartburg and during an immense personal struggle and angst. The Germans have a good word for it — ‘anfechtung’ — which describes an internal battle. The devil is not personified in any particular religious group or ethnic profile, but comes to us all in our own personal struggle with hatred, blaming, and self-righteousness. In Ephesians 6 Paul writes that our struggle is not against enemies of ‘blood and flesh’ but against ‘cosmic powers and spiritual forces’ to which we are, each and everyone of us, vulnerable. Therefore, in the words from 1 Peter 5:6-11 …

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever.

A mighty fortress IS our God. God will shelter us under the wings of God’s care and protection. No matter where we go — in the public spaces or by ourselves, alone. God will never leave us nor forsake us.

Engage the 4-wheel drive!

Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).

What do Lutherans and Jalapeño peppers have in common? When just two peppers are ‘gathered’ in a dish, they enhance the taste with just a bit of a kick. But a whole plateful brings tears to the eyes!

“Yes, Jesus, where two or three are gathered, we can handle…. but not a whole room full, please!” We joke about the challenge of trying to be and work together. And because of the difficulty, we may take the easy road and just avoid getting too involved. After all, nobody wants to step on anyone’s toes.

In a way, this Gospel reads similarly to the injunction in the book of Hebrews encouraging the coming together of people as necessary in a life of faith. “… let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together …” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

But this is not easy! For where two or three are gathered we have two or three different opinions, and hence the hard work begins! If we took Jesus’ words literally, churches would have only two or three people in them! Maybe in some small churches it’s starting to look like that anyway! The more people, the more conflict, after all. The context of the Gospel text is how to deal, in an orderly fashion, with conflict. Conflict will happen whenever people get together. This is normal even if for many in the church, undesirable.

I’ve never been a fan of Football. I’ve always had this prejudice that the sport is just all about testosterone-induced aggression. Every play, it seemed to me, ended up looking like a flock of vultures diving into each other with bodies lying in heaps on the ground.

However, after attending several practices, now that my son plays, I’ve watched the coaches interact with the kids in the various drills and reps they do. And what struck me is how, essentially, being successful as a team is about first being aware of what to do in each and every contingency: whether the ball is carried in a running game, turned over; when the ball is kicked; or, in running some kind of coverage; or, in completing passes; or, creating a wedge wall, etc.

More to the point, it’s not about individually knowing what is going on, but critically it’s about the whole line — defensive and offensive — being aware and employing a certain tactic together. They may look like a flock of vultures, yes, but they have to fly in formation, together, in order to be successful. This takes practice. The team has to gel.

How we deal with our differences, between one another, that is the real question. We, in our families, in our workplaces, on the sports field, driving in traffic, in the church — we need to practice working together. We are not individuals doing our own thing, in our own individualistic worlds, even in our prayer life; I can tell certain drivers on the road when, even though hundreds of cars are in the mix, they behave as if they are the only ones on the road.

Speaking of driving, I like to think God has given each one of us a special gift. This gift is like God created each one of us to be a 4×4 Jeep to drive on the road of life. You know what four-wheel-drive on a car is: Basically, if you have four-wheel-drive, you have the option when you need it to engage all four wheels in the power-train instead of just the two front wheels. Four-wheel-drive comes in handy especially in snowy, icy winter conditions, or when you drive off-road in mud, over rocks and in fields.

Now, I believe most of us who have this four-wheel-drive option don’t really need it for 99% of the time we drive, even in winter.

For most of our lives, things may go reasonably well for many of us. Life is good. We get by. We may even enjoy many of the blessings of a good life. And let’s face it: We were not born in Iraq and we are not being persecuted and murdered and displaced from our homes because of our faith. Let’s face it, we were not born in Africa where drought and ebola threaten our very lives and the lives of our children. Let’s face it, most of us here are not homeless or hungry, or part of any disadvantaged minority in our society. We have it good: We have schools to go to. We have caring communities and friends we can lean on. We have disposable income, most of us, to give us leisure, pleasure and a comfortable life.

But there will still be times in our lives when we will suffer. There will be times in our lives when our health will fail and we come face to face with our limitations. We will suffer loss and even tragedy. We will suffer the pressures and stresses of family and work and the conflicts of being in a community.

And when we do, we will need the four-wheel-drive option that is built right into our make-up. We do, so God created each of us, have the capability to engage the off-road bumps and potholes. We do, so God created each of us, have the capability to engage those slippery, icy, even dangerous road conditions.

Yes, using four-wheel-drive burns more gas. It’s not the most fuel-efficient way of driving. We use up more energy. It will be difficult, trying, even exhausting. Following Jesus pushes us past our comfort zones, to be sure. But we do have the capability, this gift, and we should use it.

And here’s the wonder of it: When we must engage the four-wheel-drive option and drive down that unknown, sometimes scary, road, being jostled about on the uneven, narrow way, we discover that God sits right beside us in the car.

You see, the engine won’t ever fail, because the capability for off-roading is the quality of God’s love. Love is the fuel, the energy, the power behind this effort. And this love is shown to us by God. God loves us, even when we make mistakes, when we falter, even when crash, even when we will have an accident. God is with us. And God’s love and unfailing presence sustains us.

Saint Paul writes, “Salvation is nearer to us now, than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11). This verse from the second reading today is both astounding, and comforting. When we first became aware of the love of God for us, and accepted this love as the fuel for our lives — that was great! This may have been our baptism, or some significant turning point in our lives of faith when the beauty, joy, peace and glory of life radiated all around us.

But the point is, now that may be off-roading, now that we may be using that 4×4 capability on the rough patches of the road of life, God is even closer to us. Now that we may be suffering and enduring in faith with one another, God is even closer to us, “… and will not forsake his people; God will not abandon the work of his hands” (Psalm 94:14).

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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Gospel morality

It was a cold afternoon in March. The windchill made it feel like -20’C. And I was worried. You see, I like to keep my feet warm. I dislike the feeling of cold feet. And too late I remembered that one of the realities of visiting a Mosque was taking off your shoes.

I would be in the Ottawa Mosque for several hours. And all I had donned on my feet last Sunday morning was a thin pair of black dress socks for morning worship. I tried to rationalize my way into a comfortable scenario: The annual meeting of the Multi-Faith Housing Initiative would likely be held in the basement of the Mosque — so perhaps the tradition of removing footware in a place of worship would not apply downstairs.

But sure enough as soon as I entered the building, the first thing to greet me was racks upon racks of shelving for shoes. No one was to pass that point — going upstairs or down — without taking off their shoes. As the doors came closed, a blast of chilling wind brushed against my pant leg, giving a frigid foretaste of what I was in for this afternoon.

Wearing my black suit with clerical collar and large pectoral cross hanging from my neck I made my way downstairs. Suddenly two young children dashed beside me on their way into the carpeted meeting room. They stopped, turned around and smiled largely.

Obviously familiar with their worship space surroundings, they proceeded to give me a brief, welcoming introduction to their home: Here are the washrooms; There is the kitchen; Those are the chairs for the meeting. I started to relax. And after a couple of hours, my feet were still warm on the deeply cushioned carpet. 

When we read these very long stories from the Gospel of John, it may be worthwhile to consider some details about the literary context. That is to say, let’s receive this text looking at the whole, larger perspective. For example, in the story of the healing of the blind man (John 9:1-41), only the first seven verses describe the actual healing miracle. The remaining thirty-four verses describe the debate that surrounded this man’s healing.

This leads me to wonder about what the Gospel writer, John, really wanted to emphasize. Perhaps the point of the Gospel is not so much on the miraculous and spectacular — which our culture of instant gratification would jump on. Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning here which can be easily overlooked by our obsessions with judgment, fear and need to explain everything.

First, as far as we are concerned, our connection and deepening relationship to God — which is a process of healing in and of itself — is a process. We see this progress in how the blind man grows step-by-step in his relationship to Jesus.

First, early on in the story, he addresses him, “the man called Jesus” (v.11). Then, he calls him, “a prophet” (v.17). And then, “a man of God” (v.33). Finally, at the end, the man healed by Jesus says to him, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him (v.38). If anything, this Gospel story is not about explaining sin as much as it is about growing into a personal confession of God, in Jesus Christ. And this confession is not an immediate, conversion experience; it takes time. Our reconciliation with Jesus is a journey.

But, paradoxically, this journey is Christ-led; it is not our doing. We will notice that Jesus refuses to play the Pharisees’ game. The Pharisees are focused maintaining control over the religious enterprise — where they are the keepers of the law, the righteous. They maintain control by focusing on others’ sin, by issuing blame and judgment. And making it all about human works.

The Pharisees, and Jesus’ disciples who first ask the question, relate the man’s physical blindness to his sins, thus justifying his condition. The sins we commit are here understood as being the bad things we can somehow will ourselves to stop doing if we had a choice. This religious viewpoint basically implies that the quality of our faith depends fundamentally on our willpower.

Jesus has nothing to do with this. You can see why he was such a threat to the Pharisees. Because faith is not about us, in the end. It’s about God. I think that’s the meaning of Jesus’ statement that the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (v.3). Our connection to God is primarily the result of God’s works, not ours. The purpose of our connection to God is to point to God, not ourselves.

The morality of the Gospel is fundamentally a question of how God relates to us, and how we are called to relate to one another. Gospel morality is not about whether or not we sin — because we do anyway no matter how hard we try not to. After all, the man didn’t choose to be blind; he couldn’t even take any personal responsibility for this condition.

Gospel morality is a question of how we respond to life’s challenges and events. Imagine dancing with a partner called, “Life Happens”: Do we ‘lead’ (like the disciple often did, and the Pharisees always did) with fear and/or judgment? Or, do we ‘lead’ with grace and thanksgiving?

How does God lead? The Gospel shows God’s favor towards us. The Gospel shows that “we did not choose Jesus; Jesus first chose us” (John 15:16). Jesus did not come “to condemn the world” but in order to save the world (John 3:17). Jesus, as God the Father, does not look on outward appearances (i.e. our frailty, our weakness, our sin), but on our heart (1 Samuel 16:7). God loved us, Saint Paul articulates, “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:6-8). God leads with grace, forgiveness, and love — despite all to the contrary in our lives.

The reality of our lives — and the truth of our lives — is not defined by what’s on the surface but by the constant presence, power and grace of God.

If there is a morality we speak of as Christians, it is a morality that trusts God above all when we lead with grace and thanksgiving. That is not to say there is no room for addressing cause for fear. But it is to claim that we will lead with grace.

Multi-Faith Housing Initiative is run by a diverse group of very capable, talented individuals from various faith communities. The executive committee led most of the meeting last Sunday — as you can imagine — typically clarifying detailed accounting, audit and administrative material. Women and men wore their business suits and looked officious, efficient and professional. Except for one thing.

What struck me as I watched them with their power-points, laptops and effective communication styles was they were all, to a person, in their stocking feet. That fact alone added a humbling effect to the gathering. It reminded me that despite all our differences — not denying them, but despite those differences — we were all standing on the same ground.

When Moses stood in the presence of God in the burning bush, God told him to take off his shoes, for he was standing on ‘holy ground’ (Exodus 3:5). Indeed we were all of us standing on holy ground united in our common purpose, humble before one another and God.

I was again reminded that although it may be easy to lead with judgment and fear in our diverse communities when uncertainty feels threatening, it is still better to lead with grace and thanksgiving — modelled to me by those young Muslim children who knew I wasn’t ‘one of them’ — but who nevertheless welcomed me with open arms.

“And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

If only there were one use for salt

To melt ice

and soften stone cold, unyielding hearts

with words and acts of love, compassion, understanding, gentleness;

To preserve food

and persevere, don’t give up!

for the future is worth the hard work of the present;

To add flavour

Rejoice and savour the simple gifts of life

from what is ordinary, can also yield fulsome taste;

To create thirst

and point to the One, Jesus

who is the source of life-giving water

and who quenches the thirsty.

So many uses for salt

All good, all necessary,

Born from the earth, a grounded creation.

Which is your saltiness? Are you giving it?

Whose other saltiness will you appreciate today?

Signs of hope on the road to Damascus

Not only is the call to differentiation a personal challenge but a societal one as well.

Even reformist movements, such as the Arab Spring which first began to spread across the Middle East in March 2011, can fail to represent and cherish the religious diversity in those countries.

I attended a moving presentation a couple nights ago by a Syrian Christian, Huda Kandalaft of Ottawa, who spoke about the plight of Christian minorities in predominantly Arab states such as Syria. She showed us video of the destruction of various places of worship in her home town, Homs, including Presbyterian, Catholic and Orthodox churches. Huda described how the home of her childhood was bombed, and when she received the tragic news of the brutal murder of her cousin in the streets.

Christians there are a minority. They make up about 10% of the population of Syria. Under the Assad regime, while the laws prohibited proselytization, churches and mosques co-existed in relative peace. Huda told us how in Homs she grew up walking past the mosque across the street from her church. As long as the faithful kept their activities within their walls, there was religious stability in society.

Not being permitted to express faith in the public realm is not religious freedom. At least compared to what we in Canada have celebrated as a multicultural society. We still live in a nation where Christians are free to exercise their conscience in public spaces.

But some elements in the Arab Spring movements call for zero tolerance of religious diversity and the squashing out of the minorities. Christians in Syria feel that the opposition movement trying to topple their government may mean that the extreme Islamists will take power and not allow Christians to live their faith and even worship God in their country.

It’s a very complicated situation for Christians there. Many flee the violence. The population of Homs, for example, has been depleted. Only a handful of Christians remain. They don’t hold regular worship services anymore. So, what do they do?

One place is a nursing home caring for the elderly. It is run by the Roman Catholic nun and priest. Another is a school for all children who still live in Homs. In the basement of an Orthodox church members teach children the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Christians are still living out their call to share the love of Jesus even as they are so desperate in need.

These are signs of hope. In the care of the weak and vulnerable. In the faces of Syrian children.

In a recent phone call to the people in the Homs nursing home they were asked, “What can we do for you?”; they answered, “Pray for us.”

Two thousand years ago a man by the name of Saul was on a dusty road to Damascus in Syria, “breathing threats” against the Christians there (Acts 9:1-20). He job was to persecute the Christians in a time when any threat to the dominant political and religious powers of the day was stomped out. Diversity was not tolerated, to say the least.

Yet, on that road to Damascus, the power of God not only effectively stopped Saul from his evil intent, but turned it on its head. “I am Jesus, whom you persecute”. A voice from the whirlwind brought Saul to his knees.

In a moment of dramatic conversion, Saul’s heart was turned around. His journey continued to Damascus. But now, to be a champion of the Christian movement. His letters that form most of the New Testament testify to the profound theological legacy for Christians throughout the ages.

Is there hope for Christians persecuted in the world today? Even though, amidst the violence, destruction and death, it’s difficult to see — we do believe in a God who brings life out of death, new beginnings out of old patterns, hope and joy out of despair. We believe in a God who can turn the hearts of even the most frightening threat.

Therefore, we can pray for Syria, in confidence and faith.

Read“A Call to Prayer: Syria” in Glad Tidings, March/April 2013, by Huda Kandalaft

Dare to be you

In my life as an identical twin, unrealistic expectations of my twin-hood abounded. On the one hand, people presumed my brother and I are identical — I mean perfectly duplicate copies of each other. On the other hand, people loved to compare and contrast, presuming — as I always have — that there are inherent differences.

The ‘identical twin’ designation is nevertheless a misnomer. Being an identical twin doesn’t mean I am a copy-cutter, mirror-image of my twin brother David. We are actually different!

And yet, my twin identity has contributed — I think — to some attitudes with which I’ve lived most of my life, attitudes that may not have been entirely helpful to my growth and maturity and development, spiritual and otherwise.

Particularly, I remember how important it was for me to recognize my own path, my own unique identity — apart from David’s. Until I was able to claim a unique place within the fabric of my family, my community of friends and church I often felt compelled to incessantly compare myself to David, which was exhausting and emotionally draining.

Until I could say to myself that “I am who I am” on my own two feet, I would too easily slip into negativity and self-rejection. Either because I was not good enough compared to David, or I had to be someone that I wasn’t, or better than I was. Or, relish in the victory that I beat out David in some way — for the moment, anyway!

From this kind of thinking emerges a work ethic, which is not unlike what many of us have likely heard or told ourselves growing up: “Try harder!” “You’re no good the way you are; you have to try to be something and someone that you aren’t now.” The striving and activity characterizing religion today has as its starting point: self-negation, self-rejection. “I’m no good the way I am; I have to get better.” Or, “we’re not good the way we are; we have to get better.”

In and of itself, this motivation is not bad. A yearning for completion, for healing and growth, for communion with God and one another is good and healthy. Denying our brokenness and sin is dangerous and ultimately destructive.

But when this desire becomes ego-centric in expressions of false humility or justifications for staying stuck — mired in a pious negativity (“I/we can’t do that; I’m/we’re no good” — we can so easily miss recognizing the whole point of our journeys of faith (“Yes I/we can, because of God’s grace and love!”).

Christians believe we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27); we all have the imprint of God on our lives. But everyone doesn’t manifest the same divine qualities. Even identical twins!

Each of us reflects a unique aspect of God’s character. And this truth results in different gifts, different energies. Different ways of dealing with a similar situation, even. All good. All part of the beautiful diversity of creation.

Sometimes I wonder whether we haven’t confused the voice of brokenness and sin in each of us with our diversity. That just because you do something differently from me, just because you react in a different way to a situation we both face, just because you are different from me — that somehow either I have the right way and you have the wrong way, either you are sinful and I am righteous or vice versa, or we’re better than them.

What if by digging a bit deeper we recognize a shared truth about ourselves and our Lord? What if by inquiring a bit further we discover that it’s not that we’re better than them, but that they have simply gone about it in a different way — a way with which we’re merely unfamiliar. What if it’s not either/or? What if it’s both/and? And this awareness starts, I believe, not by insisting on conformity in the church, but by acknowledging, recognizing and celebrating our diversity.

Our diversity and variety make us whole and complete, as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). All parts are needed for the health of the Body, as Paul famously writes in his letter to the Corinthian Church. We can’t all be eyes, or we wouldn’t have a body. We can’t all be legs; that would look like a very funny body! We can’t all be hair, or we would be Tribbles on an old Star Trek episode — the Trouble with Tribbles! We are not like-minded people even though we belong to the same church — but we never were!

And that’s good! The way it ought to be!

During our weekly lectionary study, some of you noticed that John seemed particularly interested in mentioning that the disciples caught precisely 153 fish after following the instruction from Jesus to throw the net on the right side of the boat (John 21:1-19). Why mention an exact number: 153? Why not simply write: “They caught a whole mother-lode of fish!”?

Initially I just thought John throws a number out there simply to indicate that the disciples counted all the fish that would potentially be sold on the market, as professional fishers would do. This is not some made-up story, after all. This post-resurrection account is grounded in the economic reality of the day. These fishermen have to make a living off the fish they catch, right?

An early thinker, writer and leader in the church, Jerome, wrote in the fifth century that at the time it was assumed that there was a grand total of 153 species of fish. He went on to interpret that the 153 was a reference to the “completeness” of the church, which embraces all people (p.11, Richard Rohr, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective). Suffice it to say, the citing of a number here is not arbitrary, but has a symbolic value and is therefore intentionally written such.

In the Gospel story, we witness two very different responses to Jesus in Peter and John: Peter, consistent with his impulsive character, jumps in the water and swims to Jesus. He’s all about action.

John, on the other hand, is the first to recognize that it is the Lord (v.7). His gift is recognition. What gift is this, you might ask? A very important one, evidently: It wasn’t just Mary who couldn’t at first recognize the risen Lord standing right in front of her in the garden the morning of the resurrection (20:11-18). In the locked, upper room the text suggests the frightened disciples don’t immediately recognize it is Jesus who comes and says, “Peace be with you”; it isn’t until they see his wounds that they can confess who he is (20:19-29). In Luke’s account of the post-resurrection appearances, the twins walked about ten kilometers from Jerusalem to Emmaus talking to a stranger they didn’t recognize was Jesus himself! (Luke 24:13-35). Being able to recognize the living Jesus in our midst, in the course of our daily lives — this is a gift. And John has it.

Peter is about action. John is about understanding. John doesn’t jump in the water and swim to shore. Peter doesn’t reflect, contemplate and perceive. Each does their part. Both have their unique gifts to bring to the disciples’ collective experience of the risen Lord. One without the other is inadequate. One is not better than the other. Both are equally valuable, even though they represent such diverse expressions of faith.

The church today needs a variety of gifts in order to respond fully to Christ’s presence in the world today, and in our lives. The church today — we — need to set aside our claims of priority and work together in patience, forgiveness and devotion to Jesus Christ who is alive! That goes not only for us in our congregation, but in terms of how we relate to other congregations, our Synod, our national church, other Lutheran and non-Lutheran denominations.

What are our unique gifts? What do we bring to the table? What are the gifts in those we meet who are very different from us?

Let’s dare to be who we are! Let’s embrace our individuality!