To value the bruised reed

Not many today can echo the confidence of the Psalmist (29). Because confidence in God’s message does not come easily to those who struggle — struggle in faith, struggle against some great opponent within and outside themselves. And the Psalmist comes across as confident.

The Psalmist repeats the phrase, ‘the voice of the Lord’ seven times, introducing seven of the eleven verses in Psalm 29. Indeed, so the Psalmist claims, the voice of the Lord has accomplished so much, is everywhere and can do anything. The voice of the Lord can shake our world, break strong things and shock us with incredible visions!

And, therefore, his enthusiasm can either inspire some, and intimidate others. After all, how can we not notice? How can we miss what God is doing? God’s voice is loud, impressive and spectacular! You’d think there’s something terribly wrong with us if we can’t see the power and presence of God all around us. How can the Psalmist be so forthright and confident? His haughty display of faith can leave us feeling inferior or not good enough.

The church finds itself now in the season of Epiphany. The word means to ‘show’, or ‘reveal’. The season’s theme is all about our vision, being able to recognize the Christ. If only it were that easy!

The Baptism of Jesus marked the beginning of his ministry. And is slotted as the first Sunday after the Day of Epiphany.[1]In the experience of his baptism, Jesus alone saw the heavens opened and the dove descend. And it was only Jesus, in the moment of his baptism, who heard the voice of God.[2]This profound experience was meant for him.

We, too, whether at our baptism, or at the start of a new year, find ourselves at a new beginning. And we, too, may be looking for guidance and for a sign of God’s presence and power in our lives. As we seek our way, do we not yearn for the confidence that Jesus and the Psalmist in their own unique situations express in hearing and seeing the ‘voice of the Lord’—whether from the heavens or in the glory of creation itself? Especially at significant turning points in our lives? What do we see that is meant for us, personally?

At this ending of the Christmas season recall with me how some of the main characters received divine guidance and revelations. And I notice a recurring theme:

Specific guidance came to Mary and Joseph, to the wise men, to the shepherds, to Elizabeth and Mary and Zechariah – each and every one of them through dreams, visions, and stars.[3]Not exactly ways in which we normally expect to receive God’s guidance. The Christmas story teaches us how God will communicate with us. God’s revelation to you may very well come from beyond the normal sense of our day-to-day lives.

Writer-poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: “When you reach the end of what you should know, you will be at the beginning of what you should sense.”[4]In other words, when we come to the end of what we know in our heads, then we will be at the beginning of what we should experience and see in our hearts. So, maybe, those who struggle in any way — those who have come to the end of all they know — have something to show us.

We begin the new year by seeking the value in ‘bruised’ things – in us, and in the world. The prophet Isaiah writes in poetic fashion about God’s servant who will not break a bruised reed nor quench a dimly burning wick.[6]In bringing about God’s justice, the servant will honor even that which is weak, broken and imperfect within us and in the world.

In the second reading for today we must again review the story of Christ. Peter, the orator, tells the gathering at Cornelius’ house the message about the Cross and the empty tomb. And, that the character of the faithful life is forgiveness and mercy.[7] Not triumph and victory.

We begin the new year by seeking the value in bruised things – in us, and in the world. The glory of God comes only by way of the the broken things, the weak. Because only in those places and at those times do we touch the heart of forgiveness, mercy and love.

Last Spring, my wife Jessica’s special needs class travelled to Toronto to participate in the Special Olympics Invitational Youth Games. All the students in her class, each with a varying degree of developmental disability, played together on a soccer team. The team from Arnprior District Highschool played several games over the weekend against teams from all over North America. They lost every one of them.

But that wasn’t the point. Maybe the point was revealed in an incident that happened and how it was resolved:

One of the students from Jessica’s class was playing forward and was threatening to score a goal against their opponent, a special needs class from Arizona. One of their players was being inappropriately aggressive on the field with the student. It got to a point where there was a kerfuffle between the two of them.

The play was called and both teams retreated to the sidelines. Jessica’s student had held it together and did not overly react even though the other player had been provoking him the entire game by his aggressive behaviour. And the student’s maintaining composure alone was a huge accomplishment for the young lad.

But weren’t they surprised when the whole team from Arizona was soon standing in a semi-circle at centre field beckoning all our students to join them. When the circle was complete, the boy who had been aggressing took a step forward toward Jessica’s student, looked him in the eye, and said, “I’m sorry.”

Without hesitating, the student also took a step forward toward the Arizona boy and quickly added, “That’s ok, I’m ok.” The act of confession and forgiveness between the two of them was supported by their respective teammates. In a way, it was a collective effort; both sides encouraging the boys to do what was right and good. And after a big group hug at centre field, the teams resumed their play.

God is showing us all the time where truth and goodness lie. The problem is not that God isn’t doing anything. The problem is not our lack of ability to perform. 

Maybe the problem is more that we are not seeing where God is and what God is doing for the good of all in the world today. May God clear our vision to value the ‘bruised reed’ within us and in the world today. May God encourage our steps forward together.


[1]On the 6thday of January, and the 12thday of Christmas, every year.

[2]Matthew 3:13-17

[3]Luke 1-2; Matthew 1-3

[4]Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

[5]Br. Curtis Almquist, “Revelation” inBrother, Give Us a Word (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, www.ssje.org, , 8 January 2020)

[6]Isaiah 42:3

[7]Acts 10:43

Search for love – a wedding sermon

There once was a little boy who decided he wanted to go find God. He knew it would probably be a long trip to find God, so he decided to pack a lunch, four packs of Twinkies and two cans of root beer.

He set out on his journey and went a few blocks until he came to a park. In this park on a bench, sat an old woman looking at the pigeons and feeding them.

The little boy had already walked quite a way, and thought it might be a good idea to sit down for a bit. So, he sat down on the park bench beside the old woman. And he watched the pigeons too. After a while he grew hungry and so he pulled out some Twinkies. As he ate, he noticed the woman watching him, so he offered her a Twinkie. The old woman gratefully accepted it and smiled at the boy.

There was something about her smile that fascinated the boy. He thought it was the most beautiful smile he had ever seen, and he wanted to see it again. So he brought out the cans of root beer, opened one and offered the old woman the other one. Once again, she smiled that beautiful smile. For a long time, the two sat on that park bench eating Twinkies, drinking root beer, smiling at each other, and watching and feeding the pigeons. But neither said a word.

Finally, the little boy realized that it was getting late and that it was time to go home. He started to leave, took a few steps, then turned back and gave the old woman a big hug. The old woman’s smile was brighter than ever before.

When he arrived back home, the boy’s mother noticed that her son was happy, yet somehow strangely quiet. “What did you do today?” she asked, trying to figure out what was going on. “Oh, I had lunch in the park with God,” he said. Before his mother could reply, he added, “You know, she has the most beautiful smile I have ever seen.”

Meanwhile, the woman had left the park and returned to her home. Her daughter noticed something different about her mother. “What did you do today, Mom?” she asked. “Oh, I ate Twinkies and drank root beer in the park with God,” she said. And before her daughter could say anything, she added. “You know, he is a lot younger than I had imagined.”

Often when we set out on significant journeys of our lives we have big expectations. We set out to find love, to find something of the divine, fulfillment in life, maybe even God. We make choices, then, that are based on these larger-than-life expectations.

The problem is, that when we don’t, when other people and experiences don’t reflect our utopic visions, we are disappointed and may even despair. But what we have failed to do is find God, or true love, or our deepest needs in the mundane, ordinary, common life, day-to-day experiences.

In many ways this day for you, Katherine and Max, is perfect. It is certainly a day set apart for you in exquisite ways. A unique natural setting. You both look beautiful. You are surrounded by the people closest to you. This place is beautiful, being outside in God’s natural creation. What a day!

At the same time, I hope you remain open to being surprised on your journey, moving forward. I hope you keep your eyes open to those moments, perhaps, when no words are said, perhaps in the regular routines of day-in and day-out.

They say the spaces between the notes in music are part of the music. The pauses. The rests. When no sound is made. Those can be the most important moments in appreciating a musical piece.

Being so attuned to one another in marriage, when sometimes no words are necessary. Experiencing the divine while sitting on a park bench eating Twinkies and drinking root beer of all things. Finding simple delight in the moments of grace, in the least expected circumstances of life, when Life smiles at you. When Love embraces you.

“Love only endures when it moves like waves …” I think that’s my favourite line in the James Kavanaugh poem.[1]Like the waves on the lake behind us there is a rhythm in nature that I believe describes well the pattern and truth of love and life. That we find it not just in its full-on force expressed like when the wind blows and the waves crash on the shore and the music is played at its loudest. But also, just as real, when there is a pause, when the waves retreat. When there is a moment of silence. Who would have thought? Are we listening, and are we watching there, too?

On your marriage journey, Katherine and Max, may you find the way filled with park benches, Twinkies, root beers and wordless silence where you can experience in each other the loving presence of a faithful God who will always find us.

With a smile.

 

[1] James Kavanaugh, “To Love is not to Possess”

Fresh air

I am glad to be back to breathe the air in the Ottawa Valley. That is why I live here, truth be told. Even before the plane landed at Ottawa airport last evening, I could feel it in the air.

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There’s nothing in the world like catching the sweet breeze blowing down over James Bay, through the budding pine and spruce trees of the Laurentian’s and over the pristine waters of the Ottawa River.

Not only was the hotel room where my brother and I stayed sealed off to the outside, the air in Washington DC was heavy, stale and full of particle contaminants that caused us some coughing, wheezing and rubbing our itching eyes. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to know the Potomac River basin is ….well, not the Ottawa River and Valley.

Ottawa and Washington DC are both the capital cities of their respective nations. Each reflects by its monuments, memorials and geography the character of the nation it represents. One of the purposes of nationalism, like the rivers that surround the two capital cities, is to separate one from the other. Indeed, the work of creating divisions continues in earnest to this day.

In fact, walls are being built not only in the United States, but all over the world as the USA Today front page reported a couple of days ago.[1]Protectionism and isolationism fueled by fear are on the rise.

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So, the voices of a different vision need to be heard, once again.

One of the most recently constructed memorials in Washington is on the shores of the Potomac River — the Martin Luther King Memorial.

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“No one is free,” said Martin Luther King, “until we are all free.” In other words:

What I want for myself can’t happen, until it can be so for everyone. If there is anyone who suffers in whatever way,

If there is anyone who is not free, in whatever way,

If there are people who are bound, captive to whatever vice, to whatever imprisonment of the soul or in prison because something they have done…

I am going to be healed of whatever ails me, only when I seek the healing of the other, the freeing of the other, the liberation of the other. The church holds up a different vision from that of the divisive, individualistic and exclusive nature of white nationalism in the world today.

You can see, I hope, why the consciousness of the church not only at Faith Lutheran, not only in Ottawa, or in the Eastern Synod or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, but in the United States of America and worldwide is moving to see not a division between things, not building walls between two perceived opposites, but building unity between them.

Not a division between politics and pastoral care,

Not a division between care for the soul and social justice,

Not a division between reaching out and reaching in,

Not a division between speaking out against injustice of whatever kind and speaking to the choir,

Not a division between contemplation and action.

Not an either-or, but a both-and.

Last week when Ken stood here and told you about the different ways we can support the financial health of the congregation, he introduced his well-delivered announcement by saying — “you’ve heard we in the church were never to talk about money, politics and sex (well, he didn’t actually say the last word, but I know you all were thinking it!).

And then a couple weeks before that, Mark stood here and told you about his upcoming trip to Ecuador to build homes in a community destroyed by an earthquake some years ago. And in his well-worded speech he said (I paraphrase): “In this mission trip the group he was going with was not doing mere charity, dollars sent to a far-off location, but directly helping them on the ground and making a real difference in the lives of those who suffer.” Check it out. He said it. I believe he has it all on a piece of paper.

I alone am not telling you all this. Your own members are. Your own church family is slowly but surely breaking down the walls that have divided, distanced and incubated our conversations in the church.

Limited our conversation. Limited our imagination. Limited the ways of God. NOT talking about these things, well, how has that worked out for the church in recent times?

NOT talking about the things that really matter in our daily life, NOT being open and honest, sharing the deepest secrets and burdens of our lives, NOT feeling safe in a community of faith to be who we humanly are, warts and all, imperfect, suffering, in need of God’s love. NOT being like that — how has that worked for the church? How has that worked for you?

It is not easy in the church (although everyone else in our real lives are talking about them!) to talk about money, politics and sex. It is not easy to talk about the real things that matter in this life. And so, the church for many decades has avoided having these conversations. Why? Because we were afraid? Because talking about sex, politics and money would put a mirror in front of us, exposing areas of our life that needed even a bit of God’s light shining upon it?

It’s not easy to talk about these things. I know. I feel it too. But I always thought that that’s what faith was supposed to be about — to confess, be honest, be real, and just do the work of God. How can we do the work of God when we can’t even be honest, and real, and confess ourselves to one another?

We can echo the prophet Isaiah’s complaint to the Lord: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips …”[2]

But he doesn’t stop there. His confession is not just about himself. Faithfulness is not merely individualistic. We don’t come to church to make an individual contract with the Lord.

Isaiah continues in his confession: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Faithfulness drives towards the communal, the community, the well-being of the world. “No one is free, until we are all free.” Not just me, but we!

When we don’t include, welcome and affirm people who are different from us, we are a people of unclean lips.

When we refuse to include conversations about sexuality, money and political action, we are a people of unclean lips.

When we remain quiet in the face of injustice, we are a people of unclean lips.

In other words, this confession of Isaiah implies that he feels he should just ‘shut up and sit down.’ Not say anything. Because he is bad. And Israel is bad.

Maybe you feel this too. Not unlike Isaiah when confronted with a vision of God, you feel, deep down, the church is bad, and has nothing worthwhile to say in the public sphere. Millennials believe that. Just ask your children or your friend’s children. In the past, we church-going Canadians have conveniently said, “That sort of stuff is the government’s job.” We effectively, therefore, excuse ourselves from any social action in the name of Jesus. And continue the dividing.

Martin Luther King also said that in the church it’s alright to talk about the New Jerusalem (pointing to heaven, the afterlife), yes, but one day we also have to talk about the New York or the new Ottawa, the new community in the here and now.

What did Isaiah see in his vision?

Two details in this vision I want to focus on:

First, “the house was filled with smoke.”[3]

Here’s Isaiah who sees God in all God’s glory. How can I understand this vision by analyzing: Why the six wings folded over on various parts of the seraphim? What’s with that?

But the smoke fills the space. Usually, the image of smoke — like the cloud — in the bible is codeword for, “Can’t get this.” I can’t explain what’s going on in the presence of God. I can’t bring all the statistics, analysis, data and information the world can offer, to explain this rationally. But that’s ok. Because that’s not the point.

In 2018, in the wake of the internet revolution, did you know that more than 7 billion humans use the internet; and, that’s 7 and a half percent more, over 2016. Google now processes more than 40 thousand searches EVERY second. And remember, that’s only Google. Include all the other search engines out there, worldwide there are 5 billion searches EVERY day.[4]

We don’t need any more information! The church’s solutions are not found in accruing more data to solve our problems!

Because things happen in life that we can’t understand. The truth about God cannot be conveyed in data streams and pie charts and three point sermons.

Smoke in the house. Mystery. Might it be, that Isaiah and the bible is trying to say: We don’t need to understand everything. We don’t need to know how it makes sense for people of different races, colour, ethnic background, different social economic status, expressing a different sexuality, different ages, different abilities can form one, unified community. We don’t need to know how that can be.

Today is Trinity Sunday. I am not going to stand here and try to explain to you how three different persons can constitute one God. Because I don’t know. All I know is that those different persons are in a unified relationship. Relationship.

The third person, especially, confounds our Lutheran sensibilities. We’ve figured God the Creator. We’ve figured out God the Son, well, as much as we can. But the Holy Spirit throws a wrench into any rationalizations. A mystery, to be sure!

How does it all fit together? How can we analyze this even more? Shouldn’t we first have a detailed plan? Shouldn’t we try to draw a diagram?

We don’t need to know! All we have are the visions. The dreams. The imagination that describes in poetry and colourful words flashes and fragments of God’s kingdom and truth. We don’t need to know. We don’t need to reconcile all the contradictions. We don’t need to make sense of it. We don’t need to provide all the answers. We don’t need to put God in a box, nor explain God to anyone. God doesn’t need that from us.

Why?

Because even though Isaiah is a man of unclean lips (God doesn’t deny it!), even though God’s people have unclean lips, even though we are imperfect individuals in an imperfect church, that isn’t going to stop God. In Section Five of a recent Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis called “Reclaiming Jesus” church leaders from across the United States wrote: “We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not.”[5]

The realm of politics is imperfect. Who would think? Yet, our imperfection is the very reason politics happens. It is not something to avoid, it is something to embrace.

What does God do? Despite Isaiah’s complaints and resistance (just like all the rest of the people in the bible!) …

Despite us!

God reaches down from God’s throne and touches Isaiah’s lips with God’s holiness. God doesn’t steer uncomfortably away from the place of Isaiah’s greatest embarrassment, sin, weakness, brokenness, uncleanliness. God doesn’t avoid the uncomfortable places of our lives. God doesn’t even say anything to that uncleanliness.

God touches it. In the place of our greatest fear, shame, guilt, when we present ourselves in God’s almighty, mysterious presence, honestly and openly — not denying nor avoiding — we place ourselves in a position to be touched by God in the very place of our greatest weakness, to be healed, to be transformed, to be made new.

Even in the vision, the temple and the seraphim cannot contain the ‘bigness of God’. “The train of God’s robe filled the temple.”[6]The image is not meant to convey facts, figures, numbers, measurements, information.. Only our post-enlightenment, rational minds want to go there. But we can’t explain the vision of God. God’s kingdom doesn’t sit comfortably in our rationally justified common-sense policies.

God’s presence enfolds and goes to the edges and bunches up in the corner feeling like it needs to be stretched even beyond the walls of temple.

Whom shall I send? God asks.

Isaiah, transformed by God’s touch, can then say, “Here I am, send me.”[7]

Will we?

The Holy Spirit blows where it will. The wind does not stop at the border. The wind does not end at any walls we build to divide. The Holy Spirit brings fresh air into the stagnant, recycled, stuffy air of our temples. The Holy Spirit blows, fresh air at last, sending us into the world with God’s love, grace and power to change.

I don’t know how the fresh air of the Ottawa Valley is cleaner and sweeter than the air I breathed south of the border, really. But I don’t need to know how. I just know.

And give thanks.

[1]USA Today, May 24, 2018

[2]Isaiah 6:5

[3]Isaiah 6:4

[4]Bernard Marr, Forbes.com, May 21, 2018

[5]ReclaimingJesus.org

[6]Isaiah 6:1

[7]Isaiah 6:8

The human face of a vulnerable God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] @moltmannjuergen, March 15, 2018

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

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

[5] John 18:36

[6] 1 John 1:1

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeremiah 31:33-34

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

The good crowd

I was ten years old when my parents shuffled me and my brother into one of the front rows of the main, outdoor theatre in the small, Bavarian town. The crowd pushed and shoved for privileged seating to watch the story of Jesus’s last days acted out daily by the town’s folk every ten years.

In fact, the crowd on the large stage did not appear any different than the tourists who got up very early in the morning for tickets to the Oberammergau Passion play.  

This coming Holy Week is rich with story. And when we read the stories about the last days of Jesus — full of drama, plot, and character — we will naturally identify with elements of the story-telling. Our worship is designed to help us identify, for example, with the crowds.

This morning, we sing “Hosanna” and wave our palm branches identifying with the enthusiastic crowd that first day when Jesus entered the city. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees …” (Matthew 21:8). Some years in Holy Week we dramatized and therefore simplify the trial scenes. We have individuals and groups speaking the various parts of the story. So, for example, ‘the crowd’ is played by the whole congregation who chants those lines together, such as “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:23) and “He deserves death!” (Matthew 26:66).

Undergoing some mysterious metamorphosis sometime between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, the crowd turns to the dark side. In a tradition that goes back centuries, Christians have most often portrayed the Jewish crowd around Jesus during his last days as rabidly and violently against him. We see it in Passion plays, the most famous of which is at Oberammergau in Bavaria. The evil crowd is also central to Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

This over-interpretation has unfortunately led to harmful, anti-semitic justification against the Jewish people throughout the dark side of Christian history.

It may be easy to identify with these ‘bad’ crowds more than anyone else in the stories. Through the journey of Lent, we have struggled with the shadow self of our own lives, carrying our own cross so to speak, alongside Jesus. We have confessed our sin. Indeed, at the climax of Christ’s Passion, we pound nails into the cross on Good Friday. We so readily identify with the crowds, even saying that ‘we’ have crucified Jesus by our sin. It is little wonder why we come to these rather negative views, from Scripture.

What these portrayals fail to address, however, is this: Why, if the Jewish crowd was so against Jesus, was it necessary to arrest him in the darkness of night with the help of a traitor from among Jesus’s followers? Why not arrest him in broad daylight? And why do they need Judas?

What we discover is a positive, more balanced approach to the identity of the crowd. First we need to understand why the high-priestly authorities wanted to do away with Jesus.

“[The chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him …” (Matthew 21:46).

If the chief priests and Pharisees let him go on like this, everyone would believe in him, and the Romans would then intervene and execute them (John 11:48). Moreover, the authorities were not just afraid of the Roman Emperor, who was the recipient of Judean tax money and demanded political allegiance from those put in a position of power by the Emperor to keep the Pax Romana in the region. Insurrection in Judea would not be tolerated by Rome.

“… but they feared the crowds …”

Pilate and the high-priests also felt threatened by the whole crowd of people who, if they didn’t do something about Jesus, would eventually turn on them, which in 70AD (around the time most of the Gospels were written), did in fact happen. (1)

The Gospels reveal a clear disconnect between the high-priestly authorities who wish to execute Jesus, and the “whole crowd” who are “spellbound by his teachings” (Mark 11:18) and who “regarded him as a prophet” (Matthew 21:46).

This favourable support of Jesus by the predominantly Jewish crowd does not stop after the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday. It continues throughout the days leading to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem.

The crowds aren’t perfect, to be sure. Their motivations for supporting Jesus may very well have missed the mark, especially those who still sought in Jesus a violent solution to the end of Roman rule in Judea.

Yet, they are captivated by his teachings. There is some good, therein. The ‘whole crowd’ can be personified by each of us. Which part of ourselves identifies with the crowd that is for the most part good and supportive of Jesus, even during his last days on earth?

I ask this question, especially in the midst of the most penitential season of the church year. I ask this question, and make this point as a spiritual antidote to what can easily, and so often does, slide into self-hatred on account of all our sinfulness.

We must remember we live in Christ Jesus, and the living Christ lives in us through the Holy Spirit. There is some good therein. We don’t need to be so hard on ourselves.

“The secret of life,” say the American Indigenous people, “is in the shadows and not in the open sun; to see anything at all, you must look deeply into the shadow of a living thing.” (2)

We may begin Lent and Holy Week — indeed our Christian pilgrimage on earth — by confronting our shadow self. It’s important to do so. But by the end of Holy Week we cannot avoid the open sun and see the empty tomb. The ending is always as it was in the beginning when God created everything and everyone, and said that it was good. “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

 
1 — Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), esp. p.87-91

2 — cited in Joyce Rupp, “Walk In A Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino” (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), p.161

Mirage gates

When we stayed at our friends’ house in Lago Patria — a suburb of Naples — we felt safe in the gated community in which they lived. Nearly a dozen homes lined the little neighbourly and upscale street where mostly stationed officers and NATO personnel lived during their posting to the base there. We called it, ‘the parco’ — the Italian for ‘park’. An oasis it truly was.


Lining the perimeter of the parco was a tall wall. A large sliding metal door would guard entrance to this haven, and then release us again to the urban jungle that is Naples, where stray dogs roamed and garbage lined the roadways. You get the picture.


In Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall”, he wrestles with our desire to have clearly defined boundaries of what is my place and what is yours; and, why we divide ourselves so. He concludes his poem with a challenge: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out” (1). Good advice.

Indeed, fences and walls serve to keep us from seeing ‘what’s out there’ — and perhaps we want it that way. We don’t want to see what might disturb our comfort. We don’t want to see who might be out there, lurking on the perimeter of our safely constructed lives. We don’t want to see because we are afraid of what truly seeing them might do to change, disrupt and unravel us.

The Gospel text today (Luke 16:19-31) can unravel us, for sure! A poor man named Lazarus makes his temporary home at the gate of a rich man’s house, eating crumbs off the rich man’s table.

The story suggests that the rich man never even sees Lazarus is there, begging, at his gate. Even in the afterlife, as the rich man burns in hell, he doesn’t talk directly to Lazarus, referring to him only in the third person (v.23-24). Even serving his due in hell, the rich man still hasn’t learned his lesson!

Indeed, as Jesus says later in Luke, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (18:25). How can the rich and the poor bridge the gap? How can we break down the barriers that separate us? How can we ‘see’ better — by this I mean: develop the eye of the heart and mind?

My brother tells the story of what happened at the beginning of the CLAY gathering this past August (Canadian Lutheran-Anglican Youth gathering). All nine-hundred participants did a certain exercise in the large group gathering that unnerved him:

They were asked to find someone they did not know; and then, to go over to that person, sit next to them; and then turn to look directly into their eyes…. and keep looking into their eyes for as long as possible, without turning away.  It’s hard enough to do this sort of thing with someone you know well… let alone a complete stranger!!


So, my brother David found a young person he didn’t know. And the two of them – complete strangers – began to look into each other’s eyes. It was unnerving! He felt vulnerable. Exposed.

While this was happening, the leader at the front said something like: “The person before you has a story, and has experienced happiness, as well as sadness, perhaps even deep hurt and pain. Who knows? Life may’ve been very hard on the person in front of you.”

As these words were being said, David noticed the slightest hint of tears welling up in his partner’s eyes. And he wondered…. He wondered …. What’s my partner’s story?

It’s said that the eyes are the ‘window into the soul.’In a sense, they were peering into ‘each other’s souls’.

A natural connection is formed. Two people, connecting on a human level, affirming the fact that we’re all united in our common humanity and life’s experiences – of sadness and laughter and humour – which we all go through at some point in our lives … no matter our differences in age, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation or religion.

I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind to everyone you meet — you don’t know the battle they are fighting.”

Author and theologian Diana Butler Bass tells the touching story of what happened in an airport when she was flying from Albany, New York, to Washington D.C.

As you know, typically airports can be cold, heartless places, where everyone seems absorbed in their own rushing around, wrapped up in their private worries, nerves or plans, ignoring others around them.

This time, as passengers milled around in the gate area before boarding the plane, there sat alone at the far end of the row of seats, a middle-aged man.

He looked distraught, perhaps ill. Maybe, he needed help.

His whole demeanor was one of sorrow, and he was bent over, slumped in his chair as if falling toward the ground.

Diana walked over to him, and sat down beside him. She gently began asking him questions and listening to him.

With deep, heavy sobs, he told her how he buried his wife that morning, and now he was going home. To nothing.

For the next half hour, he told Diana about his wife, her illness and untimely death.

The man and his wife had no children.

She had been his best friend since high school.

Their parents had all passed away.

He had taken her to be buried where they had grown up in New York State, a place they both loved.

Most of their childhood friends had moved away.

There had been no funeral, just him and a priest at a graveside to say a few prayers and good-bye.

Now, he was going home, back to work. Other than a few friends, he was alone.

Diana listened, and then went to get him some water.

On the way back, she found a flight attendant, and told her about the man and his wife, how he had buried her that day. The flight attendant thanked her for sharing, and said ‘they’d take care of him.’

There were only about fifteen people on the flight that day on that small plane.

Somehow word got around, and soon everyone knew about their fellow passenger in mourning.

By the time everyone was boarding the plane, people were going out of their way to be kind to the man.

A crewmember escorted him aboard.

With courtesy and attention, they seated him at the back of the plane to be alone with this thoughts and whatever tears might come.

When they landed, some silent agreement formed between the passengers to let him exit first.

Instead of the usual rush and urgent calls on cell phones, everyone stood silently, forming two lines of respect, as he walked down the aisle toward the cabin door…

Some nodded respectfully as he passed.

One woman reached out and touched his shoulder.

When he reached the front of the plane, he turned back, and looked at everyone, to acknowledge the sympathy offered.

The pilot came out of the cockpit, and took the man’s hand, and together they descended the steps to the tarmac.

All the passengers followed in silence.

A private car, dispatched by the airline, waited there beside the plane, to deliver him home. (2)


The irony is that no amount of gates, fences, walls or clearly defined dividing lines however constructed will keep us separated from each other. When there is love. When we can ‘see.’

Boundaries are important. But they don’t guarantee the self-serving security we seek. Shortly after they were posted to Naples a couple of years ago, our friends’ house was broken into despite the impressive protection their gated community seemed to provide. 

These kinds of gates are really only illusions — like the proverbial mirage in the desert. Gates and fences that separate the rich from the poor, the privileged from the underprivileged, the employed from the the unemployed, the bum on the street and the senior executive in the top floor corner office are at best a mediocre interpretation of reality. Because they are constructed out of fear.

Jesus is about breaking down those barriers. And we are called to bridge the apparent chasm separating us from each other. Better now in this world while we can still do so, then whine about it like the rich man does in hell after it is too late.

We are called to look into each other’s eyes, and see the connection we share with all humanity, in the love of God. We are called to work together, like the community of care that formed on that short plane trip. We do not do this work individually, by ourselves. Not separately, but we work together at this task of reaching out and mending what has been broken. 

We do this in the mission of God who broke down the greatest divide between God and human: when Jesus was born a human child. When God became human the ultimate gap was bridged. And now, we live in that flow of God’s love, continually binding us together, and all people.

(1) Robert Frost cited in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word” Year C, Volume 4; Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 118-120

(2) Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution”, HarperOne, 2015, p.256

I am loved, therefore I am

During this season of Epiphany – which means ‘revelation’ – we will again uncover the identity of God made flesh in Jesus.

How will we do that? While Epiphany is a positive celebration of the meaning of the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14), this season also introduces an identity crisis swirling around Jesus throughout the centuries. It also confers that same identity crisis upon his followers. Who is this Jesus? And who are we?

Who is Jesus? It may comfort, or disturb, us to realize that even while Jesus walked the earth over two thousand years ago, those around him didn’t always ‘see’ him for who he was. Even at spectacular events such as the transfiguration or after Jesus performed miracles of healing, some confused him for the prophet Elijah who in the tradition was promised to return (Mark 9:9-13; Matthew 11:2-15). Some mistook Jesus for a political Messiah who was expected to liberate the oppressed Jews from Roman occupation of the Holy Lands (Matthew 21:1-11). And, even when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his death and resurrection, “some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). The scriptures do not hide this confusion about Jesus’ identity.

So Christians today need not be perplexed nor overly hard on themselves if they, too, struggle to understand this Jesus whom God announces at his baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Paradoxical doctrines claiming that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, are not easy for the human mind to grasp.

Which suggests to me that to understand Jesus’ identity is not so much to get vexed and lost in doctrines about Jesus. It is rather to see what he does and listen to what he says. Brother David Vryhof of the Society of the Saint John the Evangelist writes, “If you would know what God is like, discover what Jesus is like. Listen to his words, observe his actions, notice his values and priorities, see how he lives his life. And follow him.” (1)

French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes’ famous claim, “I think, therefore I am”, is not helpful here. More appropriate for the Christian today is, “I do, therefore I am”. Or, better yet, “I am loved, therefore I am.” This latter statement especially reflects the values demonstrated in Jesus’ life. I am loved, therefore I am.

Vryhof goes on to tell a story by Soren Kierkegaard: “Once upon a time, there was a powerful and wise king who fell in love with a beautiful maiden who lived in his kingdom. The king’s problem was this: how to tell her of his love?

“He called for the best and brightest of his consultants and asked their advice. He wanted to do this in the best and most proper way – and, of course, he hoped his love would be cherished by the maiden and returned. But when all of his advisors had had their say, the king was left disappointed. For every one of them had counselled him in the same way:

“‘Show up at the maiden’s house,’ they said, ‘dressed in all your royal finery. Dazzle her with the power of your presence and with your riches. Overwhelm her with expensive gifts. What girl could resist? Who would reject such an opportunity, or turn away from such an honor? Who would possibly refuse a king? And if need be,’ they added, ‘you can always command her to become your wife.’

“But the king, being wise, was unhappy with this advice. He wanted the maiden to love him for himself and not for his position and power. Love freely given must be freely returned or it isn’t really love. Certainly, the girl could be impressed, even overwhelmed. And of course she could be coerced and might even ‘learn’ to love the king eventually. But the king saw that if he followed this counsel he would never know if she really loved him for himself or simply for the comforts and privileges that queenship offered.

“So the king decided against the advice of his counsellors. He chose instead to strip himself of his glory and power. He put on the clothes of a poor peasant and walked to the maiden’s cottage to declare his love for her.” (2)

This story by Kierkegaard parallels closely the meaning of Christmas — of why Jesus came, and what kind of person Jesus is — “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7). 

Who is Jesus? Jesus is God in love with us, and in us. And how do we know Jesus lives with and in our lives today? These questions lead to: Who are we?

We are who we are because of Jesus’ love for us. We are beloved, because of what God did in Jesus. Therefore, we are given the gift of God’s presence in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We have it in us. Yes, we do! And we exercise that gift in relationship with others. Who we are with, with whom we spend most of our time, where we commune with others — these are vital questions of spiritual, personal growth.

Who we are in Christ also begs the question of our nature — our growth, our changing, our transforming: Do we change? Can we change, for the better? Does being a Christian change our lives? Do you believe that?

I have over the years heard some argue that we do not change, really. We are locked in for life, the way we are, regardless of circumstance, regardless of where we are and with whom we live our lives. Nature. 

Others are more optimistic. On my good days I believe in the capacity of humans to change for the better. But this depends, I believe, on the quality of our relationships. Whether or not we change for the better depends largely with whom we spend most of our time. Nurture.

I believe most of us contain all the parts necessary for a healthy existence. Even a faithful one. At my baptism as an infant I believe God gave me the gift – the seed – of the Holy Spirit. At which times, or to which degree, that seed would mature and be expressed has depended largely on with whom I spend my time. 

Our families, our friends, our communities have a great influence over our lives. Because just by being with them, they will bring out of us the good and/or the bad. Their presence in relation to us hooks into some aspect of our life and pulls that aspect out. It is the quality of the ‘links’ between us that will determine what emerges from our souls. The old adage is true: “Show me your friends, and I’ll know who you are.”

Which also signifies the importance of hanging out with Jesus, in prayer. Jesus is integral to our relational world. Being intentional is critical here. The more you spend time with Jesus in the Body of Christ – the church, the more you spend time with Jesus in prayer and contemplation, the more you connect with Jesus in his mission to care for the poor — all of these things will over time bring out the good that is already in you.

The bottom line message of Christianity is that all creation matters because of God’s creative love in Jesus. We are created each of us from the spilling out of God’s love to the world. Therefore we are. Therefore we do.

(1) Br. David Vryhof, posted on the front page of the website of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist (www.ssje.org) on Tuesday, January 5, 2016

(2) cited by Br. David Vryhof, “God Has Spoken to Us By a Son”, posted on December 25, 2009 on the website of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist (www.ssje.org)