The loved migrant: a ‘washing feet’ analogy

The disciples need to have their feet washed.

It was not only customary in ancient times to wash the feet of guests into your home, but necessary. Calloused and muddy feet were the norm in an age of open-toed sandals and pedestrian highways. Providing this service was a kind and appreciated gesture offered to the weary pilgrim.

But no one else had volunteered to do it. The disciples had followed all the Lord’s instructions to prepare for a meal in the upper room. They had bought what they needed in preparation for the Passover. They had gathered the bread and wine. Check. Check. Check.

So, what made them miss this important act of hospitality, friendship and welcome? What blinders did they have on?

Perhaps, we can’t underestimate the state of affairs among the disciples. Recall, they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.[1]And for any one of them to volunteer to wash feet would be to lose the argument. Because only servants and slaves washed the feet of their superiors.

So Jesus got up to do it—shocking them all by his disregard for social and cultural convention.[2]

And then, as if that wasn’t shock enough to the system, Jesus looks up at the disciples, looks them square in the eyes and says:

“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (v.14)

How good are we at ‘washing one another’s feet’? We’re not doing it in worship tonight on Maundy Thursday. I don’t believe we’ve ever done it here at Faith. But maybe we need the practice.

Since my father’s death earlier this year, I’ve been reviewing his life story, going over certain details. Especially in his formative days when he migrated from Poland to London, England, in the mid-1960s, I see a pattern emerge.

The small town in southern Poland where he was born and raised was and has been the largest concentration of Lutherans in a predominantly Roman Catholic nation. They called themselves the Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession. And, the church whose bishop he assisted later in London was the Lutheran church ‘in exile’ from Poland. This church was taken care of by the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

Even though commissioned to serve ELCIC congregations when he and my mother immigrated to Canada in 1967, Dad was still called upon to serve Polish-speaking Lutherans once a month in an independent Lutheran Church in Toronto during the 1980s. This congregation has since become part of the Missouri Synod.

When our long-time family friend from Toronto visited us here in Ottawa a couple weeks ago, I was reminded again of this pattern: My father had been, in the first part of his life certainly, born and bred in the culture and beliefs of the Missouri Synod/Confessional Lutheran Church, worldwide, you could say.

The question I’ve pondered is: What made him change his allegiance? Why not continue to remain serving the denomination and church culture of his childhood and youth—even in North America? Why did he change? What made the difference?

It wasn’t doctrinal, by and large. I remember several debates we had around the kitchen table over the hot button issues in the church during the past few decades. And he usually tended towards the more conservative stance. It wasn’t doctrinal. It wasn’t about beliefs and confessions of faith. It was something else.

When he was serving the Missouri Synod church in London, he met someone over lunch after worship one day. This man, William Dase, had been a pilot in the war. A Canadian flying with the British Airforce, he had made many runs over London. And, after the war, decided to make London his home.

He was also a major benefactor of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. In conversation over lunch, my Dad expressed a desire to learn English, and not anywhere people knew him. Somewhere far away from any Polish-speaking Lutherans, he felt he could master the English language. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he also didn’t believe he could ever return to Poland a free person.

And so Dase posed a simple question, with significant consequence: Why not spend a study year at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Canada? Dase would sponsor my Dad’s study and booked passage for both my parents on the ocean liner, Maasdam, to set sail from Southampton to Quebec.

Before my parents landed in Waterloo, the Dean of the Seminary at the time, Professor Dr. Hauser, had already arranged an apartment in student housing and a job in the cafeteria kitchen for my mother which paid $75 a month. This was just enough to cover the rent for the apartment.

After completing his master’s degree at Waterloo, my Dad was appointed to serve a small rural parish north of Stratford, Ontario. He needed a car. So, Assistant to the Bishop, Dr. Berner, of the Eastern Canada Synod, went with my Dad to the bank to arrange a loan to buy a VW Beetle. Dr. Berner used his standing with the bank as collateral for the loan.

However, after the year was up, my parents’ temporary student and visitor VISAs were expiring. And so, the Dean of the Seminary, Dr. Hauser, promptly took my parents to the immigration office in Kitchener to vouch for an upgrade to landed immigrant status— ‘my parents would make excellent citizens in Canada’, he told the immigration officer without hesitation. They received their immigrant status on the spot.

When my brother and I came along a couple of years later—twin boys—thus creating an instant family that doubled in size literally overnight, my parents experienced a sudden strain on the household budget.

The bishop of the Eastern Canada Synod, then Bishop Lotz, immediately arranged for a changed call to the three-point parish in Maynooth, Raglan and Denbigh—because these parishes were able to offer a higher wage.

That was then, this is now. I understand. Nevertheless, I am impressed in reviewing this history how church people who were in a position to do so could make such a positive difference in the lives of those in need. No just once. But consistently. Over time. And in response to various needs.

I can say with certainty that it was the love shown in practical, simple, ordinary ways to my parents when they immigrated and settled into Canada, that made all the difference.

The disciples needed their feet washed, after all. Despite all their debating and power struggles and determining who was right and who was wrong. Jesus showed his disciples, and shows us, that to help another is to put oneself on the same level as the other. Not to ‘lord it over’ in a condescending manner, but to recognize the common humanity we all share.

Jesus shows us what it means to fulfill the ‘new commandment’ of love.[3]If the world will know that ‘you are my disciples’, it has nothing to do with agreeing on doctrine, creedal statements, confessions of faith. In fact, arguing about these things, as the disciples tended to do, hinder this expression of true discipleship.

In the Gospel of John, the disciples do not and cannot understand the significance of Jesus’ actions until after Easter.[4]Even then, their faith still falters.[5]In John, “the disciples’ divine election and sustenance do not depend on how much they understand. Their faith is perfected, not in knowledge, but in how much they love their fellow lambs (21:15-19; cf. 1 Cor 13:12-13).”[6]

Jesus tells his disciples after washing their feet, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”[7]

It’s about loving action, not knowledge/understanding.

St John of the Cross wrote: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” I concur. When all is said and done, at the end of the road, we will be asked: “How have you loved your neighbor?” not “Did you believe the right things?”

Just like washing one’s feet is messy, and uncomfortable, so at first it may feel out-of-sorts to be so vulnerable to one another. There are boundary issues when it comes to feet, to be sure.

We are not used to small and ordinary acts of self-giving for another. We need to practice. In an age when congregations and denominations are significantly divided over doctrinal, social, and other issues, and sometimes have difficulty even gathering at the same table for a meal with one another—what do we need? What do we really need?

More debate? More information? More knowledge? More convincing arguments? Really?

The disciples just needed their feet washed.

 

 

[1]Luke 22:24-27

[2]Jim Green Somerville in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.276

[3]John 13:1-17,31-35, the Gospel text for Maundy Thursday, according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]2:22; 7:39; 12:16; 14:26

[5]20:19-29; 21:20-23

[6]C. Clifton Black, Feasting on the Word., ibid., p.279

[7]John 13:17, emphasis mine.

The change within

When seventeen-year-old Hannah said she was drug free, her parents were skeptical. Having participated in a rehab program and given all the support she could expect from friends and family, Hannah was able to declare that she was finding success in weaning herself off a destructive opioid dependence.

But her father was not convinced. When pressed, he simply confessed, “I don’t believe people can change. Once a drug addict, always a drug addict.”

Though fictional, Hannah and her parents’ situation poses a common predicament for many today. Not just of the real struggle with addiction. But also the struggle with belief: Do we change? And if so, how? And maybe more to the point: Do we recognize the change that happens in our lives? Do we want to?

There’s the story of the Zen Monk who was visiting Time’s Square in New York. And he wanted to buy a hotdog. The vendor asked him, “What would you like on your hotdog?”

The monk replied with a smile, “Make me one with everything.” So the vendor made the hotdog with ketchup, onions and lettuce and mustard and all these other nice things. And he gave it to the monk, and the monk gave the vendor a twenty-dollar bill.

And the vendor didn’t give him anything back. So the monk said, “What about my change?” And the vendor said, “The change is all within.”[1]

An underlying belief in Christianity is that people do change. The resurrection of Christ presents the ultimate pattern for life. We die. We live. We grow. We evolve. We are given new beginnings, to live again. Death. Resurrection. Life is dynamic, not static.

On this Transfiguration of our Lord Sunday, we encounter people who change. First and foremost, Jesus. He is bathed in uncreated light and to the onlookers his face radiates a changed appearance. His countenance is transformed before their very eyes. Here the gospel writers want to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature, his unique revelation as God’s own. The witnesses to this holy and amazing encounter receive the most wonderful gift of experiencing God’s greatness in Christ.[2]

At the same time, the transfigured Lord encounters us. In the scriptures for this Sunday we witness change in the characters of the bible, specifically Moses, Elijah and Paul.[3]They, and others in the bible, are not static beings, one-dimensional characters. We witness in them, rather, incredible change over the course of their lives and throughout history.

In other words, Jesus is not the only one who shows a divine-like appearance. Throughout scripture, there are others who experience within themselves a transfiguration.

Jesus is the first and foremost. But God’s divinity, though fully expressed in Jesus, is not confined to Jesus. God’s true presence is not limited to Jesus for Jesus’ sake alone. God’s fullness in all of creation is not locked in one specific time of history, two thousand years ago.

Martin Luther called it, the great, wonderful, holy “exchange”[4]. On the cross God experienced the fullness of our human sin in all its humiliating nakedness and vulnerability in order that all for whom Christ loved and died may eventually experience and grow into the fullness of divine life and union with God. This divine-human holy exchange is exemplified and mediated through Jesus.

We may balk at the notion that in our very lives, in each one of us, God is present in the living consciousness of Jesus. How can we be that good, eh? We are so used to imagining a separation there—that God is ‘out there’ reserved exclusively to doctrinal debate alone or in some other person upon whom we project all our hopes and dreams. But within me? In my heart? So that I can live differently, better, a changed person?

St. Paul, elsewhere in his first century writings expresses this truth from the start: In his letter to the Galatians, he says, “God revealed his Son in me”[5]. On the road to Damascus the living, post-resurrected Christ encountered Paul. Over one hundred times in all of his New Testament writings he writes this phrase: en Christo meaning ‘in Christ’. And to the Colossians, he confesses: “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything.”[6]

The vendor’s response to the monk carries metaphoric weight. The change is within. A holy encounter with Jesus first changes us within. The change for the better can happen because God is in us. God works on our hearts. God is relentless. Sometimes it hurts. God is the refiner’s fire, creating and re-creating us from the inside-out.

So that, eventually, the light of Christ’s love may shine forth from our lives, and our union with God will be complete, in this world and the next.

Thanks be to God!

 

[1]Laurence Freeman, “Change is part of the Journey, like it or not”; talk 1 in Mount Oliveto Retreat, Maggiore Siena, Italy, June 18-25, 2016: Change (wccm.org, audio resources, album)

[2]Luke 9:28-43

[3]Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

[4]“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it.

And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them… in the same manner as He grieved and suffered in our sins, and was confounded, in the same manner we rejoice and glory in His righteousness.”

–Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883), 5: 608.

[5]Chapter one, verse sixteen, as translated by the NIV and JB.

[6]Chapter three, verse 11. In the NRSV, the Greek is translated, “He is all and in all.”

Take a knee

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On the Camino de Santiago, you had to take care to follow the signs. Yellow arrows were common and well-known markers to all pilgrims along the path.

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It was easy to get lost, especially in the big cities, if you missed one of these markers. But also at critical junctions in the forests, the fields or roadways where if you were not paying attention, you could lose hours on the journey and have to double back.

I learned, sometimes the hard way, to pay attention to what others might consider obvious. Some markers are easy to notice.

Some are sort of easy to notice:

But often it was a challenge to find that yellow marker:

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The signs — like the sacraments of baptism and holy communion — are reminders of what kind of journey we are on. These signs are embedded in the journey itself, on earth. These holy signs don’t stay in some other-worldly realm; they are very much a part of this world: Baptism uses common water; Communion uses bread and wine – basic, earthly elements which remind us of what God is all about on earth.

The signs are part of our daily, ordinary lives. The signs are already there, along the way, before we even commit to the journey. We only need to open the eyes of our heart and mind, and pay attention. Because the signs are too easy to miss. And when we do miss them, we get lost and go down other paths, paths that lead to division in the Body of Christ, the church.

I remember when our then 12-year-old son started playing football I first learned what it meant to ‘take a knee’. According to the tradition, if a player on the field was injured everyone ‘took a knee’. And it didn’t matter which team the injured player was from; that is, all the players from both teams knelt down and waited there until the injured player either walked off the field on their own strength, or was carted off on a stretcher.

Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick have both attracted world-wide media attention for ‘taking a knee’ in the last couple of years, although for very different reasons. Both have made a public display of their faith. Both are prayerful, and devout. One grew up the son of Baptist missionaries to the Philippines. The other was baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran, and attended a Baptist church during college.[1]

Tim Tebow, however, is a darling of the church while Colin Kaepernick has been reviled. Their differences reveal much more about the brand of Christianity preferred by many in the church today. Tebow is known for his signature move – dropping to one knee on the field, his head bowed in prayer, his arm resting on his bent knee. He’s clean cut, polite, gentle, respectful.

Colin Kaepernick, starting last year already, refused to stand to attention during the playing of the American national anthem. Originally, he did so in support of Black Lives Matter and to protest police violence against black people. Kaepernick was voted most disliked player in the National Football League (NFL). People posted videos of them burning his jerseys. He was called “an embarrassment” and “a traitor”. Of course, with recent events in the NFL, his witness gains momentum nonetheless.

Two players, two brands of Christianity:

Tim Tebow represents personal piety, gentleness, emphasis on moral issues. Colin Kaepernick represents social justice, community development and racial reconciliation. One version of Christianity is kneeling in private prayer. The other is kneeling in public protest. One is concerned with private sins like abortion. The other is concerned with public sins like racial discrimination. One preaches a gospel of personal salvation. The other preaches a gospel of social transformation. One is reading Paul’s letters. The other is reading the Minor Prophets.

Are these versions of Christianity mutually exclusive? Much of Christian history, especially since the Reformation, would suggest, ‘yes’, even among Lutherans. The proliferation of Christianity into some thirty thousand different denominations by the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 would suggest, ‘yes.’ The divisions within Christianity is leaving the church all the poorer, with each side needing to be enriched by the biblical vision of the other.

Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann expresses it well: He writes that Christianity should be “awed to heaven, rooted in earth.” We should, as he says, be able to “join the angels in praise, and keep our feet in time and place.”[2]

Christianity, sadly, remains on its knees because of our divisions, when all along the vision of the Gospel, expressed best by Paul himself, is that “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth”[3]. How do Christians today, regardless of background and orientation, contribute to this vision in ways that actually make a difference on earth?

In the second reading for today, we learn about the essential character of the biblical God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, all of God’s acts, blessings, and delights in creating are for the sake of others. This is typical of God, “who is intimately concerned with justice, peace, and the flourishing of all creatures.” This is typical of God, “who is ‘on high’ but never remote, who is ‘over all’ but faithfully and dramatically invested in life on earth.”[4]

God does not embrace hierarchy. Nor does God rest in privileged autonomy, according to some deist idea of a distant and uncaring God. God is love. And the New Testament witness continues this description of a God who cares intimately about our humanity, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God is Immanuel, God-with-us and for us.

In setting up this wonderful hymn that Paul includes in his letter to the Philippian church, Christians are called to exemplify a humble regard for others, seeing them as “better than yourselves”; we are not to primarily serve our own interests, but the interests of those who are different.[5]

These may be an impossible task for us in our self-centred, me-first culture. Nevertheless, we are encouraged, as Paul encouraged the early church in Philippi, to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”[6]. Why even bother?

Because God is already at work in us.[7] God is already at work in the world, as difficult as it can be to spot those signs of God’s grace, God’s justice, God’s good work. As Martin Luther insisted, matters of salvation revolved around God’s actions, not human activities. Justification — being placed into a right relationship with God — is totally God’s activity. After all, as Paul wrote earlier in his letter to the Philippians, we need to believe – despite what appears to be everything to the contrary – in the promise and the vision that God “who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.”[8]

God’s grace precedes all. Just like the signs on the journey before us and around us. Even though we may miss them from time to time doesn’t mean they aren’t there, waiting for us to notice. God’s grace continues to guide us and point in the right direction.

We therefore have nothing to lose, to take a knee for the sake of those who do not have a voice. To take a knee for the sake of others who are silenced by discrimination and abuse. To take a knee for all God’s creatures who long for a better day.

We pray for and support agency to help the refugees today escaping violence and oppression in Myanmar. We pray for and support agency to help victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. We, so, ‘take a knee’, in the spirit and mind of Jesus Christ who took a knee for us all.

[1] I thank Michael Frost, “Colin Caepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A Tale of two Christians on their knees” (The Washington Post, September 27, 2017) for much of the content I use in this section of my sermon

[2] cited in Michael Frost, ibid.

[3] Philippians 2:10, NRSV

[4] William Greenway in David L. Bartlett & Barabara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.112.

[5] Philippians 2:3-4

[6] 2:12

[7] 2:13

[8] 1:6

Ho! Have a drink!

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters …” (Isaiah 55:1)

Around Jericho, in the Judean wilderness, it was hot and dry. Not the humidity we are used to in the Great Lakes area of North America. So, the heat wasn’t so bad actually.

And because I wasn’t sweating, I didn’t feel thirsty. And yet, as I disembarked from the air conditioned tour bus into 43 degrees celsius heat, our tour guide insisted we take periodic sips from our water bottles as we wandered on desert paths.

It’s common today, even in our urban lifestyles, to carry a water bottle around with you. And discipline yourself to be finished by a certain time of the day in order to insure the intended amount of consumption. We are told that just because we don’t feel thirsty doesn’t mean our bodies don’t need the regular hydration. We have to drink water even though we don’t feel like it.

And we need people in our lives to remind us to do so.

Many years ago pastors tended to just drop by and visit parishioners, unannounced. Today, folks prefer more ‘to make an appointment’. Maybe because we are busier. Or, think we need to be.

I like the joke of the pastor who visited on the fly. She would just randomly choose a member on a visiting day and drop by. After the pastor rung the door bell a couple of times, a young mother holding an infant in her arms opened the door and stood in the foyer surprised and suddenly self-conscious because of the unannounced visitor standing there.

“Hello, I am making pastoral visits today and thought to stop by and see how you are doing,” the pastor introduced herself.  After sitting down in the living room strewn with unfolded laundry and empty sippy-cups, the pastor asked the mother if she could see her bible, because she wanted to read a favourite bible verse as they prayed together.

The mother, eager to impress, called her 9-year-old child to her side. “Go, and get Mommy’s favourite book!” The obedient child ran off and returned shortly, proudly handing over to her the Sears Christmas Catalogue.

At a visit, regardless of the circumstances of the visit, hosts will still offer the visitor a drink of coffee, tea, wine, beer, juice, or plain water. Depending on how much time the visitor has for the visit, the visitor will either decline or agree. Perhaps your day is so busy that you are running from appointment to appointment and not willing or feeling able to sit for a while, and receive the gift.

That is when we need the prophets of our lives to lean over the coffee table and say, “Hey, you will have a drink! Don’t argue!” The personal encounter is more important than schedules, expectations and perceived busyness. The gift is being offered. Accept it! Now is the time to stop, and drink from the source of what is most important in life. And get over yourself!

And that might not be what you think, know or expect to give you what you need. In other words, you might not feel like the truth. But you still need it. So, drink!

And trust that what may not always ‘feel’ like what you want to do has nevertheless something of value, something worth paying attention to, something worth pursuing. God is mystery. God and God’s ways are ultimately not something we can intellectual comprehend, fully. Faith is not merely thinking about Jesus or the commandments. Faith is not a function of a mental construct alone.

In living out our faith, the prophet Isaiah points to the pitfall of our thinking, our thoughts: “Let the unrighteous forsake their thoughts” he says (v.7). “For my thoughts are not your thoughts …” (v.8-9). When we think too much about anything, we will get lost. A bishop once said, “My mind and thinking is like a bad neighbourhood; the more time I spend in it, the more I get into trouble.”

In the best-selling story of “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, someone affirms with these words Harold’s extraordinary adventure that was inspiring many: “Maybe that’s what the world needs: Less of what makes sense, and more faith!”

Faith is a knowing that does not know. Faith is a knowing that knows we will never have all the answers about God and God’s ways intellectualized, rationalized and scripted into neat, logical arguments or plans. Faith, according to Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). Faith is a knowing that descends into, and is directed by, the heart – the soul.

We are blessed here to carry the name “Faith Lutheran Church” to identify our community. It is therefore incumbent on us us to live according to faith and trust in God who is the source of our life and all things good.

Last Sunday, I was invited to a young adult forum at Notre Dame Roman Catholic Basilica on Sussex Drive in downtown Ottawa. The young people there were interested in the relationship between Lutherans and Catholics. One of the questions that arose in our discussion was: Can Lutherans and Catholics share in the Sacrament of the Holy Communion/Eucharist? In other words, can we drink from the same Cup of Life as a sign of our unity in the Body of Christ?

I referred to a Youtube video of Pope Francis recently visiting a Lutheran church in Rome. He was asked there whether Lutherans and Catholics can share the same cup at the altar. He responded that he didn’t want to say anything more than this: “Life is bigger than intellectual discourse and doctrine” (I paraphrase). Life is bigger than our doctrines, our feeble attempts to make sense of, and draw exclusive lines around, a mystery that is Christ present with us. Life is bigger than the lines we draw between us, in the desert sands. 

When all along, what we truly need is to drink together from the fountain of Life. Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks from the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

Come, everyone who thirsts. French thinker, Gustave Thibon, once wrote: “L’ame … se nourrit de sa faim”, meaning: the soul feeds from its hunger. Whenever we are thirsty — long for something more than what the world offers — this is a sure sign we are on the right path. General feelings of unrest and angst are catalysts for transformation and positive change in our lives. Whatever makes us uneasy at first, may in truth be a key towards the path to your eventual growth in faith and life.

So, come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters of Life. Drink! And you will be satisfied.

Remember, life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.

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)

‘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.

Part B

I don’t have many bad memories from my youth. But recurring is one from exam time in highschool. This memory brings back desperate feelings of failure, despair, and shame. The exam was for a history or English course. And it was only a one-pager!

I recall sitting down in the large gymnasium at the start of the exam period looking down at the simple Part A question, and thinking to myself: ‘I got this one in the bag!’ Instead of writing my answer down on that page underneath the question, I wrote down about five pages on extra sheets I asked from the exam moderator. Usually, I took the entire allotted time to write my exams. I remember, however, with this one I finished much earlier.

After checking over my in-depth and complete answer, feeling satisfied and even smug with my work, I signed off on it and left the room with a hop in my step. I felt confident that I had performed to my usual high level of competency in a subject matter that I liked.

You might imagine the horror I felt shortly thereafter when I learned from others why it was that I happened to finish so early.

“Martin,” a friend asked me, “What did you write for the Part B question?”

“Part B?!!”

“Yeah, on the second page.” 

Alas! The one-pager was double-sided. I didn’t think to turn the question sheet over to do Part B. I had only completed the first half — Part A — of the exam. I didn’t finish the entire test. I. Was. Doomed.

In the Gospel for today (John 6:51-58), Jesus uses carnal language that borders on the cannabalistic. “Eat my flesh. Drink my blood.” What are we to make of this arresting, vivid, corporeal language?

Well, the Pharisees have an answer. But theirs is the usual mind-tripping, logical finagling. They take everything literally! “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask. This style of intellectual, rational mind-gaming is reminiscent of when earlier Jesus spoke of being born again — and again the Pharisee Nicodemus gets trapped in his head: “How can a man go back a second time into his mother’s womb and be born again?” (John 3:1-4).

The Gospel of John and especially this text (6:51-58) evokes images of ingesting, chewing, and gulping — and relates this to our relationship in Christ Jesus. Language like this pervades the Gospel, right from its inaugural, tone setting words: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14).

The Word is not just a doctrine or idea. The Word is not just a mental picture that we frame with rational explanations, logical arguments and eloquent words about Jesus. That is only Part A.

There’s a Part B that needs to be completed in order to get at the fullness of truth of Jesus relating to us and the world God creates. When we talk of Christian theology and even Christian discipleship, we must go beyond saying: “Let’s follow Jesus” or merely have conversations about Jesus, or think about Jesus, or construct nice ideas about Jesus. 

We must learn to confess that Jesus not only wants our thoughts, Jesus wants all of me/us — every aspect of our lives including our bodies, our exercise, our diets, our play, our work, our relationships. Jesus wants more than our Sunday mornings. He wants Friday night and Wednesday morning as well. A local church had this message on their front-lawn sign last week: “Jesus doesn’t want weekend visits; he wants full custody.” 

Worship is only Part A. Part B is when we walk out that door when worship is over. If our prayers and songs and statements of faith during worship on Sunday morning — as glorious and uplifting and inspiring as they may be — do not translate into meaningful, concrete action consistent with our faith Monday through Saturday, then our worship is really, in the words of Saint Paul, “a noisy gong or clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthian 13:1). The Psalmist confesses to God: For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)

“People often daydream, and even share their fantasies, about what they would do if they won the lottery. Still, most people choose to keep their money in their wallet. In response, lotteries south of the border run commercials reminding us, ‘You can’t win if you don’t play.’ In a sense, Jesus is saying something very similar: ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’ (v.56). In these verses, Jesus demands more than intellectual assent, more than fantasies of eternal life. Jesus asks for high-stakes, all-in participation, here and now.” (Sundays and Seasons, Augsburg Fortress, 2014, p.261) Jesus wants all of me. Part A and Part B.

I still passed the course, both because I did well during the term on assignments and such; and, because I passed the exam with a 50% score. Even though I messed up and had my blinders on, even though I did not complete the expectations of the exam, I could count on the grace of the instructor.

You see, I did not get a perfect score on Part A. Close, but not perfect. I should have therefore failed the exam. But the instructor knew me. Knew me well. And she knew I deserved to pass the grade. Despite my mistake, I still got credit for the course.

Where there is suffering in the real world. Where there is blood spilled and bodies broken. Perhaps it did take the Christian movement some centuries to work through their natural repulsion against the unadorned cross — an instrument of torture and death — to finally embrace the Cross as the central symbol of our faith. Because there is an important point to it.

That is where Christ is, in our lives and in the world. And it is there that we must go to find Jesus in the faces of those bloodied by war, by displacement, by injustice and violence — in whatever kind. It is there that we must go to witness by our giving and our own brokeness the truth and hope of the Gospel. It is there that we must go. The life stronger than death that God gives to the world in Jesus Christ always comes to us “in the flesh” and blood sufferings of the present time. It is there we must turn the page, and go.

Part B.
Lord, you have searched me out; O Lord, you have known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting places, and are acquainted with all my ways. Indeed, there is not a word on my lips but, O Lord, know it altogether. You encompass me, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast. (Psalm 139:1-10)

  

Amen.