God loves us uniquely, not exclusively

Some things Jesus says offend our most sacred held values.

In today’s Gospel Jesus basically turns against family. As one who drove 6000 kilometers this summer in a car with my family and then spent four intense but good days with extended family in Poland, I recoil at these words of Jesus. If we take Jesus’ demand literally, he is telling us outright to ‘hate’ our father, mother, wife and children and give up all our possessions.[1]How’s that for ‘family values’?

We cannot ignore this statement of Jesus, as much as we may want to. When we see the other places Jesus comments on family we begin to notice a theme emerge. Jesus redefines ‘family’ who shares not bloodlines but a common awareness of following Jesus and God’s mission.[2]

How do we pick up our cross and be faithful in following Jesus? How do we deal with this word ‘hate’ which brings up un-gospel-like connotations of division, conflict, anger and even violence?

In a historical fiction by Ken Follet entitled A Column of Fire he describes the early, raw conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Set in 1558, just some forty years after Martin Luther inaugurated the Reformation, Follet portrays through his characters the mindset of religious combatants in England and France.

In small towns where this religious war was waged in families and churches, to be caught with prohibited books from the ‘other side’ meant certain and immediate death. Underground Protestants were indiscriminately persecuted with the full force of the law when outed in Catholic regions. And vice versa. I had forgotten to appreciate the depth of the hatred that existed between coreligionists in the decades following the spread of Protestantism in Europe.

Early in the book we are introduced to Rollo. Rollo hates Protestants who are inflicting his English town. He bemoans the subversive, rule-breaking Protestants who are trying to alter Christian doctrines that had been taught in the old town cathedral unchanged for centuries. “The truth was for eternity,”[3]he pronounces. This truth is like the huge foundation stones of cathedral building which cannot be moved.

Of course, from today’s vantage point five hundred years later, we lay aside these trifling objections. Over the last fifty years especially culminating in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justificationin 1999, Catholics and Protestants together testify to the salvation that is bestowed only in Christ and by grace alone. In that almost incredible agreement, the objections and cause of divisions of the sixteenth century between the Roman Catholic church and reformers were officially removed.

Rollo’s problem was that he equated his interpretation of the truth with the truth itself. He believed his ‘take’ on the truth was the only take to make. And everyone else who didn’t conform to his take was excluded. In other words, his worldview was exclusive. Love of God, grace of God—these were exclusive gifts of God to a select few who conformed.

And damned be the rest.

Today, while the historical differences between Catholics and Protestants melt in the context of a changing cultural reality in the Western world, these troubling tendencies towards conformity, like-mindedness and exclusiveness nevertheless still persist in both Catholic and Lutheran circles worldwide and denominationally.

Think of the eye-glasses we wear. Some, to shield against the sun. Some glasses for short-sightedness, some for far-sightedness. Some glasses are bi-focal. Others are progressive lens. Important questions to ask in any study of scripture or tradition are: What lens do you use—your lens of experience, upbringing, learning, personality, opinion, background—what lens of interpretation do you bring to a reading of holy scripture?

What do you normally see in scripture? What do you first notice? The law? The gospel? Do you regard the bible as a legal book, or a historical book primarily? Or, do you look for promise, hope, forgiveness? Do you presume a punishing God who looks for mistakes and the follies of humanity? Or, do you see a loving God? Why? What are you afraid of? What are you looking for?

These are not easy questions to pose to oneself. But following Jesus is not blind. Obedience in the vision of Jesus is not like flotsam, driftwood, floating hither and yon.

Discipleship is a call to a commitment with focus and intention. Following Jesus calls each of us to a thought-probing, deliberative process in which we grow our ability and confidence to ask of ourselves the tough questions about life and living not only about God but especially of ourselves.

These types of questions are important to get some handle on before you can claim any part of the truth. In short, an honest self-awareness is necessary for healthy relating—whether relating to scripture or to someone else.

In families, relationships and organizations that are healthy, vital and growing, what do you see? I see people who are respected for their unique contribution to the whole. I see people who may be very different from each other and still value their own contribution because they know they are valued by others. Not because they conform. Not because they wear identical eye-glasses of interpretation. Not because someone else tells them what to do. Not because they ‘tow the party line.’ Not because they are like-minded in all things religious.

I know it’s not time to think of snow, yet. But I came across this past week an image of the snowflake. Of all the billions of people on this planet, no two are exactly alike. Even, as I am, an identical twin—I am not exactly like my brother. Of all the snowflakes that fall from the sky, no two are exactly alike.  Not one is a duplicate. Each is unique.

I don’t take the word ‘hate’ in the Gospel reading to mean we have license from God now to say and do violence to those we love most. That would constitute a false interpretation of scripture.

I do take this to mean we cannot, dare not, make any claim on another’s life. We do not own another person. We do not claim ownership and control them emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually. We are not responsible for another person.

Our growth with those we love means we release our claim over their lives, if we’ve ever had one or thought we had. I believe that is what Jesus is getting at here. Parents, even, are advised to remember that their role in raising children is to prepare those children for the world, and then release them to the world. In any relationship, blood-lined or missional—we do not control, own, or claim anything over another person.

And this is not easy with regards to letting go of our emotional attachments. But not claiming anything over another doesn’t mean we cut ourselves off from them, cutting all ties and never seeing them again. Releasing our emotional grip on another doesn’t mean we do not love them anymore. Letting go our claim over their lives doesn’t mean we do not care for them anymore. It just means we are not ultimately in charge of their lives. God is.

This can be a freeing prospect.

In reflecting on the cost of discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The call to discipleship is a gift of grace.”[4]It’s a call to freedom and transformation which is what Jesus nurtures in us: to grow, to move, to change for the better as persons created in the image of God.

And, what is more, when all those unique snowflakes fall to the ground what accumulates is a blanket of snow—that has its recuperative and restorative purpose upon the earth. Unique, yet each contributes to the whole.

God doesn’t love us exclusively. As if we ought to be better than ‘them’. God loves uniquely. Being faithful is not about comparison, competition, being better than someone else. God loves us uniquely not exclusively. That means, our take on the truth is partial. Someone else’s take on the truth is also partial. Each of us in God’s family brings something unique to the whole of the truth.

To follow Jesus is to practice the letting go of the ego’s compulsions, and embrace God’s unconditional love and grace for you. So, following Jesus is not about being perfect, or copying someone else’s ‘saintliness’. It is, quite simply, being authentically you and affirming the stranger, in God’s love for all.

 

[1]Luke 14:25-33

[2]See Luke 12:51-53, 14:12, 18:29-30

[3]Ken Follet, A Column of Fire (New York: Viking Books/Penguin Random House, 2017) p.76.

[4]Cited by Emilie M. Townes in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.48.

Thanksgiving builds commUNItY

Sometimes what I see in nature represents how I feel. For example: “The dark, thunder clouds looked angry,” we say. Or, “The deer leapt with joy across the meadow.”

Nature has a way of evoking feelings within us. When I stopped in this cove on Cape Disappointment, I couldn’t help but feel praise for the creator God, and thankful for the beauty of life.

IMG_6215.JPG

This particular photo conveys to me first a state of peace. After all, not far from this lone pine the swirling waters, changing tides and ravaging winds off the Cape constantly threaten to uproot the tree. And yet, the tree lives on looking very peaceful.

But more than that, thankful. The tree shoots to the sky, to the life-giving sun. It’s not just hugging the rock in defensive self-protection. It offers its praise to the Creator by aiming and growing upward, giving a faithful witness to all that will see this tree.

For me, a life lived grounded and united in peace, praise and thanksgiving to God, is indeed a life lived in the gracious community of God.

During this month when we reflect on the legacy of the 16th century Reformation and celebrate together the 500th year of Reformation, we cannot avoid nor deny the sad reality of conflict and division. It seems you cannot fully appreciate the nature of things, including the church, unless you acknowledge the role of conflict among people of all times and places.

This is why it is noteworthy that Luke in the Gospel text assigned for Thanksgiving Day tells this story, which is not found anywhere else in the New Testament.[1] What is unique about this healing story is the response of thanksgiving by a Samaritan. Jesus sets this “foreigner” apart from the others who were also healed.[2]

The Samaritan was the only one who “turned back” to give thanks to Jesus.[3] So, there is much more going on here than a physical, medical cure of a disease.

Since ancient times, a political and religious rift was growing between Israel and Samaria. Samaria became “foreign” after breaking off from the Davidic monarchy and the establishment of Samaria as the capital of the northern kingdom.[4] Then, after the Babylonian exile, tensions mounted between the people of Samaria and the Jews who returned to rebuild Jerusalem.[5]

Luke includes this story in his Gospel to emphasize the importance of looking to the positive witness of the outsider. In other words, the normal divisions separating us in our religious and cultural identities matter little in the larger scheme of things. Especially when it comes to the expression of faith.

Those who are different are often the very people we need to look to for a positive example of faithful living.

This summer a friend of mine visited the German town of Dinkelsbühl in Bavaria. During the Reformation Era in the 16th and 17th centuries, this town was the first of only a small number at the time who identified as bi-confessional; that is, roughly equal numbers of Roman Catholic and Protestant citizens were allowed to live and practice their faith, with equal rights for both sides.

After the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, a few years after Martin Luther’s death, land in Germany was divided into Protestant or Catholic regions. The religious adherence of a population in any region was determined by the religion of the ruling prince in that area.

Except for Dinkelsbühl. The Peace of Westphalia a century later enshrined the bi-confessional identity of this town by establishing a joint Catholic-Protestant government and administrative system, and ensured a precise and equal distribution between Catholic and Protestant civic officials.

When you consider the animosity, violence and warfare characteristic of those centuries between Catholics and Protestants, never-mind the twentieth century history in Ireland and the unfortunately enduring oppositional attitudes between Protestants and Catholics today – this is truly remarkable.

Bucking the dominant culture of dualistic either/or, right/wrong, in/out, black/white thinking, the leaders and citizens of Dinkelsbühl chose to follow a different path. We don’t need to point to present day efforts of ecumenism and unity building. Right in the middle of the conflict of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries there were already efforts then to see a different way:

To see the good in the other. To search out and focus on common understandings first. To seek mutual understanding. Amidst everything around conspiring against such counter-cultural vision.

The point of decision for the Samaritan leper came when he realized he was healed, on the path as they went.[6] It’s important to picture this in your mind. Jesus didn’t snap his fingers and, voila! Yes, the lepers brought their belief in Jesus to the encounter, asking him for healing. Jesus then told them to go to the priest for certification of their healing.

It was on the way – after they had committed to doing something, even before any proof of their healing was given, amidst their still debilitating illness – they went. In doing something, on the way, they were healed. Healing is a process.

It was on this journey when the healed Samaritan had to make a decision.  He could have followed the other nine who were clearly pursuing their self-interest. Against the conforming pressures of the majority, he turned back to follow his heart, full of thanksgiving. We may wonder whether he was also motivated by avoiding potential ridicule and discrimination as a Samaritan appearing before Jewish authority in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, the Samaritan made thanksgiving a priority. It is to him that Jesus ascribes the affirmation: “Your faith has made you well”; or, as other translations have it: “Your faith has saved you.”[7]

Faith without gratitude is no faith at all. There is something life-giving about thanksgiving. Grateful people are more hopeful. Indeed, there is evidence now of a correlation between gratitude and the immune system. People who are grateful have a health edge. For example, an attitude of gratitude, reduces stress. So, your mother was right when she made you call your grandmother and thank her for the birthday card.[8]

A true expression of faith is complete when it includes thanksgiving. Coming to worship on Sundays is not validated because “you get something out of it.” Attending worship is not about the self-centered search for “what is in it for me?” Worship is not “me-first” exercise. Let’s be clear.

Rather, coming to worship is about offering thanksgiving, first and foremost. Sunday worship is an opportunity to give thanks to the God who gives all, for all. It is no wonder that the Holy Communion is traditionally called “The Holy Eucharist”, translated from the Greek as “The Great Thanksgiving”. We come to the table to offer our gifts of thanksgiving to God. Every week.

Thanksgiving changes the character of a community and its work. Stewardship is transformed from fundraising to the glad gratitude of joyful givers. The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts. Prayer includes not only our intercessions and supplications, but also our thanksgiving and praise of God’s good gifts to us at the Table.[9]  Thanksgiving builds bridges among people who are different.

We come to Communion to offer thanks to God not because we are good, but because God is good. And we see God reflected in all of creation, in all people, in the good they are.

We pray the legacy of the next 500 years of Reformation reflects the growth of unity among a people that are grateful for the good gifts God brings to us all.

Amen.

 

[1] Oliver Larry Yarbrough in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year C, Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.169

[2] Luke 17:17-19

[3] Luke 17:15

[4] 1 Kings 12, 16

[5] Nehemiah 4, Yarbrough ibid., p.167

[6] Luke 17:14-15

[7] Luke 17:19, Yarbrough, ibid., p.169

[8] John M. Buchanan, ibid., p.169

[9] Kimberley Bracken Long, ibid., p.168

Sanctuary

For a year and a half my wife and I took dance lessons. We learned Latin dances such as the Salsa, Rumba, Samba, Triple-Step, Merengue, and the Cha-Cha. 

I was motivated, at the start, by a beautiful vision in my imagination: I could see my wife and I swinging to the music, sweeping across the dance floor, effortlessly. I had a vision of us moving in complete sync with one another, twirling and swaying together in perfect rhythm and harmony. What a vision!

When I first proposed we take these lessons together, she was all game. So, every week we dutifully went to our lesson and met with our dance instructor who showed us the steps and taught us the moves. We were doing this together!

After a few lessons, however, I was becoming a little bit disappointed. My vision was not panning out. We weren’t always in sync with each other. Indeed, more often than not, we were stepping on each other toes! Oh yes, we giggled about our missteps, but it seemed we were not getting anywhere.

Our instructor calmly yet persistently reminded us that we needed to practice. Before the fun would come, she said, we had to master the steps. And for me, the lead, I had to memorize the patterns and in my mind always be one step ahead, knowing where we were going with each and every move. And this took work! And persistence. And time. The fun would come later, I held on to the promise.

It wasn’t as easy as I imagined it would be, working towards that vision. In fact, it was my wife who grew into the love of the dance and often had to cajole and encourage me to keep up with the program.

The Gospel text (Luke 18:1-8) today describes a woman who is persistent in her pursuit of justice. Jesus tells this parable to illustrate what it means not to lose heart. In the story, persistence is not just about building up the courage to do something beyond one’s comfort zone just once, and then give up because it doesn’t turn out. 

How often, isn’t that how we operate when trying something new for the first time? Something doesn’t please us the way we expected or wanted the first time we try, and so we just give up on it. No, in the story, she goes back “continually”. The vision of justice never wavers in her commitment to do the hard work.

This relentless pestering is accomplished in adversity, and really against all odds. Why the woman would even consider trying, up against someone in power who has no fear of God and no respect for anyone, is remarkable. At the onset, we would say she is hardly setting herself up for success!

Setting up a contrast of visions to describe God, is what Jesus is up to in telling this story. The place where we meet God is a place of mercy, of sanctuary. People, in the course of history, could enter a church and find respite from the condemnation of the law. The police, the authorities, the powers that be, even the force of the law could not touch you in the holy space. Here, you found immediate relief and mercy, just by entering the space.

The place where we exercise our prayer is a place where we receive forgiveness, despite the imperfection and sordid realities of our lives in the world. That is why Jesus tells of a woman receiving justice, not because she goes to the temple per se, but a court of law in the secular world: Even there, you can find justice, despite the unjust and sinful people involved. God’s love is greater even then the most powerful, unjust judge.

Indeed, this is our challenge today. God is not just in one, holy place that we have cherished for the past fifty-five years. God is out there, too! In the imperfection of our Monday-to-Saturday lives. In the imperfection of our secular world. In the seat of government. In the marketplace. And, would you believe it, also in other churches. The truth of the Gospel resides in a worshipping community that is far from perfect. That, in fact, has weakness and brokenness imbedded in our very being together.

When Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the River Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-31), he didn’t hold back any punches, so to speak. He let God have it, and prevailed! His encounter with God, nevertheless, left him with a physical reminder of relationship with God: A bad hip. He would live the rest of his days, “limping because of his hip.” 

To be in communion with the Holy One is to bear the physical, real mark of sacrifice, of weakness, of imperfection. Followers of Christ, if you want to know them, are not perfect people. And if you meet Christians who appear to be perfect — or you want them to be — you are missing the truth of it I am certain. In fact, we would throw our lot in with the unjust judge, more than anyone else in these stories I would guess.

I read recently a story told by Marianne Williamson in her most recent book: “Tears to Triumph”. It’s “about a chimpanzee troop in which a portion of the population displayed depressed behaviour. They didn’t eat with the rest of the chimps, play with the rest of the chimps, or sleep with the rest of the chimps.

“A group of anthropologists wondered what effect the absence of these depressed chimps would have on the rest of the troop and removed them for six months. When they returned, they found that all of the other chimps, those who remained in the troop, had died! Why?

“According to one analysis, the chimps perished because the so-called depressed chimps among them had been their early warning system. The depressed chimps had been depressed for a reason; they registered that a storm was coming or snakes, or elephants, or disease. The presence of the depressed chimps had been an aid to the survival of the entire population … ” (1)

We need each other. We need our faults, you could say, just as much as we need our strengths. To remind us of what it’s all about. To point us to the Cross and the Empty Tomb. To help us remember that the church is not about our mission, but about God’s mission. To emphasize the grace of God under which all of us stand. To encourage us to work together with others that appear different from us. Going to, and persisting with, people that do things differently from us — in some ways better, in other ways not so much — is vital for the health and survival of the whole church.

So, after today we begin an adventure. Worship and faith and life-in-our-community does not stop now because this particular space becomes a construction zone for a couple months. We will continue to worship as a community, as Faith Lutheran Church. Yes we will! 

Our prayer will continue, and we will persist with others who are different from us (and I suspect we will soon discover they are not that much different from us!) at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Being outside our comfort zone is a critical, healthy, spiritual exercise. Should we persist together in this adventure, I believe we will grow in ways that are both vital and healthy to the future of Faith Lutheran Church; persisting together in this adventure will also deepen our walk with God.

I want to encourage you over the next two months to embrace this challenge, not shy away form it, maintain the vision, not lose heart, and pray always! Because God is already and always merciful and just.

(1) Marianne Williamson, “Tears to Triumph; The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment”, HarperOne, New York, 2016, p.84-85

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.

What is our purpose? -A little rant

I was privileged to meet Karen Hamilton this past week. She is the general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches. She was in Ottawa giving some speeches and meeting with various church groups.

When I saw her she gave an address to the Christian Council of the Capital Area (CCCA) about ecumenism, inter-church relations and the problem of human trafficking in Canada these days.

She told some stories illustrating how churches, to a large degree, have lost sight of their purpose and meaning. Karen lives in Toronto, so she is well acquainted with municipal politics; and we all know, Toronto has had its fair share of vibrant, local politics in the past year.

She is friends with a local, Toronto councillor who has a background in theology but is well-entrenched in the secular world. With some frustration he told Karen recently that the single-most issue over which church groups petition Toronto city hall, repeatedly, is …. can you guess?

And let me just clarify — this is not an issue only espoused by one denomination, or one particular group of Christians. This is an issue that a broad spectrum of churches go to city hall over. Any more guesses?

Parking. And, presumably parking around their properties and buildings. Are you surprised? I was. Now, it’s not to say parking doesn’t deserve some attention. But for the secular world to have this dominant picture of what Christians spend so much of their time and galvanizing energy and petitioning politicians over … parking?

You’d think the church, if it were to venture into the public realm to make a stand and petition local government, would be more interested in issues other than parking. I agree with Karen Hamilton when she says the church does have an ‘optics’ problem. What kind of witness are we bearing in the world? Are we surprised that this institution for which we care is struggling?

After reading the Gospel text for the Third Sunday in Lent (John 2:13-22) I wonder how many tables at our annual /vestry meetings Jesus would overturn if he would walk into our places of worship and see what really motivates our “Christianity”?

Engage the 4-wheel drive!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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