You can tell a pilgrim …

Before I took my first steps on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage a couple of years ago, I first had to choose my shell—the symbol for St James the Apostle. Along the roadways and paths of the 800-kilometre trek across the Iberian Peninsula in northern Spain you can tell a pilgrim by the shell they have attached to their backpacks.

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Wearing the shell attracted attention, often very positive. The group with whom I was walking came through a small suburb of the city of Guernica one Sunday morning. When we walked into the town square, we soon realized we were at the finish line of a marathon fundraiser for a local, special needs school.

There, some of the locals had set up large barbecues where they were grilling all sorts of meats for the marathon runners to enjoy after their race. We entered the square moments before the first runners crossed the finish line. But those preparing the barbecue called us over and without even asking our names or who we were offered us some of the delectable meats.

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When we expressed our gratitude, they asked us to say a prayer for them at the destination of our pilgrimage: the shrine in the city of Santiago, Spain—still some 700 kilometres away. I promised them I would.

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As you know, I didn’t make it to Santiago, falling ill to pneumonia and coming home early after only a couple of weeks on the trail. I remember struggling with my ‘failure’ to achieve my spiritual and physical goals. For one thing, I wasn’t able to offer a prayer in Santiago for those good people from Guernica who asked me to.

Was it worth it? Did my truncated pilgrimage do any good? Or, was the love and generosity those locals showed us and our receiving their gifts graciously, enough?

On Ash Wednesday, we begin a journey. And at the beginning of this journey, we are given a mark—not a shell, but the sign of the cross on our foreheads. It is a public act, a public ‘coming out’ if you will. By this mark the world will know we are Christians.

I hope you will wear your mark home tonight, wherever you go and whatever you still have to do—keep it visible. And see what happens. You might be invited into some meaningful, enriching conversations along the way. Some might even ask you to pray for them.

Go into the closet where no one can see you, instructs Jesus.[1]And pray to your Father in heaven who hears you, and will reward you for your faithful act. But even when we think our faith fails us? Or only for its visible success? Or only if we achieve our goals?

Arnold Lobel, author of his children’s book called The Frog and Toad Treasury describes the relationship of two friends and how they pass time together, explore the world together and support one another.

In one chapter, the action takes place in October. The leaves are falling. Frog decides to go to Toad’s house, secretly, and rake his leaves for him. “I will rake all the leaves that have fallen on his lawn. Toad will be surprised,” Frog says.

Now, his friend Toad has the same idea. Both manage to arrive at the home of the other unseen, ascertain that no one is home, rake the leaves, and return to their own houses unnoticed. On their respective ways home, however, a wind comes.

The wind blows and blows. The piles of leaves do too, so that the leaves are scattered everywhere. At the end of the day, neither Frog nor Toad realizes what the other has done, because both return home to leaves strewn across their yards. Both pledge to rake their own leaves the next day. Nevertheless, that night Frog and Toad are both happy when they each turned out the light and went to bed.[2]

What is more important: Our good intentions and motivation? Or, the outcome of our actions. Being authentic matters more than the results of our actions. The Gospel is not about the consequences, good or bad, of our good or bad intentions. The Gospel is not about achieving results and being rewarded for our good work, even with righteous motivation. In the end, the Gospel does not leave us stuck (and perplexed!) in self-centred piety, it points to what God is all about.

Normally when we hear the words of Jesus: “the kingdom of heaven is like …”[3]when someone does so and so, we think of the job we must do to enter that kingdom. And so, we imagine and want to be like that religious person, attending to ritual and prayer and acts of charity and justice our whole life long; the more we can do, the better.

Not that we don’t do anything or don’t keep trying. But we cannot ignore from these words of Jesus what Godis all about. I consider those scriptures about the kingdom of heaven as describing the character of God: A God who treasures each of us. And will stop at nothing to find us. And give up God’s very life on the cross—give up everything—in order to be with us and love us.

God is the one who sells all in order buy the field with the treasure buried in it. God is the merchant who sells everything in order to obtain the pearl of great value. Where God’s treasure is (God’s life, God’s mercy, God’s presence—in us), there God’s heart is also.

This is a fundamental message of Christianity. A message of One who comes into our life even in the messiness and despair of being human. Born a vulnerable baby to poor, teenage parents in a backwater town of Bethlehem. Living the life of a simple man from Nazareth, hanging out with fishers, tax collectors and prostitutes. Dying, even, the very humiliating death of a criminal, for all to see.

The message of Christianity is about a God who ‘sells it all’ in order to be with us, live in us and work in us, for the good.

God does all of this in order to know us, really know us. To love us. To grieve with us. To enjoy with us. To walk with us this often difficult journey that we undertake again this day.

And despite the difficult journey for which Lent is a metaphor, may the world in each step we take on the pilgrimage know we are Christians by our love.

And that’s enough.

 

[1]Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

[2]Cited in Lori Brandt Hale, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Vol 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.23-24.

[3]from his later parables (or stories) describing the reign of God, specifically Matthew 13:44-45.

It’s ok to fall (3): Jesus leads us there

The beginning of a story introduces the characters, but it also sets things up for what readers can expect later in the book. The writer of a good story will craft, early on, a good ‘set up’ for the plot development. Here’s an example, and you tell me what you think will happen later in the story:

At the beginning of this story, we read about a couple of children walking home from school, as they always do, along a familiar path. However, their route goes by the town’s cemetery, a place they have never visited. It remains a mystery to them. The cemetery is guarded by spiked, iron-wrought gates and surrounded by tall, thick cedar hedges.

The children are coming of age when their curiosity is piquing, and they ask their parents if they can venture into the cemetery. But they are warned repeatedly from all quarters: “Don’t ever, ever, EVER play in the cemetery! Especially, after dark!”

Now, what do you think will happen as a result of this ‘set up’ in the story line? They’ll likely go there! — into the cemetery, at night, perhaps under scary or tension-filled circumstances. And, we want to read on to find out how, as our own imaginations grow! It’s true, when we are ordered not to do something in some unequivocal, unyielding, non-explanatory way, it’s something we will usually end up doing! The story is a snap-shot of life.

Social history bears witness to this human dynamic: In 1920, law-makers south of the border enacted the 18th Amendment which attempted to curb the evils of liquor. Laws were passed against the sale and trade of alcohol. The result? After Prohibition was finally lifted, historians showed that the consumption of alcohol by the general population actually increased during those ‘prohibitive’ years. (Strayer & Gatzke, “The Mainstream of Civilization since 1500”, Harcourt, Toronto, 1984, p.730)

“Brick-wall” parenting, as some call it, often fails. Because children don’t grow in an environment where the evils of the world can be talked about, reasoned through and struggled with in loving, patient and understanding ways. They just outright rebel.

Perhaps it was employing some reverse-psychology that spurred Martin Luther to say those infamous words: “Sin boldly … !” But I like to emphasize the latter part of that quote: “Sin boldly … and trust the Lord even more.” Luther doesn’t deny or hide away from sin. He just trumps it, with the Lord!

When I assert repeatedly the theme of this sermon series for Lent: “It’s okay to fall”, I am NOT encouraging you to sin. Because you don’t need to purposely go out and find sin and suffering. You don’t need to seek out suffering, as if it’s a choice we can make (eg. “I think I’ll go out and sin today”; or, “I don’t think I’ll sin today!”)

Sin is something that we must learn to live with. It’s a part of our lives. Sin is not something we can ‘will’ away by the force of our self-righteous toil to purge ourselves somehow. If you think yourself a good Christian, you may be good at hiding your sin. But honest, faithful, authentic Christians will struggle monumentally with their sin, and not need to put on masks of perfection when they come to church.

Life happens. Life is ‘done unto us’. Mistakes are made. I can’t explain why God created a world where suffering is so much a part of the journey of life. The better, more meaningful question, I believe, is to consider what the suffering and the sin has to teach us about ourselves in relationship to God, in the journey to redemption.

In other words, it’s okay to fall, because that is where Jesus leads us. In the Gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent, after Jesus is baptized, “The Spirit of God immediately drove him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) where he spent forty days, tempted by Satan. This part of Jesus’ life is for me the image I hold whenever I pray the traditional English translation of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation”.

Because, while Jesus does not cause my sinning, Jesus leads me into the wilderness of my life where I must confront all those temptations, the brokenness, weaknesses, despair, anger, fear, guilt — that cause my sinning. Jesus takes me there, into the barren land of my soul. He leads the way. I must follow.

The formal ‘Invitation to the Lenten discipline’ in most liturgies begins with a call to self-examination — even before repenting, praying, fasting and works of love strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Leader’s Desk Edition, Augsburg Fortress, p.617). Self-examination is an act of profound humility and honesty. And it could very well be the most difficult task in the Lenten journey.

Here is some good news: Jesus is not afraid. Because he has already gone to the darkest place of all — the Cross, and then even descended into hell as we affirm in the Creeds. I can persevere through any turmoil life may offer, because Jesus is there, right beside me, helping me get through it.

What makes the consequences of our sin worse, I suspect, is the kind of thinking that suggests Jesus cannot be present if or whenever we go into those dark places of our lives. Our prejudice may be that Jesus cannot be there in the shameful, anger-ridden, fear-devastated places of our suffering. We thus delude ourselves into believing “I am alone” in my suffering. The Gospel, however, teaches us otherwise.

I was so inspired by the record number of folks we had out on Shrove Tuesday for our pancake party — including almost a dozen folks from the neighbourhood who had never been with us before! We danced, we sang, we ate, we enjoyed music together.

When we are in the desert of our lives confronting our sin and suffering, it is so important to know, again, who your friends are, your family, your community, your church — and simply experience their presence. And by their presence, their loving support — even in the darkest time of our lives. Just being there together, can make a huge difference.

Therefore, I can be encouraged that as Jesus was waited upon by the angels who gave him the things he needed to get through his wilderness suffering, so then Jesus will not abandon me in my desert. He’ll be right there beside me, and give me what I need (and maybe not always what I want).

It’s okay to fall, because Jesus leads me into that place that I would rather avoid. And even that place where I might be tempted to go. Because I don’t go alone. Thanks be to God.

Healing with others

In worship, we pray regularly for problems in the world. We do this partly because we are not disconnected from the consequence of conflict in far-off places. Neither are we, in large part, innocent from the causes of these conflicts.

The growing conflict in the Ukraine affects the whole world. This problem is not isolated in its implications for the well-being of people everywhere. For example, a couple of days ago, the markets in Europe and North America tumbled. Especially in Moscow – where the rubble sank to its lowest value in decades and their stock market lost 11%, or some 60 billion dollars, of value in one day. Russia holds the highest reserve of natural gas in the world.

We might very well feel the effects of this crisis in our global economy. The markets dipped because of the fear that shipping of natural resources from Russia through the Black Sea will be disrupted. Hence, the price of oil goes up.

I mention the economic problems not to neglect the more important issues surrounding violence, loss of life, and respect for nationhood that is being stripped from the people of Ukraine at this time. But, only to underscore the truth of our inter-connected, inter-related and interdependent reality – both for good, and for bad.

Both the texts from Isaiah (58:1-12) and Matthew (6:1-6,16-21) that we read this evening on Ash Wednesday call our attention and some criticism to practicing our faith apart from a social awareness. It’s not so much to condemn fasting per se, for example, but what is motivating that fast.

After all, Moses fasted for 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:27-28); Elijah fasted for 40 days and nights on that same mountain in response to the call of God (1 Kings 19:7-12); And Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness before being tested by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). During his earthly ministry, Jesus often went off to be by himself to pray (e.g. Luke 6:12).

But the difference is whether that fast or prayer is motivated ultimately by self-interest; or, an interest to help others. Isaiah (58:3-7) is quiet clear to focus the attention of the Israelites on acts of social care. Isaiah is among those prophets who say that the Lord does not want our ritual sacrifices (Micah 6:6-8), but the sacrifice of our hearts (Psalm 51:16-17) for the sake of others. Matthew reiterates the pious, self-centred worship when he records Jesus’ indictment: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

Over these forty days and forty nights that we call Lent, our mid-week worship will focus on the healing ministry of our church, according to the liturgy in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Book (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2006, p.276).

The discipline of healing is an important theme in the Christian life; and we will be fortunate to hear the testimonies of several people from the church who will share their experience of healing; we will also practice the laying on of hands and anointing with oil that grounds our practice in tangible ways. We come to this discipline freely, unforced, and open to the promise of God (e.g. Isaiah 58:8-12).

But lest we, too, fall in the trap of making healing something that is the sole purview of our individual, abstract, isolated, disconnected-from-the-real-world selves, I encourage us to reflect on the way we do this work for one another, and its effect on the world around us.

Yuriy Derkach is the chaplain at Algonquin College. He is a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Community here in Ottawa. We met last week to get caught up, reflect on the situation in his homeland. And, pray together.

He told me of an Orthodox discipline that some practice every year on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, around the giving and receiving of forgiveness. In addition to recognizing the personal aspect of forgiveness between people that know each other, they also ‘ritualize’ the inter-connected effect of forgiveness on the community.

So, a few of them go into the downtown core of Ottawa, walk the streets, and meet total strangers. There, on the street corner, and quite genuinely, they ask the homeless for forgiveness, recognizing their own complicity in creating the problem of poverty in the world today. After receiving a word of forgiveness, they also offer forgiveness.

Yuriy believes this practice has a domino or butterfly affect. We may not go into downtown Ottawa and meet total strangers with words of forgiveness. But reflect, for a moment, on the power of forgiveness: When you throw a pebble into a still pond of water and see the ripples expanding outward, so, too, when you give and receive forgiveness the stratosphere is affected. Similar to the proverb you may have heard that when a butterfly bats its wings in Japan, a tornado is spawned in the American mid-west. When we pronounce words of promise, forgiveness and affirmation – as we do intentionally to one another in the liturgy for healing – we affect the atmosphere and ‘climate’ of the community around us.

It goes both ways: When we carry around anger and express hatred to those we meet during the day, it may very well have a net negative, global consequence. But imagine, should words of affirmation, healing, and love come from our hearts to those we meet and relate to on the streets of our daily lives, and in the church – what affect that may have in the world? Not fear. But hope.

One of the passages from the bible that has also challenged me from the lips of Jesus, is when he said: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). Yuriy gave me a wonderful interpretation of that passage. Using the analogy of running the race, which St. Paul uses (1 Cor 9:24), he said if those at the front hold hands with those at the back; and those at the back hold hands with those at the front; then, everyone can cross the finish line together. Then, indeed, the first are the last, and the last are the first.

Healing is not done alone. Whatever that healing is, it doesn’t happen in an earthly vacuum, by ourselves and in our heads alone. Very likely, there are always people around, people who care, people who reach out to touch another with loving intent.

We are as much a part of what is happening across this world, for good and for bad. We are, each and every one of us, in need of forgiveness and healing for what we have done, known and unknown, to cause hurt in another. And we are, each and every one of us, capable of affecting the world positively in small acts of kindness with God’s love.

Let it be so, this Lent.

And though we may at times stumble and fail, we will not give up. Because God’s word is true: Our light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly; the glory of the Lord shall be our rearguard; we will call, and the Lord will answer; God will satisfy the needs of the afflicted; our light shall rise in the darkness; the Lord will guide us continually, and satisfy our needs in parched places and make our bones strong; we shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail; our ancient ruins will be rebuilt; we shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:8-12).

Let it be so, this Lent.