How to know peace

How can we know peace? Not only are we anxious and stressed to get everything done this holiday season, our hearts may also be heavy with grief with loss, and aware of the tragic violence facing so many people in other parts of the world today … Then what of ‘peace?’

Cardinal Thomas Collins was the guest speaker at an event I attended on behalf of Bishop Michael Pryse (Eastern Synod, ELCIC) earlier this week on Parliament Hill. He spoke to a room full of parliamentarians and multi-faith religious leaders on the theme of “Faith in a Time of Crisis”.

In his opening remarks he admitted this theme could be interpreted in a few ways: He said, the most obvious, was to look at the places of violence and conflict in the world, images that are splashed all over the media almost on a daily basis.

Then, “Faith in a Time of Crisis” might also be applied to our Canadian context, where changing economic realities and public violence hit close to home, as it did in downtown Ottawa a few weeks ago in the shootings and deaths on Parliament Hill.

But, Cardinal Collins settled on the crises we face ourselves, personally, in our own lives: crises of losses, frail health, broken relationships and despair. He looked straight into the eyes of our Members of Parliament and government leaders, and with a twinkle in his eye spoke about the virtue of humility.

I couldn’t help but think about the examples of humility in the Scriptures, especially in the New Testament. Unlike the self-righteous Pharisee praying in the temple, the tax collector beats his breast and prays, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”; apparently, the person who exercises humility is the person of God (Luke 18:9-14).

In the Gospel text for today, John the Baptist confesses, “I am not worthy even to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals” (Mark 1:1-8). John the Baptist points to the coming Saviour, Jesus Christ. He knew that he would ‘decrease’ so that Christ would ‘increase’ (John 3:30). We might not think of John the Baptist as particularly humble, what with his rough-and-tumble persona.

But he was merely the messenger, preparing the way of Jesus. Jesus would be ‘the way, the truth, the light’, not John the Baptist. He understood, as we all are well to do, that God is God, and we are not. Even though we are valuable members, each and every one of us, of the Body of Christ, we are still just a part of the larger, “Big Picture”, as Richard Rohr calls the kingdom of God.

It’s easy to slip into that frame of mind that believes we are God, and that it’s up to us. It’s easy to identify with the unholy trinity of “me, myself and I.” We might sooner go to confession and, instead of saying, “Father I have sinned …”, say, “Father, my neighbour has sinned; and, let me tell you all about that!” The words, ‘pride’ and ‘sin’ both share the same middle letter … ‘I’!

Unbounded self-assuredness is not the way of the Gospel. The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist preaching repentance. Indeed, “scripture proclaims hope for troubled souls and judgement for the self-assured. Against our human tendency to read the Bible in self-justifying ways, confirming our prejudices and excusing our resentments, we must learn to read self-critically, allowing Scripture to correct us. As the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth says, ‘only when the Bible grasps at us’ does it become for us the Word of God” (David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word – Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.160).

It’s much harder, to see yourself as the problem. Cardinal Collins used the image of going in for an oil change, to describe his own need, regularly, to confess his own sins, to be grounded again in the truthful reality of his life. Some of us, he feared, unfortunately take better care of our cars with regular maintenance than we do with our own souls.

Humility means to be grounded, to be in touch with your humanity (‘humus’ — Latin for the earth, ground). Humility is to recognize your own complicity in a problem or challenge we face, AND taking responsibility for your own behaviours. Humility also reflects the desire to be changed, and to change yourself. The famous poet, Rumi, once wrote: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Do you want to change yourself?

Now, you also probably know this: whenever you embark on a journey of transformation, you will encounter resistance to this change — both from external sources and from within yourself. Listen to how a congregation undergoing intentional change identified very honestly in their reporting what they anticipated to be different states of resistance; they wrote:

“If we are going to try to make some changes – guaranteed – there will be resistance! (If there is no resistance, that shows that nothing is changing.) We will encounter (at least) four waves of resistance: 1. against the very need to consider change 2. against no matter what changes or types of changes 3. against specific changes 4. against personal changes and transitions, without which there is no way changes in the congregation, as a whole, can happen.” This shows great insight, and wisdom! Even in a climate where a collective change must occur, they recognize that the body can’t change unless its individual parts do.

Now, you may be starting to wonder what the desire for peace has to do with change. In fact, you may see change as the grounds for anything but peace. Well, the two are related, in the act of confession.

In the Lutheran Church, Confession has not been practiced as a formal sacrament; traditionally, the only two sacraments that have been practised as such are Baptism and Holy Communion – although to varying degrees among different Lutheran expressions, confession, too, has been practiced sacramentally.

Whatever the case may be, there is agreement that Martin Luther did place immense importance on the practice of confession. In our current worship books, there are orders for individual and corporate confession. I encourage you to look into these prayers, especially at this time of year. The point is, when you practice humility in the act of confession, the heart is naturally opened up to change for the better, and find peace.

Admittedly this path to peace, is a way through the desert. We enter one of the greatest paradoxes of the Christian faith: that it is through the suffering that comes to us all in various ways that we can experience the grace, the mercy, and the profound love of God that changes us, transforms us, into a new creation. John the Baptist preached “in the wilderness”; Isaiah (40) proclaimed words of comfort to a people moving “in the wilderness”.

But, if you want to see the stars, you have to go out into the wilderness — where it is ‘dark’, where it is quiet, where silence and stillness of the night characterizes reality much more than the usual distractions, stimulations and the incessant rushing-about that describes our lives more today, and in this season.

If the Christian faith has anything of enduring value to offer our retail-crazed, commercialized, high-octane holiday season — it is the gift of “Silent Night, Holy Night”. Because the light of the world is coming. As John the Baptist pointed to the brightest star that was coming into the world, we can do well to pay attention the ways in which Christ comes to us.

In our humility, in our acknowledgement for the need for forgiveness and grace, we learn to depend on God and one another for signs of God’s coming to us, again, and again.

Peace be with you.

Are you an honest sinner?

A Christian leader (Laurence Freeman) commented on the 25th anniversary edition of “Rolling Stones” magazine. It contained interviews with pop music icons over that time period, starting with John Lenin all the way to Madonna.

He was wondering why young people especially were drawn to these, their idols. Of course, many pop stars are not exemplary people. They are not saints.

But they are, what he calls, ‘honest sinners’. Which reminds me of what Martin Luther said about us: That we are at the same time: Saints AND Sinners.

In the church, I think we get the ‘Saint’ part. But how do we validate the ‘Sinner’ part of ourselves?

In the Gospel text for Ordinary Time on this last Sunday in September 2014, we continue to work through the parables given by Jesus, in the latter part of the Gospel of Matthew.

In the assigned pericope, the authority of Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees (Matthew 21:23-32). In response, Jesus tells a story of a Father who asks both his sons to work in his vineyard. The first son says he wont do it, but does. The second son says he will do it but doesn’t.

What do we make of the first son who does his Father’s bidding? He does not want to obey. And he is honest about it.

The verb in the original Greek in this text (v.29) for “changed”, as in, “he changed his mind” (or as many English translations have it — “he repented”), is not the common one usually associated with the idea of a total transformation of character (as is implied in, for example, Matthew 3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”).

In fact, the only other place in the Gospel of Matthew where the exact same form appears is in Matthew 27:3, when Judas experiences a regretful change of purpose that ends in despair, remorse and his demise (see Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers).

Perhaps a better translation would have it as “a caring change of heart”; or, “a change of heart burdened with care.”

This form suggests that a heart nurtured in the love of God leads to action that not only obeys the call of God, but does it willingly. Even though the first son’s mind and his words at first are contrary to the will of the Father, his follow-through redeems him in the end. An imperfect confession it is, to be sure. But, ultimately, words are not enough.

Although in the case of both sons words do not match the deeds, “the repentance of the former is preferable to the hypocrisy of the latter;” Kathryn Blanchard says it best: “True righteousness is in the doing, rather than in the confessing” (in “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, WJK 2011, p.118).

I see a possible link here with the alternate first testament text assigned for this Sunday, from Exodus 17:1-7 (We also encounter this text on the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A). The Israelites are on the journey to the promised land, and yet again (for the fourth time in the sequence of these texts from Exodus) they complain to Moses about their lack of food; and in this, case, water.

They are thirsty. They are without a basic need for human survival. We are not talking here about typical ‘first-world problems’ — complaining about the weather, or unable to sync online calendars among family members with different smart phones, or dealing with a dilemma of how to invest money in competing markets, or having to cancel a credit card that was stolen, etc. These are things we complain about, and may even pray about.

But the Israelites’ complaints to Moses are about a basic, human need that they lack. I cannot blame them for being upset! They will die without water. They are being ‘honest sinners’, aren’t they?

Scientists, medical professionals, and child care workers will agree today that love is such a basic human need. If a person, especially at a young age, lacks love in their life, this absence of love will even stunt their physical development. They will be underdeveloped, physically, because of love being absent. The giving and receiving of love is a fundamental, human need.

Jesus tells the Pharisees that the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter heaven before they will. Maybe because these ‘lowest rung’ folk in the religious hierarchy of the day certainly don’t present themselves in a religiously acceptable way. There is no pretence, performance, pious evasion. There is no making appearances, no self-denial nor self-repression. There is no saying-the-right-things, no artifice, no self-consciousness to their being and behaving. They are truly ‘honest sinners’.

Both of Moses and of Jesus, the people demanded ‘signs’ of God’s presence. The Exodus text ends with those ominous and faithless words: “Is God with us, or not?” Even after the visible and tangible sign of water was given to quench their thirst, the Israelites still doubted. Even though Jesus performed miracles; even though the resurrected, bodily form of Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee following Easter morning, they did not ‘believe’ (Matthew 28:17).

The ‘signs’ are not the point of the Gospel — God’s love IS. Acts of love demonstrate our Christianity more than dogmas and creeds.

And when we participate in loving, caring action …

We are truly free. Free to be ourselves. And free to do the right thing. Perhaps whatever good things honest sinners do, they do it then from the heart. Their giving of love, however unnoticeable and seemingly irrelevant acts of love, is authentic and real — something the Pharisees so stuck in their heads and dogmas could not grasp.

You might notice that the Father — who in this parable may represent the attitude of God — does not condemn the first son for saying the wrong thing. The Father does not ‘correct’ the son’s imperfect words. The Father accepts him just as he is. And in the freedom of God’s love, the son then experiences a change of heart.

God accepts you as you are. God has faith in you. Because of God’s steadfast love and unwavering faithfulness in you, what will you do?