The house built by fear

Reading from the bible can be scary. Sometimes a faithful reading of the bible will not bring calm and assurance. Just the opposite!

Today’s scripture can evoke fear.[1]When Jesus talks about Herod’s glorious temple crumbling to the ground and being betrayed by family members, our eyes widen in apprehension and we shift uncomfortably in our seats. Fearful of the future. What will it bring? Is God’s future good or something to fear. We do know, the way there won’t be easy.

From the Gospel, Jesus exposes two false ways in which people of faith try to deal with our fear. By that, I mean, strategies that we have employed for thousands of years in order to combat our fear. While these methods may be effective in allaying our fear, they also serve to block the way we connect with God.

The first such strategy Jesus exposes is our attachment to, and almost exclusive dependence on, what we build. Even, as we say, to the glory of God. These buildings. Glorious, adorned with carvings, intricate stained glass, spires making confident bids to the sky, and arches perfectly rounded and balanced. Architectural master pieces. To say the least.

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The pulpit alone, in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, is a wonder to behold. It is a sermon in itself – its spiraling, narrow staircase winding itself up into a small yet regally appointed platform high above the nave.

King Herod, for Christians reading the bible, was a paranoid despot. He killed innocent children was ruthless in defending and protecting his hold on power. Because he was afraid, afraid of losing it.

For historians and archeologists, however, he was a builder par excellence.

King Herod started building his temple in Jerusalem two decades before Jesus was born. During the time of the build he more than doubled the size of the temple mount. The temple proper was completed in eighteen months. But work on the outer courts and decorations continued throughout Jesus’ lifetime and still some thirty years after his death and resurrection. During this impressive season of building the temple, people gathered under the large colonnades and porches to hear speeches and witness healings.[2]

It was a gathering place, a central focal point for people’s identity in faith and source of authority and guidance for life. It was where you went to listen to and engage religious debate. It was where you went to deliberate truth. It was where you made animals sacrifices. Here, you found the rules and regulations and laws for a good life.

Less than a decade after everything was completed on the Herodian temple, it was pretty much destroyed by the Romans in the late first century. Jesus’ words in the Gospel text for today, calling for a day “when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”, speak to events that were happening in the lives of Jesus’ followers during this time of the destruction of Jerusalem and its glorious, magnificent temple.

In reading this text carefully, however, I realized this is not just about buildings. Jesus isn’t just criticizing those who put all their religious stock in bricks and mortar. Jesus is exposing yet another related strategy for dealing with our fear. Not just in the glory of the buildings, but in the way we speak to one another and relate to one another. Not just in glory. But also in power.

It was, after all, the authorities who made the rules, sold the animals for sacrifice and mediated the people’s connection with God.

At root, the religious authorities persuaded the people that their relationship with God could only be mediated by the authority’s permission. If you didn’t follow the rules and authorities, you were not justified or in right relationship with God. The whole culture, the spiritual climate, surrounding the temple served to choke out freedom of a personal and direct intimacy with God.[4]

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote the dismaying story with the title, “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. The old cardinal of the church hears that the real Jesus has come suddenly to his town. The cardinal is alarmed that Jesus healed a blind man who had been coming to his church. Then, he hears that the real Jesus who has come to his town raised a young girl from the dead.

When the cardinal confronts Jesus he asks him: “Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?” He wants to rid the town of Jesus, because in his mind what Jesus did long ago is done far better by the church today. In other words, the cardinal has to admit to himself, the church does not need Jesus.[3]The cardinal really couldn’t give up the power he had. Not give it up for anyone. Even Jesus. The cardinal was afraid of losing his job — what it would mean for him and the church …

Seeking glory and defending power seem to be effective ways of dealing with our fear.  We attach ourselves to symbols and expressions of glory in our culture – the tallest buildings, the fastest cars, celebrities, newsworthy leaders and victories on the battle fields of life. This brings comfort, though momentary and fleeting. Because we can never be satisfied operating in this consumer and acquisition-fueled culture. There’s never enough, or it’s not good enough. Ever.

Jesus suggests we must learn a new language. A new way of being, with God and with one another. A way, marked not by successes in the eyes of the world—there were lots of tourists in those houses of worship we visited in Montreal. The world approves. But will we walk a different way – a way marked by love, faithfulness in suffering, and generous giving in the face of poverty, suffering and our fear?

Throughout the Gospels, the religious authorities asked Jesus for a sign of his authority. And, he never satisfied them with his answer. His answers usually appear to disturb their sense of right and wrong.

The truth, when it comes, seems to turn upside down our initial ways of thinking and doing. Here, Jesus says, “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[5]

These opponents were neither stupid nor un-educated. In fact they were the most articulate and brilliant of the age. So, there is something altogether different going on here. A different way of being with God. A way not encumbered by discursive thought and debate. A way not intimidated by rules and regulations and conditional statements of belonging. A way not defined by glory-seeking persuasion nor forceful coercion.

The confirmation class the other night reflected on the meaning of the Trinity—God the Father who creates all, God the Son who is with us, God the Spirit who gives us strength. On this poster they cut out images from magazines to place in one of three designated areas on the poster. These images evoked for them the meaning and feeling of what God is up to in the world today, through the various persons of the Trinity.

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In reflecting on the experience of doing this exercise afterwards, we pastors admitted this was rather an abstract exercise. We weren’t just memorizing definitions of the Trinity from the Catechism, difficult enough as that is! But in engaging the confirmands on another level, we began to see more than we thought possible.

We discover that we don’t find God by building glory or defending power — ways we use to avoid confronting our fears of the future. Rather, the good news is that God has already found us. In this world. In our lives. And in a multitude of ways.

Making this link, this connection, is much simpler than all the methods we have devised to combat our fear. We don’t need the tallest and most beautiful buildings to assert God in this world. We don’t need to merit, or qualify for, our relationship with God by building skyscrapers or getting straight A’s in school.  We don’t need degrees and a long pedigree to justify ourselves in faith. We don’t need to arm ourselves with book knowledge in order to defend against some opponent whether a family member or stranger.

All we need is an open heart and a desire to love and trust. Following Jesus is about going directly to intimacy with God in our deepest selves. And God is there, right there, all along.

We can respond, then, not out of fear. But out of the love of Christ for all and in all. Forever.

 

[1]Luke 21:5-19

[2]Acts 3:11; 5:12

[3]Cited in Eberhard Busch, 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.310-312

[4]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.93-96

[5]Luke 21:15

Pray, in Christ

In 1970, Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich expressed his support for artistic freedom and human rights in a letter to Pravda, the state-run newspaper of the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviets sharply curtailed his ability to travel. After Rostropovich and his wife decided not to return to the Soviet Union when travelling abroad in 1975, the Soviets stripped him and his wife of citizenship.

The political conflict in which the Rostropovich’s were embroiled reflected the larger geo-political strife of the Cold War from the last century.

When Rostropovich later played a Dvorak cello concerto in Chicago, the audience was treated to a brilliant performance. As the last note faded, the audience sat mesmerized. Rostropovich then did an extraordinary thing: he stood up and kissed his cello. The audience erupted. Then he hugged and kissed the surprised conductor. Then he hugged and kissed the entire cello section before moving on to the violins. He hugged and kissed most of the orchestra.[1]

With deeply felt gratitude, especially when circumstances are not ideal. When a home country—betrays, rejects. When suffering the consequences of some internal battle. When divided, separated from our home on earth and true home within. And still feeling grateful and expressing a profound thanksgiving. Does this not describe the experience of prayer?

I must admit upon reading the scripture from 1 Timothy I did not at first catch that this text is fundamentally about prayer. This text from Paul’s letter to Timothy announces the theme of prayer in the first verse: “First of all, then,” writes Paul, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone …”[2]

What follows in seven verses reads like a creedal statement of belief. This is what initially distracted me. But without the basic context of prayer undergirding that confession we can easily miss the deeper meaning by getting derailed by arguments about universalism and atonement theories.[3]

Starting with prayer gives us a practical, experiential basis for engaging questions of faith. Because it is in our personal communion with God that sets those questions in better, more productive, perspective.

Basically, religion is about realigning, reconnecting with God—that’s the meaning of the word, religion. Prayer is the means, the way, by which we connect with God. Our journeys of faith begin in the practice of prayer. And that is what we do every week in worship on Sunday. Everything that happens in the liturgy—in the order of worship—is prayer and flows from prayer.

At the Regina convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) this past summer, national bishop, Susan Johnson articulated a four-year vision for “Living our Faith”. She writes that “God is calling us into a deeper relationship …” and invites the church to focus, each of those four years, on one aspect of our spiritual journey. The first is prayer.[4]

Everything else (scripture, worship, love) flows from the beginning point of prayer. Why? Living our faith starts with communion in God, relationship with Jesus, personal connection with the living Lord.

While in worship we find many forms of prayer—different ways to pray (confession, petition, song, silence, sacrament, community, etc.)—there is only one prayer. And it is the prayer of Jesus. At its core, prayer for Christians is, as Paul often describes it, ‘in Christ Jesus.’ Paul uses the phrase, ‘in Christ’ dozens of times in his letters to the early Church. In Ephesians alone Paul uses ‘in Christ’ some twenty-seven times.

Christians believe in the living Lord. Jesus is not dead. Yes, he died on the cross over two thousand years ago. But since then, Christ is alive. And still is! We assert this every Easter season: Christ is risen! And Jesus’ communion with his ‘Abba’ (Father) through the Holy Spirit continues to this day, to this very moment.

When we pray we join in Christ’s ongoing prayer, in our hearts, like deciding to step into a river that continually flows towards the ocean. That river flows through our hearts. That is where the consciousness of Jesus resides through the Holy Spirit. In prayer, we incorporate with, enfold in, the prayer of Jesus with the Creator.

In our verbal prayers we will often conclude our words with, ‘in Jesus’ name.’ We pray ‘in the name of Jesus’. We pray, ‘in Christ’. This is the fundamental understanding of Christ as intercessor, as ‘mediator’ for us and for all people – as Paul writes here to Timothy. “Prayer is not an act resulting from our own autonomous will,”[5]but an act resulting from the good will of Jesus—a prayer that is ongoing regardless of what we do.

That is also why, prayer is not about us. Prayer doesn’t turn us back onto ourselves. Christian prayer may start by consciously locating our attention within our minds, our words and hearts and bodies. But ultimately, prayer leads us beyond ourselves. To others.

When Paul writes to Timothy that prayers “should be made for everyone” because God “desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth”, the emphasis is so made because of the real conflicts in the lives of those early Christians. The Christian community of Timothy’s time was persecuted for proclaiming Christ; they were not an accepted part of the social fabric in Gentile or Jewish community.[6]

I opened with a real story of conflict in the context of the Cold War. We can only understand our lives of faith in the context of our real lives which daily encounter some conflict—whether within ourselves, with our spouse, our children, our grandchildren, our neighbours, our hockey coaches, our teachers, our community leaders, our politicians, and whomever we label ‘our enemies’.

It is in the context of conflict and yes even strife where the instruction to pray bears down upon people of faith. “Love your enemies,” Jesus instructed more than once I am sure.[7] “Pray for those who persecute you,” he said.

We follow a God who is not immune from controversy and confrontation. Remember his earthly destination was death by a state-sponsored, capital punishment on the cross. This God we follow stretches us beyond our comfort zones and calls us to love in surprising situations. This God calls conservative evangelicals to pray for their liberal sisters and brothers, and vice versa. Trudeau Liberals are called to pray for Scheer Conservatives, and vice versa!

Maintaining healthy boundaries are important. And, some hurts go so deep that so much work and time are required in the process of healing. Without minimizing nor denying the harsh consequences of divisions …

“When you’re able to open your heart to your ‘enemy,’ allow God’s love to flow through you to them. Picture their face and send them warmth and tenderness. If this is a struggle, begin by focusing on someone that is easy for you to love, for whom you feel natural affection. Then broaden that circle of compassion to friends, acquaintances, and strangers.  [Because] no one is outside the embrace of God’s loving presence!”[8]

 

 

[1]William P. “Matt” Matthews 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.89; www.britannica.com

[2]1 Timothy 2:1

[3]For example, God ‘desires everyone to be saved’ (verse 4); and, ‘Christ Jesus … gave himself a ransom’ (verse 6).

[4]www.elcic.ca

[5]Stephane Mar Smith in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.88.

[6]Jane Anne Ferguson in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.86.

[7]Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27

[8]Richard Rohr, “Following Jesus” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, January 26, 2019).