Christmas Eve – the greatest gift for getting it wrong

For over five centuries, Lutherans have asserted and proclaimed: grace is a gift. Meal time, especially during the holidays, is a great opportunity to experience grace.

Many of us will get together with friends, family, and coworkers for Christmas meals and potlucks. We sit at the same table and eat food that is shared among everyone at table. 

Where’s the grace? (besides the pre-meal prayer)

The grace in that experience, is being together. How often does that happen in today’s world? When family members are separated by vast distances unlike in any other time in human history. When coworkers can suspend their usual activities and work routines to just sit down and eat a meal together. When effort is made to make and/or bring food for all.

The grace is sharing food together despite the conflicts, the dislikes, the divisions and lines drawn between those around the table on account of political opinion, social standing, personality, past hurts.

The grace is found in those moments when, unexpectedly and surprisingly, a kind word is said between combatants, a genuine smile of thanksgiving is offered when ‘gifts’ are exchanged, or tears of forgiveness given and received are expressed.

On the surface, these moments may not change a whole lot, at least not immediately. But repeated often enough – Christmas comes every year – the seed sown deeply in the heart will one day sprout. ‘Mary treasured all these things and pondered them deeply in her heart’,[1]the scripture says. Sometimes, in the face of grace, all we can do is find a moment to appreciate and digest this gift. And let it grow in us. We are, each of us, the innkeeper who will decide whether or not to let Jesus in.

Celtic Thunder, the Irish, male group sings a powerful version of Silent Night that tells the story of Christmas at the Western Front in 1915. German and British soldiers stopped their fighting for a few moments Christmas Eve when one of the German soldiers – a lad of 21 years of age – started singing Silent Night.

Before long, combatants from both sides that had been avowed to killing each other were walking across no-man’s land. For a few moments they left their weapons behind, hugged each other and gave each other gifts of cigarettes and pots of wine.

But alas, the moment of grace passed. And before long they were shooting at each other again. And the 21-year-old soldier who had started the singing, did not make it to the morning.

Grace was given to those boys amidst the battle. In the singing of Silent Night, in the exchange of gifts, in the hugs and laughter, grace was still given.

Grace is a gift not for getting it right, but for getting it wrong.[2]And we human beings, throughout history, can get it awfully wrong. But this does not stop God.

God came into the world not at an ideal time when everyone was getting along. Herod was a paranoid despot about to wreak havoc in the land. In short, there was unrest in Palestine. Beneath the surface of all that might have appeared genteel in the little town of Bethlehem that holy night was broiling a call to arms by discontented zealots against Roman occupation. The military conflict would finally erupt some seventy years after Jesus’ birth with the destruction of Jerusalem.

God chose a particularly dark and disruptive time and place in history to enter in, as a vulnerable little baby boy born to a teenager in a barn for animals. Not a strategy for success, you might think, eh? On earth, nothing was going right.

But the grace of God knows no bounds. The grace of God enters into the thick of it. Not when everyone is getting along. But especially when everyone is getting it wrong.

The message of Christmas, in the end, is one of hope. Because no matter how bad or sad things get, it won’t stop God from prying into our consciences from time to time to tell us that God is never too far away. No matter how bad it gets, God is always with us. Emanuel. God with us.

Once we can accept that God is in all situations – not just the warm fuzzy moments decorated with visions from Hallmark – then everything becomes an occasion where some good can happen. God can and will use even bad situations for good.[3]This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”[4]

Our task this Christmas – however you are observing it – is to look for and find the good, the true, and the beautiful in everything, even and most especially the problematic. Because the bad is never strong enough to counteract the good, however small or short-lived. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot and never will overcome it.”[5]

Amen.


[1]Luke 2:19

[2]Richard Rohr, “Accountability Is Sustainability” Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part One (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org) Friday, December 13, 2019

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Like Knows Like” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation (www.cac.org, Monday, December 23, 2019).

[4]Psalm 118:24

[5]John 1:5,9

Kitchen vision

During Mika’s confirmation last weekend, I was grateful to reconnect with folks from her past and present, and hopefully future. At Mika’s confirmation party on the Saturday, we had just over thirty people in our house. It was raining, so all of them were, physically, in our house. It was crowded. Loud. Noisy.

You know I am an introvert. And they say that if you want to starve an introvert to death, put a stranger right in the middle of their kitchen. Far from being strangers, these were all friends and family. And yet, to have someone ‘in your space’ who is not normally there, was challenging for me. Add to that stress, organizing food for all these people and making sure everyone had somewhere to sit …

I remember first meeting Mika’s godparents in rural southern Ontario in my first parish. In century old houses, the kitchen can be the largest room. The kitchen is also where most people enter the house—not the front entrance facing the road. But ‘out back’ where friends, family and neighbours know to go in, right into the kitchen.

The kitchen in our first home there even had an Elmira wood stove in it. It was flanked by arm chairs and a small settee right beside the long counter and ample room for the kitchen table. Lots of people could fit in there!

Times have changed, indeed. Today, in average-sized homes there isn’t a whole lot of room to manoeuvre about. And for introverts such as myself, when I’m cooking or washing up the dishes, it’s a real struggle for me to share the space. I have to work at that.

I suspect I am not alone on this! We guard our spaces, covet our ground. We justify our beliefs and behaviour by appealing to social norms: Of course, everyone feels this way! Right? Let’s just say, having so many people crammed into ‘my space’ was a growth opportunity for me!

Jesus’ last prayer before his death and resurrection was for the disciples to be “one”—one in each other, one in Christ, one in God—bound together in the love of God.[1]The vision of God is an ever-expanding community brought together in love. The vision of God is that everyone can come to the table, everyone who is thirty, hungry, yearning for deeper connection with God and the world. The vision of God is that the dividing lines be erased—the lines that divide, exclude, deny, keep away.

The problem is, Jesus’ prayer and vision has come on hard times. We cannot deny it: the church has been fractured and divided more than anything—especially after the Reformation which brought some good things nonetheless. History in the last five hundred years has taught us, if nothing else, that fighting about who believes the right things about God can keep faithful people entangled with words about God rather than walking in the ways of God.

When followers of Christ draw lines in the sand, exclude and divide, when we quarrel and argue about dogmas and creeds and doctrines, the world will not witness the peace and love of God in us. So, the challenge of living faithfully is not only a call to private goodness or a superficial ‘everyone likes each other’.

It is a call to let our lives invite others to follow Jesus. Our lives ought not solely be preoccupied with right or wrong, guilty or not, in or out but whether or not our actions and behaviour contribute to the good of the world. Whether or not our actions contribute to a loving witness of what God’s vision is all about.

And we discover this path by experiencing the living presence of God in our lives. Not just talking about faith, but living it. And so, we are called to grow. And even when good growth happens, there will be growing pains as we stretch and flex our spiritual muscles.

There are two things ‘growing pains’ are not: First, when we are invited to do something differently, it is not an indictment against your history. It is not saying what happened in the past was all wrong. It is not dismissing the way you did things were bad.

When we are invited to do something new, something differently, let me suggest it is a challenge. A challenge to grow. Growth means change. When a plant or flower grows from its place in the ground, it changes. It’s ok to change our minds, as we grow. We are adults. We gain new life experiences. We learn new things, consider fresh perspectives. We have to integrate those experiences as we try new things.

Second, this discomfort is also not persecution. Please don’t confuse growing pains with ‘being persecuted’. We often hear that. When Christians, especially, are not interested in growth, some will conveniently use that interpretation: ‘We are being persecuted’.

When all along this discomfort is more likely about giving up privilege. It is giving up some of our privilege. Being comfortable at all costs—even the cost of avoiding difficult, vulnerable conversations, even at the cost of staying comfortable—is the very definition of privilege.

Growth will make us feel uncomfortable. But following Jesus is not about our degree of comfort. There is always a cost.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian in the last century, spent the last year of his life in a Nazi prison. And he was executed by the Nazis just before the end of the Second World War.

But in those last days of his life he reflected deeply on the meaning of Christianity in the world and Christian discipleship. One of his great books was called, “The Cost of Discipleship.” And in it he warns us in the modern world to beware of what he called ‘cheap grace’. He wrote that cheap grace was the mortal enemy of our church. What we need in the church today is a costly grace, a grace that costs us something.

What is ‘cheap grace’? It is the kind of grace we give ourselves. It is the kind we get when we use the church to satisfy ourselves. It is grace without really following, without really being a disciple. It is the kind of grace reflected by the Christian who says, “I like to stay as I am.” “I’m ok” “Leave me alone.” “Don’t ask me to grow.” “I am happy where I am.”

To grow. To go deeper. To expand. To overcome the divisions that separate, isolate, exclude—within ourselves, with others and the world around us. The twelve apostles each gave their lives for their discipleship. Theirs was indeed a costly discipleship.[2]

The cross stands at the centre of this process of growth and change. We are called, and we are challenged to grow. And to grow means to give things up: attitudes, attachments, ways of seeing things, our resources, whatever keeps us the same. This is the way of the cross.

“Lay down your life if you want to find it,” Jesus said. “Leave yourself behind if you want to find your true self.”[3]

John’s visionary writing in the Book of Revelation concludes the bible. It ends with a prayer that the grace of the Lord Jesus be with “all”.[4]The original Greek does not add the words “the saints” which some English translations do. Indeed, the grace, love and mercy of God is meant for all people. Everyone.

The Spirit of God says, “Come!” to everyone:

And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift …[5]

Divisions do not matter when people come to the table of good food aplenty. When people come forward to receive the gifts of God, differences do not really matter, do they? The bible’s climax is a marvelous image of countless people of all nationalities, ages, languages, sexes, classes—you name it!—drawing out water that is freely given as a gift to all.[6]

Differences do not matter in this climactic vision. What was of importance is the coming to the sacred waters, to the table. We come, to wash ourselves of prejudice and fear. We come to be challenged to grow. We come to receive grace. For everyone. Everyone is allowed in the kitchen. It’s not just mine, ours.

Come to the Table. It is for everyone.

 

[1]John 17:20-26; the Gospel for the 7thSunday of Easter, Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.

[2]Laurence Freeman, “Christian Life in the Light of Christian Meditation: Discipleship” (Meditatio Talks Series 2019 A Jan-Mar), Discipleship 3, wccm.org/resources/audio/albums.

[3]Matthew 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33; John 12:25

[4]Revelation 22:21

[5]Revelation 22:17

[6]Paul ‘Skip’ Johnson in Feasting in the Word Year C Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.534-538.

Christmas – God blesses the dirt

Why do we celebrate Christmas? What is the reason we pull all the stops to mark this annual tradition in our lives?

As is the case when defining something, we can start by saying what it isn’t. So, Christmas is not about a little baby Jesus being born. That already happened two thousand years ago. The historical fact of Jesus’ birth is not why we bring so much energy, passion and personal sacrifice to making this happen today!

We do Christmas not because we are history buffs on a mission to generate public enthusiasm about a long- ago event no matter how enthusiastic we are about it. The church is not a history club. Christmas is not just about memory – because none of us were around two thousand years ago. Christmas is about reality, today.

We celebrate Christmas to welcome Jesus Christ again into the life of this world. The church is about what matters today. Because of that first Christmas, Christ is forever being born into the human heart. And, we do have to make room for this ongoing event, because right now there is no “room in the inn” for such a mystery; our lives are cluttered by distraction, compulsion, self-centeredness and selfishness. If anything, Christmastime in the public sphere exposes this narcissism of our collective soul.

We are human, after all. And we see things pretty much in their physicality, materiality. We have trouble, naturally, seeing the light shining through the ordinariness of material life. Francis of Assisi, who popularized the celebration of Christmas beginning in the 13th century, said that “every tree should be decorated with lights to show that it’s filled with light anyway.”[1]

A couple centuries later, Martin Luther dragged a pine tree into his house and placed lighted candles on its boughs. He told his children that he looked up at the starry sky whilst walking through the pine forest near their Wittenberg home. The sight was so beautiful that he wanted candles on the tree to remind them of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth. To be entwined in the stuff of earth.

Thus, we have tangible reminders in our Christmas traditions today – tangible reminders, indeed, in the sacraments but also in everything – to remind us of this incredible move of God to be distant no longer, cut off, and separated from earthly existence no more. But, from that moment onward, God would be intimately invested and incorporated, literally, into every human body, heart and mind. Indeed, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”[2]

And so, God continues to become flesh and live among us. Christmas in 2017 as it was last year and will be next year, again, is about waiting, watching for and celebrating God’s forever decision to say “yes” to the material world. To watch for how the Spirit of the living God is being manifested in our lives and in our world today. Through, in, around each of us. God said “yes” to physicality.

We need this celebration every year because we are still preparing to understand and enter this great mystery of our lives with each passing day. In this preparation, we need to celebrate not only Christmas on December 25, not only Christmas-in-July, but Christmas every day of every year!

Christmas announces that it is good to be human. It is good to be on earth. Why? Well, because God became human in Jesus Christ. God came to earth. I hear echoes in the creation story from Genesis; after each thing was created God said it was good.[3] The earth and the waters, the plants and vegetation, the sun and stars, sea monsters, every living creature and every winged bird, wild animals, cattle of every kind and everything that creeps upon the ground. “It was good!” Not once, but repeatedly, to emphasize the point. It is good! It is good! It is good!

Whenever we can see in the material world – humans, trees, sky, water, dirt, animals – the Spirit and presence of Christ – whenever that happens, we are celebrating Christmas. God blesses the dirt on earth, from which we all came and to which we all will return.

It is already so. And to a large extent, it is a matter of perspective. When the ordinary becomes extraordinary. When we recognize the good in that which is broken or imperfect. It is a matter of vision.

When you are invited to a family dinner gathering, the food always tastes better, doesn’t it? How is it that Grandma’s pumpkin pie – made straight from the recipe off the label on the canned pumpkin – tastes better than any other? And when you go home and use the same product and follow the same recipe, it’s not quite the same. The ordinary is made extraordinary because of a frame of mind which has somehow shifted into an attitude of thanksgiving, gratitude and appreciation in a certain context.

The ordinary is extraordinary with a change of mind, which is the true meaning of repentance[4]. When we begin to see the holy in the simple. When the basic stuff of life – including the blemishes, the brokenness, the weakness – is imbued with a vision of holiness. God blesses the dirt.

When a common teenage couple gives birth to a baby in the back shed of some inn in a non-descript rural town, surrounded by the lowly shepherds and visited by strangers from the East. God blesses the dirt.

When all of what makes us human – including our doubts, our failures, our misdeeds, our egos – is unconditionally loved and embraced and held in compassion and forgiveness. God blesses the dirt.

When our caring and loving moves beyond the self and ‘our own’ to include foreigners, animals, trees and those who go hungry this day. God blesses the dirt.

Because it is good to be human. It is good to be on earth. Today.

Merry Christmas!

[1] Cited in Richard Rohr, “An Advent Meditation” (Unedited transcript, Center for Action and Contemplation, 2017).

[2] John 1:14

[3] Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25,31

[4] translated from the Greek word, metanoia, literally meaning “change of mind”, to turn around and face a new direction

Seeing Jesus

Jesus says, “the person who sees me and believes will be raised up” (John 6:40). 

If I polled the assembly gathered here this morning and asked you to raise your hand if you ‘believed in Jesus (or God)’, my guess is I would get a decent showing.

But if I asked you to put up your hand if you recently saw Jesus, I’m not sure I’d get the same kind of response. If you did raise your hand to that question I might look at you with some degree of skepticism. I might not take your statement at face value. I would want to ask you more questions. 

Seeing Jesus sounds like a conversation for the mystics and contemplatives. If our faith is limited merely to a conversation about the historical, biblical Jesus, we will be challenged at this point of acknowledging the living, immanent Jesus who is also always more — an unfolding Presence in the course of all history.

Where do we see Jesus? This is an important question. How can we see the living, resurrected Lord in the world and in our lives today? How can we account for the presence of Jesus?

There is the problem of sight. Here, Jesus obviously is not talking about physical vision. Otherwise why would he even say, “the person who sees me …”? Of course the people to whom he originally spoke these words standing on the sandy, rocky ground in first-century Palestine saw him. Jesus is talking more about a perception of the heart, mind and soul — an internal dynamic.

If you follow any of my social media sites online, you might have noticed there recently some sunset photos over Lake Huron where my family vacationed over the past couple of weeks. Aside from the inspiring sunsets, this is not what I remember the water to look like:

  
Normally, as I recall from my childhood summers spent on these shores, Lake Huron is fairly active. More days than not you would see a lot of wave action, and white caps carving up the horizon and rolling in over the surf. You would feel the constant high winds buffeting the tree-lined shore.

For the fourteen days we lived by the shore last month, however, the Lake was mostly calm. The water was placid, where there would be no more than a ripple on the surface and a splash on the shore line. In fact I would be hard pressed to say there was more than two days of wave action that came close to my childhood recollections. Needless to say, the quiet, peaceful waters made for much stress-free sea-kayaking and swimming along the coast.

  
At sunset most evenings we sat around the fire pit a stone’s throw from the shore, enjoying the very soft breezes and the relatively flat surface of the water.

And, if you watched the water, once in awhile you would see a large white fish breach the surface and flap it’s broad tail. The slapping sound often caught my attention if I wasn’t looking at the exact spot on the water. 

This sudden sound, amidst the relative quiet of the expansive scene of resting water, air and land before us, also caught the attention of the other members of my family (I would add, they were preoccupied by their hand held devices, swatting the bugs, and chatting incessantly with one another!). 

“What was that?” they looked up.

“Oh, a fish, jumping out of the water,” I responded.

“Cool! Where? Where? I wanna see!”

“Well, you need to be watching the water. Keep scanning the water up and down the shore line close to the edge.”

“I don’t see anything!”, one says, scratching another mosquito bite.

“You need to keep watching the water. There,” I point over the water toward the island, “there was another one!”

“Where?”

“Were you watching the water?”

“Uh, no.”

And on and on it went. I had a restful holiday. No, I did. Really!

The problem is not so much an incapacity to see. It is first to confess how distracted we are as a people in a culture that is impatient, anxious, that does not want to slow down, that keeps us from seeing what is already there. Perhaps Jesus is there for us to see. And we, like the Pharisees with whom Jesus often sparred, are “blind” to this truth. Jesus gives us precisely what we need to live, fully (Matthew 23; John 10:10). Do we not see it?

Before the cross became the central symbol of Christianity, the sign of the fish identified the early Christian movement. In fact, the cross was for centuries rejected by Christian who naturally recoiled at the thought of having an instrument of torture and capital punishment the central symbol of the faith. 

The fish was a symbol for Jesus Christ. Food. Like bread, fish gave faithful people ongoing strength, sustenance and nourishment for life. No wonder the miracle of multiplication of bread and fish became a popular Gospel story about Jesus feeding the multitude on a hillside in Galilee (Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6).

The new logo of the Eastern Synod reflects this original, early Christian identification with fish:

  
In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John especially, Jesus compares himself to bread — bread that sustains us and feeds us everything we need. Everything. Not more. Not less. In the Old Testament, it was manna that God provided to the people in their desert wanderings. 

The desert was the place where the people had to learn to give up control, which is mostly what ‘making plans’ is all about. “Like us, the Hebrews weren’t initially too excited about all this vague mystery. The people didn’t just complain that they were out of food, they also began to romanticize about the good old days back in Egypt where they ate their fill of bread …

“God responded to the people’s anxiety about food in a very tangible way. He provided the daily blessing of bread from heaven called manna. It was a fine, flaky substance which appeared every morning. And it came with some instructions (Exodus 16:1-8). Every family had to gather their own. You couldn’t store it up or hoard it, or the worms would eat it. So you had to gather it every day, except on the sixth day of the week when you could gather an extra portion for the Sabbath. It wasn’t much — just enough to keep you going on the journey.

“All of these descriptions [like bread and fish] are wonderful metaphors for how God cares for us along the way in the desert journey: daily, tangibly, personally, and sufficiently, although never enough to remove our anxiety about tomorrow. We have to trust there will be more manna when we need it [emphasis mine].

“This is what Jesus had in mind in teaching us to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. To pray those words is as if to say, ‘No matter how hard I try to secure my life with money, exercise, relationships, or work, I know that only you can give it to me. And you will do it one day at a time.

“The best reason for seeing the manna as a blessing [of Jesus’ presence, I might add] comes from its name. The literal translation of manna is ‘What is it?’ This means that every morning the people would go out and gather the ‘What is it?’ The mothers would prepare it as creatively as they could, which was tough because there was no ‘What is it?’ -helper. The family would sit at the table to eat. The kids would ask, ‘What is it?’ The mother would sigh and say, ‘Yes.’ They’d bow their heads and pray, ‘Thank you God for What is it?'” (Craig Barnes, Insights from the Desert, “Nurtured in Mystery” Shadyside Presbyterian Church, 2010)

What if we lived out of gratitude for what God has already given us? What if we made decisions — even small ones, each and every day — based on trust in Jesus being there for us, just beneath the surface of our lives? There for the watching. There for the catching and gathering. Grace and Gift, available to us. Before we even lift a finger.

It’s ok to fall (5): God knows everything about us anyway

I don’t like being in the spotlight. Literally, too. I don’t mind being the centre of attention from time to time. But I must confess a high degree of self-consciousness, especially when I am supposed to be the sage on the stage.

I suspect many of you share my knee-jerk away from standing on a stage by myself feeling the heat of the light on my face, not being able to see anyone in the auditorium, and just knowing in the back of my brain that every little wrinkle, every little blemish, every little imperfection is exposed — fully. Are your hands sweating? Mine are, just thinking about it.

And that is why the Psalm for Lent — and often read on Ash Wednesday — is Psalm 51. “Create a clean heart in me O God and create a right spirit within me” (v.10) — we sing in our weekly offertory.  Before this petition, there is a quiet yet poignant confession, in verse 4: “Against you, you alone [O God], have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”

This, at first, may sound threatening and alarming. Yikes! God almighty has been offended by my sin! I. Am. Doomed! And there’s no hiding from God. Wow! We’re in for it, aren’t we? Never mind the friends, co-workers, family, spouse, people around me that I  have offended and hurt. They may not always easily forgive — but they’re not God! After all, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand!?” (Psalm 103:3)

Perhaps that is why we read in the Gospel for today (John 2:13-22) about Jesus snapping his whip and overturning tables in a righteous anger and prophetic impulse. This image of Jesus may leave us feeling a bit queasy. We may not like this image of Jesus. We may feel threatened by it. Uncomfortable, at very least. 

Why is Jesus angry? Jesus is angry for the injustice of the temple moneychangers taking up valuable room where the Gentiles are allowed to come and pray to God. And he is losing it, in the temple of all places! Entering the temple, Jesus discovers how deceiving appearances can be. While the place appears to fulfill its function, closer inspection reveals that the temple has forgotten its purpose.

I read this story at our mid-week bible study a couple of weeks ago, when we discussed the text of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. It is a re-telling of Dostoyevsky’s classic poem about the conversation between the Grand Inquisitor and Jesus:

“During the 16th century in Spain, at the very height of the Inquisition, Christ appeared unannounced in the streets of the city of Seville. As he went about caring for and healing the poor, the sick and the lame, the people began to recognize him and flock to him. An old Cardinal also recognized him …. and had him arrested!

That night in prison, Jesus had a visitor. The Grand Inquisitor entered his darkened cell and reprimanded Christ for appearing again and getting in the way of the Church’s work. ‘You are offered three tools to bring in your kingdom and rule the world. You were told to change stones into bread. Imagine the possibilities … bread for the hungry … people would have followed someone who fed them. But you refused! It was suggested that you throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple and let God’s angels sweep you up before you came to harm. People would have been amazed. Everyone would have followed you. But you refused! And you were offered authority and power over all the kingdoms of the world. But you refused! In all this you wanted people to follow you out of love or not at all. And look where it got you.

‘Well, we have corrected your mistakes and we’re doing well. We cannot let you hinder what we are trying to do. And so, tomorrow, you will die.’

Jesus said nothing in reply. Rather, he looked into the eyes of the Grand Inquisitor for a long time and then walked over and kissed him. Oh how that kiss burned. The Grand Inquisitor stepped aside and let Christ escape into the night, saying to his back as he left, ‘Do not come back again.'”

We may squirm in our seats, now. 

This Gospel, I believe, pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and driving us out in the name of God. What kinds of ways of doing things have gotten us stuck in a rut — in our individual lives, and in the life of the church? It’s an important question to ask. Just because Jesus is ‘our’ saviour, doesn’t means “he is perpetually well-pleased with us knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, but also to us and even, on occasion, against us.” (Paul C. Shupe, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 2 David Bartlett/Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.96)

Well, there’s one thing we do I don’t believe Jesus could get upset about — at least, one activity of the church, one way of doing things. Know what that is? The potluck meal, of course! Everyone likes a potluck! Right?

You come, bringing your own dish to add to the table. But you come, also willing to try a little bit of everything, right? That’s what makes it fun! Doing this, doesn’t mean you will necessarily like each and every dish. Tasting a bit of other people’s gifts doesn’t mean you will run home and try to make what everybody else made. And, you certainly wouldn’t be rude to the people who brought dishes you weren’t too crazy about. At the potluck we practice being generous, adventurous, compromising, and kind to the other.

The potluck is an important symbol in the history and practice of being the church; I would say a guiding image on congregational life and how to work together. Because in the potluck experience, we practice being ‘other-centred’ rather than ‘self-centred’.

This practise reflects the ‘outward’ movement of church-orientation. It may start with a potlluck. It ought to end serving those who are hungry. The ancient word for church in Greek, ‘ekklesia’, literally means: ‘a people called out’. Called out to see what God is doing ‘out there’ in the world. Called out to act.

The movement is centrifugal. It certainly isn’t ‘convenient’. Sometimes we need to be ‘thrown out’ of our self-centred preoccupations with maintaining the institution of the church and the comfort of our lives, and out into the world where God is doing something. Where there are people in need.

The cleansing of the temple — though hard it feels sometimes to be judged, to be convicted of our sin, to be honest about our true motivations — this scene ends with the sinners being thrown ‘out’. Out, into the world, in order to get a fix on what God is doing. Out in the world, in order to find God, again. Out in the world, to get back on track with what Christian faith is really all about.

The story of the cleansing of the temple as John tells it points toward replacing the material ‘bricks-and-mortar’ temple with the temple of Jesus’ body. This is a theme that is picked up later again in the fourth chapter, when he tells the woman at the well that she will no longer worship God in any particular, physical location (John 4:20-23) but in “spirit and truth.” John is painting, here, a narrative foreshadowing Christ’s death and resurrection, and its embodiment in the Holy Communion which we celebrate every week.

Maybe it’s better that it is only against God that we have sinned. Because only God can fully restore us, heal us and love us despite knowing all the dirt in our lives. I think we know that human beings don’t have a good track record of forgiveness of others. Only God, in Christ, will continually offer to us his mercy and forgiveness, knowing full well how off-the-mark we are. And, for us to know that we can always return to the Lord our God, return to the table of the Lord time and time again — in all honesty, truth and humility, to a God who will not spurn us for our faithlessness and weaknesses.

We can fall on our knees, because nothing is hidden from God, and everything we need, God gives us — and then some. Thanks be to God!

You shall know them by their food

School children were asked to bring, for show-and-tell, a symbol that would describe best their religion. Each would take a turn to stand in front of their class, hold up their object and first, without saying a word, wait until one of their peers would successfully guess to which religion they belonged.

The first child held up some prayer beads — a rosary. “Roman Catholic,” someone called out. Later, the second child held up a picture of the Star of David. “Judaism,” another said. There was an awkward pause before the third child rushed through the door to the front of the classroom. In her oven-mitted hands she held up a piping hot casserole dish. There was silence.

The girl’s mouth hung open in disbelief. “You mean you can’t tell?” she croaked. “I’m Lutheran!”

After this month’s well-attended men’s breakfast group where we basically took over a whole corner of the restaurant, we joked that pretty soon the men’s breakfast group might have more out for their monthly gatherings than we get out for midweek worship! So true — if there is food on the agenda of any social gathering, you’ll likely find at least one Lutheran in the crowd.

Indeed, eating together is central to not only Lutheran identity, but for Christians in general. Someone once noted that in each chapter of the Gospel of Luke you will find at least one reference, directly or indirectly, to food or eating (Kelly Fryer, The Lutheran Course).

And that explains why when Christians gather to worship, the Holy Meal is a cornerstone of the liturgy. What distinguishes us from every other religion in our worship practice is that we eat together. Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., don’t differ from Christians when it comes to practicing their faith in word, song or spoken/unspoken prayer. But the Holy Communion — the meal — distinguishes a truly Christian worship service.

And a truly Christian worship service is done together, with others. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). The author of Hebrews exhorted the followers of the Christian way to meet regularly: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together …” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Because around the table where bread is broken and wine is poured, the love and presence of Christ is experienced.

The Holy Communion is the climax of Christian worship because it best embodies a communal experience of God. We can eat alone. But sharing food causes us to love another.

Last month the Lutheran clergy in Ottawa met for lunch. We went to a restaurant where they serve Dim Sum: This method of sharing food is truly a communal act: We all sit around the same, round table — a rather large one. Then, from menus, we choose the food.

But what we choose is not an individual dish. It is a plateful of the same food that we share by circulating the plate around the table. When we order, we need to check in with all the others to see if that’s also something they would like to try. Eating Dim Sum, as unfamiliar as it may feel, and challenging to coordinate, is worth the work. It is an experience of community building and of practising a self-giving kind of love. Because we need to compromise, give-and-take, and take some risks — all for the sake of the community.

Lutheran worship is not about creating a space for private, individualistic encounters with Jesus. Lutheran worship is not about providing individuals with a what-is-in-it-for-me kind of entertainment. Lutheran worship is not about removing ourselves from the actual social context of the service.

In other words, when we kneel at the railing and come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ, we are doing so in a profound awareness of who is standing or kneeling with us, beside us, at the table of The Lord. We seek their forgiveness, as we forgive them. We are doing this together — sometimes a hard work, but well worth it.

On Maundy Thursday we pause to consider that last evening Jesus had with his followers, his closest disciples. And we recall what he did: He had a meal with them to assure them, and us over two thousand years later, that whenever we eat this meal in his name, Christ is there with us. To underscore his ever-present promise, Jesus kneels in humility and love to wash his disciples’ feet (John 13), and then prays for their unity (John 17) in the Garden of Gethsemane.

On this night we gather not as individuals seeking private, abstract encounters with an imagined God, but as the broken Body of Christ — his body, the church. We gather together to receive the assurance of his forgiveness of our sins, to regard one another in love as co-travellers on the journey of faith, and to share in the food which is his loving presence in our lives. In so doing, we bear faithful witness to the world, that Christians are united in the passion of Jesus.

Food with Focus

Very few other texts from the Bible generate such passionate discourse in my family and extended family as this one (Luke 10:38-42). So, out of awareness, love and respect for especially the women in my life, I must confess I approach this sermon with a little trepidation. Because this story about Jesus is fraught with some interpretive pitfalls.

To begin, I think it must be said that Jesus is not against being busy and active when helping others, regardless of gender. After all, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus self-describes as a “servant” (Luke 22:26-27; 12:37). So it hardly makes sense to suggest he is admonishing Martha – one of his best friends – for being busy, serving. The first verse of the Gospel text today announces that Martha “welcomed” Jesus into her home; she “opened the door” as some translations have it, to let Jesus in.

Thank God for Martha! She initiated this encounter and made possible, by her invitation, Jesus’ presence and teaching. This story is not about either service or prayer; it’s not choosing one over the other. Both characterize the people of God; both are necessary, holy, and good.

What is more the point, here, is acknowledging and re-connecting – in all our contemplation AND action – with the centre and source of our faith: God, in Christ Jesus.

When serving others in your home, the focus, while mediated through the gift of a shared meal together, is not about the food. It’s about presence of mind and heart. What’s important is being with and connecting with your guest, not fretting and fuming over the food preparation and setting – nor your guest’s reaction to your food.

I know, for some, this might seem a no-brainer, self-evident. But especially for those who can easily get caught up in perfectionist expectations and compulsive people-pleasing ways of being – this is particularly difficult.

The most important thing is the very reason we are making the effort to prepare the food in the first place – the relationship you have and the blessing of the other’s presence with you in your home, your space. First things first.

We don’t know what happened after Jesus spoke. Again, the Gospel leaves it up to us. How did Martha react to Jesus’ admonition? Did she continue fluttering about in her anxiety, cursing under her breath? What did Mary do? For all we know, Mary could have gotten up and started helping Martha. We can only speculate, of course. But would Mary engage the act of service better grounded in purpose and aware of the presence of Jesus in all her busy-ness?

The Gospel story doesn’t tie it up neatly. We may wish the Gospel writer concluded Jesus’ teaching here with a nice, satisfying ending where both Mary and Martha are seen behaving in ways reflecting the teaching of Jesus. But it’s not so, because the transformation – the change – is meant for our lives. How do we act? How will we respond to this scenario? How does this story affect and change our lives?

First, may I suggest that we can apply Mary’s approach to our whole life – not just those prescribed ‘holy’ moments in formal worship on Sunday mornings. But more importantly – as the setting of the Gospel story implies – in our very homes and among our regular, daily relationships with those closest to us. We need to simply observe what is going on. And, in our simple and honest observation, as people of faith, we must first confess that – for one thing, we are distracted.

Some years ago now, Tom Friedman had a column in the New York Times (Nov 1, 2006) entitled “The Taxi Driver”. He told of being driven by cab from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. During the one-hour trip, he and the driver had done six things: the driver had driven the cab, talked on his cell phone, and watched a video (which was a little nerve-racking!), whereas he had been riding, working on a column on his laptop, and listening to his iPod. “There was only one thing we never did: talk to each other.”

Friedman went on to quote Linda Stone, a technologist, who had written that the disease of the Internet Age is “continuous partial attention.” Perhaps it is not only the disease of the Internet age; perhaps it has always been with us, and just the causes of our inattention have altered (cited from James Wallace in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Proper 11, page 267). That is why today, one of the most confounding verses in the Bible is Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) because how can we pray always when we are plagued with “continuous partial attention”. Antidote – we need to pray more, and focus our mind and heart.

Laurence Freeman, leader in the World Community for Christian Meditation, suggests that the problem we find today among even good Christian people is this division between heart and mind. The heart wants to do, and the mind is distracted. Once the mind is focused and aligned with the heart, a person can discover the peace of Christ. And then, all activity is done mindful of the presence of Jesus – in all situations and circumstances of life.

A posture of listening before speaking. An approach to another that communicates – “I first seek to understand you” before spouting YOUR opinion. An attitude of inner stillness that is focused and undivided on the intent and purpose of whatever it is that you do.

In many ways the history of this congregation, from the early days in the 1950s when this space we sit in today was built, through the 1990s when the addition was built and then early in the last decade the parsonage was sold – in many ways our history has revolved around bricks and mortar. Has this been the ‘food’ of our ministry?

There is little doubt in my mind now that I’ve been with you over a year that the issue of ‘building’ has been not only front and foremost in your minds in recent years. But, also, the energy for this project is gathering momentum again.

The question is – and perhaps this text can serve for us some guidance – is it going to be just about the ‘food’? Or, will the ‘food’ be guided by the ‘focus’? Will any plans to build or renovate be fueled by a mission focus? I hope so. With the understanding that first and foremost Jesus is found both in here and out there? That the Jesus in me sees the Jesus in you? That any building be grounded in purpose and function and Christian vision.

You heard the famous Japanese proverb? That vision without action is daydreaming; but action without vision is a nightmare.

How do we change the mind? “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind …” (Romans 12:2) Paul writes in his letter to the Romans. In contemplating a changed life offered by Jesus, I think we need to appreciate the very possibility and health around changing the way we think; that is, changing our attitudes, our beliefs, that underpin all that we do. Especially those beliefs and attitudes that serve only to keep us stuck in unhealthy ways of being.

Michael Harvey, in his book, Unlocking the Growth; You’ll be Amazed at your Church’s Potential (Monarch Books, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2012, p.18), writes about neuroplasticity, which looks at how our brains work. Scientists have discovered the brain is ‘plastic’ and ‘malleable’. In other words, our brains are not simply ‘hard-wired’ from childhood. Life experiences beyond those critical early years can change the brain.

When they study stroke victims, they discovered that each time someone repeats a movement or action, a neuro-pathway in the brain is formed initially as a scratch. But each time it is repeated it becomes deeper and deeper until it becomes automatic, a habit. You may have heard the advice that if you want to start a new, healthy discipline – like exercise or some diet – you need to do it on each of 21 consecutive days before it’s a habit.

The concept of neuroplasticity suggests to me that should we focus our attention – our minds – on what we want to change, and then repeat it frequently enough the thought or belief will take root, and then affect our behaviour. That’s the power of the mind.

How do we change the heart? Those like Martha usually start with action. So, simply start behaving in better ways. Start acting “as if” you are healed. As if we are thriving. As if we are transformed people of God inheritors of the kingdom. As if we are children of God – loved, redeemed, forgiven, saved. Start acting it! That’s the power of the heart.

And when the mind and heart are aligned in the awareness of the steadfast, constant, unconditional presence of Jesus, peace reigns in our lives and our action and contemplation are grounded, clear, and focused.

In Saint Paul’s words, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).