God in the lowlands

These last moments of Jesus’ life stand in stark contrast to what is valued in the world.

I find it ironic that we read today a text that is normally read on Good Friday – the day Christians worldwide pause to recall and remember the brutal death of Jesus on the cross. It is the day Christians confront the God who is deeply humiliated, a man who suffers injustice to the extent of his gruesome and painful suffering and torturous, drawn-out dying.

It’s ironic because a text that is normally read on Good Friday comes just days before what North Americans call Black Friday. Despite the various reasons why that day has come to be called Black Friday – it is commonly known to be the day the malls and commercial districts are crowded, busy and congested bustling with deal seekers and shoppers. It is the day the consumer in us is stoked. Big time.

Indeed, these last moments of Jesus’ earthly, humanity all seem to be in vivid contrast to what is valued as great in our world – this world presented to us in colourful, catalogue-thick inserts and pop-up internet ads promoting incredible sales and savings.

It is not poor, but a world of glamour and glitz.

It is not selfless, but a me-first world of acquisition and accumulation.

It is not vulnerable and generous, but a miserly, defensive and self-preservationist world.

Today is also what the church calls, “Christ the King”, on the last Sunday in the church year. At the end of time, we assert in faith that Jesus is King and his reign lasts forever. But, what kind of king are we talking about here? Certainly not a kind of king the world knows.

In response to Pilate’s question “Are you the King of the Jews?”[1], Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

That Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world is proved in what this ruler wants to happen and makes happen that other powerful rulers are not willing or able to do.

Let’s face it: Part of our inability to believe and trust the forgiving power of God’s grace and mercy is our inability to believe that other people deserve mercy. We want to judge whom God lets into heaven. Many of us are more comfortable not knowing what happened to the thief who scoffed at Jesus than knowing that an undeserving thief was let into paradise.

Would we not rather have had Jesus say that  God loves the people we like that God does not love the people we do not like? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the crackheads, the homeless, the refugee and Muslim immigrant? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the addicts, the adulterers, the thieves, the gays, the prostitutes, the rebellious and the disgruntled? Would we not prefer it if paradise were exclusively for the nice people, the clean people, the polite people, the well-behaved people, the right people?

How different is Jesus? There was a very strange novel published in England in the late 19th century called Flatlands. It is a story about a world that is flat, everything is two-dimensional. The chief character in the novel is Mr. Square, who is, of course, only in two dimensions.

One day, Mr. Square is visited by a Mr. Sphere who is, of necessity, in three dimensions. Square regards Sphere quite apprehensively. Sphere speaks to Square about a world of three dimensions, a world that is not flat. But Square is unconvinced. Living in a two-dimensional world, it is impossible for him to imagine another dimension. Eventually, Sphere is persecuted and driven out by the outraged flatlanders.

I propose to you that that is how different Jesus is from us. We are flatlanders. We live in a world of two dimensions, unable to grasp the possibility of a reality beyond that which we have experienced. We have been unable to believe, for instance, that love and forgiveness is a better response to evil than brute force. God’s power of love is three-dimensional to our two-dimensional thinking.

Notice with the second thief hanging beside Jesus on his cross, the thief does not ask to be saved, to be rescued. He only asks once, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Perhaps his plea is meant to echo these words from the Psalm: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”[2]– which is to say: Do not remember me according to my faults, but remember me according to your goodness.

We have faith not because we are weak but because God is strong and God is love. There is grace for us and for the people we do not like. Our salvation is dependent on a loving, grace-filled God.

So why can we hope in this goodness when we look around us at all the evil? Because Mr. Sphere did come among all of us Squares and we did persecute him and drive him out.

But he wouldn’t and couldn’t stay away. No, his three-dimensional existence couldn’t be flattened out by us. He is alive! And he comes to us again today in this meal we are about to share.

Again, it’s so hard for us to understand because he is like three-dimensions to our two. But he comes again with a word of love and forgiveness that promises the power that will finally take care of all that’s troubling in this world. It won’t be easy. He predicted that, too. But it is the only way. He comes to us again today to lead the way. “I have seen the future,” he says to us. “The future is not some cold grave, some hard, lifeless tomb. The future is the glorious triumph of God’s love.”

This man whom we follow is the king not of the flatlands, but in the lowlands. Spheres always roll to the bottom of things. Christ is king in the lowlands because God does not want us to die and suffer in that dark and sad region. Maybe you are today in a sort of darkness. The darkness of grief, loss, physical pain or emotional pain.

But the Holy One is with you today and for you today in that darkness. And, therefore, you will be with him today, and forevermore, in paradise. Thank God! Amen.[3]

[1]John 18:36

[2]Psalm 25:7

[3]Thank you to the writers for ‘Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) Luke 23:33-43’ 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.332-337 for many of the words and ideas expressed here.

The God who forgets

The prophet Jeremiah describes a remarkable characteristic of God. He says God will “remember no more”[1]Israel’s sins. In other words, God forgets things. Now, I’m not sure we are accustomed to perceiving God in this way. In fact, I would wager many of us will be unsettled, even disturbed, by this notion.

If God is God Almighty, all-knowing, all-everything – then how is it God will intentionally forget something about us? It’s hard to believe that God is telling the truth, here. In fact, I’m not sure we would get excited by believing in a God who isn’t all-powerful and all-knowing.

The other night was a good sports night for me. On the same night Toronto FC won their do-or-die game against New York to advance to the Eastern Conference Final in Major League Soccer. The same night, the Ottawa Senators won their second hockey game of the year! Winning is not easy for that team these days, so that win was huge. It’s a good feeling to win!

It’s invigorating and stimulating to compete, especially when you win. Indeed, we live in a world of winners and losers. And all the hype on the fields of play mirrors the values with which we live day to day.

To be better than the other. To be more beautiful than the other. To be more skilled, have more luck, be more privileged than the other. And life becomes this rat-race to establish yourself ‘over and against’ the other – to beat out your biggest competition for a position on the team, to nail that audition and get that role in the play instead of someone else.

Often climbing to the top means climbing over someone else. It’s the zero-sum game of life. We say, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, where it’s survival of the fittest. Whether or not we like it, we take it as normative even defensible. We shrug our shoulders and say, “that’s the way it is.”

God, however, does not compete. This is the remarkable thing about the biblical witness of God in light of the Gospel. God does not fight for space in this world. God does not need it. There is this self-withdrawing feel to God’s presence. Here, we would affirm the central paradox in Christianity: In God’s absence we find God’s presence; or, in death there is life.

God will remember their sins no more. Because if God was to remember their sins, God would still be in the game. The game of tit-for-tat, the game of revenge, retribution and punishment for sin. The game of reward for good works. The game of earning and deserving God’s favour.

But no. There is a new game in town. And it’s not really a game anymore – at least not one with winners and losers. It’s a new covenant and a new promise from God. Where everyone and everything in creation is a winner.

God will make us all winners. How? Almighty God will release a grip on the tug-of-war rope. God will let go of the imposing forces of the battle ground. God will forget. God will not compete for space in our lives. God will not compete for space in this world. God will forgive. God will ease our anxiety about all the harsh lines in our world.

The dividing walls between people, nations and teams will no longer carry weight. In God’s giving-up, they become largely irrelevant. The dividing walls in our hearts collapse into the total-immersion love of God. These dividing walls dissolve in the self-giving of a God who ‘emptied himself’ of all pretense to glory. And, taking the form of absolute humility – ‘being born in human likeness’ and ‘obedient’ even to the point of ‘death on a cross’[2]– God gives us abundant life.

In this vision, austerity is not the path because nothing is scarce. Self-denial is no longer needed. We don’t operate in a transactional reality where God is concerned. Because God is in all of life – even in the places we thought God could not be. There is so much to see. There is so much abundance everywhere!

Therefore God is in the glories of physical and mental achievement just as much as God is in the depression and defeat of Alzheimer’s disease. God is in the accomplishment and success of youthful enterprise as much as God is in the tears of failure. God in the beauty of creation as much as in the ugly storms. God is in the cyberworld of Tik Tok and Snap Chat as much as God is in the dusty pages of books long left on a shelf. God is in the nicest neighbourhoods and ivory towers as much as in the ghettos of poverty.

In the world of faith, too! God is among the Roman Catholics as much as God is among the Lutherans. God is among the Muslims and the Hindus as much as God is among Jews and Christians. Lutherans have a prayer schedule where we pray for a different Anglican congregation in the area every Sunday. Did you know that on their prayer list, today – Reformation Sunday—Anglican parishes in Ottawa are praying for Lutherans?

Will we see God everywhere in our lives? Will we rejoice and be glad because God is the God of the Cross and Empty Tomb? Will we seek to work towards a world in which all people can see the face of God in each other?

Today is Reformation Sunday. In the Lutheran tradition a big deal. One of the hallmark sayings of Reformation is that we are a church ‘ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda’ – the church reformed, always reforming. We have seen how, since 1517 when Luther nailed those 95 arguments for reform on the Wittenberg Church door, the church has changed over five hundred years. Always reforming, always growing, always deepening in the love of God for all people.

Let’s continue in that tradition. Let’s continue in God’s word!

 

[1]Jeremiah 31:34

[2]Philippians 2:5-11

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).

Grace first

Over the past six weeks I’ve transited through nine different airports on two different continents. One of the expectations of travellers is that when you are in an airport waiting for your flight, you can access free Wi-Fi.

But, more often than not, it isn’t really free. When your device locates the airport network, and before you can access the internet, you are directed to a page that requires you to give your email. And, be careful to click that box that says you do not wish to receive promotional material.

Even if you are not an airplane traveller, this marketing strategy infests so many of our common life activities. I had my car at the service department this summer a couple of times, and each time I received a ticket to enter into a draw: first prize, a new car! But first I have to go to a website to register the number on my ticket. And, of course, give my email. And, remember to check that box declining promotional material!

In any case, companies are finding ways of expanding their reach into our lives and pocket books. Restaurants, as well, if you want to use their ‘free’ Wi-Fi. What may on the surface appear ‘free’ is merely a way to hook you in. This culture of doing business so infects our way of thinking.

The internet access is merely a modern day example. And yet, it is built on the way human beings have always tended to relate with one another at a more base level. A way of life and inter-relating that screams loudly: “Nothing in life is free!”

What is alarming, from a Christian point of view, is that we seem to be ok with that, and go about living in this tit-for-tat culture we have largely created.

Yet, I continue believing that it is in giving grace that describes best our journey as (Lutheran) Christians. I place ‘Lutheran’ in parenthesis because I believe all Christians today need to put grace first and foremost in our practice of faith and life.

Stories are a great way of conveying the deepest truths. This story is about a rooster in a chicken farm. And I heard it told at the National Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, in Regina, last month, by the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Martin Junge. Here is my adaptation:

Every morning when it was still dark the rooster went out to crow. He did so with amazing commitment, crowing from the depth of his heart and making use of all available resources and art. Actually, he was convinced that it was because of his crowing that the sun rose every morning. When he had finished his daily job and went back to the farm he used to look around with a sense of paternalistic pride at the hens. “There you go, darlings, I’ve made the sun rise for you”, he even said once. “I am the chosen one.”

One morning the sunrise was really wonderful. The rooster got so enthusiastic that he couldn’t stop crowing. The sun had long risen, but he continued crowing, just wanting to make the whole scenery even more perfect.

When he went back to the chicken farm he noticed that he had crowed too long. His throat was aching. Laryngitis. He was only able to produce a weak croaking noise. The rooster panicked. “What will happen tomorrow, if I can’t crow anymore? What will happen to the chicken farm and to all these chickens and hens, which depend so much on my power to make the sun rise…?” He went to sleep very early, just hoping that next morning he would be in good health again.

But he was not! The pain had worsened overnight, and he could not even croak but make only a ridiculously weak squeak. Yet, he went out, like every morning, just pushed by the awareness of his plight and the panic that otherwise the sun wouldn’t rise, and they would all perish. He tried his best, he tried hard… yet there was nothing resembling real crowing coming out of his throat.

Great was his surprise when he suddenly realized that the sun seemed to be rising anyway! Slowly but surely it came up behind the hills, like every morning. Actually, it was again one of those wonderful mornings. But this time, it came without his doing! He turned slowly and looked back to the chicken farm. He couldn’t believe what he saw there: the chickens and hens had come out like every morning as well!

Terribly depressed he went back to the chicken farm. What could be his place there? Didn’t he lose his role and reason to be? And why should he go out the next morning, if the sun rose anyway, without his help? Oh, and he felt so embarrassed and ashamed. He didn’t even dare to look into the hens’ eyes.

“Hey, don’t worry”, said one of the hens. “You can continue crowing”, she said. “Just go out tomorrow as usual. But don’t crow in order to make the sun rise. Just crow because the sun rises!”

This story explains how we understand grace. Grace is like the rising sun. It is there, just because God wants grace to be there. As nobody can prevent the sun from rising, nobody can stop God from being gracious either. That was – in a nutshell – what Jesus revealed about God. That is in all its powerful simplicity the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Good works are an expression of faith, to be sure. Yet, good works are a response to God’s grace. This is how we understand the relationship between justification by grace and sanctification of our lives. Sanctification arises from hearts overflowing with joy and love because of God’s wonderful gifts. It is out of the gift of freedom, which God has acquired for us that we respond with good works.

God’s relationship to us is not conditional on anything we say or do. We don’t first become Christian in order to go to church. We come to church in order to become Christian—over time, even a life time! God doesn’t love us because we are ‘good’. God loves us because God is good. Do you hear the difference between those statements? I hope you do. A subtle difference, maybe yes. But huge implications for how we live our lives. It doesn’t hinge on us.

Because of the culture in the world that operates NOT according to grace, it is a huge challenge for Christians to live out of grace-first principles—such as forgiveness, mercy, and showing compassion unconditionally. It is a huge challenge for us not to put conditions on others before we deem them worthy. It is a huge challenge not to place any expectations on others and ourselves before we can justify helping them or loving them.

No wonder many young people today are cynical about the message that comes from ‘The Church’. “Your mercy is great,” we Sunday Christians pray to God. “But,” they ask, “Is it, really? What’s the catch? What do you want from me?” This cynicism is rampant. We have been infused with, and grown into, a transactional culture: I do something for you (in order that) you do something for me; I do something for God (in order that) God does something for me.

In this world, so anti-grace, we are called to become more fluent in the language and lifestyle of grace-first. We are challenged to give grace, first. Grace first, not judgement. Grace first, not fear. Grace first, not condemnation:

In our relationships with family members whose behaviour or lifestyle we may not be inclined to approve. In our relationships with others outside our circles who represent politics and opinions we are not inclined towards. In our relationships with those marginalized and the poor, Indigenous people and their plight. In our relationship with the land, water and air. Even, in our relationship with God and religion. Maybe most importantly.

The Gospel stories abound with examples of the way Jesus embodies this grace-first approach of God. In the story today (Luke 13:10-17), it’s not about deserving God’s grace first. It’s not about the woman earning Jesus’ favour first, before she is healed. We really know nothing about her — whether she deserves Jesus’ attention. But, you see, that’s not the point. It’s not even about following the rules of religion, which the Pharisees defend at all costs.

Jesus simply ‘sees’ her, and heals her. Jesus exposes the sin of a culture that places rules before grace, a culture which values conformity over the truth of what the sabbath represents: A holy day when the best of what God offers to us is actually demonstrated and given. No matter the rules. Grace first.

Images of water permeate the scriptures. These verses from Isaiah about water stand out. Water, like the sun, is like grace. Water gives sustenance: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

A last-minute addition to the itinerary of my family’s western Canada road trip this summer was a visit to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia. There, visitors can sink into a natural hot water soaking pool, then slip into a cool water pool. This is hydrotherapy, like the Scandinavian tradition of hot and cold water-immersion cycles. People come here for healing.

We know the stats: 71% of the earth’s surface covered by water. The human body is composed of over 60% water. Water provides a place for renewal, reconnection and rejuvenation. Water is essential for life. We all need it to live.

It is there before we do anything. Whether or not we choose to step into the healing waters of God’s presence and love and mercy—it’s still there for us. Ever present, despite us. The prophet Isaiah in the same text expresses this truth: “You shall cry for help, and God will say: ‘Here I am’” (v.9). I hear in these words the sense that God is saying, “If you want help, I am here. I’ve always been here right beside you! Hello!”

Christians of old have written about life as a journey of becoming more aware of how we block the flow of God’s love and grace. Blockages, such as fear, greed, selfishness. And then, doing what we can to ‘unblock’ and ‘allow’ divine love to flow more freely through us. Of letting go and allowing the current of divine energy, creativity and love to carry us downstream through life.

Whether or not we respond to the sunrise, as the rooster had to learn, whether or not we choose to participate in the action of God’s grace, the ever-flowing stream of God’s love is already there. It has been flowing from the beginning of time, continues to be the most powerful force in the universe, and is an ever-present reality in the world today.

Whether we know it or not, we’re continually immersed and surrounded by Divine Love, by Sacred, Holy Presence. This is our ultimate confidence and security. “Here I am,” God says to us. “Come to me. I am always by your side to show you mercy, forgiveness, and love.”

And that is why we pray and affirm repeatedly this summer in the petitionary prayers: “Your mercy is great!”

Because it is.

Super-hero busted

With Marvel and DC the biggest box office attractions in recent years, the popular culture exposes our desires and fantasies. These super-heroes are really just projections of our own wants and longings. We put ourselves in these roles, vicariously living out the super-hero life.

What from the super-hero culture inform and influence our real lives, you ask? What does it mean to be a hero, living day-to-day?

Last week, we concluded our Lent book study about our medical culture. When the stakes are high and decisions have to be made about treatment of serious illness, what do we want? How do we respond? In the book aptly entitled, “Being Mortal”, author Atul Gawande writes:

“The pressure remains all in one direction, toward doing more, because the only mistake clinicians seem to fear is doing too little. Most have no appreciation that equally terrible mistakes are possible in the other direction—that doing too much could be no less devastating to a person’s life.”[1]

Being heroic means doing more, not less. More power. More strength. Super-human capacity. Fighting evil means counter punch for punch—just harder, faster. Solving problems means finding more resources, generating more capacity to meet the demands. Doing things better. This is the culture of heroism in our day. We want to be heroes.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, is our biblical hero. We like him. We get him. He always wanted to be Jesus’ hero, protecting him from the suffering of which he spoke, jumping into the water not once but twice to be the first of the disciples to get to Jesus.[2]Jesus, at one point, even had to say to Peter: “Get behind me Satan” when Peter said he would not allow the suffering and death of Jesus.[3]

Even in the Passion narrative Peter is still delusional, believing he will follow Jesus, heroically, to the end. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”[4]Peter is the consummate hero.

The part from the Passion narrative where he then ‘denies the Lord three times when the rooster crows’ is a turning point for him.[5]And for us.

In the Passion of our Lord, the Cross is the central image and destination. And against the Cross our truth is exposed, and we are caught in the headlights. Our true motivations are squared against the values of the kingdom of God to which Jesus bore witness in his last days and trial.

Normally, I have understood Peter’s denial of Jesus merely as self-preservation. He doesn’t want to expose his vulnerability in that situation. He doesn’t want to be considered a threat, and be arrested himself. He wants to conserve and protect himself. And so he is caught off-guard, and quickly denies his involvement with Jesus.

But what if we saw Peter’s words of denial more as a confession rather than self-seeking, self-preservation? Peter confesses, at the end of the road, that he does not ‘know’ the kingdom of which Jesus speaks. Peter confesses that he is not a true disciple of Jesus.

Even at this end, nevertheless, Jesus knows Peter better than he knows himself. “Today, you will deny me”. Hours later, Peter stares into the flames of the firepit in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and warms his hands by the fire. Finally, Peter comes to himself in all honesty and vulnerability. “No, I don’t know him. No, I don’t know this Jesus. No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He is finally telling the truth, in his ‘denial’. Facing this truth is hard, and that is why he goes out and weeps bitterly at the end. Peter’s ideal image of himself—a heroic disciple of the Lord, a super-hero Jesus freak—has come crashing down. He is not the hero he thought he was. He does not have the courage to follow in the way of Jesus to the cross.

When, in the solitude of our confession, we confront ourselves in all honesty—we find ourselves at ground zero, that turning point, that event-horizon towards transformation and healing. Because further down that path of hero worship we cannot go. And, we wonder, seriously question whether we have what it takes to let go, and follow Jesus to the cross of our lives.

It is unknown territory, on the bottom. We do not know it well, if at all. We shy away from it, understandably. We are uncomfortable, here. “In solitude, we encounter our own poverty, incompleteness and brokenness. We see how petty we can be; how possessive and judgmental; how angry, resentful, and mean-spirited; how self-centered in our thoughts and actions. No wonder we are tempted to flee solitude and to lose ourselves in busyness and distractions. It takes courage to plumb the depths of our soul.”[6]

Peter in the high priest’s courtyard finds his bottom in honest confession, not unlike the Prodigal Son wallowing in the mud of the pig pen when he has his moment of reckoning.

It takes courage to come close to Jesus near the Cross. It takes courage to let go of our heroism and our compulsion to do more, to do better. It takes courage to let go being incessantly active and working harder as a way of avoiding ‘plumbing the depths of our soul’.

Are you willing to give up being a hero for Jesus? Are you still a disciple when Jesus leads you this close to the cross?[7]

Perhaps another story from the Passion narratives of the Gospels usually assigned for Holy Week can be helpful. It’s the Gospel text from last week, actually, when Mary lavishly anoints Jesus’ feet.

How does Mary respond to the reality of human limitation and vulnerability? How does she respond to the ‘ground zero’ reality surrounding her and Jesus? Remember, Mary knows what is going on with Jesus. Anointing was reserved for coronations and burials. Jesus qualifies for both. And his end was nigh. How does she deal with that?

In Luke’s version of the anointing story, Jesus tells Mary: “Your sins are forgiven.”[8]Why were her sins forgiven after anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume?

Not only because of her great sorrow, nor because she remembered all her sins, nor even because of any contrition she might have felt for her human weakness. Why then?

Because she loved, and loved much.[9]So, instead of sorrowing over her sinfulness, she gave abundantly and without reservation of her affection and love for Jesus.

Confronting our truth, as scary as that is, is not license to wallow in passive, self-preoccupation. Rather, this degree of self-honesty and confession leads to extravagant acts of mercy and love towards another. At ground zero, we realize that our lives are not ours, but God’s. At ground zero, we realize that we live for something and someone much greater than our individual problems and shortcomings.

The description of what God does, relating to the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4-9 is important:

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word …

The Lord God has opened my ear …

The Lord God helps me …

The Lord God helps me.[10]

When truth-telling can lead to acts of profound love for the sake of ‘the weary’, the Lord God helps us.

When our actions, tarnished even by our humanity, focus on love for the vulnerable and weak, the Lord God helps us.

When our limitations are offered to God in acts of love for others, the Lord God helps us.

And we are still the Lord’s disciples. Even Peter, beyond his moment not of denial, but acceptance. Jesus pronounced him ‘the rock’ upon which God builds the church.

And, we know what lies beyond this momentary tribulation. We have Jesus to thank for that. This is the promise of our journeys, rough though they may be.

And, through it all, we are still the Lord’s disciples.

 

[1]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End(Toronto: Penguin, 2017), p.220

[2]Matthew 14:28-31; John 21:7-19

[3]Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33

[4]Luke 22:33

[5]Luke 22:24-34,54-62; John 18:15-27

[6]Br. David Vryhof
Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” 8 April 2019

 

[7]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life  (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009),  p.79.

[8]Luke 7:44-48

[9]The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Ira Progoff (Delta Books: 1957), 100-102.

[10]Isaiah 50:4-9 NRSV, reading assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Passion Sunday.

The Prodigal story: Three in One

Most of this sermon today is the work of the Rev. Monika Wiesner who first preached it. A lay member of our congregation, Sharon Wirth, then also preached Monika’s sermon at Faith Ottawa last year. A heart-felt ‘thank you’ to both for this contemplative and grace-filled approach to a popular parable of Jesus.

 Many will regard the turning point of the story as the call to repentance[1], when the rebellious, prodigal son comes to his senses in the sloppy mud of a pig pen.[2]And therefore, according to this interpretation, repentance must be preached and communicated to others who have or are falling away.

You will notice with me, however, that it is not because someone in town or the farmer on whose land he was working told him to repent. When the rebellious younger son comes to the end of his rope and realizes his folly, it’s not because someone guilted him, pressured him, preached him into repentance. The message of changing the Prodigal’s moral direction did not come from outside of him. But from within.

Repentance does not precede grace and mercy. Rather, the other way around: First and foremost, compassion and love changes lives. The experience of the younger son at the end of himself was an inner experience. His changed reality resulted from something that happened within himself. The state of his inner life shifted somehow.

Within himself, the younger brother heard the voice of self-love and acceptance. Not once. But twice in the story. First, in the pig pen he came to self-love within himself. Enough love to stop hurting himself. Then, later, from the father, this Love was reinforced.

Since we see the turning point of this story as primarily a movement of the inner life, imagine then, that this family of three actually lives together within each of us, within our souls.

Within our soul we first have a younger son or daughter that is severely wounded. We might call this our “wounded inner child”.  This is the part of our soul that experiences shame. It is the part of us that feels there is something intrinsically wrong with us.

Within our soul, we also have a critical older sibling. We might call this our superego or our “inner critic”. This is the part of us that actually triggers our shame, telling us where we’ve done wrong, wagging their finger at us in judgement whenever we step out of line.

Finally, there is also within our soul a compassionate parent, the compassionate parent that can heal our shame. We might call this our True Self. We Christians, knowing that God lives within each one of us, might call this our God-Self or even our Sacred Self.

It is the message of Jesus’ Priestly Prayer to his “Father” for his disciples: “As you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…”[3]And again, Jesus said to his followers, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit …”[4]

I invite you to imagine that this family lives within your own soul: the wounded child in you, your inner critic and your compassionate divine parent. All live within you.

In the rest of this sermon, heads up, I will intentionally switch to both male and female pronouns, so that each one of us may connect more personally with the experiences of these three different persons in the story.

How do these three persons relate within us?

When we are born, our soul and God are one. As an infant, we smile when we’re happy and we cry when we’re unhappy.

Then something happens to this unity within our souls. We experience events that we interpret as painful or as trauma. Our primary caregivers may be limited in their ability to parent or they may over-worked and overtired. And they hurt us.

Or maybe we simply need to leave the security of mommy and daddy for the first time and we discover that the world does not revolve around us. We experience hurt and rejection and intense anxiety and fear. Have you ever watched a young child who is being taken away from his/her mother? Do you ever wonder what is happening within that child’s psyche? These separation experiences may be necessary. But they are experienced as wounding.

What’s important for us to note is that these first experiences of woundedness follow us a lifetime. They might be called “holes within our souls”. We experience those first feelings of not being lovable or not being safe or not being of worth. Because our souls and God are one, this is where we feel our first disconnect from God.

Over the years, more holes are created. Our intense feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, depression, anger or jealousy or shame all have their roots in these holes. Whenever you feel these feelings, you are in touch with one of these holes in your soul.

So what do we do? We try to fill these holes by looking outside ourselves. As young children, we learned to please people by doing things that would make them happy and then we felt lovable and safe.  As we grew in years, we became the responsible one, the wise one, the funny one, or the caregiver. We became beautiful or educated or rich. We did whatever the outside world said would make us feel valued.

We did whatever was needed to fill those holes in our soul that were wounded and crying out in pain. We believed the outside world held the answers.

That is exactly what the younger brother did in this parable. He took his inheritance and he spent it on everything the world suggested would soothe his wounded soul. But in the end, nothing worked. One day, he simply came to the end of himself … and he was drowning in shame.

So the prodigal child remembers her home and her parents. However, her shame went so deep that she believed all love was gone from her life. Her parents would never take her back, so she decided she would do whatever it took to earn her place in the household. She needed to earn their love.

But to her amazement, the prodigal child found loving parents waiting for her. When they saw her, they were filled with compassion and ran out to her, put their arms around her and hugged and kissed her. The wounded child began to confess what a failure she was, no longer worthy to be called their child. But her parents would hear none of it.

Instead, this prodigal child found herself in a beautiful robe … with the family ring on her finger … and a huge “Welcome home” banner hanging over the dining room table. A celebration was being prepared in her honour.

This is the compassion for oneself … this is where all healing takes place. This is where we experience the compassionate God … because God and our soul are one.

But there is one other character in the story, namely the older critical brother, our inner critic. Our super-ego. This is the inner critic who can’t accept the “easy” homecoming of the wounded child.

This older sibling doesn’t believe in compassion, does not believe in grace. And so she becomes critical and angry and refuses to participate in the homecoming. She’s the one who says to the wounded inner child, “You don’t deserve this!”

This is the inner voice that holds us back from experiencing the compassion of God within and for ourselves. This is the inner voice that uses those feelings of shame to stop the healing of those holes in our soul. This is the older sibling who sits on the doorstep and sulks, refusing to go to the party.

Oftentimes, Christians confuse that critical inner voice as the voice of God. It is not! It is not. If anything, it is the voice of our primary caregivers at their worst.

One thing is for sure – when we decide to return home, to find healing for all those holes in our soul, our inner critic will become very active and tell us we don’t deserve compassion, acceptance or love and we don’t deserve the healing we so desperately want. The inner critic will pull out all the stops to keep us feeling shame. But just remember, if it isn’t the voice of compassion, it isn’t the voice of God.

And so the wounded child no longer needs to listen to the voice of the inner critic because our soul and God are one and God has already embraced us in love. We need only listen to the compassionate, holy and sacred that lives deep within each one of us. And that sacred God-Self is saying, “I’m preparing a banquet in your honour! Come to the party!”

In this parable do you hear the voice of God embracing you in love? Welcoming you home? Herein lies the nugget of truth that is at the root of all emotional or spiritual healing.

So let the party begin! We’ve all been invited!

 

[1]Meaning: metanoia –a change of mind.

[2]Luke 15:1-3,11b-32, the Gospel for the 4thSunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)

[3]John 17:21,23 NRSV

[4]John 15:5

The fig tree calls out

Hear today some wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh:

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet, if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. 

“Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. This is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

When 21-year-old Sharif Said was gunned down near the Trainyards in Ottawa four years ago, his uncle spoke to the media on behalf of the family.[1]What surprised me in his testimony was how he defended not only his nephew, around whom rumours swirled that he was involved in a gang.

But then he defended those arrested for his nephew’s murder. He said that they were also victims. Khalid Mohammad and Abdulaziz Abdullah, both in their twenties and arrested for Said’s murder, were victims themselves of a “senseless violence”, the uncle said. As a result they could not value life as “precious”.

A subtle twist in the tone of the message changes the direction of the conversation about these things. Making sense of any criminal act, to begin with, can leave us confused and hopeless. And we desperately seek to be on the right side of ‘right and wrong’. We do that most effectively by assigning blame.

Then, you throw into the mix a statement coming from ‘the victim’ that offers sympathy to the perpetrators, a word that levels the moral playing field, we don’t know what to do with that.

Are we all, each and every one of us, part of a culture that creates these problems? Do we all participate on both sides—all sides—of the moral equation? Isn’t that too confusing and wishy-washy? Forgiveness, and mercy, wreak havoc on any common-sense pursuit for laying blame. An act of kindness and forbearance in the midst of senseless tragedy takes the wind out of retribution.

Admittedly, we may feel more at home with the way the ancient prophets used the image of a barren fig tree.[2]One way we tend to lean is towards despair. The prophet Micah feels lonely and depressed in the face of scarcity and evil:

‘Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered,      after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.’

Or, we lean towards vengeance. You can hear it in Isaiah’s tone when he speaks of his ‘beloved’ vineyard. Despite all his hard work to create conditions for abundant growth it yielded only wild, undesirable, grapes:

‘And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down …’

Indeed aren’t these the usual go-to’s when bad things happen to good people—we either slip into despair or shake our fists in anger against someone or something we blame?

When an Ethiopian airliner filled with people crashes and all are killed including eighteen Canadians onboard. When Galileans are slaughtered in cold blood by the hand of Pilate and the Tower of Siloam falls and kills innocent pilgrims at the pool of healing.[3]When randomly, bad things happen, and we can’t really make sense of it. Well, we try.

Do you despair? Or do you get angry and try to find who or what to blame? The people in the Gospel text today tried to get Jesus in on their blame-game and despair-mongering ways.

And Jesus comes back to the ancient, scriptural image of the fig tree again. When he first mentions the fig tree, the crowd must have gotten really excited. Because they knew where this story was going, knowing their prophets Micah and Isaiah: Despair. Vengeance. The lead-up sounds good.

But Jesus pulls the rug out from underneath their expectations. The twist Jesus offers to the familiar image of the barren fig tree is his emphasis on forbearance and mercy. Staving off a swift impulse to cut the tree down after three years of neglect and barrenness, the vineyard’s stewards will give the fig tree yet another year’s chance to bear fruit. The fig tree is given yet another second chance. The hope is that the fig tree will be rehabilitated.

It is important to note, moreover, that in the parable it is the gardener who allows for the possibility of fruitfulness. Not the fig tree. It can’t do anything, by itself. It is stuck in a cycle of barrenness (aka poverty, violence). First, the gardener has to plead his case, be the tree’s advocate, to the owner of the field. Then, the gardener has to do the work. By constant care, digging around the roots and applying manure, the gardener employs all the gifts and resources at their disposal to allow for a positive outcome.[4]

The fig tree calls to us. Who or what does the fig tree represent in our lives? Now, parables are not meant to be taken literally, so we can rule out any divine gardening tips here. This parable won’t appear in a google search for ‘how to grow a fig tree’.

Who is the barren fig tree in your life?

When and where do you sense in your life or another’s, a feeling of being at wit’s end? When all resources have been explored and used up. When a group of people or individual cannot to do it on their own any longer. When someone is stuck in cycles of behaviour that they cannot see the way out, by themselves. When a call for help is evident by a lack of fruitfulness in their lives.

You will notice that this parable comes to a rather abrupt end. The narrative is not neatly tied up into a certain, ‘happy’ ending. We just don’t know whether the fig tree will produce after all this advocacy and gardening work is done. You could say, it’s up to us to write the ending to this story. Will it be judgement? Or, salvation?

Every time we worship together, though, we pray not ‘mykingdom come’, not ‘our kingdom come’, but ‘Thy kingdom come’. Jesus tells a parable about a gardener determined to tend a fruitless fig tree because he is open to a future possibility that he does not control.

Our task, as American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry says it best, “is to labor, without having all the answers, to acknowledge the deep mystery of it all. The task of the disciple is to witness and then wait, to take our best step and leave the rest to God. We labor now for a future we are not meant to control.”[5]

When forgiveness and mercy dictate public discourse in the media and in response to horrific, tragic and painful events around the world and in our lives, we may not be able to explain it easily. But maybe that’s not our job.

Maybe our job is to seek understanding in the other, and thereby show our love. Maybe our job in the church and as Christians is to speak and work for God’s values for the sake of others amidst pain and suffering.

And in hope and trust, let God write the end of the story.

 

[1]cbc.ca, posted May 7, 2015

[2]Micah 7:1; Isaiah 5:1-7

[3]Luke 13:1-9, Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]Daniel G. Deffenbaugh in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.96.

[5]Michael B. Curry in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.95-97.