Christmas, now

Just a couple of years before he died, Martin Luther preached one of his last Christmas sermons. In it, he challenged his 16thcentury German congregation to bring the nativity into the present moment – the present reality.

Martin Luther described the squalor and desperation swirling around Mary and Joseph arriving late in Bethlehem and not finding room in the inn, leaving them to give birth to Jesus in a small barn out back. Then, he said:

 There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen!” … [Well] Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbour. You ought to serve them, for what you do to your neighbour in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.[1] That was preached in 1543.

At Christmas 2018, we are not just called to hear the story again, but to be in it, part of it.[2]

Essentially, Martin Luther was getting at the meaning of Christmas for his contemporaries. And for us, today. How can we be inspired by the children, the music, the gifts we bring at Christmas to step out of the nativity ‘play’, and into the real story unfolding around us today?

We share in the communion tonight. In the chaos, noise and crowd, celebrating the sacrament might not fit our idea of a neat-and-tidy, perfect Christmas service. It’s hard to sentimentalize the Eucharist.

But it’s important to offer it tonight. Because the sacrament brings us to the present moment. The meal tells the story of Jesus being in our hearts—not decades ago when things were golden and sweet in our memories, not two thousand years ago, not in the Martin Luther’s day, not lost in words of scripture alone—but right here, right now, in the present day, in our own experience of life in this world.

Receiving the bread and cup doesn’t mean your life is perfect, doesn’t mean you are now ready for Christmas, doesn’t mean y our life is in order and worthy of God.

When you receive the Communion, you are affirming that God is somewhere in the mess and chaos of your life. Our life. Emmanuel–God with us.

Celebrating Christ’s birth does not bring us outof history, it involves us with it—in the present time.[3]The Christmas story gets lived out by our attention and care for the dark shadows in our own hearts, as well as reaching out to vulnerable people in our world.

I heard with dismay on the local radio station last week that the City of Ottawa is putting up 230 families in cheap hotels this Christmas, where they have to live for over a year before social housing spots open up. Talk about conditions of squalor entire families, all of them poor, need to live in at Christmas. And we’re not talking about a handful. Two Hundred and Thirty families, in Ottawa alone.

Have we considered that when we pray for and help in whatever way we can these people, we are serving Christ himself? After all, our Lord was a refugee himself right after his birth, fleeing to Egypt with his parents to get away from Herod’s violent and murderous intent.[4]

Popular TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie just came out with a book this Fall entitled: “Everyday Hockey Heroes: Inspiring Stories on and off the Ice”[5]

In one chapter about an inspiring Ottawa story, Bob McKenzie relays the words of Karina Potvin, a minor hockey coach. She writes: “So much about Canada is welcoming. Well, except maybe our winters, but they’re a small price to pay in order to play hockey …”

As Karina watched on the news refugees being greeted at the airport, she writes: “I knew I wanted to help these new Canadians feel at home. I just wasn’t sure how.

“A few months later I was at practice when I saw one of my fellow coaches … coming towards the bench … [he had a] new idea for Reach Out. Reach Out is a program in our hockey association that helps low income families pay for equipment and registration fees so that their kids can join our league …

“‘You know how my wife and I have been working with some of the Syrian families who have settled here in Ottawa?’ He went on, ‘We took a family to …[a] game last week, and their sons absolutely loved it. They had never heard of hockey before, but they want to play.’

Karina ended up coaching three boys—Mohammed, Ahmad and Ismael—who quickly got the hang of skating. “They’re all over the ice!”

“The three boys breathed hockey all day, every day. As did their parents. By midseason, the parents were typical Canadian hockey moms and dads.

“One Arabic word I learned was hebbak which means “I love you.” Sometimes when we were on the bench, I would turn to Mohammed and say it. He always gave me a strange look.

“’Yeah, I just told you that I love you. Because you’re playing really well tonight and listening to us coaches.’

“He shook his head, ‘Coach Karina, you’re weird.’

“’If you ever make the NHL and they ask you who was your first and favourite coach, you have to say Coach Karina.’

“’Yes, of course.’ He laughed.

“’And if you ever play for the Senators, you have to get me tickets.’ Every time I said this, he would smile and reply, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’”

Just imagine: The year before, these kids had been in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Now, they were playing hockey just like so many other kids in Canada.[6]

May the first Christmas story become alive and real for you, as the Christ child is born anew in your hearts thisday.

Here are the words of American writer Madeleine L’Engle in a poem entitled “First Coming”:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Merry Christmas!

[1]Martin Luther, Christmas Sermon, 1543; Matthew 25:45

[2]Lcfaithinthenight.blogspot.com, 19 Dec 2018, (Lutherans Connect, @LuTConnect).

[3]Gustavo Gutierrez, cited in LutheransConnect, ibid.

[4]Matthew 2:13-15

[5]With Jim Lang (Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2018)

[6]The full story in ibid., p.45-56

Thanksgiving builds commUNItY

Sometimes what I see in nature represents how I feel. For example: “The dark, thunder clouds looked angry,” we say. Or, “The deer leapt with joy across the meadow.”

Nature has a way of evoking feelings within us. When I stopped in this cove on Cape Disappointment, I couldn’t help but feel praise for the creator God, and thankful for the beauty of life.

IMG_6215.JPG

This particular photo conveys to me first a state of peace. After all, not far from this lone pine the swirling waters, changing tides and ravaging winds off the Cape constantly threaten to uproot the tree. And yet, the tree lives on looking very peaceful.

But more than that, thankful. The tree shoots to the sky, to the life-giving sun. It’s not just hugging the rock in defensive self-protection. It offers its praise to the Creator by aiming and growing upward, giving a faithful witness to all that will see this tree.

For me, a life lived grounded and united in peace, praise and thanksgiving to God, is indeed a life lived in the gracious community of God.

During this month when we reflect on the legacy of the 16th century Reformation and celebrate together the 500th year of Reformation, we cannot avoid nor deny the sad reality of conflict and division. It seems you cannot fully appreciate the nature of things, including the church, unless you acknowledge the role of conflict among people of all times and places.

This is why it is noteworthy that Luke in the Gospel text assigned for Thanksgiving Day tells this story, which is not found anywhere else in the New Testament.[1] What is unique about this healing story is the response of thanksgiving by a Samaritan. Jesus sets this “foreigner” apart from the others who were also healed.[2]

The Samaritan was the only one who “turned back” to give thanks to Jesus.[3] So, there is much more going on here than a physical, medical cure of a disease.

Since ancient times, a political and religious rift was growing between Israel and Samaria. Samaria became “foreign” after breaking off from the Davidic monarchy and the establishment of Samaria as the capital of the northern kingdom.[4] Then, after the Babylonian exile, tensions mounted between the people of Samaria and the Jews who returned to rebuild Jerusalem.[5]

Luke includes this story in his Gospel to emphasize the importance of looking to the positive witness of the outsider. In other words, the normal divisions separating us in our religious and cultural identities matter little in the larger scheme of things. Especially when it comes to the expression of faith.

Those who are different are often the very people we need to look to for a positive example of faithful living.

This summer a friend of mine visited the German town of Dinkelsbühl in Bavaria. During the Reformation Era in the 16th and 17th centuries, this town was the first of only a small number at the time who identified as bi-confessional; that is, roughly equal numbers of Roman Catholic and Protestant citizens were allowed to live and practice their faith, with equal rights for both sides.

After the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, a few years after Martin Luther’s death, land in Germany was divided into Protestant or Catholic regions. The religious adherence of a population in any region was determined by the religion of the ruling prince in that area.

Except for Dinkelsbühl. The Peace of Westphalia a century later enshrined the bi-confessional identity of this town by establishing a joint Catholic-Protestant government and administrative system, and ensured a precise and equal distribution between Catholic and Protestant civic officials.

When you consider the animosity, violence and warfare characteristic of those centuries between Catholics and Protestants, never-mind the twentieth century history in Ireland and the unfortunately enduring oppositional attitudes between Protestants and Catholics today – this is truly remarkable.

Bucking the dominant culture of dualistic either/or, right/wrong, in/out, black/white thinking, the leaders and citizens of Dinkelsbühl chose to follow a different path. We don’t need to point to present day efforts of ecumenism and unity building. Right in the middle of the conflict of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries there were already efforts then to see a different way:

To see the good in the other. To search out and focus on common understandings first. To seek mutual understanding. Amidst everything around conspiring against such counter-cultural vision.

The point of decision for the Samaritan leper came when he realized he was healed, on the path as they went.[6] It’s important to picture this in your mind. Jesus didn’t snap his fingers and, voila! Yes, the lepers brought their belief in Jesus to the encounter, asking him for healing. Jesus then told them to go to the priest for certification of their healing.

It was on the way – after they had committed to doing something, even before any proof of their healing was given, amidst their still debilitating illness – they went. In doing something, on the way, they were healed. Healing is a process.

It was on this journey when the healed Samaritan had to make a decision.  He could have followed the other nine who were clearly pursuing their self-interest. Against the conforming pressures of the majority, he turned back to follow his heart, full of thanksgiving. We may wonder whether he was also motivated by avoiding potential ridicule and discrimination as a Samaritan appearing before Jewish authority in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, the Samaritan made thanksgiving a priority. It is to him that Jesus ascribes the affirmation: “Your faith has made you well”; or, as other translations have it: “Your faith has saved you.”[7]

Faith without gratitude is no faith at all. There is something life-giving about thanksgiving. Grateful people are more hopeful. Indeed, there is evidence now of a correlation between gratitude and the immune system. People who are grateful have a health edge. For example, an attitude of gratitude, reduces stress. So, your mother was right when she made you call your grandmother and thank her for the birthday card.[8]

A true expression of faith is complete when it includes thanksgiving. Coming to worship on Sundays is not validated because “you get something out of it.” Attending worship is not about the self-centered search for “what is in it for me?” Worship is not “me-first” exercise. Let’s be clear.

Rather, coming to worship is about offering thanksgiving, first and foremost. Sunday worship is an opportunity to give thanks to the God who gives all, for all. It is no wonder that the Holy Communion is traditionally called “The Holy Eucharist”, translated from the Greek as “The Great Thanksgiving”. We come to the table to offer our gifts of thanksgiving to God. Every week.

Thanksgiving changes the character of a community and its work. Stewardship is transformed from fundraising to the glad gratitude of joyful givers. The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts. Prayer includes not only our intercessions and supplications, but also our thanksgiving and praise of God’s good gifts to us at the Table.[9]  Thanksgiving builds bridges among people who are different.

We come to Communion to offer thanks to God not because we are good, but because God is good. And we see God reflected in all of creation, in all people, in the good they are.

We pray the legacy of the next 500 years of Reformation reflects the growth of unity among a people that are grateful for the good gifts God brings to us all.

Amen.

 

[1] Oliver Larry Yarbrough 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.169

[2] Luke 17:17-19

[3] Luke 17:15

[4] 1 Kings 12, 16

[5] Nehemiah 4, Yarbrough ibid., p.167

[6] Luke 17:14-15

[7] Luke 17:19, Yarbrough, ibid., p.169

[8] John M. Buchanan, ibid., p.169

[9] Kimberley Bracken Long, ibid., p.168

Jonah and the Call

When the waves started crashing over the deck of the ferry, I knew something was wrong. I remembered reading somewhere that the Baltic Sea can get unpredictably dangerous in the Fall of the year. So true.

When my grandmother — we called her “Oma” — and I sailed from the protected harbour, the waters looked calm. But once we hit the open water, the winds picked up, and I had to hang on for dear life!

I’m not sure the story of Jonah came to mind at the time, but the similarities are striking, when I reflected on that turbulent time in my life. I had just arrived in Germany for a year-long exchange student program during my seminary education. This was what I felt “called” in my preparation to be a good, Lutheran pastor — spend a year in a Lutheran university, in the very place Martin Luther argued with other reformers about Holy Communion.

But it was the first time I would spend significant amounts of time in a foreign land trying to function in a foreign language, by myself, without family and friends. And within the first couple of weeks after I arrived at the university in Marburg, Germany, I knew this was not going to be easy.

If fact, I remember coming soon to the conclusion that all I wanted, was to escape Marburg — the lonely dormitory room, the solitary walks to the lecture halls, the silent dinner times in the corner of the cafeteria. I’m an introvert, so this was really bad! Because I felt completely disconnected from everything and everyone.

Oma lived in northern Germany. And I think she wanted to help me, so within two weeks of my arrival she invited me to hop on the train and visit her for a couple of days. She wanted to take me on a ferry boat ride from just across the border in Denmark back to the seaside city in which she lived. Part of the deal was to enjoy a schnitzel meal before the boat left that placid harbour. In retrospect, that wasn’t a good idea!

But she tried to make me feel more ‘at home’. Just before we boarded the ferry she had handed me an envelope containing a thousand dollars. “Use this to help you this year in Germany,” she said, looking at me with her sparkling eyes, “in whatever way you see fit.”

I did. The answer was not Marburg. It was Vancouver! Yes! The timing couldn’t have been better. I was less than an hour’s train-ride to Frankfurt — and the paid-for plane ride outa here! Besides, I had a close friend studying in Vancouver at the time — nothing like a girlfriend to distract and motivate a young man desperate for a change in scenery.

I mentioned Jonah, because during my three-week hiatus in Vancouver I read Eugene Peterson’s book, “Under the Unpredictable Plant” (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1992) — which is basically a reflection on the Jonah story:

God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh; but Jonah hesitates and would rather go to Tarshish. On the boat ride to Tarshish he encounters a gale storm threatening the lives of all aboard. He realizes the impending calamity is probably his fault, and sacrifices himself by jumping into the sea, where he spends three days in the belly of a whale. We pick up the story in the first reading today (Jonah 3:1-5,10) after the whale spits Jonah out; God calls him a “second time” to go to Nineveh — and he finally relents, and goes to do God’s will.

When I was in Vancouver I seriously toyed with giving up on my pastoral vocation; I remember thinking that I did not want to return to Marburg, and that I would use this opportunity in Vancouver to inquire about the School of Architecture and City Planning, programs which had intrigued me at the time. The dark, depressive notion of returning to Marburg (a.k.a Nineveh) was the farthest thing from my mind. I would start all over, in Vancouver (a.k.a Tarshish).

There’s something important about Jonah’s experience — Jesus likens his three days in the tomb to Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale (Matthew 12:40). It’s that time of incubation, of waiting, of not being in charge. It’s the grass under the snow and ice, the seeds of the daffodils hibernating in the frozen ground, waiting until the right time that comes from outside of one’s individual initiative and control.

Those three weeks in Vancouver, the long walks on the beach — by myself, I might add — this was my time in the belly of the whale to discern and reflect on the truth of what I was called to do and be. I thank God for that time ‘in the belly’, where I could ruminate and come into myself as I truly was, and am.

It was during that time when I realized what I needed to do: I was called to return to Marburg, and I felt convinced in my heart that all I was asked to do was finish the year abroad. That’s all I had to do, and not worry about ‘what after?’. That’s where, despite my fear and anxiety about returning to a place where I would have to confront my demons, I knew was my next step.

You may notice how immediately Simon and Andrew leave everything behind and follow Jesus’ call (Mark 1:18). In last week’s Gospel, Philip and Nathanael so quickly respond to the invitation to “come and see” Jesus (John 1:43-47). Abraham went immediately, “as the Lord had told him” (Genesis 12:4). There is a prevalent understanding to lift up an idealistic, immediate and righteous response of Christians to the call of God. I can see why.

But then there is also Jonah, who resists. There is the great prophet Jeremiah who when God first appears to him and appoints him a prophet, he rejects the call by throwing up excuses: “I do not know how to speak; I am only a boy” (1:6). And it takes two whole chapters in the book of Exodus for God to finally convince Moses to do God’s bidding to confront Pharaoh and free God’s people from slavery in Egypt.

Moses’ excuses run like a litany: “Who am I?” (3:11); then, “What should I say?” (3:13); then, “But suppose they don’t believe me?” (4:1); and, “I am not eloquent; I am slow of speech” (4:10); and finally, “Please send someone else!” (4:13). To each of these successive excuses, God shows incredible patience to nurture Moses into fulfilling his task. This is the same God who is patient with Jeremiah and Jonah.

If I take the bible witness as a whole, it appears some followers of God respond immediately, without question or hesitation, dropping everything and going. And then there are some who resist, who complain, who self-doubt, hesitate and try to deflect the call of God.

In the world of mathematics, integers and fractions, these numbers would cancel themselves out. In other words, what is most important to focus on here, is not our human response to God. Because our responses will vary as many as there are people on this planet Earth. The starting point, is not how we should respond. But the way God is.

God is merciful. If God changes in anything, it is only in the direction of judgement to mercy. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:15, 103:8, 145:8).

God is persistent with us. God is the hound of heaven. God has a plan — one we can never know completely, because we are not God. For whatever reason, God is acting to fulfill something that is beyond all of us. All we are called to do is to participate somehow in God’s mission on earth. God won’t give up trying to get that message across to us.

God is faithful to us. As God was faithful to all the prophets and disciples in the bible, God will not give up, abandon and discard the “work of His hands” (Psalm 138:8). God is with us, regardless of whether we need a little more convincing over time or not.

With wobbly knees I disembarked from the ferry when we finally landed safely in the German port following our harrowing ride on the angry Baltic Sea. I walked quietly beside Oma back to the car, stomach churning yet grateful to be alive. Even though my heart, at the time, was set on Vancouver, I already knew that God had given me a second chance at life. And deep in my heart, I knew that God would continue, no matter what I did, to be merciful to me, to be patient with me, and never give up on me.