Thanks-doing

I knew—we all knew—we had to do it. We had to go, single-file, through the turn-style and meet, individually, with the control officer. The ticket attendant would then scan the barcode on our paper copy or our smartphone before letting us in.

It started out a large crowd—a mass of people walking together across the cordoned-off streets, parking lots and plazas like a tsunami racing towards the stadium. But then it eventually, ultimately, bottle-necked to one person at a time through the gate.

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It was my first time at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan. At game time it is probably the largest gathering of Canadians I will ever see together in one place—some thirty-thousand mostly screaming Rough Rider fans cheering their beloved football team. In all, watching that game in the stands was for me an exercise in social conformity, or fighting against it.

However, each football fan, regardless of our stripe, had to pass one-at-a-time through the entrance gate. In places where lots of people normally gather, whether it be the security line at the airport or the gate into a sporting event, each of us has to make a reckoning, an accounting.

And it can cause some anxiety, some fear. It does for me. Even though this fear is largely irrational. After all, I have my ticket. I purchased it. I have every right to be there.

And yet, that moment of passing through the gate has a kind of self-consciousness attributed to it. The spotlight now falls on me, not us as a whole. I have to put myself on the line. I can’t be anonymous any longer, melting into the perceived security of the crowd. I have to stand out, be vulnerable, if but for a moment.

Thanksgiving is about doing. It’s already a word constructed for doing something. It is ‘giving’ something, an action word: Thanks-giving. That is why we practice today. We bring food to the altar—our gifts—that will then be given to a world in need.

But doing something in our practice of faith is risky. We put ourselves on the line. We have to make a move. Declare ourselves. Make an account for ourselves. Thanksgiving has to mean something personal to each of us, individually and perhaps differently.

My mother tells the story of her home church in Poland when she was a child. Every Sunday morning during the gathering of the gifts, everyone would line up and go single-file to the altar to deposit their offering. In front of everyone to see!

For fifteen chapters in Deuteronomy (11-26), Moses gives the Lord’s instruction to the people of Israel upon arriving in the Promised Land. In the Hebrew text assigned for Thanksgiving this year, we read the first section of the concluding, last chapter (26:1-11), in this long oration.

In looking at the translated words into English we can’t see the distinction between singular and plural. In other words we can’t tell whether Moses calls the people into faithful commitment together or individually. But in the Hebrew language you would notice the distinction. So, while the early chapters in Moses’ speech are predominantly addressed to the community—as the verbs are in the plural—in chapter 26 the writer has noticeably shifted to singular verbs and personal pronouns.

In our pilgrimage of faith, there are times we have to walk by ourselves. When we can’t hide behind options any longer. When we can’t melt into the crowd. And simply observe. When we can’t be an anonymous fan any longer. When we can’t find excuses nor justifications for not doing anything about something we know needs some doing. When we can’t just be spectators any longer.

We have to go through the gate ourselves. Individually. We have to participate, and get into the arena of life and make some moves, some waves.

It’s scary to do so. To take a risk. We may not have done this kind of thing before. Because we know that in doing something for our faith, anything, we will likely make a mistake or two. It may not be pretty. In fact it may be downright messy for a while. We may at times fail, as in trying different things, things we’ve never done before—Christians have never done before—in mission with others.

The ticket we hold in our hands represents our efforts, our attempts at giving something of what we have—to show the attendant at the gate. At Thanksgiving, not every one of us may feel thankful, especially if you are going through some grief. So then, let your tears be the ‘ticket’ you bring. The ticket an also represent your financial gift, or your volunteer hours, or your gift of expertise knowledge or skills that you offer. Wherever you are at, whatever you have, you bring to the altar and lay it down.

Maybe the irrational fear we have (all fear is irrational) suggests that the ticket is not good enough, that somehow it will not register, that we will be turned away and denied the experience of what we have come to celebrate.

The ticket we bring may be for the cheapest seats high up in the nosebleeds. However we may have acquired our ticket, or whatever its value, we may suffer the anxiety of thinking it is all up to us. That our entrance fee is based on “I deserve it,” or, “I earned it”, or “I accomplished this.”

The risk of doing something brings both the pinch of vulnerability and the fulfilment of the promise. The pinch of vulnerability because in exposing our hearts we realize it’s not all perfect with us. In truth, we must acknowledge we do not do it on our own. We are limited. We are also weak. And, for a moment, this awareness—this confession—hurts.

But the ticket was already purchased. Weeks ago. Months ago. The moment we cross by the gate is after-the-fact. Our participation in the party is already guaranteed. And nothing can change that. The justification for our being there had been already long ago determined. The moment we must make an accounting of ourselves, the moment of fear and uncertainty, is also the moment we celebrate something already accomplished.

By Another. For us.

Thanks be to God!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Meeting the unexpected

On New Year’s Eve, the roadway was completely covered in snow. All I could see in the waning light of day was the general shape of the roadbed curving slightly to the right in front of me.

I couldn’t see the customary yellow and white lines on the pavement to guide me. There were no tracks left in the snow of cars gone down this way recently. The snowfall was fresh and the road was not well-travelled.

I could control my speed, of course, but I didn’t have a lot to go on. Would I get home in one piece? First, I had to slow down. And even be prepared to stop.

The Magi were on a journey to arrive at the home of the young Christ child. Christmas cards and the popular mindset show the Magi at the baby Jesus’ side on the night he was born. But that is likely not the case.

The Gospel of Matthew indicates the Magi visited the holy family’s “house” in Bethlehem, hardly a description of a cave or stable for animals.[1]The Gospel of Luke, from which we read the birth narrative on Christmas Eve, does not mention the Magi.

The Magi were on a journey that took months if not years to accomplish. Their journey took time. Their coming to Jesus, so to speak, was not an immediate, instant, snap-of-the-fingers conversion. Their experience was slow, plodding and winding course across the deserts of the Middle East. On their journey to find Jesus, they had to have the long-view in mind. A whole lot of determination. And a commitment to the journey with all its fits and starts.

I also get the impression, reading through these verses from Matthew, that the Magi who were nearing the end of their long journey had to make in-the-moment changes to their plans. They had to check their assumptions and change their minds about initial expectations.

For example, at least half the Gospel text for today focuses on Herod. Initially, the Magi came to him in good faith, believing the Roman governor would sincerely help them. But an angel of the Lord had to steer them away, literally by a different road, and from Herod’s manipulating, plotting, fear-ridden treachery. The Magi had to trust ‘new information’ and make changes to their flight plan in mid-stream.

Then, the gifts. Three gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. In biblical times, these gifts were usually given to a king or a person with highest status. Gold was such a gift. From the Hebrew scriptures, when The Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon she gave him precious gifts: “Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan – with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones” (1 Kings 10:2). The spices that she brought with her might very well have been frankincense and myrrh.

The gifts themselves are a powerful sign of what these visitors originally intended. The Magi were coming a long way to worship who they considered the true King. Not Herod. Not Rome. But the divine Son of God.

And, still, not what they expected.

The meaning of these gifts needs to be examined in light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For us, what is ‘kingship’ in light of Christ—certainly not what we might first assume: glory, power, military strength and victory. Jesus’ journey took him through the defeat and humiliation of the cross. That’s the kind of kingship Jesus is about.

Myrrh represented healing. Healing in the light of Christ was not so much about an instant cure to earthly disease. But rather, healing is a transformation of the inner life of our attitudes and finding wholeness and grace in every moment of life, especially in the midst of suffering and pain. The king whom the Magi came to worship was a king who, in truth, represented values and meaning that countered—were at odds with—the values of the world.

And that is why this story starts the season of Epiphany in the church. Epiphany means, Revelation. The baby Jesus is revealed as the Son of God who shows us the way of God—God’s path of transformation and salvation. The season of Epiphany invites us to participatein this way. Participating in this journey asks us, like the first Magi, to be prepared to change course and examine our standing assumptions about God and the world.

It’s the manner in which the truth is revealed that ought to catch our attention in the biblical story. And this way is both apparent by what these three gifts mean, and by the expectations we first bring to this story.

For example: We assume and even say ‘it’s biblical’ that there were three men and they were three kings. But that’s not what the bible says. For all we know, there could have been a whole caravan of them. And what if some were women?

Although we sing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,”, these visitors from the East were also not kings. The term Magi is a plural form of a word in Greek which means, literally, Zoroastrian priests.[2]And, maybe they earned the title ‘wise’ because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology.

It’s as if the proverbial rug first needs to be pulled from underneath us before the truth is revealed. We don’t come to it straight on. Our expectations first need to be checked, and likely over time, over turned.

Once on New Year’s Eve when driving down a country road covered in snow in the middle of a blinding snow storm I thought I was driving in the middle of the road. I figured I best check that assumption. Thank God I did.

In a moment no other vehicle was passing, I stopped and opened the driver’s side door. With my boot, I scraped away the fluffy blanket of snow believing I would find the dark asphalt of the road and maybe even a lane marker painted on the hard top.

To my horror, I turned over stones and gravel, indicating I was already on the shoulder of the road. Had I not stopped at that moment, my vehicle was heading in the direction of the deep ditch on the side of the road.

Thank God, I had it in my mind to stop when I did, and scratch the surface of my belief. Then, I was able to change course.

The star finally stopped over Bethlehem, showing the Wise Ones where the destination of their journey lay. At this sign, “they were overwhelmed with joy.”[3]Arriving home in one piece from driving in less-than-ideal road conditions gave me a sense of joy. The joy comes because of the journey, maybe because the journey was difficult. Maybe because the journey called forth the best from you, to meet the challenges and make headway despite the journey’s challenges, pain and suffering.

The amazing thing is that God somehow brought the Magi–the Wise Ones–to the exact location of their hopes and dreams. Perhaps not what they expected at first. But this gift they surely recognized.

Here are some questions for reflection as we enter this new season after the Epiphany: What was the most important gift you received this holiday season? Did you expect it? Why is it important? How did you receive it?

God has given us the greatest gift in Jesus. Where we find him will be shown to us, on the journey. This grace continues throughout our lives.

May our trust grow in a God who has this uncanny ability to trust and have faith in us to get home. Let us pray: God, you led the Wise Ones by a star to find the Christ child. Lead us as we strive to follow you in living our faith. No matter how long it takes. No matter how winding the journey. Help us trust your promise to bring us home. Amen.

 

[1]Matthew 2:11

[2]Niveen Sarras, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12”, http://www.workingpreacher.org

[3]Matthew 2:10

Surprise ending

The Arnprior Rapids were destined to lose. If you asked me, midseason, to write the history of the 2017 Fall season of the Lanark-Renfrew Highschool Football League, it would sound completely different than it actually turned out in the end.

After playing five games, the Rapid’s opponent, the Almonte Thunderbolts, was undefeated. What is more, in all their games they did not have one single point scored against them. They were that good. By all counts, they were destined to be the League’s champion.

When a couple of weeks ago Almonte faced its arch rival and 2nd place Arnprior Rapids in the final championship game, many – even the players themselves deep down – felt this was a pointless exercise. Why bother even playing the game? Because the last time these two teams clashed Almonte thrashed Arnprior 40-0. And the time before that, 24-0.

So, you tell me. What will the history books have said about the outcome?

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These kids are learning an important life skill. Because as is often the case throughout life when things happen, it is easy to focus on what is wrong, what seems impossible, what appears a waste of time and energy. And give up.

Over the past several weeks, we have been reading some parables of Jesus recorded in the latter chapters of the Gospel of Matthew.[1]

These apocalyptic[2] parables sound somewhat harsh towards the human project: It seems human beings cannot help but eventually get it all wrong, whether it be the wicked tenants, the foolish bridesmaids or, as in today’s parable, the fearful investor.[3]

What is more, you get the feeling that the line between doing the right thing and the wrong thing is awfully thin. Even those that do get it right in Jesus’ telling are not that much different from those who get it all wrong – those who are doomed to the hell fires “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”[4] In short, there is a heavy, dark pall of negativity hanging over these stories.

It’s hard to remain enthusiastic about a life of faith when presented with these doom-and-gloom scenarios. It’s easier to become more fearful than hopeful.

When reading from this section in Matthew, I think we need to be mindful of the context of Jesus’ storytelling. We need to remember that Jesus told these stories while he was heading right into the middle of his own personal, high-risk venture, which led to arrest, torture, suffering and horrible death.

That is, he had decided to leave the relative safety of rural Galilee and head to Jerusalem, the capital city, where the authorities would regard Jesus as “a threat to the status quo and their own power.” The Romans would regard him as a “disturber of the peace” and condemn him to capital punishment on the Cross.[5]

We have the benefit of hindsight to help us better interpret these challenging parables. That is, because of the new life given to Jesus on Easter morning, we can now believe in resurrection, which is the end game of all of history. The benefit of Christ-faith is the hope and promise we discover on the other side of risk-taking, of losing, of failing and of taking responsibility. All the things that make us human.

Despite what may look impossible, a sure failure, a likely defeat and a waste of time and energy, this parable today encourages us to take heart and simply put our gifts, our talents on the line.

The sin described here is the sin of not risking anything, of not caring, not investing, of playing it safe and being overly cautious with what we have been given.

Whatever we have, “each according to their ability”[6], even if it’s only one, measly, tiny “talent” – when we risk giving it away to the world, allowing it to engage the world with positive intent, only then can good things happen. There are no guarantees good things will happen. But then again, we wouldn’t know unless we try. And take the risk.

But it’s well worth it! Because one talent is neither measly, neither is it tiny. One talent, according to some interpreters, was worth fifteen years wages or $1.25 million in today’s valuation. Just imagine the wealth of the entire property of the master who was placing it all in the care of his stewards.

Let’s take that to be God and us. When we can first appreciate all that wealth and riches that God has given us, and can begin to acknowledge the great faithfulness of God to entrust all that is God’s to us … now that’s something special about the God we worship. What a great joy! What a great responsibility!

In the end, this parable is not about money, essentially. Because even if the first two stewards who invested the little that was given them lost all that they invested on the market, Jesus would still have applauded them for trying. The attitude of risk-taking and putting it all on the line is the important thing, not the results of their monetary investment.

And then, when you try despite the odds stacked against you, you never know. How resurrection happens, and when, in the context of our own lives, will be a surprise.

When the Arnprior Rapids faced off against their arch rivals, the Almonte Thunderbolts in the Lanark-Renfrew Highschool Football League championship game, it was truly a David and Goliath show-down. The end looked bleak for Arnprior.

By all counts, Almonte should have won that game.

But, life is full of surprises. God is full of surprises. We can never know for sure what unexpected things await us when we put ourselves out there and invest our gifts on the playing field of life.

Not only did Arnprior score two touchdowns in the game – thus breaking Almonte’s bid for a clean sheet season – Arnprior did not allow a single point scored against them.

History is being written anew.

[1] Matthew 25:1-13, Matthew 22:1-14, Matthew 21:33-46; a parable is simply a fictional story Jesus tells to reflect some truth

[2] when the ‘end time’ promises of God are fulfilled

[3] Matthew 25:14-30

[4] Matthew 25:30

[5] John M. Buchanan in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 4” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.308

[6] Matthew 25:15

To see beyond, and go deep

“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

We had a problem. In this perfectly finished renovation, something was not right. The microphone jack, on the floor in front of the pulpit here, was not working.

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How could this be? Everything was designed and installed as it should be. And yet, something had gone awry. The prognosis was not good. How could it be fixed, without tearing up the carpet, pulling off the baseboard and cutting into the drywall to find out exactly where the wire was shorting out?

For this problem to present months and years from now would be one thing. But to discover this problem in the first week or so back into our ‘new’ space. Uh-oh.

And yet, as you can see and hopefully hear today, it is working. And, as you can see, the carpet has not been ripped and there are no pieces of drywall cut and patched up. How was this problem solved? How were we saved from doom and destruction?

I will say this: For Brian who discovered the problem, it caused him some serious stress, at first. ‘Despair’ might be a word that comes close to describing his feeling, for someone who had already spent hours and hours of his time and energy and resources in the entire renovation project over the last several months.

All that you can see now is a tiny hole on the baseboard no larger than the size of a dime, just above the carpet line on the other side of the chancel. That’s all. A tiny hole, that doesn’t really reveal the depth and breadth of how the problem was solved.

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Apparently, a finishing nail had been shot into the wire from outside during the renovation. Unbeknownst to the worker strapping on the the siding, one of the nails embedded into the wire, thus shorting it out. It was, for Brian, a question of finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.

He employed the material resources at his disposal and years of experience in engineering and computer sciences. He brought in an oscilloscope to measure the current, and his infra-red camera, which he ran along the presumed route of the hidden wire. These instruments disclosed an abnormal, irregular heat signature which spiked at the spot of the short-out. From there, it was merely the task to go in with surgical precision, and remove the offending nail. And voila! The microphone now works!

This is definitely a feel-good story with a good ending. Especially because at first, it didn’t look good. It would have been easy to give up, to remain in despair and not do anything about it. And live with, and remain stuck in, some unhappy, dysfunctional space.

The Gospel story about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-42) has a feel-good ending, at least from the point of view of the woman. She starts by being defensive and confrontational — not seeing nor recognizing Jesus for who this man truly is. She leaves the encounter with Jesus, joyous, liberated, un-inhibited, free.

The story reveals God’s character in Jesus. To emphasize the point the Gospel writer John wishes to make about God’s character, John places this story immediately after Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in the previous chapter. Let’s compare briefly the two encounters:

For one thing, Nicodemus has a name. The woman is nameless. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and as such has status, authority and privilege in the social-religious culture of the day. The woman is a Samaritan with whom the Jewish authorities were in conflict. Nicodemus lived in a male-dominated society. The nameless, Samaritan woman is a nobody.

Jesus takes the initiative to cross the boundaries of geography, culture and prejudice to speak with the woman. And not only that, to draw from her the truth, and then empower her to be a missionary for the kingdom of God. The encounter with Jesus transforms her from a nobody to a somebody.

As the dialogue at the well comes to a close, the woman is filled with joy. She is so energized with passion and hope that she “left her water jar and went back into the city” (v.28). We now can see what is not immediately apparent. We can complete the sentence when the Samaritan woman exclaims: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” … and loved me anyway! She does not say these last four words at the end of verse 29, but they are implicit in her action and in the joy with which she runs.

“Everything she ever did” is a long list of sins. It is always before her, in the judgemental expressions of her neighbours and in her mind for the rest of her life; she has had many husbands, and the one she is living with now is not. For Jesus to have intimate knowledge of that list and for him to know her past, and still love and forgive her — well that’s unbelievably new and fresh as anything she has ever heard. The man who told her everything she ever did … and loved her anyway … is what saves her life. (1)

A caution: Her sin is not the main point in the story. (2) While Jesus’ offer of forgiveness is implied in the dialogue, the text itself says nothing of any sin she has committed (as we see elsewhere in the Gospel, for example, John 8:1-11); nor does Jesus ever actually say words of forgiveness to her.

The focus here is not sin. It is rather in the character of God, and the liberating result of a gracious, truth telling encounter with Jesus. In that moment, the woman sees God. She receives Christ — and leaps up to tell.

Would you? When Paul talks about suffering in his letter to the Romans (cited above) he is encouraging the faithful to see beyond their present, often difficult circumstances to the hope we have in Christ. Indeed our society’s values can make us feel, and keep us trapped in believing, we are nothing:

If we don’t have significant financial resources stored away in investments, bank accounts and property; if we don’t have that ‘perfect’ life, secure in our fortress worlds of private privilege and comfort; if we don’t have the perfect-looking body, the disease-free physiology, the magnetic, people-pleasing personality; if we don’t have the high-paying job, the investment-rich retirement plan; if we don’t measure up … the list goes on. The values of society make us feel like nobody.

And yet, Christ comes to remind us that we have everything we need to get through it, and more! We just need to see beyond what is immediately apparent. Jesus breaks all those boundaries of division and exclusion, casting aside our pretence and our cloudy vision. Jesus doesn’t pay attention to what society says is valuable or not valuable. Jesus comes to each and every one of us and says: “Look deeper. I know everything there is about you, and I love you anyway!”

So, what do you have to lose? Take the risk, and do something to make things better in your life, and those around you. Make the hole in that spot you may not be sure about because it’s not visible on the surface of things. And then trust what God has given to you already — the resources at your disposal, the unique gift of your very life, your talents, treasures and time — is worthy of using! And go for it!

Because God will love you anyway.

 

1 — Anna Carter Florence in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 2 (Lousville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.97

2 — Karoline M. Lewis in ibid., p.95

Why? To melt hearts of stone

In a typical Canadian winter at this time of year, salt and light (Matthew 5:13-20), of course, serve a particular purpose.

It doesn’t matter how cold it can still get in February, if the sun is shining then the snow and ice will melt under the strengthening, radiant beams of warm light. And, with the occasional freezing rain still in the offing, that bag of salt sitting on the porch or in the garage can come in handy, to sprinkle on the walkways and driveways — to melt the ice.

Salt and light, in any given context, serves a specific purpose. I can remember when the kids were younger, one of ours had the habit of picking anything and everything up off the ground and putting it in her mouth.

I can remember needing to intervene when she was in her exploratory mode, walking down the sidewalk in the middle of winter. “Don’t eat it! That is road salt, dear. Not table salt.”

We are called to be like salt and light in the world. But that gift will serve a specific purpose, according to the context and circumstance of our lives.

How can we know what that gift is, and for what purpose it serves? It can be challenging to claim that gift for our lives, and then have the courage to use it. This can be difficult because the world and the dominant powers of culture may not support it. The gift and purpose may seem small in comparison to the dominant climate of coldness, hatred and violence so prevalent in the culture today.

Julian of Norwich in her first of Divine Revelations writes about the small hazelnut. She writes, that God “showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand …. I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.”

It may seem pallid at first, even pointless. But there is power in small. Ezekiel writes, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you …” (Ezekiel 11:19;36:26-27).

In words that may make better sense in our Canadian winter, God is promising us that God will melt our hearts of stone-cold bitterness, resentment, fear and hatred. And put the warmth of God’s light in Christ and the loving power of the Spirit to change our lives, and the world around us.

Salt and light are gifts that are subtle and small, yes, similar to the smallness of the hazelnut. And yet, these are gifts you cannot easily hide. Nor will they go away. They are public gifts, not private, in scope. They affect the whole experience of living.

You cannot add salt to soup, and not notice a difference. You cannot throw ice-melter on the driveway, and not notice some change on the ground. You cannot stop the sun from shining, and not stop the smile that comes on a sunny day after weeks of dark, grey, cloudy existence.

Faith Lutheran has a renovated gift, the gift of a safe and modernized building — a gift, yes. But why will it be used? How will our (Faith Lutheran’s) soon return to that site on 43 Meadowlands Drive restore something that was missing in the neighbourhood while we were here (at Julian)? Or, does it? What difference does that gift make to the world around us?

Our gift has a purpose. And that purpose is meant to catch the attention of a world that is shrouded in cloudy days and numbed to the slippery vices of distraction, delusion and fear.

Why is this important? How is it worthwhile? In an age when the church in North America is facing challenge and change, perhaps it is time again to focus on the WHY. It has been argued that people don’t buy-in to the WHAT we do but the WHY we do it. (1)

We need to be clear about that. The only way we can know WHAT do do with our faith, the church and our buildings is first to claim, embrace and communicate clearly the WHY of our faith. The WHY.

In the aftermath of the tragic violence in Quebec last weekend, the premier challenged his province, indeed our whole society, to reflect and consider again how we treat one another in a culturally diverse community. How we treat one another through the changes and stresses of life that can be disruptive. How we treat one another who are different and come from different walks of life, religious experience and ethnic diversity.

Observing how we do what we do may also give us a clue to the WHY. I believe the church has a lot to offer this world of ours, as salt and light. St. Paul encourages the fledgling, conflict-ridden Corinthian church to claim their identity they already have, in Jesus: “We have the mind of Christ,” he concludes (1 Corinthians 2:16). And Jesus, in short, came to show the love and grace of God to a world so hung up on achieving, earning, competing, judging, proving themselves, excluding others and fighting.

I believe the church has a lot to offer this world. To reflect Christ, the light of the world: to receive the love of God, to accept the love of God, and then demonstrate that compassion and love to the world. It is behind everything we do in the church. Everything. Let’s not forget that.

To melt hearts of stone.
(1) Simon Sinek, “Start With Why” (New York: Penguin, 2009), p.58

Children’s Sermon – different gifts, same Body

I bring my bright, neon-green hard shell suitcase on rollers to show the children. On the handle, dangles a baggage tag. On one side of the tag I write my name and address. On the other side of the tag I write the the words: “You don’t belong to me!”

“When you go on a trip far away from home, or stay overnight at a friend’s place or your grandparent’s house — do you pack a suitcase?”

“What colour is yours? What does it look like? Is it small? Is it big? Is there a design or picture on the front of it? Does it have a handle, or roll on wheels?”

“I have this one because it is easy to spot at the baggage claim in the airport — when all the suitcases fall on a conveyor belt and go around a concourse where air travellers stand and look for their own to pick up. Most suitcases are dark-coloured, so it’s harder to spot your own from afar if it is black or brown or dark green. Sometimes, just to make sure, you have to read the tag as it goes by. If you don’t, you might walk away with someone else’s suitcase, or someone may walk away with yours!”

“That’s why on this tag I wrote these words — can anyone read it out loud? What does it say?” …..

“‘You don’t belong to me!’ Leave me be! Leave me alone! – that’s what I want to tell anyone trying to take my suitcase, even by mistake!” 

“Thankfully, we are not suitcases. We are people. And people can stand out and be bright and noticeable. They can be big. They can be small. Some have a hard shell, others not so much! … All these differences make us who we are, make us interesting, make us individuals. And this is good! This is how God made us.”

“We live in a world that wants to tell us: ‘You don’t belong!’ — even our friends can be nasty sometimes and say things to us that make us feel like we don’t belong to them or anyone else. When we make mistakes, our teachers, our parents, the police can make us feel like we don’t belong. The world makes us feel like we are not good enough the way we are — that we have to be like someone else.”

“But being part of God’s family, we belong! Each and every one of us, no matter how different we are — what we think, how we look, what we can do or not do, even when we make a mistake or feel sad or happy — we belong to God and to each other. Like part of a body, every member is different and has a different use; yet, we belong to the same body.”

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ –1 Corinthians 12:12

“Thank you Jesus, for making me a part of your Body, the church. Help us to care for everyone, and value their gifts. Amen.”

Working for the public good

Ever so often in the lectionary a text comes to us, a text that I find particularly relevant for us today in the Christian church. On this Second Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C (Revised Common Lectionary) the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians shines a bright light on the church. And specifically on how we use our ‘gifts’ (1 Corinthians 12:1-11). 

This is the first Sunday in the calendar year that is ‘ordinary’ and liturgically coloured green — as during the long season after Pentecost in the summer when the focus is on the Holy Spirit’s activity in the lives of the faithful. During that time we read and reflect on how believers grow in the Spirit and expand the mission of God across the globe. 

It is fitting, at this start, to read those words of St Paul: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:4-6)

In George R.R Martin’s epic “A Game of Thrones” story, we witness the power struggles of several families vying for the throne in the fantasy kingdom of Westeros. The Lannister family is by far the current play-maker and leader of the pack. They have placed their caliph on the throne and fight tooth-and-nail to defend his reign.

In a scene early in the story when we first meet the father Lannister, Tywin, he speaks to his son Jaime who killed the former king according to their nefarious plans, and consequently now carries the reputation in the land as the ‘kingslayer’. Jaime has an inflated ego and often brandishes his glorious abilities with the sword and swagger.

But Tywin puts him in his place. The father, not incapable and unwilling himself to acts of betrayal and murder to achieve his ends, places their actions in a much larger context:

He says there were Lannisters that came before us, and there will be Lannisters that come after us. He brings Jaime down a notch or two not to dissuade him from ruthless means, but only to remind him that what they do is not merely to satisfy personal ego needs and compulsions. What they do is not just for the sake of private glory or personal gain. They have to keep the long view in mind to ensure the Lannister name lives on successfully beyond the confines of any individual Lannister’s life span.

This is a grim story that reveals the dark underside of human nature and enterprise. To flip it, however, would be to suggest something for the benefit of any human organization, including — and especially — the church.  

The current Pope Francis is known to have critiqued his own church for being far too ‘self-referential’ in matters of faith and practice. That is to say, the problem exists whenever we rely solely on ourselves; and, whenever we express our gifts, our opinions, our actions and decisions solely from the perspective of our own needs. That is, we act and speak out of our own, limited, life experiences without first thinking of what may exist beyond the boundaries of our own life. We can be so wrapped up in our private lives that we lose the value of the public good. We do things first to meet our own needs, rather than consider the needs of those we don’t yet know.

To a degree, admittedly, being self-referential is impossible to avoid completely. We cannot deny ourselves. Nevertheless, in our individualistic, narcissistic culture that is so rooted in me-first and what’s-in-it-for me economics and social order, we are particularly prone to this disease of the heart.  

Christianity is not a religion of Lone Rangers. Rather than nurturing a purely private ecstasy, the gifts of God are given in order to build up the church — not merely for our own pleasure and use, and for the span of our lives. The gifts of God are intended to be “publicly communicable, publicly shared, and publicly enjoyed” (1)  beyond our individual lives. In other words, we know and believe “the end” is beyond us. 

What would it look like if we started by trying to be ‘other-referential’? If we started by considering the other, first, what the Goal is, and work backwards from there — from the outside-in, from the future-vision to the present reality? 

In the introduction to Paul’s famous credal words from Philippians 2, he writes: “Let each of us look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus …” (4-5)
A pastor in today’s world, I see myself more and more as working for the public good in everything I do. Meaning, I surround whatever ministry activity I do with awareness and prayer for God’s Spirit in and around me and in others in and beyond the walls of the church, and for the sake of God’s mission (not mine own!) on earth. I try to appreciate the diversity of people in the variety of gifts expressed as valuable in some way to this overall, expanding mission of God.

All of us here receive gifts from God, not just an elite few. The Christian life and ministry are not the private, personal property of an exclusive class of spiritual superheroes. The Spirit is part of the life of every person who is in Christ. It is therefore incumbent on us to encourage each other to work together to find out what those gifts are, and how we can use them for the common, public good.

(1) Lee C. Barrett in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word” Year C Volume 1, WJK Press Kentucky, 2009, p.258

An Epiphany reflection

Two kings stand amid the sand dunes under the star speckled desert sky dressed in their regal attire. Their camels peer over their shoulders at the third ‘wise man’ holding the hand of Frankenstein. Yes, Frankenstein. 

The two confront the third, pointing accusatory fingers at what they do not understand: “Right, we’ve picked up the gold and the myrrh … What on earth is THAT?!”

We know the story (Matthew 2) of the magi who visited the infant Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yes, frankincense. 

We might have an idea of what gold is. But frankincense and myrrh? Basically, these are fragrant spices. But they are not the kind of gifts we would normally give anyone today, let alone a king or queen, president or prime minister. Because we are not familiar with these kinds of gifts, we get tripped up over the words and confuse them with other things. Today we know more about Frankenstein than we do about frankincense. Yet, in Jesus’ day, these were very special gifts.

Let me show you a gift I received this Christmas season. It is three bars of hand-made soap. One of the bars of soap actually has gold flecks in it, as well as frankincense and myrrh essential oils. It is called the “Gift of the Magi Soap”. I suppose there are other things about this gift that can remind me of God, the Christmas story, and the reason Jesus came to the world. 

For example, three bars of soap stand for the Trinity: God is the Father who created everything and everyone; Jesus is the Son who came to wash us clean from our sin; and the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to be the people God has called us to be — to love and care for all people. Of course, the three bars also remind me of the three wise men bearing their special gifts for the baby Jesus.

These days, we will not bring frankincense or myrrh to give to Jesus. Some may bring gold. But the point is not what kind of gift it is. It is that we are willing to bring something special from our own lives to give back to God. It is our offering, whatever it is — our love, our passions, our money, our time, our talents. Maybe even myrrh and frankincense, who knows? 

In this new year, let’s spend some time first thinking about what we can give to God. And then do it. We don’t need to be kings, queens, presidents or prime ministers to give anything of value to Jesus. Because in our baptism we are all princes and princesses in God’s kingdom. And, because our various gifts are important to Jesus and his mission on earth today.

Lift, and open the gates!

I reacted with sadness and sympathy looking at the photo of my friend’s dog whose entire face, chest and front legs were pierced with dozens — maybe even hundreds — of the sharp quills of a porcupine.
The photo was taken of the dog in the back of the car on the way to the vet, and she seemed stable enough — like the look of someone who knows they’ve been stung and know they just need to hold it together for a bit longer.

I felt sorry for that dog because it was simply being true to its nature — maybe motivated by a natural impulse to be friendly and play with another creature. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always yield the desired results in relationships. Often, expressions of love and care are misunderstood. And the response can sting — just like this poor dog! I wonder if this dog will ever approach another porcupine again with such exuberance. 

On All Saints Sunday, Christians remember not only those who have gone before us who now taste and see the glory of God in eternity. We also reflect on the “communion of saints” on earth. And, like we did last Sunday during the celebration of the Reformation, we ask the good question: Who are we? Who are the saints? What qualifies a Christian for sainthood, beginning in this life?

Psalm 24 may suggest that no one living can belong to this glorious, virtuous group of people. Only those with clean hands and pure hearts who do not swear deceitfully (v.4) can qualify. A sharp tone of exclusivity rings throughout our tradition. Since I am not good enough, and will never be good enough, I have nothing good to offer. And so I will grovel in the dirt, turned in on myself and my sins.

Such negativity dominates our way of life. We don’t see abundance, we see scarcity. We don’t see forgiveness of sins as much as we love to talk about and dwell on our sinfulness. We don’t see the good, we see the bad. It’s a dangerous world out there, after all, and so we need to build closed, protective fortresses around us. And therefore, we get stuck in a self-centred, self-inhibiting style of life. Who am I to be able to offer anything of value? Let alone be counted among the saints?!

The bible’s poetry, today from the Psalms, offers insight into this problem. The Scriptures reveal a way of emphasizing what is important. Really important. We see this method most in the Hebrew scriptures — the Old Testament Psalms and prophets: Repetition.

Repetition of words and phrases underscores a sense of urgency or jubilation. In the Psalm for today — 24 — certain phrases are repeated. The context is a massive procession coming up the road to Jerusalem; God is returning to the temple being restored in the city of God. 

And as the people ascend to the walls, the cry goes out not once (v.7-10), but several times: “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” (x2) The general image of ‘lifting up’, in fact appears almost half a dozen times in this short Psalm. What emphasis is being sought by the Psalmist, here?

The insistence of lifting up the gates mounts beyond the request to raise the gate just high enough, or the doors just wide enough, for the King of glory to enter and then to be slammed shut in the face of the others in the procession. Rather, the intent is for the gates to be raised so high above the walls that they will never need to be shut again. The intent is for the doors to be flung off their hinges, in order that the seekers and followers of the Lamb may follow him, redeemed and welcomed, into the courts of God. (1)

“The barriers to paradise, like the stone rolled away from the empty tomb in the garden, have been pushed aside to give us unfettered access to behold the smiling face of a gracious and accepting God, whose mercy, rather than our own merits, enables us to pass through the open door.”

We need to remember and appreciate who our King of glory is: A man, named Jesus, who encountered in his short life on earth all that we must endure and suffer. Our God is a God who became one of us in order to fully appreciate our own station in life. God understands our human weaknesses, suffers and endures with us on the road up to Jerusalem, and longs to welcome us into the divine presence. 

Ours is a God who bears the scars and wounds of crucifixion, even in his resurrected form. God is one who identifies with us seekers and wanderers who bear the scars of life, the woundedness of sin — and yet who long for something more: a deeper communion with God and the saintly procession going to Jerusalem together.

If we want to know God, we must know and accept ourselves; if we want to accept ourselves, we must know and accept God. Who are we? Well, perhaps we first need to ask: Who is God? Clean hands, a pure heart, a humble spirit, integrity and honesty — these are infinitely more difficult and subtle a list of characteristics suggested by this Psalm than the mandates against theft and adultery and the taking of another life (as in the Ten Commandments).

The qualifiers for sainthood are not a cut and dry check list easily accomplished like completing a shopping list. Rather, the qualifiers for sainthood are worked out in a life-long journey and sometimes seesaw struggle with the One who despite bearing the scars of suffering is the only One with clean hands and a pure heart.

Who are we? Well, then, Who is God? In Jesus, God is the One who welcomes us all into the holy city, whose cry goes out to lift up those gates — I mean, really lift up those gates — forever — in order to let in that whole procession of rag-tag, diverse, wounded, broken followers!

Knowing who we are, appreciating fully the grace and acceptance of us by a God who knows us, what do we have to lose? We can offer what little and what much we have to help others. We can use the gifts we have been given for the sake of the other, and with others, on this journey. We don’t have to be afraid. We can take the risk to reach out — not worried about the results but only convinced of the value of what we do.

Whether we have been stung by the quills of disappointment; whether we have been hurt by the failures of our lives; whether we have been weighted down by the pressures of performance in work and play; whether we endure the pain of physical, mental, emotional illness; whether we grieve through the losses of life — we are still on the way! And will always be!

The highlight for me during the clerics cycling challenge (clericchallenge.com) was the finish line, when we all crossed together. This experience symbolized for me what the culture of Christian community ought to feel like and be like.

   
 We are part of a holy procession led by the King of Glory whose destination is sure. We have nothing to lose. If God’s grace is extended even to the generation of seekers (v.6), then we have nothing to lose. If what we are about is not a competition, then we have nothing to lose. If we don’t need to find fault in the other to prove our own self-worth, then we have nothing to lose. If it’s not about one-up-man-ship, then we can go for broke and not worry about it. If we don’t need to question who our Saviour is — who already accomplished for us our salvation — we don’t need to doubt our final destination. Then, why not share now what we have with others on this road?

All the saints on earth, despite the scars of life we bear, have gifts to share with other seekers on that journey. What gifts and blessings of God reflect in your life? In discerning this, remember: It’s not up to you alone! We don’t need to be perfect. We gain the gates not by our own merit or even hard work. Ours is the victory only because of the One for whose reason the gates are lifted in the first place.

Thanks be to God!
(1) — Michael Morgan in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. of “Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 4” Fortress Press, 2009, p.228

Santa is not God – the true gift

During Advent, the church has fasted. Not from food! Rather, we have refrained — tried to, at least, in our liturgies — from singing Christmas Carols. This was part of our preparation as we made room in our hearts by waiting and watching for the coming of Jesus.

But now, the wait is over! Christmas is a time for singing, a time for the carols. It is well to gorge on them now while they are plentiful, because it will be another year before we will sing them again.

Martin Luther, who loved Christmas, claimed that “music is a fair and glorious gift of God.” Music, he said, “makes people kinder, gentler, more staid and reasonable. The devil flees before the sound of music as much as before the Word of God” (from the foreword to the “Wittenburg Gesangbuch” (1524), Martin Luther’s hymnbook).

So, I would like you to ponder with me what is this ‘gift’ of Christmas so well expressed in the music of the season. I invite you to listen to lyrics from a couple of different popular, contemporary Christmas songs — that are normally not sung in church. But each of these songs have something to say to us about the gift of God at Christmas — the Gospel message about the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Let’s see if you can identify them. Listen first to the words that we’ve probably heard in shopping malls since shortly after Halloween. It’s pretty easy to guess this one …

“You better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town, yeah
Santa Claus is coming
Santa Claus is coming to town!”

(Answer: Santa Claus is Coming to Town)

How does this popular song reflect (or not) the nature of God’s gift and grace at Christmas? And I’ll give you a hint: God is NOT Santa Claus. Yes, both Santa and Jesus are coming at Christmas to a town near you. But that’s where the similarity stops. Why?

Does God make a list? Does God check it twice? Does God try to figure out who’s naughty and nice, in order to determine who get’s the gift of Jesus’ love and presence?

If you look at all the characters in the New Testament, characters that meet Jesus, starting with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the tax collectors, those fishermen disciples, women, lepers, outcasts …. do they deserve the gift? If Santa was making a list of who’s been naughty or nice, we’d probably have to exclude everyone in the bible!

“They were people who were considered taboo, contagious, disabled, dangerous or excluded for all kinds of reasons” (Richard Rohr, “Preparing for Christmas” Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 2008, p.56). They were poor, ordinary folk, whose sin, whose imperfection was visible, apparent. According to the message of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, they would have received a piece of coal in their stocking!

Santa is not God. The greatness of God’s gift is precisely because it is not conditional on our hard work to be ‘nice’. The greatest gift at Christmas is not something for which we must toil or earn by our hard work. But something that is given, that is already there, inside us!

Okay, time for the second song. Hear if you can recognize it by the lyrics; it tells a beautiful story …

“A poor orphan girl named Maria
Was walking to market one day
She stopped for a rest by the roadside
Where a bird with a broken wing lay
A few moments passed till she saw it
For it’s feathers were covered with sand
But soon clean and wrapped it was travelling
In the warmth of Maria’s small hand
She happily gave her last peso
On a cage made of rushes and twine
She fed it loose corn from the market
And watched it grow stronger with time
Now the Christmas Eve service was coming
And the church shone with tinsel and light
And all of the town folks brought presents
To lay by the manger that night
There were diamonds and incense
And perfumes
In packages fit for a king
But for one ragged bird in a small cage
Maria had nothing to bring
She waited till just before midnight
So no one would see her go in
And crying she knelt by the manger
For her gift was unworthy of Him
Then a voice spoke to her through the darkness
Maria, what brings you to me
If the bird in the cage is your offering
Open the door and let me see
Though she trembled, she did as He asked her
And out of the cage the bird flew
Soaring up into the rafters
On a wing that had healed good as new
Just then the midnight bells rang out
And the little bird started to sing
A song that no words could recapture
Whose beauty was fit for a king
Now Maria felt blessed just to listen
To that cascade of notes sweet and long
As her offerings was lifted to heaven
By the very first nightingale’s song.”

(Answer: Garth Brooks, “The Gift”)

The gift is an experience of grace, of something wonderful happening to us and in us and around us that is beyond our own efforts. All we need to do, is bring it forward, and offer what we have that is true to who we are — including our weaknesses, our limitations, our lowliness.

And God makes something beautiful out of our simple offering — the gift of our hearts, our minds, our hands. Like the healing of the bird, and its free song, it is a gift of pure love, a love that is shines unrelenting in the darkness and brokenness of our lives.

Last week at our children’s school concert, as is usual fair at these events, each class and grade goes on stage and presents a seasonal skit or song.

Near the end of the program, the audience was delighted to receive Ottawa singer-songwriter Craig Cardiff on stage with his guitar, surrounded by the grade 2-3 class. They danced and sang a simplified version of Craig’s popular song: “Love is Louder Than All the Noise”.

In the second verse, he writes:
“Was your messy heart chosen
or was it overlooked?
Are you the crazy in the corner,
writing it in your book?
A cynic with a cynic’s hook
waiting for the sky to fall?
Were you to be taken from me
by word by craft or by bomb
I would rage into an army
and bring you back with songs…
We said love is louder
than all this, all this noise.
Love is louder than all this noise.”

In the singing that we enjoy in this festive season, may our hearts, our minds and our hands sing loudest of the love of God. This greatest gift doesn’t come from our belief and ability to impress, nor from the resourcefulness of our own doing, nor from all the glitter and glamour.

The greatest gift of Christmas comes from a simple desire to love, and the openness of heart to be loved.