Impossible Questions: a sermon for Thanksgiving and Confirmation

In observing Jesus’ teaching style in this text (Matthew 6:24-34), indeed throughout the gospels, notice all the questions he asks.

Normally, you would think the student is the only one who asks questions of the teacher, not the other way around. Jesus, the Rabbi, or Teacher, asks questions to reinforce his point. In fact, Jesus is employing a technique he learned from the sages of Israel who came before him.

There are at least two kinds of questions employed by the wisdom writers of the Hebrew scriptures: The first, is the rhetorical type, the one with the obvious answer. The obvious answer is leading to either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

For example, “Can one walk on hot coals without scorching one’s feet?” (Proverbs 6:28); “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” (Proverbs 8:1)? To answer these questions, you don’t need to study the night before.

Now, Jesus’ teachings include some rhetorical questions, such as: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Matthew 7:9); “Is there anyone among you, who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” (Luke 11:11; Matthew 7:10); “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44). No brainer, right? Either yes or no.

We have a large three-panelled window at the front of our house. Recently we placed my reading chair beside it so I can enjoy the natural lighting and look outside. Periodically a bird would hit one of the side panels with a loud ‘thump’ and we would jump each time a bird slammed into it, offering a prayer for the poor bird’s well-being.

One day we noticed a good-sized crack making its way from the top corner of the centre panel. And we called in the window-guy. As he was removing the large centre panel window, he asked for my help. It wasn’t easy getting it out of the frame. Even with the vinyl strips removed we needed to do a lot of jimmying to get that frame out.

“This panel was installed too tightly,” he mused. “That may be the cause of the problem. Windows need to have some give, some space to move. Otherwise when something hits it, it’ll break.”

Rhetorical questions are like that window that have no give. Today, rhetorical questions don’t get much traction in meaningful conversation let alone as an effective teaching method. Like the window too tightly installed, there’s no wiggle room. Laced with presumption, rhetorical questions are often used as cheap shots in a fight: “Do you think I was going to say anything in response to that stupid thing you did?” “Duh! Isn’t it obvious you should not have done that?”

Rhetorical questions are also not very helpful in dealing with crises. When someone struggles, asking them rhetorical questions presumes ‘they should know better.’ I remember sitting in a church assembly years ago when the bishop forbade the use of rhetorical questions in the debate we were having.

Given the trouble associated with this style of asking questions, you can breathe a sigh of relief because–maybe you’ve already noticed– rhetorical questioning isn’t the type of question used in today’s text. But, don’t breathe too easily just yet. Because Jesus’ distinctive voice comes through more clearly in his “impossible questions.”[1]

His impossible questions made him a subversive teacher who often undercut the comfortable assumptions of his audience. His teaching and use of questions were more in the style of Ecclesiastes and Job, rather than the sunnier outlook of Proverbs. Some examples of impossible questions we see in Ecclesiastes and Job:

“How can the wise die just like the fools?” (Eccl 2:16); “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (Eccl 2:22); “Where is the way of the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (Job 38:19-20). Not so easy, these questions are, to answer. Even impossible, in light of reality for many people. Nothing neat and tidy about answers to these kinds of questions.

Impossible questions annoy and even anger people. Why? Because they make us scramble for answers and doubt our most basic assumptions. Who likes to do that? It’s easier to be fixed and unyielding with clear-cut proofs and rules. It’s easier to repel the questions with sure-fire answers. If we don’t yield or bend, however, we will crack under the pressure of our own doing and the challenges of life that come to us all.

  • “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27; Luke 9:25).
  • “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25).
  • “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34).
  • “If you love those who love you what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32)

Indeed, Jesus uses sayings that conform to traditional wisdom like the beatitudes and proverbs. But he uses them not to resolve conflicts of life but to heighten them. He uses them not to preserve the status quo, but to push the hearer to questions one’s own values and assumptions.

Not a very popular technique. No wonder the authorities got nervous and eventually did away with Jesus.

Questions are indeed indicators that learning can happen. Of course, just because we ask questions, or questions are asked of us, doesn’t mean we will respond positively to them. Just because we ask questions to which are provided answers, rhetorical or otherwise, doesn’t mean we will take the next step forward, ourselves, with our growth, healing and transformation.

We will likely stumble out of the gate. And continue to stumble on the path of life. And sometimes get stuck in the mud. But just because we can’t fathom how to emerge from the shackles of our own humanity, our own failings, our own weaknesses, doesn’t mean all is lost. Doesn’t mean the journey is not worth taking.

Jesus stirs the pot. And continues to do so. But because he believes in us. Because Jesus believes in our growth, in our transformation. Because Jesus is anchored in his divine self, Jesus is free “to dive into a fully incarnate and diverse world—as it is. He can love this ordinary and broken world … and critique all false absolutes and idolatries at the same time.”[2]

Jesus nudges us and beckons us forward on the journey, refusing to abandon us when we get stuck. He goes ahead on the muddy path. In shine and shower, wind storm and in the calm stretches. And, on the way, can we learn to let go of the false absolutes and idolatries in our lives? Can we release our preoccupation with worry, for example, to hang on too tightly to the emotional securities of material wealth, which seems to be the message of the passage today? But I would extend this to worries about what awaits after  we let go of anything that we have held on too tightly in our lives?

Every time we worship and every time we say the Creed together, we are being confirmed in faith. We have a confirmation every Sunday! And the one being confirmed is YOU!

Yet, as I’ve tried to make clear to the confirmation classes year after year, just because you are saying ‘yes’ today, just because you are saying the words of affirmation of baptism printed on the sheet in your hands, just because you are standing up at the front of the church doesn’t mean:

  • You’ve got it all figured out
  • You have all the answers to all the questions of faith
  • You are finished on this journey of learning
  • You have nothing more to learn
  • You will now never again make any mistakes nor experience any hardship

You keep on keeping on, as they say, not because the church is perfect. Listen, if you haven’t figured that out yet let me emphasize again: the church is not perfect. The church will continue to be full of people who are far from perfect. You stay on the journey NOT because the church or its leaders are perfect and never make mistakes. Your faith and your participation in a life and journey of faith is not validated by the church to which you belong, but by the God who loves you and us despite all our failings.

If anything, what you are doing today is bearing witness to the need to keep on the journey. You are standing with the rest of us, calling for us to stay the course alongside you. By your witness today you are calling the rest of us not to stop asking questions. Not to stop doubting from time to time. Not to stop saying once in while, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not sure I believe that. What’s that all about?” Not to stop looking up and asking for help from time to time. Not to give up, on the journey.

Your window of faith will last intact a lot longer when there continues to be ‘give’ around the frame of your beliefs.

Jesus suggests to us that knowing all the answers and not making mistakes is not the point of the faithful life. Rather, it is the imperfect yet faithful following on the journey that makes all the difference.

Despite all that is wrong, God is still there.

We stay on the path not because it is easy. But for those moments of grace. We do this for those moments of joy where we notice the pinpricks of light across the dark canvas of our world.

Where forgiveness melts cold hearts.

Where mercy triumphs over condemnation.

Where love embraces the weary traveller.

Thank you, God.

 

[1]Alyce Mckenzie, No Easy Answers: Reflections on Matthew 6:24-34 (patheos.com, February 21, 2011)

[2]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation,3 October 2018 (www.cac.org/Meditations@cac.org)

Driving me crazy

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There are times in life that come our way to remind us that something is ending. And even though at some deeper level we know it to be true, we hesitate to face that ending, whatever it is — the end of an era, the end of the life of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the end of a career, the end of youthful health and energy, etc.

How do we face these movements in life?

In planning our family vacation to Italy a couple summers ago, we decided to rent a car. Our host family lived in Naples. So, right off the plane, we jumped in our small Fiat, yours truly engaged the manual shift, and we immersed ourselves in the mayhem of driving in Naples.

What added to the heightened anxiety of driving in the sprawling metropolis, was that I had to follow our friends from downtown to the suburbs – no short jaunt ‘round the corner.

Not only did I have to deal with the speedy and crazy driving conditions, I had to slice through the haze of jetlag in my mind, and pay attention. I had to keep up to our host family already long acclimatized to the riotous driving culture there.

What is more, shortly after recovering from the stress and thrill of that first-day drive from the airport, the next day, in our separate cars we took to the winding and narrow road along the Amalfi Coast. To get there, we had to cross Naples first. Been there done that. No small feat.

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Then, once on the rocky Amalfi coastline, my face was practically pasted on the front windshield. I had to make constant reflexive maneuvers rounding blind, hairpin bends. At relatively high speeds I squeezed our little Fiat between oncoming Vespa scooters, ginormous tour buses and sleek, racing, tinted-windowed Audi sedans. All the while wiping the spittle from the glass in front of my mouth emitting profanity after profanity.

 

Caution thrown to the wind, I threw myself into it without thinking too much. Reactive, assertive and confident driving skills required! Since I didn’t exactly know the route we would take, I had to focus on what was directly in front of me. I had to pay attention and respond not only to the immediate conditions I found myself in. I also had to keep an eye on the dark blue Hyundai some car lengths in front, leading the way.

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Following someone in another car, requires certain skills best developed in the context of faith. Let me explain.

First, you have to trust. You must trust that the One you are following knows what they are doing and where they are going. You have to believe that following them faithfully will take you to where you want to go. At some gut level, you have to relinquish your claim to knowing better. And trust the other. And believe that they believe in you and your skill, too.

Second, you have to pay attention. You have to stay aware of your surroundings, even though the distractions and obstacles are frightening. As with driving in general, you can’t be looking inside the car or admiring the scenery to the side or behind you. Rather, you have to remain focused on the road ahead. Better yet, for as smooth a ride as possible, you have to envision yourself already being a certain distance down the road.

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Third, you need to act on in-the-moment decisions. Following another car is a whole different way of driving then when you are on your own. On your own, you can stop whenever you want, you can go however fast or slow you want to go, and you are not accountable in any way to another vehicle on the road.

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All that changes as soon as you say, “I will follow you.” If you don’t want to get lost, you have to keep up. You have to do it. You have to match the velocity of the lead car, whether they speed up or slow down. You have to drive in a way that will keep you within eyesight of the lead, which will affect how you negotiate traffic signals, lane changes, roundabouts, traffic jams, and toll gates.

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Finally, in order to follow another successfully, you have to take the primary focus off yourself. And fix it on whom you are following. There is no time to dwell on your past mistakes – the guy you cut off coming onto the expressway, your cursing a fellow driver weaving across multi lanes going 130 kilometres an hour, or the slight yet growing pressure you feel on your bladder from all the espresso you drank earlier in the day.

There is no time for self-indulgence of this kind. There is no time for regret, guilt or self-absorbed mental gymnastics. There is no time to stop to lick the wounds of obsessive introspection.

Because your energy is required now for the task at hand: trust, focus, action.

Jesus describes at least two opposing lifestyles in the Gospel reading for today.[1] The sheep are on Christ’s right hand – they are the good guys. The goats are on Jesus’ left hand – they are the bad guys. I suspect we can relate to being both a goat and a sheep at different times and conditions of our lives.

Either way, both groups are surprised to hear Jesus’ answer to their question: “When did we see you …?”[2] Both groups failed to see Jesus in the faces of the stranger, sick, hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned.

The only difference is that the sheep already happened to be serving those in need, before they heard this news, before they had a chance to think about it too much, strategize and create impressive mission plans. That group was visiting the sick and tending to the needs of others as a matter of course, moved by a simple compassion for the needy. Doing so was part of their regular routine of life.

On the other hand, the goats apparently never thought nor believed that their very salvation depended on helping others, going to the poor, attending to the weak and vulnerable in society. Instead, they must have made life predominantly a game of ‘who can get the most stuff and be most comfortable and take care of their own first.’ Their faith must have been assigned to a God who existed only in their minds, in abstraction, a matter reserved only for intellectual discourse,polite company, and board room strategy sessions.

At this turning point in the calendar year, we shift gears and look ahead. We leave behind the relative calm and ease of the long summer season after Pentecost, and enter the fray of the holiday season. How we drive through and around the many distractions, noise, pace and twisting corners of our lives in the coming months will reveal a lot about who we follow or whether we are following anyone at all, let alone Jesus.

So, let’s not forget where Jesus goes. Let’s not forget what he was all about, whom he visited, whom he cared for and where he spent his time. This is our focus. Let’s trust that Jesus knows what he is talking about and the path he takes, even though God’s reign feels countercultural and unpopular in a season of getting more stuff and self-indulgent sentimentality.

Perhaps we will need to practice looking for Jesus on the streets, in the hospices, the safe-injection sites, the social housing units, the shelters, the refugee lines and immigrant ghettos in our city.

Let’s trust that Jesus’ way will lead to our resurrection and transformation in this life as much as in the next. Let’s pay attention to our surroundings and the various ways God encourages us on the way. Let’s not remain idle, nor get stuck in self-centred living. Let’s not coast nor ride the clutch too much. Because we’ll stall the car. And stopping is not good on the highway of life. In fact, it’s dangerous.

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Instead, let’s act faithfully in small, concrete ways that make a difference for the better in the lives of others in need.  Let’s do so assertively and confidently, knowing that we don’t travel alone; there are others in the car with us and on the highway around us. Because despite our many failings, and the mistakes we will make along the way, God continues to have faith in us.

There is too much at stake. And no time to lose. Still today, in our country – Canada – and in our nation’s capital, Ottawa, there are still over 10,000 households needing adequate, safe and affordable housing.[3] And, 15% of the population in the whole province of Ontario still lives in some kind of housing need.

Where is Jesus? The bible makes it very clear. The better question is: Will you follow?

Recently I came across this anonymous quote about the merits of volunteering in ways that can reflect the reign of Christ in our lives and in our world:

Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections … [once every four years], but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.

When you volunteer for good causes you add value to the vision of God in earth. The Reign of Christ is about the kind of world God wants us to live in. Where is Jesus? Will you follow?

We end today a church season. This annual observance can remind us that endings only herald a new beginning just around the corner.

[1] Matthew 25:31-46

[2] verses 37 and 44

[3] check out http://www.multifaithhousing.ca

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

Checking our Image of God

Do you know “Good Old Uncle George”? (1)

Listen to this description of what happens when a family makes a visit to Uncle George who lives in, and never really leaves, his formidable mansion.

At the end of the brief visit in which the children describe Uncle George as bearded, gruff and threatening, he leans closely, and says in a severe tone of voice, “Now listen, dear. I want to see you here once a week. And if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.”

He then leads the family down to the mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as they descend, and they begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one.

“Now look in there, dear,” he says. They see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men, women and children who failed to visit Uncle George or act in a way he approved. “And if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go,” says Uncle George.

Do you know “Good Old Uncle George?” Sound familiar?

From the bible readings assigned for this season after Epiphany, we are asked to consider again who is this God we are called to follow. Of course, no one image of God is complete. Our perspective is limited, no matter how well we know the bible or how many degrees we may have behind our name. And God is greater and bigger than anything anyone can imagine or say.

Nevertheless, it is fruitful to examine what we think about God. Our image of God influences our own behaviour and what we do “in the name of God”, who is revealed in history, in our experience and in the Scriptures as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Eventually, our actions mirror the God to whom we pray, to whom we relate, whom we imagine. (2)

I would like to highlight briefly three aspects of the character of God, in Jesus, that we can see in the story of Epiphany for today — the baptism of our Lord (Matthew 3:13-17).

First, Jesus moves. He does not sit still for too long. Jesus is baptized ‘on the side of the road’ so to speak. He is baptized nowhere special, not in some officially consecrated, designated holy place — but in the wilderness where John preaches ‘on the edge’ of civilization where crowds have to follow to be there.

In fact, the Jordan River is some 35 kilometres from Jerusalem. For people who walked, this would likely mean at least a two-day journey from the city. So, most of the people who witnessed this divine event and encounter between Jesus and John on the banks of the Jordan River had to travel to get there. Even the high priests and Pharisees, those in power and who held influence in the religious establishment of Jerusalem had to get there.

Who is God? God is more a verb than a noun; God is not static; God is always on the move; we can in this story of Jesus’ baptism appreciate the moving parts of faith. It is important to note to where God goes, and is revealed.

Mobility is a kingdom value. Going some place else away from what is familiar and comfortable is part of exercising a healthy faith. Conversely, staying in one place too long is not healthy for the soul.

Second, in this mobility God relates to us in vulnerability. In worship and praise of God we are accustomed to calling God Almighty. But, at the same time, if we are ‘getting’ Jesus, we ought to be calling God Al-vulnerable.

Jesus relates to us. The divine becomes one of us in moments of vulnerability, especially. The primary symbol of Christianity, the Cross, points to the ultimate, earthly destination of Jesus, and reveals our most vulnerable God. The Cross is a sign that says: God understands us even in death and dying.

What is unique about Matthew’s version of the baptism of our Lord is that it is meant for public witness. Unlike the other Gospel accounts who make this event more of an inward, spiritual experience of Jesus, Matthew portrays the baptism of Jesus as an external event, available to all present.

Also, Jesus submits to baptism not because he needs his sins washed away. Through this act, Jesus was indicating his willingness to yield his life, to surrender his life, in obedience to his Father. Jesus requests baptism by John so that he could completely identify with those he came to save.

Therefore, relationships described by mutual vulnerability is another kingdom value. Being with others in this way, in community, is vital for faith. Prolonged isolation and emotional detachment from others is not healthy for the soul.

Finally, not only is God in motion and in vulnerable relationship with us, God is reaching out to us, immanent and present to our common lives.

Jesus’ father in heaven calls to him, validates and affirms his path. Then, too, Jesus calls his disciples. Jesus does not do it alone. He includes his disciples in his travels, walks in their shoes, involves himself in the common, daily activities, gets his hands dirty — so to speak.

Jesus is the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, he fishes with his disciples, he goes to weddings and drinks wine, he hangs out with all people not just the ‘good ones’.

Jesus does not leave us alone, some distant, transcendent God who does not care about what happens on earth. Jesus will not stop reaching out to us, and will beckon us to follow where he goes. Jesus continues to engage our lives, touching our hearts, our hands and our minds, in the very course of our lives on earth. God will intervene, and pierce our perception, inviting us into a new way of being and doing.

Today, followers of Jesus can consider anew this God who is revealed to us in Jesus. Jesus is the divine-man, who walked everywhere and moved around a lot; Jesus is the God who seeks relationships and models vulnerability and self-surrender; Jesus is the God who will not leave us alone and continues to call out to us to follow in his way.

May God bless the path we journey. Amen.
(1) cited in Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn & Matthew Linn, “Good Goats: Healing our Image of God” (Paulist Press, New York, 1994), p.3
(2) ibid., p. 7ff

The life-giving gap

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (James 3:11)

The writer, James, makes a case for integrity and authenticity in the Christian life. For us moderns, living in a day and age where how we look, our reputations, our social standings and our bank accounts seem to speak louder than anything else about who we truly are and what we truly want. Is our joy at living based on these ‘worldly’ values, when we are honest about it? 

It becomes particularly challenging for us Christians, whose value system is acutely counter-cultural. It becomes a real war, actually, to embrace the true source of our lives in a world of celebrity politicians and glory-seeking suburbanites. And I think, for the most part, we live a bifurcated existence. We say one thing — I believe in the God who asks us to bear our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34) — but so easily slip into a lifestyle that is really narcissistic, self-centred and selfish. The easy way.

It’s a rhetorical question. “Does a spring pour forth both fresh and brackish water?” In James’ mind, of course not. A spring will either bring forth, on balance, mostly fresh or mostly dirty water. The meter will lean one way or the other. 

Which way do you lean? In your work? In the way you invest? In how you spend your money? In how you spend your free time? With whom? In what and how you communicate?

In the Gospel for today (Mark 8:27-38), Jesus says some difficult, counter-cultural things about what kind of way Jesus — the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, God incarnate, Almighty and Everlasting God — will travel the journey of life. And it is this God who beckons us to follow: in order “to undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31). Really? That doesn’t sound right for a person claiming godly power!

In an upwardly mobile culture we are suddenly and shockingly presented with a downwardly mobile God. Naturally and understandably, through the lens of worldly value, we shudder. Peter rebukes Jesus. And it is in response to Peter’s communication that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan.

The first lesson from Isaiah, the third chapter in the Epistle James and the Gospel reading for today are a call to discipline our speech — how we talk, and for what purpose. I would broaden this to say: How we communicate. The words we use. The body language we employ. They say that 70% of communication is non-verbal. I believe this truth is what prompted Francis of Assisi to say: “Preach the Gospel; Use words only when necessary!” It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Our actions speak louder than words.

We are called to pay attention not only to the words we use — important though they are, but our actions, our tone, our presence with another. We are called to pay attention to these details in assessing the quality of our relationships. Not to do so, to ignore and dismiss our attention to these aspects of relating, is evil. Not to hold ourselves accountable to what we say and how we say it to another is a satanic time-bomb waiting to happen.

The eighth commandment reads: Do not bear false witness against your neighbour (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). This means, what we say about them. Of course, first we have to look around and ask: Who is our neighbour? On Meadowlands Drive West, in Nepean, Ottawa, and in Canada. Who are our neighbours today? Do we know their names? Who are they? And then, what do we say about them, to them?

In his explanation of all the Ten Commandments, Martin Luther makes clear these are not simply about ‘not-doing’ — not gossiping, not slandering — but even more important what positive behaviour we do for the sake of the neighbour. He writes that it is imperative that Christians should do all they can to protect the good name and social standing of their neighbours — and he lifts up particularly the “sins of the tongue” in this context. (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in the Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p.420)

I can’t help here to think of the millions of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. I can’t help here but think of the many ways Muslims are disparaged in the media in the West not only in the press, but also in those malicious forwarded emails that circulate “like a hydra with multiple heads: so pernicious and so difficult to stop” (Kristin Johnston Largen, “Inter-religious Learning and Teaching” Fortress Press, 2014, p.57).

James concedes to our human predicament. In the end, no matter how hard we try to do right by this, “no one can tame the tongue” (3:8). It’s as if the narrative of Scripture accepts the impossible capability of us, on our own, to get it all right all of the time. Even though Peter is in one moment ‘Satanic’ he is, in the next, the rock upon which the church will be built against whom “the gates of Hades will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). Martin Luther’s well-known paradox can help us frame this apparent contradiction: We are simultaneously saints AND sinners (simul justus et pecator). 

This ‘word’ today may make us feel uncomfortable. It does, me. And, probably for good reason. Yet, there is good news. God speaks into this confused darkness of our lives. God speaks the Word of creation into this murky existence (Genesis 1). A Word of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. 

And the Word that God speaks sets up the endless harmonic of sounds in the world. And as we speak, and try to speak truthfully, perhaps what we are doing is far less hanging labels around the necks of the things of the world. And instead we try to find those divine harmonics and speak and act ‘in tune’ with that Word first spoken into silence and darkness.

The image I like of creation is that God first makes a great cave. And then breathes into it. Speaks into it. A Word. And from the cave the echoes come back. Differently pitched. Differently aimed. A world of Word. And we find our place in that world listening to those harmonics, trying to speak and act in tune with them. Not to speak and act from our will or our passion for control. But to speak because we want to join in what an earlier generation would have called the ‘music of the spheres’. (Rowan Williams, “The Spirit in the Desert” Meditatio Talk Series 2015 B Apr-June CD).

Those of us preachers and public speakers, especially need to think more about this. Paul says that the Body of Christ is made up of all parts, each important in their own right (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) — you are a hand, you a leg, you the eyes, you the foot. This morning, I am the mouth! And, like James, Paul also says that greater scrutiny and possible judgement will be brought upon those who speak (2 Peter 2:3;Colossians 2:20;1 Timothy 1:2-4). A timely word, perhaps, in a season of political campaign, mindless rhetoric and questionable election promises.

How do we speak in such a way that is authentic and true? Only by looking for the harmonics that that Word of God sets up. By refusing the mass pressures of culture. By becoming in our speaking as in our living a kind of invitation into the gracious harmonics of God’s world, into the resonances and echoes that are set up by that primordial utterance of God into the cave of creation.

Simone Weil used the concept of ‘hesitation’ to describe how to communicate in a healthy way For her, part of the essence of spiritual maturity was leaving the ‘life-giving gap’ between you, the act, and the other person (quoted in Rowan Williams, ibid.). Learning not so much to project straight away our ego compulsions into the other person; learning not so much to move right away into solving a problem on our own terms. But drawing away momentarily to listen for the sake of the other. And for the sake of the truth.

At the end of the day, we are called to check the compulsion to speak. And move back into a momentary stillness into which God’s draws us, and out of which God calls us to speak and to act with integrity and authenticity.

We would make James proud.

Are you an honest sinner?

A Christian leader (Laurence Freeman) commented on the 25th anniversary edition of “Rolling Stones” magazine. It contained interviews with pop music icons over that time period, starting with John Lenin all the way to Madonna.

He was wondering why young people especially were drawn to these, their idols. Of course, many pop stars are not exemplary people. They are not saints.

But they are, what he calls, ‘honest sinners’. Which reminds me of what Martin Luther said about us: That we are at the same time: Saints AND Sinners.

In the church, I think we get the ‘Saint’ part. But how do we validate the ‘Sinner’ part of ourselves?

In the Gospel text for Ordinary Time on this last Sunday in September 2014, we continue to work through the parables given by Jesus, in the latter part of the Gospel of Matthew.

In the assigned pericope, the authority of Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees (Matthew 21:23-32). In response, Jesus tells a story of a Father who asks both his sons to work in his vineyard. The first son says he wont do it, but does. The second son says he will do it but doesn’t.

What do we make of the first son who does his Father’s bidding? He does not want to obey. And he is honest about it.

The verb in the original Greek in this text (v.29) for “changed”, as in, “he changed his mind” (or as many English translations have it — “he repented”), is not the common one usually associated with the idea of a total transformation of character (as is implied in, for example, Matthew 3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”).

In fact, the only other place in the Gospel of Matthew where the exact same form appears is in Matthew 27:3, when Judas experiences a regretful change of purpose that ends in despair, remorse and his demise (see Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers).

Perhaps a better translation would have it as “a caring change of heart”; or, “a change of heart burdened with care.”

This form suggests that a heart nurtured in the love of God leads to action that not only obeys the call of God, but does it willingly. Even though the first son’s mind and his words at first are contrary to the will of the Father, his follow-through redeems him in the end. An imperfect confession it is, to be sure. But, ultimately, words are not enough.

Although in the case of both sons words do not match the deeds, “the repentance of the former is preferable to the hypocrisy of the latter;” Kathryn Blanchard says it best: “True righteousness is in the doing, rather than in the confessing” (in “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, WJK 2011, p.118).

I see a possible link here with the alternate first testament text assigned for this Sunday, from Exodus 17:1-7 (We also encounter this text on the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A). The Israelites are on the journey to the promised land, and yet again (for the fourth time in the sequence of these texts from Exodus) they complain to Moses about their lack of food; and in this, case, water.

They are thirsty. They are without a basic need for human survival. We are not talking here about typical ‘first-world problems’ — complaining about the weather, or unable to sync online calendars among family members with different smart phones, or dealing with a dilemma of how to invest money in competing markets, or having to cancel a credit card that was stolen, etc. These are things we complain about, and may even pray about.

But the Israelites’ complaints to Moses are about a basic, human need that they lack. I cannot blame them for being upset! They will die without water. They are being ‘honest sinners’, aren’t they?

Scientists, medical professionals, and child care workers will agree today that love is such a basic human need. If a person, especially at a young age, lacks love in their life, this absence of love will even stunt their physical development. They will be underdeveloped, physically, because of love being absent. The giving and receiving of love is a fundamental, human need.

Jesus tells the Pharisees that the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter heaven before they will. Maybe because these ‘lowest rung’ folk in the religious hierarchy of the day certainly don’t present themselves in a religiously acceptable way. There is no pretence, performance, pious evasion. There is no making appearances, no self-denial nor self-repression. There is no saying-the-right-things, no artifice, no self-consciousness to their being and behaving. They are truly ‘honest sinners’.

Both of Moses and of Jesus, the people demanded ‘signs’ of God’s presence. The Exodus text ends with those ominous and faithless words: “Is God with us, or not?” Even after the visible and tangible sign of water was given to quench their thirst, the Israelites still doubted. Even though Jesus performed miracles; even though the resurrected, bodily form of Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee following Easter morning, they did not ‘believe’ (Matthew 28:17).

The ‘signs’ are not the point of the Gospel — God’s love IS. Acts of love demonstrate our Christianity more than dogmas and creeds.

And when we participate in loving, caring action …

We are truly free. Free to be ourselves. And free to do the right thing. Perhaps whatever good things honest sinners do, they do it then from the heart. Their giving of love, however unnoticeable and seemingly irrelevant acts of love, is authentic and real — something the Pharisees so stuck in their heads and dogmas could not grasp.

You might notice that the Father — who in this parable may represent the attitude of God — does not condemn the first son for saying the wrong thing. The Father does not ‘correct’ the son’s imperfect words. The Father accepts him just as he is. And in the freedom of God’s love, the son then experiences a change of heart.

God accepts you as you are. God has faith in you. Because of God’s steadfast love and unwavering faithfulness in you, what will you do?

Cultivating God’s imagination in us

Cartoons today are not like the cartoons I watched on TV when I was a kid. Back then, the story lines were straight forward, and characters behaved in ways that were expected. Even though their world was animated, it was easy to relate to the real world. If you ran off a cliff, like the coyote did chasing the road runner, you would pay the price and fall to your doom. Yes, these cartoons were funny and often the characters made mistakes — and that was entertaining.

But today, when I watch the Teletoon channel, it is crazy! More often than not the characters behave in ways that are unpredictable, excessive and even absurd. When you expect a certain consequence for a behaviour, the opposite happens! And this style gets kids laughing. This medium has little if no connection to the way people normally operate in the real world. It is meant to shock, and display the impossible rather than convey the probable.

At the same time, this is precisely the style of the story presented in our Gospel text today (Matthew 18:21-35). Yes, it is! Bear with me. Jesus tells a story in response to Peter’s question about how often should he forgive someone who has done him wrong.

Reading in between the lines, it’s as if Jesus answers Peter’s question with another rhetorical question: “How could you ask such a stupid question?” So Jesus tells an extreme, over-the-top parable to startle Peter into recognizing the absurdity of his assumptions and to call him to a new way of seeing and living (Charles Campbell in “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, p.71).

Jesus’ story is really excessive, when you think about it. First, Jesus says that we should forgive always, without limit, certainly more than seven times. And yet, the king in the story (who for some interpreters is analogous to God and therefore an example to us) — how many times does he forgive his slave? Just once! The king doesn’t give his slave a second chance, doesn’t forgive him more than once, even though that’s the moral of the story, right?

Then there is the matter of the ten thousand talents that the slave owes the king. In Greek, “ten thousand” and “talents” indicate the largest possible number; the amount is so absurd that in some early Greek manuscripts of this text reduced the number (Lewis Donelson, ibid.). There is no way that any slave would ever have ten thousand talents to begin with — otherwise he would not be a slave if he did. How could a slave even get to a position of owing that incredibly huge amount of money, and then pretend that he could pay it back in his lifetime. Absurd. We really can’t take this story too literally.

The rest of the parable continues in this vein: The slave who was forgiven this unimaginable debt load refuses to forgive the comparatively minuscule debt of another slave. He acts in an extreme way, seizing the debtor by the throat (v.28).

All in all this parable reads just like a modern-day cartoon. It’s excessive; it doesn’t follow the norms of social interaction — in Jesus’ day as much as in our own. We are left shaking our heads, “Ridiculous! Impossible! How could anyone do such a thing?”

But that’s the point. What we consider here is an imagination that is beyond earthly probabilities and rationalizations. The parable turns on us, as it surely did on Peter: How often should I forgive?” As the church, we should know better. For we know how much we have already been forgiven.

What we encounter in the Gospel text today is a Godly imagination that is presented in contradistinction to the world’s. Most of our lives operate according to probabilities and possibilities, measurable criteria, tit-for-tat, and certainties. Not so in God’s kingdom of grace. Mercy, forgiveness — these are undeserved, incalculable. Yet given.

How do we forgive? Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a woman in his congregation who is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. Since her husband walked out on them, every month, she says, it is a struggle to pay bills. She says, “I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?”

The Rabbi answers, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically. But you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”

Presbyterian Minister, writer and retreat leader Marjorie Thompson gives a helpful definition of what it is to forgive. She writes: “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgement, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such retribution may seem …

“Forgiveness involves excusing persons from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behaviour. The behaviour remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.”

You’ve maybe heard the story of one prisoner of war, after being freed, who asked another, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?”
“I will never do that!” the second one answered.
“Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?” the first one replied. (These stories are recited in Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, ibid., p.71-72)

The ability to forgive has more to do with ourselves than it has to do with the perpetrator of our wounds. This realization makes the impossible, possible; the improbable, probable. Holding on to resentment and a desire for revenge keeps us stuck in the false belief that somehow we can change the other person.

But perhaps who needs changing is ourselves! Peter got an earful from Jesus as Jesus held up a mirror to Peter when he asked the question, “How often should I forgive?”

We are not alone on this journey. Jesus talks about forgiveness in the context of the relationship of people in the church, among his disciples as they jostle for power and deal with in-house conflicts. We are not alone in this struggle to forgive our debtors. After all, the Body of Christ, the church, has a role to recognize the sin together, demand accountability together, and exercise forgiveness together. This takes time and it isn’t easy.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them,” said Jesus just before Peter’s question (Matthew 18:20). God surprises us, yes, even sometimes shocks and startles us with undeserved love and steadfast faithfulness. This is the imagination, the hope, and the longing that motivates us to keep on.

Of God’s forgiveness, we can be sure.