Prayer as Lament – Advent sermon series 3

Traditionally, the Third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, a command to rejoice! Be joyful!

In all the furtive busy-ness of getting ready for the big day, in all the running around and striving to check off everything on the ‘to do’ list before Christmas, carrying all the pressure and responsibility …

The church says: don’t take yourselves too seriously on this journey. There are times when we need to not just listen up, but lighten up. Gaudete!

Yes, we are on the path of transformation. And this path requires us to be intentional and disciplined. After all, Christmas is coming; there is much to prepare! It was Ignatius of Loyola, a contemporary of Martin Luther in the 16thcentury, who urged the church to “pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on us.”[1]

Not bad advice. Except we won’t survive this journey if we don’t also take the foot off the gas pedal from time to time. Can we let things be as they are? Can we accept ourselves and rejoice even at the imperfection of our lives – the cracks in who we are? Or, have we deluded ourselves into thinking that only when everything is perfect, and finished, and just the way it ought to be, then, and only then, can we rejoice?

How can we be authentically joyful, especially when things aren’t the way they are supposed to be in our lives and in the world?

In our ordinary lives as much as in our worship and prayer, we have to make room for lament. Lament? It seems odd to suggest that on Gaudete Sunday of all days – the Sunday during Advent when we are called to rejoice – we offer our laments to God in prayer.

I’d like to suggest this is the path to expressing true joy. Lament as a necessary step on the path to true acceptance, hope and joy. So that our rejoicing isn’t just an extension of our culture’s surface ‘good cheer’ which often only masks deeper needs.

The Psalms, which are the primary prayer book for the ancient Israelites and Jews of Jesus’ day, are filled with laments. We read one together this morning.[2]Even Jesus, after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, expressed his disappointment and sorrow over Jerusalem[3]. And then in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he died, Jesus prayed to God if only his cup of suffering could be taken away.[4]Jesus wept for the death of his friend Lazarus[5], and on the cross he cried out, “O God, why have you forsaken me!”[6]quoting a Psalm. Jesus was familiar with, and used often, the prayers of lament on his journey to new life.

Perhaps we are afraid that if we do take the foot off the gas pedal during this season of rush-rush, we might not very much like what comes to the surface. In that moment when we are not driven by our compulsions and distractions, what scary thing might emerge?

This season can be difficult for those, for example, who grieve the loss of loved ones especially when it is the first Christmas celebrated without them. We are supposed to feel happy, but we are burdened by a deep sadness of loss. And all those messages that declare we are to be ‘joyful’ only serve to deepen our sorrow. How, then, can we be joyful?

In the Academy Award winning movie, “Inside Out”, eleven-year-old Riley has moved to San Francisco, leaving behind her life in Minnesota. She and her five core emotions, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Joy struggle to cope with her new life.

In the movie, each of these emotions is a separate character in the control room of Riley’s mind. Until the big move, it was always Joy who was in the driver’s seat. Joy determined how Riley processed events and situations in her life. Even if Riley, who loved to play hockey on the family pond, missed a shot on goal, Joy would step in and emphasize the bright, positive side of the situation. Sadness would always stand nearby, trying to be more influential in defining Riley’s experiences. But, until the move to San Francisco, Joy always won out.

When big events in our lives happen – events that are happy or sad – these change us and the way we look upon life. By Joy insisting on dominating, even when Riley experienced significant challenges at school and at home after the move, she became worse and worse, shutting out her parents and isolating herself.

It was only when Joy let Sadness take control, did Riley turn the corner. Riley became better in her new life when no emotion was denied, but given its rightful place given the circumstance. The emotions – especially Joy and Sadness – discovered that both have to take turns in the driver’s seat from time to time. Both/And. Not Either/Or.

Christianity did not combine opposites into some kind of favourable blend. Neither does having faith exclude, deny nor avoid one in favour of the other. Rather, our faith holds all dimensions of the human, and all the dimensions of the divine in vibrant and furious tension.[7]Like, the tension of becoming truly joyful when we can also offer our lament. When we can let sadness take the driver’s seat for a bit of that journey especially when it seems it’s supposed to be all about being happy all of the time.

In the Advent study group on prayer, we reviewed the various characteristics of a lament by looking at some Psalms. One characteristic will often escape our notice, maybe because it doesn’t fit our expectations of what lamenting is. You know, we think it’s all tears and gnashing of teeth and breast-beating and woe-is-me kind of stuff.

But a lament is not a lament unless it also carries the one who is praying into a place of confidence and trust in God. Maybe that’s why Jesus lamented so much. Because he was so faithful to Abba. Trusting in God his Father. Besides the obvious grievances and plea for help expressed in the Psalm, did you not also hear and feel joy born out of confidence and trust from the Psalmist’s words this morning?

“Restore us, O God; let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved. You have brought a vine out of Egypt; you cast out the nations and planted it … Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted … Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one you have made so strong for yourself. And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your name. Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.”[8]

Prayer as growth. Prayer as Listening. Prayer as Lament. On the road to Christmas.

[1]Cited in Patrick J. Howell, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.65-66.

[2]Psalm 80; see also Psalms 74, 79, 85, 90.

[3]Matthew 22:37; Luke 13:34

[4]Matthew 26:39

[5]John 11:33-35

[6]Matthew 27:46, citing Psalm 22:1

[7]Howell, ibid., p.64

[8]Psalm 80:7-8,14-15,17-19

Home is where you’re wanted

It’s Canada Day. It’s a day we celebrate our identity as Canadians and our beautiful home, in Canada.

They say the best part of travelling abroad is coming home. The first time that hit home for me was when in my late teens I visited southern Poland where my parents were born.

I recall being driven about the countryside there. And though there are gorgeous landscapes in the valleys and hills surrounding the Tatra mountains in the south, there were [and are, still] many coal mines in operation. We had a tour of one of these mines—its stark and dirty images still occupy my mind. There wasn’t a day being in Poland that I didn’t smell the pollution in the air.

Until I got off the homebound plane at Mirabel in the Laurentian hills between Ottawa and Montreal (when it was still an international airport during the 1980s.) Walking on the tarmac from the plane to the terminal, I felt the cool breeze coming down over the hills from the north, and breathed deeply the pristine air. And I recall being so thankful for living in a country where I could breathe that clean, natural air.

To this day when someone asks me why I love living in Canada, my immediate, visceral response is: “The air. I can breathe.”

We can all, I suppose, point to aspects of living in Canada for which we are grateful. Whatever we call home is so important to our sense of self. Indeed, our identity is formed out of however we define home. It’s usually some combination of family, relationships, personal history and place.

Often I hear the definition of home as ‘where you come from’. Where I come from includes relationships, family history, where my forbears settled and worked the land. This tie, this bond, can be very strong.

It’s ironic, maybe even disturbing, that we confront a gospel reading for this Sunday that challenges— to the core— our comfortable ideas of home. To those who first want to attend to family, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Then, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”[1]In another Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”[2]

He even warns those who want to follow him that they will have to do without. That the spiritual journey involves the way of material simplicity and letting go. It involves a poverty of sorts. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus was a transient. As a baby—Emanuel, Son of God—he was a refugee.

But while he didn’t boast of a physical home on earth, he certainly had what it took to be at home in himself and with God. He was grounded within himself, quite distinct from any external, material ties to land and hearth. Jesus turns to his disciples and beckons, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

A Jesus-identity stands in sharp contrast to everything we want to focus on in our celebration of Canada Day—material prosperity, security, affluence and strong, traditional bonds of family.

Jesus’ lifestyle describes what ancient and contemporary wisdom teachers have called a spirituality of subtraction.[3]This way is counterintuitive. Our human nature gravitates towards a spirituality of addition. That is, we normally say the solution to all problems is to do more, to add on, to do better, to achieve greater heights, to impress, to work harder, etc. Add. Accumulate. Get bigger, faster, better. More, more, more.

However, Jesus tells us that the less we do and the less that we desperately try to be someone, the closer we come to this kingdom of God. This state of being is where there is no longer any need to struggle to protect ourselves and to survive. “It’s the way of subtraction, where less is not just more, but everything.”[4]

Canada Day, while not a festival in the church calendar, gives us nonetheless opportunity to be thankful and celebrate God’s good gifts in all that we have and are. It is also an opportunity to  reflect on our identity and our home as Christians:

Where do we land, at the end of the day? If we are the ones on the positive side of history, what is the state of our own inner life, distinct from the externals and the material wealth? What are our go-to beliefs and unacknowledged assumptions? Who are we, really, when all else is stripped away? And who are we becoming? What do we need to let go of? What do we need to embrace, anew?

The way of subtraction is a way of recognizing, acknowledging, even embracing what the normal ebb and flow of life brings to us all. Not just yahooing when good things happen. But also not turning a blind eye, ignoring or denying the suffering, the losses, the fear and the anxieties that serve a very important purpose in life: Because they point to the way of our healing and transformation.

We can start, on Canada Day, by acknowledging that not everyone is happy today. Not everybody would have reason to celebrate Canada Day. And who are these people? Do we see them? Do we care?

When by some injustice some people are excluded. When some people feel judged or discriminated against by the majority. When history exposes problems with the way we settled this land, the way we did things in the past. When our people used unjust means to achieve goals that breached ethical lines.

On a personal level, we pay attention to those difficult transitions in life, those that cause great stress. When who we thought we were, when our long-held identity, when the home of our conditioned self doesn’t work or make sense anymore:

For example, when divorce or separation breaks down our idea of being someone who is happily married …

When growing up means no longer being a dependent son or daughter but someone who is a responsible, self-actualized and an independent adult…

When ageing means we can no longer derive purpose from our physical abilities; that is, how we see ourselves can no longer depend on being able to dothings …

For men especially, when we are not the breadwinners of the household, or don’t have grandchildren to brag about, or can’t point to a list of worldly accomplishments …

When having children is not a possibility, despite the dreams of youth …

When we no longer can have or do what we want …

In all these cases, and there are more, when who we are—who we thought we were—no longer works. Then, who are we?

“What we’re really being invited to give up [when Jesus talks like this] is not our car, our house, our laptop and our multiple hand-held devices (although it would be healthier to have a much lighter grip on all of those things). The possessions that we are really fiercely attached to are much less tangible: our ideas about who we are, beliefs deeply hidden even—especially—from ourselves, the self-sustaining narratives that we run for reassurance over and over again.”[5]

What would it look like in our lives when our priorities would shift? When we would regard all that we have and our relationships through the prism of faith? When all the material things we possess, when our long-held, cherished assumptions, our stalwart beliefs were seen through the perspective of faith?

What if Jesus were calling us to re-align our inner compass so that Monday through Saturday had just as much to do with faith as Sunday morning did?

When I breathe in the refreshing, clean air blowing from the north, I reflect on the nature of breath. Breath is gift. I take it in. I need it for life. I delight in it.

But I also have to let it go, for life. I need to breath out. I can’t continue to inhale unless I also exhale. Give it away. Return it to the world. The gift continues to become a gift for someone else, over and over again. I don’t possess it.

As Hildegard of Bingen wrote in the 12th century, “I am a feather on the breath of God.”

I recently read a wonderful definition of home. It wasn’t so much a definition stated with absolute resolve, more a suggestion to consider. What if home was not so much ‘where we’re from’ but more ‘where we are wanted.’[6]

In God’s realm on earth and in heaven, you are wanted. God wants you. In that mutual desiring, that is where our home is. And, what is more, God wants the stranger, the outsider, too. The other. God wants all of us. The span of God’s love covers this land and the whole world. “For God so loved the world …”[7]

Home is where we are wanted. When we are in communion with God, when we affirm our connection with the living Lord, when we can live out of the power of God’s Spirit in whom we move, live, breathe and have our being.

 

 

[1]Luke 9:51-62

[2]Matthew 10:37-38

[3]Meister Eckhart, Richard Rohr, Jim Green—to name a few.

[4]Jim Green, Giving Up Without Giving Up (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019), p.67.

[5]Jim Green, p.68-69.

[6]Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone (Toronto: Random House, 2009)

[7]John 3:16

Summertime home

It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matthew 13:32; Mark 4:32; Luke 13:19).

Jesus tells a story, paints a mental picture, that reveals God’s imagination. First, it is something that is almost missed, that goes unnoticed, appears inconsequential, the smallest of all the seeds.

It is this thing we almost dismiss that grows into the complete opposite: the most important thing in our lives! It is great, central, the top priority for all, the greatest of shrubs.

Finally, this incredible dynamic of truth—what is the smallest becomes the greatest—has a purpose, a mission: to provide shelter and home.

These are summertime images and stories from the Gospel that can spark our imagination, too. Those ordinary, seemingly unimportant aspects of our life—daily routines, budgets, mundane decisions, recreation, preoccupations, feelings, thoughts—these become the crucibles within which God decides to inhabit and transform for a great and significant purpose.

As we notice the joy of God’s creation this summer, experience in fair weather its comfort and in storms its distress, what is God nudging in us? How is God using what is the smallest in us and our world to work for the benefit of all?

May our lives become the garden of God’s transformative love—to feed and house the world. And to display God’s beauty and goodness for all! Happy Canada Day!

Have a great summer!

You are blessed

(We can better understand the beatitudes of Jesus[1] alongside the texts from the Hebrew scriptures assigned for today[2]. Read together in light of the imagery we find there, we begin to make sense of Jesus’ challenging words. Both the Psalmist and the Prophet paint the picture of a tree or shrub in a state of dryness, and in a state of blessedness, shall we say?)

6They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places.[3]

Being in a “parched place” suggests the unfortunate state of our lives when misfortune and adversity come our way: when we fail at something, when we lose someone or something, or through circumstances beyond our control life hands us lemons.

But the problem is not so much that we are in the desert. It’s not the condition nor circumstance in which we find ourselves. When we are in a bad way, it’s not where we are.

When we are ‘dried out’, the problem is we don’t see the relief that comes our way. We have a vision problem:

We don’t perceive the grace, the gift, and the solutions that present themselves. We, for whatever reason, do not appreciate what we already have. We are blind to this grace.

The sight of which Jeremiah speaks is not merely physical, but of the heart—an attitude, an inner stance—that leans towards what is good within us and in the world around us. It is the intention of our minds and hearts to search for what is good, what is life-giving. And, we nurture this disposition despite what may appear to the contrary on the surface.

Of course, to search and yearn for something means there is something missing in our lives. It is to admit something is amiss. It is to be honest and open about our needs. The longing of the heart exposes our vulnerabilities. But also our hope.

7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream
.[4]

Our searching for what feels lost in our lives are like the roots of a tree that naturally expand, grow and spread out towards the source of life—in water, in light. It’s the search itself, the persistent, dedicated and committed journey towards the water that keeps the tree alive, even against the odds.

On the Washington State coast along the Pacific Ocean, you will find the famous Kalaloch Tree, otherwise known as the Tree of Life, or the Runaway Tree.Underneath the webbed roots of the Kalaloch Tree is the Tree Root Cave. Inside, a stream falls into the cave and flows out into the ocean.

69c053a6a3c63493189b8bdda3d7943d

(photo from pinterest.ca)

Many question how the tree continues to grow and the leaves continue to stay green. These questions have been asked so many times with no one really knowing how it keeps on going. So it became known to some as the Tree of Life. Because it continues to live by the stream and the ocean, even though where it finds itself is hardly the ideal spot for stability and longevity.

The Sitka Spruce tree, common along the lush, verdant Pacific coast under the constant influence of moist-laden trade winds, has lived a long time balanced precariously over these rocks. Even though it’s immediate circumstance is fragile, its roots are never far from the source of its very life.

There’s the story about a man searching for his keys under a street light. A friend comes by and asks, “What are you doing?” The response: “Looking for my keys.” The friend says, “Where did you drop them?” The man replies, “Around the corner but I’m looking here because the light is better.”[5]

It’s interesting that in order for the man to actually find his keys, he would eventually have to go around the corner into the dark to find them. But he starts under the light. He starts his search where the light is. Where his confidence rests. Where he can see. And he will go from there, on his journey.

Today, it is common for people to say, “I am blessed” when talking about good fortune. When expressing joy and thanksgiving about all the good in life, we say that “we are blessed.” And, on one level, it is true.

But when Jesus gives a list of characteristics describing those who are ‘blessed’, that’s hardly the case. We find it hard to attribute blessedness to the poor, to the downtrodden, to those who experience misfortune, bad luck, who are given life’s worst circumstances imaginable. We can’t easily make that connection when we associate blessedness with material prosperity, or excellent health, or good fortune.

In Jesus’ teaching, ‘blessedness’ is not absence of trouble. Blessedness, here, is not a reflection of good luck and prosperity. Blessedness, in Jesus’ sense, is not a result of peachy circumstances, fortune and material wealth in the way the word is used in common parlance today.

Rather, to be blessed is “to live through such opposition aware that the struggle is temporary”[6]and that in the end, God will stand by the faithful.

In Luke’s version of Jesus’ great sermon, Jesus stands not on the mountain (as is the case in Matthew 5-7), but on “a level place.” In the bible the word “level” often refers to places of disgrace, suffering, misery, hunger and mourning.[7]

Jesus does not ascend to some high place to give his teaching. Instead, he descends not only to where we stand, but he goes deeper. Jesus descends into the dark recesses of the most difficult, challenging corners of our hearts in order to teach, guide and lead us through. He comes down to that ‘level’.

To be blessed is to be that Kalaloch Tree on the precipice of destruction, and still yearn, search and reach for the water. To be blessed is to pursue the good despite all the bad that is evident all around you. To be blessed is to start that search wherever there is light, and go from there. To be blessed is to trust God to be there in the dark with you. To be blessed is to grow into God’s holy purposes despite adversity, setback and misfortune.

In short, to be blessed is to bear the scars of life proudly. It’s not the absence of difficulty, grief, pain, poverty and suffering that mark a Christian. It is following Christ in his way, despite the suffering that path brings. It is depending on God alone for life, because there is nothing else to rely on.

We thus journey on with hope, joy and trust, bearing witness to the goodness of God to sustain, to nourish and to grow us in the light of Christ.

 

[1]Luke 6:17-26

[2]Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17:5-10, according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

[3]Jeremiah 17:6 NRSV

[4]Jeremiah 17:7-8 NRSV

[5]Dr. Earl A. Grollman, “In Search of a Lost Faith”, Frontline (Winter 2019), p.4

[6]Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary on Luke 6:17-26” in http://www.workingpreacher.org

[7]Allen, ibid.

What is Jesus doing?

I have a small humidifier for my guitar. I combine special crystals with distilled water in a small tube that I insert between the strings. This helps prevent the hardwood casing of the guitar from cracking and splitting. I need to keep filling the small tube with water at least once a week during the dry months of winter to preserve the wood.

At this time of year in Canada, especially under the influence of a continental climate, the air is dry. Very. But we don’t even notice or think about it. The only way I know it’s really dry when it’s so cold is my skin is itchy and my hands get cracked and rough. Also, a device at home tells me the humidity levels are quite low around 20-30%. Not only does our skin pay the price in dry conditions, our organs internally need hydration. So, we have to drink more water.

It’s hard to imagine, but we can actually be dehydrated in the winter. And these conditions are not overtly noticeable, really. Unless we pay attention to our skin or check the humidistat, it’s not apparent.

When we consider faith, or spirituality, we enter into a level of awareness similar to our awareness of water around us, or lack thereof. It’s not immediately nor easily perceptible where the water is or goes.

When we approach a problem or a challenge in life with the good intention of bringing our faith to bear on it, we must first uncover our way of thinking about it. Because how we think about it influences the choices we make.

Here are a couple ways of thinking that we are usually not aware of, in the choices and decisions we make. These are ways of thinking that the Gospel for today exposes.[1]

First, underneath all our words and actions often lurks the virus of dualism. ‘Dual’ means, two: Either/Or, This or That; This belongs and That doesn’t belong. This mental strategy exists just below the level of consciousness, and is ingrained in our western thinking especially since the Enlightenment and Reformation. This way of thinking has dominated our approach to faith, even though it was not the way of thinking of those who first scribed the biblical stories.

For example, John the Baptist in the Gospel story today says that he baptizes with water but the one coming after him will baptize with Spirit and fire.[2]We may comprehend this dualistically, suggesting that Jesus was not going to use water in his baptismal ministry. We then interpret this is as: In Christian baptism, water is irrelevant, unnecessary. After all, if Jesus, Son of God, won’t baptize with water, why should we? … and so on and so on.

You see how dualism creeps into our encounter with Scripture? It doesn’t help, then, that nowhere in the New Testament do we see Jesus performing anybaptisms, let alone with water, Spirit or fire.

When we get up in-the-head with these Gospel texts, we easily can get ourselves into a twisted, confused state. We start fighting amongst ourselves over right-thinking, doctrine and the efficacy of baptism. The church divides and we see in the history, especially after the Reformation, a proliferation of denominations. And how well has dividing-over-doctrine worked for us?

But, what if the solution lies in another way of thinking? It’s interesting that in our thinking that can go astray in this Gospel text, we do get some helpful cues to help us out of the quagmire of dualism:

“Repent!” is John the Baptist’s primary message which we see clearly in the other Gospels,[3]and earlier in the Gospel of Luke.[4]The Greek word, metanoia, translated as “repent”, literally means ‘to change your mind’. Then Saint Paul comes along and instructs, “Be transformed by a renewal of your mind.”[5]So, repentance does not start by changing bad habits, or feeling guilty for bad behaviour. Repentance is not fundamentally moralistic.

First, repentance means changing our way of thinking about a problem. Repentance means looking at a challenge in a completely different way from the way you’ve always thought about it. The message of repentance is about nurturing a healthy self-critique about your thought-process, and changing it. Once the mind is changed, hopefully the heart will soon follow.

So, from this text, what if it’s not either/or but both/and? What if water, fire and Spirit were all important aspects of our experience and expression of baptism in Christ? And nothing was being excluded from the mix?

Because from the story of creation in the book of Genesis, the Spirit hovers over the water and God speaks to create. So, in Baptism the ‘word’ and ‘water’ are vehicles of God to create something new in you.[6]

We don’t often think about our need for water, especially in a country like Canada where fresh drinking water abounds. After all, over 60% of our bodies are made up of water and most of this planet is covered by water. How can we take it for granted? How can we not see it?

Water, in its various states—frozen, liquid, gas—is integral to all of creation. It is pervasive. We cannot get away from it, or remove ourselves somehow from its all-encompassing reality. We cannot divide it out, easily. It cannot exist, apart from anything else in the natural world. Water connects all things. And we can only participate in its existence within and all around us. We belong to it; it belongs to us.

Often when the Baptism of our Lord comes up in the church calendar, we immediately think this story must primarily be about our baptism. Here is another way of thinking that we don’t usually uncover: a lifestyle that places the ultimate onus on us, individually.

So, this story gives us license, we presume, to make it all about us: our faith, our work, our sin, our need to somehow earn God’s favour by seeking out baptism or proving the worthiness of our faith. The upshot of this story of Jesus’ baptism must, therefore, mean we need to imitate Jesus as best as we can.

But what about asking another question? Instead of the popular question, “What would Jesus do?”, what about asking, “What is Jesus doing?”[7]

The first question—What would Jesus do?— assumes that the Savior is on the sidelines of our lives and that the burden of life and work is on our shoulders. When we seek to imitate Jesus’ life, we presume the Savior is not really saving but is setting impossibly high standards that we attempt to imitate by doing what we assume he would do if he were in our situation.

But to be clear, we do not imitate the Savior’s life; we participate in it. In first century context, this Gospel story has less to do with the nature of Jesus and more with his purpose.[8]

“What is Jesus doing?” is built on the conviction that he is alive, reigning, and at work in our lives. In other words, he is in our situation. And that changes everything, first about our thinking then also our mission. Instead of believing that the work of Christ is done-and-over and that now it is our turn to try to imitate his life and work, we take on the identity of being witnesses who watch and testify to his continued work of salvation that is unfolding before our eyes.

Obviously, Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, cross, and resurrection make up the decisive turning point in the great drama of salvation. But the Kingdom is still coming. And it doesn’t come through ourefforts at doing Christ’s work. It comes through the ongoing ministry of the ascended and reigning Son of God, who completes his own work through the Holy Spirit so that we may participate in what Jesus is doing.[9]

Not, what would Jesus do. Rather, what is Jesus doing.

So, Baptism gives us a physical assurance that our final destiny is no longer determined by the brokenness of our world and lives and twisted ways of thinking. Baptism gives us a physical assurance that our final destiny is the realm of God already breaking in all around us. Baptism is an invisible mark initiating us into a community that anticipates the fullness of God’s kingdom.[10]Baptism calls us to pay attention to what Jesus is doing all around us, like water.

God’s voice from heaven identifies Jesus as God’s son, in whom God is well pleased. The Baptism of our Lord is not what we are about, but about what God is up to in Jesus. If anything, this text calls us to choose how we will align ourselves with the purposes of God in Christ, in the world around us today.

To that end, when we love others, when we have mercy on others, when we show compassion, and affirm all people and creation—these are worthy strategies to align ourselves with what God is doing to make everything belong.

May the grace of God, like water, wash us and surround us in hope and in thanksgiving for all that belongs to God.

 

[1]Luke 3:15-17,21-22; Baptism of our Lord, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary

[2]Luke 3:16

[3]For example, see Matthew 3:1-2 and Mark 1:4

[4]Luke 3:8

[5]Romans 12:2

[6]Donald W. Johnson, Praying the Catechism  (Augsburg Fortress, 2008)

[7]M.Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), p.59.

[8]Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary on Luke 3:15-17,21-22” in workpreacher.org for January 13, 2019

[9]Barnes,ibid.

[10]Ibid.

Christmas, now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“’Yes, of course.’ He laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

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

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

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

[4]Matthew 2:13-15

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

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

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)