The change within

When seventeen-year-old Hannah said she was drug free, her parents were skeptical. Having participated in a rehab program and given all the support she could expect from friends and family, Hannah was able to declare that she was finding success in weaning herself off a destructive opioid dependence.

But her father was not convinced. When pressed, he simply confessed, “I don’t believe people can change. Once a drug addict, always a drug addict.”

Though fictional, Hannah and her parents’ situation poses a common predicament for many today. Not just of the real struggle with addiction. But also the struggle with belief: Do we change? And if so, how? And maybe more to the point: Do we recognize the change that happens in our lives? Do we want to?

There’s the story of the Zen Monk who was visiting Time’s Square in New York. And he wanted to buy a hotdog. The vendor asked him, “What would you like on your hotdog?”

The monk replied with a smile, “Make me one with everything.” So the vendor made the hotdog with ketchup, onions and lettuce and mustard and all these other nice things. And he gave it to the monk, and the monk gave the vendor a twenty-dollar bill.

And the vendor didn’t give him anything back. So the monk said, “What about my change?” And the vendor said, “The change is all within.”[1]

An underlying belief in Christianity is that people do change. The resurrection of Christ presents the ultimate pattern for life. We die. We live. We grow. We evolve. We are given new beginnings, to live again. Death. Resurrection. Life is dynamic, not static.

On this Transfiguration of our Lord Sunday, we encounter people who change. First and foremost, Jesus. He is bathed in uncreated light and to the onlookers his face radiates a changed appearance. His countenance is transformed before their very eyes. Here the gospel writers want to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature, his unique revelation as God’s own. The witnesses to this holy and amazing encounter receive the most wonderful gift of experiencing God’s greatness in Christ.[2]

At the same time, the transfigured Lord encounters us. In the scriptures for this Sunday we witness change in the characters of the bible, specifically Moses, Elijah and Paul.[3]They, and others in the bible, are not static beings, one-dimensional characters. We witness in them, rather, incredible change over the course of their lives and throughout history.

In other words, Jesus is not the only one who shows a divine-like appearance. Throughout scripture, there are others who experience within themselves a transfiguration.

Jesus is the first and foremost. But God’s divinity, though fully expressed in Jesus, is not confined to Jesus. God’s true presence is not limited to Jesus for Jesus’ sake alone. God’s fullness in all of creation is not locked in one specific time of history, two thousand years ago.

Martin Luther called it, the great, wonderful, holy “exchange”[4]. On the cross God experienced the fullness of our human sin in all its humiliating nakedness and vulnerability in order that all for whom Christ loved and died may eventually experience and grow into the fullness of divine life and union with God. This divine-human holy exchange is exemplified and mediated through Jesus.

We may balk at the notion that in our very lives, in each one of us, God is present in the living consciousness of Jesus. How can we be that good, eh? We are so used to imagining a separation there—that God is ‘out there’ reserved exclusively to doctrinal debate alone or in some other person upon whom we project all our hopes and dreams. But within me? In my heart? So that I can live differently, better, a changed person?

St. Paul, elsewhere in his first century writings expresses this truth from the start: In his letter to the Galatians, he says, “God revealed his Son in me”[5]. On the road to Damascus the living, post-resurrected Christ encountered Paul. Over one hundred times in all of his New Testament writings he writes this phrase: en Christo meaning ‘in Christ’. And to the Colossians, he confesses: “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything.”[6]

The vendor’s response to the monk carries metaphoric weight. The change is within. A holy encounter with Jesus first changes us within. The change for the better can happen because God is in us. God works on our hearts. God is relentless. Sometimes it hurts. God is the refiner’s fire, creating and re-creating us from the inside-out.

So that, eventually, the light of Christ’s love may shine forth from our lives, and our union with God will be complete, in this world and the next.

Thanks be to God!

[1]Laurence Freeman, “Change is part of the Journey, like it or not”; talk 1 in Mount Oliveto Retreat, Maggiore Siena, Italy, June 18-25, 2016: Change (wccm.org, audio resources, album)

[2]Luke 9:28-43

[3]Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

[4]“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it.

And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them… in the same manner as He grieved and suffered in our sins, and was confounded, in the same manner we rejoice and glory in His righteousness.”

–Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883), 5: 608.

[5]Chapter one, verse sixteen, as translated by the NIV and JB.

[6]Chapter three, verse 11. In the NRSV, the Greek is translated, “He is all and in all.”

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.

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(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.

funeral sermon in Advent: Faith in the Night

From the Gospel of John, the first chapter (v.5.9):

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it … The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world.”

These days, we walk in darkness.

December 6thwas the first day the sun set the earliest it will all year long—at 4:19pm. And that will be the case for another week before the days start getting longer again. Your beloved died at, literally, the darkest time of year.

And, so it is with your grief at this sudden loss. It is a dark time, indeed, that you journey these last days of a significant year in the life of your family.

At the end of the year. At the end of a life shared together. It is dark. And it is in the darkness that we must remain, for some time.

We may feel like love is lost at times like this. In the intensity of grief, the finality of death hits like sprinting into a brick wall. The familiar bonds are severed completely. And the prospect of a radically changed life, now, chill the heart with fear and uncertainty.

Where, O Love, is Thy soothing presence? Where, O Love, is Thy warming touch? Where, O Love, is Thy reassuring voice?

For Christians, this loss is symbolized by the cross. And in the cross we see a cruciform shape to reality: Loss precedes renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every change in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous ‘form’.[1]

At your loved one’s bedside on December 6, you described to me the image of wings of protection and love that your beloved offered in prayer and in spirt for his children and grandchildren. The image of wings of love surrounding his family is a tender one.

In the bible wings describe the loving and protective stance of God towards us. “I gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (2 Esdras 1:30). The Psalmist prays: “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36:7).

May the image of holding a bird demonstrate the kind of love we need now to express in this time of loss. They say that to hold a bird, you can’t hold it too tightly. When the chickadees fly into the palm of my hand when I feed them nuts and sunflower seeds, I cannot, dare not, clasp my hand into a fist.

I must keep my hands open. They say that to show true love you must be willing to let the object of your love go. They say that to love, one must let go. One cannot control true love, hold on to it tightly. To be sure, there are times in life when love calls for a tighter grip, especially when giving direct care to one in need, or guiding and parenting children. In these situations, yes, a firmer hold in love may be necessary.

But at other times, especially when dark times of the year come around which they do for all of us, love demands a different approach. People wonder, understandably so, why if God is Almighty and Benevolent, why God allows those dark times to even happen at all.

If God truly loves us, God will offer love freely and not demand it be returned. If God truly loves us, God will give us freedom. God will let us go. Not abandon us, because God is everywhere. But give us the freedom to love and to let go.

And, you know also the saying: What you let go in love, like giving a tiny bird freedom to fly away from your hand, will return to you in love. Perhaps not in exactly the way you expected. Perhaps not according to your timing. Yet, this is the nature of God’s grace and love: In letting go, we discover and experience the surprise of love’s return in some form, some day.

What else can be said about December 6th, besides the day your beloved died? December 6th, of course, is Saint Nicolas Day. If anything can be said about Saint Nicolas is that he was generous. Generous to the poor, to those in need. Your beloved was generous to you with his love. The gift of generosity is given on the day your beloved died.

How can we continue in the love freely given and freely received in the union of marriage and family that was severely disrupted on the day your loved one died? The symbolism of the day cannot go unnoticed, unrecognized. We can continue in the legacy of your beloved is leaving to us: to pay attention to the needs of the vulnerable, the children. To be generous with the gifts God has given us to share with those in need. This is an honorable expression of our love for your loved one. This is a worthy focus of our energies as we wander in this dark time of loss and grief.

Yes, “grief and anxiety has gripped us, and we are frightened by the future. Yet, even in these times, God is there. The good news is that Jesus always comes again. Every year, despite how hard things have been, Jesus is born into our lives anew. Death is never the final word”[2]– divine love comes and gives us life. Again.

May love be our guide through these dark days, and into the bright hope of a New Year.

 

[1]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations (Center for Action and Contemplation,  www.cac.org) 7 December 2018)

[2]Lutherans Connect “Faith in the Night” DAY 7 (Lutheran Campus Ministry Toronto, 8 December 2018), lcfaithinthenight.blogspot.com

Game of Thrones and the Throne of Grace

As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne .. (Daniel 7:9)

There appears to be something different about the throne of the Ancient One. Among all the thrones, when the Ancient One sits down we are to take notice. What is it about God’s throne that stands out?

At this time of the year, we still ought to be saying: “Winter is coming.” Although it is obvious now that we can, with all “Game of Thrones” fans, be asserting those ominous words that indeed, “Winter has arrived”!

Fans of the epic TV series “Game of Thrones” need still to wait until the final season airs next year. In the symbolic centre of this miasma of twisting plot lines and characters constantly fighting for supremacy sits the imposing throne at the front of the grand hall of the capital city in George RR Martin’s fantasy world of ‘Westeros’.

Who will finally succeed in claiming the throne? Who IS the rightful heir? And how will each of the so-called ‘pretenders’ manage to usurp ultimate power in the Seven Kingdoms? These are the questions swirling around this throne, highlighted by spiked swords and jagged edges—a dark, cold symbol reflecting the heart, it seems, of what it takes to succeed in this place.

… and an Ancient One took his throne …

When Jesus stands before Pilate hours before Jesus dies a criminal of the state on a bloodied cross, he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world.[1]The cross stands as a counterpoint to the world’s thrones. The cross stands as a symbol, not of cold-hearted power-plays and world domination where the end justifies any, bloodied means. No, the cross is a sign of the God who failed according to the world’s rules, who found defeat at the hands of the worldly mighty.

The throne that Jesus sits on is indeed very different from all the others. When Jesus said ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ he meant its values are at odds with how power is exercised among humans, in all its brutish ways. We may be alarmed, and despair; yet, we accept that the ‘Game of Thrones’ world is quite similar to our reality on earth, more so than the kingdom of God.

I find at least two ways we fail to see and realize God’s ways on earth:

First, I suspect, for Christians, the temptation is to go the other way: to deny God’s kingdom on earth. The problem is that, without even consciously, we may delegate God’s values to some fantasy world. To practice genuine humility, forgiveness, grace, mercy and unconditional love not just to family and friends but to people we don’t know—well, we say, that’s reserved for ‘heaven’ someday; it has no place in the ‘real world’, we way.

But God’s throne is not in a different world than ours. God’s throne is not ‘up there’ or ‘over there’ or in some fantasy world far removed from our own.

The truth, and our hope, is that God’s way can be realized on earth. Not only has Jesus enabled people of all time and place to face the truth about ourselves, our relationships, our faith, and the world in which we live, Jesus is saying that his kingdom is also present — in part — upon the earth, in all our relationships.[2] Wherever grace is given and received, wherever forgiveness is practiced, wherever mercy and love are shown. There, is God.

I’m finishing up this week teaching a course on Martin Luther, prayer and the legacy of the Reformation (at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality). In teaching this course, the students and I have returned time and time again to the notion of movement. Semper Reformanda–the Latin phrase popularized by Karl Barth in the last century: Always reforming. The legacy of the Reformation is that we are a church that is continually changing, and moving, and becoming. And, in what ways?

Here, I want to bring in the Rev. Riitta Hepomaki, assistant to Bishop Pryse (Eastern Synod–Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada). She said at the workshop the council attended last weekend that what we lack, today, as a church of the Reformation is this sense of movement. Our western church, and especially our generation, has adopted a “we have arrived” mindset.

This is the second way in which we fail to realize God’s ways, God’s reign on earth.

If we have arrived, we don’t need to move. If we don’t move, we are stuck. The feeling of being stuck often leads to hopelessness. And, we are not talking here about physical movement from one street address to another, per se. We can make little moves: from the church hall to the streets, from our own kitchen or garden to a community kitchen or garden—wherever God is sending you.

Giving up the ‘we have arrived’ mindset means also that we are willing to move from my little world to other people’s worlds. It is challenging. But we can do it because we have faith, even faith the size of a miniscule mustard seed. And we have each other. We have fellowship. We have a new way of life. And because we are confident that our God will guide and provide.

So, let’s try to change our mindset from ‘having arrived’ to ‘being sent’, and ‘being in movement’. After all, if we don’t move, we cannot follow. Aren’t we called “followers of Jesus?”[3]And, today, we proclaim, that Jesus is the Lord of our lives. And that we are followers not of the ways of the world, but of the Reign of Christ.

In another vision of God, this time from a major prophet[4]in the Hebrew scriptures, God sits on his throne, yet the primary image is of the hem of God’s robe filling the temple. God’s presence permeates and fills all.

The world will indeed separate and set a boundary between the most powerful ‘at the front on the throne’, and the rest of us on the floor down below. Not so with God. In Christ, that boundary has been severed. Moments after Jesus died on that symbol of death and defeat—the cross—the curtain in the temple was torn.[5]The dividing line between where God is and where the rest of us are was opened.

No longer are we divided, violent, fighting, them-and-us. No longer need we compare, compete and kill. These are the actions and behavior of those who bow to the world’s thrones.

Rather, we are all enfolded in the robes of God’s grace forever. There are no boundaries, no limits, to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And, as the writer to the Hebrews expresses, we can therefore approach the “throne of grace” will confidence.[6]No longer afraid that God will rebuke, punish and condemn us. No longer condemned by our faults, sins and weaknesses.

We can approach this throne with boldness, assured that God will embrace us in mercy, forgiveness, and love.

 

[1]John 18:33-37, Gospel for the Reign of Christ Sunday, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[2]Robert A. Bryant in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol.4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.337.

[3]Riitta Hepomaki, The Eastern Synod Lutheran Volume 44, Sept 25, 2015 (Kitchener: Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada), p.1

[4]Isaiah 6:1-8

[5]Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45

[6]Hebrews 4:16

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)

Geometric power: The circle church

The architecture of church buildings, despite Christianity’s institutional decline in the Western world today, continues to draw our attention. For the most part, these are beautiful buildings, appealing to the eye whose symbols etched in paint, glass and images conveyed through colour and the play of light and shadow serve as magnets to the curious and searching among us all.

In one reading assigned for this Sunday from the prophet Amos, God’s judgement on Israel is measured by a plumb line.[1]Construction workers measured the stone blocks to make sure they were squared so the walls of the temple could be built straight up. It was used to make sure the construction of buildings was done properly. The plumb line image conveys the proverbial ‘standard’ to determine how righteous God’s people are. Needless to say, Israel fails miserably, time and time again.

It seems, for folks in the bible, there is always good and bad in the mix. God’s people will never, no matter how hard they try, be pure and perfect in their doing and being. From ancient days to this day, people of faith always miss the mark. Just read Paul.[2]Our vision is often clouded, and we cannot help but make mistakes on the journey.

The stories from the bible assigned for this day reveal characters mired in the shackles of their humanity, good and bad. David rejoices in bringing the ark of the covenant into the holy place of the temple in Jerusalem while others look on with hatred, despising him.[3]Of course, King David was no angel himself, committing murder and adultery while he was king.[4]

Herod Antipas, in the Gospel reading, respected the rogue John the Baptist and liked to hear him speak yet condemned him to a gruesome death in order to protect his own reputation.[5]Wherever you read in the bible, you cannot avoid the sinfulness of even the so-called heroes of the faith.

What we build to the glory of God, the fruits of our labours and expressions of our faith, will also reflect this good/bad reality. The Dean of the now re-named Martin Luther University College [formerly Waterloo Lutheran Seminary], Rev. Dr. Mark Harris, once told me, when he visited me at my former parish at Zion Lutheran Church in Pembroke, that no matter all the changes that happen in the church today — good and bad — architecture always wins out.

What does the architecture of a place of prayer, therefore, communicate? What truths do they reveal about what we value, what is important to the church? How does the architecture ‘win out’?

Recently, I’ve visited other congregations that are housed in beautiful, old church buildings. The first is Merrickville United Church where last month I did a pulpit exchange, you might remember. The second was two months ago when I visited Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington D.C., which hosted some seminars at the Festival of Homiletics.

What is similar about the floors in these churches, keeping in mind [hint!] our discussion of the plumb line? What would Amos say about their construction using his plumb line?

Why did the original construction include a sloped floor? Perhaps its architects wanted to create an easier sight-line for the person in the pew to see clearly the primary furniture of worship located in the chancel — the font, altar and pulpit. The font, where the first sacrament of baptism — of entering the family of God; the altar, where the sacrament of the meal invites us regularly for nourishment on the journey of faith; the pulpit from where we hear God’s word in scripture and voice.

That’s the good from the construction, that we are drawn and can see clearly what is central to our faith: Word and Sacrament. That we can come easily; we don’t have to work hard to earn our way to God. I don’t know how many times in worships services and lectures during my time in and visits to these spaces, we had to stop whatever was going on to wait for a rolling water bottle to make its easy yet loud, clattering roll down to the front.

So, the good: We can pool down into the arms of God’s grace. We are drawn to the love of God’s welcome and forgiveness. And we really don’t need to work hard to be there. We just need to ride the current flowing to God. It is gift. It is grace. It is free. Neither ought we place any barriers to God’s grace being accessible to all, to come forward. To let all, including ourselves, come to God. Amen? All are welcome!

You may have noticed, however, that King David brings the ark of the covenant “up” into the city. Indeed, this is the geography and architecture of the city of David built upon a hill.[6]And the holy of holies is not down below in the valley, but up high by the altar.

The people have to exert some physical energy to get to the place of God’s presence. Even David, in all his rejoicing in bringing the ark to Jerusalem, “danced before the Lord with all his might.”[7]He was working hard! He was putting his all – heart, soul and body – into the effort.

At the unplanned end to my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage last year, I sat in the large nave of the cathedral in Bilbao, Spain, reflecting on the disappointing turn of events. It is a spectacular fifteenth century build.

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As I looked around me in the silent, cavernous space, for a split second I experienced vertigo, not unlike you would in the old slanted room in the Ottawa Science Centre. Something was off.

Then I realized, I’d never before been in a church building whose floor was not sloped downward toward the altar, but upward!

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And what goes up must come down. The floor was slanting outward and downward toward the front doors and down into the city!

The story of David’s extravagant, energy-filled entrance up into the holy city didn’t finish at the holy of holies. Going up was completed by turning around at the apex to come back down. The story ends by David distributing food and gifts to not only his family and friends in the city, but “the whole multitude of Israel.”[8]Everyone is fed!

Worship and centering in God is followed by a necessary, gracious giving and going out into the world. I quote again the prophet Amos, where we started: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[9]

We don’t have slanted floors here. It’s more or less flat. Amos with his plumb line might be satisfied with the level of the floors. But what else could the architecture of our place of worship tell us about ourselves, our identity and God’s call for us?

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Could it be, sitting in room that is basically round that the obvious measure and geometric symbol is not the straight line, but the circle? And now, with larger windows surrounding us, windows which let more light in, also improve our imagination and connection with the world out there? Could it be, given the architecture of our faith here at Faith, we are now called not only to be drawn into the centre, the hub, of the circle who is Christ, but also be sent out in the centrifugal force of God’s Spirit?

In the last pages of the bible, the Book of Revelation, we read a vision of God’s magnificent future:

God’s future comes as an experience of God’s love, “flowing like a river from God’s throne, nourishing trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.”[10]This vision “pictures a world made whole, with people living in a beloved community, where no one is despised or forgotten, peace reigns, and the goodness of God’s creation is treasured and protected as a gift. Our faith is not a privatized expression of belief which keeps faith in Jesus contained in an individualized bubble and protects us from the world.

“Rather, we are on a spiritual journey in which we remain connected to the centre of the presence of God but whose love yearns to save and transform the world. We are called to be ‘in Christ’, which means we share – always imperfectly, and always in community with others – the call to be the embodiment of God’s love in the world.”[11]

In loving others by including them in the circle, we discover how much we are loved by God. We are the circle church. A porous, ever-expanding circle.

 

[1]Amos 7:7-9

[2]Romans 3:23; Romans 7:15-21

[3]2 Samuel 6:16

[4]2 Samuel 11

[5]Mark 6:14-29

[6]2 Samuel 6:12b

[7]2 Samuel 6:14

[8]2 Samuel 6:18-19

[9]Amos 5:24

[10]Revelation 22:1-2

[11]Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Friday, July 13, 2018 (www.cac.org)

Dare we imagine

For my friend’s wedding over twenty years ago, I was asked to play Pachelbel’s Canon in D on my violin for the processional. We were to rehearse on the Friday evening. As I was running late, I drove over 120 km/hour on the Queensway from the west end all the way to Orleans. When I ran into the church, violin case in toe, the bride was waiting. I had made it just in time to set up and start the procession.

The notes lifted off the strings and the bridal party started down the aisle. But I was getting strange looks from them when all of a sudden the bride waved her hands and said: “Could we start over? Martin, did you tune your instrument?”

At that moment I actually heard the music I was playing – completely off key, sharp by at least three tones. “Ah, no,” I mumbled, even though the problem wasn’t that I hadn’t tuned my instrument. The problem was in my head.

You see, when I sat down to play, my mind was still travelling 120 km/h on the Queensway. My body may have been resting at that moment when I played the first note. But everything inside of me was still going. And going fast. No wonder I was playing sharp.

I learned from that experience, that before I play my guitar or violin, or sing any song, I must pause. I stop. And in my mind, before playing the first note, I hear what I want to play and how I want to play it. I need to imagine it first, before doing anything.

The truth is, you cannot even do something until you first have an image of it inside you. Albert Einstein, early 20th century inventor and scientist, once said, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge …”[1]

Late 20thcentury author, surgeon, and inventor — Leonard Shlain – made the case that images come before our capacity to verbalize or name what we see.[2]We have to see it in our mind’s eye, first. Our imagination dictates our reality to a large extent.

Attending the Festival of Homiletics in Washington D.C. this week is a real treat, as I have had a little time in the busy schedule hopefully to visit the National Gallery of Art.

There, until mid-summer is an exhibition of paintings about Francis of Assisi. Francis of Assisi from the 13thcentury is an important figure in Christian history. He is, of course, known for his spirituality about nature and all of creation. Francis is also credited for putting Christmas on the annual Christian calendar. Christmas is the celebration of God’s incarnation into humanity.

I was impressed to learn that “Francis of Assisi has the longest, single entry in the bibliography in the Library of Congress, also in Washington D.C. He is the most written-about human being in history. Every day there is another biography, monograph, that they enter into their files, from another language, another culture, even other religions.

When the Pope some years ago wanted to gather leaders of all the world religions to have a respectful, inter-faith dialogue, the only city in the world that they could agree to meet in was Assisi, Italy. Because the memory of this man doesn’t carry much negative baggage at all. “[3]He was one of those rare human beings whose humility and stance towards others garnered respect and love. Truly, a saint.

In one popular painting of him, he is standing with arms open and the birds flocking around him. But instead of looking up – which you might expect – he is looking down at the earth.

In the season of Pentecost we are entering now, we read from Book of Acts that the Spirit of God “came from heaven” upon those gathered in Jerusalem.[4]The Spirit of God came down upon the earth. The Spirit of God descended to the place where humans were gathered.

Often we assume that to be spiritual, or to be holy, we have to gaze upwards towards heaven – somewhere away from the here and the now. We may therefore over emphasize our destination in the heavenly realms while paying little heed to the earthly journey.

In the optioned first reading for today[5], we encounter a dramatic vision of what happens in the valley of dry bones.[6]The prophet Ezekiel conveys to us a message using fantastic imagery, not unlike later apocalyptic visions from Daniel and the Book of Revelation in the Bible. I hope our imaginations are stirred by this reading, where skeletal human remains join together and begin to walk again.

Christians have traditionally understood this vision primarily to point to the resurrection of the dead, in light of Christ’s resurrection. This rising, then, would happen at the end of time, after our physical death.

Such an interpretation does not do full justice to the text, whose context is the community of exiles in Babylon, some six centuries before Christ. These exiles – the people of God – felt dead, like the dry bones. They had lost everything when Babylon conquered Jerusalem – their temple, their homes, their land.

The prophet Ezekiel with the exiles, conveys the word of God to the hopeless. The vision of new life in the dry bones is a promise of new life for the exiles. They are given hope, in a hopeless world.

Holy people in art are often depicted looking up to God. While this is certainly an appropriate stance to have in life, let us not miss the point of the Pentecost message, which is not fundamentally heavenward. The primary movement and message of Pentecost is downward. To the ground. God’s Holy Spirit blows upon the earth, in the earth, and in humanity.

God’s Spirit comes to us, wherever we are in life on earth. To whatever circumstance of our lives. Whether we are imprisoned in the exile of our own making or constrained by forces beyond our control. It is into the ordinary, the mundane even sordid realities of life to which God now comes.

Our lives on earth matter to God. How we live and what we do with what we have matters to God. How we live and what we don’t have matters to God. How we live with others matters to God.

While in the passing season of Easter our gaze may have looked upward to the glory of Jesus, our gaze and focus during Pentecost levels out upon the earth. We now watch for the presence of God among us. We go where the Spirit blows to do God’s will and mission.

We pause to imagine, like African American slaves did centuries ago on this continent, that ‘dem bones’ will rise again out of captivity. Dem bones will sing a new song. Dem bones will embrace freedom in the loving grace of God.

Dare we imagine.

[1]Cited in Leonard Shlain, “Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light” (New York: HarperCollins, 2007)

[2]Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation” 14 May 2018 (Center for Action and Contemplation), http://www.cac.org

[3]Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis”, Session One/CD1 (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True, 2010)

[4]Acts 2:2 NRSV

[5]Day of Pentecost, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary

[6]Ezekiel 37:1-14