Faith alone not our faith alone

“Increase our faith,” we pray.

Isn’t that what we want? More faith to get us through the tough times. More faith to make us better people. More faith to tolerate things in life that set us off course. More faith to believe in things that are not easy to believe in. More. If only we had more.

In the BBC television series called “Broken” actor Sean Bean plays the role of Michael, a parish priest in a small, industrial town. In one of the episodes he answers a question from someone in the youth group curious as to why he chose the priesthood.

He tells the story of when he was eighteen years old he went one day with a crowd of people to visit a falconer on the side of a hill. To see such a large bird with a with a vast wingspan take flight was a treat for the villagers, many of whom had never before seen a falcon. The falconer took time describing the bird to the villagers and even had some of them feed it.

Then they all watched captivated by the sight of the majestic bird lifting off from the falconer’s outstretched arm. Michael saw the bird circle once overhead before heading out into the vast sky overlooking the valley below. The falcon became smaller and smaller—a small dot over the horizon—until it finally disappeared from view.

The afternoon wore on. People looked at the falconer and each other, wondering what to do. But the falconer did not move from his place on the side of the hill. The hours turned and the sun was setting in the western sky. What had started as a large crowd dissipated until there was only the falconer and Michael standing alone there. Michael wondered why the people had left.

He sympathized, for sure. Perhaps, as he was feeling, there was no point in hanging around anymore. The falcon was gone. How would it know to return to this very spot after ranging across a sky which was so vast and covered the whole world? Why would the falcon even care to return? It was now free to roam wherever it wanted to go. What more could it want?

To Michael’s surprise, but not it seemed to the falconer’s, as the darkness descended on the hillside he heard a flutter and rush of wings. The falcon had returned and now sat perched contentedly on the falconer’s arm. Michael could see the white of the falconer’s teeth showing from behind a smile that stretched from cheek to cheek. Michael laughed with delight.

Here was faith. And it was the falconer’s witness of faith that inspired Michael on his life journey. That the falconer had waited on that hillside for what seemed like forever. To stay there, when everyone else had gone home, even if it meant waiting alone. To have no guarantee that the falcon would return. To not have control over how long and when. And if. But only do what he was called to do: Let the falcon go. Let that bird with whom he had a relationship, to be sure, go.

“Increase our faith.”

Maybe it’s not our faith that is at stake here. These texts assigned for today can easily lead us into yet another guilt trip or glory trip—as if that’s what faith is all about! We are either not worthy enough, not good enough. Or, look – I’ve moved mountains! If only we had more, even more, faith!

“Increase our faith.”

The faith talked about in these passages are Christian, but perhaps not in the sense of the faith of the Christians. Because dwelling exclusively on our faith alone often gets us spiraling into dark holes of depression and feelings of unworthiness, defeat and failure. We hit walls of misunderstanding when we separate our faith from the faith of Christ, the One we trust. Here the central understanding is not our faith but faith in Christ, a faith that mirrors the faith of Christ.

It is like eighteen-year-old Michael watching the faith of the falconer.  What Michael ends up doing with his life is secondary. What is at stake, what is the most important thing in Michael’s experience on the side of that mountain one long afternoon, is not his own faith but someone else’s.

Timothy is charged to ‘rekindle’ the mustard seed of faith that is within him. The mustard seed is tiny, almost undetectable to the naked eye. We don’t often recognize the gift that is already there.[1]

Perhaps we too need to wait on the side of that hill, and not just give up and go home.

Timothy is encouraged that there is something good within him working long before he even became aware of it. He has to be reminded that “grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began”. And that we are called to good things, “not according to our works but according to [Christ’s] own purpose and grace.”[2]

In prayer, in our relationships and interactions, the search-light of consciousness turns off ourselves and onto the living Christ. When the attention turns away from our stuff—good and bad—and onto Jesus, I believe we may feel a needed lift. Our heart alights. The pressure for performance relaxes. The guilt dissipates. And we can start by simply being in awe about the One whose purposes and faithfulness and love reach far beyond our own self-preoccupations, weaknesses and accomplishments.

What transformed eighteen-year-old Michael was not an argument about faith, not a debate which he won or lost and convinced him either way what to do with his life. What transformed Michael was an encounter with someone who showed him the way, who practiced faith. Our call is not to win all the arguments but to forgive as we have been forgiven and to love as we have been loved.

We are called to get in touch with the Giver of the gift of faith. We are called to give thanks for the One who beckons for us to stay on the journey, calling us not worthless, but friends along the way.

Let our prayer of praise therefore shout from the rooftops: “Great is Thy Faithfulness!”[3]Amen.

 

[1]Luke 17:5-10

[2]2 Timothy 1:1-14

[3]Hymn 733, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

From Loss to Life

“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little … and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

 -Paul, to the Philippians 4:11-13

One of the basic truisms of pilgrimage walking is that first-timers usually pack more than they need for the journey. The general rule is ten percent of your body weight. For most people, that means no more than fifteen to twenty pounds in your backpack.

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I read in one of the Camino de Santiago guidebooks, in preparation for my walk last summer, that for most first-time pilgrims five pounds in their pack is unnecessary; these items amount to five pounds of fear: that extra sweatshirt, pajama onesie, that tub of moisturizing cream or the proverbial electric hairdryer. It is not long on the journey before at least five pounds are left behind or mailed home.

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If we use the pilgrimage as a metaphor for life, then the pilgrim on the journey of life, to be true to the journey, needs to learn how to let go.

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When I began I thought I had it down to the bare minimum. Nevertheless, I was still anxious. Those first few days I worried about where I was going to sleep that night. Not knowing how far I would walk, and not wanting to put the stress of expectation by booking ahead, I had to go with the flow and improvise in the moment. Even though I found a place every night, I was still preoccupied, distracted and fretting. Perhaps I had put too much faith in what I carried.

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Before I knew it, I lost some of my belongings those first days on the path. The first night I left behind my head lamp. The second or third night – I don’t know which – I lost my very expensive self-inflating bed roll for underneath my sleeping bag.

If the story ended there, you might say I was in an unwanted, growing state of crisis. If the story ended there you might say my pilgrimage was headed towards disaster, defeat, loss and failure. If the story ended there, you might say that everything was falling apart in my journey, collapsing into the rubble heap of destruction.

But the story didn’t end there. And it doesn’t end there.

The truth is, as Richard Rohr explains it best, that “through loss, through crisis, through stress, limitation, we move to a better place in our lives.

“Physicists today would say that loss is not real. There is only transformation. The metaphor of the liquid world is that this element simply moves from liquid to solid to vapor and back again.

“It looks like a death, a loss, in each case. But, in fact, it’s a becoming. Now we recognize that Jesus was saying this all along. In Christianity, it was called the ‘Paschal Mystery’. It was a phrase used by Saint Augustine that in fact dying leads to resurrection. Jesus became the icon, the living image, of that mystery – that his crucified body transformed into the risen Christ. That they are both the same person.

“Creativity, newness of life, has a cost. And the cost is what always looks like death. But really isn’t. The cost is loss. Which is perceived as an enemy, or affliction, which always looks like what we don’t want. Somehow to embrace loss, spiritually speaking, is to achieve eternity. Death allows us to be united with what is real. But, of course, it only looks like death from our side. Apparently from the other side – we call it heaven, or eternal life – is in fact the really real.

“The really real is already beginning now. And that’s what we need to trust. That’s what we need to allow. Fourteenth century Italian theologian Catherine of Siena once said: ‘It’s heaven all the way to heaven; and, it’s hell all the way to hell.’ And the way to heaven begins in this world, all the way to heaven.

“To avoid all loss, to avoid all letting go, is to avoid transformation into union with God. If you spend your entire life avoiding ‘dying’, Jesus would say you never get there. It’s hell all the way to hell.

“‘Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.’[i] We now know that this phrase was used in the initiation rites of Asia Minor. Perhaps one of Jesus’ most enigmatic lines is: ‘You must lose your life in order to find your life; you must lose your life in order to gain your life.’[ii] And if you don’t let it go, you will never find it.”[iii]

This is what Paul is talking about when he says he can do all things in Christ who strengthens him. That is, he can also ‘let go’. Not only does he know what it is to have plenty. He can also lose.

Philippians 4:13 is a popular well-loved verse in the New Testament: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” It is often used to bolster self-confidence in accomplishing heroic goals and aspirations. It is often quoted on posters, billboards and bumper stickers to indicate a glory, success and prosperity gospel message of human achievement more reflective of current self-help pop psychology. It is also used to undergird impressive mission goals in the church.

Moreover, the first nine verses of this chapter – the famous “Rejoice always!” text – are read on their own, as unfortunately prescribed in the Revised Common Lectionary, without including verses 10-13 for context. And the context is Paul’s suffering and need and persecution.

He is rejoicing and expressing his confidence in living precisely because he has travelled through the valley of the shadow of death. Precisely because he has learned to let go. You can’t have resurrection without death. You can’t experience the joy of transformation without first feeling the pain of loss. You can’t do mission unless you have let go, done without, lost — in some fundamental, real way.

Later this month on Reformation Sunday when all ELCIC Lutherans in Ottawa will gather to worship together, we will sing together Martin Luther’s well-known hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Frederick Hedge’s English translation is closer to the original German when in the last verse we sing: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.”[iv]

Here, we get a peek into an under-emphasized aspect of Luther’s theology which included the practice of letting go. Not only is salvation realized at the moment of our mortal death, it is something that begins in the midst of living. That is, during our life we the practice the art of dying – of letting go, of losing – as an essential experience in the way of salvation, of transformation.

When I realized I had lost my head lamp and bed roll several days later, a couple of things were happening within me:

First, it took a while for me to notice these losses. I didn’t notice my loss right away perhaps because I really didn’t need those things. Second, and maybe more significantly, I was less stressed the farther I journeyed along the Camino. I was relaxing more into the pilgrimage, even without what I had deemed essential kit when I began.

Some Christians in the West today make the mistake, I believe, of confusing loss of privilege with persecution. Wealthy, financially advantaged Christians say they are being persecuted by a politically correct movement to recognize other religions and different people in a growing multi-cultural and pluralistic society, something Luther could never have envisioned in his day.[v]

We are not being persecuted. Rather, we are being confronted with the prospect of losing our privileged place in society, a status that we have admittedly enjoyed for centuries in our country. What the real issue is, is whether we will resist and avoid this loss, or whether we will accept it.

What is ending in your life? What are you facing that deep down you know is a loss? What are the failures and defeats and suffering in your life? Where is there suffering in the lives of the vulnerable, the underprivileged, the poor?

Pay attention, and wake up. These may, in truth, be invitations. Invitations to enter the gate of loss and letting go. Invitations to let go and trust that through dying, it is heaven all the way to heaven.

 

[i] John 12:24

[ii] Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, John 12:25

[iii] Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis” (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Audio CD Learning Course, 2010), Session Three.

[iv] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 2006), Hymn 505

[v] The Rev. Dr. Gordon Jensen, “Luther’s Legacy” in Canada Lutheran (Volume 32, Number 6, September 2017), p.10-14

Trust the down

I hate roller-coasters. It’s about the fear of letting go of control on the way down, that’s the problem. The couple times I’ve had the guts to go on a roller-coaster, I didn’t enjoy the experience because I couldn’t let go on the way down. Someone took a photo of me and my friend in the middle of one of those rapid descents: My friend who loves roller-coaster — his arms were up in the air and a big smile beamed across his face.

Sitting beside him, I was the opposite: My hands were glued to the bar in front of us, and my lips were pursed tightly and my eyes looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets. It looked as if I were staring death in the face, going down that roller coaster.

I read this week: “Humans are the only creatures who have knowledge of their own death. Its awareness creeps on us as we get older. All other animals, plants, and the cycles of nature themselves seem to live out and surrender to the pattern of mortality.

This places humans in a state of anxiety and insecurity from our early years. We know on some level that whatever this is that we are living will not last. This changes everything, probably more than we realize consciously. So our little bit of consciousness makes us choose to be unconscious. It hurts too much to think about it.” (1)

We humans find ingenious ways to avoid this journey, especially through Holy Week, that invites us to contemplate not only human death but the death of God in Christ Jesus. No wonder, especially among Protestants, attending services through Holy Week is not popular. This is not easy work, to face Jesus’s and our own mortality. No fun in that.

One way we avoid and deny this awareness of our own mortality is to find a scapegoat — by focusing all our negative energy on something or someone else. Our scapegoat is that which deludes us into believing that its destruction will somehow solve all our problems and make everything better again. Our scapegoat also shields us from taking responsibility for and dealing with our own problems.

Today, the scapegoats are easy to identify: The immigrants, the newcomers to Canada, the Muslims, the gays, the corrupt politicians, the government, the media, the church hierarchy — you name it. The blame game is alive and well, even in the church.

And then what happens is what many wise teachers through the ages have said: When we deny our own suffering we make others around us suffer. Which is unfair and unjust. Because the Gospel was given first and foremost to the followers of Jesus. 

“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near,” The Gospel Mark thus records Jesus’s first words to his own people in Galilee. And to them he said, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). We are the ones addressed by the Gospel — those who are already in the church, in the family of God. Not those so-called ‘bad’ people out there.

Jesus was the scapegoat whose destruction would solve the high-priestly authorities’ problems. By having Jesus put to death, the religious authorities could maintain their power and privileged position in Jerusalem, the Roman Emperor’s fears of insurrection would be temporarily alleviated, and the Pax Romana (the Roman rule) would continue in the land.

As unjust as killing Jesus was — for many even in authority including Pilate saw that Jesus was innocent — Jesus was the convenient scapegoat whose death on a cross would make it easy on those in power. And maintain the unjust status quo in the land.

After hearing of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, the high priest, Caiaphas, advised the rest of the leadership in Jerusalem: “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Rather than do the right thing in the moment, the end — a false peace — justifies the unjust means. Classic scapegoat -ism: Jesus became the convenient victim in the human power play of first century Judean politics.

It’s ironic that our fear, denial and avoidance of death is actually that which keeps us stuck in scapegoating, in blaming others, in all the motivations for war and violence in the world. You could argue that all of what is bad in the world today stems from humanity’s continued ambivalence and denial of death.

What’s amazing is that Jesus, knowing all along this human condition, chose to become a victim to it. From his privileged unity with God the Creator, he chose to connect with humanity. The reading on Palm Sunday from Philippians 2:5-11 describes this downward movement of God in Christ into the “enfleshment of creation” (2), and then into humanity’s depths and sadness, and final identification with those at the very bottom, “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7), to death on the Cross.

Jesus represents God’s total solidarity with, and love of, the human situation. It’s as if God is saying: “Nothing human, now, is abhorrent to me.” This is incredible.

The Cross represents the divine choice to descend. It’s almost total counterpoint with our humanity that is always trying to climb, achieve, perform, justify and prove itself. The witness of the Cross is the divine invitation to each of us to reverse the usual process.

Christians worldwide have a great gift and witness in the Gospel of Christ crucified. The divine union with humanity suggests that everything human — including death, losing and letting go that is so much a reality in all our lives — is embraced by God’s love. The reason God loves even our shadow sides, is because God experienced the fullness of its brutal and unjust consequences, in the death of Jesus.

Jesus is like the human blueprint for our own transformation. Because who would have presumed that the way up could be the way down? It is, as Saint Paul writes, “the secret Mystery” (Romans 16:25).

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. The hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 says that Jesus leaves the ascent to God, in God’s way, and in God’s time. Because Jesus went to the bottom of all that is human, “God lifted him up, and gave him the name above all other names” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Of course, they say the joy of a roller coaster’s twists, turns and rapid descents is knowing and trusting that the ride eventually and surprisingly goes up. What an incredible rush! Carl Jung wrote: “Not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die.” (3) The roller coaster analogy suggests that when we refuse to descend, when we avoid facing our own mortality, and avoid taking responsibility for our own suffering, we also don’t really live.

Conversely, we can only truly live when we have faced and come to terms with the reality of our own mortal, imperfect human lives. Being fully human is being fully spiritual, faithful and alive. Saint Irenaeus was first to say in the second century that the glory of God is human being fully alive.

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. When challenges, disappointments, defeats and failures come your way, don’t rush into avoidance techniques, distractions, denial of the problem or blaming others for the circumstance you find yourself in. What do these events have to teach you? Where is God in the midst of your suffering? What are the signs of grace therein? Christian faith asserts that God is revealed precisely in those lowest moments. Jesus believed this. It was trust in his Father that got Jesus through his passion, suffering and death.

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. Resurrection was just around the corner.

 

1 — Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent” (Cincinnati Ohio: Franciscan Media, 2011), p.100.
2 — Rohr, ibid., p.123
3 — cited in Rohr, ibid., p.123.

Place for all – a funeral sermon

“Lord, when the shadows lengthen and night has come, I know that you will strengthen my steps toward home, then nothing can impede me, O blessed Friend! So, take my hand and lead me unto the end.” (1)

I wonder if in her last days in the hospital, May if she weren’t singing the words she certainly meant them when she declared a few times to those attending to her, “I’m soon going home.”

In saying this, did she mean her home in Osgoode — the homestead and first family home? Or in Bel Air Heights on Cannon Drive, where she and her family lived for 52 years? Or, was a more nuanced meaning of ‘home’ coming to mind? For example, when home wasn’t so much a specific place, as it was being with family in any place — such as the campground at Silver Lake, which I hear you frequented quite often and created so many cherished memories together.

“I’m soon going home.” Or, as I suspect, didn’t she already know that she soon was going home to be with all her loved ones gone before her — in her heavenly home?

A prayer on her lips and a well-known hymn’s words: So, take my hand and lead me, Lord, strengthen me in my steps toward home.

Indeed, home life was so important to May. You have told me, dear family, how your home — however imagined — was always a place of welcome to all your friends. It was a place of unconditional acceptance of each of you and your friends. Your home became a destination place for the community. A basement brimming with energy and sounding of laughter was a common occurrence. A tone of inclusiveness and openness surrounded home life.

Today as we gather to celebrate May’s life, we can affirm that God’s house is now home for May (John 14:1-3). This is a dwelling place which has a room for her, and all her loved ones in the heavenly host. 

May feels at home, I am sure, because her homes on earth seemed very much like what Jesus described in the kingdom of God: A place of inclusion, where all feel welcome. Food for everyone! An acre of vegetables that had to be tended, comes to mind, as you shared precious memories of treasured places like the large garden in the back yard.

In the Gospel reading, when Jesus says: In my Father’s house there are many rooms, read “a room for you” as “a place for you.” It goes beyond a mere belonging. It means “you can be yourself fully, here”. It means “you can come just as you are and be as you are.” “You can participate fully in everything this family is about.”

This participation is not isolated individualism. Because a house has shared space. A house has many rooms, yes. But a house means you are in a community of a certain kind. There are spaces in a house that must be shared — a living room, family room, dining room, kitchen, hallways, bathrooms.

Your parents were leaders in this shared space. They valued certain things in the family. They taught you what you know about being in relationship with one another: respecting the other, being responsible for your actions, being accountable to one another. Each of you had ‘room’ in this family to participate fully in your own unique way, and still be mindful of the other. 

The journey which continues today for May in her heavenly home begins on earth. However we find our way from this day onward — different for each of us — the same God who walked with May on earth walks with us. The God who blessed May with the joy of family relationships leads us toward bright horizons — the dawn of a new day.

Lord, take my hand and lead me upon life’s way; Direct, protect, and feed me from day to day. Without your grace and favour I go astray; So take my hand, O Saviour, and lead the way. (2)

Amen.

(1) – Julie von Hausmann, “Lord Take My Hand and Lead Me” in #767 Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, MN, 2006

(2) – Ibid.

The home of God

Every year in mid to late November since the turn of the millenium Canada has observed a National Housing Day. This Sunday, November 15, I will participate in an interfaith Prayer Service at Centrepointe Studio in Nepean (Ottawa) to mark this day and remind us of our calling as Christians as well as members of other faiths to work together in providing affordable and safe housing for all people. Please visit http://www.multifaithhousing.ca for more details on our observance of National Housing Day. Below is a draft of my words, representing a Protestant Christian viewpoint focusing on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will also hear voices from the Roman Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Unitarian and Jewish perspectives.

Community singing is an important tradition among Christians. We love to sing. And the music conveys well the passion and the truth of what we are all about, as followers of Jesus.
Here is a verse, and the refrain, from a hymn that is quickly growing in my affection at this time of year:

Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness. Christ, be our light! Shine in your church gathered today.

Longing for shelter, many are homeless. Longing for warmth, many are cold. Make us your building, sheltering others, walls made of living stone.

Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness. Christ, be our light! Shine in your church gathered today. (1)

Many times in the Gospels (in the Greek Testament of the Bible), Jesus describes the “kingdom of God”. One of my favourite images is from Mark (4:32), where Jesus compares God’s reign to a small seed that ” … becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

This image gives an all-encompassing, expansive vision of what God intends: a home for all creatures great and small.

Of course, the problem is, that so many people don’t have this shelter, this safety, this home. And it’s not just a spiritual reality. It’s also a material, earth-bound reality.

After all, Jesus himself was a refugee. After his birth, Jesus’ parents Joseph and Mary had to flee the threat of persecution in their home country. In Matthew (2:13) we read: “… an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Jesus, Christians believe, is the Son of God. And this God we worship experienced, on earth, what it means to be a refugee and to be homeless.

Elsewhere in Matthew (8:20) as Jesus exercises his ministry of compassion, healing and grace to the downtrodden, he reminds those who listen: “Foxes have holes and birds of air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

We are called, therefore, to care precisely for those who are homeless, who are refugees today as if we are loving God. The righteous will ask God: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to least of these … you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

I quote thirteenth century Saint Francis of Assisi, who said: “Preach the Gospel; use words only when necessary.” Through concrete actions of care to the homeless, Christians have a clear and unequivocal mandate that bears witness to our faith most effectively: Not through words so much as by our actions, we make a physical haven for those without. And, in so doing, we reveal the truth that the author of the last book of the Bible expressed: “See, the home of God is among mortals!” (Revelation 21:3)

(1) “Christ Be Our Light” text by Bernadette Farrell OCP Publications in Evangelical Lutheran Worship Hymn #715 Pew Edition, Augsburg Fortress, 2006

‘One little word’

“Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods …. Now … choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:2,15)

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places … ” (Ephesians 6:10-12)

My mother told me the story of a dramatic stand made by Christians against Hitler on Easter Sunday 1942 in Norway: The Nazis had insisted that every Lutheran congregation praise God for Hitler’s rule over the Norwegians. The Lutheran Church considered this blasphemy, and refused. Every Norwegian Church closed that Easter Sunday morning. And instead they agreed to worship in the afternoon.

Later that day in one of the villages the people assembled in the market place. And because they were scared, they began singing what Lutherans have sung for over 400 years when they were afraid: “A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing …”

And they slowly began to walk to the steps of the village church — only to find the doors locked and guarded by a company of SS soldiers with submachine guns trained at them. When the Christians arrived at the front steps, having finished the first verse of Martin Luther’s famous hymn, an SS officer grabbed a woman holding a baby in her arms and said: “One more verse and she gets it first”, pointing the weapon at her head.

In the tense silence, the people, not knowing what to do, looked down at their feet.

And then, a single, soft, quivering voice began … 

“Though hordes of devils fill the land, all threatening to devour us, we tremble not, unmoved we stand, they cannot overpower us. Let this world’s tyrant rage … his might is doomed to fail. God’s judgement must prevail. One little word subdues him.”

It was the voice of the woman holding the baby. “One little word subdues him.” The soldiers were the ones in a moment of indecision who looked down at their boots. And then quietly they shuffled out of sight to let the worshippers enter the church.

One little word subdues him. Not a loud trumpet call. Not an explosion of spectacular proportions. Not an air strike obliterating the enemy. Not a bravado that denies human frailty and vulnerability. Not eloquent oration. Not a motivational speech rallying the crowd into a frenzy. One little word subdues him.

The themes of ‘standing up against evil’ and ‘taking a stand’ pervade the scriptures assigned for this Sunday. We must choose our god. We must stand up. Especially in the context of a multi-faith community. But how do we do this when all we want to do is stare down at our feet, immobilized with fear?

Because we are surrounded by diverse peoples. And that isn’t going to change. At least we can relate to the Ephesians. The Christians in Ephesus were probably taken to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of Domitian; Ephesus in the first century was also a thriving commercial city and the cultic centre of goddess Artemis. (Haruko Nawata  Ward, Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 3 Fortress Press, 2009, p.376). Christians were challenged to be confident in their faith amidst challenging times. Change some of the names, and it feels a bit like Canada in the 21st century!

And as simple as we sometimes may want to reduce the question of evil, the scriptures present a more subtle and systemic view of evil. In other words, evil is not just a little red man with a pitch fork sitting on your shoulder tempting you to do something bad. Evil is also, and more significantly, about forces beyond the immediately ‘individual’, into the realms of politics, world history, economics. 

More than against “flesh and blood” evil is also about certain patterns of thinking. Our attitudes and underlying beliefs and assumptions about people of other faiths and values.

Standing up against evil and taking a stand is just is as much to do with changing the way we think about ‘them’. Standing up against evil is about repudiating ways of thinking and unspoken assumptions that have only served to hurt and damage other people. Sometimes the way we think — the common sense assumptions of our culture — are downright evil and wrong. Let me give you an example:

This past summer at the national convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), the church voted to repudiate the “doctrine of discovery”. This doctrine is different from our normal understanding of a statement of faith. But it was a belief that resulted in untold damage to the aboriginal populations of North America. It was the reason aboriginal children were taken from their homes, families and communities to suffer — many of them — in the so-called Indian Residential Schools in the last century.

The doctrine of discovery was the underpinning belief that resulted in the first explorers labelling Aboriginal people as “beasts of the field and forest”, and prompted governments to justify “killing the Indian in the child.” The doctrine of discovery made the residential schools places where native children were not permitted to speak their own language, practice their own religion, nor attend with their own siblings or have any contact with their parents while they were at school. How evil is that!?

So what is this doctrine of discovery that the ELCIC repudiated? Basically, it was a system of belief based in the discovery of North America, as if nothing of inherent value existed here before ‘we’ arrived. When the explorers landed on the shores of Iceland and then Turtle Island (i.e. North America), the land appeared to be unoccupied in the ways of western Europe. The explorers therefore believed it was theirs to acquire and own. When the explorers encountered native bands, there was this immediate disconnected with their values and culture and relationship with the land, understandably. Still, the settlers felt superior in their relationship to the native culture, believing — “What we have is better for you.” And moving from that doctrine into practices and policies of assimilation and subjugation like the residential schools.

I can anticipate your objection: But what to make of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 — when Jesus instructs his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”? Isn’t this what we have been supposed to do? – make others, force others to be like us? Aren’t we supposed to impose our values on the world, using any means at our disposal? Another English translation of the word, disciples, changes the tone significantly. When we read, “Go therefore and make learners of all nations”, we can see our task as learning. Disciples are essentially ‘learners’. Learning involves challenging current patterns of thinking, and going out into the world to share our faith. (Kristin Johnston Largen, Interreligious Learning &  Teaching, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2014, p.109)

When I visited Jerusalem years ago, I was surrounded by at least three different world religions day in and day out. Muslim minarets blared out regular calls to prayer; orthodox Jews bowed at the wailing wall. And I, with a small group of Christians found a little apartment in the old city to gather around bible, cup and bread, to pray  and sing together. Few other times in my life have I ever felt as confident and grateful for my Christian faith than in a context  where other faiths and cultures came and tried to live together, even clashed.

Sharing our faith is not about one-up-man-ship. Sharing our faith is not a competition. It is simply being confident to talk to others when appropriate about what is most important to you. And, giving the other the freedom to do likewise. I think we still need to work on that in the church because I think we still believe it’s about a competition. That we have to fight, even, if necessary, to defend God — or our ideas of God. Be the winner, not the loser, in a winner-takes-all kind of world. It was in Jerusalem when I first realized that if there was any evil in the world, it started in me and my selfish, materialistic, self-acquiring vision for life.

Paul’s armour-of-God metaphor, like all metaphors, has limits and can even be problematic. Such a text has been interpreted throughout two thousand years of church and world history often as justification for violence against others. It is challenging maybe even impossible for us today to engage this text without the lens of history and the development of society and human culture through the ages — particularly with respect to warfare.

And that is why, as Lutherans especially are taught to do, I would not want to interpret this text without placing it beside another text from Paul’s letters, in this case, to ‘let scripture interpret scripture’. Listen now to another clothing analogy, where Paul speaks of what we ‘put on’ in Christ:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful …. And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:12-15,17)

Indeed, in this light, the belt of truth is the Gospel. The helmut of salvation is God’s eternal promise of love for us. The breast-plate of righteousness is a heart of compassion. The boots are actions that bring peace and goodwill to the world. The shield of faith is trusting in God’s grace. The sword of the Spirit is proclaiming the word of forgiveness, mercy and love.

One little word subdues him. An act of humility, not military aggression nor forceful imposition.

One little word subdues him. A word of forgiveness rather than condemnation, racism and judgement.

One little word subdues him. Something unexpected, surprising and even looked down upon by the world’s winners — that changes history. One little word — not born of competition, comparison and control, but born of surrender, release and trust. One little word, “I love you”, changes everything.

One little word is Jesus. God becomes human. A baby. A prophet. A teacher. A lamb taken to slaughter. One little word is greater than anything the world lives by. One little word whispered in a storm. One little word sung softly into the barrel of a machine gun. One little word nudging gently our hearts, saying to you: I love you. I forgive you. You are free. You will forever more be a child of God.

Now, tell the nations of the world the same. And act like you believe it. Because it’s true. Thanks be to God.