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!

What brings you delight?

The story is told of three-year-old Morgan and her mother Sarah driving in the car one day. Morgan is a little butterfly of a girl. She loves to talk—she chatters constantly—especially when she’s in her car seat. She’s always telling her mom, Sarah, to look at things. And Sarah will often respond rather absent-mindedly, “Yes, honey, I see!” or “Wow, Morgan, that’s great!”

One morning while Sarah was driving Morgan to pre-school, Morgan said, “Look, Mommy! Look what I have in my lap!” Without turning around Sarah replied, “Yes, honey, I see! That’s great!” Little Morgan didn’t miss a beat. “Mommy,” she said sternly, “we do not look with our mouths! Turn around and see me with your eyes!”[1]

Often we struggle to ‘see’ God in our lives. Especially during the dark moments when things aren’t going well, when we confront some significant challenge, or suffer pain and loss. In those experiences, we might simply give God ‘lip service’—we say we believe, but deep down, if we’re honest, we really doubt God’s interest or involvement in our lives.

Or, we might downright reject the notion that God is present. And we’re not afraid to say it. In fact, I suspect most people will not see God, will not hear God, and therefore will not believe in God. ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ is a very powerful mantra in our society—even among those who may say, “I believe!”

In this text assigned from Proverbs for Holy Trinity Sunday, a main character who speaks here is Wisdom. And she is described in Christian tradition as the third member of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit. “Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth … then I was beside the Lord, like a master worker; and I was daily the Lord’s delight, rejoicing before the Lord always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”[2]

When you hear the word ‘wisdom’, what first comes to your mind? Like me, you might first imagine a stern, tight-lipped person, a killjoy, or a solemn judge in black robe. But that is not the picture of the Holy Spirit described here in the scripture. God is not dour drudgery. God is not about excessive seriousness. We do not worship a stingy God who grudgingly gives gifts and who grants forgiveness as a divine grump.

God, in the Holy Spirit, is joyous laughter, dance, and play. “When there were no depths I was brought forth …” The Hebrew word for ‘brought forth’ may also be translated as ‘whirl’ or ‘dance’. That’s why the Eastern Orthodox tradition emphasizes the Trinity in the word, ‘perichoresis’, which literally means “dancing around”.[4]The triune God is a joyous, dancing God who pours out overflowing gifts to humanity with gladness.

God’s invitation to walk, laugh, play and dance comes to us all in the light of each new day. To see is to pay attention to what brings delight to your heart. To see this is to pay attention to what rejoices in your spirit. Not all the answers to the deepest, important questions of our lives, not all the solutions to our biggest problems and challenges, are found in the act of furrowed brows, stern language and intense conversations.

When Jesus says to look at the children as a witness to following in the way of Christ,[3]I believe he does so because it is the delightful, freeing, playfulness that opens the heart to seeing God. The blocking—the unseeing—resides in our grown-up expectations, our stifled adult imagination, our narrowing vision.

God is right behind us, telling us to ‘Look what I have here!’ And we have to do more than say, ‘Yeah, I see’ and carry on in our serious, self-consumed busyness. We actually have to give that playful word validation and significance. And, we have to turn around to see it, and engage that playfulness.

Here’s a personalized version of Proverbs 8, a story of seeing and meeting God in everyday life:

“I was out shopping yesterday, and whom did I run into? Wisdom. Yeah, there she was. She called me over and we began talking. Wisdom and I. Then, I went down to the courthouse, and there she was again, making a plea for justice in some dingy courtroom where somebody had been unjustly accused. After that, I dropped by the school, and she had gotten there before me, calling for students and teachers alike always to seek truth. Then, I went for a walk in the woods, moving along the trail in quiet meditation. Wisdom snuck up on me and said …

“’Now that we are alone, I have something I want to share with you, a present I want you to enjoy. You know, I have been around a long time, really before the beginning of time. I have been whirling and dancing with God all along. I am God’s delight, laughing and playing. I want you to know the lightness of spirit and gladness that come when you welcome me. Will you set aside those thoughts, words, and deeds that make life heavy and sad for you and others? Will you come and laugh and play with me? Will you come and dance with me? Will you?’”[5]

The Spirit of the living God is everywhere. The goodness of God is right before our eyes if we are willing to see it. In Roland Bainton’s classic biography of Martin Luther, Bainton relays the story of a large bough of cherries which hung above the table in Luther’s busy and active household. The reason given was to remind everyone of the beauty and delight of the Lord.

Martin Luther responds, “All you need to do is to look down and around the table at all the children running about – and you will learn from them more than from a cherry bough about the delight of the Lord.”

May we learn to set our sights on what is right there before us, to see God.

 

[1]Sharon Garlough Brown, Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey (Illinois: IVP Books, 2013), p.51

[2]Proverbs 8:25, 30-31

[3]Mark 10:13-16

[4]Jeff Paschal in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 3 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.27-31

[5]Paschal, ibid.

‘Just beyond reach’ – a tribute to Jan

2015-10-04 15.23.20

In the Fall of 2015, we made a family visit to the National Art Gallery in Ottawa. Here is Jan, who was already struggling mightily with his dementia, pausing at a framed vision depicting images of his faith. Perhaps Jesus, the cross and other symbols in the painting awakened something deep within his soul, enough to make him stop and look. Perhaps it was an innate knowing that this painting described something of the final destination in his life.

Shortly after Dad died, we talked about how in his last decade of life, Dad’s ability to perceive the world around him had shrunk. Increasingly encumbered and limited by dementia, Dad’s vision slowly narrowed.

It’s curious that in the days after he died, we didn’t envision so many people would battle frigid, Ottawa temperatures to attend visitation and funeral services for him. How often our vision becomes encumbered. And we limit ourselves and for various reasons don’t see the wideness of possibility.

What a joy it is to be wrong! To see that there is more, that in life and reality therein hides something greater often just beyond the reach of our imagination.

I wish to share a few brief memories that speak to Dad’s/Opa’s rich imagination which kept him truly alive throughout his life. What we are dealing with here is sort of like Doctor Who’s Tardis: From the outside, it looks like a common, rather narrow, even flawed telephone booth. But once you risk going inside it, you enter a much larger world, a world that can easily be missed and overlooked.

I can still see the over two-dozen books written by adventure/sci-fi authors Karl May and Edgar Rice Burroughs lining the book shelves, along with the other ten thousand books stuffed on shelves against any free wall space in our home. Maybe Dad didn’t read every single one of those books, but he loved collecting them for what they symbolized to him: gateways to other worlds just beyond his reach.

In my youth, I came to believe that Dad’s hero was Lutheran Albert Schweitzer. Dad looked up to this gifted Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who did not specialize in any one thing, but was accomplished in various fields: an organist, a physician, a theologian, a writer, a humanitarian and philosopher. A virtual ‘renaissance man’, Schweitzer may have modelled for Dad the work and identity of a pastor. Dad was no Albert Schweitzer, but his expansive and creative spirit certainly resonated within him.

As a young child, I remember standing on the shores of Papineau Lake near Maynooth, listening to Dad tell us stories about good and evil battling it out on earth and throughout the universe.

Indeed, Dad’s imagination was expansive. He inspired in me a spirit of exploration, adventure, boundless in time and space. Perhaps motivated by a holy restlessness, Dad continued to seek ways to see more, envision more, experience the wideness of possibility, the wideness of God’s mercy. His desire to move, to change places and ‘go West young man’ fueled his passion for new things, new experiences. Dad was willing to take that risk.

I remember in Maynooth, in the front yard of the parsonage on Highway 62, we often played around the picnic table there. Chipmunks scampered on the ground and in the pine and spruce trees above us.

Once he let a chipmunk climb onto his hand, then up his arm all the way to his shoulders. I believe he wanted to show us how intuitively connected we can be to all the natural world. He showed us how to take the risk of trusting. He modeled for us, in a small way, how to receive a gift, how to surrender to the freedom of an unknown, unpredictable quantity in the chipmunk. And, in God?

His arms reached out to me the last time I saw him at St Patrick’s Home. He didn’t want me to go. That was a difficult leave-taking. That vision is stuck in my mind. Those arms stretched-out capture, for me, his stance of yearning for and living on the verge of loving possibility, just beyond his reach.

Today, I believe Dad finally experiences the fullness of what always flickered within his soul: For, he now flies with the angels, plays with the angels and rests in arms of a God who carries him to the farthest reaches of the universe.

Have fun, Dad. Enjoy! And some day, we will catch up to you.

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

The unknown journal of Ebenezer Scrooge

After attending the National Arts Centre (Ottawa) theatre performance of Charles Dickens’ classic tale “A Christmas Carol” last week, I wondered: What if Scrooge kept a daily journal? So, in my journal this week, I wrote this imaginative piece entitled, The Unknown Journal of Ebenezer Scrooge:

“It started out as a good idea. Keeping a daily journal was easy for a man who kept meticulous financial records. His ledgers were perfectly lined, his pen craft impeccable.

“Ebenezer Scrooge was on a mission to clean up all of life’s messiness. He wanted to resolve all his problems. He wanted to tie up all the loose ends and complete any unfinished business:

“The brackets on his library shelves downstairs needed reinforcing. The kitchen silverware needed polishing. The large knocker on his apartment door needed sanding and some fresh paint.

The door’s deteriorating condition had recently created spectral images on his imagination in the fading light of day. Like on this Christmas Eve when coming home from work, he saw the face of his long-deceased partner, Mr. Morley, embedded in the decorative door knocker.

“Then, there was the unresolved issue of his assistant Bob Cratchit’s pay in the New Year. Scrooge waffled between giving him a decrease, or keeping it at the same level. The money was tight. And, Scrooge was still beset by disturbing dreams about Tiny Tim – Cratchit’s youngest boy. He wanted to understand what to do with the feelings of despair swirling about these nocturnal predations of the mind.

“All these he would diligently record. These matters, after all, needed his scrupulous and perfectionist ministrations once he would have the time, or by unsuspecting fortune he was granted insight and resource to solve.

“Scrooge lifted his journal onto his lap, feeling the rough leather-bound book. He was surprised by how heavy it felt. Curious about the turn of his thoughts, he flipped to previous days in the month. Then quickly he turned to the first half of his nearly-finished tome, recording events in the last year. Finally, he opened to the first few pages when he started the journal several years ago now.

“Back then, the door knob still needed fixing, the shelf brackets still needed reinforcing. The silverware was never polished enough. And worry about money figured into most of his notations throughout. Nothing changed.

“What is more, a persistent, dark pessimism shrouded his lists of unfinished, unresolved, ‘problems.’ His writing reflected a clear, negative tendency. Something was always missing, incomplete, imperfect. There was never enough. Scarcity, he realized with startling awareness, was a constant undercurrent in his approach to life. And had been, for a long, long time.

“Scrooge pulled on his night shirt and climbed onto his giant canopy bed. As he pulled the covers tight around his chin, he wondered if he should bother keeping a journal at all. The lights dimmed. And he thought he heard the rattle of chains ….”

Charles Dicken’s epic story survives the ages and continues to inspire people at Christmastime because there is something in all of us that can relate to it. The light of Christ coming into the world exposes the darker contours of our souls. In the weeks, and now days, leading to the Christmas celebration, we may feel and struggle with the tensions in our own hearts: Between generosity and self-preservation, between a joyous liberation of spirit and the confining constriction of fear.

Into these tensions, the Lord’s message is clear. The Gospel pushes us into the realm of light – under the spotlight of God’s vision. All is revealed.  We have nothing to hide, and nothing for which we have to strive and toil and protect. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”[1]

During Advent, we hear again the story of Elizabeth’s meeting with her cousin Mary. Both are pregnant, expecting the birth of babies. Even the babies feel the excitement of their mothers, “leaping with joy” in the womb.[2] The Magnificat, which we read responsively this morning, is Mary’s song of joy in response to the message of the Lord’s promise to her. Joy is a central theme both in the four weeks of preparation leading to Christmas, and also an important characteristic of faith.

It is God’s will for us to enjoy the good things in life. Without denying nor avoiding the hard, challenging and often disappointing events of life, we are called to see the good, and rest in the joy of living. Jesus came, after all, that we might have life “abundantly”.[3] The dominant disposition of faith is joy.

Paul writes in our second lesson some of the earliest script in the New Testament.[4] Written around 50 C.E. the Christians in Thessalonica are merely a generation removed from Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. They are waiting for the immanent return of Jesus. And this letter is written to a people with a growing anxiety. The proverbial elephant in the room is growing larger with each passing year: Why hasn’t Jesus yet returned in glory?

So, in essence, Paul is addressing a relevant question of faith – even to us some two thousand years later: What do we do in the tension of living between the promise of Jesus’ coming again, and the harsh reality of ‘not yet’?

Paul’s answer revolves around the inner attitudes of thanksgiving and joy. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” he admonishes the faithful.[5] Even when things don’t seem just right. Even when there doesn’t seem to be enough. Even when there are still things to be done, problems to solve, imperfections to address.

The true message of Christmas does a frontal attack on our inherent pessimism. This wake-up call can be disarming. The inaugural Prayer of the Day for Advent calls us to be pure and blameless at the coming of the Lord.[6] Even our liturgies can make us feel worse. For, how can we give thanks in all circumstances when we are hurting so much, are so fearful or angry?

By the end of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge has a conversion of heart. He becomes generous, joyful, free, helping others. How does it happen? A man steeped in his own negativity makes an almost incredible U-turn by the end because of the intervention of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. An intervention of divine proportions breaks into and breaks apart the shroud of pessimism encasing his heart.

Even when we find ourselves stuck in the mire of circumstance, we can begin by appreciating that all of life, especially the good things, are a pure gift of God. Even amidst the direst of circumstances, are there not pinpricks of light, nuggets of grace, whispers of love that pierce our field of vision?

We can, in this appreciation, learn to let go, and release our claim on our lives which are not our own. They are gift. With open hearts, we learn to walk lightly in faith, trusting that God will indeed complete the good work begun in each of our hearts “by the day of Jesus Christ.”[7] All our days are God’s. Our very breath is a gift of life from the Creator.

And what is more, Paul’s earliest message to the Christian church, a message that will endure until the day of Jesus Christ, is one of grace. “The one who calls you is faithful,” Paul tells us, “and God will do this.”[8] On our own strength, and by our own will, we may very well not be able to engineer our own perfection, or the perfection of our lives.

By ourselves, we cannot make the world a better place. By ourselves, we cannot solve all the world’s problems.

But together, God can through us. God did; God does; And God will.

[1] John 1:9

[2] Luke 1:41

[3] John 10:10

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:18

[6] First Sunday of Advent, Year B in “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p.18

[7] Philippians 1:6

[8] 1 Thessalonians 5:24

Funeral sermon – Thanksgiving

Isaiah 25:6-10 —

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. 

And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever.

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all 

faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, 

for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day,

   Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.

   This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain. 

It is not insignificant, I believe, that Peter died on Thanksgiving. It’s a paradox of the utmost to grapple with this most grievous reality — on a day when we are supposed to be thankful for all good things, someone beloved is taken away from us. The pain of loss digs sharply into our hearts to have to face death when this loss occurs on Thanksgiving weekend, of all times.

How can we be thankful in such circumstances? Is this possible?

We say that a funeral service is about a “celebration of life”. When we name it such, we choose to focus on life. Then, perhaps we can begin to approach the notion of giving thanks even amidst the turmoil of grief.

Because “death does not end our relationship with those who have died. Relationships at their deepest level are not of the body, but of the spirit. And in that sense, they are never over. The crux of a relationship lies not in its form, but in its content.” (1) Living into heaven, but starting on earth.

It is our work on earth, especially now that Peter has died, to tap the gift of faith in us and deepen our understanding of the eternal nature of relationships, and the eternal nature of love. This understanding, I believe, can bring peace to even a tormented heart.

We need to use our imaginations, and examine our beliefs honestly. The gift of faith grants those who wish to exercise it a rich imagination that is filled with God’s good promises, and the blessing of love lived out.

The image the prophet Isaiah paints is rich indeed! A feast on the mountain where there is more than enough good food and wine for all people! What a beautiful image of heaven, a promise to those who can imagine such a thing. And to all people, not just to those whose faith seems impressive on the outside, not just to those who appear spiritual. But to all.

Since Peter, I hear, was quite a cook, he would appreciate the attention to detail required to put on such a scrumptious and generous gift of food for all. I can imagine him today, one of the cooks in God’s kitchen!

Thanksgiving, as I’ve said before, is not a feeling that presumes all is well all of the time. In truth, thanksgiving is an action that stems from a belief in the never-ending power and unconditional nature of God’s love, forgiveness and presence — especially in the darkest and most trying of times.

“Faith, hope and love remain. And the greatest of these is love,” writes Saint Paul to the Corinthian Church. “Your anger, O God, lasts for but a moment; your love and mercy endureth forever,” sings the Psalmist. Again, Saint Paul to the Romans: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord — not even death, nor principalities, nor things to come.”

These promises of God’s enduring love can be an anchor for you in a tumultuous, stormy sea of life. Such visions of God’s generosity are like salve to the troubled soul.

As you grieve the death of a dear husband, son, brother, brother-in-law and friend, I pray your thanksgiving for his life leaves a legacy of God’s love amongst yourselves, and in the world, for the days ahead.

Peace be with you,

Amen.

(1) Marianne Williamson, “Tears to Triumph; The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment” (HarperOne, New York, 2016), p.123-127

Cultivating God’s imagination in us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of God’s forgiveness, we can be sure.