Home is where you’re wanted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

[1]Luke 9:51-62

[2]Matthew 10:37-38

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

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

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

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

[7]John 3:16

The way the story is told

Look at the man whose community has judged as possessing a legion of demons. He has been pigeon-holed. Ostracized. Bullied. Looked down upon. Pitied. The man whom they looked upon, and said to themselves, ‘Thank God it’s not so bad with me.’ This is the kind of person who, it has been argued, we need. If only to make the rest of us feel better about ourselves.

Schadenfreude is the term we use to depict and distinguish those ‘less fortunate’ than us to justify our complaints and our more privileged status. So, we need ‘them’. And we need ‘us’. We need the distinction. To envision the opposite, to imagine some kind of union, to unearth the unholy distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’—well, that may be far too threatening to our fragile egos.

The way the story is told is not to focus on the man’s illness. Though, that’s what we like to talk about: the frothing at the mouth, the rattling of the chains which bound him, the pigs rushing dramatically to their watery deaths. The way the story is told, however, is not to fixate on whatever ails him, his sin, his problem. We say this is a healing story. But who else besides the man is invited to be healed?

Important though it is not to overlook the man’s problem, the way this story is told leads us to the climax of the telling—the last few sentences that describe the reaction of the man’s community, there across the Lake in Gentile territory.

When, at first, he is healed, and is shown to the people, how do they respond? You would think they would rejoice. You would think they would praise God. You would think they would marvel at the goodness, the promise, the hope, the delight of God in bringing transformation and healing to this man who once was lost in sickness and despair but now is saved. In Greek, the word for salvation is the same word for healing. This man we look upon, alongside the Gerasene community, is now restored, healed and given a new beginning in life. A second chance.

You would think those who witness this would rejoice in the promise and anticipation that this healing and transformation be offered to each of them also. Amen?!

The way the story is told, however, emphasizes the point not once at the end of the story, but twice: They were afraid, seized with a great fear.[1]They didn’t like what Jesus was doing. They had become too comfortable in their opinions, their prejudices, their categories, their pigeon-holing this man. And they didn’t like what Jesus was doing to upturn and completely reverse their world-view. They even had the gall to tell Jesus to leave. No more of this. Do you blame the healed man for wanting to get out of there, too, with Jesus?

This story shines an uncomfortable light not on the Gerasene Demoniac. The title of this story should rather be the community’s demoniac. The community’s sin. Their prejudice. And their incapacity to repent—to change their minds about the people they have normally pigeon-holed into convenient places of malice and schadenfreude, them and us.

The Gospel story opens with Jesus taking his disciples to the ‘opposite side’ of Galilee. To be faithful to Jesus, to follow Jesus, they have to leave their zones of comfort and familiarity to go to the Gerasene territory across the lake.  Every city, every community, every country, every culture, every church, has an ‘opposite side.’ And it’s to that ‘opposite side’ that we—Lutheran Christians in Canada today—are called to go.

The way the story is told, is that Jesus’ presence and power disrupts the social order of the way things are. Because, for one thing, to the people whose living depends on the pigs, their loss is catastrophic. The swineherds are understandably afraid.

From this standpoint, the way the story is told, the coming of the gospel of Jesus brings upheaval and sets in motion forces that will disrupt even economic and social arrangements. In other words, the good news will not seem good to everyone at first. Maybe, to us.

Especially to those who are comfortable, privileged and set in our ways. Indeed, for the community in Gerasene and for us, we might prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not. We might take a false sense of security from the dysfunction, the prejudice, the self-righteousness we have learned to tolerate in ourselves, cope and live with, ignore and sluff off. And we might therefore fear what change—even change for health—may bring.

We fear freedom from what binds us:

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—telling ourselves we are not good enough, that we can’t do it, that we don’t deserve the immeasurable love which God has for us.

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—telling ourselves and each other that the poor, the newcomer to Canada, the Indigenous people of this land, our home on native land—deserve their plight as if we don’t have any responsibility to care for them. To tell ourselves we need not seek understanding from another’s point of view.

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—maintaining beliefs, even religious ones, that serve only to belittle others from a different social, religious background than ours, others whose gender orientation is not ours, others who are impoverished financially. Maybe Paul’s words must ring true again today to our hearts that are divided and distressed over these issues: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[2]

What is the ‘opposite side’ of the lake, for you? Is it a troubled personal relationship? Is it a long-held assumption or belief? Is it something you’ve wondered about doing but had up until now been too afraid to try? Perhaps in this season after Pentecost, the Spirit of God is calling us to consider going there.

To discover anew that whether we succeed or fail, whether we accomplish our goals or not, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s forever.[3]Healing and salvation will come to us, regardless of our pedigree. For, again in the words of Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”[4]The gospel doesn’t begin with us. It’s always about what God is doing in us.

As Richard Rohr writes, “It’s not what you do that makes you holy, it’s what you allow to be done to you that makes you holy.” (in today’s ‘daily meditation’, http://www.cac.org)

Grace does that. One doesn’t first become Christian, then go to church; One goes to church to become a Christian—and it will take a life time, and beyond. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. As fourteenth-century Saint Catherine of Siena once said: “It’s heaven all the way to heaven, for Jesus is the way.”

Jesus invites us to join him on his journey to the opposite side. To grow and change. To reach further, deeper, into health and wholeness. To open ourselves to the unity we share with all people in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And that story will have a good ending.

 

[1]Luke 8:35,37, NRSV

[2]Galatians 3:28

[3]Romans 14:8

[4]Galatians 2:19-20

Canada is a neighbour

Happy Canada Day!

On this July 1stit is good to reflect on what makes Canada great. Let’s be positive! What is it about our society that stands out in a positive way – amid all that is not so good?

I would like to say that we are a country that aspires to a healthy neighbourliness. Being a good neighbour – whether striving for better relations with Indigenous people, whether relating to newcomers to Canada today, whether reaching out in kind to those who are different from me who live across the street – is our national identity.

Asserting this quality for Canadians, I believe, is not new. Being a good neighbour is not a recent trend in progressive society. Hearing preachers spout the virtues of neighbourliness reflects a deep seeded consciousness influenced by popular culture already in the last century.

It was in the 1950s when children fell in love with the Friendly Giant on TV in Canada. Some of you might recall watching actor Bob Homme on CBC TV from 1958 until 1985 being friendly to his puppet animal friends.

Then there was Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood which first aired in 1968. Although an American show, did you know that Fred Rogers spent several years in Toronto in the early 1960s working with Ernie Coombs – Mr. Dressup – airing a prototype show called the same Misterogers?

Over his career, Fred Rogers was intentional about being more and more inclusive. He brought, for example, an African American person onto the show yet didn’t draw undue attention to it. This was a subtle yet poignant statement about neighbourliness when American white culture was anything but, towards people of colour.

To assert that these cultural icons were birthed in Canada would not be an overstatement. To be Canadian is to be a good neighbour. It is in our DNA. It is our calling, our witness to a world that wants to be anything but, especially these days.

Yet, it seems every generation of Canadians needs to learn anew how to be a good neighbour. We need to be continually reminded and encouraged to practice being a good neighbour because we tend to be a fearful lot. And fear keeps us from this holy calling.

Having faith doesn’t mean the absence of fear. Having faith means stepping into the fearful place. Having faith means action. It means “leaning into” the situation as we are.[1]

Our lay delegate from Faith Lutheran Church to the Eastern Synod Assembly in Toronto last week, admits being fearful taking the train for the first time. Julia is a seasoned, experienced OC-Transpo bus rider here in Ottawa. Despite the similarities in travel experience between the train and bus, she confesses taking the train across the province for the first time was an anxious affair.

What is more, we missed each other on the train ride to Toronto. Even though we were on the same train, we boarded at different locations – Julia, downtown; and me, at Fallowfield Station in Barrhaven. In fact, as it turns out, we were on the same car – but I never once caught sight of her.

Until on the last leg of the journey, when we were on the Union-Pearson Express train. My phone dinged. Julia texted me to confirm whether I knew where to catch the hotel shuttle to the convention centre where the Assembly was to take place.

Despite her fear of riding the train for the first time, and alone, Julia reached out to me. She was being a good neighbour by making sure I was ok. Her reaching out to me was helpful since, truth be told, I was not sure about where to catch the airport shuttle bus.

“Who is my neighbour?” Jesus asks before telling the story of the Good Samaritan.[2]“Liberated by God’s Grace … to be neighbour” was the theme of the Eastern Synod Assembly. Through thoughtful, provocative and compelling bible studies, song, and interactions with various peoples, the Assembly reflected and re-committed to become even better neighbours, as a church.

Interesting, in keeping all this in mind, that we encounter the nameless woman in the Gospel reading for today.[3]She approaches Jesus in the crowd, hidden, secretly. No wonder. She is powerless and outlawed in public spaces on account of her bleeding.

The main point of the story is not that she is miraculously healed. She could have remained hidden, quietly disappearing into the crowed after she is healed. That is the way she would have wanted it, likely.

The point is that Jesus calls her into a deeper relationship. She must come out of her private suffering. She must confront her fear, and make a deeper connection with herself, with others, and with Jesus.

“Who touched my clothes?” Jesus says out loud even though he knows the woman has already been healed when he felt the power drain out of him.[4]He, too, could have enabled the woman’s secretive behaviour, letting her go and moving on. He could have protected her in her fearful existence after she is cured.

Instead, Jesus calls for her to step up and be known. Demonstrating incredible courage, the woman responds to Jesus’ call and approaches him “in fear and trembling, fell down before him and told him the whole truth.”[5]

Jesus seeks out a relationship with her. It is of God to do this. God continues to call us into ever deeper relationship – with ourselves, with others and with God. The point of the Gospel is that we affirm our connectedness with others in healthy and compassionate co-existence. This is the path to truth.

Jesus’ ‘touch’ can heal us and the world. The touch of God’s grace can give us peace. We are shaped and made human in relationship with others. All our relationships – in church, in friendships, in marriage – are not just something extra added on to life for distraction and entertainment as if we would be complete human beings in individual isolation.[6]Relationships are not some added feature to our lives in order to get something, a means to some autonomous end.

Relationships are the fabric of life. Relationship – touch, if you will – makes us human and whole. Being neighbourly can heal us, make us better people. “Perfect love casts out fear,”[7]our scriptures say. Love can only be expressed in relationship.

The reason Julia was not afraid of riding the bus in Ottawa, was because she was practiced at it. She had done it many times. Even though the train is not that much different, she had never before taken the train. The difference is, some intentional, risk-taking exercise.

Later this week, members of Faith council will be volunteering for a couple of hours at the Mission downtown for homeless, impoverished men. We will get a tour of the facility and help give out some ice cream to those who are there. Practice, to move beyond fear to faithfulness, isolation into community, to where our neighbours are.

We need to practice being a good neighbour – to those who are vulnerable, to those who are powerless, to those who are stigmatized, to the homeless, the LGBTQIA+ community, to refugees and migrants. We have to lean in to the places of fear in our lives and to take some risks vis-à-vis people who are different from us. In doing so, we realize we are not alone, and we have meaning and purpose in our lives for the common good.

Canadians and Christians share something in common, to be sure. We are called to reach out. And be a good neighbour to the world. We are not left alone stuck in our fear. Because God continues to call us into the deeper waters of grace and love. God will never abandon us, despite our fear.

Let us approach boldly the seat of grace in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[1]Brother Luke Ditewig, “Brother, Give Us A Word” for June 28, 2018 (Society of Saint John the Evangelist) friends@ssje.org

[2]Luke 10:25-37

[3]Mark 5:21-43

[4]v.30

[5]v.33

[6]Michael L. Lindvall in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 3 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.192.

[7]1 John 4:18

Martin Luther visit


Guten Tag. Allo. Ich heiss Martin. My name is Martin. Liebe Gott! I can speak English! Something incredible happened to me on my way to this time and place. And I cannot explain it! So, “Here I stand.” With you. In this place. Today.
You know, truth be told, I don’t know what to make of this “Lutheran Church”.

Yes, it’s been a long time — 500 years — since I hung the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church. So much in the world has changed. Travel, electricity, automation, information systems. And yes, I did write a lot with my hand. I suppose I would do things differently today, as well. Who knows?

But I noticed that some of my words have taken on an iconic status in your discourse through the centuries. And so, I’ll start there and tell you what I observe about your “Lutheran” church today — I feel awkward even saying that word: “Lutheran”! Who the hell do you think I am? “It’s true, we are all beggars!” Even me!

So, let me set the record straight. First off, I never intended there to be a separate church, divided from the Catholic church. Oh yes, a toilet-flushing theology underpinned some religious practices at the time, beliefs that needed reformation. I was excommunicated. And that meant death. But the Lord had a purpose for me still to fulfill, and I was spared. Thanks to Frederick, who let me live in his Wartburg castle for a time being.

Obviously, I still have a purpose or else I wouldn’t be standing here today. I am amazed to see how many different churches exist — and some even taking on my name! In a letter I once sent to my colleague Philip Melanchthon, you know, I encouraged him to “sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” He must have taken my words seriously — the “sin boldly” part, anyway — since he pushed my reforms to brink of dividing the “one, holy, catholic church.” Dumbkopf!

Which, it seems, has happened here in Ottawa as well. I take it that Lutherans from my Heimat, Germany, arrived quite late in Ottawa — later than in other parts of Turtle Island — is that not what the first nations of this land call it, this Canada?

I have secret to tell you — the Germans have long since stopped getting off the boats and settling this land in large waves of immigration. You are all settlers! And, the first Lutheran Church was St Paul’s Lutheran Church near the University of Ottawa, established in 1874. For the most part of your history since then there have been some 15 Lutheran congregations, no?, divided basically into three different Synods — the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Lutheran Church Canada-Missouri Synod, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

“What does this mean?”. You who have endured Confirmation classes decades ago, yes I’m speaking to you now: When you memorized parts of my Small Catechism, you will remember I sectioned parts of the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, for example, I offered my interpretation of those sections preceded by the question: “What does this mean?”

I did that on purpose. Don’t you know that asking the question itself reflects an important stance towards learning? “What does this mean” is a question that first seeks to understand. It doesn’t presume you already have the answer.

I certainly didn’t at first. I struggled mightily with my own stuff, and spent a whole lot of time on that blessed toilet seat! I had doubt and prayed: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

The purpose of your Lutheran Council, for example, which functioned between 1968 and 1992 (I learned in your history books), was “to foster greater understanding between Lutherans in Ottawa” (1) — this amid conflicts over biblical interpretation, Communion practice and ordination of women to suggest a few enduring divisions. Good for the Lutheran Council! They were onto something, there, you know!

Learn from the first nations of this land. Among the diversity of Indigenous Peoples of Canada comes the wise advice: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. First, however, to understand the other. Not to persuade, to defend, to self-justify, to impose one’s opinion. Which appears to be the dominant characteristic of relationships in the church and the public today. You believe you first have to defend yourselves.

“What does this mean?” can be a call sign for you “Lutherans” today, indeed for all of mature faith, on how to learn, how to grow, how to move forward to embrace God’s future. You do so first by seeking to understand the other. Ask questions. Try to feel into from where the other is coming in their approach. Listen for smidgens of truth, of potential points of agreement, of overlap between what you hear and where your own heart resonates.

There’s another phrase some have said I wrote. But I didn’t. One of your modern theologians, Karl Barth, actually wrote it, based on something Saint Augustine of blessed memory wrote: “Semper Reformanda” — Always reforming. It’s still good and wise counsel! The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche Deutschland) has as the theme logo for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation: “500 Years of Reformation”, suggesting that these past 500 years represent a continually reforming church. I like that. Sehr gut!

I know you like “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, ok? But I wrote that hymn in order to bring the popular music of my day into the church. I confess I spent much time in bars during my travels across Germany enjoying the local ales. And I sung along to the bar tunes, and wondered: “Wouldn’t this sound great in church!” And so, I took some of those tunes and transformed them into hymnody.

Why are you still singing “A Mighty Fortress” to celebrate the Reformation? The very idea of 21st century “Lutherans” celebrating the Reformation by clinging to the events of the 16th century doesn’t make sense, if you believe you are truly Semper Reformanda. I travelled all this way through space and time; I want to hear some of your new songs! 

We should be singing this century’s music rather than smugly resting on the laurels of the past, you would say. You should be plotting where the reformation goes from here. Perhaps in this the 21st century, when so many of your traditions have seen the institution fall into the malaise of irrelevancy, you need to echo the cry: “Semper Reformanda” — “Always Reforming”. Indeed, the church in every age stands in need of reformation (2).

In my Disputation in Heidelberg, a year before I hung those famous Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg Church, I stated that, “The Law says ‘do this’ and it’s never done; Grace says, ‘believe in this’ and everything is already done.”

The quality and practice of faith today is on trial. What do you believe about God, and your life with God, others and this world? Reformation starts with those questions.

I’m glad to see you still say, at least, that we are justified by grace through faith.

And when I read the Jeremiah (31:31-34) text for today, I must confess we are often our own worst enemy. When we try so hard and work so hard but underneath all that work is a niggling belief that it’s all up to us. We are most ready to hear those words of grace, forgiveness and mercy, I will confess, when our own efforts are exhausted. When we are weary of our inner turmoil we are ready to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And believe. And trust.

Because by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, in God, or anything good!

Do the work of God, yes. But allow God, in the end, to reap God’s own harvest. Believe in that which cannot be seen, towards that which can be seen (Hebrews 11:1). It won’t be our accomplishment when it finally happens. Because all is grace. All is love.

“This is most certainly true.”

I’ll tell you what else is true. There are some new words circulating among Lutherans in Ottawa these days. I’ve heard them. Who are you? You are “many communities and one church”. And you are “better together.” The fragmentation of the church which has been the unfortunate legacy of the Reformation needs reformation.

How can you see it? This is a matter of faith and belief? Do you believe that though you are many communities you are still one church? Do you believe you are better together?

This is not a figment of someone’s imagination that has mere mythic, allegorical status, invisible and irrelevant.

After all, when in the last year you gathered together at a Peace pole and prayer garden; when you gathered together to recall the history of the relationship between Indigenous and setter peoples in the blanket exercise; when you gathered together on Ash Wednesday and during Advent to worship; when you support a city-wide youth group by gathering together to have fun at summer fest; and when you serve together to do refugee sponsorship — it is real. It is tangible. It is visible.

And it is happening in a Lutheran community near you!

This is most certainly true!

(1) Barton Beglo & Jo Nordley Beglo, eds., “By Faith; Lutherans in Ottawa and the Valleys” (Ottawa: St Peter’s Press, 1995), p.66

(2) Dawn Hutchings, pastordawn.com “Enough with ‘A Might Fortress’ Already! Sing a New Song”

No partiality

At the beginning of every congregational council meeting, members take turns sharing a personal experience of God — whether in their day, or in the past, or in childhood.

Last week a young adult member told us about participating in the ice bucket challenge that went viral on Youtube in the summer. At first he wondered whether this was not just another gimmick he should ignore.

But then he inquired why people were doing this — to raise funds and awareness about ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He watched another video of how this challenge began and learned what this meant personally to its promoters.

Citing the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12; 22: 39) and the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:25-37) from the Bible, the council member concluded his devotions with the Gospel message: that Jesus shows no partiality. God’s love extends to Jews and Samaritans — even though in first century Palestine they were in conflict.

As a result, followers of Jesus are also called to love our neighbour as ourselves. Just because only 3,000 in Canada have Lou Gehrig’s Disease (a small number compared to the entire population) doesn’t mean we can ignore those who have this degenerative muscular, and fatal, disease. Minorities — however we define them — deserve our caring attention, especially if they are suffering in any way.

In another confrontation with the religious leaders of the day, Jesus confounds them by his response (Matthew 22:15-22). What we sometimes overlook in this tense exchange is the heated political context of the time:

The Emperor was putting more pressure on the local leadership in Palestine to firm its grip in the occupied territories. Rome was exercising greater power over the population by imposing currency imprinted with the Emperor’s face, and rescinding the privilege of the Sanhedrin to execute sentences of death. The pressure on Herod and Pilate in the region was mounting; their lives were at risk should there erupt any uprising or public defiance against Rome (read Shusaku Endo translated from the Japanese by Richard Shuchert, “A Life of Jesus” Paulist Press, Toronto, 1973, p.52-53)

At this point in the narrative, many remembered the recent beheading of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12). Those who opposed Rome recalled his charisma and powerful leadership. And now that he was gone, they looked to Jesus to carry the mantle of spearheading precisely such an uprising. All the various religious groups had stake in the politics of opposing Roman occupation of their lands — the Essenes, the Zealots, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Would Jesus be the one to rally the troops? Many were thinking it. And that is why they ask Jesus another trick question, significantly focusing on the new coinage.

It is also significant, I think, that there is truth in the Pharisees’ opening question: They say the truth about Jesus, even though they are plotting against Jesus who is aware of their ‘malice’. “We know,” they say, “that you show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”

They knew, despite their devious motives to trap Jesus, what Jesus was all about. The truth of the Gospel of Jesus is surprisingly expressed by sinful people. They, of all people, get it! Jesus stands with all people — even the minorities, those who live under oppression in occupied lands, even to those who we would rather ignore, or not see, or even hate.

Aboriginal people in Canada make up only 4% of the entire population. And we know their plight. As indigenous people on this land we call Canada, they are particularly disadvantaged in the dominant culture and economy. Things have started to get better for some of them. But certain systemic problems exist and persist — like endemic poverty, education inequality for children, lack of safety for women, and lack of access to safe drinking water.

Do we as followers of Jesus, like the religious leaders in Jesus day, know what Jesus is all about? That’s a good start. But it’s the follow-through that’s just as, if not more, important. What will we do to be more than just a Jesus-fan-club? What will we do when we encounter opportunities to live out the Gospel of Jesus?