Mistaken identity

This morning I preach at Merrickville (Ontario) United Church, as part of a pulpit exchange. Today Merrickville United Church celebrates its annual Anniversary Sunday.

Thank you for welcoming me to speak at your anniversary Sunday celebration. Anniversaries are about celebrating who we are. These are occasions for affirming our identity. So, let me introduce myself to you so that you may have some idea and experience of who I am.

Questions of identity are important to me. I have an identical twin brother who is also a Lutheran pastor. What is more, my brother and I are twin sons of parents who are both also (retired) Lutheran pastors in the same Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Challenges around mistaken identity have followed me all my life! Which Malina are we talking about?! That is why who I am and how different I am from my rather homogenous nuclear family is an important part of my personal journey.

Another level of mistaken identity in my life revolves around the church to which I belong. Your pastor told you, I suspect, that you were going to have a preacher from the “Evangelical Lutheran Church” visit you today. I wonder how many of you thought you would be getting a shellacking from a hard-core conservative, fundamentalist preacher. The word that likely derailed you was ‘evangelical’.

Over a month ago after Billy Graham Sr. died, the local Ottawa CBC morning radio host called me to say they wanted to have an ‘evangelical’ represent the views of Billy Graham in a live discussion panel the next day. The reason she called me was that the name of the parish I am pastor of is called “Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church.” She assumed that the same word meant the same thing. I had to steer her in another direction.

Because for Lutherans, we use the word evangelical from its German roots, ‘evangelische’. The meaning here, is ‘Good News!’. Unfortunately, in North America the word evangelical has been coopted by conservative fundamentalism. You can breathe more easily now!

Indeed, it is the focus of the word Good News (Gospel) that can summarize the purpose of Lutheran preaching, in a nutshell. We are all about proclaiming what is good news to the world today. Lutherans traditionally use the concept of ‘law’ as a counterpoint to understand better where we fall short, and why we yearn and seek God’s grace, forgiveness and love.

In the Gospel reading for today, from Mark, Jesus breaks the law in order to eat (Mark 2:23-3:6). He and his disciples are poor wanderers. They pick grain from the field on the sabbath. Two things Jesus says in this text worth noting: First, “the sabbath was made for humankind” — and not the other way around. In other words, the sabbath law and all law serves us. “Is it lawful to do good or do harm on the sabbath?” Jesus asks. He says that even the law is subject to God’s grace and the common good.

We do our thing as Christians not primarily to serve the tradition and keep all the laws and conform to precepts and rules. No. We do our thing as Christians primarily to follow in the way of Christ which is a way of love, grace, and doing the right thing — despite what the law says.

I love the name of your church: United. And I love that you are undergoing a renovation of your gathering space in your building here. It may be disruptive and stressful — all meaningful transformation is. But it tells me a lot about who you are. Let me attempt an affirmation of sorts.

You are a church ‘on the move’. You are transforming your space in order to make it a more inclusive, accessible building. Moreover, you are making this transformation and renewal to make it a more flexible, multi-purpose space. So different groups, musical, theatrical, social, community groups can use it. You are creating a welcoming and affirming space. This is wonderful! By increasing the possibility of diverse interaction you are, paradoxically, building unity among people!

German reformed theologian Juergen Moltmann wrote that “Christian fellowship — which means liberating fellowship — no longer means just sitting down beside the people I agree with. It means sitting beside the people I don’t agree with — and staying there.” (@moltmannjuergen)

As the inclusive, expansive vision of God’s unity shines before us, we become not a community of like-minded, conformists. Rather, precisely in celebrating and affirming our diversity, we deepen our unity. That is what the church on the move is all about!

Early twentieth century French philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, expressed how people grow in unity by becoming more ourselves. By embracing our uniqueness as individuals and communities, by differentiating, we discover our unity. Contrary to what may be our initial impulse — that unity is experienced only if we become what someone else wants us to be, or others become like us — the opposite is true. Not by becoming the same — that is not loving — but in the freedom of our being different, we find unity in love.

The word religion from Latin, ‘religio’, literally means, re-binding together. “Bind us together, Lord,” is a favourite song in the Lutheran church. Unity is found by recognizing our differences, appreciating them, and choosing to love anyway, which is the form of love most often used in the New Testament (agape).

The church moving forward is the beacon of Christ’s light. “Let light shine out of darkness” (2 Corinthians 4:6), Paul writes in the Epistle reading for today (Pentecost 2B, RCL). The church is not the brake lights on a car, but the headlights. Shining a vision forward, an ever-expanding, inclusive, affirming vision for all people. Because light pays little heed to the lines we draw in the sand. Divine light and love recognize in each person and each relationship a unique reflection of Creator God.

In Christ, then, there is no need for mistaken identity no matter how similar or how different we may be.

The life-giving gap

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (James 3:11)

The writer, James, makes a case for integrity and authenticity in the Christian life. For us moderns, living in a day and age where how we look, our reputations, our social standings and our bank accounts seem to speak louder than anything else about who we truly are and what we truly want. Is our joy at living based on these ‘worldly’ values, when we are honest about it? 

It becomes particularly challenging for us Christians, whose value system is acutely counter-cultural. It becomes a real war, actually, to embrace the true source of our lives in a world of celebrity politicians and glory-seeking suburbanites. And I think, for the most part, we live a bifurcated existence. We say one thing — I believe in the God who asks us to bear our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34) — but so easily slip into a lifestyle that is really narcissistic, self-centred and selfish. The easy way.

It’s a rhetorical question. “Does a spring pour forth both fresh and brackish water?” In James’ mind, of course not. A spring will either bring forth, on balance, mostly fresh or mostly dirty water. The meter will lean one way or the other. 

Which way do you lean? In your work? In the way you invest? In how you spend your money? In how you spend your free time? With whom? In what and how you communicate?

In the Gospel for today (Mark 8:27-38), Jesus says some difficult, counter-cultural things about what kind of way Jesus — the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, God incarnate, Almighty and Everlasting God — will travel the journey of life. And it is this God who beckons us to follow: in order “to undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31). Really? That doesn’t sound right for a person claiming godly power!

In an upwardly mobile culture we are suddenly and shockingly presented with a downwardly mobile God. Naturally and understandably, through the lens of worldly value, we shudder. Peter rebukes Jesus. And it is in response to Peter’s communication that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan.

The first lesson from Isaiah, the third chapter in the Epistle James and the Gospel reading for today are a call to discipline our speech — how we talk, and for what purpose. I would broaden this to say: How we communicate. The words we use. The body language we employ. They say that 70% of communication is non-verbal. I believe this truth is what prompted Francis of Assisi to say: “Preach the Gospel; Use words only when necessary!” It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Our actions speak louder than words.

We are called to pay attention not only to the words we use — important though they are, but our actions, our tone, our presence with another. We are called to pay attention to these details in assessing the quality of our relationships. Not to do so, to ignore and dismiss our attention to these aspects of relating, is evil. Not to hold ourselves accountable to what we say and how we say it to another is a satanic time-bomb waiting to happen.

The eighth commandment reads: Do not bear false witness against your neighbour (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). This means, what we say about them. Of course, first we have to look around and ask: Who is our neighbour? On Meadowlands Drive West, in Nepean, Ottawa, and in Canada. Who are our neighbours today? Do we know their names? Who are they? And then, what do we say about them, to them?

In his explanation of all the Ten Commandments, Martin Luther makes clear these are not simply about ‘not-doing’ — not gossiping, not slandering — but even more important what positive behaviour we do for the sake of the neighbour. He writes that it is imperative that Christians should do all they can to protect the good name and social standing of their neighbours — and he lifts up particularly the “sins of the tongue” in this context. (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in the Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p.420)

I can’t help here to think of the millions of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. I can’t help here but think of the many ways Muslims are disparaged in the media in the West not only in the press, but also in those malicious forwarded emails that circulate “like a hydra with multiple heads: so pernicious and so difficult to stop” (Kristin Johnston Largen, “Inter-religious Learning and Teaching” Fortress Press, 2014, p.57).

James concedes to our human predicament. In the end, no matter how hard we try to do right by this, “no one can tame the tongue” (3:8). It’s as if the narrative of Scripture accepts the impossible capability of us, on our own, to get it all right all of the time. Even though Peter is in one moment ‘Satanic’ he is, in the next, the rock upon which the church will be built against whom “the gates of Hades will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). Martin Luther’s well-known paradox can help us frame this apparent contradiction: We are simultaneously saints AND sinners (simul justus et pecator). 

This ‘word’ today may make us feel uncomfortable. It does, me. And, probably for good reason. Yet, there is good news. God speaks into this confused darkness of our lives. God speaks the Word of creation into this murky existence (Genesis 1). A Word of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. 

And the Word that God speaks sets up the endless harmonic of sounds in the world. And as we speak, and try to speak truthfully, perhaps what we are doing is far less hanging labels around the necks of the things of the world. And instead we try to find those divine harmonics and speak and act ‘in tune’ with that Word first spoken into silence and darkness.

The image I like of creation is that God first makes a great cave. And then breathes into it. Speaks into it. A Word. And from the cave the echoes come back. Differently pitched. Differently aimed. A world of Word. And we find our place in that world listening to those harmonics, trying to speak and act in tune with them. Not to speak and act from our will or our passion for control. But to speak because we want to join in what an earlier generation would have called the ‘music of the spheres’. (Rowan Williams, “The Spirit in the Desert” Meditatio Talk Series 2015 B Apr-June CD).

Those of us preachers and public speakers, especially need to think more about this. Paul says that the Body of Christ is made up of all parts, each important in their own right (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) — you are a hand, you a leg, you the eyes, you the foot. This morning, I am the mouth! And, like James, Paul also says that greater scrutiny and possible judgement will be brought upon those who speak (2 Peter 2:3;Colossians 2:20;1 Timothy 1:2-4). A timely word, perhaps, in a season of political campaign, mindless rhetoric and questionable election promises.

How do we speak in such a way that is authentic and true? Only by looking for the harmonics that that Word of God sets up. By refusing the mass pressures of culture. By becoming in our speaking as in our living a kind of invitation into the gracious harmonics of God’s world, into the resonances and echoes that are set up by that primordial utterance of God into the cave of creation.

Simone Weil used the concept of ‘hesitation’ to describe how to communicate in a healthy way For her, part of the essence of spiritual maturity was leaving the ‘life-giving gap’ between you, the act, and the other person (quoted in Rowan Williams, ibid.). Learning not so much to project straight away our ego compulsions into the other person; learning not so much to move right away into solving a problem on our own terms. But drawing away momentarily to listen for the sake of the other. And for the sake of the truth.

At the end of the day, we are called to check the compulsion to speak. And move back into a momentary stillness into which God’s draws us, and out of which God calls us to speak and to act with integrity and authenticity.

We would make James proud.

The Pilate problem and the gift of God’s perfect action

In Pilate’s actions (Matthew 27:11ff) we witness how we can be so divided, inside ourselves, between what we believe/what we say — and what we end up doing.

Pilate is convinced Jesus is innocent. He tries all manner of techniques — appealing to tradition to free one prisoner, even having Jesus flogged — all in order to keep him from being crucified. Even Pilate’s wife intervenes to try convincing Pilate to release Jesus.

And for this we can sympathize with Pilate. We can appreciate the political struggle. He is caught between a rock and a hard place: He can use his authority to do the ‘right’ thing but incur the wrath of the crowds and incite rebellion; or, he can do the ‘wrong’ thing but keep political stability in the occupied territories, not to mention his job.

Self-preservation seems to be a guiding motivation for Pilate. But, in the end, when all has been said and done, we hang our heads low in confession that Pilate failed. In contrast to the bloodied and tortured man that stood across from him, he was no man of integrity.

When Pilate washes his hands, he does so symbolically making himself innocent from the crucifixion of Jesus. But Pilate deludes himself from taking responsibility as the governor of the region; because, in truth, the authority to condemn someone to death rested on his shoulders. Even though he washes his hands to try to rid his conscience of the truth, he is culpable. Ironic, isn’t it, that in John’s gospel, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

We have heard the saying that not doing anything is doing something. There is no such thing as ‘abstaining from life’. Whether this problem is manifested in pretending not to see something happen on the road or in the mall that would require us to take a risk to help someone in need; whether self-preservation motivates us to hide or run away when what is called upon is our help; when we ignore a text or email from someone because what they say exposes us or asks us to deal with an uncomfortable truth.

These are some examples of the Pilate problem showing up in our lives — when we delude ourselves into believing there can be no significant consequence from our inaction; when we deceive ourselves into not doing anything, as a strategy for dealing with a difficult situation that requires our attention and action; when we fool ourselves to think that by ignoring someone or something we are doing some good.

Not doing anything is doing something. The question then, is: What is ‘doing nothing’ actually doing? Is not doing anything making the problem worse? Is not doing anything keeping people stuck in unhealthy habits and relationships? Is not doing anything enabling evil to accomplish its diabolic purposes?

We compulsively lay judgement on our’s and others’ actions that result in bad things; these are traditionally known as the sins of commission. But how much have we considered bad things that have resulted in not doing anything at all? The sins of omission are failure to do what one can.

This Good Friday is a good time to reflect personally on what our action, and our inaction, actually accomplishes in our families, marriages, our workplaces and church. More than what our words say, what does our behaviour communicate? Because when it’s all been said and done, our lives are a testimony to our actions.

As Dumbledore advised Harry Potter — in J.K. Rowling’s popular children’s books: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Who God truly is, was shown no more clearly and profoundly than in the Passion of Christ. But ‘Passion’ is not passive. God is doing something in the Passion of Christ. And there’s no way Pilate knew what was afoot — what his waffling was actually leading to, in God’s great work. So, in the end, the Passion story is not about the failure of Pilate, Peter, Judas and the deserting disciples. In the end, this is a story whose principle character is God, in Jesus Christ.

What does Jesus do, before Pilate? You will note that Jesus remained predominantly silent throughout his trial (Matthew 27:11-14). It’s not about what he says. Though he admits he could have called upon his disciples to fight to save him (John 18:36), though he confesses he is “the king of the Jews”, he knows what he must do.

When it’s all been said and done, Jesus against certain torture, mutilation and humiliation, had aligned his inner compass on true north. He was “a man despised and dejected” (Isaiah 53:3). But because he never wavered in his actions at the end, God “allotted him a portion with the great” (Isaiah 53:12).

God, in Jesus, showed us that our God is trustworthy, faithful and true to us, no matter how dire the consequence or even how divided in our lives we are. Nothing will stop God from trying to reach out to us in love. God, if anything, is persistent. God in Christ Jesus is, in the famous words of 19th century English poet Francis Thompson, the “hound of heaven”, who wont stop at anything to accomplish what is good, and what is right.

After all, when it’s all been said and done, nothing we can say nor do can even come close to what God accomplished on the Cross.

In this Good Friday liturgy, we have been focusing on the symbols of the Passion of Christ, culminating in the Cross, which is of greatest value in Christianity.

In the German, Lutheran tradition of worship on Good Friday, special effort is made to emphasize and cover as much as possible with the colour black.

In late medieval times, the colour black became the popular fashion choice for royalty in Europe. The more common, least expensive methods of pigmentation resulted in a brighter array of colours. But ‘vine black’ — obtained from burning the twigs of grape vines — was according to the 15th century painter, Cennino Cennini, “the perfect colour.”

Hard, laborious work was employed to extract even a little bit of this perfect colour. In order to yield the perfect result on a canvas or in clothing, a sacrifice of comparable worth was made.

Black was gold. Black signified a valuable and, above all, worthwhile expression of faith on “Good” Friday. While the colour black can signal temperance, penitence, sorrow and a mournful mood, it also points to a greatness beyond any human effort. This colour, as a symbol of faith on Good Friday, points to the greatest, most perfect, sacrifice of love by God that yields the greatest power, even over death itself.

God is not passive. God doesn’t sit around. God is active. That is why we adore the Cross — to symbolize the ultimate triumph of God.

Let us give thanks this day, that Christ’s action made all the difference in, and changed, the world forever.