To the coastlands

In the second of four, so-called ‘servant poems’ in this section of Isaiah,[1]we encounter a person who is called from before his birth for God’s purposes. But the servant is “deeply despised” and “abhorred by the nations” for something he had done that caused the people to heap judgement and even violence against him.

Whatever this servant had been doing was frustrating even for the servant. He complains that his work had been a complete waste of time, that he had “labored in vain.” Can you relate?

Have you “labored in vain”? Do you feel as if all the work you’ve put into something was in vain, wasn’t worth it, or it felt like it was all for naught and didn’t make any difference? Have you once felt the shame of futility, frustration and failure?

Mahatma Gandhi, during his student life, suffered from frequent panic attacks. He had a particularly agonizing experience during a speech he was asked to give to a vegetarian community in London. After reading one line from the message he had prepared, he could no longer speak and asked someone else to read the rest of the speech for him.

“My vision became blurred and I trembled, though the speech hardly covered a sheet of foolscap,” he recalled.[2]How can someone who is barely able to utter two sentences together in public lead an independence movement? You’d think he must have grieved his shortcomings and fear. Even doubted his ability to lead. 

What will God say to us? How will God answer our prayer born out of our frustration, feelings of futility and anxiety about the changing and scary world within and outside of us?

God’s answer surprises and is often counter-intuitive. We think, perhaps, the solution lies in scaling back, lowering expectations, isolating ourselves in cocoons of introspection and introversion. We think, perhaps, the solution lies in moving away from what causes our fears and anxieties in this changing and scary world out there.

But God’s way isn’t what we think! You thought the solution to your problems was to circle the wagons of your world, make it narrow and easily controlled. You thought the solution to your problems was to constrict your vision to stay within the walls you have constructed in your life between you, your loved ones and the changing and scary world around. To retreat into the safety of a like-minded ghetto behind fortress walls.

God’s answer is cued right at the beginning of this servant poem, in verse one: “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!” The servant is not speaking to his own folk, nearby. The servant is not addressing his words to his like-minded cohort. The servant is not preaching to the choir. 

The servant may not realize it at the beginning, but buried in his first words is the seed for his own transformation, his own healing, the answer to his own problem. God only puts a punctuation mark at the end of the sentence: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (v.6). Not only are his sights set on raising up the tribes of Jacob and restore Israel; his destiny lies with people from far away, at the far reaches of his vision.

After God hears the servant’s lament, “God not only renews the servant’s original calling but enlarges the scope of it, so that it encompasses not only the restoration of Israel but the salvation of every nation on earth. Rather than looking upon the servant’s failures and adjusting the call downwards to meet diminished expectations,”[3]God offers an antidote to the servant’s inner struggles.

If the servant is to be healed from his inner turmoil and outer struggles, here is the antidote: reach out to others to meet them, serve them, learn from them and live together with them. Get out of yourself and the self-preoccupation born from too much navel-gazing, and meet God out there in that changing and scary world.

Gandhi found a cause that inflamed a passion in him so great that it overrode his anxieties and fears. His desire to see a free India moved him to stand up for what he believed in. Ghandi’s life echoed the expansive vision of God to care not just for those closest to him – in his family, village, township or province. But to care for the entire country!

Maybe when we’re anxious, we would do well to set our sights on the coastlands. Maybe, when are afraid, we would do well to consider a strategy that goes in another direction than ‘the way it used to be’. Maybe, when we feel all our work has been in vain, we would do well to try to reach out rather than just reach in. Maybe, when we are frustrated, we would do well to resist the temptation to retreat into the comfort zones too quickly.

Because maybe our healing lies in this expansive vision of God. Maybe our growth lies in setting our sights on the coastlands, to meet with people from far away, to make meaningful connections with peoples from all nations.

I think what we need to remember is that what has brought us here today—in the first place—is love. What brings us to this point of confession—confessing our sins, confessing our fear, feeling all those wants and unmet needs and grievances … we can only do that because love lives in our hearts. The small, spark of love – the love of God in us – opens our hearts to be who we are, warts and all.

But God doesn’t stop there. The love that brings us to honesty also sends us out to share God’s love in the world. The love of God will not stop in us but will radiate outwards, a centrifugal force that cannot be stopped, a force that will shine to the farthest corners. God won’t lower the bar with us, but raise it.

When we find the balance, when our outward reaching stems from the depths of our hearts in Christ, when the centrifugal force of the Spirit of God’s mission in the world emerges from the deep wells of God’s love within, then …

Our work will not be in vain. God will bring to completion the good work already begun in us.


[1]Isaiah 49:1-7

[2]https://visme.co/blog/amazing-leaders-who-once-had-crippling-stage-fright-and-how-they-overcame-it/

[3]Stephanie A. Paulsell, Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.244-246

To value the bruised reed

Not many today can echo the confidence of the Psalmist (29). Because confidence in God’s message does not come easily to those who struggle — struggle in faith, struggle against some great opponent within and outside themselves. And the Psalmist comes across as confident.

The Psalmist repeats the phrase, ‘the voice of the Lord’ seven times, introducing seven of the eleven verses in Psalm 29. Indeed, so the Psalmist claims, the voice of the Lord has accomplished so much, is everywhere and can do anything. The voice of the Lord can shake our world, break strong things and shock us with incredible visions!

And, therefore, his enthusiasm can either inspire some, and intimidate others. After all, how can we not notice? How can we miss what God is doing? God’s voice is loud, impressive and spectacular! You’d think there’s something terribly wrong with us if we can’t see the power and presence of God all around us. How can the Psalmist be so forthright and confident? His haughty display of faith can leave us feeling inferior or not good enough.

The church finds itself now in the season of Epiphany. The word means to ‘show’, or ‘reveal’. The season’s theme is all about our vision, being able to recognize the Christ. If only it were that easy!

The Baptism of Jesus marked the beginning of his ministry. And is slotted as the first Sunday after the Day of Epiphany.[1]In the experience of his baptism, Jesus alone saw the heavens opened and the dove descend. And it was only Jesus, in the moment of his baptism, who heard the voice of God.[2]This profound experience was meant for him.

We, too, whether at our baptism, or at the start of a new year, find ourselves at a new beginning. And we, too, may be looking for guidance and for a sign of God’s presence and power in our lives. As we seek our way, do we not yearn for the confidence that Jesus and the Psalmist in their own unique situations express in hearing and seeing the ‘voice of the Lord’—whether from the heavens or in the glory of creation itself? Especially at significant turning points in our lives? What do we see that is meant for us, personally?

At this ending of the Christmas season recall with me how some of the main characters received divine guidance and revelations. And I notice a recurring theme:

Specific guidance came to Mary and Joseph, to the wise men, to the shepherds, to Elizabeth and Mary and Zechariah – each and every one of them through dreams, visions, and stars.[3]Not exactly ways in which we normally expect to receive God’s guidance. The Christmas story teaches us how God will communicate with us. God’s revelation to you may very well come from beyond the normal sense of our day-to-day lives.

Writer-poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: “When you reach the end of what you should know, you will be at the beginning of what you should sense.”[4]In other words, when we come to the end of what we know in our heads, then we will be at the beginning of what we should experience and see in our hearts. So, maybe, those who struggle in any way — those who have come to the end of all they know — have something to show us.

We begin the new year by seeking the value in ‘bruised’ things – in us, and in the world. The prophet Isaiah writes in poetic fashion about God’s servant who will not break a bruised reed nor quench a dimly burning wick.[6]In bringing about God’s justice, the servant will honor even that which is weak, broken and imperfect within us and in the world.

In the second reading for today we must again review the story of Christ. Peter, the orator, tells the gathering at Cornelius’ house the message about the Cross and the empty tomb. And, that the character of the faithful life is forgiveness and mercy.[7] Not triumph and victory.

We begin the new year by seeking the value in bruised things – in us, and in the world. The glory of God comes only by way of the the broken things, the weak. Because only in those places and at those times do we touch the heart of forgiveness, mercy and love.

Last Spring, my wife Jessica’s special needs class travelled to Toronto to participate in the Special Olympics Invitational Youth Games. All the students in her class, each with a varying degree of developmental disability, played together on a soccer team. The team from Arnprior District Highschool played several games over the weekend against teams from all over North America. They lost every one of them.

But that wasn’t the point. Maybe the point was revealed in an incident that happened and how it was resolved:

One of the students from Jessica’s class was playing forward and was threatening to score a goal against their opponent, a special needs class from Arizona. One of their players was being inappropriately aggressive on the field with the student. It got to a point where there was a kerfuffle between the two of them.

The play was called and both teams retreated to the sidelines. Jessica’s student had held it together and did not overly react even though the other player had been provoking him the entire game by his aggressive behaviour. And the student’s maintaining composure alone was a huge accomplishment for the young lad.

But weren’t they surprised when the whole team from Arizona was soon standing in a semi-circle at centre field beckoning all our students to join them. When the circle was complete, the boy who had been aggressing took a step forward toward Jessica’s student, looked him in the eye, and said, “I’m sorry.”

Without hesitating, the student also took a step forward toward the Arizona boy and quickly added, “That’s ok, I’m ok.” The act of confession and forgiveness between the two of them was supported by their respective teammates. In a way, it was a collective effort; both sides encouraging the boys to do what was right and good. And after a big group hug at centre field, the teams resumed their play.

God is showing us all the time where truth and goodness lie. The problem is not that God isn’t doing anything. The problem is not our lack of ability to perform. 

Maybe the problem is more that we are not seeing where God is and what God is doing for the good of all in the world today. May God clear our vision to value the ‘bruised reed’ within us and in the world today. May God encourage our steps forward together.


[1]On the 6thday of January, and the 12thday of Christmas, every year.

[2]Matthew 3:13-17

[3]Luke 1-2; Matthew 1-3

[4]Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

[5]Br. Curtis Almquist, “Revelation” inBrother, Give Us a Word (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, www.ssje.org, , 8 January 2020)

[6]Isaiah 42:3

[7]Acts 10:43

The mystic magi journey: discovering a new way of seeing

The word, ‘mystery’, Paul mentions four times in the text assigned for the Day of Epiphany.[1]He calls receiving God’s grace “the mystery of Christ.”

A mystery is not something that ought to scare us. Like how we feel when reading a whodunit and murder-mystery novels so popular. We have lived in a culture that sees mystery as something bad, something to avoid, something that is opposed to a life of faith. If something is mysterious, it can’t be of God.

That, what appears on the surface, at first sight, is division, discord, disharmony, a profound and inherent disconnection in our lives and in the world.

A negative view of mystery also implies that to know God means there is nothing more to know. To claim some cerebral notions of God—we call this doctrine—and to conform our knowing with others means there is no longer anything to learn. Change, growth, diverse thinking—the consequence of something that is difficult to understand—these have been an undesired mystery.

The journey of the magi suggests we need to take another look at “the mystery of Christ.” The prophet Isaiah, from another text assigned for the Day of Epiphany,[2]encourages us all to “lift up your eyes and look around … then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” There is apparently a great benefit in seeing anew.

Isaiah speaks as if this ‘seeing’ is more than a mere observation of what is immediately in front of you. This spiritual seeing is about perceiving a deeper reality. Some would say it is seeing with the eye of the heart, or the mind’s eye. Sight, here, is not just a biological function of the eyes, but involves deeper more subtle capacities within us.

From the perspective of faith, mystery means, “endless knowability.”[3]Mystery is not something we cannot ever know; or, conversely, some riddle that we must solve once-and-for-all. Rather, mystery is a journey of learning more, growing, a continual expansion of our awareness, knowledge and perception.

The reason Matthew includes the story of the magi in his rendition of the birth of Jesus is to describe what is true for anyone on the journey of life and faith. 

For one thing, we never arrive at the fullness of truth on this journey we are on. That was the credo of the old science, that somehow once we figure something out, it never needs to be revisited or rethought. This approach affected the way of the church; that is, once you are confirmed or become adult or affirm your faith or join the membership … well, you’ve arrived. You are saved. And you don’t need to do anything more. Or change, or grow in faith, or explore different dimensions of the faithful life.

To say, “I don’t know”, in response to a question meant there is something wrong with you and your faith or your understanding. To confess “I don’t know” according to the credo of the old science was an admission of weakness, that something was not just right, or complete, with your faith. And this was shameful.

And yet, Paul challenges such arrogance (ironically since he was an arrogant guy himself) by focusing our attention on the “boundlessriches in Christ” whose intent is “to make everyonesee … the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” [emphasis mine]

The magi of old studied the stars to gain understanding of God’s creation which included the boundless reaches of the universe. They sought the incarnation of God’s grace in Christ, and so followed the star. But when they arrived at the site of the nativity in Bethlehem—the apparent destination—was their journey over? Truly?

Far from it. Not only did they have to deal with Herod and his wiles, they continued by a different road. On earth, what is the destination of your faith? The destination of our yearning, searching, and endless knowing doesn’t mean the journey is over and done. And we have nowhere else to go. We continue on, seeking new expressions of God’s grace and God’s presence in Christ.

In a TV series called “See”, starring Aquaman superhero Jason Momoa, a post-apocalyptic humanity is blind. No one can see. Everyone is completely visually impaired (with few exceptions). The producers and actors do an excellent job of conveying to the viewer how individuals and communities arrange their lives to move and live without sight.

In a powerful scene, a ragtag group led by Jason Momoa is forging down a forest path, his sword cutting the air in front of them. It all seems to be a tranquil setting when suddenly he shoots out his arm to stop them from moving one step farther.

“What wrong?” another asks.

He shakes his head lifting his unseeing eyes ahead. “It doesn’t feel right. It is not safe.” Being physically blind has developed other, intuitive, senses – smell, the feel of the air, sound—to paint a picture of the truth in front of him.

As it turns out, they were walking into a narrow canyon ideal for an ambush. The ambushers, of course, were also blind. But as soon as they heard the subtle sounds of someone walking far below them—the scrape of a foot on stone, the crunch of dried leaves or the snapping of twig, they would aim their cross bows in the direction of the sound and shoot with deadly accuracy. Jason Momoa’s group was saved by a knowing that was deeper and richer than mere physical sight.

God has given us capacities beyond what we have known. There are unfathomable depths to our being in this universe and an immeasurable limit to our understanding. In describing a life of faith, Paul writes that we have confidence walking our journey of faith, “not by sight.”[4]There is more to it than a visual, observable certainty.

When someone asks you a question about your faith, and you find yourself saying, “I don’t know”, you need not say it as an admission of weakness. You can say, “I don’t know” with confidence because you are still on a journey of learning and discovery. Scientists today who study the stars will suggest with confidence that the universe is always expanding. New stars and solar systems are being discovered. We are endlessly knowing. The journey isn’t over. It never is.

And, what is more, scientists today will readily admit that there is indeed something at work in the universe that goes beyond the mere, yet important, crunching of numbers. Something they cannot put their analytical fingers on, yet something people of faith have been claiming since the beginning of time:

That our lives have purpose and meaning beyond the collision and interaction of molecules. That everything that happens in our lives is somehow intertwined, that there exists an almost imperceptible connection between ourselves, our past and our future, a connection that is leading somewhere, a connection that brings healing and wholeness to our lives.

A connection leading us somewhere eternally good.


[1]Ephesians 3:1-12

[2]Isaiah 60:1-6

[3]Richard Rohr, “Mystery is Endless Knowability” Paradox(Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, Tuesday, August 23, 2016)

[4]2 Corinthians 5:7

Super-hero busted

With Marvel and DC the biggest box office attractions in recent years, the popular culture exposes our desires and fantasies. These super-heroes are really just projections of our own wants and longings. We put ourselves in these roles, vicariously living out the super-hero life.

What from the super-hero culture inform and influence our real lives, you ask? What does it mean to be a hero, living day-to-day?

Last week, we concluded our Lent book study about our medical culture. When the stakes are high and decisions have to be made about treatment of serious illness, what do we want? How do we respond? In the book aptly entitled, “Being Mortal”, author Atul Gawande writes:

“The pressure remains all in one direction, toward doing more, because the only mistake clinicians seem to fear is doing too little. Most have no appreciation that equally terrible mistakes are possible in the other direction—that doing too much could be no less devastating to a person’s life.”[1]

Being heroic means doing more, not less. More power. More strength. Super-human capacity. Fighting evil means counter punch for punch—just harder, faster. Solving problems means finding more resources, generating more capacity to meet the demands. Doing things better. This is the culture of heroism in our day. We want to be heroes.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, is our biblical hero. We like him. We get him. He always wanted to be Jesus’ hero, protecting him from the suffering of which he spoke, jumping into the water not once but twice to be the first of the disciples to get to Jesus.[2]Jesus, at one point, even had to say to Peter: “Get behind me Satan” when Peter said he would not allow the suffering and death of Jesus.[3]

Even in the Passion narrative Peter is still delusional, believing he will follow Jesus, heroically, to the end. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”[4]Peter is the consummate hero.

The part from the Passion narrative where he then ‘denies the Lord three times when the rooster crows’ is a turning point for him.[5]And for us.

In the Passion of our Lord, the Cross is the central image and destination. And against the Cross our truth is exposed, and we are caught in the headlights. Our true motivations are squared against the values of the kingdom of God to which Jesus bore witness in his last days and trial.

Normally, I have understood Peter’s denial of Jesus merely as self-preservation. He doesn’t want to expose his vulnerability in that situation. He doesn’t want to be considered a threat, and be arrested himself. He wants to conserve and protect himself. And so he is caught off-guard, and quickly denies his involvement with Jesus.

But what if we saw Peter’s words of denial more as a confession rather than self-seeking, self-preservation? Peter confesses, at the end of the road, that he does not ‘know’ the kingdom of which Jesus speaks. Peter confesses that he is not a true disciple of Jesus.

Even at this end, nevertheless, Jesus knows Peter better than he knows himself. “Today, you will deny me”. Hours later, Peter stares into the flames of the firepit in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and warms his hands by the fire. Finally, Peter comes to himself in all honesty and vulnerability. “No, I don’t know him. No, I don’t know this Jesus. No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He is finally telling the truth, in his ‘denial’. Facing this truth is hard, and that is why he goes out and weeps bitterly at the end. Peter’s ideal image of himself—a heroic disciple of the Lord, a super-hero Jesus freak—has come crashing down. He is not the hero he thought he was. He does not have the courage to follow in the way of Jesus to the cross.

When, in the solitude of our confession, we confront ourselves in all honesty—we find ourselves at ground zero, that turning point, that event-horizon towards transformation and healing. Because further down that path of hero worship we cannot go. And, we wonder, seriously question whether we have what it takes to let go, and follow Jesus to the cross of our lives.

It is unknown territory, on the bottom. We do not know it well, if at all. We shy away from it, understandably. We are uncomfortable, here. “In solitude, we encounter our own poverty, incompleteness and brokenness. We see how petty we can be; how possessive and judgmental; how angry, resentful, and mean-spirited; how self-centered in our thoughts and actions. No wonder we are tempted to flee solitude and to lose ourselves in busyness and distractions. It takes courage to plumb the depths of our soul.”[6]

Peter in the high priest’s courtyard finds his bottom in honest confession, not unlike the Prodigal Son wallowing in the mud of the pig pen when he has his moment of reckoning.

It takes courage to come close to Jesus near the Cross. It takes courage to let go of our heroism and our compulsion to do more, to do better. It takes courage to let go being incessantly active and working harder as a way of avoiding ‘plumbing the depths of our soul’.

Are you willing to give up being a hero for Jesus? Are you still a disciple when Jesus leads you this close to the cross?[7]

Perhaps another story from the Passion narratives of the Gospels usually assigned for Holy Week can be helpful. It’s the Gospel text from last week, actually, when Mary lavishly anoints Jesus’ feet.

How does Mary respond to the reality of human limitation and vulnerability? How does she respond to the ‘ground zero’ reality surrounding her and Jesus? Remember, Mary knows what is going on with Jesus. Anointing was reserved for coronations and burials. Jesus qualifies for both. And his end was nigh. How does she deal with that?

In Luke’s version of the anointing story, Jesus tells Mary: “Your sins are forgiven.”[8]Why were her sins forgiven after anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume?

Not only because of her great sorrow, nor because she remembered all her sins, nor even because of any contrition she might have felt for her human weakness. Why then?

Because she loved, and loved much.[9]So, instead of sorrowing over her sinfulness, she gave abundantly and without reservation of her affection and love for Jesus.

Confronting our truth, as scary as that is, is not license to wallow in passive, self-preoccupation. Rather, this degree of self-honesty and confession leads to extravagant acts of mercy and love towards another. At ground zero, we realize that our lives are not ours, but God’s. At ground zero, we realize that we live for something and someone much greater than our individual problems and shortcomings.

The description of what God does, relating to the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4-9 is important:

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word …

The Lord God has opened my ear …

The Lord God helps me …

The Lord God helps me.[10]

When truth-telling can lead to acts of profound love for the sake of ‘the weary’, the Lord God helps us.

When our actions, tarnished even by our humanity, focus on love for the vulnerable and weak, the Lord God helps us.

When our limitations are offered to God in acts of love for others, the Lord God helps us.

And we are still the Lord’s disciples. Even Peter, beyond his moment not of denial, but acceptance. Jesus pronounced him ‘the rock’ upon which God builds the church.

And, we know what lies beyond this momentary tribulation. We have Jesus to thank for that. This is the promise of our journeys, rough though they may be.

And, through it all, we are still the Lord’s disciples.

 

[1]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End(Toronto: Penguin, 2017), p.220

[2]Matthew 14:28-31; John 21:7-19

[3]Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33

[4]Luke 22:33

[5]Luke 22:24-34,54-62; John 18:15-27

[6]Br. David Vryhof
Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” 8 April 2019

 

[7]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life  (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009),  p.79.

[8]Luke 7:44-48

[9]The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Ira Progoff (Delta Books: 1957), 100-102.

[10]Isaiah 50:4-9 NRSV, reading assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Passion Sunday.

The fig tree calls out

Hear today some wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh:

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet, if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. 

“Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. This is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

When 21-year-old Sharif Said was gunned down near the Trainyards in Ottawa four years ago, his uncle spoke to the media on behalf of the family.[1]What surprised me in his testimony was how he defended not only his nephew, around whom rumours swirled that he was involved in a gang.

But then he defended those arrested for his nephew’s murder. He said that they were also victims. Khalid Mohammad and Abdulaziz Abdullah, both in their twenties and arrested for Said’s murder, were victims themselves of a “senseless violence”, the uncle said. As a result they could not value life as “precious”.

A subtle twist in the tone of the message changes the direction of the conversation about these things. Making sense of any criminal act, to begin with, can leave us confused and hopeless. And we desperately seek to be on the right side of ‘right and wrong’. We do that most effectively by assigning blame.

Then, you throw into the mix a statement coming from ‘the victim’ that offers sympathy to the perpetrators, a word that levels the moral playing field, we don’t know what to do with that.

Are we all, each and every one of us, part of a culture that creates these problems? Do we all participate on both sides—all sides—of the moral equation? Isn’t that too confusing and wishy-washy? Forgiveness, and mercy, wreak havoc on any common-sense pursuit for laying blame. An act of kindness and forbearance in the midst of senseless tragedy takes the wind out of retribution.

Admittedly, we may feel more at home with the way the ancient prophets used the image of a barren fig tree.[2]One way we tend to lean is towards despair. The prophet Micah feels lonely and depressed in the face of scarcity and evil:

‘Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered,      after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.’

Or, we lean towards vengeance. You can hear it in Isaiah’s tone when he speaks of his ‘beloved’ vineyard. Despite all his hard work to create conditions for abundant growth it yielded only wild, undesirable, grapes:

‘And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down …’

Indeed aren’t these the usual go-to’s when bad things happen to good people—we either slip into despair or shake our fists in anger against someone or something we blame?

When an Ethiopian airliner filled with people crashes and all are killed including eighteen Canadians onboard. When Galileans are slaughtered in cold blood by the hand of Pilate and the Tower of Siloam falls and kills innocent pilgrims at the pool of healing.[3]When randomly, bad things happen, and we can’t really make sense of it. Well, we try.

Do you despair? Or do you get angry and try to find who or what to blame? The people in the Gospel text today tried to get Jesus in on their blame-game and despair-mongering ways.

And Jesus comes back to the ancient, scriptural image of the fig tree again. When he first mentions the fig tree, the crowd must have gotten really excited. Because they knew where this story was going, knowing their prophets Micah and Isaiah: Despair. Vengeance. The lead-up sounds good.

But Jesus pulls the rug out from underneath their expectations. The twist Jesus offers to the familiar image of the barren fig tree is his emphasis on forbearance and mercy. Staving off a swift impulse to cut the tree down after three years of neglect and barrenness, the vineyard’s stewards will give the fig tree yet another year’s chance to bear fruit. The fig tree is given yet another second chance. The hope is that the fig tree will be rehabilitated.

It is important to note, moreover, that in the parable it is the gardener who allows for the possibility of fruitfulness. Not the fig tree. It can’t do anything, by itself. It is stuck in a cycle of barrenness (aka poverty, violence). First, the gardener has to plead his case, be the tree’s advocate, to the owner of the field. Then, the gardener has to do the work. By constant care, digging around the roots and applying manure, the gardener employs all the gifts and resources at their disposal to allow for a positive outcome.[4]

The fig tree calls to us. Who or what does the fig tree represent in our lives? Now, parables are not meant to be taken literally, so we can rule out any divine gardening tips here. This parable won’t appear in a google search for ‘how to grow a fig tree’.

Who is the barren fig tree in your life?

When and where do you sense in your life or another’s, a feeling of being at wit’s end? When all resources have been explored and used up. When a group of people or individual cannot to do it on their own any longer. When someone is stuck in cycles of behaviour that they cannot see the way out, by themselves. When a call for help is evident by a lack of fruitfulness in their lives.

You will notice that this parable comes to a rather abrupt end. The narrative is not neatly tied up into a certain, ‘happy’ ending. We just don’t know whether the fig tree will produce after all this advocacy and gardening work is done. You could say, it’s up to us to write the ending to this story. Will it be judgement? Or, salvation?

Every time we worship together, though, we pray not ‘mykingdom come’, not ‘our kingdom come’, but ‘Thy kingdom come’. Jesus tells a parable about a gardener determined to tend a fruitless fig tree because he is open to a future possibility that he does not control.

Our task, as American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry says it best, “is to labor, without having all the answers, to acknowledge the deep mystery of it all. The task of the disciple is to witness and then wait, to take our best step and leave the rest to God. We labor now for a future we are not meant to control.”[5]

When forgiveness and mercy dictate public discourse in the media and in response to horrific, tragic and painful events around the world and in our lives, we may not be able to explain it easily. But maybe that’s not our job.

Maybe our job is to seek understanding in the other, and thereby show our love. Maybe our job in the church and as Christians is to speak and work for God’s values for the sake of others amidst pain and suffering.

And in hope and trust, let God write the end of the story.

 

[1]cbc.ca, posted May 7, 2015

[2]Micah 7:1; Isaiah 5:1-7

[3]Luke 13:1-9, Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]Daniel G. Deffenbaugh in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.96.

[5]Michael B. Curry in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.95-97.

Game of Thrones and the Throne of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

… and an Ancient One took his throne …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4]Isaiah 6:1-8

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

[6]Hebrews 4:16

Into the deep end

I’d like you to meet Harry Truman, at the end of his life.

This is not Harry Truman the 33rdpresident of the USA. This is Harry Truman, the eighty-three-year-old who, in March 1980, refused to budge from his home at the foot of Mount Saint Helens near Olympia, Washington State, where the volcano began to steam and rumble.

A former World War 1 pilot and Prohibition-era bootlegger, he’d owned his lodge on Spirit Lake for more than half a century. Five years earlier, he’d been widowed. So now it was just him and his sixteen cats on his fifty-four acres of property beneath the mountain.

Three years earlier, he’d fallen off the lodge roof shoveling snow and broken his leg. The doctor told him he was “a damn fool” to be working up there at his age.

“Damn it!” Truman shot back. “I’m eighty years old and at eighty, I have the right to make up my mind and do what I want to do.”

An eruption threatened, so the authorities told everyone living in the vicinity to clear out. But Truman wasn’t going anywhere. For more than two months, the volcano smoldered. Authorities extended the evacuation zone to ten miles around the mountain. Truman stubbornly remained.

He didn’t believe the scientists, with their uncertain and sometimes conflicting reports. He worried his lodge would be looted and vandalized, as another lodge on Spirit Lake was. And regardless, this home was his life.

“If this place is gonna go, I want to go with it,” he said. “’Cause if I lost it, it would kill me in a week anyway.” He attracted reporters with his straight-talking, curmudgeonly way, holding forth with a green John Deere cap on his head and a tall glass of bourbon and Coke in his hand. The local police thought about arresting him for his own good but decided not to, given his age and the bad publicity they’d have to endure. They offered to bring him out every chance they got.

He steadfastly refused. He told a friend, “If I die tomorrow, I’ve had a damn good life. I’ve done everything I could do, and I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do.”

The blast came at 8:40am on May 18, 1980, with the force of an atomic bomb. The entire lake disappeared under the massive lava flow, burying Truman and his cats and his home with it.

In the aftermath, he became an icon – the old man who had stayed in his house, taken his chances, and lived life on his own terms. The people of a nearby town constructed a memorial to him at the town’s entrance that still stands to this day, and there was a TV movie made based on the story.[1]

Opinions may be divided as to whether he did the right thing, by staying and dying so violently. Some herald his gritty resolve. Others shake their heads considering the effect of his decision on his loved ones, and the public resources expended on his behalf to inform and keep the community safe about the impending danger.

What would you have done?

4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.[2]

This poetry from the prophet reads, generally, in a comforting, encouraging and promising tone. However, the second half of verse 4 feels out of place. God “will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense” and then God “will come and save you.”

It sounds like salvation will come only after an horrible, terrifying experience. Perhaps, Harry Truman’s salvation came on the heels of being drowned in the burning lava flow.

This interpretation can lead, however, to dangerous conclusions. Such as the only way to something good is create and go through untold suffering: Such as the ends justify the means; That it is ok to do something hurtful, cruel, and violent if the result of that violence is pleasing; That salvation can only come through terrible suffering.

We know life happens. We don’t need to search out and fabricate all the pain that is a natural part of life. We don’t need to choose suffering. Great suffering comes in different forms quite apart from any conscious decision to bring it on.

The better question is not whether or not we must suffer, but how do we respond and live in the midst of our suffering. That is the question of faith.

No doubt, Harry Truman had experienced some significant losses in the years leading to the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. No doubt at age eighty-three, his physical capacities were failing. He had lost his spouse. He had broken his leg. He was coming up against his very sure limitations. And, likely, grieving in his own way the passing of his event-filled and active life.

One can only have compassion on him.

The words of Isaiah are spoken to “those who are of a fearful heart.”[3]Ultimately, the war of all that divides and challenges us is waged on the battlefield of our own hearts. Any external fight on our hands is really a fight happening in our own hearts. Do you fight against a circumstance beyond your control? Are you so terrified that you can’t even speak of it?

At the centre of that odd, out-of-place verse is a word I do not like much: “vengeance” (in Hebrew, naqam), because I struggle to link this promise with Gospel good-news.

And then I came across what Biblical scholar Hendrik Peels showed about this word, naqam, in the Bible. This word refers to a retribution by a legitimate authority. And especially in this text from Isaiah, the emphasis is a retribution that brings liberation to those who are oppressed, and freedom from a situation or need. Its meaning is closer to a restoration rather than to vengeance of any kind.[4]

We tend, naturally, first to react to our fears by targeting some outside source. We blame others, when all along we hold the source of our trouble in our own hearts by refusing to examine our attachments and address our own sense of loss and fear.

It’s not easy to learn how best to let go at the endings of our lives. Most of us, unfortunately, confront these deeper questions and challenges at the end of our lives when we face a critical crisis: our health fails and all that we have been attached to in life we lose, suddenly.

We can do ourselves a favour. But it takes exercise, and some pain during the course of our lives when we are not yet at this life-ending crisis time. Learning to die before we die is the point. When we meet with common challenges of life – a physical move, a changed relationship, a job loss, a surgery, a life-changing experience, daily challenges – we can practice how to die to what has been (in the past) and welcome the feeling of terror about the unknown future. We learn how to surrender to what cannot be controlled; or, find the courage to throw off the weight of internalized oppression. This is all serious heavy-lifting.[5]

Following Jesus provides a way through, so we don’t get stuck in despair or denial. The wisdom of the inspired Word of God has something to say about this journey of heavy-lifting:

It is to turn to our neighbor and help them on their journey. It is seeing with the mind’s eye and the heart’s passion that we share a common humanity with those who suffer, who are oppressed, who are vulnerable and needy. To look, and go, beyond ourselves. And not give up.

“Compassionate Justice” is therefore one of the four vision priorities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).[6]Of course, making statements and standing up in the public sphere for the sake of the poor, the newcomer, the homeless, creation, the marginalized and weak can get us into trouble. Of course, we can spare ourselves a lot of trouble by shutting our eyes to the suffering.

But our closed eyes will also shut out God. The Word is spoken, indeed, to “those with fearful hearts”. To those who need to listen. And do something.

I’ve never met Harry Truman. I didn’t know him, personally. I didn’t know his family, his community, or his religious background.

But I wonder – what would have been in the last years of his life especially if someone he respected and trusted leant him an ear more than once-in-a-while.

What would it have been, if a friend offered to shovel the snow from the roof of his lodge.

What would it have been like, if family or friends showed him unconditional, loving attention despite his bravado and curmudgeonly behaviour.

I wonder if his ending could have somehow been less violent, less tragic.

Our hearts may be fearful. And yet hearts also race in expectation of something good. Something better. Hearts race in hope.

And hope never fails.

God of compassion and justice, bring justice to those who hunger for bread. And give a hunger for justice to those who have bread. Amen.

 

[1]Atul Gwande, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” (Anchor Canada, 2017), p.66-67.

[2]Isaiah 35:4-7a, Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 16B

[3]Isaiah 35:4

[4]Hendrik G. L. Peels, The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 265-66.

[5]Brie Stoner, A Reflection: Into the Deep End in The Mendicant Volume 8 Number 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation, Summer 2018).

[6]http://www.elcic.ca

Fresh air

I am glad to be back to breathe the air in the Ottawa Valley. That is why I live here, truth be told. Even before the plane landed at Ottawa airport last evening, I could feel it in the air.

IMG_7127

There’s nothing in the world like catching the sweet breeze blowing down over James Bay, through the budding pine and spruce trees of the Laurentian’s and over the pristine waters of the Ottawa River.

Not only was the hotel room where my brother and I stayed sealed off to the outside, the air in Washington DC was heavy, stale and full of particle contaminants that caused us some coughing, wheezing and rubbing our itching eyes. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to know the Potomac River basin is ….well, not the Ottawa River and Valley.

Ottawa and Washington DC are both the capital cities of their respective nations. Each reflects by its monuments, memorials and geography the character of the nation it represents. One of the purposes of nationalism, like the rivers that surround the two capital cities, is to separate one from the other. Indeed, the work of creating divisions continues in earnest to this day.

In fact, walls are being built not only in the United States, but all over the world as the USA Today front page reported a couple of days ago.[1]Protectionism and isolationism fueled by fear are on the rise.

IMG_7120

So, the voices of a different vision need to be heard, once again.

One of the most recently constructed memorials in Washington is on the shores of the Potomac River — the Martin Luther King Memorial.

IMG_6993

“No one is free,” said Martin Luther King, “until we are all free.” In other words:

What I want for myself can’t happen, until it can be so for everyone. If there is anyone who suffers in whatever way,

If there is anyone who is not free, in whatever way,

If there are people who are bound, captive to whatever vice, to whatever imprisonment of the soul or in prison because something they have done…

I am going to be healed of whatever ails me, only when I seek the healing of the other, the freeing of the other, the liberation of the other. The church holds up a different vision from that of the divisive, individualistic and exclusive nature of white nationalism in the world today.

You can see, I hope, why the consciousness of the church not only at Faith Lutheran, not only in Ottawa, or in the Eastern Synod or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, but in the United States of America and worldwide is moving to see not a division between things, not building walls between two perceived opposites, but building unity between them.

Not a division between politics and pastoral care,

Not a division between care for the soul and social justice,

Not a division between reaching out and reaching in,

Not a division between speaking out against injustice of whatever kind and speaking to the choir,

Not a division between contemplation and action.

Not an either-or, but a both-and.

Last week when Ken stood here and told you about the different ways we can support the financial health of the congregation, he introduced his well-delivered announcement by saying — “you’ve heard we in the church were never to talk about money, politics and sex (well, he didn’t actually say the last word, but I know you all were thinking it!).

And then a couple weeks before that, Mark stood here and told you about his upcoming trip to Ecuador to build homes in a community destroyed by an earthquake some years ago. And in his well-worded speech he said (I paraphrase): “In this mission trip the group he was going with was not doing mere charity, dollars sent to a far-off location, but directly helping them on the ground and making a real difference in the lives of those who suffer.” Check it out. He said it. I believe he has it all on a piece of paper.

I alone am not telling you all this. Your own members are. Your own church family is slowly but surely breaking down the walls that have divided, distanced and incubated our conversations in the church.

Limited our conversation. Limited our imagination. Limited the ways of God. NOT talking about these things, well, how has that worked out for the church in recent times?

NOT talking about the things that really matter in our daily life, NOT being open and honest, sharing the deepest secrets and burdens of our lives, NOT feeling safe in a community of faith to be who we humanly are, warts and all, imperfect, suffering, in need of God’s love. NOT being like that — how has that worked for the church? How has that worked for you?

It is not easy in the church (although everyone else in our real lives are talking about them!) to talk about money, politics and sex. It is not easy to talk about the real things that matter in this life. And so, the church for many decades has avoided having these conversations. Why? Because we were afraid? Because talking about sex, politics and money would put a mirror in front of us, exposing areas of our life that needed even a bit of God’s light shining upon it?

It’s not easy to talk about these things. I know. I feel it too. But I always thought that that’s what faith was supposed to be about — to confess, be honest, be real, and just do the work of God. How can we do the work of God when we can’t even be honest, and real, and confess ourselves to one another?

We can echo the prophet Isaiah’s complaint to the Lord: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips …”[2]

But he doesn’t stop there. His confession is not just about himself. Faithfulness is not merely individualistic. We don’t come to church to make an individual contract with the Lord.

Isaiah continues in his confession: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Faithfulness drives towards the communal, the community, the well-being of the world. “No one is free, until we are all free.” Not just me, but we!

When we don’t include, welcome and affirm people who are different from us, we are a people of unclean lips.

When we refuse to include conversations about sexuality, money and political action, we are a people of unclean lips.

When we remain quiet in the face of injustice, we are a people of unclean lips.

In other words, this confession of Isaiah implies that he feels he should just ‘shut up and sit down.’ Not say anything. Because he is bad. And Israel is bad.

Maybe you feel this too. Not unlike Isaiah when confronted with a vision of God, you feel, deep down, the church is bad, and has nothing worthwhile to say in the public sphere. Millennials believe that. Just ask your children or your friend’s children. In the past, we church-going Canadians have conveniently said, “That sort of stuff is the government’s job.” We effectively, therefore, excuse ourselves from any social action in the name of Jesus. And continue the dividing.

Martin Luther King also said that in the church it’s alright to talk about the New Jerusalem (pointing to heaven, the afterlife), yes, but one day we also have to talk about the New York or the new Ottawa, the new community in the here and now.

What did Isaiah see in his vision?

Two details in this vision I want to focus on:

First, “the house was filled with smoke.”[3]

Here’s Isaiah who sees God in all God’s glory. How can I understand this vision by analyzing: Why the six wings folded over on various parts of the seraphim? What’s with that?

But the smoke fills the space. Usually, the image of smoke — like the cloud — in the bible is codeword for, “Can’t get this.” I can’t explain what’s going on in the presence of God. I can’t bring all the statistics, analysis, data and information the world can offer, to explain this rationally. But that’s ok. Because that’s not the point.

In 2018, in the wake of the internet revolution, did you know that more than 7 billion humans use the internet; and, that’s 7 and a half percent more, over 2016. Google now processes more than 40 thousand searches EVERY second. And remember, that’s only Google. Include all the other search engines out there, worldwide there are 5 billion searches EVERY day.[4]

We don’t need any more information! The church’s solutions are not found in accruing more data to solve our problems!

Because things happen in life that we can’t understand. The truth about God cannot be conveyed in data streams and pie charts and three point sermons.

Smoke in the house. Mystery. Might it be, that Isaiah and the bible is trying to say: We don’t need to understand everything. We don’t need to know how it makes sense for people of different races, colour, ethnic background, different social economic status, expressing a different sexuality, different ages, different abilities can form one, unified community. We don’t need to know how that can be.

Today is Trinity Sunday. I am not going to stand here and try to explain to you how three different persons can constitute one God. Because I don’t know. All I know is that those different persons are in a unified relationship. Relationship.

The third person, especially, confounds our Lutheran sensibilities. We’ve figured God the Creator. We’ve figured out God the Son, well, as much as we can. But the Holy Spirit throws a wrench into any rationalizations. A mystery, to be sure!

How does it all fit together? How can we analyze this even more? Shouldn’t we first have a detailed plan? Shouldn’t we try to draw a diagram?

We don’t need to know! All we have are the visions. The dreams. The imagination that describes in poetry and colourful words flashes and fragments of God’s kingdom and truth. We don’t need to know. We don’t need to reconcile all the contradictions. We don’t need to make sense of it. We don’t need to provide all the answers. We don’t need to put God in a box, nor explain God to anyone. God doesn’t need that from us.

Why?

Because even though Isaiah is a man of unclean lips (God doesn’t deny it!), even though God’s people have unclean lips, even though we are imperfect individuals in an imperfect church, that isn’t going to stop God. In Section Five of a recent Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis called “Reclaiming Jesus” church leaders from across the United States wrote: “We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not.”[5]

The realm of politics is imperfect. Who would think? Yet, our imperfection is the very reason politics happens. It is not something to avoid, it is something to embrace.

What does God do? Despite Isaiah’s complaints and resistance (just like all the rest of the people in the bible!) …

Despite us!

God reaches down from God’s throne and touches Isaiah’s lips with God’s holiness. God doesn’t steer uncomfortably away from the place of Isaiah’s greatest embarrassment, sin, weakness, brokenness, uncleanliness. God doesn’t avoid the uncomfortable places of our lives. God doesn’t even say anything to that uncleanliness.

God touches it. In the place of our greatest fear, shame, guilt, when we present ourselves in God’s almighty, mysterious presence, honestly and openly — not denying nor avoiding — we place ourselves in a position to be touched by God in the very place of our greatest weakness, to be healed, to be transformed, to be made new.

Even in the vision, the temple and the seraphim cannot contain the ‘bigness of God’. “The train of God’s robe filled the temple.”[6]The image is not meant to convey facts, figures, numbers, measurements, information.. Only our post-enlightenment, rational minds want to go there. But we can’t explain the vision of God. God’s kingdom doesn’t sit comfortably in our rationally justified common-sense policies.

God’s presence enfolds and goes to the edges and bunches up in the corner feeling like it needs to be stretched even beyond the walls of temple.

Whom shall I send? God asks.

Isaiah, transformed by God’s touch, can then say, “Here I am, send me.”[7]

Will we?

The Holy Spirit blows where it will. The wind does not stop at the border. The wind does not end at any walls we build to divide. The Holy Spirit brings fresh air into the stagnant, recycled, stuffy air of our temples. The Holy Spirit blows, fresh air at last, sending us into the world with God’s love, grace and power to change.

I don’t know how the fresh air of the Ottawa Valley is cleaner and sweeter than the air I breathed south of the border, really. But I don’t need to know how. I just know.

And give thanks.

[1]USA Today, May 24, 2018

[2]Isaiah 6:5

[3]Isaiah 6:4

[4]Bernard Marr, Forbes.com, May 21, 2018

[5]ReclaimingJesus.org

[6]Isaiah 6:1

[7]Isaiah 6:8

The Passion of Christ – a Good Friday sermon

The heaviness of it all weighs on our souls. Good Friday is a sombre day. The tormented images of the torture and death of anyone, let alone Jesus Son of God, flash across our minds-eye in the hearing of the texts describing the Passion of Christ.

We hear the lament from Isaiah’s poetry known as the Suffering Servant poems. If we let it, Good Friday pierces our denial of suffering and death. And we face squarely the reality of the situation. The very word, “Passion”, is from the Latin, one meaning of which is suffering.

If you, like me, have watched some contemporary video portrayals of Jesus’ Passion, probably the foremost image is the bloodiness of it all. Not only do we see the violence of the Jewish rebellion heating up during the Passover in Jerusalem, but we are intimately involved in the trial and torture of Jesus – beginning with the bloody cutting off of the servant’s ear in the Garden, to the whipping, flaying, kicking, slapping and piercing in Jesus’ torture while being held in Roman custody.

If that is not enough, we shiver at the pounding of the nails into his hands and feet, see the blood and water gush out of his side when the sword strikes him. Watch as blood trickles over his bruised face from the crown of thorns. Blood all over.

Blood all over. The blood of Christ given for you.

Suffering, Passion, is a great letting go. And acceptance of Christ suffering, even for us, is a great letting go. We cannot possess the gift of life. We cannot own or control this gift for us.

“For three days, the child bled profusely from the nose. She was six years old, and doctors had no idea what was causing the bleeding. What’s more, they understood that if the bleeding didn’t stop, her life was in grave danger.

“The year was 1913. The doctors knew little about transfusion, but they understood the importance of somehow getting good new blood back into the little girl’s system, so they asked her father, a preacher, to give his daughter some of his. He did, one of the first blood transfusions in the state of Michigan.

“The yellowed newspaper story is titled ‘Minister Saves the Life of Daughter By Giving Blood’, and ends by explaining how the father ‘was considerably improved and was able to dress.’ Then it adds, ‘The child was also considerably better and hopes are entertained for her recovery.’

“Two weeks later she was dead. Little Agnes Gertrude … succumbed once the hemorrhaging returned. For a time her father’s blood had brightened her face and her possibilities, but his gift – as unusual and strange to the newspaper readers as it must have been to him – wasn’t enough to save her life.

“Doctors knew very little, back then, about blood-typing. Her father … was as good as choice as the doctors could have made, but what coursed in his veins was not a match. Agnes Gertrude … died two weeks after that strange new procedure the doctors called ‘a transfusion.’

“Her father, a man of God, lay face down on the rug of the living room for almost a week after Agnes’ death, unable to move. Who could blame him – for an entire afternoon, he lay there beside his little girl, his blood flowing into her veins. He was lost in profound grief, was lethargic, depressed, his whole countenance darkened by the death of his child.

“Nothing changed … until he accepted a call to another congregation, a small country church up north. He and his family rode in a horse-drawn wagon up to that country church, their possessions packed up behind them. And there being greeted by the entire congregation there on the lawn, all of them waiting for the new preacher and his family.”[1]

The blood of Christ shed for you. Still, a mystery. Source of life. Beyond comprehension. The blood of Christ shed for you.

We hear these words during the Eucharist, Holy Communion. The word, Eucharist, from Greek, means “Thanksgiving”. Martin Luther, the great reformer, insisted that this sacrament is centrally about the gift of God, in Christ Jesus. The Holy Communion is God’s gift in Christ to us.

This, in contrast, to his contemporaries many of whom insisted that the sacrament of the table was more about what we humans must do to make sacrifice in order to appease God. Instead of making Holy Communion about what we must do for God, Luther preached that the Eucharist was what God does for us. It is a gift.

And a gift we cannot control, manipulate, engineer, manage. Only receive in thanksgiving.

On Good Friday, significantly, we abstain from the Holy Communion. It is one of the only days in the church year that calls for us to withhold collectively this gift. It, in our tradition, is the climax of the Lenten fast, the discipline to ‘do without’ and ‘let go’ and ‘surrender’ our claim on the gift. After all, we do not control God. God is free. And God gives what God will. When God wills. We are not in the driver’s seat of life and death.

Part of our lament, and suffering prayer, is to recognize that we are finite human beings, that we cannot do it alone. And can’t ever get it right. On this heavy day, the low point you might say of the Lenten journey, we put our ultimate trust and hope in God’s promise. As Jesus trusted his Father to the bitter end, we follow in his way, trusting that death has not the last word.

The blood of Christ shed for you.

Christ bled in his suffering, death and burial for three days. But God has other plans. The other meaning of the word “Passion” of course is love. Great suffering and great love. The Passion of Christ is ultimately about God’s great love for Jesus and for us. That is why God gives the gift of life to us. Love.

We will once again feast on the gift of life in Christ’s blood coursing through our veins. We will be transfused again with the life-giving spirit of God. It will be a perfect match! And our lament can become a song of praise and hope, bringing us home at last, as to a lawn on a bright day full of smiling people who open their loving arms.

 

[1] James Schaap, in Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, eds., “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), p.119-121.

Traveling stones: a pilgrimage lesson in letting go

In the sixth century Saint Benedict said, “A monk should have death always before his eyes.”[1] ‘Death’ doesn’t need to refer only to our physical demise at the end of life but to any loss experienced in life. There are many deaths we experience in life: the death of a cherished pet, the loss of friendship, the loss of a job, divorce, death of a loved one, moving into another home. Any significant change, even positive ones, involve something lost.

In the second reading for today written in the first century, Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthians to live in this world “as though not.”[2] He is advocating a certain disengagement from the attachments and claims of our lives, including some of our most cherished relationships. The likes of Paul and Benedict reflect, as well, the wisdom of the prophets and poets of ancient Israel: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God stands forever.”[3]

Our earth-bound attachments come under scrutiny here, no doubt. The question remains for each of us on our own journeys of faith and life – what are those things of which we need to let go in order to move on? After all, in the Lord’s Prayer the words, “Thy Kingdom come”, mean little unless we can also say: “My kingdom go.”[4]

Following Jesus means leaving things behind — as the first disciples did, in our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:14:20).

You heard about the man who was hiking in the mountains when he slipped, and started to slide over the edge. Just as he was about to fall into the abyss, he grabbed a tree branch growing out of the rock ledge. He hung on perilously dangling in the air.

He didn’t know what to do. It was impossible to pull himself up since the branch stem was slippery and wet. He swung in the silence of the breeze contemplating his fate with growing terror. Finally he looked up to the sky and prayed: “If there is a God anywhere up there, I could do with some help, please.”

To his surprise and shock, he heard God’s voice respond instantly: “I will help you. But you first have to let go.”

The man was silent for a minute. He dared not look down. It was a long way to the jagged rocks of the canyon below. Again he looked up to the sky, and said: “Is there anyone else up there?”

A long-standing tradition in doing a pilgrimage is to bring a stone from home and lay it somewhere along the path. This home-stone represents a part of myself that I lose, and leave behind, where I have walked.

Last Spring when I walked a part of the Camino de Santiago, I wanted to leave my stone in the waters off the western coast of Spain, either in Fisterra or Muxia – both coastal towns are some one hundred kilometres west of Santiago.

I imagined this place a fitting resting place for my stone since I love walking by water and coastlines. Once, long ago, people believed the coastal town of Fisterra (French, for ‘the end of the earth’) was the physical limit of land – the farthest one could go. In my imagination, I saw myself facing the setting sun, having completed the 800-kilometer, two-month trek, looking west to the horizon line beyond which lies the land of my home in North America.

I imagined feeling satisfied at the end of a long journey, having reached my goal, grateful for the challenge and all the things the Camino taught me. In that moment of gratitude and joy, I would toss my stone as far as I could into the spume and depths of the Atlantic Ocean. That was the vision, anyway.

I found the perfect sized stone while wandering around my house one afternoon a week before leaving for Spain. Because I was running about making the last-minute preparations for the journey, I placed it temporarily on the landing railing in the garage, certain I would soon tuck it away in my backpack.

Two weeks later I was scrambling up a steep incline outside the town of Irun on the first day of my pilgrimage. As I expected that first day was incredibly tough going. The temperatures soared to above 25 degrees C and the sun shone brightly. Sweat pouring down my neck and back I struggled up that cliff wondering why on earth I chose to do this on my sabbatical. I dug my walking poles into the hard-caked sandy ground to make the next ledge and wondered sarcastically if I should have rather taken rappelling lessons in preparation for coming to Spain.

In that moment of physical and growing mental exhaustion, I realized I had forgotten to pack my stone. It was still sitting on the railing in the garage back home! I stopped in my tracks and exhaled deeply.

“What’s the matter?” my Dutch pilgrim friend asked me, huffing and puffing as I was.

“I forgot to bring my stone,” I confessed my failure.

“Don’t despair,” my co-pilgrim wanted to advise. “The Camino will give you an answer.”

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Several days later two significant things happened. The first was while I was walking down a slope towards the northern Basque town of Guernica, I thought I should take with me a couple stones from this path, as a keepsake from walking the Camino. So, I selected two small pebbles from under my feet where I stood beholding the town and valley below.

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That same day, my knee seized up, and I walked the remainder of my Camino in pain. Three days later, coughing and feeling very sick, I was on a plane homebound. Diagnosed with pneumonia back in Ottawa, I had to come to terms with my failure of not having reached my goal.

Not only had I not reached Santiago and Fisterra, I had done nothing with my stone which I had forgotten anyway. By forgetting the stone, had I already destined myself not to finish the pilgrimage? These dark thoughts swirled in my mind.

After having recovered a few weeks later, my wife and I flew to Lisbon for a week of vacation to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Originally, the plan had been for her to join me at the end of my pilgrimage, where I would meet her in Lisbon. Nevertheless, this time, I did bring my stone from home, renamed my ‘glory’ stone.

My glory stone represented all my aspirations, desires, longings which I knew deep down the Camino had taught me to let go of. I had to surrender even my human yearning and goals to God.

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And so, at Cabo Da Roca near Lisbon, Portugal – the farthest most western point of land on continental Europe – I threw my glory stone into the Atlantic Ocean facing the setting sun. I had to practice letting glory go.

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It seems I was still bound to finish some kind of pilgrimage during my sabbatical. I didn’t have enough time to go back to Spain and finish the Camino de Santiago. But I did have enough time to walk the entire length of the longest contiguous sand beach in North America – fifty kilometres on Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. There, my journey of letting go continued.

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There, on “Cape Disappointment” – fittingly named – I brought the two pebbles that I picked up in Spain on the last day I walked on the Camino. One glorious afternoon, I scrambled down into Dead Man’s Cove – also fittingly named – on Cape Disappointment. After reflecting on my disappointments of late, I realized on my journey of life not only did I need to yield all my dreams but also all my regrets and suffering. And so, I threw those stones of disappointment into the Pacific Ocean. I let these go.

 

I realized life is not lived well when we obsessively hold on to all those things that cause us grief. I had to offer these to God as well. Later, while I sat on a park bench near the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment looking over the Pacific, I met a couple of Americans visiting from Portland. In our conversation, we were able to affirm that “all great spirituality is about learning to let go.”[5]

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But I didn’t leave my pilgrimage empty handed. When I climbed out of Dead Man’s Cove that day, I picked up from the sand a smooth, round stone. Now, any rocks on the Peninsula are rare. Most of the fifty-kilometre stretch is sand, land created from the outflow of the mighty Columbia River as it spills into the Pacific Ocean. Most rocks you see on the Peninsula have been trucked in. So, I was delighted to take with me back home, a rare thing.

And hope is a rare commodity in this world of pessimism, denial, and despair. This is my “stone of hope”, that I hold forever, amidst all the human aspirations swirling in my life and all the disappointments and failures which I regularly need to practice letting go of.

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We hold not only that which we need to let go of, but we also hold hope throughout our lives. “We do not simply resign ourselves to the give-ness of the world, for we have planted within us a great hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven. This means we are a people who look to the future with trust and hope, confident that God is working God’s purposes out and that God’s realm is even now breaking into our world.”[6]

At this point in your journey of life, which stones are you holding — of dreams, of disappointments, of hope? Which ones do you need to let go of? Which do you need to hold on to? I suspect it is true when the likes of Saint Paul, and all the wise teachers over the ages, writes: “Hope does not disappoint us.” [7]

[1] cited in Ruthanna B. Hooke in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 1” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.280

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

[3] Isaiah 40:8

[4] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Thursday, January 18, 2018.

[5] Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, cac.org

[6] Ruthanna B. Hooke, ibid.

7 – Romans 5:5