God in the lowlands

These last moments of Jesus’ life stand in stark contrast to what is valued in the world.

I find it ironic that we read today a text that is normally read on Good Friday – the day Christians worldwide pause to recall and remember the brutal death of Jesus on the cross. It is the day Christians confront the God who is deeply humiliated, a man who suffers injustice to the extent of his gruesome and painful suffering and torturous, drawn-out dying.

It’s ironic because a text that is normally read on Good Friday comes just days before what North Americans call Black Friday. Despite the various reasons why that day has come to be called Black Friday – it is commonly known to be the day the malls and commercial districts are crowded, busy and congested bustling with deal seekers and shoppers. It is the day the consumer in us is stoked. Big time.

Indeed, these last moments of Jesus’ earthly, humanity all seem to be in vivid contrast to what is valued as great in our world – this world presented to us in colourful, catalogue-thick inserts and pop-up internet ads promoting incredible sales and savings.

It is not poor, but a world of glamour and glitz.

It is not selfless, but a me-first world of acquisition and accumulation.

It is not vulnerable and generous, but a miserly, defensive and self-preservationist world.

Today is also what the church calls, “Christ the King”, on the last Sunday in the church year. At the end of time, we assert in faith that Jesus is King and his reign lasts forever. But, what kind of king are we talking about here? Certainly not a kind of king the world knows.

In response to Pilate’s question “Are you the King of the Jews?”[1], Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

That Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world is proved in what this ruler wants to happen and makes happen that other powerful rulers are not willing or able to do.

Let’s face it: Part of our inability to believe and trust the forgiving power of God’s grace and mercy is our inability to believe that other people deserve mercy. We want to judge whom God lets into heaven. Many of us are more comfortable not knowing what happened to the thief who scoffed at Jesus than knowing that an undeserving thief was let into paradise.

Would we not rather have had Jesus say that  God loves the people we like that God does not love the people we do not like? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the crackheads, the homeless, the refugee and Muslim immigrant? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the addicts, the adulterers, the thieves, the gays, the prostitutes, the rebellious and the disgruntled? Would we not prefer it if paradise were exclusively for the nice people, the clean people, the polite people, the well-behaved people, the right people?

How different is Jesus? There was a very strange novel published in England in the late 19th century called Flatlands. It is a story about a world that is flat, everything is two-dimensional. The chief character in the novel is Mr. Square, who is, of course, only in two dimensions.

One day, Mr. Square is visited by a Mr. Sphere who is, of necessity, in three dimensions. Square regards Sphere quite apprehensively. Sphere speaks to Square about a world of three dimensions, a world that is not flat. But Square is unconvinced. Living in a two-dimensional world, it is impossible for him to imagine another dimension. Eventually, Sphere is persecuted and driven out by the outraged flatlanders.

I propose to you that that is how different Jesus is from us. We are flatlanders. We live in a world of two dimensions, unable to grasp the possibility of a reality beyond that which we have experienced. We have been unable to believe, for instance, that love and forgiveness is a better response to evil than brute force. God’s power of love is three-dimensional to our two-dimensional thinking.

Notice with the second thief hanging beside Jesus on his cross, the thief does not ask to be saved, to be rescued. He only asks once, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Perhaps his plea is meant to echo these words from the Psalm: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”[2]– which is to say: Do not remember me according to my faults, but remember me according to your goodness.

We have faith not because we are weak but because God is strong and God is love. There is grace for us and for the people we do not like. Our salvation is dependent on a loving, grace-filled God.

So why can we hope in this goodness when we look around us at all the evil? Because Mr. Sphere did come among all of us Squares and we did persecute him and drive him out.

But he wouldn’t and couldn’t stay away. No, his three-dimensional existence couldn’t be flattened out by us. He is alive! And he comes to us again today in this meal we are about to share.

Again, it’s so hard for us to understand because he is like three-dimensions to our two. But he comes again with a word of love and forgiveness that promises the power that will finally take care of all that’s troubling in this world. It won’t be easy. He predicted that, too. But it is the only way. He comes to us again today to lead the way. “I have seen the future,” he says to us. “The future is not some cold grave, some hard, lifeless tomb. The future is the glorious triumph of God’s love.”

This man whom we follow is the king not of the flatlands, but in the lowlands. Spheres always roll to the bottom of things. Christ is king in the lowlands because God does not want us to die and suffer in that dark and sad region. Maybe you are today in a sort of darkness. The darkness of grief, loss, physical pain or emotional pain.

But the Holy One is with you today and for you today in that darkness. And, therefore, you will be with him today, and forevermore, in paradise. Thank God! Amen.[3]

[1]John 18:36

[2]Psalm 25:7

[3]Thank you to the writers for ‘Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) Luke 23:33-43’ in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.332-337 for many of the words and ideas expressed here.

The Prodigal story: Three in One

Most of this sermon today is the work of the Rev. Monika Wiesner who first preached it. A lay member of our congregation, Sharon Wirth, then also preached Monika’s sermon at Faith Ottawa last year. A heart-felt ‘thank you’ to both for this contemplative and grace-filled approach to a popular parable of Jesus.

 Many will regard the turning point of the story as the call to repentance[1], when the rebellious, prodigal son comes to his senses in the sloppy mud of a pig pen.[2]And therefore, according to this interpretation, repentance must be preached and communicated to others who have or are falling away.

You will notice with me, however, that it is not because someone in town or the farmer on whose land he was working told him to repent. When the rebellious younger son comes to the end of his rope and realizes his folly, it’s not because someone guilted him, pressured him, preached him into repentance. The message of changing the Prodigal’s moral direction did not come from outside of him. But from within.

Repentance does not precede grace and mercy. Rather, the other way around: First and foremost, compassion and love changes lives. The experience of the younger son at the end of himself was an inner experience. His changed reality resulted from something that happened within himself. The state of his inner life shifted somehow.

Within himself, the younger brother heard the voice of self-love and acceptance. Not once. But twice in the story. First, in the pig pen he came to self-love within himself. Enough love to stop hurting himself. Then, later, from the father, this Love was reinforced.

Since we see the turning point of this story as primarily a movement of the inner life, imagine then, that this family of three actually lives together within each of us, within our souls.

Within our soul we first have a younger son or daughter that is severely wounded. We might call this our “wounded inner child”.  This is the part of our soul that experiences shame. It is the part of us that feels there is something intrinsically wrong with us.

Within our soul, we also have a critical older sibling. We might call this our superego or our “inner critic”. This is the part of us that actually triggers our shame, telling us where we’ve done wrong, wagging their finger at us in judgement whenever we step out of line.

Finally, there is also within our soul a compassionate parent, the compassionate parent that can heal our shame. We might call this our True Self. We Christians, knowing that God lives within each one of us, might call this our God-Self or even our Sacred Self.

It is the message of Jesus’ Priestly Prayer to his “Father” for his disciples: “As you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…”[3]And again, Jesus said to his followers, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit …”[4]

I invite you to imagine that this family lives within your own soul: the wounded child in you, your inner critic and your compassionate divine parent. All live within you.

In the rest of this sermon, heads up, I will intentionally switch to both male and female pronouns, so that each one of us may connect more personally with the experiences of these three different persons in the story.

How do these three persons relate within us?

When we are born, our soul and God are one. As an infant, we smile when we’re happy and we cry when we’re unhappy.

Then something happens to this unity within our souls. We experience events that we interpret as painful or as trauma. Our primary caregivers may be limited in their ability to parent or they may over-worked and overtired. And they hurt us.

Or maybe we simply need to leave the security of mommy and daddy for the first time and we discover that the world does not revolve around us. We experience hurt and rejection and intense anxiety and fear. Have you ever watched a young child who is being taken away from his/her mother? Do you ever wonder what is happening within that child’s psyche? These separation experiences may be necessary. But they are experienced as wounding.

What’s important for us to note is that these first experiences of woundedness follow us a lifetime. They might be called “holes within our souls”. We experience those first feelings of not being lovable or not being safe or not being of worth. Because our souls and God are one, this is where we feel our first disconnect from God.

Over the years, more holes are created. Our intense feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, depression, anger or jealousy or shame all have their roots in these holes. Whenever you feel these feelings, you are in touch with one of these holes in your soul.

So what do we do? We try to fill these holes by looking outside ourselves. As young children, we learned to please people by doing things that would make them happy and then we felt lovable and safe.  As we grew in years, we became the responsible one, the wise one, the funny one, or the caregiver. We became beautiful or educated or rich. We did whatever the outside world said would make us feel valued.

We did whatever was needed to fill those holes in our soul that were wounded and crying out in pain. We believed the outside world held the answers.

That is exactly what the younger brother did in this parable. He took his inheritance and he spent it on everything the world suggested would soothe his wounded soul. But in the end, nothing worked. One day, he simply came to the end of himself … and he was drowning in shame.

So the prodigal child remembers her home and her parents. However, her shame went so deep that she believed all love was gone from her life. Her parents would never take her back, so she decided she would do whatever it took to earn her place in the household. She needed to earn their love.

But to her amazement, the prodigal child found loving parents waiting for her. When they saw her, they were filled with compassion and ran out to her, put their arms around her and hugged and kissed her. The wounded child began to confess what a failure she was, no longer worthy to be called their child. But her parents would hear none of it.

Instead, this prodigal child found herself in a beautiful robe … with the family ring on her finger … and a huge “Welcome home” banner hanging over the dining room table. A celebration was being prepared in her honour.

This is the compassion for oneself … this is where all healing takes place. This is where we experience the compassionate God … because God and our soul are one.

But there is one other character in the story, namely the older critical brother, our inner critic. Our super-ego. This is the inner critic who can’t accept the “easy” homecoming of the wounded child.

This older sibling doesn’t believe in compassion, does not believe in grace. And so she becomes critical and angry and refuses to participate in the homecoming. She’s the one who says to the wounded inner child, “You don’t deserve this!”

This is the inner voice that holds us back from experiencing the compassion of God within and for ourselves. This is the inner voice that uses those feelings of shame to stop the healing of those holes in our soul. This is the older sibling who sits on the doorstep and sulks, refusing to go to the party.

Oftentimes, Christians confuse that critical inner voice as the voice of God. It is not! It is not. If anything, it is the voice of our primary caregivers at their worst.

One thing is for sure – when we decide to return home, to find healing for all those holes in our soul, our inner critic will become very active and tell us we don’t deserve compassion, acceptance or love and we don’t deserve the healing we so desperately want. The inner critic will pull out all the stops to keep us feeling shame. But just remember, if it isn’t the voice of compassion, it isn’t the voice of God.

And so the wounded child no longer needs to listen to the voice of the inner critic because our soul and God are one and God has already embraced us in love. We need only listen to the compassionate, holy and sacred that lives deep within each one of us. And that sacred God-Self is saying, “I’m preparing a banquet in your honour! Come to the party!”

In this parable do you hear the voice of God embracing you in love? Welcoming you home? Herein lies the nugget of truth that is at the root of all emotional or spiritual healing.

So let the party begin! We’ve all been invited!

 

[1]Meaning: metanoia –a change of mind.

[2]Luke 15:1-3,11b-32, the Gospel for the 4thSunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)

[3]John 17:21,23 NRSV

[4]John 15:5

Leading with love

When I saw the man pull up to the church doors, I was afraid. I am ashamed to confess that I was fearful when the man with olive-coloured skin, his neck wrapped in a scarf worn by Arab men, knocked at the door of the church. It is all the negative associations mainstream society has built up around people from the Middle East that went swirling through my brain in that moment.

What would I do? Act, based on my fear — and ignore, reject, send away this man? 

I therefore read the story of Saul’s conversion this past week through the eyes of Ananias, who is called by God to attend to Saul. Of course, Ananias at the point of his calling, does not know what dramatic change happened in Saul’s life on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). He objects. You might say, understandably: “Lord, I have heard how much evil this man has done to your saints in Jerusalem … he has authority to bind all who invoke your name” (Acts 9:13-14). Ananias was scared. How does he get past his fear?

We normally associate the beginning of Paul’s story with his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus when light flashed around him and Jesus spoke to him. But the story of Paul, formerly Saul, begins earlier. 

In fact, the first time we read of Saul’s name is during the stoning of Stephen outside the gates of Jerusalem (Acts 7). More to the point, The first time Saul’s name is mentioned in the Bible is right before and after Stephen prays: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:58-60). In other words, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his executioners, including Saul, at the moment of his death. Saul needs forgiveness, as he stands by “approving” (Acts 8:1) of the killing of one of Christ’s most passionate, ardent and faithful followers.

I have often wondered why God would later choose this Saul — the worst enemy of the early church — to become its greatest advocate. You cannot design a more effective and impressive strategy! In a war between good guys and bad guys you take out your primary enemy. But how is it that God would even have the heart to consider him? After all, Saul does not come with the right resume, to say the least.

I believe God answered the prayer of Stephen made at the moment of his death. The reason the drama on the Damascus road happens in the first place is because God listened to Stephen’s request to forgive Saul and the others who stoned him to death. I believe Saul was a forgiven man already before that “light from heaven flashed around him” (Acts 9:3). God honoured the prayer asking for the forgiveness of sins.

Peter, too, realizes forgiveness from the risen Lord. The Gospel text (John 21:15-17) is set up that way: Three times Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me?” This three-times echoes the three times Peter had denied knowing Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest on the night of Jesus’ arrest (Luke 22:54-62).

Peter felt ashamed for this transgression against his friend and his Lord. Then, when Peter sees Jesus by the lake shore, he “puts on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the water” (John 21:7). Normally, when we go swimming more clothes come off than on. Why does he put on clothes to get into the water? I would suggest this action echoes the Adam and Eve story from the first book of the bible, Genesis. 

When Adam and Eve realized their shame and guilt after disobeying God, they clothed themselves (Genesis 3:7,21). It seems that donning clothes in the presence of God is a penitential act — a confession of sin, and an expression of the guilt of sinning.

That is why we read this intentional dialogue between Jesus and Peter. The conversation has a liturgical feel to it, as if Peter needs the ritual of the speech to finally recognize and believe the truth of his forgiveness and being loved.

Here, there is an interesting wordplay on ‘love’. For example, ‘agapao’ is the the kind of self-giving, dedicated, total-commitment, unconditional type of love frequently associated with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is this love that Jesus asks of (Simon) Peter the first two times the question is asked: “Simon, son of John, do you love/agapao me?”

Peter, on account of his guilt, can only respond affirmatively to that question using another Greek variation of love — ‘phileo’ — which is a heartfelt and emotional type of love often expressed between good friends. He, in effect, answers by saying he can only love Jesus as a friend. He can do no more. He is stuck in his guilt. And that is why Jesus needs to continue pressing. When Peter answers again that he can only ‘phileo’ Jesus, we see an incredible shift on the part of Jesus:

The last time Jesus asks: “Simon, Son of John, to you love me?”, Jesus switches to ‘phileo’. He meets Peter where he is at. He validates Peter’s feelings. He allows Peter to be where he’s at. And that acceptance, then, releases the power for Peter to grow. This conversation, I believe, is the moment when Peter finally forgives himself. After Jesus loves Peter, Peter is able to love himself.

When we know we are loved by a God who initiates contact with us, who reaches out to us in our pain, and forgives us, then and only then can we do God’s work of loving others. Only when we know we are forgiven, and loved unconditionally by a God who can relate to us, then and only then can we ‘feed God’s sheep’ effectively and powerfully. Until that time we will live bound by and stuck in our guilt and our sin, and therefore in our fear.

The good news, is that our conversion and our salvation is not something we can do. In truth, there is nothing we can do to ‘save ourselves’. These heroes, giants, of the faith — Peter and Paul — do not gain their status in Christian tradition because of anything they did! Quite the contrary: the biblical witness shows in both cases that their conversions were all God’s doing, despite and especially because of their downfalls.

God saves. God calls. God empowers. All because of God’s forgiving love. Before we lift a finger to do anything for God, we are already forgiven. However we respond to that call, it’s already given. Given by a God who totally ‘gets us’ and already loves us.

Yes, I relate to Ananias. His first, and habitual reaction, is fear. And yet, praise be to God, he doesn’t lead with fear and judgement. He doesn’t deny his fear; he just puts fear in its proper place. He doesn’t stay put in his house. He doesn’t ignore, deny, or turn down the call of God which is to do something risky even reckless. 

Instead, He leads with love and trust of God. And therefore he experiences the great things God is already doing in the lives of the saints. He, along with Paul and Peter, can now ‘feed my sheep’.

I am grateful to have met that young man after opening the door of the church to him. He was, after all, a believer in the God of compassion and love. And he just wanted a quiet place to pray for a few minutes.

Praise be to God!

Gospel morality

It was a cold afternoon in March. The windchill made it feel like -20’C. And I was worried. You see, I like to keep my feet warm. I dislike the feeling of cold feet. And too late I remembered that one of the realities of visiting a Mosque was taking off your shoes.

I would be in the Ottawa Mosque for several hours. And all I had donned on my feet last Sunday morning was a thin pair of black dress socks for morning worship. I tried to rationalize my way into a comfortable scenario: The annual meeting of the Multi-Faith Housing Initiative would likely be held in the basement of the Mosque — so perhaps the tradition of removing footware in a place of worship would not apply downstairs.

But sure enough as soon as I entered the building, the first thing to greet me was racks upon racks of shelving for shoes. No one was to pass that point — going upstairs or down — without taking off their shoes. As the doors came closed, a blast of chilling wind brushed against my pant leg, giving a frigid foretaste of what I was in for this afternoon.

Wearing my black suit with clerical collar and large pectoral cross hanging from my neck I made my way downstairs. Suddenly two young children dashed beside me on their way into the carpeted meeting room. They stopped, turned around and smiled largely.

Obviously familiar with their worship space surroundings, they proceeded to give me a brief, welcoming introduction to their home: Here are the washrooms; There is the kitchen; Those are the chairs for the meeting. I started to relax. And after a couple of hours, my feet were still warm on the deeply cushioned carpet. 

When we read these very long stories from the Gospel of John, it may be worthwhile to consider some details about the literary context. That is to say, let’s receive this text looking at the whole, larger perspective. For example, in the story of the healing of the blind man (John 9:1-41), only the first seven verses describe the actual healing miracle. The remaining thirty-four verses describe the debate that surrounded this man’s healing.

This leads me to wonder about what the Gospel writer, John, really wanted to emphasize. Perhaps the point of the Gospel is not so much on the miraculous and spectacular — which our culture of instant gratification would jump on. Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning here which can be easily overlooked by our obsessions with judgment, fear and need to explain everything.

First, as far as we are concerned, our connection and deepening relationship to God — which is a process of healing in and of itself — is a process. We see this progress in how the blind man grows step-by-step in his relationship to Jesus.

First, early on in the story, he addresses him, “the man called Jesus” (v.11). Then, he calls him, “a prophet” (v.17). And then, “a man of God” (v.33). Finally, at the end, the man healed by Jesus says to him, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him (v.38). If anything, this Gospel story is not about explaining sin as much as it is about growing into a personal confession of God, in Jesus Christ. And this confession is not an immediate, conversion experience; it takes time. Our reconciliation with Jesus is a journey.

But, paradoxically, this journey is Christ-led; it is not our doing. We will notice that Jesus refuses to play the Pharisees’ game. The Pharisees are focused maintaining control over the religious enterprise — where they are the keepers of the law, the righteous. They maintain control by focusing on others’ sin, by issuing blame and judgment. And making it all about human works.

The Pharisees, and Jesus’ disciples who first ask the question, relate the man’s physical blindness to his sins, thus justifying his condition. The sins we commit are here understood as being the bad things we can somehow will ourselves to stop doing if we had a choice. This religious viewpoint basically implies that the quality of our faith depends fundamentally on our willpower.

Jesus has nothing to do with this. You can see why he was such a threat to the Pharisees. Because faith is not about us, in the end. It’s about God. I think that’s the meaning of Jesus’ statement that the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (v.3). Our connection to God is primarily the result of God’s works, not ours. The purpose of our connection to God is to point to God, not ourselves.

The morality of the Gospel is fundamentally a question of how God relates to us, and how we are called to relate to one another. Gospel morality is not about whether or not we sin — because we do anyway no matter how hard we try not to. After all, the man didn’t choose to be blind; he couldn’t even take any personal responsibility for this condition.

Gospel morality is a question of how we respond to life’s challenges and events. Imagine dancing with a partner called, “Life Happens”: Do we ‘lead’ (like the disciple often did, and the Pharisees always did) with fear and/or judgment? Or, do we ‘lead’ with grace and thanksgiving?

How does God lead? The Gospel shows God’s favor towards us. The Gospel shows that “we did not choose Jesus; Jesus first chose us” (John 15:16). Jesus did not come “to condemn the world” but in order to save the world (John 3:17). Jesus, as God the Father, does not look on outward appearances (i.e. our frailty, our weakness, our sin), but on our heart (1 Samuel 16:7). God loved us, Saint Paul articulates, “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:6-8). God leads with grace, forgiveness, and love — despite all to the contrary in our lives.

The reality of our lives — and the truth of our lives — is not defined by what’s on the surface but by the constant presence, power and grace of God.

If there is a morality we speak of as Christians, it is a morality that trusts God above all when we lead with grace and thanksgiving. That is not to say there is no room for addressing cause for fear. But it is to claim that we will lead with grace.

Multi-Faith Housing Initiative is run by a diverse group of very capable, talented individuals from various faith communities. The executive committee led most of the meeting last Sunday — as you can imagine — typically clarifying detailed accounting, audit and administrative material. Women and men wore their business suits and looked officious, efficient and professional. Except for one thing.

What struck me as I watched them with their power-points, laptops and effective communication styles was they were all, to a person, in their stocking feet. That fact alone added a humbling effect to the gathering. It reminded me that despite all our differences — not denying them, but despite those differences — we were all standing on the same ground.

When Moses stood in the presence of God in the burning bush, God told him to take off his shoes, for he was standing on ‘holy ground’ (Exodus 3:5). Indeed we were all of us standing on holy ground united in our common purpose, humble before one another and God.

I was again reminded that although it may be easy to lead with judgment and fear in our diverse communities when uncertainty feels threatening, it is still better to lead with grace and thanksgiving — modelled to me by those young Muslim children who knew I wasn’t ‘one of them’ — but who nevertheless welcomed me with open arms.

“And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

On the path of hardship tempered with grace

I suspect that some of you really like John the Baptist, while others would feel intimidated and back off from his forceful energy. Similar to the way two very different recruits into the Canadian Armed Forces reacted during the first days of regular duty.

A friend from Petawawa who is a sergeant and has put many years in the Forces told me last week how very differently some personalities react to his dissing of discipline. When boots aren’t polished, collars not ironed, and back-packs not kitted properly, he would lean in on the rookies and set them straight.

The one young recruit began to well up in tears when my friend started criticizing him for not being prepared. The other, being disciplined for the same problem, smiled, and was energized by the confrontation: “Wow, this is just like the movies, when the sergeant major yells at the recruits, spitting inches from the other’s face, turning the air blue!” Just loving it! The first recruit didn’t last long in the army. The other, was spurred on and challenged through his mistakes, to have a successful career.

John the Baptist is the ultimate reality check for Christianity. In the best of the prophetic tradition, he epitomizes the no-nonsense, truth-telling, going-for-the-jugular style not often associated with a more sanitized approach to religion.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you want religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Is this how you feel about belonging to the church today? Many stand in the line of John the Baptist tradition. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon — influential theologians of the last century wrote: “There is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring, and offensive people into ministry” (p.45 Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 1). What do you think about that? Would you like that?

John the Baptist’s hard words to the religious leaders of the day call them to repentance. Judgment underscores the tenor of this text assigned for Advent. And that’s why some of us would rather read scriptures and sing songs about sheep softly grazing in fields during these weeks leading to Christmas. Because you may know people in your life who have been hurt by the judgment of others — many of those doing the judging from the church. Even as we in the church have been warned NOT to judge others (Romans 14).

God calls ALL of us to fall on our knees, confess and repent — especially those of in the church.

The original Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally means — “moving beyond the mind.” We need to have a change of mind as much as a change of our heart. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” argues Saint Paul (Romans 12:2). He goes on to say that this change of our mind would happen, “so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable …” Our changed minds, our renewed way of thinking about things, will then affect how we behave.

“Moving beyond the mind” means that we need, at first, to have our fundamental assumptions questioned. Fundamental assumptions about God and the ways of God in the world. Is it true that we don’t have to do anything more in the church because we were baptized and confirmed here and our grandparents and great-grandparents were Lutheran? Is it true that God hates us and is only out there to catch us breaking a rule in order to punish us?

John the Baptist might have a field day in the Christian church today. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that only makes sense when embraced in the desert, in the wilderness of our lives. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we have learned to weep at our faults and let go. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we are called out of our complacency, selfishness, and self-righteousness to a greater cause, a greater good.

Barbara Marshall wrote this prayer poem cited in an Advent devotional for the season (Lutherans Connect); in it she describes the times of her life when she was truly invigorated, motivated and inspired in faith:

“… It was never the turbulent waters that raged and tore through my life that left me floundering, helpless adrift in the surging tide. But rather the lulling beauty and lure of familiar shores that fashioned my days with indifferent thought and compelled me to stay where I was. So, Father, give me a yearning for the valleys shadowed and steep, for deserts that breathe their fire and dust, for waves that crash at my feet. And surely then I’ll accomplish much …when inspiration is fueled on the path of hardship tempered with grace.”

So you can see why I suggest that nostalgia may be a great enemy of Christianity. For it keeps us stuck in apathy and inaction. But, ironically, looking to the past is an essential ingredient in faithful living. John the Baptist himself quotes directly from Isaiah when preaching his sermon: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight …” (40:3). In writing about John the Baptist, the Gospel writer Matthew uses descriptive words right out of the Hebrew Scriptures originally describing the prophet Elijah who was “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8). John the Baptist may breathe fire into a soppy nostalgic faith — but he certainly doesn’t dismiss the past.

Remembering the past is important. But there’s a difference between nostalgia and remembering. Biblical commentator David Bartlett writes that “nostalgia is memory filtered through disproportionate emotion. Faith is memory filtered through appropriate gratitude” (p.48, Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 1). In Advent we re-member, we reconnect. The word “religion” literally means to re-unite, re-align, ourselves out of isolation and into a holy union. In Advent when we remember, we embrace the good God has been and done for us in our past. In Advent we remember, together, as a family, as a church, as a community — what God has done for us in Jesus. We do this remembering at the Table — we remember that in the night in which he was betrayed …. We do this remembering singing out loud together our seasonal songs so precious to us.

We pray. We sing. We remember. Doing this, NOT to a disproportionate emotional longing for a time gone by. No. But rather, to embrace an occasion for re-affirming the good God has done for you in the history of your life, and to affirm our on-going hope and belief that God does care about us and our behavior this season, and beyond.

This Advent, know that we are cherished by God not only for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do. This is good news, because if God does not care about what I do, I may begin to question whether God actually cares about me. If God loves me enough to welcome me into the family, then God loves me enough to expect something of me.

“One December afternoon … a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the ‘surprise’, the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The ‘surprise’ flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash. The child … began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, ‘Now, that’s all right, son. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.’ But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, swept the boy into her arms and said, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal.’ And she wept with her son.”

It does matter to God. God is that mother who embraces us when we weep after making a big mistake and mess up. God doesn’t punish us, but rather holds us, and cries with us.

Perhaps the church can give up on judgment, but we cannot give up on responsibility. We can continue remembering and being faithful to our calling in Christ, especially in the desert, because we know God does care for each of us.

So, let’s sing on and re-member!