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.

We the Saints

Death will be no more … for the first things have passed away… ‘See, I am making all things new.’ (Revelation 21:1-6a)

Who are the saints? And, who cares?

I recall an image of running the Boston marathon described by a church leader in the context of social justice. She said that congregations and persons of faith are like marathon runners. When tens of thousands of runners line up at the start of the race, only the best runners are at the front of the pack. And when the starter’s pistol signals to begin running, it takes hours by the time everyone crosses the starting line.

The implication, I believe, is that some persons or congregations are better at this job of being the church. They belong at the front. The implication, I believe, is that there is a small group of super-stars that must lead the pack and give witness to the rest of the runners ‘how it’s done’, spurring the rest of us to be better than we are. The implication, is that not everyone is as valuable as those at the front, leading the way. The implication is that there are, to be sure, the saints; and, then, there are the SAINTS. A hierarchy.

I wondered about this. And, on one level, she is correct: The kingdom of the world needs, or wants, superstars. To survive according to the world’s rules, we want to find motivation to be better. The NBA wants the Stephen Currys and Lebron James’. The NHL wants the Conner McDavids’, Austin Matthews’ and Sidney Crosbys’. Business wants the Elon Musks, Oprah Winfreys and Bill Gates’ of the world—for better or for worse. Politics wants the Doug Fords, the Kathleen Wynnes, the Andrew Scheers and the Justin Trudeaus—for better of for worse. They set the bar—high or low, depending on your perspective.

The kingdom of the world wants superstars. The world wants to compete, to compare and to conflict. Even kill. Because, some are better. And some are worse. Some are more valuable, and some … not so much. Some set the bar while others don’t quite measure up. Yes, we like to say on All Saints Sunday that we are all saints. But, there are the saints; and then, there are the SAINTS.

We identify and glorify the heroes of faith, while overlooking the value in the sainthood of the less noticed, the less attractive, the less ‘gifted.’ The kingdom of the world—its culture of comparison and competition—has indeed infected our idea and practice of the Reign of God on earth.

We are all the children of God. We are a community. Some will say, a family, whose purpose and meaning we discover in our lives on earth. “Thy kingdom come on earthas it is in heaven,” we pray. On earth. First, we do need to accept that the church on earth is where it’s at for us. The vision of heaven on earth, of the new Jerusalem descends upon the earth. We don’t find who we are as followers of Christ—as Saints—apart from our community. To be a follower of Christ is to be discovered in community.

Not by ourselves. Not alone on the mountaintops, nor alone in the valleys. Not enlightened in the ivory towers of private illumination. Not sequestered in solitude in the libraries of ancient wisdom. Not by winning individual races. Not in individualistic endeavours that don’t need anyone else, or to which everyone else needs to conform by our powers of persuasion, force or pressures.

We don’t find who we are and what we are to do as followers of Christ—as the Saints on earth—apart from community. Even in the traditional format, the saints and conferred their title by the community. The process is, no doubt, elaborate and needs the validation of the Pope and subjected to all manner of procedure.

In Protestant theology, generally, our sainthood is conferred upon all the baptized. In baptism, we are united and joined into Christ’s death and resurrection. We are enjoined with the church on earth and the saints of heaven on a journey towards full and complete union with God when we will one day see face to face. In baptism and at the communion table, we are all placed on a level playing field.

As such, relationships matter. How we behave with one another on that journey, matters. What we say to one another, matters. How we communicate with one another, matters. The words we say, and the words we don’t say, to each other, matters. How we do church, today—not yesterday, not fifty years ago, not in the last century but today—matters. ‘Thy kingdom come on earth.’ Today.

The vision of God is meant for us to grow, to transform, to change into the likeness of Christ Jesus. The community on earth strives to reflect the divine, eternal vision. The community on earth, the church, grows into what we are meant to be, on earth. The community on earth includes and embraces all of creation, excluding no one and doing violence in word and deed to no one.

It is vital that when violence is done against any group, we stand up for the downtrodden. We stand beside those who are victimized because of their religion. As Lutherans, especially today, a week after the gun-shooting and murder of Jewish people while they prayed in their house of worship in Pittsburgh, we stand up against such hatred. As Lutherans, especially today, we must repudiate again Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. Just because we are Lutheran doesn’t mean we regard Luther as infallible, without sin, as anything more than the term he used to describe us all: simul justus et peccator—we are simultaneously saints and sinners. So was he.

The Dean of the Ottawa Ministry Area of our Lutheran Church underscored the nature of this church on earth of which we are members. She said in her sermon on Reformation Sunday last week: “In Ottawa we are really one church but worship in different locations.” Ottawa Lutherans are one church. This is a change of thinking. We are becoming the new thing God is calling us to.

Together, as one, standing beside all the saints and sinners. Together, as one, standing alongside the downtrodden. Together, as one, standing with the victims of group-identity based violence. Standing against all forms and means of hatred towards ‘others’ who are different from us. The vision of John of Patmos is an inclusive one. The new earth and the new Jerusalem does not exclude anyone. The new community includes all.

Even you.

The one who just got some bad news. Even you.

The one whose marriage is on the rocks. Even you.

The one who lost their job. Even you.

The one whose health continues to fail. Even you.

The one whose anxiety and worry crushes any hope for the future. Even you.

The one whose sexual identity invites judgement from others. Even you.

The one who is new to Canada. Even you.

The one who failed the math test. Even you.

The one who was bullied at school. Even you.

The one who broke the law. Even you.

 

Together we will find our way. Better together.

Thanks be to God! Welcome home, saint and sinner. Welcome home. Amen!

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

Forgiveness: from transaction to wholeness

We ran all-out with back packs and walking poles to catch the bus. Yes, we were on a walking pilgrimage. But a few of us didn’t feel up to walking through one of northern Spain’s downtown city streets. After hiking a couple days already through the beautiful, peaceful hills along pristine trails with spectacular ocean views, the thought of breathing gas fumes and hitting the hard top sidewalks in an urban jungle just didn’t appeal. It was only three or four kilometres, and a city bus conveniently would take us to the other side where we could pick up the pilgrimage trail out in the open again.

As I clambered onto the bus behind my Dutch walking partners with all my gear, mindful of not clobbering someone with the swing of my bulky pack, I realized I did not have the correct change for the single fare ticket. Without any hesitation, my pilgrim friends dropped enough euros to cover my ticket. I expressed a deep-felt thanks to them, making a mental note to treat my friends later on. “I owe you coffee,” I said as the bus wove through San Sebastian’s downtown core.

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There’s a culture on the trail among pilgrims that doesn’t operate according to the normal etiquette of life back home. You see, early the next morning, my friends wanted to get going right away. I, on the other hand, wanted to stay at the hostel of my name’s sake (San Martin) a little longer to enjoy the view and the home made breakfast offered by the hosts. Off they went, and I never saw them again. I didn’t have a chance to ‘repay’ their good deed done unto me.

At the same time, there were other pilgrims to whom I’d catch up a few nights later at another hostel. Everyone walks at a different pace. Paths would cross, un-cross, and cross again. Sometimes I’d meet someone on the trail and never see them again. Other times I’d bump into the same group every other day, or so, somewhere along the way. Because of the nature of the pilgrimage community, I looked for opportunities, therefore, to treat another fellow pilgrim at a roadside café whenever the opportunity arose.

The economy of quid pro quo – paying back another individual and keeping the economic scales even on an individual basis – just couldn’t operate neatly on the Camino. It didn’t matter to whom you were being gracious. Only that you were gracious – that you offered help when help was needed, to whomever, regardless of whether or not they had earned your favour in some way earlier on.

The challenge was to receive the gift when it was offered, and give a gift when it was needed. Period. It was as if, on pilgrimage, we were all in the same boat. Which, of course, we know before God we are. It’s just in our daily lives we are not often able to appreciate that reality clearly.

Forgiveness is the theme in the Gospel text for today[1]. I’ve wondered why the servant who was forgiven his debt didn’t do likewise when given a chance. A more general question, is:  Why do we find it so difficult to forgive one who ‘owes you’ an apology for some wrong committed against you. I think it’s important to understand first some elements of the Gospel story. Because this story first tells us something very important about God and God’s ways.

To begin with, the servant owes the master ten thousand talents. ‘Ten thousand’ here signifies an absurd amount of money.[2] In that day and age, even if the servant lived three life-spans working full-time, there was no way he could ever repay that amount. The master has pity on him because the servant pretends that he can somehow work hard enough, in his plea for mercy, to repay the debt. The absurdity of the extra-ordinary amount should tip us off to something vital in our understanding of God forgiving us:

There is nothing we can do to make our lives right before God. And what is more, God has already forgiven us, and reminds us over and over again that we are forgiven before we do anything. Yes, we can say we ‘owe’ God. But no matter how hard we try, no matter all the things we can do to make it right, this effort will never, ever be able to erase what is stacked up against us – all our moral failing, our mistakes, our brokenness.

We puff ourselves us up in embarrassing, false piety when we pretend we can. As if forgiveness was simply a matter of paying our dues. But it isn’t. Like true love, forgiveness is a function of grace. And, oh, the Lord has compassion on us, even in all our futile toiling and striving.

I suspect one reason why the forgiven servant does not ‘pay it forward’ to his own slave, is because what the slave owes the forgiven servant was not as large an amount. In other words, the slave could technically repay his debt.

It’s so easy not to apply God’s economy of extraordinary grace to our ordinary lives. It’s so easy to slip into the transactional ways of our world, and apply the values of the culture to our life of faith. Meaning, we don’t really forgive others when they have to ‘earn’ our attention, our love, and our friendship. We will not really forgive others when they don’t behave in a way that meets our approval.

We live in a transactional economy – even in our spirituality – where people have to pay for their sins. We are to a large extent products of our culture. Our view of justice, therefore, is naturally retributive. Whereas God’s economy is about transformative justice. To move from one to another calls for a monumental shift in our thinking.

God’s grace, indeed, “surpasses all our understanding” (Philippians 4:7). God’s economy of grace does not make sense in our quid pro quo culture of transaction and merit. God’s love crosses all these boundaries and systems of our making. The gift is simply given. Will we receive it, freely? Will we pass it forward, freely, without any expectations nor strings attached?

In God’s economy of grace, we move from transaction to wholeness. Love and forgiveness – these functions of grace – expand outward. There are no losers in this economy. Only winners.

A transactional economy goes something like this: If I have twelve, gold coins and you take six, I will only have six left. I’ve lost. You’ve won. And so it goes with everything we do with others in life. Someone described our culture this way, sadly: We love things and we use people.

In an economy of grace, in contrast, we love people and use things. It’s as if I had planted twelve lily bulbs. I can divide my bulbs and give you twelve and I will still have twelve left. Then you can plant your bulbs and eventually you can give away twelve more. Grace multiplies. Everyone gets more. Grace is infinite, in truth. The win-lose economy changes into a win-win economy.[3]

Moreover, forgiveness is not just about evening the score between just two individuals. It’s not entirely a private act. Forgiveness is communal.[4] When, in the Gospel text, the others saw how unjustly the servant treated his own slave who owed him money, they didn’t simply wipe their hands in denial and avoidance of the injustice before them. They went back to the master and told him. The proverbial whistle-blowers, they were involved in the process of forgiveness.

This is necessary, because sometimes individuals are guilted into forgiving someone who is left unchallenged, unaffected, and unaccounted for their misdeed. Sometimes victims are not able to easily forgive the one who has hurt them. It took Joseph all the way to the last chapter in Genesis to finally forgive his brothers for throwing him into a well and selling him to slave-traders.[5] As they say, it takes a village. And sometimes time. Lots of it.

Forgiveness is validated in community. Because sin is something we all participate in. If we are human and live on this earth, we will sin. No matter the colour of our skin, no matter our creed, our ethnic background, no matter where we were born or what our political stripe. We will make mistakes. We will all contribute to the problems we face. As Paul wrote, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.[6] No one is immune to the complicity and consequence of sin. It is woven into the fabric of our common existence.

And so is forgiveness. When forgiveness is offered and received, it becomes part of a wider field of responsibility and accountability. We are not alone. We need the community of faith. We need to be real. Forgiveness does not mean enabling sinful behavior to continue by excusing it, or letting it happen over and over again. Forgiveness means people of faith seek the justice of the matter. Forgiveness can only happen when people see their own lives as part of the human condition, just like everyone else.

People will not be changed in their hearts for God unless they are loved unconditionally, freely. Martin Luther believed that we would be so overcome by God’s unearned, unconditional love that we would be so moved to spontaneously and unconditionally love others in the same way.[7]

May our hearts be moved to forgiveness and justice for all.

Our Father in heaven …. forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Amen.

 

[1] Matthew 18:21-35

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary”, Year A Volume 4 (Louisville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.71

[3] Janet Hagberg uses the gold coin versus lily bulb analogy to describe transitions in power, in “Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations”, 3rd Edition, Salem Wisconsin: Sheffield Publishing, 2003, p.77

[4] Susan E. Hylen, “Forgiveness and Life in Community,” Interpretation, Volume 54, Number 2 (April 2000), p.146-57.

[5] Genesis 50:15-26

[6] Romans 3:23

[7] cited in Bartlett & Brown Taylor, eds., ibid., p. 70

Happy Birthday! (funeral sermon)

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26)

It may seem strange to say this, today: On a day we mourn at the death and loss of a loved one. A loved one, nonetheless who lived to a 103! A loved one whose 104th birthday is today! “Happy birthday Wilma!”

When we say a funeral service is a ‘celebration of life’ we affirm this with mixed feelings, to be sure.

Kind of like the other paradoxes in our lives: Because, for example, we know that we are better fulfilled in giving rather than receiving. Because, as people of faith, we know that it is in dying that we live — on many levels.

That is why a funeral service is like an Easter service when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. That is why, the day Jesus died on the cross is called “Good” Friday. Talk about paradox.

So, with confidence, we gather today to have a birthday party. Because Wilma, a person of deep faith in the living Lord, lives today in heavenly glory! 

Happy birthday Wilma!

At birthday parties we often tell stories about the person’s life, to date. There is one story from early on in Wilma’s life that I wish to highlight: When she was five years old, the windows of the Halifax house she and her family were living in blew inward, planting shards of glass deep in the layers of the skin on her head. She and her family survived the famous Halifax explosion.

Until Wilma was well into her 40s she was pulling little pieces of glass from her skin. For a large chunk of her life, especially in her formative years, she had to live with this reminder of her near death experience at such a young age. She was, in the first part of her life, regularly made aware of the fragility of her life and the reality of her mortality. That with each step we take in life, death walks along close by. Maybe that’s why she lived so long.

We try to avoid death. We deny it at every turn. We don’t want to see it. And yet, in avoiding death we also avoid living. Living to the upmost. The key to a rich life is to be aware that our death is only one breath away. 

It is common knowledge that the most effective, greatest and skilled soldiers in history were men and women who were willing to die in giving themselves to engage each combat situation. When you accept your own death at any given moment, then you can truly live.

An incredible paradox, isn’t it? How can we live in the ambiguity, uncertainty and mystery of this reality?

Wilma, as I said, was a woman of deep and enduring faith — through it all. It’s amazing when you think about the history she lived through: the rise of the automobile; the radical advance of technology from wires to the digital age; the many wars and two world wars of the last century, the Depression and economic ups and downs, the social revolutions. Through it all, she nurtured, and was nurtured in, a life of faith in the God who died in order to live.

Perhaps a deep knowing of this leads one to bless others. Indeed, this is how I got to know Wilma in these last four years of her life. Mostly through touch. In the tradition of the church, a blessing of healing and grace was given primarily by the ‘laying of hands’. It was a challenge to communicate with her, and yet, experts affirm that 70% of communication is non-verbal.

Wilma’s image of God was of a gracious, giving, loving God. She bristled at me early in our relating when I said the version of the Lord’s Prayer that has the line: “Lead us not to temptation …” She stopped me right in the tracks of that prayer, right there: “Stop,” she said. “God does not lead us to be tempted!” she objected. So, we changed the words. And that is why you read a slight variation in that sentence in the liturgy today.

God is a God of compassion and caring. God loves. Even when we can’t. Even when our love is imperfect and fraught with our own sin and misgivings. God comes to us first with a word of compassion, healing and mercy. This is the God Wilma believed in.

Her mission in life, in the last few years, was to bless others who cared for her. I learned this when she was at Fairfield Manor in Kanata, that she would routinely bless the nurses that attended to her. 

And after our many visits there, she would lean close to me and kiss me on my forehead. She said: “That’s the kiss of Jesus, saying that he loves you. And I do too.”

I responded: “I love you too, Wilma.”

Then, ever true to her belief, Wilma said: “That makes the Holy Trinity — three loves!”

Perhaps, then, Wilma leaves us with the legacy of faith that doesn’t pretend life is meant to be perfect. Because she wasn’t. But life is meant to be lived as long as we are given breath, in order to be a blessing of love to one another, as best we can.

Because God does.

Amen.

It’s ok to fall (3): Jesus leads us there

The beginning of a story introduces the characters, but it also sets things up for what readers can expect later in the book. The writer of a good story will craft, early on, a good ‘set up’ for the plot development. Here’s an example, and you tell me what you think will happen later in the story:

At the beginning of this story, we read about a couple of children walking home from school, as they always do, along a familiar path. However, their route goes by the town’s cemetery, a place they have never visited. It remains a mystery to them. The cemetery is guarded by spiked, iron-wrought gates and surrounded by tall, thick cedar hedges.

The children are coming of age when their curiosity is piquing, and they ask their parents if they can venture into the cemetery. But they are warned repeatedly from all quarters: “Don’t ever, ever, EVER play in the cemetery! Especially, after dark!”

Now, what do you think will happen as a result of this ‘set up’ in the story line? They’ll likely go there! — into the cemetery, at night, perhaps under scary or tension-filled circumstances. And, we want to read on to find out how, as our own imaginations grow! It’s true, when we are ordered not to do something in some unequivocal, unyielding, non-explanatory way, it’s something we will usually end up doing! The story is a snap-shot of life.

Social history bears witness to this human dynamic: In 1920, law-makers south of the border enacted the 18th Amendment which attempted to curb the evils of liquor. Laws were passed against the sale and trade of alcohol. The result? After Prohibition was finally lifted, historians showed that the consumption of alcohol by the general population actually increased during those ‘prohibitive’ years. (Strayer & Gatzke, “The Mainstream of Civilization since 1500”, Harcourt, Toronto, 1984, p.730)

“Brick-wall” parenting, as some call it, often fails. Because children don’t grow in an environment where the evils of the world can be talked about, reasoned through and struggled with in loving, patient and understanding ways. They just outright rebel.

Perhaps it was employing some reverse-psychology that spurred Martin Luther to say those infamous words: “Sin boldly … !” But I like to emphasize the latter part of that quote: “Sin boldly … and trust the Lord even more.” Luther doesn’t deny or hide away from sin. He just trumps it, with the Lord!

When I assert repeatedly the theme of this sermon series for Lent: “It’s okay to fall”, I am NOT encouraging you to sin. Because you don’t need to purposely go out and find sin and suffering. You don’t need to seek out suffering, as if it’s a choice we can make (eg. “I think I’ll go out and sin today”; or, “I don’t think I’ll sin today!”)

Sin is something that we must learn to live with. It’s a part of our lives. Sin is not something we can ‘will’ away by the force of our self-righteous toil to purge ourselves somehow. If you think yourself a good Christian, you may be good at hiding your sin. But honest, faithful, authentic Christians will struggle monumentally with their sin, and not need to put on masks of perfection when they come to church.

Life happens. Life is ‘done unto us’. Mistakes are made. I can’t explain why God created a world where suffering is so much a part of the journey of life. The better, more meaningful question, I believe, is to consider what the suffering and the sin has to teach us about ourselves in relationship to God, in the journey to redemption.

In other words, it’s okay to fall, because that is where Jesus leads us. In the Gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent, after Jesus is baptized, “The Spirit of God immediately drove him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) where he spent forty days, tempted by Satan. This part of Jesus’ life is for me the image I hold whenever I pray the traditional English translation of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation”.

Because, while Jesus does not cause my sinning, Jesus leads me into the wilderness of my life where I must confront all those temptations, the brokenness, weaknesses, despair, anger, fear, guilt — that cause my sinning. Jesus takes me there, into the barren land of my soul. He leads the way. I must follow.

The formal ‘Invitation to the Lenten discipline’ in most liturgies begins with a call to self-examination — even before repenting, praying, fasting and works of love strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Leader’s Desk Edition, Augsburg Fortress, p.617). Self-examination is an act of profound humility and honesty. And it could very well be the most difficult task in the Lenten journey.

Here is some good news: Jesus is not afraid. Because he has already gone to the darkest place of all — the Cross, and then even descended into hell as we affirm in the Creeds. I can persevere through any turmoil life may offer, because Jesus is there, right beside me, helping me get through it.

What makes the consequences of our sin worse, I suspect, is the kind of thinking that suggests Jesus cannot be present if or whenever we go into those dark places of our lives. Our prejudice may be that Jesus cannot be there in the shameful, anger-ridden, fear-devastated places of our suffering. We thus delude ourselves into believing “I am alone” in my suffering. The Gospel, however, teaches us otherwise.

I was so inspired by the record number of folks we had out on Shrove Tuesday for our pancake party — including almost a dozen folks from the neighbourhood who had never been with us before! We danced, we sang, we ate, we enjoyed music together.

When we are in the desert of our lives confronting our sin and suffering, it is so important to know, again, who your friends are, your family, your community, your church — and simply experience their presence. And by their presence, their loving support — even in the darkest time of our lives. Just being there together, can make a huge difference.

Therefore, I can be encouraged that as Jesus was waited upon by the angels who gave him the things he needed to get through his wilderness suffering, so then Jesus will not abandon me in my desert. He’ll be right there beside me, and give me what I need (and maybe not always what I want).

It’s okay to fall, because Jesus leads me into that place that I would rather avoid. And even that place where I might be tempted to go. Because I don’t go alone. Thanks be to God.

Impossible demands Incredible love

Mark Wahlberg is known for his acting prowess in films like “The Perfect Storm”, “Italian Job”, “The Fighter” and will star in next year’s “Transformers” sequel. He recently gave an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan about the transformation in his life – from being a brawler and coke addict as a teenager to being a faithful Christian who now starts each day going into a church to pray.

Piers asks Mark Wahlberg, “What do you pray for?” He basically answers by saying he wants to be the best person he can be – responsible, a good neighbor, father, son, and servant to God.

On one level, I appreciate very much when popular, culture icons like Mark Wahlberg give public testimony to the Christian faith. His example gives a positive impression to the power of prayer, especially among younger people. “What do you pray for?” seems to strike a chord, since it is fashionable for skeptics who question God’s loving existence to point to unanswered prayer. Have they considered the very goal of prayer?

In the Gospel of John, one of the first words recorded out of the mouth of Jesus when he meets up with a couple of his disciples are: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). Apparently Jesus, too, recognizes the significance of, first off, identifying what it is we want, or expect, from God.

We may feel like the early disciples of Jesus did, then, when they asked Jesus: “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Jesus responds by instructing them to say what has become known as the “Our Father” or “The Lord’s Prayer” – the paramount prayer of Christianity.

So, what does Jesus tell us to ask for? In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-4), the first thing we ask for is “Thy Kingdom Come”. Perhaps this can give us a clue to the aim and nature of our Christian prayer.

In the interview, Mark Wahlberg says that he would rather give favours than receive favours. It is natural, is it not, to want to believe that our redemption and transformation will happen as a result of our good efforts? Even prayer becomes about telling God what we want and desire, about actualizing our dreams for a better world and life by our energy and efforts and eloquence.

There is much in this Gospel text to suggest that our growth and maturity rests with our initiative: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (v.9-10). We resonate with those words, don’t we? They roll off our tongues easily enough! And we tell ourselves to buck up!

Yet, how many times have we given up on prayer because what we asked for so diligently hasn’t come to pass? We may have prayed and prayed and prayed for release from some kind of bondage or for someone else’s well being. And whatever it is continues to burden our lives. The issue remains unresolved.

This conundrum might be best described with forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God for forgiveness. But this forgiveness, it seems, is conditional upon our ability to forgive ‘everyone’ indebted to us! “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

That’s a tall order! Yikes! Have I forgiven – truly forgiven – others who have hurt me? And not only the one person that first comes to mind – but everyone who has ever hurt me? If not, will God forgive me?

Right after the Lord’s Prayer Jesus tells a rather weird story about going to a friend in the middle of the night to ask for three loaves of bread. Notwithstanding the awkward position in which you would be putting your friend in the middle of the night, why on earth wouldn’t you have something as basic as bread in your house at any given time?

Why would you be all out of bread in the first place? In a culture devoid of corner stores and open-all-night Seven-Elevens, you would think folks in Jesus’ day would plan ahead and have food stored up. Obviously a subtext of Jesus’ story here is the irresponsibility, laziness, short-sightedness, and sinfulness causing you to go to your friend in the first place.

How many times have I withheld grace or forgiveness from someone because I have felt they haven’t done their part enough to deserve my help?

On one hand I admire the person going shamelessly and boldly to the friend. It takes guts to interrupt someone, especially at night. Perhaps we can learn from this the trust and confidence you have in your friend to help you. Similar to the trust and confidence we are called upon to place in God.

Elsewhere in the New Testament the writer John expresses it this way: “I write the truth to you because you already know the truth” (1 John 2:21). We receive these words of Scripture and the word of God in Jesus Christ not because we don’t know it or don’t have it. We receive the words telling the truth of Jesus today because the truth and presence of Jesus already resides within us – at that deep level, in our hearts. The bible’s message is given to us to remind us, to help us re-member, what is already living within us.

And so with confidence, boldness, and shamelessness, we approach the “throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:13) with our pleas for help – even when those requests are misguided, selfish and born from our own weaknesses.

And this is the point, I believe, of the Gospel. Ultimately it is not about our efforts to make something of prayer and our relationship with God. Rather, it is about a God who will help us, no matter what. Jesus reminds us that God is always willing to offer us the help we need in order to live out the truth of Christ within us for the sake of the world which God so loved (John 3:16). Such is the incredible love of God even in the face of impossible demands.

While God receives all our prayers, however tainted with our ego compulsions, fears and neediness, the power of prayer resides in ‘thy kingdom come’ – which some ancient transcripts translated as “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.” Such a rendition is worth considering, because it is consistent with the last verse (13) of the text: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

I wonder about the positive changes we desire for our lives. I wonder about how we shall pray for the good things we seek for ourselves, those we love, the church, and the world around us. What do you pray for? – the Holy Spirit? – the deep yearning for an experience of God’s love and grace and forgiveness? – that our lives be transformed according to love of God for us and for the world?

Will we pray for, and in, God’s will?

When we pray, “Thy kingdom come” are we willing to let ‘my kingdom’ go? (Richard Rohr).

What do you expect from God?

Good things! Good things, for the sake and love of the world, in Christ Jesus.