The house built by fear

Reading from the bible can be scary. Sometimes a faithful reading of the bible will not bring calm and assurance. Just the opposite!

Today’s scripture can evoke fear.[1]When Jesus talks about Herod’s glorious temple crumbling to the ground and being betrayed by family members, our eyes widen in apprehension and we shift uncomfortably in our seats. Fearful of the future. What will it bring? Is God’s future good or something to fear. We do know, the way there won’t be easy.

From the Gospel, Jesus exposes two false ways in which people of faith try to deal with our fear. By that, I mean, strategies that we have employed for thousands of years in order to combat our fear. While these methods may be effective in allaying our fear, they also serve to block the way we connect with God.

The first such strategy Jesus exposes is our attachment to, and almost exclusive dependence on, what we build. Even, as we say, to the glory of God. These buildings. Glorious, adorned with carvings, intricate stained glass, spires making confident bids to the sky, and arches perfectly rounded and balanced. Architectural master pieces. To say the least.

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The pulpit alone, in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, is a wonder to behold. It is a sermon in itself – its spiraling, narrow staircase winding itself up into a small yet regally appointed platform high above the nave.

King Herod, for Christians reading the bible, was a paranoid despot. He killed innocent children was ruthless in defending and protecting his hold on power. Because he was afraid, afraid of losing it.

For historians and archeologists, however, he was a builder par excellence.

King Herod started building his temple in Jerusalem two decades before Jesus was born. During the time of the build he more than doubled the size of the temple mount. The temple proper was completed in eighteen months. But work on the outer courts and decorations continued throughout Jesus’ lifetime and still some thirty years after his death and resurrection. During this impressive season of building the temple, people gathered under the large colonnades and porches to hear speeches and witness healings.[2]

It was a gathering place, a central focal point for people’s identity in faith and source of authority and guidance for life. It was where you went to listen to and engage religious debate. It was where you went to deliberate truth. It was where you made animals sacrifices. Here, you found the rules and regulations and laws for a good life.

Less than a decade after everything was completed on the Herodian temple, it was pretty much destroyed by the Romans in the late first century. Jesus’ words in the Gospel text for today, calling for a day “when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”, speak to events that were happening in the lives of Jesus’ followers during this time of the destruction of Jerusalem and its glorious, magnificent temple.

In reading this text carefully, however, I realized this is not just about buildings. Jesus isn’t just criticizing those who put all their religious stock in bricks and mortar. Jesus is exposing yet another related strategy for dealing with our fear. Not just in the glory of the buildings, but in the way we speak to one another and relate to one another. Not just in glory. But also in power.

It was, after all, the authorities who made the rules, sold the animals for sacrifice and mediated the people’s connection with God.

At root, the religious authorities persuaded the people that their relationship with God could only be mediated by the authority’s permission. If you didn’t follow the rules and authorities, you were not justified or in right relationship with God. The whole culture, the spiritual climate, surrounding the temple served to choke out freedom of a personal and direct intimacy with God.[4]

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote the dismaying story with the title, “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. The old cardinal of the church hears that the real Jesus has come suddenly to his town. The cardinal is alarmed that Jesus healed a blind man who had been coming to his church. Then, he hears that the real Jesus who has come to his town raised a young girl from the dead.

When the cardinal confronts Jesus he asks him: “Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?” He wants to rid the town of Jesus, because in his mind what Jesus did long ago is done far better by the church today. In other words, the cardinal has to admit to himself, the church does not need Jesus.[3]The cardinal really couldn’t give up the power he had. Not give it up for anyone. Even Jesus. The cardinal was afraid of losing his job — what it would mean for him and the church …

Seeking glory and defending power seem to be effective ways of dealing with our fear.  We attach ourselves to symbols and expressions of glory in our culture – the tallest buildings, the fastest cars, celebrities, newsworthy leaders and victories on the battle fields of life. This brings comfort, though momentary and fleeting. Because we can never be satisfied operating in this consumer and acquisition-fueled culture. There’s never enough, or it’s not good enough. Ever.

Jesus suggests we must learn a new language. A new way of being, with God and with one another. A way, marked not by successes in the eyes of the world—there were lots of tourists in those houses of worship we visited in Montreal. The world approves. But will we walk a different way – a way marked by love, faithfulness in suffering, and generous giving in the face of poverty, suffering and our fear?

Throughout the Gospels, the religious authorities asked Jesus for a sign of his authority. And, he never satisfied them with his answer. His answers usually appear to disturb their sense of right and wrong.

The truth, when it comes, seems to turn upside down our initial ways of thinking and doing. Here, Jesus says, “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[5]

These opponents were neither stupid nor un-educated. In fact they were the most articulate and brilliant of the age. So, there is something altogether different going on here. A different way of being with God. A way not encumbered by discursive thought and debate. A way not intimidated by rules and regulations and conditional statements of belonging. A way not defined by glory-seeking persuasion nor forceful coercion.

The confirmation class the other night reflected on the meaning of the Trinity—God the Father who creates all, God the Son who is with us, God the Spirit who gives us strength. On this poster they cut out images from magazines to place in one of three designated areas on the poster. These images evoked for them the meaning and feeling of what God is up to in the world today, through the various persons of the Trinity.

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In reflecting on the experience of doing this exercise afterwards, we pastors admitted this was rather an abstract exercise. We weren’t just memorizing definitions of the Trinity from the Catechism, difficult enough as that is! But in engaging the confirmands on another level, we began to see more than we thought possible.

We discover that we don’t find God by building glory or defending power — ways we use to avoid confronting our fears of the future. Rather, the good news is that God has already found us. In this world. In our lives. And in a multitude of ways.

Making this link, this connection, is much simpler than all the methods we have devised to combat our fear. We don’t need the tallest and most beautiful buildings to assert God in this world. We don’t need to merit, or qualify for, our relationship with God by building skyscrapers or getting straight A’s in school.  We don’t need degrees and a long pedigree to justify ourselves in faith. We don’t need to arm ourselves with book knowledge in order to defend against some opponent whether a family member or stranger.

All we need is an open heart and a desire to love and trust. Following Jesus is about going directly to intimacy with God in our deepest selves. And God is there, right there, all along.

We can respond, then, not out of fear. But out of the love of Christ for all and in all. Forever.

 

[1]Luke 21:5-19

[2]Acts 3:11; 5:12

[3]Cited in Eberhard Busch, 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.310-312

[4]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.93-96

[5]Luke 21:15

The way the story is told

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We fear freedom from what binds us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that story will have a good ending.

 

[1]Luke 8:35,37, NRSV

[2]Galatians 3:28

[3]Romans 14:8

[4]Galatians 2:19-20

You are blessed

(We can better understand the beatitudes of Jesus[1] alongside the texts from the Hebrew scriptures assigned for today[2]. Read together in light of the imagery we find there, we begin to make sense of Jesus’ challenging words. Both the Psalmist and the Prophet paint the picture of a tree or shrub in a state of dryness, and in a state of blessedness, shall we say?)

6They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places.[3]

Being in a “parched place” suggests the unfortunate state of our lives when misfortune and adversity come our way: when we fail at something, when we lose someone or something, or through circumstances beyond our control life hands us lemons.

But the problem is not so much that we are in the desert. It’s not the condition nor circumstance in which we find ourselves. When we are in a bad way, it’s not where we are.

When we are ‘dried out’, the problem is we don’t see the relief that comes our way. We have a vision problem:

We don’t perceive the grace, the gift, and the solutions that present themselves. We, for whatever reason, do not appreciate what we already have. We are blind to this grace.

The sight of which Jeremiah speaks is not merely physical, but of the heart—an attitude, an inner stance—that leans towards what is good within us and in the world around us. It is the intention of our minds and hearts to search for what is good, what is life-giving. And, we nurture this disposition despite what may appear to the contrary on the surface.

Of course, to search and yearn for something means there is something missing in our lives. It is to admit something is amiss. It is to be honest and open about our needs. The longing of the heart exposes our vulnerabilities. But also our hope.

7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream
.[4]

Our searching for what feels lost in our lives are like the roots of a tree that naturally expand, grow and spread out towards the source of life—in water, in light. It’s the search itself, the persistent, dedicated and committed journey towards the water that keeps the tree alive, even against the odds.

On the Washington State coast along the Pacific Ocean, you will find the famous Kalaloch Tree, otherwise known as the Tree of Life, or the Runaway Tree.Underneath the webbed roots of the Kalaloch Tree is the Tree Root Cave. Inside, a stream falls into the cave and flows out into the ocean.

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(photo from pinterest.ca)

Many question how the tree continues to grow and the leaves continue to stay green. These questions have been asked so many times with no one really knowing how it keeps on going. So it became known to some as the Tree of Life. Because it continues to live by the stream and the ocean, even though where it finds itself is hardly the ideal spot for stability and longevity.

The Sitka Spruce tree, common along the lush, verdant Pacific coast under the constant influence of moist-laden trade winds, has lived a long time balanced precariously over these rocks. Even though it’s immediate circumstance is fragile, its roots are never far from the source of its very life.

There’s the story about a man searching for his keys under a street light. A friend comes by and asks, “What are you doing?” The response: “Looking for my keys.” The friend says, “Where did you drop them?” The man replies, “Around the corner but I’m looking here because the light is better.”[5]

It’s interesting that in order for the man to actually find his keys, he would eventually have to go around the corner into the dark to find them. But he starts under the light. He starts his search where the light is. Where his confidence rests. Where he can see. And he will go from there, on his journey.

Today, it is common for people to say, “I am blessed” when talking about good fortune. When expressing joy and thanksgiving about all the good in life, we say that “we are blessed.” And, on one level, it is true.

But when Jesus gives a list of characteristics describing those who are ‘blessed’, that’s hardly the case. We find it hard to attribute blessedness to the poor, to the downtrodden, to those who experience misfortune, bad luck, who are given life’s worst circumstances imaginable. We can’t easily make that connection when we associate blessedness with material prosperity, or excellent health, or good fortune.

In Jesus’ teaching, ‘blessedness’ is not absence of trouble. Blessedness, here, is not a reflection of good luck and prosperity. Blessedness, in Jesus’ sense, is not a result of peachy circumstances, fortune and material wealth in the way the word is used in common parlance today.

Rather, to be blessed is “to live through such opposition aware that the struggle is temporary”[6]and that in the end, God will stand by the faithful.

In Luke’s version of Jesus’ great sermon, Jesus stands not on the mountain (as is the case in Matthew 5-7), but on “a level place.” In the bible the word “level” often refers to places of disgrace, suffering, misery, hunger and mourning.[7]

Jesus does not ascend to some high place to give his teaching. Instead, he descends not only to where we stand, but he goes deeper. Jesus descends into the dark recesses of the most difficult, challenging corners of our hearts in order to teach, guide and lead us through. He comes down to that ‘level’.

To be blessed is to be that Kalaloch Tree on the precipice of destruction, and still yearn, search and reach for the water. To be blessed is to pursue the good despite all the bad that is evident all around you. To be blessed is to start that search wherever there is light, and go from there. To be blessed is to trust God to be there in the dark with you. To be blessed is to grow into God’s holy purposes despite adversity, setback and misfortune.

In short, to be blessed is to bear the scars of life proudly. It’s not the absence of difficulty, grief, pain, poverty and suffering that mark a Christian. It is following Christ in his way, despite the suffering that path brings. It is depending on God alone for life, because there is nothing else to rely on.

We thus journey on with hope, joy and trust, bearing witness to the goodness of God to sustain, to nourish and to grow us in the light of Christ.

 

[1]Luke 6:17-26

[2]Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17:5-10, according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

[3]Jeremiah 17:6 NRSV

[4]Jeremiah 17:7-8 NRSV

[5]Dr. Earl A. Grollman, “In Search of a Lost Faith”, Frontline (Winter 2019), p.4

[6]Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary on Luke 6:17-26” in http://www.workingpreacher.org

[7]Allen, ibid.

Behold, your servant!

A few weeks before Christmas, little Benjamin was thinking about what he really wanted for Christmas. This year, it was a Star Wars Lego set. All his friends had this, and he really wanted one.

And Benjamin wanted to write a letter to Jesus for this gift. His mother said he should really be writing a letter to Santa, but no, Benjamin was serious. Better Jesus; he thought, better chance he’d get this gift by communicating directly to Jesus instead of Santa.

So, Benjamin starts writing: “Dear Jesus, I’ve been a very good kid, and …”

He stops. No, Jesus won’t believe that.

He crumples up the paper, throws it away, and starts again: “Dear Jesus, most of the time, I’ve been a good kid…” He stops again. No, Jesus isn’t going to buy this.

 He starts again: “Dear Jesus, I’ve thought about being good…” He thinks a bit, then decides he didn’t like that one either. Benjamin throws on his jacket and heads outside, frustrated and upset.

He walks to the church around the corner. In front of it is set up a large manger scene. And he has a brilliant idea: He grabs the wooden figurine of Mary in his arms and rushes home with it!

He wraps the sculpture in blankets and stuffs it under his bed, then heads over to his desk and starts writing a new letter: “Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again, send me that Lego set! Your friend, Benjamin.”

At least Benjamin was honest. Before God in all our vulnerability, as the light of God’s gaze rests on us, we may feel inadequate and not good enough. We, then, will stay stuck in negative self-talk and complacent in-action. “How could God use me?” “Not only a sinner but quite unexceptional. Doesn’t God see all the dirt in my life, all the dark corners that even I don’t want to look at?” “Not me!”

“Behold, your servant.”[1]Mary’s first words after hearing the angel’s call for her to bear God’s Son. The New Revised Standard Version replaced the older English “Behold” with the phrase, “Here I am”. Of course, “Here I am”, based on Mary’s initial response to the angel as a precursor to her Song of Praise[2], is now a popular song in our worship book. “Here I Am, Lord.[3]

Interesting that Mary begins her prayerful response to God simply by acknowledging God’s astonishing choice of her: a common, teenager with no pedigree, status or exceptionality to her name. “Behold, your servant.” Yes, God sees her. God favors her. God beholds whom God created, in Mary.

“Behold, your servant” is a statement of profound love. Mary’s very being is seen by God. The light of God’s love shines upon her common, fragile, vulnerable nature. Yes. But the dirt doesn’t matter to God. She is deemed a worthy recipient of God’s good intent and purpose.

As God first beholds Mary, we see in her what is true about God’s relationship to us. As God be-holds, Mary holds the Christ child within her. As God be-holds us with unconditional acceptance and love for who we are, so we hold the presence of the living Lord within us. Not only are we called to receive Jesus, we are called to conceive Jesus in our lives.

A truly remarkable message at Christmas, every year! We become Christ-bearers, to give birth to Jesus’ life and love for this world through how God has uniquely created each one of us–through our words, eyes, hands and heart.[4] We need to be reminded of this truth often.

A pre-Reformation era tradition in Germany has recently gained more popularity: It is a ritual that has been practiced mostly in small towns, villages, and rural areas. What happens before Christmas is that each family brings a small statue of Mary to a neighbouring family, where that statue remains in a central location in the household until Christmas day.[5]

This ritual reminds everyone who participates a few important truths: First, your neighbour gives you a statue; you don’t get one for yourself. This part of the ritual is meant to convey that before we say or do anything in response to God, we must acknowledge, as Mary did, that God’s gift first comes to us. Jesus himself later told his disciples a lesson in love: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”[6]

And secondly, perhaps more importantly, the statue is a visual reminder that each of us is Mary, preparing a place in our own hearts for the presence of Jesus in the Holy Spirit.

You see, when Mary was pregnant with Jesus in that small place within her where the light of the world was gestating and growing – there was a pure heart. Yes, Mary was sinful as any human being. But within her, too, was a holy place where sin had no power, where she reflected the image of God.

Is that not so, with us, too? Each one of us holds the capacity, within ourselves, to carry the presence of the living God in Jesus. What difference would that conviction make in, not only appreciating the place in our own lives where God’s Spirit indwells, but in others?

The statue of Mary in these households reminds families, that despite all the conflict, stress, misunderstandings and sin so obvious in every kind of family, especially at this time of year, we can also look for a place of peace, stillness, and true joy amongst and within our very selves.

We are, at Christmas, reminded by this holy birth and through those familiar biblical characters like Mary, that we can see one another now with what Saint Paul calls the strength of our inner nature, or being.[7]

We can regard one another, though we are different and unique, with a knowledge and belief that each of us holds a space and a place within that is being renewed, transformed and united in God.

Someone once said that to be of help to anyone, you must first be able to see the good, however small, in that person.[8]  Then, and only then, can you be effective and genuine in your caregiving. Can we see, first, the good in others? Can we practice doing so this Christmas?

We can be strengthened in this course, nourished at the Table and emboldened in faith to know that God, before anything, “beholds” us in God’s loving gaze, just as we are. God sees the preciousness in each of our lives before dealing with the dirt, and loves us anyway.

So rather than right away assume the worst in us and others, and then like little Benjamin act out on that vision; rather than initially write off others who annoy us because they are different—those strangers and people we don’t understand and maybe even fear …

Perhaps we need Mary to remind us again of her response to God’s beholding of each of us. Perhaps we need to appreciate anew the gift in others that may not on the surface of things be always apparent.

Perhaps God is coming to us again this Christmas, in the guise of a stranger yet one who is truly a lover – one who comes because “God so loved the world”.[9]

Indeed, love is coming. Alleluia! Thanks be to God! Amen!

 

[1]Luke 1:38

[2]The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55

[3]“Here I Am Lord”, Daniel L. Schutte (Fortress Press: Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006), #574.

[4] Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) “Brother-Give Us A Word” (22 December 2018), http://www.ssje.org

[5]For more information about the tradition of ‘carrying Mary’ at Christmas, please read Anselm Gruen, “Weihnachten — Einen neuen Anfang” (Verlag Herder Freiburg, 1999), p.39-41

[6]John 15:12-17

[7]2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Ephesians 3:16-19

[8] Yuval Lapide: “Bis du nicht das Gute in einem Menschen siehst, bist du unfähig, ihm zu helfen.“

[9] John 3:16

Thanksgiving builds commUNItY

Sometimes what I see in nature represents how I feel. For example: “The dark, thunder clouds looked angry,” we say. Or, “The deer leapt with joy across the meadow.”

Nature has a way of evoking feelings within us. When I stopped in this cove on Cape Disappointment, I couldn’t help but feel praise for the creator God, and thankful for the beauty of life.

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This particular photo conveys to me first a state of peace. After all, not far from this lone pine the swirling waters, changing tides and ravaging winds off the Cape constantly threaten to uproot the tree. And yet, the tree lives on looking very peaceful.

But more than that, thankful. The tree shoots to the sky, to the life-giving sun. It’s not just hugging the rock in defensive self-protection. It offers its praise to the Creator by aiming and growing upward, giving a faithful witness to all that will see this tree.

For me, a life lived grounded and united in peace, praise and thanksgiving to God, is indeed a life lived in the gracious community of God.

During this month when we reflect on the legacy of the 16th century Reformation and celebrate together the 500th year of Reformation, we cannot avoid nor deny the sad reality of conflict and division. It seems you cannot fully appreciate the nature of things, including the church, unless you acknowledge the role of conflict among people of all times and places.

This is why it is noteworthy that Luke in the Gospel text assigned for Thanksgiving Day tells this story, which is not found anywhere else in the New Testament.[1] What is unique about this healing story is the response of thanksgiving by a Samaritan. Jesus sets this “foreigner” apart from the others who were also healed.[2]

The Samaritan was the only one who “turned back” to give thanks to Jesus.[3] So, there is much more going on here than a physical, medical cure of a disease.

Since ancient times, a political and religious rift was growing between Israel and Samaria. Samaria became “foreign” after breaking off from the Davidic monarchy and the establishment of Samaria as the capital of the northern kingdom.[4] Then, after the Babylonian exile, tensions mounted between the people of Samaria and the Jews who returned to rebuild Jerusalem.[5]

Luke includes this story in his Gospel to emphasize the importance of looking to the positive witness of the outsider. In other words, the normal divisions separating us in our religious and cultural identities matter little in the larger scheme of things. Especially when it comes to the expression of faith.

Those who are different are often the very people we need to look to for a positive example of faithful living.

This summer a friend of mine visited the German town of Dinkelsbühl in Bavaria. During the Reformation Era in the 16th and 17th centuries, this town was the first of only a small number at the time who identified as bi-confessional; that is, roughly equal numbers of Roman Catholic and Protestant citizens were allowed to live and practice their faith, with equal rights for both sides.

After the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, a few years after Martin Luther’s death, land in Germany was divided into Protestant or Catholic regions. The religious adherence of a population in any region was determined by the religion of the ruling prince in that area.

Except for Dinkelsbühl. The Peace of Westphalia a century later enshrined the bi-confessional identity of this town by establishing a joint Catholic-Protestant government and administrative system, and ensured a precise and equal distribution between Catholic and Protestant civic officials.

When you consider the animosity, violence and warfare characteristic of those centuries between Catholics and Protestants, never-mind the twentieth century history in Ireland and the unfortunately enduring oppositional attitudes between Protestants and Catholics today – this is truly remarkable.

Bucking the dominant culture of dualistic either/or, right/wrong, in/out, black/white thinking, the leaders and citizens of Dinkelsbühl chose to follow a different path. We don’t need to point to present day efforts of ecumenism and unity building. Right in the middle of the conflict of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries there were already efforts then to see a different way:

To see the good in the other. To search out and focus on common understandings first. To seek mutual understanding. Amidst everything around conspiring against such counter-cultural vision.

The point of decision for the Samaritan leper came when he realized he was healed, on the path as they went.[6] It’s important to picture this in your mind. Jesus didn’t snap his fingers and, voila! Yes, the lepers brought their belief in Jesus to the encounter, asking him for healing. Jesus then told them to go to the priest for certification of their healing.

It was on the way – after they had committed to doing something, even before any proof of their healing was given, amidst their still debilitating illness – they went. In doing something, on the way, they were healed. Healing is a process.

It was on this journey when the healed Samaritan had to make a decision.  He could have followed the other nine who were clearly pursuing their self-interest. Against the conforming pressures of the majority, he turned back to follow his heart, full of thanksgiving. We may wonder whether he was also motivated by avoiding potential ridicule and discrimination as a Samaritan appearing before Jewish authority in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, the Samaritan made thanksgiving a priority. It is to him that Jesus ascribes the affirmation: “Your faith has made you well”; or, as other translations have it: “Your faith has saved you.”[7]

Faith without gratitude is no faith at all. There is something life-giving about thanksgiving. Grateful people are more hopeful. Indeed, there is evidence now of a correlation between gratitude and the immune system. People who are grateful have a health edge. For example, an attitude of gratitude, reduces stress. So, your mother was right when she made you call your grandmother and thank her for the birthday card.[8]

A true expression of faith is complete when it includes thanksgiving. Coming to worship on Sundays is not validated because “you get something out of it.” Attending worship is not about the self-centered search for “what is in it for me?” Worship is not “me-first” exercise. Let’s be clear.

Rather, coming to worship is about offering thanksgiving, first and foremost. Sunday worship is an opportunity to give thanks to the God who gives all, for all. It is no wonder that the Holy Communion is traditionally called “The Holy Eucharist”, translated from the Greek as “The Great Thanksgiving”. We come to the table to offer our gifts of thanksgiving to God. Every week.

Thanksgiving changes the character of a community and its work. Stewardship is transformed from fundraising to the glad gratitude of joyful givers. The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts. Prayer includes not only our intercessions and supplications, but also our thanksgiving and praise of God’s good gifts to us at the Table.[9]  Thanksgiving builds bridges among people who are different.

We come to Communion to offer thanks to God not because we are good, but because God is good. And we see God reflected in all of creation, in all people, in the good they are.

We pray the legacy of the next 500 years of Reformation reflects the growth of unity among a people that are grateful for the good gifts God brings to us all.

Amen.

 

[1] Oliver Larry Yarbrough 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.169

[2] Luke 17:17-19

[3] Luke 17:15

[4] 1 Kings 12, 16

[5] Nehemiah 4, Yarbrough ibid., p.167

[6] Luke 17:14-15

[7] Luke 17:19, Yarbrough, ibid., p.169

[8] John M. Buchanan, ibid., p.169

[9] Kimberley Bracken Long, ibid., p.168

Even there your hand shall lead me

Later this summer I will be going on a 10-day canoe-camping trip on the French River. Last summer my friend and I did three nights and four days on a smaller portion of the French; this summer we want to challenge ourselves to do the whole, or at least most, of the river all the way from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay.

Because the challenge is greater, I felt I needed to take a First Aid Course in preparation, so I could be of some use to the company with whom I travel.

I learned some interesting facts about providing First Aid. Did you know that in all of Canada, except Quebec, you and I are not legally obligated to provide First Aid to anyone experiencing a medical emergency? In Quebec, however, we are legally bound to help someone who is in distress. It is, from Quebec’s point of view, a basic human right for any person to receive first aid in an emergency.

In class we discussed reasons why we may choose not to give First Aid: For fear of hurting them more, for fear of harming oneself, and of course for fear of legal repercussions. Our instructor countered this latter objection by reminding us of the “Good Samaritan Act” which governs any attempt in good faith to help someone in an emergency. So, legally, we were off the hook.

But we may still hesitate to take the risk and commit ourselves to helping someone. It would be easier to pretend we didn’t see it, get on with our busy day and avoid the added stress and responsibility.

Every time I read the wonderful story of the so-called “Walk to Emmaus” (Luke 24:13-35), something else piques my interest and causes me to reflect. I believe there is so much depth to this story while it provides a summary of what we believe as Christians. Particularly, this time, I wondered what Cleopas and his friend had to do with this incredible encounter with Jesus.

It seems they really had nothing to do with making this encounter happen, when Jesus appeared to them on the road that first Easter day. As far as we can tell, they weren’t expecting to meet Jesus let alone praying for it. And, ironically, when they do finally recognize the living Lord Jesus at the breaking of the bread, Jesus disappears from their sight! Truly, this event happened to them.

But were they merely passive recipients of this encounter? There is one turning point in the story, where things could have gone one of two opposite directions. Up until that point, they had not yet consciously recognized the man walking with them as Jesus himself. After that point, the table was set — literally — for their full recognition of Jesus.

Had they not invited Jesus to stay with them, for the evening was nigh, they would have missed out on a wonderful conclusion to their day. “Abide with us, for it is evening,” they invited this still stranger to them into their home. They could have chosen to let the man on his way. They could have chosen not to pay attention to their burning hearts. They could have ignored the subtle yet real ‘promptings of the Spirit’ we may call it today, within them.

I learned some thought-provoking statistics on my First Aid course this week. There we were, some twenty-five of us stuffed into a tiny room above a car repair shop in Renfrew. We were from all walks of life. Local businesses paid for their employees to take this course; therefore, my class mates were prompt and motivated to learn their First Aid techniques, principles and procedures. Certificates were issued upon successful completion of two exam periods and practice with bandages, splints and manikins.

Then, our instructor posted these statistics after asking us: Presuming it was done properly, what was the success rate of providing only chest compressions (sets of thirty thrusts downward over the chest) to someone who was unconscious and not breathing? What was the success rate of doing just that? 1.2%.

Without the aid of an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), adding ventilation to the chest compressions (pinching the nose and breathing in sets of two into the casualty’s mouth) raises the chance of recovery to only 5%.

I thought to myself: There is hope to humanity! Because it would be easy to just not bother! No wonder we may feel unwilling to commit to providing First Aid to an unconscious stranger on the street! What’s the point of doing that, let alone learning how to do it?! The chances of success are so slim!

And yet, there we were. These classes, I am told, are usually full. Businesses and organizations require their employees who engage with the public to know First Aid. They employ resources to make sure their employees have this training. All this effort for at best a 5% success rate.

But the ethics of it would argue: It is worth trying. Better to do something, than do nothing at all.

Sometimes I wonder whether being the church feels a bit like that. We expect the church to function at a 100% success rate; and when we fail the odd time, well — the church is no good, don’t bother. What is the worth of it all?

People are still bad. Failures in humans abound and seem to persist against all good intentions and efforts to be good. The message of the Gospel doesn’t always seem to make any positive difference in our lives. So, what’s the point?

Driving on Clyde Ave the other day, I noticed the sign outside the Reformed Church that reads: “Growth doesn’t come without change. Change doesn’t come without some risk.”

Following the example of Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, the only thing we can do, it seems, is learn to pay attention to those rare moments whenever our hearts are burning with love. And then, practice making the invitation in response to that nudging of our hearts and open our lives to those moments when we sense something shift within us. We may not be able to put our finger on it just yet, but respond nonetheless.

And then the rest is up to God. God is free. God enters our lives and walks with us whether we know it or not. God then ‘disappears’ from our awareness whenever God wants. But whether we feel God near or far, God is there. “Am I a God nearby and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” says the Lord. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:23-24).

The God of Easter is alive and present with us no matter where on earth we go. This is the good news of the resurrection. God is alive, and so we are called to rise up in renewal and joy. “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:9-10).

It is worth it. Even though we fail time and time again. There is the hope. There is the promise. There is the opportunity. There is the constant presence of God.

The case of the missing pulpit

As we worship this morning, the sanctuary at Faith Lutheran Church building is gutted — empty, a shell. Not only is the cork on the walls now removed and the old carpet disposed. The light fixtures, most of the furniture, liturgical items and holy hardware is stowed away for the time being to be recovered, restored and positioned again in their proper place once the renovations are completed.

I know some of you who have been at the site in the last day or so helping to get it ready for the workers, have been asking the question: “Where is the pulpit?” I can see the title of the next best-selling mystery novel: “The Case of the Missing Pulpit.” Where is it?

What a mystery! Well, this is what happened …

Last Sunday afternoon as I was helping members of our altar care committee removing certain items, we ran into a little problem. Our pulpit is mobile; it sits on wheels. So, depending on the needs of the day, we move it around. 

Well, we moved it alright — all the way to the door of the sacristy where we were hoping to store it. Without doing serious alterations (and damage!) to the door frame, there was no way that pulpit would get through. And the cloakroom, where we normally store the pulpit at Christmas, was going to be filled with stacks of chairs. Where on an already compact floor space would we store a rather heavy and cumbersome piece of teak-wood furniture?

It was the spur of the moment when I offered to put the pulpit in my car. I had the back seats down anyway at the time, and the rear hatch opened just wide enough to allow the pulpit to slide in fairly easily. And I drove away with church’s pulpit in the back seat of my car! Truth be told!

During the 45 minute drive home to Arnprior, my mind raced: What would I say to someone who would behold this mystery! I was also wondering where on earth I would put it. I had no clue. There was room in our garage, but most of that space was already tagged for bikes, tires, canoes and garden implements for the winter season.

My wife and I sat in the living room that evening scratching our chins and trying to come up with solutions. But to no avail. I guess I would drive around with a pulpit in the back seat of my car for three months! A mobile preacher who comes with his own pulpit! What a deal!

Barbecuing on the back deck that evening, I looked above the tree line and my eyes rested on the steeple of a church, just around the corner from our place. After making a phone call, and depending on the good will of their pastor and the muscle of a couple of their men from that community — and our pulpit now has a resting place. 

So, if anyone asks: Our pulpit is in the safe-keeping in the building of the good people of St John Lutheran Church in Arnprior. Let it be heard! “The case of the missing pulpit” … mystery solved!

I’m usually the kind of person who wants to have a plan, to know how things ought to go and what the end result should be, before doing anything. This is also usually a good thing. Driving away with the pulpit without any clue as to where it should go, was a little unnerving for me. It was, nevertheless, a good exercise for letting go and trusting that a solution would present itself. And it did, in a most gracious, natural and expedient way.

Some of you know that I am planning to go on a sabbatical next year. The theme of my sabbatical is ‘pilgrimage’. And part of the experience is to walk an ancient path, some eight hundred kilometres long, on the north coast of Spain on the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I’ve read that a majority of people who start the pilgrimage — hundreds of thousands every year — don’t finish it. Many pilgrims give up, some even just 25 kilometres into it. 

What many successful pilgrims learn is that all that is required is to remain committed to the journey itself. What is needed, is to unlearn deep-seeded attitudes about what justifies us, as human beings. To persevere in that un-learning process over six-weeks, even against all the challenges of the trail. To learn that all that is required is simply to put the next foot forward. To not give up, to not lose heart. And to pray always.

To dial it down to accepting that it’s all about taking the next step faithfully — nothing more, nothing less. Although simple, it is not easy for most of us to comprehend let alone do: Just walk. Eight hundred kilometres. Because it’s not about our ability and resourcefulness in the end. It’s not about rushing to the next distraction, checking off the next thing on our list in a busy, hectic lifestyle. It’s about something much bigger than us and our ‘stuff.’ A pilgrimage can teach us that.

That was the message from last week’s Gospel from Luke 18:1-8, to pray always. The most important thing is to remain focused on staying the course, to do the prayer. The solution — the answer, the benefit — will present itself as long as we remain committed to the journey, the adventure. 

Last week, we learned to persevere in prayer. This week in the story that follows we learn how to pray. And I want to reflect David Lose’s perspective here (1), to watch for the trap that Luke sets for us readers. Remember, the Gospel of Luke is full of reversals — the song of Mary, the beatitudes in the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ conversation with the thief hanging beside him on a cross, etc. Luke, it seems, delights in setting up his readers with presumed expectations, and then pulling the rug from under our feet.

It’s too easy merely to paint the bad guy as the Pharisee. Because don’t forget, the Pharisee is law abiding, has fulfilled all the demands of his religion, lives a pure and righteous life. Isn’t this what faithful living looks like? After all, we shall know others by their fruits, no? The Pharisee does a lot of things right. Except for one thing:

The Pharisee, while living the right life, has forgotten the source of his life and all the good in it. Otherwise, he would not despise another whom God loves. He falsely believes it’s all about him and his efforts alone. He falsely believes others who are not like him, need to be, in order for them to be good people.

And, it’s too easy to side with the ‘humble’ tax collector. Let’s not let him off the hook too easily. The tax collector only recognizes that all he is about is depending on the mercy and forgiveness of God. That’s in good contrast to the Pharisee, yes. And that’s the challenging starting place, to be sure.

But nowhere do we see a sign of his repenting. Does he desire to have his life turned around? He may very well be as self-engrossed as the Pharisee. Just the other side of the same coin. The tax collector strikes me as one who might remain stuck in cycles of self-pity, negative self-talk and depression. 

He might be one who goes back every Sunday to remind himself how bad he really is. A false humility, we may call it, where it feels good, actually, to put yourself down before others. “I’m not good enough.” “I don’t have a strong faith.” “I can’t do this or that.” 
Will he not hear that God’s forgiveness can lift him out of what may appear a chronic negativity? Will he not hear that he is not all of the time all worms and dirt and badness within? Will he not hear that God has given him a great gift within himself, in himself?

No matter with whom we relate, or cheer for, in this text — the Pharisee or the tax collector — we run into a wall with both of them. And I believe this wall is meant to test to what degree we focus too much on ourselves in the practice of our faith and in our prayer, and not on God.

The trap is to call us out whenever what we do or what we decide as communities of faith is more about our own stuff, than about the bigger picture, the holy and wonderful mystery that is God.

At least one item from our worship practice is not in storage, but stands in this place alongside yours — the Paschal Candle. It is called, ‘paschal’, because it describes the ‘mystery’ of Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. We call it, ‘the Paschal Mystery’. 

We are not talking here about a mystery like ‘the case of the missing pulpit’, where it is simply a question of information about something that is already known, just not to everyone. “Mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand”; A mystery, in the holy sense, is as Richard Rohr puts it: something you can “endlessly understand” (2). We never ‘arrive’ at a complete knowing, this side of eternity, of what God is all about. We never completely ‘get it’. We are always growing, changing, discovering, adventuring.

It is natural to seek signs. The Pharisees and disciples demanded Jesus: Give us a sign! And the only ‘sign’ that Jesus was willing to give them, was the “sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29). Many of us know that story from the Old Testament, where Jonah fights against God’s will, refuses to follow where God calls, doesn’t want to do it! 

Only by spending time in the belly of a whale for a few days, where he can do nothing, does Jonah become aware and accept that it’s not about him, or his mission, but about God’s purpose, God’s call, God’s mission. Doing God’s mission will call us beyond our own agendas, preferences, and even personalities. Not that those things are bad. But this is about something a lot bigger than our resumes, list of accomplishments, or even our baggage and painful histories.

We are on a journey moving forward, a pilgrimage, to discover what God is about in this holy space and in the world around us, now. We already received signs of God grace — your authentic and heartfelt welcome and accommodating us, for starters. This beautiful space and hospitality we can share. This is God’s good work among us and through you. Thank you!

We might not know what this will look like at the end of the journey together as Faith Lutheran Church worships alongside Julian of Norwich Anglican Church over the next few months. “I’ve got this pulpit in the back seat of my car, and I have no idea where it’s going!”
We might not know where this adventure leads.

But we don’t go alone. We travel this uncertain road together, side by side. We may suffer through some moments together as we figure things out, as we feel our way into this journey, as we learn and perhaps go through some growing pains together on these first few steps.

But let us be encouraged by the Paschal Mystery, which points to the way of Christ, the self-emptying and giving that leads to a marvellous and wonderful resurrection from all that is passing away, transforming us into the new thing that God is doing. The light of Christ shines ever and ever, even in the darkness and through our most challenging journeys. 

Thanks be to God! Amen.


(1) David Lose, “The Pharisee, the Tax Collector, and the Reformation”; Monday, October 21, 2013; http://www.workingpreacher.org 

(2) Richard Rohr, “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation” (Whitaker House Publishing, Pennsylvania, 2016)