The mystic magi journey: discovering a new way of seeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What wrong?” another asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A connection leading us somewhere eternally good.


[1]Ephesians 3:1-12

[2]Isaiah 60:1-6

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

[4]2 Corinthians 5:7

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.

Christmas Day – funeral sermon

Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Matthew 13:44-46; 6:21)

“Your mother is always with you … She is Christmas morning.”

Though your mother veered away from the Italian version of her first name, “Santa”, because of its obvious English connotation to ‘Santa Claus’, there is too much about your mother’s journey to avoid mention of Christmas Day, the day she died.

Of course, “Santa”, in Italian means “Saint.” There is indeed something godly about your mother’s journey that can leave for us a legacy of love and hope. She was, after all, a saint. But a human, as well. As Martin Luther said about all of us—we are simultaneously saints and sinners.

The scriptures her brothers sent for inclusion in this service point, also, to an important part of how your mother was with you. Normally when we hear the words of Jesus: “the kingdom of heaven is like …” such and such when someone does so and so, we think of the job we must do to enter that kingdom.

That’s part of it. Your mother certainly demonstrated determination and tenacity. She showed a singularity of mind and spirit about the things she liked to do, and the way she did them: a religious person, attending to ritual and prayer her whole life long; a gardener and craftsperson, committed and caring to her family. Never forgetting birthdays and special anniversaries.

Stubbornness may be the other side of that coin of having a clear, focused intention to what she was all about. She strikes me as a person you would never need to wonder about what she really wanted or what she believed. Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is like when someone knows what they want, and with joys seeks it out leaving all else behind.

At the same time, the words of Jesus point to what God is all about. I also consider those scriptures about the kingdom of heaven as describing the character of God: A God who treasures your Mother as much as God treasures each one of us. And will stop at nothing to find us. And give up God’s very life on the cross—give up everything—in order to be with us and love us. Where God’s treasure is—in us—there God’s heart is also.

Again, this is the message of Christmas, the day your Mother died. A message of One who comes into our life even in the messiness and despair of being human. Born a vulnerable baby to poor, teenage parents in a backwater town of Bethlehem. The message of Christmas is about a God who ‘sells it all’ in order to be with us. In order to know us, really know us. To grieve with us. To enjoy with us. To walk with us this often difficult journey that your Mother knew all too well.

And, to give us a wonderful promise of one day being united with all whom we loved on earth, at the end of the road.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Re-purpose the building: a sermon for Transfiguration

In the Gospel stories of the Transfiguration of Jesus, it is the disciples’ response to Jesus’ glory that captures my attention and imagination.

In response to seeing the incredible transformation of their friend and master before them, Peter says he wants to build three “dwelling places”, or “tents” from the Greek. The Gospel of Mark suggests that Peter wants to build these shelters because they are “terrified”.[1]

It is a natural reaction when we are afraid for us to go to that which gives us security. For Peter, that means building a house. Or two. Or three. He must have been really scared. Not just a tent for Jesus, but also for Moses and Elijah who have mystically and supernaturally appeared alongside Jesus.

This is a glorious moment. Jesus’ divinity bursts upon their vision. And, we humans naturally want to contain this mountaintop experience. Put God, literally, in the proverbial box. Saint Augustine said in the fourth century, “If you can comprehend it, it is not God.”

The Gospel of Matthew goes further when he writes that it was “while Peter was speaking”[2] this, that a voice from heaven spoke: “This [Jesus] is my beloved Son.” The narrative feels like God interrupted Peter, cut him off.

It’s as if God is saying: “Don’t.” Don’t try to own such divine moments of God’s self-revelation. Don’t try to manage your spirituality. Don’t try to control the experience of gift, of unconditional love. We may want to build something and thus put God in a box. But we can’t. Because, really, there is no box.

In our religiosity, we may instinctively try to capture any glorious, God moments we experience in life. By repeating the experience, invoking certain feelings and the mood. We build buildings and keep them the same.

As with the disciples of old, we would rather escape the humdrum, ordinary realities of living in the valley of our daily, imperfect lives, and just stay on the mountaintop, containing God while we are at it. We don’t want it to change. We don’t want to change. We, like the disciples of old, just want to remain in this state of euphoric ‘mountaintop’ feelings and stay put, there.

Today marks the one-year anniversary that we have worshipped in this transfigured space. A year ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, we returned from an extended absence during which we worshipped every Sunday for eighteen straight weeks with our neighbours at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Coming back to this renewed space was a joy and a blessing. We were back in our own tent, so to speak.

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I say, ‘tent’, intentionally. Because the contractors who modernized this building emphasized the strap-over accenting on the exterior – to make it look like when you put a large fly over your tent. In fact, those of us on the ‘liturgical arts’ committee who consulted with the contract designer heard him say on occasion early on in the project, that the idea behind the contrasting colour choices was to make it look like a tent.

Which was by design. And very appropriate for the church, as a symbol. Not only was the natural element emphasized in the tent-like strappings on the outside, the blue colour on our ceiling inside was meant to image the night sky – looking up, in faith.

Indeed, the structure of our church, and its recent ‘transformation’, is not new. It is to emphasize an original idea when it was first built over fifty years ago: as a temporary house worship space. The tent image for our structure underscores an enduring truth about the church: The church is a movement. It is always on the move. It doesn’t stay put in one place for long.

A church ever changing, a church adapting its form yet reflecting its original mission.

The Jeróminos Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal, is a UNESCO world heritage site. When my wife and I toured the massive complex last summer, including the impressive cloister and the ‘chapel’ – which views more like a colossal cathedral in typical European grandeur, I understood why. These photos don’t do it justice.

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In 1833, over three hundred years after the site and property was inaugurated as a religious Order of Saint Jerome, a state edict transferred the property and all its assets to Real Casa Pia de Lisboa, a philanthropic institution that took in, raised and educated orphan children.

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It was hard for me to imagine that a three-hundred-year-old religious institution of this magnitude would relinquish its assets. And doing this, located on prime waterfront in Portugal’s growing commercial city during the sea-faring Age of Discovery.

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Without delving into the complex history and context of the Secularization Act of 1833, the fact remains: During a robust period of historical expansion, the church made a big change. I would argue, however, the church did not lose. Sure, it no longer could boast financial ownership of the property. But, by handing over its assets and combining them with the resources of the state, it bolstered its core purpose in mission – the care of vulnerable children. The space and property, as of 1833 moving forward, would now serve the needs of needy children.

Jesus says: “Unless you change and become like children …”[3] Without doubt, the religious of 1833 Lisbon were being true to the mission of Jesus.

In our lifetimes, we are witnessing here in North America – indeed in Ottawa – many growing examples of a church re-purposing its properties to build senior’s complexes and other social enterprise. We may believe this is a sign of the times – a negative, unfortunate, disappointing, mournful reality of the church. But, in truth, in many cases, such a re-purposing of a building is consistent with the Christian mission – to care for the weak, the vulnerable and needy in our society.

I can remember driving through rural country in south-western Ontario, and more in Saskatchewan, where you would see, stuck in the middle of a wheat field, a run-down, dilapidated old church building no longer in use, just left abandoned. It is sad to see this. It’s easy to jump to the negative conclusion that the church is dying by simply looking at its physical assets. When it’s not tied to a living purpose, the building will surely die.

But two hundred years after the so-called secularization of the Jeróminos Monastery’s assets, hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site every year continue to pour in and be inspired by the legacy of that bold, courageous move of those 19th century Christians in Lisbon. Good for them.

Re-purposing church property is not just a recent, contemporary phenomenon borne out of the institution’s modern demise. Re-purposing assets is not a sign of Christian defeat in a secular society. First of all, it has evidently been done throughout history when the need and opportunity arose.

Moreover, changing a physical structure doesn’t mean Christians are being decimated by an oppressively secular, contemporary, multi-cultural, diverse society in Canada. The physical transfiguration of Christian property may in truth be a positive sign of healthy, missional spirit, consistent with our Christian identity. A sign that the church and its original purpose in their properties will endure for centuries longer.

The disciples of Jesus accompany him to and from the mountaintop. Moses and Elijah appear with the transfigured Jesus, linking the present moment with the great tradition spanning all times and places. The community, the people, the saints on earth and the saints of heaven, accompany us on this journey.

The journey is a movement, not to remain stuck – even in moments of glory and victory. Rather, we are called to embrace the hardship as well, the challenges, the disappointments and opportunities of the daily grind of living, down in the valley of our lives. Ours is not a denial religion. Ours is not an escapist religion, one that ignores the plight of those who suffer, avoiding the normal difficulties of life, pretending that somehow we can with God only experience the highs without the lows. That is false religion.

Jesus interrupts our striving and tells us, “Don’t”. Don’t build those false expectations of a prosperity gospel. Don’t pretend you can stay on the mountaintop with Jesus forever while you live on earth. Because, Jesus, the divine Son of God, also embraced his humanity, and leads us down into the very human valley of life on earth.

Positive change and transfiguration in this light don’t come by way of escaping the world. The cathedrals of our hearts are meant to house people – all people, in their needs and for the sake of the other.

We are not alone, in this enterprise. As Jesus accompanied the first disciples up and down the mountain, God goes with us, up and down. Jesus leads the way. And, we walk shoulder to shoulder with our co-pilgrims who go with us.

[1] Mark 9:6, NRSV

[2] Matthew 17:5, NRSV

[3] Matthew 18:1-5

God-talk

Last week in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Ottawa RedBlacks receiver Diontae Spencer set a CFL record in a game against the Hamilton Ticats for most overall yardage gained — just under 500 — in one game. His incredible feat was truly remarkable in a game where his team didn’t score any points in the first quarter.

When asked afterwards about his record-setting accomplishment, Spencer mentioned God several times. He emphasized that the praise was ultimately for God. He couldn’t have succeeded along with his team in that game without God. God was the reason and source of his victory.

Such a witness gets a lot of mileage, especially on national TV covering a professional sports league in Canada. It is true: the public, general impression of Christians is their often-exuberant witness to an all-powerful, almighty God who authors and reflects anything and everything that is glorious, successful, impressive and spectacular. This is the dominant belief and main flavour of the kind of God-talk in the public arena when it comes to Christian witness.

Years ago, a parishioner in a former parish declined my invitation to her to give a testimony of faith during a mid-week Lenten program. I knew she was struggling with some personal challenges at the time. When I asked her why she said no, especially as I recognized in her the strong gift of faith, she said she wanted to wait until things were going better in her life before sharing her faith.

While I understood her reasoning, and was mindful of the delicate situation in her life, I wondered to myself if her attitude didn’t reflect a more general disposition among Christians today. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could talk about how good your life was. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could point to external circumstances that were favourable, impressive, even enviable.

After all, how could you get up in front of people and talk about God when all was not well in your life? How could you talk about God if you had nothing impressive to show for it? More to the point, would you be giving faithful testimony to God if everything in your life was broken, damaged, failed?

Is God only mentioned when humans achieve something great? Is God only a God who wins contests on the football field and battlefield of life? Can God be talked about only among folks who have succeeded and are healthy and rich? Only when things are going super well?

Or, could God also be present and real to us when we fail, when we are down, when we lose our earthly battles? It seems to me Christians call themselves Christian because we follow the way of Christ. And so, don’t we believe in the God of the Cross? God, by all human standards, failed — being branded public enemy number one and condemned to death. Jesus’ broken body is the iconic symbol for Christians. It is precisely in the suffering of life where God finds us.

On this All Saints Sunday, we understandably focus on what human beings have accomplished: the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. Blessed are those who demonstrate the qualities we read in the Beatitudes[1] — the Gospel text for this festival in the church calendar.

“Blessed” is not the word we might associate with being poor, persecuted peacemakers especially if we use the often-translated English word, “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[2] also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in providing the first beatitude, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit.”[3] I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state.

Should we take these beatitudes as moral rules for living, as with the Law, we can never fulfill it perfectly. And therefore, we can easily despair and give up. Being on the way, however, gives the long view and big picture. It implies the need for trusting that we are headed in the right direction even if the present circumstances in our lives suggest otherwise.

What is more, as much as we want to make the Beatitudes into the Ten (or rather, Nine) Commandments of the New Testament, this speech from Jesus — given at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel — is not primarily about ‘rules for moral behaviour’ as it is facts about God. These Beatitudes really and fundamentally describe God.

Matthew’s narrative builds towards this awareness, if you can appreciate the classic reversal that Matthew sets up in the first five chapters of his Gospel:

In the first chapter, Matthew’ genealogy firmly plants Jesus “the Messiah” in the lineage of the great Israelite King David. In the second chapter, exotic magi from the East come to pay homage to the newborn king. In the third chapter, King Herod takes seriously this threat to his power and tries to eliminate a contestant to his throne by killing innocent, Hebrew two-year-old boys in Bethlehem. Then, John the Baptist comes on the scene, announcing that he was making way for one who was greater than he. Finally, Matthew has Jesus ascend a mountain where he, like his predecessor Moses, would dispense the Word of God and give his inaugural address.[4]

You can see the build-up, I hope, of an expectation that Jesus would come to bring justice to the wicked and set things right. He, the Messiah, would turn back Roman oppression and occupation of Palestine. But, these words from Jesus’ mouth announcing who is “blessed” pull the rug from under our expectations of who God is. “The one who was supposed to lead revolutionary armies or bring down heavenly fire shows up in Galilee building hospitals and telling people not to hit back.”[5]

Can you imagine the surprise and shock among his disciples! Even the imprisoned John the Baptist does a double-take on his faith and later questions Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we keep looking?”[6] It is no wonder, then, that Peter later rebukes Jesus when he talks of his impending death: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”[7]

These beatitudes must have seriously disappointed his listeners and most ardent followers who had such ‘high’ expectations of their would-be Messiah King. How could they now continue following this man?

Is the reason why we may have trouble conforming our lives to the way described in the beatitudes is that we really don’t believe in these words as giving an accurate and trustworthy understanding of God? This is, after all, Jesus, who we know was persecuted and reviled as the prophets were before him.[8]

Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed in human flesh, born a vulnerable baby to a teenage couple? Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed dying a grotesque and brutal death on a cross showing the world a bruised, beaten, broken and bloody body?

If we did, perhaps we would hear more from the losers in our society. Perhaps TSN would hear the faithful witness of locker room players talking of a God who knows how it is to lose a big game and still keep faith. Perhaps we would hear more from street people, addicts and the impoverished, vulnerable people talk of their simple yet honest faith in a God who walks with them. Perhaps we would hear more from children declare their love of a playful God who carries our burdens for us, freeing us to be who and how we are without judgement and punishment.

Perhaps we would listen more to the murmurs of our own hearts whisper the love of God for us especially when we suffer the turmoil of life. Then, I gather, the world will open its eyes to the God of grace and love.

Because they will see people who live in hope. They will see people who know they have found the right road where they find God most present in helping people who suffer loss and pain, a road on which Jesus has walked himself, a road upon which God will always first find us.

 

[1] Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV

[2] Psalm 1:1, NRSV

[3] Earl F. Palmer in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.238

[4] Allen Hilton in ibid., p.239

[5] ibid., p.239

[6] Matthew 11:3

[7] Matthew 16:22

[8] Matthew 5:11-12

Why? To melt hearts of stone

In a typical Canadian winter at this time of year, salt and light (Matthew 5:13-20), of course, serve a particular purpose.

It doesn’t matter how cold it can still get in February, if the sun is shining then the snow and ice will melt under the strengthening, radiant beams of warm light. And, with the occasional freezing rain still in the offing, that bag of salt sitting on the porch or in the garage can come in handy, to sprinkle on the walkways and driveways — to melt the ice.

Salt and light, in any given context, serves a specific purpose. I can remember when the kids were younger, one of ours had the habit of picking anything and everything up off the ground and putting it in her mouth.

I can remember needing to intervene when she was in her exploratory mode, walking down the sidewalk in the middle of winter. “Don’t eat it! That is road salt, dear. Not table salt.”

We are called to be like salt and light in the world. But that gift will serve a specific purpose, according to the context and circumstance of our lives.

How can we know what that gift is, and for what purpose it serves? It can be challenging to claim that gift for our lives, and then have the courage to use it. This can be difficult because the world and the dominant powers of culture may not support it. The gift and purpose may seem small in comparison to the dominant climate of coldness, hatred and violence so prevalent in the culture today.

Julian of Norwich in her first of Divine Revelations writes about the small hazelnut. She writes, that God “showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand …. I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.”

It may seem pallid at first, even pointless. But there is power in small. Ezekiel writes, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you …” (Ezekiel 11:19;36:26-27).

In words that may make better sense in our Canadian winter, God is promising us that God will melt our hearts of stone-cold bitterness, resentment, fear and hatred. And put the warmth of God’s light in Christ and the loving power of the Spirit to change our lives, and the world around us.

Salt and light are gifts that are subtle and small, yes, similar to the smallness of the hazelnut. And yet, these are gifts you cannot easily hide. Nor will they go away. They are public gifts, not private, in scope. They affect the whole experience of living.

You cannot add salt to soup, and not notice a difference. You cannot throw ice-melter on the driveway, and not notice some change on the ground. You cannot stop the sun from shining, and not stop the smile that comes on a sunny day after weeks of dark, grey, cloudy existence.

Faith Lutheran has a renovated gift, the gift of a safe and modernized building — a gift, yes. But why will it be used? How will our (Faith Lutheran’s) soon return to that site on 43 Meadowlands Drive restore something that was missing in the neighbourhood while we were here (at Julian)? Or, does it? What difference does that gift make to the world around us?

Our gift has a purpose. And that purpose is meant to catch the attention of a world that is shrouded in cloudy days and numbed to the slippery vices of distraction, delusion and fear.

Why is this important? How is it worthwhile? In an age when the church in North America is facing challenge and change, perhaps it is time again to focus on the WHY. It has been argued that people don’t buy-in to the WHAT we do but the WHY we do it. (1)

We need to be clear about that. The only way we can know WHAT do do with our faith, the church and our buildings is first to claim, embrace and communicate clearly the WHY of our faith. The WHY.

In the aftermath of the tragic violence in Quebec last weekend, the premier challenged his province, indeed our whole society, to reflect and consider again how we treat one another in a culturally diverse community. How we treat one another through the changes and stresses of life that can be disruptive. How we treat one another who are different and come from different walks of life, religious experience and ethnic diversity.

Observing how we do what we do may also give us a clue to the WHY. I believe the church has a lot to offer this world of ours, as salt and light. St. Paul encourages the fledgling, conflict-ridden Corinthian church to claim their identity they already have, in Jesus: “We have the mind of Christ,” he concludes (1 Corinthians 2:16). And Jesus, in short, came to show the love and grace of God to a world so hung up on achieving, earning, competing, judging, proving themselves, excluding others and fighting.

I believe the church has a lot to offer this world. To reflect Christ, the light of the world: to receive the love of God, to accept the love of God, and then demonstrate that compassion and love to the world. It is behind everything we do in the church. Everything. Let’s not forget that.

To melt hearts of stone.
(1) Simon Sinek, “Start With Why” (New York: Penguin, 2009), p.58

I am loved, therefore I am

During this season of Epiphany – which means ‘revelation’ – we will again uncover the identity of God made flesh in Jesus.

How will we do that? While Epiphany is a positive celebration of the meaning of the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14), this season also introduces an identity crisis swirling around Jesus throughout the centuries. It also confers that same identity crisis upon his followers. Who is this Jesus? And who are we?

Who is Jesus? It may comfort, or disturb, us to realize that even while Jesus walked the earth over two thousand years ago, those around him didn’t always ‘see’ him for who he was. Even at spectacular events such as the transfiguration or after Jesus performed miracles of healing, some confused him for the prophet Elijah who in the tradition was promised to return (Mark 9:9-13; Matthew 11:2-15). Some mistook Jesus for a political Messiah who was expected to liberate the oppressed Jews from Roman occupation of the Holy Lands (Matthew 21:1-11). And, even when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his death and resurrection, “some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). The scriptures do not hide this confusion about Jesus’ identity.

So Christians today need not be perplexed nor overly hard on themselves if they, too, struggle to understand this Jesus whom God announces at his baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Paradoxical doctrines claiming that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, are not easy for the human mind to grasp.

Which suggests to me that to understand Jesus’ identity is not so much to get vexed and lost in doctrines about Jesus. It is rather to see what he does and listen to what he says. Brother David Vryhof of the Society of the Saint John the Evangelist writes, “If you would know what God is like, discover what Jesus is like. Listen to his words, observe his actions, notice his values and priorities, see how he lives his life. And follow him.” (1)

French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes’ famous claim, “I think, therefore I am”, is not helpful here. More appropriate for the Christian today is, “I do, therefore I am”. Or, better yet, “I am loved, therefore I am.” This latter statement especially reflects the values demonstrated in Jesus’ life. I am loved, therefore I am.

Vryhof goes on to tell a story by Soren Kierkegaard: “Once upon a time, there was a powerful and wise king who fell in love with a beautiful maiden who lived in his kingdom. The king’s problem was this: how to tell her of his love?

“He called for the best and brightest of his consultants and asked their advice. He wanted to do this in the best and most proper way – and, of course, he hoped his love would be cherished by the maiden and returned. But when all of his advisors had had their say, the king was left disappointed. For every one of them had counselled him in the same way:

“‘Show up at the maiden’s house,’ they said, ‘dressed in all your royal finery. Dazzle her with the power of your presence and with your riches. Overwhelm her with expensive gifts. What girl could resist? Who would reject such an opportunity, or turn away from such an honor? Who would possibly refuse a king? And if need be,’ they added, ‘you can always command her to become your wife.’

“But the king, being wise, was unhappy with this advice. He wanted the maiden to love him for himself and not for his position and power. Love freely given must be freely returned or it isn’t really love. Certainly, the girl could be impressed, even overwhelmed. And of course she could be coerced and might even ‘learn’ to love the king eventually. But the king saw that if he followed this counsel he would never know if she really loved him for himself or simply for the comforts and privileges that queenship offered.

“So the king decided against the advice of his counsellors. He chose instead to strip himself of his glory and power. He put on the clothes of a poor peasant and walked to the maiden’s cottage to declare his love for her.” (2)

This story by Kierkegaard parallels closely the meaning of Christmas — of why Jesus came, and what kind of person Jesus is — “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7). 

Who is Jesus? Jesus is God in love with us, and in us. And how do we know Jesus lives with and in our lives today? These questions lead to: Who are we?

We are who we are because of Jesus’ love for us. We are beloved, because of what God did in Jesus. Therefore, we are given the gift of God’s presence in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We have it in us. Yes, we do! And we exercise that gift in relationship with others. Who we are with, with whom we spend most of our time, where we commune with others — these are vital questions of spiritual, personal growth.

Who we are in Christ also begs the question of our nature — our growth, our changing, our transforming: Do we change? Can we change, for the better? Does being a Christian change our lives? Do you believe that?

I have over the years heard some argue that we do not change, really. We are locked in for life, the way we are, regardless of circumstance, regardless of where we are and with whom we live our lives. Nature. 

Others are more optimistic. On my good days I believe in the capacity of humans to change for the better. But this depends, I believe, on the quality of our relationships. Whether or not we change for the better depends largely with whom we spend most of our time. Nurture.

I believe most of us contain all the parts necessary for a healthy existence. Even a faithful one. At my baptism as an infant I believe God gave me the gift – the seed – of the Holy Spirit. At which times, or to which degree, that seed would mature and be expressed has depended largely on with whom I spend my time. 

Our families, our friends, our communities have a great influence over our lives. Because just by being with them, they will bring out of us the good and/or the bad. Their presence in relation to us hooks into some aspect of our life and pulls that aspect out. It is the quality of the ‘links’ between us that will determine what emerges from our souls. The old adage is true: “Show me your friends, and I’ll know who you are.”

Which also signifies the importance of hanging out with Jesus, in prayer. Jesus is integral to our relational world. Being intentional is critical here. The more you spend time with Jesus in the Body of Christ – the church, the more you spend time with Jesus in prayer and contemplation, the more you connect with Jesus in his mission to care for the poor — all of these things will over time bring out the good that is already in you.

The bottom line message of Christianity is that all creation matters because of God’s creative love in Jesus. We are created each of us from the spilling out of God’s love to the world. Therefore we are. Therefore we do.

(1) Br. David Vryhof, posted on the front page of the website of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist (www.ssje.org) on Tuesday, January 5, 2016

(2) cited by Br. David Vryhof, “God Has Spoken to Us By a Son”, posted on December 25, 2009 on the website of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist (www.ssje.org)