“¡Presente!”

Each of the four blessings is matched with a corresponding ‘woe’[1] First, Jesus says that blessed are they who are poor, who are hungry, who weep now and whom people hate. But, unlike Matthew’s version of the beatitudes[2], Luke doesn’t stop there. Luke doesn’t let us off easily.

Lest we become too enamoured with spiritualizing virtues or escape into some pie-in-the-sky notion of faith, Luke’s version of Jesus’ sermon only sets us up for being gobsmacked upside the head. In a stunning reversal to each blessing Jesus brings a ‘woe’—to those who are rich, who are full, who laugh now and about whom people speak well.

But wait—a secure financial future, a full stomach, a light heart, and a good reputation – aren’t these all values we want and seek? Aren’t these the things around which we structure our lives to obtain? Don’t these describe to a ‘t’ our five-year, ten-year and twenty-five-year goals?

A surface reading of this scripture can leave us picking sides. Am I on the ‘blessing’ side or the ‘woe’ side of the equation. Either / Or. Will we dare go deeper?

And, at the deeper currents of our awareness — when we are honest with ourselves — don’t we already know? Don’t we already know the truth of it—that, at best, wealth, a full stomach, a light heart and a good reputation are mixed blessings? They come at a great cost to health and relational well-being. They are temporary, fleeting. They can come and they can go.

Contrary to popular belief, rather than being evidence of God’s favour, prosperity can actually endanger our relationship with God, as was the case with the rich fool and Zacchaeus—both characters unique to Luke’s Gospel.[3]

What is common to both characters? Both came to Jesus rich men with full stomachs and their reputations intact. When they came to Jesus, both the rich fool and Zacchaeus were perfectly able to take care of themselves, to say the least.

The common trait they share as prosperous men of first century Palestine, is their self-sufficiency. This state is what separates them from God. And has them trapped. they are self-sufficient.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, we read that those who lay up treasures for themselves are not—and cannot be—rich toward God[4]because when we can take perfectly good care of ourselves, it is altogether too easy for us not to trust God. So, what jeopardizes the wealthy Christian’s relationship with God is the subtle temptation to think that we can go it alone and take care of ourselves.[5]

This underlying belief applies not only to our personal lives—and what we decide to do with our wealth, our investments, our properties our material blessing— but, also to the way we do church.

Will we be a community that lives only unto ourselves, or for the sake of others? Meeting the challenges of church today, how do we move forward? What decisions will we make with the resources we have? Will we abide by the code of self-sufficiency and go it alone? Or, will we seek out effective partners, neighbours and others on the journey of faith? Will we say God is only here inside thesewalls alone? Or, will we seek God’s work out there in the world?

What with all the competing values and programs for success beating down the doors of our hearts and minds, to follow the Christ of the cross is not easy. It’s not a technique or strategy that we can simply employ. In light of the beatitudes from Luke, the way of Christ cannot be an add-on. It cannot work that way, as another activity to add to the schedule of our already busy lives.

It comes to us as a complete package. It’s a call to transformation – a whole-life make-over. I understand the hesitation. Because life in the fast lane has its perks. Maybe we don’t want to give them up. Not easily, anyway. Seeking after self-sufficiency is too much of a lucrative deal for our egos.

Therefore the message of the Gospel can really be a downer! After all, how can we ever live faithfully when immersed in our world and its values?

But, perhaps, the message of All Saints provides an antidote to the despair and the grief. And give us hope for the journey. After all, the Gospel is not just about how to get into heaven after you die, but actually more about how to live in the kingdom of heaven on earth before you die. Not just the saints of heaven. But the saints on earth.

I want to close with a brief reflection on the meaning of a couple of words. First, ‘blessing’. “Blessed” is sometimes translated as “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[6]which incidentally is also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in offering the beatitudes, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor, when you hunger, when you weep, when you let go, when you don’t hold it all to yourself.” I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state. It acknowledges a journey of becoming. And any path of growth and transformation will include honest struggling and striving and letting go.

It is human to struggle with these things. On one hand, we do need to learn early in life how to take care of ourselves. Learning vital skills around self-care are important. Along the journey of maturity and growth, however, we must also learn how to balance this skill towards attention to others.

The second word is ‘presence’. This word doesn’t appear in the biblical texts for today, but it is implied in our ritual of All Saints. In Spanish, you hear the word said aloud: “¡Presente!”—which literally means “here” or “present”. There is a long tradition in Latin American movements for justice of invoking the memory of those who have lost their lives in the struggle.

At political gatherings their names were read out loud, one after another, not unlike we read the names of the saints earlier. After each name the crowd says together: “¡Presente!” as if to say: “You are not gone, you are here with us. You are not forgotten, and we continue the struggle in your name.”

It is human to struggle in the mission of God on earth. But we are not alone. Not only are the saints of heaven among us in spirit and in love, God is with us each step of the way. On the journey of life …

“Blessed are you who are poor – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who hunger – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who weep – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who are despised – because you are not alone!”

“¡Presente!” “¡Presente!” “¡Presente!”

 

[1]Luke 6:20-31

[2]Matthew 5:1-12

[3]Luke 12:16-21; 19:1-10; E. Elizabeth Johnson 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.239-241.

[4]Luke 12:21

[5]E. Elizabeth Johnson, ibid., p.241

[6]Psalm 1:1

Humility

The gospel story for today is about humility. And exercising humility means letting go of our privilege in this time and place.

Privilege is a state of mind we presume to have, vis-à-vis others. The source of our privilege may come from the country in which we happen to be born, when in history we were born, to whom we were born. Privilege comes from being offspring and inheritors of settlers in this land who made an empire and found great financial wealth here. The list can go on.

In the economy of God’s grace, however, all that doesn’t matter. Gone is the pecking order. We all stand on the same level playing field. In the story where he advises his followers to take the last seat at a large table of a prominent Pharisee (Luke 14:1,7-14), Jesus denounces our egoistic striving to be first in line. As if the good that we experience in life depends on us, and is all up to us.

Which leads us back to humility. An image I hold of this humble stance in life is a prayerful pose: bowed slightly, hands open both receiving and giving.

Since the truth of the Gospel is so often expressed in parables — stories — here follows a story about the most privileged trees on the slopes of the Canadian Rocky and Coastal Mountains.

At least twice during our road trip through western Canada we came across swaths of mountainsides devasted either by the mountain pine beetle or forest fires. Even the most prevalent of trees in these areas – the western red cedar or lodgepole pine—were not immune from the infestation.

 

We learned, in the case of the pine beetle, that it takes about ten years for the cycle of renewal. Right now, in the early stages, all we saw from the vantage of trams high in the air were carpets of brown trees—the green of life and growth stripped, absent. Like matchsticks in the dirt, their needles deadened, lifeless. Didn’t look so good.

Our guides assured that this cycle was necessary for the forest to renew itself. The problem with the way the pine forest was establishing itself over decades was the growth was becoming too dense and thick, thereby choking out other life. Once the dead trees fall over from the pine beetle infestation, space is made for sunlight and rain to penetrate the forest floor once again, thereby inciting new growth.

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From the barren, lifeless landscape come first the purple, mountain mallow which blooms close to the ground. Then, notably, aspen grows and finally again pioneer species such as the lodgepole pine—the provincial tree of Alberta.

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These trees, some of them privileged, native species of the region, bow to the larger movements and cycles of life. They are part of something bigger than themselves that is happening in the eco-system. Needs larger than their own are being addressed. Each of those trees bow to a greater scheme. They, if they had consciences, realize their lives are given and meant for a greater good.

So, for us, imagine a humility that is not false but true. Not a humility that in a backhanded way seeks attention or self-aggrandizement. But a humility that honestly reveres the greater good in which we participate and which we serve.

It is like someone has quietly deposited a million dollars in your checking account. Imagine that! And now it is secretly yours. Yet you always know it was a gift. It is yours to use and enjoy and expand. But you cannot say you earned it or you deserved it. Everybody thinks it is your money and may or may not admire you for it; it doesn’t matter. You know better and cannot take the credit. You just live in gratitude and confidence. And you try to let the flow continue through you. You know that love can be repaid by love alone.[i]

You can say as followers of  Christ we need to get over ourselves at some point on this path. Now, getting over ourselves doesn’t mean doing harm or denying our humanity of which our ego striving is very much a part. It does mean we learn to hold all of who we are—including the not-so-good-parts—in the light of the bigger picture of God’s initial and primary grace and gifting to us. We are part of something much larger than we think.

In the economy of God’s grace, how then do we live? How does this awareness translate into real life?

We live our days, each moment, drawing from another source. God is primary; we are derivative. God is the source of all energy, power, wisdom and wealth. [ii]

We see ourselves an instrument of the gift we have.

We don’t, therefore, need to promote ourselves.

We don’t need to take first nor final responsibility for our goodness, our gift whatever it is.

We meet other people where they are at, not where we are at.

And when we experience setback in life, we need not worry too much about our failures. In truth, it is often in the very experience of failure, limitation and loss where we find the seeds of new life.

Indeed, our life is not our own. Yet at some deep level we know that it has been given to us as a sacred trust.

Our best is not our own; it is borrowed.

We know Someone takes us seriously; we feel deeply respected and grateful.

We can bow, in gratitude and respect, with hands open, to the gift.

 

 

[i]Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return; The Five Promises of Male Initiation (New York: The Crossword Publishing Company, 2016),  p.157-158.

[ii] Michael Dowd, “The Nested Body” in The Mendicant Volume 9 Number 3 (Centre for Action and Contemplation: Summer 2019), p.3.

The Prodigal story: Three in One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do these three persons relate within us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3]John 17:21,23 NRSV

[4]John 15:5

funeral sermon – living with a Gospel bias

The last church activity in which Tony participated was the weekly bible study group. At that time I was asking the group to choose next week’s text for study. And the selection was one from either the Old Testament or the Psalms or from Paul’s letters in the New Testament or from a Gospel reading in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John—the first four books of the New Testament.

Tony always, always, always voted for the Gospel reading. The Gospel describes the story of Jesus—his life, death and resurrection. You could say Tony had a bias towards the Gospel. And especially the Gospel of John, for some reason.

The word, Gospel, means: Good News. Good news. Not bad news. Not about how we always fall short. Not about human folly. Not readings about our sinfulness, about what we should do to make it better. But about the grace of God. God’s forgiveness, mercy, love.

The example in today’s Gospel is typical: Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.[1]The Gospel, to recognize it, is always about what God does, as a gift to us. So, here’s the thing about the good news of God:

It’s about receiving more than it is about achieving. The grace of God must be received, not achieved. Normally at a funeral service we talk about what our loved one has achieved in life, as if somehow the more one has achieved the better.

And without second glance, Tony, on that measure, has achieved so much: publishing books in his retirement, building half a dozen houses, acquiring degrees in mathematics and engineering, qualifying himself in brick-laying and construction, even playing soccer into his 80thyear. He achieved a lot, if that’s how you want to look at it.

And certainly in our culture, it seems that’s what it’s all about.

But what a tribute to one who has learned to see, that in all that life has given him—good and bad—all that he received in life, there is grace. A gift of God’s love. To appreciate life as gift. This is right brain stuff. This is entering into the mystery that is God and life.

When he was young, he contracted Diphtheria which kept him isolated for some time, sequestered with the nuns in their abbey. Late in his life, Tony was able to confess that even having a disease was a gift, since it kept him from entering the war, a war that claimed the lives of his two brothers.

These traumatic events of life could have left him bitter. But, despite it all, he remained his true self—kind, loving and gracious.

The author bio on the back cover of both books he published in his retirement says the following about Tony: “Tony was always very interested in literature, history, religion, and cosmology.”

At the end of Act One in his book entitled About God, the World and People, the scene is set at an evening dinner party. Around the table sit different characters – a priest and a scientist among others. After covering such cerebral topics as ‘what is dark matter’, the origin of the universe and various forms of energy, the priest, Father Stengel, concludes with what I suspect is the author’s personal belief:

Father Stengel says, “I personally have no problem with what our diligent scientists discover. I clearly see in the development of our universe the guiding and loving spirit of our Father in heaven.”[2]

While working with numbers all his life and valuing their clarity and succinctness, Tony was also able to say, “They’re just numbers”, in light of God’s truth.

From the perspective of faith, analytics and left-brain thinking can obviously help with some things in life. But when it comes to the great mysteries of life, when we encounter great suffering or great love, when we experience death, or yearn for God, we need to access another ‘operating system’.

You can’t explain these realities adequately using the scientific method alone. It’s remarkable, for the mathematician and engineer that Tony was—that he was able to appreciate, discern and plumb those more intuitive and subtler depths of knowing as well.

It doesn’t make sense how grief works, really. I’ve told this to many grieving families over the years after a loved one died: That in a grieving process, it’s not just the pain of loss of that particular person that comes to the surface at that time. The death of a loved one triggers all the emotional baggage—if you will—of all previous losses you have experienced as well, all those unresolved issues in a family, everything. It can be quite overwhelming. I’ve recently experienced this truth myself. It’s not rational. But it’s very real.

And in those moments that can’t be explained, in the end, the only course of action is love. It’s the only way that does make sense in the turmoil of loss and pain. I think Tony knew that. Gospel bias towards love.

Tony’s teammates on the soccer team were well represented at the funeral home last evening. One of his teammates told me that Tony was the reason they kept playing together. He said that during a game teammates and the competition sometimes came to blows, emotionally if not physically. But Tony was always there trying to mend ways, trying to keep the group together, inspiring them to play on. Tony knew that. Gospel bias towards love.

Death changes some things. Death is final, in a way. And it hurts. Yes. But human death doesn’t mean the relationship is ended. Death merely changed the nature of our relationship with Tony.

Now, Tony is no longer physically present with us. But he lives on—in our hearts, in our minds, in our spirit, in our conscience, in our actions. He is still with us, albeit in a different way. Tony’s death leaves us a gift, an invitation to make what was important to him, important to us. Life as gift, a grace to do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. Gospel bias towards love.

“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”[3]Let what we do for others, be love.

 

[1]John 13:12-15,34-35

[2]Tony Bickle, About God, the World and People (Xlibris Corporation, 2008) p.48

[3]Most likely from Albert Pike, 19thcentury American attorney, soldier, writer, and Freemason. Sometimes this quote is attributed to 20thcentury American writer and biographer, Albert Paine.

 

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

A wedding sermon: To expand and include

In a moment, we will share candlelight in this circle of friends and family. Sharing the light is a symbol of the meaning of marriage. Just as one candle shines its light in the darkness and with other candles expands the field of vision, so the nature of the rose bud is to open and expand into the world. Each of you receives a rose from the bridal couple.

Like the rose bud, the human soul defines itself in the same way. The soul’s nature and purpose is to expand and include, by offering a courageous ‘yes’ to life.[1]The soul, in all human goodness, always says ‘yes’. Wherever and whenever ‘no’ must be said, it will follow the initial ‘yes’. ‘No’ never leads in a life of faith, and love. ‘No’ will find clarity and effectiveness only after the gracious lead of ‘yes’ – to any and all of life’s circumstances and situations, marriage included.

The primary words in a wedding service, traditionally and effectively, are spoken by the bride to the groom, and the groom to the bride: “I do.” In other words, “Yes! I will.” You cannot come to a wedding service without the energy of the “yes” defining this very moment. Thanks be to God!

In the time I have journeyed with the bridal couple in preparation for this day, I have witnessed in them a celebration of who they are as a couple. I have witnessed an emerging and resilient joy at their union. And the gift within them.

Each of us has a gift inherent and living within us. I invite you to participate now in a brief guided meditation to experience and touch that gift within your life. You may close your eyes or focus on the rose in front of you:

‘Imagine, for a moment, a rose bud. At first, the rosebud is closed and enveloped by its green sepals. Now, imagine that the sepals start to open, turn back, and reveal the petals inside – tender, delicate, still closed.

‘Now, the petals themselves slowly begin to open. [Such is the process of growth in us.] As you imagine the petals slowly begin to open, perhaps you can become aware of a blossoming also occurring in the depths of your being. You may feel that something in you is opening and coming to light.

‘As you keep visualizing the rose, you feel that its rhythm is your rhythm, its opening is your opening. You keep watching the rose as it opens up to the light and the air, as it reveals itself in all its beauty. You smell its perfume and absorb it into your being.

‘Now gaze into the very center of the rose, where its life is most intense. Let an image emerge from there. This image will represent what is most beautiful, most meaningful, most creative that wants to come to light in your life right now. It can be an image of absolutely anything. Just let it emerge spontaneously, without forcing or thinking.

‘Now stay with this image form some time and absorb its quality. The image may have a message for you – a verbal or a non-verbal message. Be receptive to it.’[2]This is the gift of the rose for you today, on this joyous occasion of the your union.

There is something beautiful emerging out of this expanding and inclusive circle. From the union of two, comes the growth of an emerging new family, including more and more people, an expansion born out of the ‘yes’ of love, life, and light.

In your opening notes about the service, dear couple, you quoted from the bible a verse from Proverbs (17:17). “A friend loves at all times.” The verse goes on to say that these relationships bear together not just the good times but the challenges of life, too. Despite the dissonance inherent in all relationships, someone stands by you. This, too, is an important image for the journey of marriage.

When I bought the same Sony receiver that you have in your home, I connected them to some old Sony tower speakers that I’ve used for years. You’d think that the same brand would create a perfect compatibility. But, I neglected to consider what connected these two parts. To connect the speakers to the receiver, I used the same, old speaker wires whose ends were frayed to put it mildly.

As a result, whenever the receiver is plugged into the electricity, I can hear this faint but persistent humming sound. For some reason, the wires inhibit a perfect compatibility between speaker and receiver. For a perfectionist such as myself, it drives me crazy. Needless to say, I’m on the hunt for some new wire that will, hopefully, more adequately convey and balance the connective energy between speaker and receiver.

In other words, the connection will not always be perfect. In truth, conflict is part of healthy life. “A life without conflicts is by necessity only half a life,” I read recently. “A certain degree of stress is good and necessary; and shows you inside of the true Mystery”[3]of all relationships, even good ones.

The healthiest of relationships will carry some subtle dissonances. But, when the marriage focuses intentionally on its fundamental purpose and nature to ‘make music’ – staying with the analogy – then the grace of God is experienced in all beauty and wonder and goodness. Because when I crank that receiver, the whole neighbourhood can hear what I’m playing! And it’s a sweet, clear sound.

When light does what it is meant to be – despite the darkness all around …

When the rose bud does what it is designed to do – expand and include …

When the human soul, before anything else, says, “Yes!” to love and life …

When, in the midst of the hard realities of life, the music of love and gentleness and compassion sound to all the world around …

Then, we know that we do and are, what we were meant for.  Then, your marriage communicates to yourselves and to those around all that is good in this life we are given.

[1]Richard Rohr, “Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer” (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2014), p.23-24.

[2]Jacqueline Syrup Bergan and Marie Schwan, CSJ, “Love, A Guide for Prayer” (Maryland: The Word Among Us Press, 2004), p.78-79.

[3]Richard Rohr, ibid., p.19.

Ordinary faithfulness

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:25-26, NRSV)

One reason the Stars Wars saga in the movies and on television has endured successfully over the years is because the themes in the story-telling resonate with ordinary life.

For example, the epic struggle between the dark side and the good side of the Force gets played out in entertaining fashion between the Sith lords and the Jedi masters. This war of fiction nevertheless resembles so much of how we perceive the struggles in our own lives, how we do battle with bad in our hearts and the evil in the world around us. It just goes on and on, already for some forty years, and never seems to end!

In the spin off TV series, “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”, a story is told of how Jedi younglings are trained in the Force in a ritual called “The Gathering”. In order to become full Jedi, they must build their own light sabres. Their light sabres are unique to the individual. Each one is built around a crystal which they have to retrieve on an inhospitable, cold planet.

A group of younglings is dispatched into an ice cave to harvest their crystal. In order to succeed, they must meet and overcome their deepest individual fear and greatest weakness. Fear of heights. Fear of monsters. Impatience. Being left behind. Their crystal becomes available to them once they endure this personal challenge, each to their own.

What is more, they must find their crystal and exit the cave in a few short hours before the entrance to it freezes over. Otherwise, they would have to wait a couple of weeks trapped inside without help until the next rotation of the sun would allow the ice entrance to melt open again. The clock is ticking.

Individual challenges. But a group effort. Before sending the younglings into the cave, Jedi master Yoda gives them their final instructions: “Trust yourself and trust each other you must.”

For some, this is the biggest problem. Most of the younglings run into the cave and work together in smaller groups, at least in pairs. One helps the other, and vice versa.

But for Petro, the young upstart, know-it-all youngling boy, he rushes in at breakneck speed and abandons the group immediately. He forges ahead giving the others the impression, again, that he doesn’t need anyone’s help.

Before you know it, he finds his crystal, or so he thinks. And, so he is the first one back outside the cave. But when Yoda inspects the crystal, it melts in his hand. It wasn’t a crystal he found on the tip of the cave’s stalactite, just some frozen water.

Petro needs to go back in and do it all over again. But now, time is against him. While he runs back through the main entrance of the cave, others are already returning from their search. He is worried and anxious now that he won’t have enough time.

Feverishly sprinting down tunnels and turning corners Petro doesn’t know what to do. Until he comes across one of his class mates, Ketuni, trapped behind a glass wall. Ketuni had been rushing herself to get to the entrance after finding her crystal. She had followed what she thought was a short cut from one of the larger caverns where her return passage was blocked. Just as she had recognized the main tunnel near the exit, she realized she was trapped. There was no way she had enough physical strength herself to break the glass wall. Neither did she have enough time to find another way around.

Ketuni is just about to give up, getting used to the idea of spending days alone in the cave when she notices Petro rush by. Ketuni calls, “Help! Get me out! Help!”. Petro faces her through the glass wall. “But I haven’t yet found my crystal. I can’t help you. I have to get going.” And so, preoccupied with his own agenda and needs, he darts off.

But seconds later, perhaps with a change of heart remembering Yoda’s initial instructions to work together, Petro comes back to the trapped Ketuni. Still without a crystal himself, Petro takes a sharp rock and breaks a hole through the glass wall big enough to let her out. “Thank you! I’ll help you find yours, now quick!” Ketuni says.

“No, No, you go. There isn’t enough time. Please, get yourself out!” Petro cries. Reluctantly, yet realizing the truth of what he says, Ketuni runs to the exit. At that moment Petro notices a crystal glimmering in the ice of the wall he just broke down to help his friend. In his willing sacrifice for her sake, he finds what he is looking for himself. By the end of the story, of course, Petro makes it out just in the nick of time.

One of the lessons learned from the story is the mutual blessing that comes from serving first the needs of the other as the way of finding your own true needs met. Our little friend needed to learn the value of trust in working together.

Star Wars, like many popular stories, are grandiose in order to get our attention and entertain us. Yet, the spiritual life, our pilgrimage of faith on earth, is anything but grandiose. Neither, by the way, is it entertainment. Because of the influence of our hyper-stimulated culture, we may be tempted to believe our faith, if it has any value, has to show itself in spectacular fashion.

We may be tempted to believe that if we have any faith at all, it has to be mass media worthy, go viral on the internet and make millions: a grand spectacle of sacrifice, of laying down one’s life, of doing what no one else could do. These extraordinary spectacles, unfortunately, can serve to keep us stuck in the rut of unbelief. “Well, we can’t do that,” we convince ourselves. And we give up. And don’t do anything for the sake of the common good.

But true faithfulness begins with the first, small, ordinary step. It begins with something we can do.

Twentieth-century Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt defined prayer, simply yet profoundly, as: “a long, loving look at the real.”[1] Long, because it is unhurried and quiet. Loving, because our connection with God, however we do it, is done in the context of love. Prayer is a look, because we do it being aware; we pay attention, simply. We don’t analyze, define or describe; we simply observe and acknowledge. Finally, prayer is real because it focuses on our daily life and what is ordinary.

So, what do we do to follow Jesus? How do we ‘lose’ our life? How can we find what we are looking for by looking to the needs of others? How can we move beyond being solely interested in our own individualistic well-being to those outside our families, friends, and immediate community?[2]

Reflecting on Burghardt’s definition of prayer, we can ‘look’ at what we already have. This requires us to slow down and pay attention, and quieting our compulsive, driven nature. Breathe. Because God is out there. God is present, even here. Even there.

One of our members asked recently a neighbor to describe what happens on and around our property on an average day. This, by the way, is prayer that is ‘real’ by focusing on what is ordinary. And the neighbor reported that between 2:30 and 3:30 every week day, about 30 kids on average, children of all ages, walk across our property from the bus stops along Meadowlands to their homes in the City View neighborhood. Thirty.

With presence of mind, our member asked the neighbor: What do they do when they walk across? Is there anything in particular that stands out in their behavior?

The neighbor said many of them like our benches outside the front doors. They like to sit and visit. They like to rest for a few minutes before continuing on their walk home.

When the member and I reflected on this, we realized there aren’t many, if any at all, public places in the neighborhood where people can sit awhile. Not only do we fill a need providing a place to sit, we encourage community-building, relationship-building right outside the doors to the church. How appropriate!

And for so many young people who are turned off the church, or at least afraid to enter into a church building these days, providing benches for young people to sit and visit sends a positive if subtle message about our identity and purpose as a church. It also sends a subtle yet real message of welcome.

This example is simple, ordinary, unspectacular. Yet, it is a first step in the right direction. As a community. Not as individuals doing our own thing. But, together, as a church.

And isn’t that what the walk of faith is all about? We can only do what we are able to do, together. And then, when we take the first step, we watch as the Spirit of God can surprise us and meet our own needs. All because we began by simply responding to the needs of others. Giving from ourselves, for the sake of others. That is, following Jesus.

We become “children of the light”[3], the Light who shines through us.

[1] Cited in James Martin, SJ, “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), p.114.

[2] James Martin, SJ, ibid., p.183-184

[3] John 12:36