Christmas Eve – the greatest gift for getting it wrong

For over five centuries, Lutherans have asserted and proclaimed: grace is a gift. Meal time, especially during the holidays, is a great opportunity to experience grace.

Many of us will get together with friends, family, and coworkers for Christmas meals and potlucks. We sit at the same table and eat food that is shared among everyone at table. 

Where’s the grace? (besides the pre-meal prayer)

The grace in that experience, is being together. How often does that happen in today’s world? When family members are separated by vast distances unlike in any other time in human history. When coworkers can suspend their usual activities and work routines to just sit down and eat a meal together. When effort is made to make and/or bring food for all.

The grace is sharing food together despite the conflicts, the dislikes, the divisions and lines drawn between those around the table on account of political opinion, social standing, personality, past hurts.

The grace is found in those moments when, unexpectedly and surprisingly, a kind word is said between combatants, a genuine smile of thanksgiving is offered when ‘gifts’ are exchanged, or tears of forgiveness given and received are expressed.

On the surface, these moments may not change a whole lot, at least not immediately. But repeated often enough – Christmas comes every year – the seed sown deeply in the heart will one day sprout. ‘Mary treasured all these things and pondered them deeply in her heart’,[1]the scripture says. Sometimes, in the face of grace, all we can do is find a moment to appreciate and digest this gift. And let it grow in us. We are, each of us, the innkeeper who will decide whether or not to let Jesus in.

Celtic Thunder, the Irish, male group sings a powerful version of Silent Night that tells the story of Christmas at the Western Front in 1915. German and British soldiers stopped their fighting for a few moments Christmas Eve when one of the German soldiers – a lad of 21 years of age – started singing Silent Night.

Before long, combatants from both sides that had been avowed to killing each other were walking across no-man’s land. For a few moments they left their weapons behind, hugged each other and gave each other gifts of cigarettes and pots of wine.

But alas, the moment of grace passed. And before long they were shooting at each other again. And the 21-year-old soldier who had started the singing, did not make it to the morning.

Grace was given to those boys amidst the battle. In the singing of Silent Night, in the exchange of gifts, in the hugs and laughter, grace was still given.

Grace is a gift not for getting it right, but for getting it wrong.[2]And we human beings, throughout history, can get it awfully wrong. But this does not stop God.

God came into the world not at an ideal time when everyone was getting along. Herod was a paranoid despot about to wreak havoc in the land. In short, there was unrest in Palestine. Beneath the surface of all that might have appeared genteel in the little town of Bethlehem that holy night was broiling a call to arms by discontented zealots against Roman occupation. The military conflict would finally erupt some seventy years after Jesus’ birth with the destruction of Jerusalem.

God chose a particularly dark and disruptive time and place in history to enter in, as a vulnerable little baby boy born to a teenager in a barn for animals. Not a strategy for success, you might think, eh? On earth, nothing was going right.

But the grace of God knows no bounds. The grace of God enters into the thick of it. Not when everyone is getting along. But especially when everyone is getting it wrong.

The message of Christmas, in the end, is one of hope. Because no matter how bad or sad things get, it won’t stop God from prying into our consciences from time to time to tell us that God is never too far away. No matter how bad it gets, God is always with us. Emanuel. God with us.

Once we can accept that God is in all situations – not just the warm fuzzy moments decorated with visions from Hallmark – then everything becomes an occasion where some good can happen. God can and will use even bad situations for good.[3]This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”[4]

Our task this Christmas – however you are observing it – is to look for and find the good, the true, and the beautiful in everything, even and most especially the problematic. Because the bad is never strong enough to counteract the good, however small or short-lived. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot and never will overcome it.”[5]

Amen.


[1]Luke 2:19

[2]Richard Rohr, “Accountability Is Sustainability” Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part One (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org) Friday, December 13, 2019

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Like Knows Like” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation (www.cac.org, Monday, December 23, 2019).

[4]Psalm 118:24

[5]John 1:5,9

Alive with the sound of music – a funeral sermon

“The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

Do you know where that comes from? Yes, the Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, released in 1965. It was my favorite movie for many years. In fact, it was the first movie I saw as a little boy in the theatre.

A historical piece, it is set in the tumultuous days preceding the Second World War, in Austria. Julie Andrews plays Maria who is governess to the children of Baron von Trapp. The story is based on the real-life adventures of the Von Trapp Family Singers, one of the world’s best-know concert groups in this era.

In a public-school musical version of the story, I played Rolf, the young Nazi sympathizer who was courting one of the Von Trapp girls. I have come to know the songs and recognize them to this day. I can still see Julie Andrews running in the grass on a mountain side near Salzburg, her skirt twirling in the wind, and her face turned up to the sky. And she is singing at the top of her voice:

“The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

When we think of mountains—like the Alps in Austria or the Rocky Mountains in Canada—we think of the most outspoken aspect of all the various geographic land features. These are the kings of topography. This past summer my family stood at the base of Mount Robson looking up at the highest of the Rockies in Canada. Way up. Almost four thousand metres high.

It’s no wonder we’ve come up with the saying: “Shout it from the rooftops” because the higher you go, the louder you can sing and bellow out what you have on your heart. And Julie Andrews does just that.

I think of Edna with her bright, ‘mountain top’ way of expressing herself. Whenever she was in the room and had something to say, she expressed it with verve and vigor.

She was an outspoken advocate for community issues. Neighbors rallied around her strong voice speaking for or against certain municipal projects and policies. Edna spoke and people listened whether or not you agreed with her. Among thousands and thousands of hockey fans in the Canadian Tire Centre I am certain you could hear her voice above all the rest cheering on her beloved Senators. Edna did not hold back in letting her voice be heard in public and on Lowell Green -type radio call-in shows.

In the narthex of the church following worship, she talked to everyone in a voice we will never forget. Even during the prayers of the people when there was opportunity for the assembly to offer the names of those held in prayer, she always, always spoke up.

The prophets and poets, like Isaiah and David the Psalm-writer, look to the mountains where people gathered and good things happened. Isaiah describes a joyous feast that the shroud of death cannot overcome. We can’t imagine a table of rich foods and wines without the banter, laughter and voices heard loudly and emphatically. And so, the Psalm-writer instructs the faithful to look up, from where our help comes.

Mountains reach to the heavens and announce like no other vision the glory of God and the majesty and splendor of all creation.

And yet, when my family and I climbed (not Mount Robson!) a couple mountains this summer, something unexpected struck me when we were walking amidst the clouds. The silence. It was almost unnervingly quiet. The higher you go, the quieter it becomes. Moments of profound stillness.

“The hills are alive with the sound of music.” They say the spaces between the notes in music are part of the music. The pauses. The breaks. The rests. When no sound is made. Those can be the most important moments in a musical piece. The hills are still alive, even in the sound of silence.

At times in our lives when there is no sound, this can unnerve us. When life seems to screech to a halt. When nothing seems to happen. When no one says anything. When we feel unproductive. These moments can leave us feeling at best uncomfortable, and at worst anxious and despairing.

There are times when silence gives us all the opportunity to receive, not just to give. In a posture of receiving, of accepting, sometimes words aren’t necessary at all. At the Communion rail, we receive the grace and love of God. When Edna came forward and knelt in silence, she often had tears in her eyes. The feast on earth was for her a foretaste of the feast of heaven.

In her last moments, she was still ‘speaking’ with her body, her eyes. What strength she still could muster, she reached out with her arm to Someone ‘up there’ who was waiting. And, then, at the right moment, God reached out to hold her hand and bring her into the bosom of God’s eternal love.

We discover God not just when we feel the full force of the wind on our faces or when the waves crash on the beach or even when the mountains sing out the glory of creation. But also, just as real, when there is a lull in the breeze, when the waves retreat, when there is a pause in the music of life, when it is time to receive the Presence that has always been there for us.

The hills, indeed, are alive with the sound of music.

Christmas – God blesses the dirt

Why do we celebrate Christmas? What is the reason we pull all the stops to mark this annual tradition in our lives?

As is the case when defining something, we can start by saying what it isn’t. So, Christmas is not about a little baby Jesus being born. That already happened two thousand years ago. The historical fact of Jesus’ birth is not why we bring so much energy, passion and personal sacrifice to making this happen today!

We do Christmas not because we are history buffs on a mission to generate public enthusiasm about a long- ago event no matter how enthusiastic we are about it. The church is not a history club. Christmas is not just about memory – because none of us were around two thousand years ago. Christmas is about reality, today.

We celebrate Christmas to welcome Jesus Christ again into the life of this world. The church is about what matters today. Because of that first Christmas, Christ is forever being born into the human heart. And, we do have to make room for this ongoing event, because right now there is no “room in the inn” for such a mystery; our lives are cluttered by distraction, compulsion, self-centeredness and selfishness. If anything, Christmastime in the public sphere exposes this narcissism of our collective soul.

We are human, after all. And we see things pretty much in their physicality, materiality. We have trouble, naturally, seeing the light shining through the ordinariness of material life. Francis of Assisi, who popularized the celebration of Christmas beginning in the 13th century, said that “every tree should be decorated with lights to show that it’s filled with light anyway.”[1]

A couple centuries later, Martin Luther dragged a pine tree into his house and placed lighted candles on its boughs. He told his children that he looked up at the starry sky whilst walking through the pine forest near their Wittenberg home. The sight was so beautiful that he wanted candles on the tree to remind them of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth. To be entwined in the stuff of earth.

Thus, we have tangible reminders in our Christmas traditions today – tangible reminders, indeed, in the sacraments but also in everything – to remind us of this incredible move of God to be distant no longer, cut off, and separated from earthly existence no more. But, from that moment onward, God would be intimately invested and incorporated, literally, into every human body, heart and mind. Indeed, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”[2]

And so, God continues to become flesh and live among us. Christmas in 2017 as it was last year and will be next year, again, is about waiting, watching for and celebrating God’s forever decision to say “yes” to the material world. To watch for how the Spirit of the living God is being manifested in our lives and in our world today. Through, in, around each of us. God said “yes” to physicality.

We need this celebration every year because we are still preparing to understand and enter this great mystery of our lives with each passing day. In this preparation, we need to celebrate not only Christmas on December 25, not only Christmas-in-July, but Christmas every day of every year!

Christmas announces that it is good to be human. It is good to be on earth. Why? Well, because God became human in Jesus Christ. God came to earth. I hear echoes in the creation story from Genesis; after each thing was created God said it was good.[3] The earth and the waters, the plants and vegetation, the sun and stars, sea monsters, every living creature and every winged bird, wild animals, cattle of every kind and everything that creeps upon the ground. “It was good!” Not once, but repeatedly, to emphasize the point. It is good! It is good! It is good!

Whenever we can see in the material world – humans, trees, sky, water, dirt, animals – the Spirit and presence of Christ – whenever that happens, we are celebrating Christmas. God blesses the dirt on earth, from which we all came and to which we all will return.

It is already so. And to a large extent, it is a matter of perspective. When the ordinary becomes extraordinary. When we recognize the good in that which is broken or imperfect. It is a matter of vision.

When you are invited to a family dinner gathering, the food always tastes better, doesn’t it? How is it that Grandma’s pumpkin pie – made straight from the recipe off the label on the canned pumpkin – tastes better than any other? And when you go home and use the same product and follow the same recipe, it’s not quite the same. The ordinary is made extraordinary because of a frame of mind which has somehow shifted into an attitude of thanksgiving, gratitude and appreciation in a certain context.

The ordinary is extraordinary with a change of mind, which is the true meaning of repentance[4]. When we begin to see the holy in the simple. When the basic stuff of life – including the blemishes, the brokenness, the weakness – is imbued with a vision of holiness. God blesses the dirt.

When a common teenage couple gives birth to a baby in the back shed of some inn in a non-descript rural town, surrounded by the lowly shepherds and visited by strangers from the East. God blesses the dirt.

When all of what makes us human – including our doubts, our failures, our misdeeds, our egos – is unconditionally loved and embraced and held in compassion and forgiveness. God blesses the dirt.

When our caring and loving moves beyond the self and ‘our own’ to include foreigners, animals, trees and those who go hungry this day. God blesses the dirt.

Because it is good to be human. It is good to be on earth. Today.

Merry Christmas!

[1] Cited in Richard Rohr, “An Advent Meditation” (Unedited transcript, Center for Action and Contemplation, 2017).

[2] John 1:14

[3] Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25,31

[4] translated from the Greek word, metanoia, literally meaning “change of mind”, to turn around and face a new direction

Something always has to die …

(The following is taken from Richard Rohr’s commentary in his book “Wondrous Encounters; Scriptures for Lent”, with my added words.)

The crowds were gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. This ritual is described in Exodus 12, and provides the basis of the Holy Communion in Christian practice.

In the original ritual, people were to procure a small year-old lamb for each household. They were to keep it for four days — just enough for the children to bond with it and for all to see its loveliness — and then “slaughter it during the evening twilight”! Then they were to take its blood and sprinkle it on the doorpost of the houses. That night they were to eat it in highly ritualized fashion, recalling their departure from Egypt and their protection by God along the way.

This practice was meant to be a psychic shock for all, as killing always is. Thank God, animal sacrifice was eventually stopped. The human psyche was evolving in history to identify the real problem and what it is that actually has to die.

The sacrificial instinct is the deep recognition that something always has to die for something bigger to be born. We started with human sacrifice (Abraham and Isaac), we moved here to animal, and we gradually get closer to what has to be sacrificed — our own beloved ego — as protected and beloved as a little household lamb! (1)

We will all find endless disguises and excuses to avoid letting go of what really needs to die for our own spiritual growth. And it is not other humans (firstborn sons of Egyptians), animals (lambs or goats), or even ‘meat on Friday’ that God wants or needs.

It is always our beloved passing self that has to be let go of. Jesus surely had a dozen good reasons why he should not have to die so young, unsuccessful (sentenced to death, a criminal), and the Son of God besides!

By becoming the symbolic Passover Lamb himself, Jesus makes the movement to the human and personal very clear and quite concrete. It is always “we” — in our youth, in our beauty, in our power and over-protectedness and self-preservation instinct that must be handed over. Otherwise we will never grow up, big enough to ‘eat’ of the Mystery of God. In short, we have to ‘get over ourselves’, individually and collectively as the church, before we can be effective and authentic followers of Jesus in the world today.

Good Friday is really about “passing over” to the next level of faith and life. And that never happens without some kind of “dying to the previous levels.” This is an honest day of very good ritual that gathers the essential but often avoided meaning of Good Friday: Necessary suffering; that is, something always has to die for something bigger to be born.

One of the Gospel stories repeated every year during Holy Week is the anointing of Jesus by a woman named Mary at Bethany (John 12:1-11). Even though the text does not identify her as a sinner, this has been the common understanding. This alone should reveal our rancid preoccupation with sin.

The point in this story, again, is not the sin but the act of love towards Jesus, whom the woman correctly accepts (unlike the twelve disciples) the coming death of Jesus. She anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive nard, which is the anointing oil for death. Jesus’ favourable response to Mary’s act clearly suggests her act of love trumps any failing on her part, or the part of the poor, or on our part!

As always, love of Jesus and love of justice for the neighbour are just two different shapes or sides to the one Love, that gets us beyond our over-thinking sin. A simple act of love gets us beyond our negative self-obsession, which only keeps us stuck in selfish, egoistic preoccupation.(2)

May our praise of God this day, in Jesus’ acceptance of his death on a Cross, invite each of us into commitments and acts of love toward God, toward one another, and to the world in need. Then, we get the point of the story. And we affirm, that something bigger indeed is just around the corner.

 

1 — Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters; Scriptures for Lent” (Cincinnati, Ohio: Franciscan Media, 2011), p.133-135

2 — ibid., p.126-127

Stick-to-it-ness of love

Terrorist bombs going off in Brussels during Holy Week should get our attention. Not only and primarily because of the sudden horror and tragic, senseless loss of life.

But also because Christians this week, the world over, are reflecting and imagining the path Jesus took to his own senseless, horrific death hanging on a cross.

Death is on the mind and heart of many these days. How can we approach this reality common to us all? How can we accept the truth of our own mortality, which will be realized some day in some unique way?

In a popular book about near-death experiences, people reported on how they saw a review of their life — the cliched ‘life flashing before your eyes’.

The people who had momentarily died detailed every single encounter they had had with another human being throughout their life. They not only re-lived it, they were able to feel what the other person had felt. In that life-review they knew what others felt because of the near-dead person’s words or actions in that particular encounter. (1)

You may be able to imagine how surprised some felt to know how their behaviour and words actually affected other people. To know what impact our lives have on others. We may not think that a simple action like a smile, or a scowling face, a gracious word, or an angry outburst, could affect someone else’s day — let alone their life.

A friend recently suggested that this is what they thought Judgement Day would be for us — to understand and feel fully what influence our lives had on people around us. And how much our lives mean, in relationship.

I attended my brother-in-law’s retirement reception last week. He was retiring from the military after about twenty-five years. In his speech to the gathered friends, family and colleagues he concluded by saying something that stuck with me: “There’s lots that I’ve done over the years that I’m not proud of — as I stand here today. But, I’ve always and will always be proud of who I did it with.”

On Maundy Thursday, the main theme behind the actions of Jesus with his disciples is love. The commandment to love one another infuses the ritual of washing his disciples feet, of eating with them and instituting the Holy Supper, of instructing them and praying for them that ‘they may be one’.

The motif of loving one another is strangely underneath the surface of the high-tension, escalating conflict surrounding Jesus as he nears the cross — the ultimate place of his suffering and death. You wouldn’t think this is a love story, at first glance.

Yet, Jesus does not seek retribution for the injustice he endures. As Simon Peter did by taking a sword and cutting off the ear of one of the high priest’s servants who came to arrest Jesus (John 18:10). Instead, Jesus is about a restorative type of judgement — one that through love seeks to make right what has been divided or tarnished by sin. Judgement is ultimately always about restoring us, not avenging us for all our mis-deeds. To whom are we restored?

Our religion is not one of individual moral performance and accomplishment for our glory alone. The judgement we individually meet at the end is not considered in a vacuum. Our religion is constituted in a community. Our religion, more to the point, is practised and validated in the context of human relationship. Christianity is a social religion. You can’t do Christianity apart from others.

On Maundy Thursday, the focus is on the disciples meeting together for the last time with Jesus. And they do so around a Meal. This is the context, the meal and the companionship, however flawed and fragile. Sharing food, here, is not an individual indulgence as it is a communal sharing.

For many, in our culture today, to simply sit and eat and talk and to remain together until the end of the meal seems a quaint custom, perhaps incomprehensible, even an empty game: There’s always something else to do in my room — download something, fix something, watch something, communicate in some other media. The community of the table seems far less interesting once you have eaten your fill.

Yet eating with others is what prayer is all about. It is the time — like meditating with others or celebrating a ritual as we do this evening at the Sacrament of the Table — when we are fed and nourished by the One who is the food itself. We need to stay and wait and allow ourselves to be waited upon. (2)

And so, we need to practice doing things together. Practice. Not perfectly. Not always the right way. And not just when all is smiles and joy. Sometimes, in practising our faith together we end up hurting others, and being hurt ourselves. This is nevertheless the nature of practice. 

Like in any endeavour, physical exercise, any discipline, anything that is of value to us. It sometimes hurts. We need to challenge ourselves. We need what coach Dave Cameron of the Ottawa Senators said once in an interview explaining what his team needs in order to be successful in the NHL: ‘stick-to-it-ness’. 

‘Stick-to-it-ness’ is the quality of staying with the game plan, playing with the team; not, individual heroics as they and we are want to do. Stick-to-it-ness, even in the face of adversity or failure, or disappointment. Not running out the back door when things get tough or uneasy or uncomfortable. Not giving up on others or on yourself, even when they disappoint you. Staying with the game plan. Being persistent. Even when things are less-than-perfect or ideal in your life, and life with others.

‘Stick-to-it-ness’ is a quality sadly lacking in Christian culture today. We are so individually-minded that we delude ourselves into thinking we can go it alone. That we don’t need others. That we can live our Christian lives without being faithful to the community — the hassle or complication of others who will only disappoint and annoy — 

That we can leave a group of people and join another church. That religion is like a smorgasbord; and “I” am the centre of the universe, determining my destiny, choosing what I want and leaving behind what I don’t want. And being in total control.

In the acclaimed film, “The Way”, starring Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez, father and son together experience a walking pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. They begin their journey in conflict, estranged from one another. The son tells the father a truth that he learns by the end of the movie: “You don’t choose a life, you live a life.”

Practising our faith is not something we do by ourselves. Practising our faith is not motivated by trying to earn favour from God by all our good deeds. Practising our faith is not creating for ourselves the life we want. 

Practising our faith is first and foremost something we do together, for the sake of the other, and for love of the other. Even in the face of death.

We follow Jesus, who walked the way of life and death as we know it. We worship Jesus, these holy days, who showed us the motivation and stick-to-it-ness of love, of grace, of leading with a heart of mercy. For the sake of the other.

I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call upon the name of the Lord.

I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord,

in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!

(Psalm 116:17-19)
(1) Raymond A. Moody, “Life After Life”, HarperCollins, New York, 2000, p.55-65

(2) Laurence Freeman, “Sensing God”, Novalis Press, Toronto, 2015, p.110

Seeing Jesus

Jesus says, “the person who sees me and believes will be raised up” (John 6:40). 

If I polled the assembly gathered here this morning and asked you to raise your hand if you ‘believed in Jesus (or God)’, my guess is I would get a decent showing.

But if I asked you to put up your hand if you recently saw Jesus, I’m not sure I’d get the same kind of response. If you did raise your hand to that question I might look at you with some degree of skepticism. I might not take your statement at face value. I would want to ask you more questions. 

Seeing Jesus sounds like a conversation for the mystics and contemplatives. If our faith is limited merely to a conversation about the historical, biblical Jesus, we will be challenged at this point of acknowledging the living, immanent Jesus who is also always more — an unfolding Presence in the course of all history.

Where do we see Jesus? This is an important question. How can we see the living, resurrected Lord in the world and in our lives today? How can we account for the presence of Jesus?

There is the problem of sight. Here, Jesus obviously is not talking about physical vision. Otherwise why would he even say, “the person who sees me …”? Of course the people to whom he originally spoke these words standing on the sandy, rocky ground in first-century Palestine saw him. Jesus is talking more about a perception of the heart, mind and soul — an internal dynamic.

If you follow any of my social media sites online, you might have noticed there recently some sunset photos over Lake Huron where my family vacationed over the past couple of weeks. Aside from the inspiring sunsets, this is not what I remember the water to look like:

  
Normally, as I recall from my childhood summers spent on these shores, Lake Huron is fairly active. More days than not you would see a lot of wave action, and white caps carving up the horizon and rolling in over the surf. You would feel the constant high winds buffeting the tree-lined shore.

For the fourteen days we lived by the shore last month, however, the Lake was mostly calm. The water was placid, where there would be no more than a ripple on the surface and a splash on the shore line. In fact I would be hard pressed to say there was more than two days of wave action that came close to my childhood recollections. Needless to say, the quiet, peaceful waters made for much stress-free sea-kayaking and swimming along the coast.

  
At sunset most evenings we sat around the fire pit a stone’s throw from the shore, enjoying the very soft breezes and the relatively flat surface of the water.

And, if you watched the water, once in awhile you would see a large white fish breach the surface and flap it’s broad tail. The slapping sound often caught my attention if I wasn’t looking at the exact spot on the water. 

This sudden sound, amidst the relative quiet of the expansive scene of resting water, air and land before us, also caught the attention of the other members of my family (I would add, they were preoccupied by their hand held devices, swatting the bugs, and chatting incessantly with one another!). 

“What was that?” they looked up.

“Oh, a fish, jumping out of the water,” I responded.

“Cool! Where? Where? I wanna see!”

“Well, you need to be watching the water. Keep scanning the water up and down the shore line close to the edge.”

“I don’t see anything!”, one says, scratching another mosquito bite.

“You need to keep watching the water. There,” I point over the water toward the island, “there was another one!”

“Where?”

“Were you watching the water?”

“Uh, no.”

And on and on it went. I had a restful holiday. No, I did. Really!

The problem is not so much an incapacity to see. It is first to confess how distracted we are as a people in a culture that is impatient, anxious, that does not want to slow down, that keeps us from seeing what is already there. Perhaps Jesus is there for us to see. And we, like the Pharisees with whom Jesus often sparred, are “blind” to this truth. Jesus gives us precisely what we need to live, fully (Matthew 23; John 10:10). Do we not see it?

Before the cross became the central symbol of Christianity, the sign of the fish identified the early Christian movement. In fact, the cross was for centuries rejected by Christian who naturally recoiled at the thought of having an instrument of torture and capital punishment the central symbol of the faith. 

The fish was a symbol for Jesus Christ. Food. Like bread, fish gave faithful people ongoing strength, sustenance and nourishment for life. No wonder the miracle of multiplication of bread and fish became a popular Gospel story about Jesus feeding the multitude on a hillside in Galilee (Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6).

The new logo of the Eastern Synod reflects this original, early Christian identification with fish:

  
In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John especially, Jesus compares himself to bread — bread that sustains us and feeds us everything we need. Everything. Not more. Not less. In the Old Testament, it was manna that God provided to the people in their desert wanderings. 

The desert was the place where the people had to learn to give up control, which is mostly what ‘making plans’ is all about. “Like us, the Hebrews weren’t initially too excited about all this vague mystery. The people didn’t just complain that they were out of food, they also began to romanticize about the good old days back in Egypt where they ate their fill of bread …

“God responded to the people’s anxiety about food in a very tangible way. He provided the daily blessing of bread from heaven called manna. It was a fine, flaky substance which appeared every morning. And it came with some instructions (Exodus 16:1-8). Every family had to gather their own. You couldn’t store it up or hoard it, or the worms would eat it. So you had to gather it every day, except on the sixth day of the week when you could gather an extra portion for the Sabbath. It wasn’t much — just enough to keep you going on the journey.

“All of these descriptions [like bread and fish] are wonderful metaphors for how God cares for us along the way in the desert journey: daily, tangibly, personally, and sufficiently, although never enough to remove our anxiety about tomorrow. We have to trust there will be more manna when we need it [emphasis mine].

“This is what Jesus had in mind in teaching us to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. To pray those words is as if to say, ‘No matter how hard I try to secure my life with money, exercise, relationships, or work, I know that only you can give it to me. And you will do it one day at a time.

“The best reason for seeing the manna as a blessing [of Jesus’ presence, I might add] comes from its name. The literal translation of manna is ‘What is it?’ This means that every morning the people would go out and gather the ‘What is it?’ The mothers would prepare it as creatively as they could, which was tough because there was no ‘What is it?’ -helper. The family would sit at the table to eat. The kids would ask, ‘What is it?’ The mother would sigh and say, ‘Yes.’ They’d bow their heads and pray, ‘Thank you God for What is it?'” (Craig Barnes, Insights from the Desert, “Nurtured in Mystery” Shadyside Presbyterian Church, 2010)

What if we lived out of gratitude for what God has already given us? What if we made decisions — even small ones, each and every day — based on trust in Jesus being there for us, just beneath the surface of our lives? There for the watching. There for the catching and gathering. Grace and Gift, available to us. Before we even lift a finger.

The Cross: Not only for us, but involves us

What Jesus did on the cross involves us.

One great temptation of being a Christian today is to delude ourselves into believing that the cross of Christ must be reserved exclusively to the annals of history. What Jesus did on the cross is a historical curiosity, we may think, which has little if nothing to do with our day-to-day lives. As a result, Christianity is basically a theoretical exchange of ideas, and whose energy and passion revolve around whose ideas are more persuasive.

One thing we need to continually challenge ourselves is in the practice of our faith, so that we are not only saying the right kinds of things but doing them as well. The Gospel text for today (Matthew 16:21-28) reminds us again that what Jesus did on the cross involves us today, in our experience of faith. When Jesus instructed his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” he was displacing the cross for standing merely as an historical idea and fact, and placing the cross directly onto the lives, hearts, and experience of his followers at that time, and for all time to come — including us!

The theme of suffering percolates in the Gospel text. How do we Christians deal with suffering in our lives? In Martin Luther’s German translation of the Beatitudes of Jesus in the New Testament, he conveys the sense of: “Blessed are those who bear their suffering …” It is not a question of whether or not we suffer, or whether or not we can deny or avoid the challenging, difficult work that will come to us all in doing God’s work on earth. After all, Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live …” (John 11:25-26). All of us will die. All of us will suffer. Whether we are Christian or not. Life will bring that to each one of us in a unique way.

So, the question of faith is: HOW will we bear that suffering? How will we appreciate the experience of life’s failures, losses, pain, grief, death?
The second reading for today from Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:9-21) suggests a way forward through our suffering: “Let your love be genuine,” he writes. How we bear our suffering depends on the quality of love in our lives. How is love genuine?

It has something to do, I believe, with letting go of the need to control someone’s else experience of ourselves, our gifts, our hospitality; letting go of our need to impose on another what we think should be for them. This is most difficult to do. But it is true love when we love, unconditionally, with no strings attached.

In my travels over the summer, I’ve met people in Newfoundland on the east coast as well as in the urban jungle of California on the west coast. As I reflect on my encounters with various people on that journey, the most meaningful ones were almost always around a meal time in a B&B or coffee break at a conference. It was listening to our B&B hostess at breakfast near Gros Morne Park, talking with our servers at the Duke of Edinburgh pub in St John’s, chatting with American tourists at breakfast in L’Anse aux Meadows, or with students at the next table in a Thai restaurant in San Francisco — these are memories that come quickly to mind and leave a lasting impression. Around a meal, with others. And never an outcome that I could have planned, expected or managed if I were in control. My experience over a meal with others was totally a gift.

In this Meal we ritually share every week as a people of God, we become vulnerable to one another as equals before God. We bring all our “stuff” to the Communion railing — good and bad. It can be nerve-wracking to be pulled out of our comfortable pew, so to speak, and come forward and lay it bear before God and one another.

But it is here, in all our honesty and true humility, that we are made aware of Jesus’ faithfulness to us. Jesus is truly present around the table. Holy Communion is a regular reminder that Jesus is with us, especially in the disruptive events of our lives. And it is here that we receive the hope and promise that all will be well through the suffering of our lives.

What Jesus did on the cross, after all, does not only involve us, it was for us.

In all that we must bear, we are not alone. When the twin brothers from Quebec were eliminated last week from the Amazing Race Canada Reality TV show, I could relate to something said in the brief interview on the mat after hearing that they were “the last team to arrive.” The twin who had done poorly in one of the challenges and was the reason they had been eliminated said with tears in his eyes, “It’s amazing being a twin because even at the worst of times you are never alone.” Twins or no twins, as Christians we are never alone.

Because of what Jesus did on the cross, God now understands and relates to our suffering in an intimate way. God’s love is shown most powerfully in what Jesus did for us. Whenever we suffer and take up our own cross, Jesus suffers along side of us, bears with us, and endures with us — all for our sake.

Something Peter and the disciples seem to have missed in reacting to the way of the cross, is the promise of resurrection. They stumble at the “undergo great suffering” and being “killed” parts of Jesus’ speech. But did they hear: “…and on the third day be raised”? (Matthew 16:21)

The way with Jesus, that must go through the cross and suffering, leads to new life and fresh, new beginnings. The way with Jesus, that must go through the cross and endure suffering, is a way of great hope of a holy transformation of our lives that starts now and lasts through eternity.

On the way

For years now, amid the changing realities facing our lives in the church, I have found comfort and hope in a prayer — popular among Lutherans — from Evening Prayer in the old, ‘green book’ (The Lutheran Book of Worship). It goes goes like this:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

It is a beloved prayer. The risen, living Jesus indeed goes with us.

But do we go “by paths as yet untrodden”? Yes, in the sense that each of us experiences the journey uniquely; and yes, we can’t know exactly how we will experience that journey. And yes, frankly, that’s how it sometimes feels — like we’re all alone on this journey.

I think in North America especially, the journey of life here carries with it a “frontier” mentality. We are, after all, pioneers — this is part of our history: clearing bush from the land, forging paths never trodden through the wilderness.

And more often than not we are blazing this new path on our own. It’s up to us. This vision, I believe, has captured our imagination and plays a large role in motivating our work and our identity in the church, even.

No wonder we fell so isolated and alone when things change in our lives. No wonder we are so afraid.

The first Christians in the time after Jesus rose from the dead were not called “Christian”. In fact, they were called “Followers of the Way” — the way of Jesus. It wasn’t until in Antioch years later that those who identified with the way of Jesus were labelled, “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Those first disciples — like Cleopas and his friend, that we read about in today’s Gospel (Luke 24:13-35) — were associated with a faith that was predominantly about a journey.

I like how the King James Version of this text concludes: “And they told what things were done in the way …” (v.35). The presence of Jesus is experienced together on the journey of life, following in the way of Jesus.

What if we re-claimed our original identity as “followers of the way”? What if we re-considered our image for this journey of faith we are on? What if this way was not so much about “blazing a new path, not so much a “pioneering/frontier” mentality where we create the path?

What if the journey we are on is more of a caravan route, where we follow where another has already trod?

A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St Peter meets him at the pearly gates.
St Peter says, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.”

“Okay,” the man said, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.”
“That’s wonderful,” says St Peter, “that’s worth three points!”

“Three points?” he says. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service.”
“Terrific!” says St Peter, “that’s certainly worth a point.”

“One point?” Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.”
“Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,” he says.

“TWO POINTS!!” the man cries. “At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!”

“Come on in!”

For a caravan journey to work, it is by the grace of God. It is a pathway through the wilderness, to be sure. As one plods along its winding route, we nevertheless follow the tracks of the carts and wagons and footprints etched on the roadway and left by others who have gone before us.

Jesus beckons us forward, to follow along the path he has made. Jesus is the main focus on the caravan route.

Let’s not forgot who joins the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Let’s not forget who does most of the talking — the teaching — on the road. Let’s not forget who is the host at the evening meal, and who initiates for the disciples their recognizing the living Lord when Jesus breaks bread. It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus.

There are some characteristics of this caravan journey, of note; to summarize:

First it is not a journey undertaken alone. In fact, on the caravan route it is folly to travel alone. One would do well to travel together with others for mutual support, consolation and protection along the way.

The caravan route is not a journey of isolation, but of ever-expanding community. From these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, the church moves out into the world. From the disciples’ faith emerges a mission “to all nations” (Luke 24:47). It is not a caravan that goes in circles around Jerusalem; rather, the route winds itself around the world. The Greek word for church is “ekklesia” which literally translates — “a people called OUT”. Yes, the momentum of Christianity is centrifugal — the journey is an ever-expanding mission towards the places where Jesus will be.

When asked about his success, Wayne Gretzky once said, “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.” He explains why: Imagine the fast-paced ebb and flow of the hockey game; Gretzky says, “Skating toward where the puck IS will always guarantee your arrival at a place where the puck HAS BEEN” — and that’s no good.

By following the caravan route, it is possible to discover where the risen Jesus is going in our world and not just keep going back to the empty tomb. As a popular American preacher once wrote, “Vision is not about looking in tombs for a risen Jesus. It is about listening to where he says he is going to meet us and striking out for it.”

Second, the journey’s value does not depend on our doing all the right things. For the seven mile journey to Emmaus, the disciples didn’t even know it was Jesus walking with them. Whether we know it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, even in our sadness or fear, and even when all around us everything points to the contrary of what we believe “should be”, Jesus is with us and walking with us, and talking to us. Are we listening? Are we following?

All the disciples do is practice some basic hospitality and welcome this intriguing stranger into their home. It is our job only to trust in the presence of Jesus when we gather to hear the word of God, listen to it, and break the bread at Holy Communion — and leave the rest to God.

It is our job sometimes to pay attention to however our “hearts burn”, because just maybe, it is of God.

Here is a variation of a blessing you may have heard. It is also popular among Followers of the Way today, sometimes requested at wedding ceremonies when two people embark on the journey of married life:

“The Lord go before you, to show you the way. The Lord go beside you, to hold you and protect you. The Lord go behind you, to keep you safe from all harm. The Lord go beneath you, to catch you when you fall, and show you the way up. The Lord be within you, to comfort you when you’re sad. The Lord be above you to give you grace.”

You shall know them by their food

School children were asked to bring, for show-and-tell, a symbol that would describe best their religion. Each would take a turn to stand in front of their class, hold up their object and first, without saying a word, wait until one of their peers would successfully guess to which religion they belonged.

The first child held up some prayer beads — a rosary. “Roman Catholic,” someone called out. Later, the second child held up a picture of the Star of David. “Judaism,” another said. There was an awkward pause before the third child rushed through the door to the front of the classroom. In her oven-mitted hands she held up a piping hot casserole dish. There was silence.

The girl’s mouth hung open in disbelief. “You mean you can’t tell?” she croaked. “I’m Lutheran!”

After this month’s well-attended men’s breakfast group where we basically took over a whole corner of the restaurant, we joked that pretty soon the men’s breakfast group might have more out for their monthly gatherings than we get out for midweek worship! So true — if there is food on the agenda of any social gathering, you’ll likely find at least one Lutheran in the crowd.

Indeed, eating together is central to not only Lutheran identity, but for Christians in general. Someone once noted that in each chapter of the Gospel of Luke you will find at least one reference, directly or indirectly, to food or eating (Kelly Fryer, The Lutheran Course).

And that explains why when Christians gather to worship, the Holy Meal is a cornerstone of the liturgy. What distinguishes us from every other religion in our worship practice is that we eat together. Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., don’t differ from Christians when it comes to practicing their faith in word, song or spoken/unspoken prayer. But the Holy Communion — the meal — distinguishes a truly Christian worship service.

And a truly Christian worship service is done together, with others. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). The author of Hebrews exhorted the followers of the Christian way to meet regularly: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together …” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Because around the table where bread is broken and wine is poured, the love and presence of Christ is experienced.

The Holy Communion is the climax of Christian worship because it best embodies a communal experience of God. We can eat alone. But sharing food causes us to love another.

Last month the Lutheran clergy in Ottawa met for lunch. We went to a restaurant where they serve Dim Sum: This method of sharing food is truly a communal act: We all sit around the same, round table — a rather large one. Then, from menus, we choose the food.

But what we choose is not an individual dish. It is a plateful of the same food that we share by circulating the plate around the table. When we order, we need to check in with all the others to see if that’s also something they would like to try. Eating Dim Sum, as unfamiliar as it may feel, and challenging to coordinate, is worth the work. It is an experience of community building and of practising a self-giving kind of love. Because we need to compromise, give-and-take, and take some risks — all for the sake of the community.

Lutheran worship is not about creating a space for private, individualistic encounters with Jesus. Lutheran worship is not about providing individuals with a what-is-in-it-for-me kind of entertainment. Lutheran worship is not about removing ourselves from the actual social context of the service.

In other words, when we kneel at the railing and come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ, we are doing so in a profound awareness of who is standing or kneeling with us, beside us, at the table of The Lord. We seek their forgiveness, as we forgive them. We are doing this together — sometimes a hard work, but well worth it.

On Maundy Thursday we pause to consider that last evening Jesus had with his followers, his closest disciples. And we recall what he did: He had a meal with them to assure them, and us over two thousand years later, that whenever we eat this meal in his name, Christ is there with us. To underscore his ever-present promise, Jesus kneels in humility and love to wash his disciples’ feet (John 13), and then prays for their unity (John 17) in the Garden of Gethsemane.

On this night we gather not as individuals seeking private, abstract encounters with an imagined God, but as the broken Body of Christ — his body, the church. We gather together to receive the assurance of his forgiveness of our sins, to regard one another in love as co-travellers on the journey of faith, and to share in the food which is his loving presence in our lives. In so doing, we bear faithful witness to the world, that Christians are united in the passion of Jesus.