(Hoping for) A happy ending: Why not?

“God will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:4)

When the prophet Isaiah promises salvation to the people, people who are “weak, feeble and fearful” (Is 35:3-4) what does he mean? What does he mean when he says: “God will save you”? Does he mean, the promise of heaven? Does he mean, remission of sins?

In the news this week we have seen images of desperate people risking their lives to escape the dire situation in Syria. Refugees are literally dying for the sake of finding a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people dispersed from their homes. He spoke to a people who were displaced for political reasons. Emerging empires, such as Assyria, Babylon and then the Greeks, swept through the region in the centuries before Christ leaving those without power or privilege to fend for themselves in foreign lands. Sound familiar?

The Bible gives us Christians a broader perspective on ‘Salvation’. Because when we look carefully at texts such as Isaiah 35, salvation is not about heaven and remission of sins. The people who are exiled, lost and experiencing the worst circumstances of life, will be saved from those circumstances. In real time, earth-bound, flesh and blood realities.

From the perspective of Jesus Christ, of course, we can express, in all truth, the promise of heaven and remission of sins. For sure. And yet we cannot, if we engage the bible honestly, limit the concept of salvation to these albeit abstract notions of faith. Salvation in Christ has just as much to do with our lives on earth, and the lives of others, “in the flesh”.

We may despair, watching the news. What can anyone do to make the situation right for the millions of refugees now flooding Europe? How can there be a happy ending, in this mess? We can be paralyzed in our fear, and look away, despondent.

And yet we have this fantastic story of restoration. We know how the story ends for the remnant of Judah in Babylonian exile. We know that their earthly suffering ends happily. On earth. They eventually return to Jerusalem and restore their fortunes. We can get giddy with faith at this happy ending. Surely, this is the promised outcome for all who suffer in any way!

Listen to how Professor of Old Testament, Patricia Tull, writing in workingpreacher.org, expresses the puzzling truth of this story:

“Events as deeply woven into our history as Jerusalem’s restoration take on for us an air of inevitability. Yet they cannot be taken for granted. Other nations destroyed by great empires — including Aram, Moab, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel — failed to reestablish when their crises passed. We have Judah’s story only because it transcended destruction. Every time our scriptural reading brings us to Jerusalem’s phoenix-like restoration 2500 years ago is a moment to stop for gratitude and wonder. As Isaiah 34 and 35 vividly show, reversal of fortune isn’t guaranteed. But it is possible. Judah’s success story sets a precedent for hope, showing that happy endings have occurred and can occur.”

The first prime-minister of the modern state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, said, “Anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.” To be hopeless, however grave the circumstance, is unrealistic. It works both ways: To believe that there is a happily-ever-after for each and every person in every situation imaginable is unrealistic; we know that’s not the way life works. At the same time, to dismiss altogether the possibility of happy endings and miraculous turn of events is unrealistic as well. For God, all things are possible.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Some people see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ Others see things as they could be and ask, ‘Why not?’

As Christians, as people of faith, aren’t we a people of a ‘Why not?’ -capability?

Why not be grateful at the start and end of each day — grateful for all things that have gone well in life?

Why not focus on the blessings and abundance rather than the scarcity?

Why not celebrate the victories of God that you see in the world in the lives of others even if those victories don’t benefit you personally?

Why not rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep?

Why not sing a song of gladness when the underdog takes it all?

Why not see the face of Jesus in the stranger, the immigrant, the Muslim neighbour, the un-churched youth and mid-lifers?

Why not envision a future for your life and the life of the church that is better than what it is now? Why not? Why not? And then, see where that leads …

We are not in the business of faith for what we make of it or get out of it. We are in the business of faith for what God has done, and continues to do all around us, and even despite us.

We can be strong and do not need to fear because God keeps promises. God keeps God’s word. As Isaiah foretold, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped … the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:5-6). 

In the Gospel today we read about Jesus doing precisely this: Jesus brings miraculous healing to the lives of those distraught and torn apart by illness and disease (Mark 7:24-37). Jesus is the glory of God shining through the brokenness of our lives. Jesus is the majesty of God embracing the sweat and tears of our lives. Jesus is the active presence of God working in us and through our poverty and pain, amidst the blood and grit and earthy, daily activity of our lives.

The story of the Quilt Holes inspired me recently at a funeral I attended. The preacher told the story of one who faced God at the last judgement, as spoken through the first person: “I knelt before God, as did everyone else. Our lives lay before us like the squares of a quilt in many piles. An angel sat in front of each of us sewing our quilt squares together into a tapestry that is our life.

“But as my angel took each piece of cloth off the pile, I noticed how ragged and empty each of my squares was: They were filled with giant holes. Each square was labeled with a part of my life that had been difficult, the challenges and temptations I had faced in every day life. I saw hardships that I endured, which were the largest holes of all.

“I glanced around me. Nobody else had such squares. They just had a tiny hole here and there. Their tapestries were filled with rich colour and the bright hues of worldly fortune. I gazed upon my own life and was disheartened.

“Finally the time came when each life was to be displayed, held up to the light, the scrutiny of truth. My gaze dropped to the ground in shame. There had been many trials of illness. I had to start over many times. I often struggled with the temptation to give up. I spent many nights in tears and on my knees in desperate prayer, asking for help and guidance that took a long time coming.

And now, I had to face the truth: My life was what it was, and I had to accept it for what it was. I rose and slowly lifted the combined squares of my life to the light.

An awe-filled gasp filled the air. I gazed around at the others who stared at me with wide eyes. Then, I looked upon the tapestry before me: Light flooded the many holes, creating an image, the face of Christ. Then Jesus stood before me, with warmth and love in his eyes. He said, “Each point of my light shone through the holes, the rips and ragged, empty squares of your life. When you were down and out, and honest and still trusting, my light continued shining through you.”

At the end of it all, we may be threadbare and worn. It may look like a failure, a sad ending. And yet, Christ in us is the end of the story, not us.

Why not, then, just be the Body of Christ in the world today? Why not be, together, the hands and feet of Jesus? Holes and all? What do we have to lose? Why not be the answer we are waiting and hoping for — for others who have no hope, for the refugees of the world? 

I recently read the story of a woman who had walked seven hundred miles as a refugee to escape a violent war. She was finally able to cross a national boundary out of the war zone. She walked all that way and brought with her an eight-year-old girl, who walked beside her. For seven hundred miles, the child held her hand tightly. When they reached safety, the girl loosened her grip, and the woman looked at her hand: It was raw and bloody with an open wound, because the little girl had held tightly in her fearfulness. This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. (Walter Brueggemann, “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now”, WJK Kentucky, 2014, p.88-89)

God’s hands do not let go of us, even though we may fear, even though we may be scared to take the risk and do the right things. This is the promise that God will never break.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) was onto something when in convention this past summer we adopted the Reformation challenges — one of which is to sponsor, by 2017 (the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses, or arguments, on the doors of the Wittenberg Church in Germany thereby launching the Reformation), 500 refugees coming to Canada.

We are the people we are waiting and hoping for. We have a responsibility, in faith, to be grace, forgiveness, mercy and compassion to those who are unloveable, undesirable, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the refugee, the marginalized. Can you imagine what a show of grace might do in the lives of those to whom the unexpected is given?

Why not?

Believe in God’s possibilities

Somewhat striking to me in Gospel text is the sense of urgency surrounding these miraculous, healing stories from Jesus’ ministry (Mark 5:21-43). At least three times in this text, we hear the word ‘immediately’. A frenetic pace describes Jesus’ work here. It’s important, and it happens right away. There’s no time to lose. No sitting back. It’s time for action. It’s finally time to do something.
I suspect the reason this jumped out at me, is that summer can be a tempting, dangerous time for people like me who depend on routines and regular disciplines to keep our lives balanced. Because the temptation may be to skip the healthy practice — whether it be prayer, physical exercise, healthy eating, or attending to friends and family.
This text comes to us at the beginning of the traditionally long summer slow-down in our country. It may be wise to guard against what the Christian desert fathers and mothers called the sin of acedia, sloth, laziness, or my favourite word to describe the problem — inertia. The challenge during seasons of comfort and repose is to keep the important disciplines of exercising mind, body and spirit — to hold the sense of urgency around those important things in life.
Because to have faith is to hold fast, to trust in God’s possibilities. And the time to do that is now. Not some ideal day in the future, and not some day in the golden years of our past. But now. To have faith. To believe in God’s possibilities in your life. In our life, together.
While both Jairus’ dying 12-year-old daughter and the woman haemorrhaging for 12 long suffering years come from very different socio-economic and social circles, what they have in common is that their faith had made them well. (In the case of Jairus’ daughter, it wasn’t her faith, but that of her father). 
It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter whether you can even express your faith in words. It doesn’t matter whether you are poor and marginalized in society — like the woman in the text. It doesn’t matter if you are wealthy, comfortable and have status in society — like Jairus, the leader of the Jewish synagogue.
What is the healing in your life that you seek? Where can God touch the deepest need in your life? What is the discontent rocking your life now? Have you named it? Have you asked God for healing? God, we know, doesn’t cure every disease just because we ask for it. And yet, do you believe that God can do anything God wants, even bring healing? 
Last week after our two-day intensive training in Toronto, the Lutheran Ottawa Ministry Area Leadership Team was rushing to the airport to catch our flight back to Ottawa. We knew this usually half-full flight across the Province — a short 50 minute plane ride — is, these days, packed. The Women’s FIFA knock-out stage had games in Ottawa; and, the Pan-Am Games are soon beginning in Toronto. Our flight to Toronto the day before was also sold-out. 
And, with airlines normally over-booking, we heard of folks being delayed because they waited to get to the airport before getting their boarding passes. So, we were a little anxious, especially since someone on our Team had to get to work on returning to Ottawa.
I was fortunately able to get a seat, along with everyone else on the Team. As was the case with the flight to Toronto, I was assigned the middle of a three-seat row. Okay. I can put up with that for an hour. What I didn’t know was that the row I was in was the first one behind Business/First Class, which on each side of the centre isle has only two, larger seats across.
One thing on a short flight that I will enjoy doing is watching the real-time map on the screen in front of me — showing the variables of outside temperature, miles travelled, distance to destination, altitude and speed. On the screen you can watch the little icon of the plane travel slowly towards your destination. I enjoy watching that. Call me a nerd.
Because I don’t fly very often, I forgot that I probably had one of those video screens folded up and tucked away in my arm rest. But I didn’t think of that. I only reacted by feeling I got the short end of the stick. Ba-humbug! 
Both my row partners had screens on the back of the seats directly in front of thhem, but not me. 

Both of them fell asleep immediately upon take off. I concluded quickly they probably were not interested in using their screens. So I watched out of the corner of my eye until the guy on my right had his jaw hanging open and breathing heavily before I snuck my arm across to his screen to turn it on. But just as I was about to tap on “Map”, he twitched in his sleep and came half awake. I quickly withdrew, and waited until he again fell asleep before finally getting it turned on.

It dawned on me why I didn’t just ask him whether I could use his screen. I’m fairly confident he would probably have been okay with that, or at least reminded me of the screen I had in my arm rest. But I didn’t. I was bent on trying to sneak in my intention, or put off the actual engagement.
One aspect of the faith of Jairus and the woman, is that both in words and actions, they took the risk, made themselves vulnerable and even interrupted Jesus. They came out. They asked. Granted, they were desperate and at the end of their rope. Are you? Are we?
There are seasons in our lives when it may be difficult to believe in God’s possibilities for us. We get trapped in our heads. I know I do. We get stuck in our pain, and circle back over and over again trying to rationalize and self-justify not doing anything differently. We think too much about the hard realities facing us that we end up either rejecting our faith outright; or, we sit back in the lounge chair of summertime-like complacency. 
We may give up too quickly. We get discouraged so easily. We may even delude ourselves into thinking that “time will heal”. 
I suspect the biggest reason we hold back when opportunity for healing comes our way is because, as I did in the plane afraid to ask, I knew deep down in stepping out in faith to ask for something, my nicely constructed world however imperfect would have to change: Who knows? Maybe the fellow next to me would have wanted to talk with me, inquire what I did for a living and we would end up talking about God and faith and all his problems. It would require some work, then, right?
Asking for help and healing in prayer to God means things might get a bit messy, disruptive. Energy-draining. It’s a risk. Our asking for healing may very well shake us out of our comfortable way of doing things. God may very well be calling us into a sense of urgency as we go about ‘being Christian’. Do we even want that?
Do we believe in God’s possibilities? Do we hold the vision of God to heal, to restore and give new life, new beginnings to us, despite our present circumstances? Because opportunities will come our way. Will we seize the moment, as the woman did to interrupt Jesus? Carpe Diem! Will we want to acknowledge our dire, desperate circumstances giving rise to the courage to ask?
In the next year, our church will face an opportunity to begin a 5-, 10- or 15- year-long journey. An opportunity, I believe, will come across our bow to begin this journey in the next year. I mention this today, because it is the last time I’m preaching before my summer break. And I want to leave you with something to contemplate. I have a feeling we will, I hope over the next year, want to talk about this more.
When you go home today, I invite you to drive to the intersection of Woodroffe and Baseline. There is an open field there now, a strip of land between the transitway and Woodroffe, across the street from College Square. And as I speak, imagine the opportunity for Christian mission and ministry in this prime piece of land, the gateway to Nepean and very close to significant institutions of business, education, health care and culture at Centrepointe.
Then, imagine, what maintaining the status quo here will result in, some ten to fifteen years from now. If we just carry on business-as-usual and try to continue doing it on our own. We just need to tally the percentage of people in this room today over a certain age to answer that question rather decidedly. The trajectory is clear if we just ‘maintain’.
Then, again, imagine the possibility of healing that can come to the local Christian community overburdened and exhausted by a complacency and resignation to reality-as-is. Imagine the restoration, the new life, new beginning, and vigour of church ministry and mission in Jesus’ name that can happen when we share this work, as Lutherans, with other willing and effective partners in faith — other congregations — who are primed to do the same. Imagine what exciting work can be done together when we can combine our assets and resources — not ‘do it alone’ — and be a powerful, significant Christian voice and presence in West Ottawa. Imagine God’s possibilities! We’re not down and out; there’s a bright future! Together.
Jesus doesn’t ask Jairus, a Jewish synagogue leader, for proof of right belief. Faith is not saying the right doctrine or articulating a ‘correct’ denominational theology. Jesus doesn’t question the woman’s rather superstitious character of her faith before healing her. In fact the healing is virtually done before Jesus talks to her! Jesus doesn’t demand any rationally expressed pre-condition for granting his grace and healing power. To us, too.
In all truth, it’s his heart, his compassion, his unconditional love first and foremost that drives him to heal those who just have the courage to express an urgent, desperate desire for a new beginning, for health and wholeness. And take that first, small step in Jesus’ direction.

Imagine God’s possibilities!