Prayer as Lament – Advent sermon series 3

Traditionally, the Third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, a command to rejoice! Be joyful!

In all the furtive busy-ness of getting ready for the big day, in all the running around and striving to check off everything on the ‘to do’ list before Christmas, carrying all the pressure and responsibility …

The church says: don’t take yourselves too seriously on this journey. There are times when we need to not just listen up, but lighten up. Gaudete!

Yes, we are on the path of transformation. And this path requires us to be intentional and disciplined. After all, Christmas is coming; there is much to prepare! It was Ignatius of Loyola, a contemporary of Martin Luther in the 16thcentury, who urged the church to “pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on us.”[1]

Not bad advice. Except we won’t survive this journey if we don’t also take the foot off the gas pedal from time to time. Can we let things be as they are? Can we accept ourselves and rejoice even at the imperfection of our lives – the cracks in who we are? Or, have we deluded ourselves into thinking that only when everything is perfect, and finished, and just the way it ought to be, then, and only then, can we rejoice?

How can we be authentically joyful, especially when things aren’t the way they are supposed to be in our lives and in the world?

In our ordinary lives as much as in our worship and prayer, we have to make room for lament. Lament? It seems odd to suggest that on Gaudete Sunday of all days – the Sunday during Advent when we are called to rejoice – we offer our laments to God in prayer.

I’d like to suggest this is the path to expressing true joy. Lament as a necessary step on the path to true acceptance, hope and joy. So that our rejoicing isn’t just an extension of our culture’s surface ‘good cheer’ which often only masks deeper needs.

The Psalms, which are the primary prayer book for the ancient Israelites and Jews of Jesus’ day, are filled with laments. We read one together this morning.[2]Even Jesus, after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, expressed his disappointment and sorrow over Jerusalem[3]. And then in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he died, Jesus prayed to God if only his cup of suffering could be taken away.[4]Jesus wept for the death of his friend Lazarus[5], and on the cross he cried out, “O God, why have you forsaken me!”[6]quoting a Psalm. Jesus was familiar with, and used often, the prayers of lament on his journey to new life.

Perhaps we are afraid that if we do take the foot off the gas pedal during this season of rush-rush, we might not very much like what comes to the surface. In that moment when we are not driven by our compulsions and distractions, what scary thing might emerge?

This season can be difficult for those, for example, who grieve the loss of loved ones especially when it is the first Christmas celebrated without them. We are supposed to feel happy, but we are burdened by a deep sadness of loss. And all those messages that declare we are to be ‘joyful’ only serve to deepen our sorrow. How, then, can we be joyful?

In the Academy Award winning movie, “Inside Out”, eleven-year-old Riley has moved to San Francisco, leaving behind her life in Minnesota. She and her five core emotions, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Joy struggle to cope with her new life.

In the movie, each of these emotions is a separate character in the control room of Riley’s mind. Until the big move, it was always Joy who was in the driver’s seat. Joy determined how Riley processed events and situations in her life. Even if Riley, who loved to play hockey on the family pond, missed a shot on goal, Joy would step in and emphasize the bright, positive side of the situation. Sadness would always stand nearby, trying to be more influential in defining Riley’s experiences. But, until the move to San Francisco, Joy always won out.

When big events in our lives happen – events that are happy or sad – these change us and the way we look upon life. By Joy insisting on dominating, even when Riley experienced significant challenges at school and at home after the move, she became worse and worse, shutting out her parents and isolating herself.

It was only when Joy let Sadness take control, did Riley turn the corner. Riley became better in her new life when no emotion was denied, but given its rightful place given the circumstance. The emotions – especially Joy and Sadness – discovered that both have to take turns in the driver’s seat from time to time. Both/And. Not Either/Or.

Christianity did not combine opposites into some kind of favourable blend. Neither does having faith exclude, deny nor avoid one in favour of the other. Rather, our faith holds all dimensions of the human, and all the dimensions of the divine in vibrant and furious tension.[7]Like, the tension of becoming truly joyful when we can also offer our lament. When we can let sadness take the driver’s seat for a bit of that journey especially when it seems it’s supposed to be all about being happy all of the time.

In the Advent study group on prayer, we reviewed the various characteristics of a lament by looking at some Psalms. One characteristic will often escape our notice, maybe because it doesn’t fit our expectations of what lamenting is. You know, we think it’s all tears and gnashing of teeth and breast-beating and woe-is-me kind of stuff.

But a lament is not a lament unless it also carries the one who is praying into a place of confidence and trust in God. Maybe that’s why Jesus lamented so much. Because he was so faithful to Abba. Trusting in God his Father. Besides the obvious grievances and plea for help expressed in the Psalm, did you not also hear and feel joy born out of confidence and trust from the Psalmist’s words this morning?

“Restore us, O God; let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved. You have brought a vine out of Egypt; you cast out the nations and planted it … Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted … Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one you have made so strong for yourself. And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your name. Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.”[8]

Prayer as growth. Prayer as Listening. Prayer as Lament. On the road to Christmas.

[1]Cited in Patrick J. Howell, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.65-66.

[2]Psalm 80; see also Psalms 74, 79, 85, 90.

[3]Matthew 22:37; Luke 13:34

[4]Matthew 26:39

[5]John 11:33-35

[6]Matthew 27:46, citing Psalm 22:1

[7]Howell, ibid., p.64

[8]Psalm 80:7-8,14-15,17-19

Today

In Andy Weir’s book and movie entitled, “The Martian”, the character played by actor Matt Damon – Mark Watney – is stranded on Mars. And he decides to survive using whatever scientific means possible and using whatever resources are at his disposal until a rescue mission is mounted. 

The book and movie differ in some ways — although the deviations in the movie aren’t as pronounced as in other script to screen adaptations. The most significant difference is, perhaps, the last scene. In the movie, the rescued and now teacher, Mark Watney, gives advice to a classroom full of students in astronaut school.

He counsels that in the face of almost certain death, the way forward is to focus all your energy on solving the next problem, and then the next, and then the next. After all, he survived almost two years alone on the red planet on account of his determination, and despite the odds to remain focused on the immediate task at hand. And not get lost in imagining future outcomes, or wallow in past mistakes.

His advice points to the importance of being present to the current moment of existence, paying attention to what is (not what might be or what was), and acting in confidence for all his efforts.

In the Gospel story, Jesus uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to announce his mission, his purpose (Luke 4:14-21). Jesus will bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners and good news to the oppressed. In summary, he declares his mission to bring compassion and healing to people. And significantly, he closes his public reading in the Nazarene synagogue in 28 C.E. by announcing that “today” this scripture has been fulfilled.

For all who wonder about who this Jesus is, this season after Epiphany ought to give us some clues. Epiphany means ‘revelation’, as Jesus is revealed to us. And, in this text his purpose is made clear. In fact, the writer Luke throughout his book de-emphasizes moral correctness, and rather underscores acts of compassion (1). The underlying question in Luke is not so much: “What does God demand?”; Rather, “Who needs attention and compassion?” This line of questioning can re-focus the purpose of any follower of Jesus.

If someone asked you today, “What is your purpose in life?”, what would you say? Could you describe your mission, specifically and in concrete terms? And, how does your life today reflect the values of your mission statement?

These questions cannot be directed solely at individuals, but the church as well. In the reading today from 1 Corinthians 12, our ministry and purpose finds purchase in the context of the collective. Saint Paul describes the church as a body with many members. The church is the Body of Christ, today. Do you know what your faith community’s mission is, to which you belong?

In coming to terms with his own ministry, Jesus had to make some decisions. He omits a phrase from the Isaiah scroll handed to him. While Jesus cites Isaiah 61:1-3 word for word, he excludes the second part of verse 2 — “… and the day of vengeance of our God.” In order to be true to his purpose, Jesus also needs to be clear about what he will not do. He needs to leave something out of his life altogether in order to remain on the path of healing and compassion. How can he reconcile divisions and heal the brokenhearted by bringing punishment and vengeance upon the people? Impossible.

In pursuing your mission, what do you need to omit? What do you need to stop doing? What are things you need to let go of, in order to make room for the new life which is calling you to grow in the Body?

And we can’t put it off or rationalize it away. There is a sense of urgency in the life of faith. Almost a dozen times in his Gospel, we find the word “today.” The writer Luke emphasizes the importance of the present time. Jesus says, “Today” the scriptures have been fulfilled (Luke 4:21). To Zacchaeus, Jesus announces that “today” salvation has come to his household (Luke 19:9). Hanging on the cross moments before he dies, Jesus turns to the criminal hanging beside him and says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Today, not yesterday. Not when I was young. Not in the heyday of church planting and growth. Not in some glorious vision of the past to which we hang on, pretending it was perfect, wishing to turn the clock back.

Today, not tomorrow. Not at some future date when things will be better. When we will have enough money. When I will have more time. When the kids are old enough. When I retire. When I die. When the church will be full again. When I/we find healing or deliverance from whatever hinders me/us from pursing my/our mission.

God gives us no other day than today to do what we must, what we need to do.

What in my life is it too soon for, too late for, just the right time for? (2)

The Holy Spirit gives us something to do for God. And God doesn’t leave us bereft of resources. The solution may very well be under our eyes, very near to us. Everyone seems to want to know these days: “How are we doing as a church?” and “How are you doing as an individual?” Perhaps the questions need to change. The real questions may be: “As a church, what are we doing for God?” and “What are you doing for God, today?”
This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! – Psalm 118:24


(1) Carol Lakey Hess in Barbara Brown Taylor & David L Bartlett, eds. “Feasting on the Word” Year C Vol 1, WJK Press Kentucky, 2009, p.286

(2) Dawna Markova, “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life” in Joyce Rupp, “Open Door: Journey to the True Self”, Kindle version, 2008, p.18 of 36 in Week 1

The outing begins within us

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand … No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered … Whoever does the will of God is [my family]” – Mark 3:24,27,35 

I wonder, in an action-oriented culture, whether we have considered the curious notion of where the kingdom of God – the reign of God – resides. In the the Gospel of Luke (17:21), Jesus says that “The kingdom of God is within you.” The great reformer, Martin Luther, preferred this rendering to the sometimes translated, “among” you. In his famous German translation he writes: “Das Reich Gottes ist inwendig in euch.”

Our house-dividedness and our divisions are not only externally out there in the big, bad world; they embody an internal reality, among and within us, that we often fail to acknowledge.

I think it was Canadian mystery writer, Louise Penny, in one of her recent novels described the internal conflict between two wolves: On the one hand, there is the wolf that lives on fear, anxiety and negativity; the other wolf warring for supremacy inside of us lives on joy, optimism and hope. The main characters in the newly-released home video entitled “Tomorrowland” starring George Clooney use this image of two parts of ourselves in conflict: the wolf of fear versus the wolf of hope. Which one wins? Which one will be victorious?

The answer: The one you feed.

We don’t often recognize the darkness within each one of us. We are all divided – in our nation, in our city, our communities, our churches and in our own lives. Whether we are ‘saved’ or not. Whether we are believers or not. Whether we belong to the right church, or not. Whether we have the right interpretation and doctrine, or not. Whether we speak the right language, or not.

It is curious how Jesus rebuffs the religious leaders’ serious accusation that Jesus had the devil inside him. In denouncing their claim by a logical argument – how can the devil purge the devil? – he acknowledges Satan’s existence and influence. Jesus doesn’t deny the power of evil.

We are all divided. The power of sin extends into the ways we have organized our lives, our prejudices, our racism, our bigotry, our ‘common sense’ ways of looking at the world and people, our economy. We are divided. Our identity is fractured. We will say one thing about God’s love, and behave the opposite way when it comes down to it.

It can be very easy to detect which wolf we end up feeding, most of the time.

Thankfully, there is this levelling affect that Jesus has in his words from the Gospel today. This is not an exclusive venture we are on, as followers of Jesus. In verse 28 a more accurate translation of the word “people” evokes a universal meaning, such as “all children of humanity” – everyone will be forgiven their sins! This is good news! This is the hope. Because, even though we live in imperfect, flawed and divided communities – there is still the good, therein.

But how can the two wolves get along inside of us? How can the warring internal battles, in the end, be resolved?

“Das Reich Gottes ist inwendig in EUCH”. That last word, “you”, is not singular. In German, it is the plural form. Of course, in the original Greek, Jesus addressed his disciples. But in English we don’t have this distinction in the second-person between individual or plural; so we easily and naturally assume, I think, the individual. But this is a mistake.

In this Gospel text, the one verse that I think get’s us distracted more than any other is the ‘one sin against the Holy Spirit that is unforgivable’ (v.29). And immediately we, individually, start getting upset and fearful and very nervous: What if I have sinned against the Holy Spirit? Will I go to hell? People on their death beds will often become anxious about their faith, whether they, individually, have done enough to ‘earn’ salvation on their own, by themselves. This fear goes deep.

But the weight of glory and the burden of sin is carried by the whole, mystical body of Christ. I don’t have to be privately perfect in order to go to heaven, because the perfection is in the whole body of Christ. We are merely members of it: some of you are a foot, some of you are an eye, some of you are an ear – today, I am the mouth! “I” am not the whole body; you (singular) are not the whole body.

You, individually, don’t have to take the burden of universal sin upon yourself, in which you are complicit, I agree. And so am I. But neither can you, individually, take on the weight of glory upon yourself. If you are good – and obviously you are by coming to church today and sticking with us the whole hour long – your goodness is not your own: It’s your Mom in you; it’s your Dad in you; it’s your grandfather and your grandmother in you; it’s your neighbour in you; it’s your pastor that pastored you years ago in you; it’s your friends in you. They are your goodness.

This rampant individualism that is the unfortunate consequence of the Reformation has probably undone Christianity more than anything else, to keep us – ‘tie us up’ – from understanding the communal aspect of God’s kingdom and the church. This is the level from which Jesus, Paul and Martin Luther for that matter proclaimed it. (Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, The Rohr Institute, Disc 4, New Mexico, 2012).

So, despite the tug of war inside of inside of us, obey the good. Whatever is strong and good in us together, let that lead. Whatever good nudges us at the core of our being – forgiveness, compassion, grace, good intention – let’s not ‘tie that strength up within us.’ Let’s not hesitate. Let’s not rationalize it to death. Let’s not succumb to the temptation of paralysis-by-analysis. Let it out. Let that goodness lead us. Because each of us has this shared, good strength within – even people against whom we hold prejudice and discriminate.

Decorated Canadian Olympian and mental health advocate, Clara Hughes, said at the Closing Ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa this past week that “The only way you can be good and strong and fast is if you want it for everyone.”

Jesus said, “Only those who do the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v.35). We say the words every week in our prayers – praying for peace among waring religious groups in far away places. We pray for peace in Syria and Iraq where ISIL continues its reign of terror against religious minorities. We pray for reconciliation between Aboriginal and Settler peoples – that is, immigrants like us.

Why don’t we also consider living that prayer out, in our own backyard? Why don’t we also consider actually doing something in the name of Jesus to the purpose of peace and reconciliation between different religious and ethnic groups in our own city? To be a faithful witness of what peace can look like, to the world?

To feed the wolf of hope.

Back to the Future: Borderland spirituality

2015 is the year of “Back to the Future”, did you know? When Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, travelled ‘Back to the Future’ in the 1980’s pop culture film, the year they went to, in the future, was 2015.

As a kid I enjoyed the movie, partly because the year 2015, at the time, seemed some unrealistic, arbitrary and irrelevant point in the future; the number only represented some distant benchmark unconnected to my present reality.

Today, 2015 no longer means some far-off, futuristic fantasy. It is reality, now. And if I watch ‘Back to the Future’ today, the movie represents more of an historical curiosity — I’m only looking ‘back’.

In faith, it’s like we simultaneously look back, forward, and both from the grounding of the present moment. Balancing all three is good theology. For its sesquicentennial anniversary, the Eastern Synod (ELCIC) employed the motto: “Remembering for the Future”. Celebrating an important event in the present day by integrating past with the future is important. And a good way to interpret the Bible.

But it an also cause dismay if we only insist on a certain, chronological ordering of events in an absolute kind of way. For example, at Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel for today (Mark 1:4-11) there is the matter of the Holy Spirit, which descends in the form of a dove upon Jesus (v. 8, 10). John the Baptist preaches that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

But Jesus never performs one baptism in his ministry that we know of. And, according to the time-line of the Gospels, the Holy Spirit doesn’t descend on the church until after Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:19-23) and at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) — these Holy Spirit events do not occur during Jesus’ ministry of healing, teaching and praying on earth. Curious, since many understand Jesus’ baptism as his ordination or commissioning to his call as the beloved Son of God. How do we make sense of this?

To understand many of the stories we read, like the Gospel for today, we would do well, I believe, to employ a ‘Back to the Future’ hermeneutic. This way of interpreting does not deny the truth of all of the events outlined above. For one, it reveals something about how the bible was put together:

The actual writing of the New Testament was done decades after these events took place. Therefore, we say, that we, today, are ‘post-resurrection’ Christians. We can best understand what happens at Jesus baptism from the perspective of the future. Because when these stories were written down for the first time, and from today’s perspective — the Holy Spirit has already come. Jesus is alive. Even as we recall, as a matter of history, what happened in the moments of Jesus’ life on earth some two thousand years ago.

And it’s not just a pointing forward that we need to keep in mind. It is a reverence and respect for the past.

If you look at the geography of the Baptism of our Lord, we can conclude at least a couple of things: First, it takes place in the wilderness, the desert. That is through which the river Jordan runs, basically north to south separating lands that are for the most part destitute, rugged, dangerous even.

Second, that river forms a boundary between two worlds — on the east and south, the world of the ancient Israelites tracking through the desert for decades on their way to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, which is on the other side.

John the Baptist comes to this border land, which is significant in the history of the prophets. In fact, John the Baptist stands in line with the prophets of old. His speeches are associated with Isaiah (Mark 1:1-8); he is also mistaken for Elijah because of what he wears (2 Kings 1:8) and because he foretells of the coming Messiah (John 1:21). John’s presence and ministry at the Jordan River in the wilderness brings the past (an identification with history and the prophets) together with the future (Jesus Christ, and the coming Holy Spirit) together into the present moment.

How can we keep ourselves from getting lost and totally confused in the plot line of “Back to the Future?” We remain grounded in the present moment. We look to our immediate surroundings. Like the beasts of the field, we scuff the earth with our heal, and snort and spit, before we look up.

And this is the beauty and wisdom of these Scriptures: their insistent if not peculiar emphasis on details. Yes, God acts in creation. Yes, God redeems sinners. Yes, God has a plan for salvation.

But this ‘spiritual’ talk is always, in the Gospel, tied to material — real water, real bread, real time, inexpensive wine, locusts, honey, sand, camel’s hair, wind, birds and the clouds being rent asunder. This is the nitty-gritty of life, and it can never be separated from matters of the Spirit.

Keeping grounded in the present awareness of life, ‘as is’, helps us track the sometimes confusing plot-line of ‘Back to the Future’. Because it is there that Jesus stands — on the borderland, at the edge of the Kingdom of God. Jesus stands there, and invites us to live into the now-and-not-yet reality of it (Ted Smith, “Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.239).

The Gospel of John identifies Jesus as a ‘lamb’. T.S. Elliot describes Jesus as a ‘tiger’. In C.S. Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ books, Jesus is personified in Aslan, the ‘lion’. Nancy Rockwell, in her post, “Tracks” (blog: The Bite in the Apple) suggests the ‘camel’, for Jesus who identified with lepers and prostitutes, difficult people, estranged members of right society, people who are spat upon. All these images for Jesus throughout history reveal unique elements about his truth.

But, standing in the desert beside John the Baptist, Jesus identifies with the lowly who are on a journey of transformation. Jesus invites the lowly in us to go on a journey that does not reject the past, and tradition, and history but doesn’t allow us to remain stuck there. Because this journey through borderland brings us eventually into a land flowing with milk and honey — a land of healing, restoration and justice for all who seek these gifts of the Holy Spirit.

This means that we cannot use our tainted and troubled past as an excuse for not doing the right thing, now. At the same time, we cannot wait until an ideal future when circumstances are perfect to do the right thing, now.

Back to the Future brings the present moment into sharp focus. A good theology will always ask, “What is going on right now in my life and world?” “Who do I meet today?” And act, now, accordingly. A spirituality of the borderland will always draw my attention to the divine importance of the present moment which is supported by history, and hope-filled for the future.

Are we ‘divergent’?

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph…” (Genesis 45:1-3a)

The Joseph story in Genesis paints an incredible picture of personal endurance through hardship, a journey which resolves into a final and satisfying conclusion. It is story-telling at its greatest. Those words of Joseph near the end of the book of Genesis, “I am Joseph”, mark a cathartic climax to his tumultuous life in Egypt. We can feel Joseph’s relief when he reveals his true identity to his brothers who had to this point no clue that he was indeed their long lost brother whom they had betrayed. These words signify the forgiveness and reconciliation that Joseph then expresses with his brothers and father, indeed with his extended Hebrew family and identity.

You see, since the time when his mischievous, jealous and evil-doing brothers sold Joseph into Egyptian slavery, Joseph was essentially a stranger in a foreign land: a Hebrew man of God living in the polytheistic religious culture in Egypt. What is remarkable, is that Joseph is able to use his gifts and street-wise talents to climb the ladder of success in this foreign culture, to the point of being appointed Pharaoh’s right-hand man during one of the greatest crisis facing the region at the time — a seven-year famine.

The main character, Tris, in the popular series of books by Veronica Roth entitled “Divergent”, struggles with her identity. It is no doubt to my mind why these books and movie are popular among young adults seeking to establish ‘who they are’ in this world. In this distopic vision of earth in the future, humanity is divided into five factions; each faction has a particular function in society: to advance knowledge, defence, care-giving, truth-telling and working the land. The goal of this culture is to keep people in only one of those factions throughout their lives. Of course, reality is not so cut-and-dried.

Young people are tested for their aptitude and then they need to make a choice, which faction they will join. Once that choice is made, they cannot change. Tris discovers she doesn’t fit the mold; she is ‘divergent’, meaning she has an aptitude — the gifts — to belong to more than one faction successfully. She becomes a threat to the leadership of the society who wants to stamp out all divergents and keep things in the society simple, clear-cut and easily controlled. Similar to Joseph, this, too, is the journey to discover and embrace one’s true identity.

But I believe it is a journey not just for young adults, but for all of us. Even in the church, as we week-by-week come here to re-connect with our religious identity. In next week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus himself asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” The question of identity is crucial in our understanding not only of God but of ourselves in Christ Jesus, the Body of Christ. Who are we, as Christians and as Lutherans, in the world today some two thousand years after Jesus walked on this earth? And what is our purpose, our mission?

A while ago some of you expressed interest in exploring more our Lutheran history and identity — and how we communicate that identity in our Canadian context. I found a good summary of this from a retired professor from Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, who a few years ago gave a talk at Luther Hostel about Lutherans in Canada (“We’re from Away: The Lutheran Experience in Canada”, Robert Kelly, Luther Hostel 2011, pages 4-7).

Professor Robert Kelly asserts that Lutherans came here as immigrants who did not speak English. We came to Canada, essentially, as “Foreign Protestants”. This reality posed some challenges and reveals potential strengths in our identity.

Perhaps the most serious issue we face because of our history, Kelly writes, is how it has impacted our sense of mission. Most of our Lutheran churches began as groupings of people who shared an ethnicity and a language. Because our roots were in Germany and the Nordic countries our understanding of mission centred on making contact with immigrants from the old country who were already Lutheran. The British Government helped us with that in the 19th century by settling people of the same ethnicity and religion near each other. Our mission goal, then, was to get them into our congregations and keep them in the fold before some other group got them. Our mission was to make sure those who came as Lutherans remained Lutherans. We weren’t so interested in finding people who did not share our language and ethnicity. We were most certainly NOT a “church in mission for others.” Our mission was to care for ourselves and people like us.

Nevertheless, the fact that our ancestors came here as “foreign Protestants” who did not speak English is a strength we can build on. Kelly writes that “in a country that is defined by the diversity of its immigrants, we were one of the original groups that was neither French nor English. We have in our history an understanding of what it is like to come here and be perceived as different. In our historical experience is the possibility that we could relate to the present experience of immigrants from all over the world.”

Being “foreign Protestants” also put us a bit outside of the mainstream of society. This can be an advantage especially as the mainstream of society does not hold the values and beliefs of one of Martin Luther’s most enduring doctrines, “justification by grace through faith”.

That is, there is a tendency in the mainstream of our culture to blame the poor, the underprivileged, the minority, the unemployed or the victim for their situation. The roots of this negative attitude lie in the religious mainstream of British Protestantism: the idea that our prosperity in the world is a sign that we are the elect of God. It is this mainstream that promoted and still promotes the idea that we secure our place in the world through hard work and positive thinking. It is pretty much like the slogan at the heart of much of late Medieval theology: If you do your very best, God will not fail to reward you with grace.

Of course, Martin Luther had trouble with the basic idea that what makes us right with God is our work, our efforts to earn God’s favour. As Lutherans our history and theology has at its best opposed the mainstream approach. As Lutherans we say that our place in the world is not something we can earn, but is a gift of God’s unconditional promise in Christ. That is what the Lutheran Reformation was all about.

“Luther’s basic insight was that any scheme of salvation that is based in us and our ability to do our very best — whether that is defined as doing good works or believing the proper doctrines or hard work and positive thinking — is really no scheme of salvation at all. Rather it is a guarantee that our lives will either be wracked with anxiety or lived in the shallowness of self-righteousness. The ideology by which our society lives is precisely the ideology which Luther spent his adult life opposing” (Robert Kelly).

The Lutheran alternative in understanding the Gospel is that it is not about us and what we achieve, but about God and what God is doing. It’s about joining God’s activity wherever God is — which puts our preferences and comfortability at risk. The cross of Christ is the path of salvation, but it isn’t easy. The promise, of course, is that through the difficulties — like it was for Joseph — we do find our way.

Many Christians have stumbled at Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman in the Gospel text for today (Matthew 15:21-28). It’s hard to make sense of first Jesus’ arrogant silence to the woman’s request; and then Jesus’ downright rudeness in essentially calling the woman a ‘dog’. This language is not what we expect of Jesus, it it? To be sure, we can explain the behaviour of Jesus in a way that we can easily grasp; for example the fact that Jesus talks at all to a Canaanite woman is a radical affirmation of her personhood (Dock Hollingsworth, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 3, Bartlett/Taylor eds., John Knox Press New Westminster, 20011, p.361).

But perhaps the point of this Gospel text is simply to suggest to us the truth that Jesus and his Way does not always come through for us as we may expect. Jesus does not always conform to what we hope for. In other words, God is experienced in unexpected places and people. We cannot put God in a box.

We Lutherans have an important mission in Canada today. That mission is not, I believe, to find the lost Lutherans and bring them back to the orthodox fold. Rather, our mission — in the words of Robert Kelly — is “to be communities of people who speak the Gospel, the Good News of unconditional promise, clearly and who speak it to, for and with anyone who needs to hear it no matter where they come from or who they are.

Jesus does, in the end, grant the Canaanite woman her plea, as an example of Jesus’ radical inclusion of a Gentile. Here is another biblical appeal for the broad, unconditional reach of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Our mission is to be communities of people who have heard the Good News of God’s promise in Christ and who live in the world as if that message is true. When we do that we have fulfilled the promise of our history” and our identity. We are being true, to who we really are.

Bane and Blessing

In the popular Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “Rapunzel”, that was in recent years adapted for the big screen in the movie “Tangled”, the main character, Rapunzel, has extremely long hair. This is her gift, it would appear.

But the evil witch has locked her in a room at the top of a tall tower without any entrance or exit except a window near the top. The witch and the prince climb up to the room where Rapunzel lives, by calling for Rapunzel to let down her long hair; they use her hair like a rope ladder.

But Rapunzel never uses her gift of long hair to free herself from her entrapment. While others recognized the gift she had, for better or for worse, why couldn’t she just cut off her own hair? Why could Rapunzel not use her gift, especially if it meant freedom? She had what she needed to be free!

Was it her strong emotional attachment to her hair that prevented her from living life truly, freely? If only she could let go and surrender that which was most precious to her….

In the famous Beatitudes, Jesus described the ‘blessedness’ of those in the kingdom of God. How can we understand this ‘blessing’? This Sermon on the Mount does not read like a self-help manual for the successful, in the twenty-first century. There is something counter-cultural going on here; something paradoxical, even radical.

It seems to suggest to me that to be followers of Christ we must also be able to see in ourselves what we see in others: the bane and the blessing, the good and bad, both/and. It is, on the one hand, to recognize the sinner in ourselves, and to forgive – let go, surrender – ourselves of that sin. And not let it rule us.

To recognize, embrace and confess the poverty of spirit within us.

To explore and acknowledge places of grief and loss in our own lives.

To practice humility with others, a stance that recognizes God as the “source of our life” (1 Cor 1:30).

To identify and name our own hungers, longings and thirst for righteousness.

To be merciful unto ourselves, to begin with.

To search after the purity of our own heart.

To share the gift of peace that is within us.

And to endure the persecution and suffering we all encounter in whatever form, for Christ’s sake.

It’s easy to point the finger, and see it in others, and preserve our own sense of self. It’s easy to do nothing and ‘wait’ for someone to come and save you from your problems (like Rapunzel), without noticing the resources you have yourself to do the right thing, even it means starting by confessing your own sin.

The Gospel of Jesus, while being simple is not easy. Therefore, we need not shy away from seeking after the ‘blessing’ of God upon our lives in our honest, simple, vulnerable selves. We need not hold back from coming to God in all our sinfulness, because God won’t hold back his love to us.

“Consider your own call …: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not…” Paul writes (1 Cor 1:26-28).

Spiritual greats over the centuries have recognized this truth of God. St Augustine says, “In my deepest wound I see your glory and it dazzles me.” Julian of Norwich put it, “God sees the wounds, and sees them not as scars but as honors … God does not blame us for them.” Paul wrote elsewhere, defining God as one “who creates life out of death and calls into being what does not exist” (Romans 4:17).

On the cross, Jesus reconciled all these divisions in himself (Ephesians 2:10). It was, and is, the pattern of his life with us, as the Scriptures testify: Jesus himself was crucified between a good thief and a bad thief, hanging between heaven and earth, holding on to both his divinity and humanity, expelled as a problem for both religion and state.

His dying – his absolute letting go – upended any religious program that said, ‘You need to earn your worth and favour with God.’ Letting go is the nature of all true spirituality. Letting go is the nature of any genuine reconciliation. Letting go is the engine of meaningful and lasting transformation. And these are all, admittedly, a mystery – a paradox.

For Rapunzel, we cannot blame her for being attached to her hair; after all, it was a gift. Why would she want to cut it off – for any reason? Why would she want to give that up? It was such a deep part of her identity.

When we see Jesus on the cross, we see that our faith is about being ‘attached’ in love. Jesus instructs his followers in the Golden Rule to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27).

But there’s a price, a cost, to pay for it. When you love someone, and act out of love for them, there is always the risk of pain and we will suffer for it. If we love, we give ourselves to feel the pain of the world. Love will simply lead us to the cross.

Sometimes the worst possible circumstances in our lives turn out to be the greatest gift – and vice versa. Because our greatest gift can be the source of our downfall; or, at very least, keep us from become the people God called us to be. Yet, it is in the collision and letting go of these opposites, where the blessing is realized.

Listen to the witness of a Catholic priest who visited the Philippines:

“I saw so many shining eyes in the Philippines, yet these are souls who have been eaten up and spit out by life. The Filipinos are a people with so little. I celebrated a Sunday Mass in a squatter’s camp. Shacks all around. Yet they were so excited that ‘Fodder’ was coming. The kids met me to lead me into the barrio. Out of these shacks came kids in perfectly clean clothes. I don’t know how the mothers kept them so clean. They were all dressed up for Sunday Mass. The boys all got their guitars, and it was the big event of the week. They have something we have lost.

“I felt like telling them, ‘You live in a dump by our standards, but do you know what you have? You’re not cynical like we are. You’re all smiling. Why should you be smiling? You don’t have any reason to smile. You live in a shack! It smells like garbage. But you have father and mother and clear, simple identity.’”

Then, this priest confesses: “I don’t know who trained them to do this, but you constantly feel your hand taken by the little Filipino children. They take your hand and put it to their head. They don’t ask you to bless them. They take it from you. It made me weep. For they have their souls yet! They have light, they have hope. The little children call you ‘Fodder, Fodder,’ and I think when they pull blessings out of you, blessings really come forth.

“They are ready for the blessing. They believe in the blessing, and you are not really sure if it was there until they saw it, expected it, and demanded it. These are the blessed of the earth,” he concludes.

These are ones who don’t need to be taught the faith. They live it. They live the mystery of life and death, blessing and loss. They’re okay with paradox, even if they can’t articulate it as such. They don’t need everything explained to them. They just love. And bless. And are blessed.

They, indeed, have the light of Christ. And they know it, deep down, in their souls.

Apart from the reference to Rapunzel and the film, Tangled, most of this reflection is adapted from Chapter 6, “Return to the Sacred” in Richard Rohr’s book, “Everything Belongs”

A public journey

In the opening scenes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on the big screen, Bilbo Baggins is faced with a momentous choice: Will he respond to the wizard Gandalf’s invitation to join the company of dwarves on an adventure? Or, will he remain safe and sound in the Shire and the comforts of his burrow?

We meet Bilbo as someone who cherishes his home. And we sympathize. We see how much he values the simple and predictable routines that give him security and peace: his regular meal times, his books, and pleasant sits on his front patio smoking a pipe looking upon the passersby. This is when Gandalf first encounters Bilbo with the invitation to join him on an important mission. Nothing comes of it, and Gandalf leaves.

Leading a rather solitary life, Bilbo is disturbed out of his comfort zone one evening soon thereafter when a company of dwarves invades his home, his cupboards and his routines in a boisterous celebration. Initially unawares of the purpose of this offensive invasion of privacy, Bilbo resents the dwarves and all their carousing, indulgence, eating and singing.

Then Gandalf appears again to put to Bilbo their need for a ‘thief’ to join their troupe in an attempt to recover the treasures of the dwarves’ lost kingdom. To comply, Bilbo must sign a contract, promising no guarantee of success or safety on this journey.

Bilbo resists this offer, turning it down flatly.  Too much risk. No guarantees of success. Too much to lose. Early in the morning, Bilbo wakes from his ‘nightmare’ to an empty house. The party is over. The lively group has just left on their journey, without him. All has returned to peace and quiet.

We watch Bilbo as he pauses amidst his seeming peace. We can only guess at the churning of his mind over the experience and invitation of the previous evening. Then, without warning, he erupts with speed and diligence, gathering only a few belongings in a bag. And runs out the door.

What finally convinced Bilbo to join in on this unexpected journey? How did Bilbo embark on this journey that would transform him from a unassuming, small hobbit into the hero of the story? What tipped the scales?

Was it Gandalf’s gentle yet persistent invitations and promptings? Was it meeting people who were real, genuine, authentic, people who would be forming his community on this journey, friends that would stand by him through thick and thin? Did he realize that in all his comfort and isolation and privacy in the Shire, he was missing something essential in life?

The Gospel from Matthew (4:12-23) reads like a grand opening of the start of Jesus’ journey, his ministry. The reading makes a broad sweep across time and scriptures to land at the disciples feet with invitation, and locate Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue at Capernaum. And there, in the synagogue the crowds came to listen to Jesus’ announce the coming kingdom of God.

Last week, from the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first question to his disciples was: “What do you seek? What are you looking for?” (John 1:38) In the Psalm for today (27:4), we read that the Psalmist seeks the Lord in his temple. Indeed, the people come to a public place for worship, to encounter truth, find peace and hear the message of love from God.

If the image of the temple, or synagogue, or church means anything to us today, it is the public gathering place for worship. Our deepest desires are met, not in isolation, but in community. Our deepest longing are satisfied not in the privacy of our individual lives, but in the public realm. It’s a bit counter-intuitive for some personalities — like it was for Bilbo who thought that his life would be complete in the safety, security and solitude of his home and hearth.

But deep down, he must have realized that there was something missing in his self-serving program for life. That his true self, his true calling and his growth as a person lay not in being by himself, but with his friends, in community, together on the ‘unexpected’ adventure of life.

I think this is part of the reason how those first disciples of Jesus were able to drop their fishing nets and follow Jesus, immediately. They knew that following Jesus would enrich their lives in ways no other self-seeking, self-centred, individualistic approach to life could do. Growth in faith is not a private enterprise, but a public expression. Faith is done together, not apart. In this way, we are assured of the eternal support and love from God through all the difficulties of life. And we grow and mature.

In the Psalm, God’s protection and support also includes being placed high upon a rock (27:5) — a vulnerable place to be, where the whole world can see you. Being a Christian and following Jesus is not just about seeking comfort nor is it about keeping things the same. Following God assumes some personal risk, no guarantees, and losing things. But the growth and transformation come about by this journey with others may very well be what we need to get through the dark times.

I was moved reading the story of “a beloved, longtime church member who was wracked with worry about his son. Sunday after Sunday the man returned to the sanctuary. When the congregation sang its hymns, he stood without a hymnal. He listened to the familiar tunes, but he had lost his voice for singing. The congregation’s alleluias felt far off.

“One Sunday he rose during the time of congregational prayer. He offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the people in those pews. He thanked his fellow churchgoers for keeping the faith when he could not, for singing hymns when he could not, for seeing the goodness of God when his eyes were too cloudy to see it.

“To be sure, his concern for his son continued. But he had begun to recognize again the source of his strength. His words were his own, but they echoed an ancient faith: God is my light and my salvation. God is the stronghold of my life. I will sing to the Lord.” (Andrew Nagy-Benson, Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 1, p.277)