God in the lowlands

These last moments of Jesus’ life stand in stark contrast to what is valued in the world.

I find it ironic that we read today a text that is normally read on Good Friday – the day Christians worldwide pause to recall and remember the brutal death of Jesus on the cross. It is the day Christians confront the God who is deeply humiliated, a man who suffers injustice to the extent of his gruesome and painful suffering and torturous, drawn-out dying.

It’s ironic because a text that is normally read on Good Friday comes just days before what North Americans call Black Friday. Despite the various reasons why that day has come to be called Black Friday – it is commonly known to be the day the malls and commercial districts are crowded, busy and congested bustling with deal seekers and shoppers. It is the day the consumer in us is stoked. Big time.

Indeed, these last moments of Jesus’ earthly, humanity all seem to be in vivid contrast to what is valued as great in our world – this world presented to us in colourful, catalogue-thick inserts and pop-up internet ads promoting incredible sales and savings.

It is not poor, but a world of glamour and glitz.

It is not selfless, but a me-first world of acquisition and accumulation.

It is not vulnerable and generous, but a miserly, defensive and self-preservationist world.

Today is also what the church calls, “Christ the King”, on the last Sunday in the church year. At the end of time, we assert in faith that Jesus is King and his reign lasts forever. But, what kind of king are we talking about here? Certainly not a kind of king the world knows.

In response to Pilate’s question “Are you the King of the Jews?”[1], Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

That Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world is proved in what this ruler wants to happen and makes happen that other powerful rulers are not willing or able to do.

Let’s face it: Part of our inability to believe and trust the forgiving power of God’s grace and mercy is our inability to believe that other people deserve mercy. We want to judge whom God lets into heaven. Many of us are more comfortable not knowing what happened to the thief who scoffed at Jesus than knowing that an undeserving thief was let into paradise.

Would we not rather have had Jesus say that  God loves the people we like that God does not love the people we do not like? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the crackheads, the homeless, the refugee and Muslim immigrant? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the addicts, the adulterers, the thieves, the gays, the prostitutes, the rebellious and the disgruntled? Would we not prefer it if paradise were exclusively for the nice people, the clean people, the polite people, the well-behaved people, the right people?

How different is Jesus? There was a very strange novel published in England in the late 19th century called Flatlands. It is a story about a world that is flat, everything is two-dimensional. The chief character in the novel is Mr. Square, who is, of course, only in two dimensions.

One day, Mr. Square is visited by a Mr. Sphere who is, of necessity, in three dimensions. Square regards Sphere quite apprehensively. Sphere speaks to Square about a world of three dimensions, a world that is not flat. But Square is unconvinced. Living in a two-dimensional world, it is impossible for him to imagine another dimension. Eventually, Sphere is persecuted and driven out by the outraged flatlanders.

I propose to you that that is how different Jesus is from us. We are flatlanders. We live in a world of two dimensions, unable to grasp the possibility of a reality beyond that which we have experienced. We have been unable to believe, for instance, that love and forgiveness is a better response to evil than brute force. God’s power of love is three-dimensional to our two-dimensional thinking.

Notice with the second thief hanging beside Jesus on his cross, the thief does not ask to be saved, to be rescued. He only asks once, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Perhaps his plea is meant to echo these words from the Psalm: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”[2]– which is to say: Do not remember me according to my faults, but remember me according to your goodness.

We have faith not because we are weak but because God is strong and God is love. There is grace for us and for the people we do not like. Our salvation is dependent on a loving, grace-filled God.

So why can we hope in this goodness when we look around us at all the evil? Because Mr. Sphere did come among all of us Squares and we did persecute him and drive him out.

But he wouldn’t and couldn’t stay away. No, his three-dimensional existence couldn’t be flattened out by us. He is alive! And he comes to us again today in this meal we are about to share.

Again, it’s so hard for us to understand because he is like three-dimensions to our two. But he comes again with a word of love and forgiveness that promises the power that will finally take care of all that’s troubling in this world. It won’t be easy. He predicted that, too. But it is the only way. He comes to us again today to lead the way. “I have seen the future,” he says to us. “The future is not some cold grave, some hard, lifeless tomb. The future is the glorious triumph of God’s love.”

This man whom we follow is the king not of the flatlands, but in the lowlands. Spheres always roll to the bottom of things. Christ is king in the lowlands because God does not want us to die and suffer in that dark and sad region. Maybe you are today in a sort of darkness. The darkness of grief, loss, physical pain or emotional pain.

But the Holy One is with you today and for you today in that darkness. And, therefore, you will be with him today, and forevermore, in paradise. Thank God! Amen.[3]

[1]John 18:36

[2]Psalm 25:7

[3]Thank you to the writers for ‘Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) Luke 23:33-43’ in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.332-337 for many of the words and ideas expressed here.

Super-hero busted

With Marvel and DC the biggest box office attractions in recent years, the popular culture exposes our desires and fantasies. These super-heroes are really just projections of our own wants and longings. We put ourselves in these roles, vicariously living out the super-hero life.

What from the super-hero culture inform and influence our real lives, you ask? What does it mean to be a hero, living day-to-day?

Last week, we concluded our Lent book study about our medical culture. When the stakes are high and decisions have to be made about treatment of serious illness, what do we want? How do we respond? In the book aptly entitled, “Being Mortal”, author Atul Gawande writes:

“The pressure remains all in one direction, toward doing more, because the only mistake clinicians seem to fear is doing too little. Most have no appreciation that equally terrible mistakes are possible in the other direction—that doing too much could be no less devastating to a person’s life.”[1]

Being heroic means doing more, not less. More power. More strength. Super-human capacity. Fighting evil means counter punch for punch—just harder, faster. Solving problems means finding more resources, generating more capacity to meet the demands. Doing things better. This is the culture of heroism in our day. We want to be heroes.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, is our biblical hero. We like him. We get him. He always wanted to be Jesus’ hero, protecting him from the suffering of which he spoke, jumping into the water not once but twice to be the first of the disciples to get to Jesus.[2]Jesus, at one point, even had to say to Peter: “Get behind me Satan” when Peter said he would not allow the suffering and death of Jesus.[3]

Even in the Passion narrative Peter is still delusional, believing he will follow Jesus, heroically, to the end. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”[4]Peter is the consummate hero.

The part from the Passion narrative where he then ‘denies the Lord three times when the rooster crows’ is a turning point for him.[5]And for us.

In the Passion of our Lord, the Cross is the central image and destination. And against the Cross our truth is exposed, and we are caught in the headlights. Our true motivations are squared against the values of the kingdom of God to which Jesus bore witness in his last days and trial.

Normally, I have understood Peter’s denial of Jesus merely as self-preservation. He doesn’t want to expose his vulnerability in that situation. He doesn’t want to be considered a threat, and be arrested himself. He wants to conserve and protect himself. And so he is caught off-guard, and quickly denies his involvement with Jesus.

But what if we saw Peter’s words of denial more as a confession rather than self-seeking, self-preservation? Peter confesses, at the end of the road, that he does not ‘know’ the kingdom of which Jesus speaks. Peter confesses that he is not a true disciple of Jesus.

Even at this end, nevertheless, Jesus knows Peter better than he knows himself. “Today, you will deny me”. Hours later, Peter stares into the flames of the firepit in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and warms his hands by the fire. Finally, Peter comes to himself in all honesty and vulnerability. “No, I don’t know him. No, I don’t know this Jesus. No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He is finally telling the truth, in his ‘denial’. Facing this truth is hard, and that is why he goes out and weeps bitterly at the end. Peter’s ideal image of himself—a heroic disciple of the Lord, a super-hero Jesus freak—has come crashing down. He is not the hero he thought he was. He does not have the courage to follow in the way of Jesus to the cross.

When, in the solitude of our confession, we confront ourselves in all honesty—we find ourselves at ground zero, that turning point, that event-horizon towards transformation and healing. Because further down that path of hero worship we cannot go. And, we wonder, seriously question whether we have what it takes to let go, and follow Jesus to the cross of our lives.

It is unknown territory, on the bottom. We do not know it well, if at all. We shy away from it, understandably. We are uncomfortable, here. “In solitude, we encounter our own poverty, incompleteness and brokenness. We see how petty we can be; how possessive and judgmental; how angry, resentful, and mean-spirited; how self-centered in our thoughts and actions. No wonder we are tempted to flee solitude and to lose ourselves in busyness and distractions. It takes courage to plumb the depths of our soul.”[6]

Peter in the high priest’s courtyard finds his bottom in honest confession, not unlike the Prodigal Son wallowing in the mud of the pig pen when he has his moment of reckoning.

It takes courage to come close to Jesus near the Cross. It takes courage to let go of our heroism and our compulsion to do more, to do better. It takes courage to let go being incessantly active and working harder as a way of avoiding ‘plumbing the depths of our soul’.

Are you willing to give up being a hero for Jesus? Are you still a disciple when Jesus leads you this close to the cross?[7]

Perhaps another story from the Passion narratives of the Gospels usually assigned for Holy Week can be helpful. It’s the Gospel text from last week, actually, when Mary lavishly anoints Jesus’ feet.

How does Mary respond to the reality of human limitation and vulnerability? How does she respond to the ‘ground zero’ reality surrounding her and Jesus? Remember, Mary knows what is going on with Jesus. Anointing was reserved for coronations and burials. Jesus qualifies for both. And his end was nigh. How does she deal with that?

In Luke’s version of the anointing story, Jesus tells Mary: “Your sins are forgiven.”[8]Why were her sins forgiven after anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume?

Not only because of her great sorrow, nor because she remembered all her sins, nor even because of any contrition she might have felt for her human weakness. Why then?

Because she loved, and loved much.[9]So, instead of sorrowing over her sinfulness, she gave abundantly and without reservation of her affection and love for Jesus.

Confronting our truth, as scary as that is, is not license to wallow in passive, self-preoccupation. Rather, this degree of self-honesty and confession leads to extravagant acts of mercy and love towards another. At ground zero, we realize that our lives are not ours, but God’s. At ground zero, we realize that we live for something and someone much greater than our individual problems and shortcomings.

The description of what God does, relating to the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4-9 is important:

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word …

The Lord God has opened my ear …

The Lord God helps me …

The Lord God helps me.[10]

When truth-telling can lead to acts of profound love for the sake of ‘the weary’, the Lord God helps us.

When our actions, tarnished even by our humanity, focus on love for the vulnerable and weak, the Lord God helps us.

When our limitations are offered to God in acts of love for others, the Lord God helps us.

And we are still the Lord’s disciples. Even Peter, beyond his moment not of denial, but acceptance. Jesus pronounced him ‘the rock’ upon which God builds the church.

And, we know what lies beyond this momentary tribulation. We have Jesus to thank for that. This is the promise of our journeys, rough though they may be.

And, through it all, we are still the Lord’s disciples.

 

[1]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End(Toronto: Penguin, 2017), p.220

[2]Matthew 14:28-31; John 21:7-19

[3]Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33

[4]Luke 22:33

[5]Luke 22:24-34,54-62; John 18:15-27

[6]Br. David Vryhof
Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” 8 April 2019

 

[7]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life  (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009),  p.79.

[8]Luke 7:44-48

[9]The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Ira Progoff (Delta Books: 1957), 100-102.

[10]Isaiah 50:4-9 NRSV, reading assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Passion Sunday.

Game of Thrones and the Throne of Grace

As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne .. (Daniel 7:9)

There appears to be something different about the throne of the Ancient One. Among all the thrones, when the Ancient One sits down we are to take notice. What is it about God’s throne that stands out?

At this time of the year, we still ought to be saying: “Winter is coming.” Although it is obvious now that we can, with all “Game of Thrones” fans, be asserting those ominous words that indeed, “Winter has arrived”!

Fans of the epic TV series “Game of Thrones” need still to wait until the final season airs next year. In the symbolic centre of this miasma of twisting plot lines and characters constantly fighting for supremacy sits the imposing throne at the front of the grand hall of the capital city in George RR Martin’s fantasy world of ‘Westeros’.

Who will finally succeed in claiming the throne? Who IS the rightful heir? And how will each of the so-called ‘pretenders’ manage to usurp ultimate power in the Seven Kingdoms? These are the questions swirling around this throne, highlighted by spiked swords and jagged edges—a dark, cold symbol reflecting the heart, it seems, of what it takes to succeed in this place.

… and an Ancient One took his throne …

When Jesus stands before Pilate hours before Jesus dies a criminal of the state on a bloodied cross, he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world.[1]The cross stands as a counterpoint to the world’s thrones. The cross stands as a symbol, not of cold-hearted power-plays and world domination where the end justifies any, bloodied means. No, the cross is a sign of the God who failed according to the world’s rules, who found defeat at the hands of the worldly mighty.

The throne that Jesus sits on is indeed very different from all the others. When Jesus said ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ he meant its values are at odds with how power is exercised among humans, in all its brutish ways. We may be alarmed, and despair; yet, we accept that the ‘Game of Thrones’ world is quite similar to our reality on earth, more so than the kingdom of God.

I find at least two ways we fail to see and realize God’s ways on earth:

First, I suspect, for Christians, the temptation is to go the other way: to deny God’s kingdom on earth. The problem is that, without even consciously, we may delegate God’s values to some fantasy world. To practice genuine humility, forgiveness, grace, mercy and unconditional love not just to family and friends but to people we don’t know—well, we say, that’s reserved for ‘heaven’ someday; it has no place in the ‘real world’, we way.

But God’s throne is not in a different world than ours. God’s throne is not ‘up there’ or ‘over there’ or in some fantasy world far removed from our own.

The truth, and our hope, is that God’s way can be realized on earth. Not only has Jesus enabled people of all time and place to face the truth about ourselves, our relationships, our faith, and the world in which we live, Jesus is saying that his kingdom is also present — in part — upon the earth, in all our relationships.[2] Wherever grace is given and received, wherever forgiveness is practiced, wherever mercy and love are shown. There, is God.

I’m finishing up this week teaching a course on Martin Luther, prayer and the legacy of the Reformation (at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality). In teaching this course, the students and I have returned time and time again to the notion of movement. Semper Reformanda–the Latin phrase popularized by Karl Barth in the last century: Always reforming. The legacy of the Reformation is that we are a church that is continually changing, and moving, and becoming. And, in what ways?

Here, I want to bring in the Rev. Riitta Hepomaki, assistant to Bishop Pryse (Eastern Synod–Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada). She said at the workshop the council attended last weekend that what we lack, today, as a church of the Reformation is this sense of movement. Our western church, and especially our generation, has adopted a “we have arrived” mindset.

This is the second way in which we fail to realize God’s ways, God’s reign on earth.

If we have arrived, we don’t need to move. If we don’t move, we are stuck. The feeling of being stuck often leads to hopelessness. And, we are not talking here about physical movement from one street address to another, per se. We can make little moves: from the church hall to the streets, from our own kitchen or garden to a community kitchen or garden—wherever God is sending you.

Giving up the ‘we have arrived’ mindset means also that we are willing to move from my little world to other people’s worlds. It is challenging. But we can do it because we have faith, even faith the size of a miniscule mustard seed. And we have each other. We have fellowship. We have a new way of life. And because we are confident that our God will guide and provide.

So, let’s try to change our mindset from ‘having arrived’ to ‘being sent’, and ‘being in movement’. After all, if we don’t move, we cannot follow. Aren’t we called “followers of Jesus?”[3]And, today, we proclaim, that Jesus is the Lord of our lives. And that we are followers not of the ways of the world, but of the Reign of Christ.

In another vision of God, this time from a major prophet[4]in the Hebrew scriptures, God sits on his throne, yet the primary image is of the hem of God’s robe filling the temple. God’s presence permeates and fills all.

The world will indeed separate and set a boundary between the most powerful ‘at the front on the throne’, and the rest of us on the floor down below. Not so with God. In Christ, that boundary has been severed. Moments after Jesus died on that symbol of death and defeat—the cross—the curtain in the temple was torn.[5]The dividing line between where God is and where the rest of us are was opened.

No longer are we divided, violent, fighting, them-and-us. No longer need we compare, compete and kill. These are the actions and behavior of those who bow to the world’s thrones.

Rather, we are all enfolded in the robes of God’s grace forever. There are no boundaries, no limits, to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And, as the writer to the Hebrews expresses, we can therefore approach the “throne of grace” will confidence.[6]No longer afraid that God will rebuke, punish and condemn us. No longer condemned by our faults, sins and weaknesses.

We can approach this throne with boldness, assured that God will embrace us in mercy, forgiveness, and love.

 

[1]John 18:33-37, Gospel for the Reign of Christ Sunday, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[2]Robert A. Bryant in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol.4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.337.

[3]Riitta Hepomaki, The Eastern Synod Lutheran Volume 44, Sept 25, 2015 (Kitchener: Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada), p.1

[4]Isaiah 6:1-8

[5]Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45

[6]Hebrews 4:16

God in Acts

In Mark Burnett’s recent visual adaptation of the entire Bible, some scenes from Jesus’ passion still stand out for me. Weeks have passed since the dramatic events of Holy Week and Easter. So, I ask you, to rewind the tape for just a minute. And recall with me when news of the upstart prophet from Galilee first came to ears of the high priest in Jerusalem:

The scene in the temple is dark, illuminated only by the flickering flame of candlelight sending fleeting shadows throughout the cavernous room. The religious leaders draped in their flowing robes shuffle about.

An anxious member of the religious elite makes his way to the high priest, catching his attention: “There are reports of a man performing miracles, and some five thousand followed him to Galilee.” At first, news about Jesus does not worry the high priest. He turns away without saying a word. But the messenger persists, pulling at the high priest’s shoulder. “He calls himself the Son of God!”

The high priest’s mouth stretches in a cold smile, “They all do.”

Then, the night before Jesus’ death, Pilate consoles his wife who is disturbed by news of Jesus’ arrest and trial. Pilate’s wife tries to convince Pilate to have nothing to do with Jesus and let him go.

But Pilate, feeling caught between a stone and a hard place, is playing a delicate political game in order to keep control. He says to his wife, trying to justify his own actions to have Jesus condemned to death: “Don’t worry, in a week this man will be forgotten.”

Both the high priest and Pilate, struggling for political control, convince themselves Jesus is a no one, or at best, a pretender. And will be forgotten, like all the rest of them.

We fast forward now, to life in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Now, in the Book of Acts, the focus shifts to the disciples. A man who is disabled, sitting by the gate near the temple in Jerusalem, finds healing. Peter and John meet him on their way into the temple. “In the name of Jesus Christ”, Peter touches the man, and he is able to walk again.[1]

“By what power or by what name did you do this?” the religious leaders in Jerusalem ask Peter and John when they are arrested. The Sadducees, who were a powerful religious group in Jerusalem, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.

Strike one, against Peter and John who did not stop preaching the resurrection of Jesus and all who believe.

It is said that five thousand people converted to Christianity after hearing and seeing what miracles and words Peter and John performed.[2]

Strike two, against them. Five thousand people is a huge threat to the religious establishment. And to social stability. Rome held Jerusalem’s religious leaders responsible for keeping the pax romana – Caesar’s idea of political control over each region in the vast Mediterranean empire. There was no way the Sanhedrin were going to allow Peter and John to continue their disruptive work.

So, they were arrested and brought before the religious council called the Sanhedrin. Did Peter and John know that a few weeks prior, Jesus stood in the same place before the religious leaders?

Strange, I find, that something obviously positive – the healing of a person – turns into something negative so easily where human nature is concerned. Questions of resurrection, the mercy of God and healing turn into a question of power: “By what power or by what name did you do this?”

It is also clear, as the author of Acts present, that the religious leaders were “jealously protective”[3]of their franchise on religion. They wanted the masses to be prayerful and faithful. But they wanted people to do so under the exclusive banner of the temple.

Yet, from the beginning, the Christian movement was an outbreak of the Holy Spirit, spreading like wildfire. It cannot be contained in any one, exclusive denomination, group or church claiming to be the only, right way. That is not the nature of the Christian movement, from day one to the present. Exclusivity is not the preferred style of Christian life.

“By what power or by what name did you do this?” Peter and John have an answer: There is no other name by which we all are healed. Jesus Christ stands for all.[4]For God shows no partiality, for there are people in every nation who are acceptable to God.[5]

There is no other name. Other gods will give up on you:

The god of war and violence will give up on you when you turn the other cheek.

The god of consumerism will give up on you when you give what you have to those in need.

The god of power and control will give up on you when you let go of any pretence of being in control of others, forcing them to be like you.

The god of competition and hatred will give up on you when you welcome, affirm and show mercy to those who are different from you and your kind.

All these false gods of the world will forget you. They will be forgotten. The high priest of Jerusalem and Pilate were right because there were so many claiming to be the Messiah who were just that: fakes. These are the false gods who will be forgotten.

But not Jesus. Even after his resurrection and ascension, Jesus will not be forgotten.

Peter and John may have had a couple of strikes against them standing as prisoners before the religious leaders in the temple’s portico. But they, and the Christian movement, would never strike out. God was about to blast a grand slam out of the park of history.

The God of resurrection and new life will continue to inspire, to push us forward, to pinch our consciences, even challenge us to move forward. There is no hiding from this God who will not give up on you and on us.

The God who created you, who loved you,

Who, even in your sin forgives you and shows you mercy,

The God who gives you a second chance, always,

The God who is your loving shepherd, compassionate friend,

This God will never, ever give up on you, nor forget you. Nor any lost, hurting person or creature in all of creation.

Whether it is Peter or John, or the voice of God speaking this through the church and in the world today …

There is no other name under heaven by whose power all can be saved.

Amen.

[1]Acts 3:1-10

[2]Acts 4:4

[3]Thomas C. Long cited in David L Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008) p.432

[4]Acts 4:10-12

[5]Acts 10:34

The Passion of Christ – a Good Friday sermon

The heaviness of it all weighs on our souls. Good Friday is a sombre day. The tormented images of the torture and death of anyone, let alone Jesus Son of God, flash across our minds-eye in the hearing of the texts describing the Passion of Christ.

We hear the lament from Isaiah’s poetry known as the Suffering Servant poems. If we let it, Good Friday pierces our denial of suffering and death. And we face squarely the reality of the situation. The very word, “Passion”, is from the Latin, one meaning of which is suffering.

If you, like me, have watched some contemporary video portrayals of Jesus’ Passion, probably the foremost image is the bloodiness of it all. Not only do we see the violence of the Jewish rebellion heating up during the Passover in Jerusalem, but we are intimately involved in the trial and torture of Jesus – beginning with the bloody cutting off of the servant’s ear in the Garden, to the whipping, flaying, kicking, slapping and piercing in Jesus’ torture while being held in Roman custody.

If that is not enough, we shiver at the pounding of the nails into his hands and feet, see the blood and water gush out of his side when the sword strikes him. Watch as blood trickles over his bruised face from the crown of thorns. Blood all over.

Blood all over. The blood of Christ given for you.

Suffering, Passion, is a great letting go. And acceptance of Christ suffering, even for us, is a great letting go. We cannot possess the gift of life. We cannot own or control this gift for us.

“For three days, the child bled profusely from the nose. She was six years old, and doctors had no idea what was causing the bleeding. What’s more, they understood that if the bleeding didn’t stop, her life was in grave danger.

“The year was 1913. The doctors knew little about transfusion, but they understood the importance of somehow getting good new blood back into the little girl’s system, so they asked her father, a preacher, to give his daughter some of his. He did, one of the first blood transfusions in the state of Michigan.

“The yellowed newspaper story is titled ‘Minister Saves the Life of Daughter By Giving Blood’, and ends by explaining how the father ‘was considerably improved and was able to dress.’ Then it adds, ‘The child was also considerably better and hopes are entertained for her recovery.’

“Two weeks later she was dead. Little Agnes Gertrude … succumbed once the hemorrhaging returned. For a time her father’s blood had brightened her face and her possibilities, but his gift – as unusual and strange to the newspaper readers as it must have been to him – wasn’t enough to save her life.

“Doctors knew very little, back then, about blood-typing. Her father … was as good as choice as the doctors could have made, but what coursed in his veins was not a match. Agnes Gertrude … died two weeks after that strange new procedure the doctors called ‘a transfusion.’

“Her father, a man of God, lay face down on the rug of the living room for almost a week after Agnes’ death, unable to move. Who could blame him – for an entire afternoon, he lay there beside his little girl, his blood flowing into her veins. He was lost in profound grief, was lethargic, depressed, his whole countenance darkened by the death of his child.

“Nothing changed … until he accepted a call to another congregation, a small country church up north. He and his family rode in a horse-drawn wagon up to that country church, their possessions packed up behind them. And there being greeted by the entire congregation there on the lawn, all of them waiting for the new preacher and his family.”[1]

The blood of Christ shed for you. Still, a mystery. Source of life. Beyond comprehension. The blood of Christ shed for you.

We hear these words during the Eucharist, Holy Communion. The word, Eucharist, from Greek, means “Thanksgiving”. Martin Luther, the great reformer, insisted that this sacrament is centrally about the gift of God, in Christ Jesus. The Holy Communion is God’s gift in Christ to us.

This, in contrast, to his contemporaries many of whom insisted that the sacrament of the table was more about what we humans must do to make sacrifice in order to appease God. Instead of making Holy Communion about what we must do for God, Luther preached that the Eucharist was what God does for us. It is a gift.

And a gift we cannot control, manipulate, engineer, manage. Only receive in thanksgiving.

On Good Friday, significantly, we abstain from the Holy Communion. It is one of the only days in the church year that calls for us to withhold collectively this gift. It, in our tradition, is the climax of the Lenten fast, the discipline to ‘do without’ and ‘let go’ and ‘surrender’ our claim on the gift. After all, we do not control God. God is free. And God gives what God will. When God wills. We are not in the driver’s seat of life and death.

Part of our lament, and suffering prayer, is to recognize that we are finite human beings, that we cannot do it alone. And can’t ever get it right. On this heavy day, the low point you might say of the Lenten journey, we put our ultimate trust and hope in God’s promise. As Jesus trusted his Father to the bitter end, we follow in his way, trusting that death has not the last word.

The blood of Christ shed for you.

Christ bled in his suffering, death and burial for three days. But God has other plans. The other meaning of the word “Passion” of course is love. Great suffering and great love. The Passion of Christ is ultimately about God’s great love for Jesus and for us. That is why God gives the gift of life to us. Love.

We will once again feast on the gift of life in Christ’s blood coursing through our veins. We will be transfused again with the life-giving spirit of God. It will be a perfect match! And our lament can become a song of praise and hope, bringing us home at last, as to a lawn on a bright day full of smiling people who open their loving arms.

 

[1] James Schaap, in Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, eds., “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), p.119-121.

The human face of a vulnerable God

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote a play entitled: ‘The Living Dead”. The climactic scene is set in the attic of a house in France during World War II, where a half dozen captured members of the Resistance are being kept. The prisoners anxiously await the morning, when they will be executed.

An unexpected thing happens, however. The attic door opens, and the Nazi soldiers throw in the leader of the Resistance. The Nazis don’t know who he is. As far as they are concerned, they simply caught a man out after curfew.

The prisoners’ anxiety turns to courage. They tell their leader, “Don’t worry. We will hold our tongues.” The leader responds, “I thank you, for myself, for the Resistance, for France. Your courage and your sacrifice will not be forgotten.”

Suddenly, one of the prisoners says, “Oh, shut up. Nothing you have to say could possible mean anything to us. I am not blaming you … the fact is that you are a living man and I am a dead woman after tomorrow morning. The living and the dead have nothing to say to each other …and that fact puts an impenetrable barrier between us.”[1]

The Leader of the Resistance is an example of who God is NOT. Until Jesus, there indeed stood an impenetrable barrier between the divine and the rest of us. This is precisely why God became human. If God couldn’t bridge that divine-human divide, how could we love God? How could God love us?

When we look at the world today, we may just the same want to get angry at our human leaders if they lack authenticity. Scenes of African poverty, the chaos of Middle Eastern refugee camps, the evil of human trafficking, the growing divide between rich and poor, the scandals and fake posturing in politics – these all make us angry.

Indeed, in life we sometimes feel like shouting at God: “Shut up!” And working through that anger is good, I believe, because we will realize that many of our gods are not God: The god of domination. The god of violence. The god of consumerism. The gods of competition and combat. The gods of politics and superiority. Which lead us in the opposite direction when it comes to the God of the cross, and God’s relationship with us and the world.

We arrive soon at the climax of Jesus’ earthly, very human story. And this man who reflects the face of God says something very different from the gods of this world.

German Reformed theologian, Juergen Moltmann, tweeted this week: “We discover his glory in his humbleness, his greatness in his poverty, his power in his self-surrender, from the wretched manger in Bethlehem to the desolate cross on Golgotha.”[2]

In today’s Gospel reading[3], Jesus says, “…My soul is troubled.” Jesus can say this. He is fully human and authentically relatable to us, as a human being. “Jesus had the full spectrum of emotion and experience. He was sad and had compassion for those who suffered. He wept with a broken heart including upon the death of his friend Lazarus. He got mad at injustice and hypocrisy (“you brood of vipers!”) and got frustrated at his disciples who were continually arguing and not getting his point. Jesus changed his way of thinking as with the surprising confrontation with a Syrophoenician woman. Jesus learned and developed. Jesus was human!”[4]

God does not bypass the humanity and death we too must endure. God is now capable, because God became fully human, of removing the inseparable barriers between God and the world. Our Leader is one of us!

“…My soul is troubled,” says Jesus. Thank God for these words! These are the kind of things Jesus said that reveals the truth of the Christian God. Jesus says this in response to the inquiry of Gentiles during the Passover Festival in Jerusalem, just days before Jesus dies on the cross. Everything has been accomplished in his ministry and mission, even now to all the nations represented by the seeking Greeks.

Nothing is left now for Jesus to do other than his final surrender to death. Jesus is now ready to succumb to the evil gods of the world which will condemn and crucify the upstart prophet from Galilee.

When Pilate, the regional governor of Palestine, later confronts Jesus during his trial, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world. If it were, his followers would be fighting to protect, defend and save Jesus.[5] Obviously, the method of God is not violence however justified. The way of God, is vulnerability and surrender. Not combat, not force-on-force, not physical strength, not invincibility nor violent justice.

Yes, we hear the human Jesus in that honest, vulnerable statement: “My soul is troubled.” In these words, Jesus crosses the divide between divine and human. He identifies with all our troubled souls however afflicted. He knows what is coming.

In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart. God became someone we could love. We don’t and we can’t fall in love with abstractions. So, God became a person “that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at, and touch with our hands”.[6] The brilliant Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) said the only thing that really converts people is “an encounter with the face of the other.”[7]

This is why to this day Christians have sought God among the faces of the poor, the destitute, the refugee, the homeless – and have tried to do their part in alleviating the plight of the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Because that is where God is discovered.

“Just giving people commandments on tablets of stone doesn’t change the heart. It may steel the will, but it doesn’t soften the heart like an I-Thou encounter can. We are mirrored into life, not by concepts, but by faces delighting in us, giving us the beloved self-image we can’t give to ourselves. Love is the gaze that does us in! How blessed are those who get it early and receive it deeply.”[8]

The prophet Jeremiah says it best: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”[9]

The good news is that the vulnerable God we worship and follow suffers with us. This vulnerable God in Christ Jesus lived in poverty and died in shame and torment. This God embraced our humanity. And has earned the right to ask us to hold on a little longer until morning comes … until resurrection.[10]

[1] Cited by Michael Battle in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.141-142.

[2] @moltmannjuergen, March 15, 2018

[3] John 12:20-33, Lent 5B.

[4] Brother Luke Ditewig, “Brother Give us a Word”, daily meditations from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), 20 January 2018.

[5] John 18:36

[6] 1 John 1:1

[7] Cited in Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditations”, 15 January 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeremiah 31:33-34

[10] Michael Battle, ibid., p.144.

Exposing the agenda of hate

A recent song by American singer-songwriter Soufjan Stevens is entitled: “There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross.” Today, on Good Friday, we all stand in the shadow of the Cross of Jesus. But there’s no shade in this shadow.

If you want a comfortable religion that just makes you feel good, then you dare not approach the Cross of Christ, and you dare not pray.

Encountering Jesus on the Cross is not pablum for the soul nor is it expressing mere platitude for an easy life. The cross is not an exercise of remembering something that happened long ago (and therefore doesn’t really mean anything for me today). We are not merely going through the motions, on Good Friday.

The cross, in all its bloody, bear and stark reality, exposes the darkness within each one of us, today. The cross exposes the human problem of hatred. You will not find relief here today. No shade. No comfort. Only sin. Only hate. In the world. And, within you.

The longer we live in this world, we are forced to asked the question: What makes many people so mean? What creates mean-spirited people? “I want to hurt you!” What is behind hate?

Hate – I just called it ‘mean-spiritedness’. Maybe that is what we see more often than overt hatred. Mean-spiritedness is, unfortunately, here to stay.

Hate is, for some reason, helpful. Hate works. In a lot of immediate and seemingly good ways. It unites a group very quickly. Far quicker than love, you must know that. Hate immediately and easily resolves the inner struggle between the little devil on one shoulder persuading you to do something other than what the little angel on the other shoulder is saying. 

Mean-spiritedness is formed by contraction, ‘against-ness’. Love, on the other hand, is formed by expansion. Love doesn’t come easily, because you have to let down your boundaries. And no one wants to do that.

Contraction — whereby you can eliminate another person, write them off, exclude them, torture them, expel them, ‘vote them off the island’, immediately gives one a sense of boundaried definition, boundaried superiority, even.

Hatred — mean-spiritedness — gives a person identity even if it is a negative one (“I am not that, I am not like them, I am against so-and-so, etc.”). And we’d sooner have a negative identity than feel vulnerable, like nothing, empty. Just who we are, in God.

Hatred takes away all doubt, and free-floating anxiety. Even if in a false way. It feels superior. And feels in control. Hate settles the dust, and the ambiguity that none of us likes. Hate is much more common and — I’m sad to have to say this as a pastor — it is much more immediately effective than love. Immediately.

Hate makes the world go round. Just read the front pages of morning paper this week, scroll through the news feeds on your tablet or flip the channels at 6 o’clock every day. It’s largely about who is hating whom.

You could say that Jesus came to resolve the central problem of hate — this problem that has defined humanity since the beginning of history. There’s really no other way: To save us from ourselves. To save us from one another. And to, therefore, save us.

Until and unless we are saved from our need to hate. 

That’s why people even made religion into a cover for their need to be hateful. I’m hating for Allah, and so it’s ok. And yes, I’m hating for Jesus. Christian history, too, is not free from violence (the Crusades, the witch-hunts, Protestant-Catholic European wars, the residential schools — the list goes on). “I’m hating for Christianity — so my hatred is good hatred.” It happens every day. It’s almost the name of the game.

The ultimate disguise, whereby you can remain a hateful, mean-spirited person is to do it to protect the church, or to protect the country. All those good excuses. So, you are relieved of all anxiety: “I am still a holy person.” Even though, underneath, in the deeper stream, you are a hateful person. But you don’t have to see that. That’s what Scott Peck called, years ago, “People of the Lie”.

We have done so much utopian talk about Jesus and love. But Jesus had a very hard time getting to the issue of love. First, he had to expose and destroy the phenomenon of hate. Which I think is the meaning of the Cross.

Once he exposed the lie and the illusion of hatred, love could show itself clearly. But until then, you can’t. The pattern is still the same. As Jesus shockingly put it, “Satan is the real prince of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11).

Hate, it seems, is the daily, ordinary agenda. Love is the totally enlightened, entirely non-sensical way out of the ordinary agenda. The Gospel presents the dilemma in a personal and cathartic Passion narrative that grounds the whole issue in history, and in one man’s enlightened response to that history. 

One man, Jesus — fully divine and fully human, accepts the religious and social judgement of hate. We have both church and state, both Caiaphas and Pilate. Both power systems declaring Jesus unworthy, declaring him a sinner, wrong, the problem. The very one that you and I call the most perfect man who ever lived is judged by power at the highest levels to in fact be the problem. 

Jesus bears the consequences of hatred, publicly. But in an utterly new way that transforms the pattern. And therefore for us, transforms the possibilities. For two thousand years, Jesus has remained the most striking icon of a possible new agenda. His death exposed the lie and the problem like never before.

His risen life told people that life could have a different story line. Jesus did not just give us textbook answers from a distance. But he personally walked through the process of being rejected and then said, ‘follow me’. And there’s something you only know having been in that position.

What is behind hate? I believe fear is almost always behind hate. It’s not easy to get to that deeper river of fear. It’s not easy to recognize the subtle fears: Afraid of not looking good. Afraid of not being in control. Afraid of not having the right word. All those are fears. But they are subtle.

And the only way to see them is to go right into your own poverty of spirit — blessed are they who do so, Jesus said (Matthew 5:3).

Sometimes it looks like it’s control that’s behind hatred. But even control freaks like myself are usually afraid of losing something. Just go deeper, and you’ll see. It is almost always fear that justifies our knee-jerk hateful response. 

Fear is hardly ever recognized as such. As Paul says in Second Corinthians — ‘the angel of darkness must always be disguised as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14). The best and most convincing disguise, of course, is virtue itself, or godliness. Then, it never looks like fear. 

For fear to survive, it has to look like reason, or reasonableness, prudence, common sense, intelligence, the need for social order, responsible stewardship, morality, religion, obedience, or even justice and spirituality. It always works. Just give it the nice cover, and you don’t have to face underneath it, what is craven fear.

What better way to veil vengeance, and a vengeful spirit than to call it justice. You hear it on the news every night, “I just want justice.” One wonders whether the inner need to punish the other, to hurt the other, has ever been recognized. Let’s be honest: It’s in everyone of us in this room. When someone has made you afraid, you want to hurt them back. To be trapped in our need for vengeance, is to always be afraid. It’s necessarily to be afraid. No wonder fear is the name of the game in almost all of the world. 

And that demon is not exorcised easily. Until you name the demon and admit the demon is there, you have no power of exorcising the demon. It’s clear, in Jesus’ exorcisms. You must name the demon correctly. When you pretend the demon isn’t there, you’ll never do any good exorcism. That’s largely what we do. It’s called, denial.

Only people who are honest and vulnerable about their own fear, and confess their need to control all outcomes, only those practiced in letting go, can go beyond the agenda of hate. Jesus himself prayed hanging on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Psalm 31:5). This is about letting go of our opinions, our need for getting back, our need to exclude, circle the wagons, and point the finger.  

Jesus prayed, too, from the cross: “Father, forgive them — they don’t know what they are doing!” (Luke 23:34). Only people practised in letting go will be taking the first step in the new agenda of love and forgiveness. This agenda of love, Jesus made possible for us. “Perfect love casts out fear,” scripture promises us (1 John 4:18).

The Cross, today on Good Friday, calls us to trust Jesus. To not have anyone that you can trust is necessarily to be afraid, to be vengeful. Christianity at its best aims to free individuals from their small, fragile, sinful selves, and points to a larger identity in Christ Jesus — the only true self — “hidden in Christ with God” (Colossians 3:3) .

Jesus is the only trustworthy lover, the only trustworthy self. Healthy Christianity, like Jesus himself, tells you that there IS someone you can trust. You do not have to create all the good. You do not have to fix all of the bad. You do not have to explain all the failures. You know you are simply in the stream we call the mystery of death and resurrection, the paschal mystery. 

What else would be the beginnings of peace? As long as you think you have to fix everything, control everything, explain everything, and understanding everything, I can promise you, you will never be a peaceful, loving person.

In the shadow of the cross, there is no shade. Indeed. But let’s stay awhile, and open our hearts to Jesus whose love makes us worthy and who is with us, even in the darkness.

Adapted and transcribed from Richard Rohr, “The Central Problem of Hate” track 8 on CD ‘Action & Contemplation’, Meditatio Talk Series 2015