Give God a chance

A year ago last summer we bought a potted Hibiscus plant already in full, glorious bloom. The local nursery encouraged us to plant it right away and let it take root in our garden. When winter came, we snipped the stem down to a few inches above the ground.

Last Spring, the sprig showed no signs of life. At all. And it was late June already when I was tempted to pull up the seemingly lifeless root ball from the garden to make room for something else. Visiting the same nursery at the time I complained to them about the Hibiscus plant they sold to us, that obviously did not winter-well. To say the least.

“Don’t pull it up, yet!” they entreated me. “Wait a little longer, for it has been a late Spring. Give it a chance.”

At first, I didn’t believe them. But I left the dead thing alone trying not to think about my disappointment too much. Was I in for a surprise! In early July a tiny, green shoot pushed up the earth around the base. But then, not just one, but two, three and four shoots of new life erupted out of the ground. Seven weeks later, we were enjoying a multitude of magnificent blooms. The plant had more than doubled its growth from last year!

How critical it was for me to heed the gardener at the nursery when she told me “Don’t pull it up!” and “Wait a little longer” and “Give it a chance!”

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart”[1]

In Jesus’ story, the theme is ‘not giving up.’ Not giving up is what it looks like to pray always. Elsewhere in the bible, Paul, the writer to the early church, instructed the faithful “pray without ceasing”[2]. It’s about being persistent in waiting, in not reacting, in staying the course when it starts feeling like it’s no use any longer to keep going.

“If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”[3]

The prophet was waiting for a vision from God, a word that would give new life to those who were discouraged, defeated and ready to give up on God, on themselves and on the world.

For what do you wait? After what justice do you persist? What is it you seek after that seems elusive, just beyond your grasp? Whatever that is, the scriptures describe an inner quality of the heart that will not give up, that will wait for it, that is patient and true in enduring and persisting.

That sees the present moment as holding value in and of itself.

The goal, the destination, the vision – this may seem to tarry. Perhaps in those impatient moments it’s important again to look around at what is happening. Infant baptism, for one thing, is a visible sign of this challenge and truth.

For an infant does not express knowledge of God in the way we adults do. An infant cannot give us a rational accounting of their faith. They cannot, surely, deserve blessing by pointing to a long list of their good deeds and giving an impassioned testimony.

It confounds us sophisticated grown-ups crazy, as we are influenced so much by a success-mindset culture of instant gratification. The world we live in has little patience for this kind of long-view approach. We’d sooner just give up on someone or something for which we hope. When it seems we are in futility grasping at something not yet.

Here, we are asked to commit to quite the opposite. Infant baptism invites us all to dedicate ourselves to long journey. We are challenged to persist in our waiting for it, not to give up, to have faith and stay the course.

And, in the meantime, walk with the baptized as he grows over time into the person God has created him to be. The flowering will happen, yet quite beyond our claim to control it. The green shoots poking out of the ground are occasion to rejoice. Here is evidence enough for now, for this moment. Those tiny shoots hold the fullness of the gift of faith and life in him.

Dear family and friends of the baptized, and Faith community, I hope you stick with it. This journey of faith, together. Trust in the vision, the promise. And celebrate the wondrous gift of this moment.

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[1]Luke 18:1-8

[2]1 Thessalonians 5:17

[3]Habakkuk 2:3, the first reading from a couple of weeks ago, Pentecost 17C (RCL)

Faith alone not our faith alone

“Increase our faith,” we pray.

Isn’t that what we want? More faith to get us through the tough times. More faith to make us better people. More faith to tolerate things in life that set us off course. More faith to believe in things that are not easy to believe in. More. If only we had more.

In the BBC television series called “Broken” actor Sean Bean plays the role of Michael, a parish priest in a small, industrial town. In one of the episodes he answers a question from someone in the youth group curious as to why he chose the priesthood.

He tells the story of when he was eighteen years old he went one day with a crowd of people to visit a falconer on the side of a hill. To see such a large bird with a with a vast wingspan take flight was a treat for the villagers, many of whom had never before seen a falcon. The falconer took time describing the bird to the villagers and even had some of them feed it.

Then they all watched captivated by the sight of the majestic bird lifting off from the falconer’s outstretched arm. Michael saw the bird circle once overhead before heading out into the vast sky overlooking the valley below. The falcon became smaller and smaller—a small dot over the horizon—until it finally disappeared from view.

The afternoon wore on. People looked at the falconer and each other, wondering what to do. But the falconer did not move from his place on the side of the hill. The hours turned and the sun was setting in the western sky. What had started as a large crowd dissipated until there was only the falconer and Michael standing alone there. Michael wondered why the people had left.

He sympathized, for sure. Perhaps, as he was feeling, there was no point in hanging around anymore. The falcon was gone. How would it know to return to this very spot after ranging across a sky which was so vast and covered the whole world? Why would the falcon even care to return? It was now free to roam wherever it wanted to go. What more could it want?

To Michael’s surprise, but not it seemed to the falconer’s, as the darkness descended on the hillside he heard a flutter and rush of wings. The falcon had returned and now sat perched contentedly on the falconer’s arm. Michael could see the white of the falconer’s teeth showing from behind a smile that stretched from cheek to cheek. Michael laughed with delight.

Here was faith. And it was the falconer’s witness of faith that inspired Michael on his life journey. That the falconer had waited on that hillside for what seemed like forever. To stay there, when everyone else had gone home, even if it meant waiting alone. To have no guarantee that the falcon would return. To not have control over how long and when. And if. But only do what he was called to do: Let the falcon go. Let that bird with whom he had a relationship, to be sure, go.

“Increase our faith.”

Maybe it’s not our faith that is at stake here. These texts assigned for today can easily lead us into yet another guilt trip or glory trip—as if that’s what faith is all about! We are either not worthy enough, not good enough. Or, look – I’ve moved mountains! If only we had more, even more, faith!

“Increase our faith.”

The faith talked about in these passages are Christian, but perhaps not in the sense of the faith of the Christians. Because dwelling exclusively on our faith alone often gets us spiraling into dark holes of depression and feelings of unworthiness, defeat and failure. We hit walls of misunderstanding when we separate our faith from the faith of Christ, the One we trust. Here the central understanding is not our faith but faith in Christ, a faith that mirrors the faith of Christ.

It is like eighteen-year-old Michael watching the faith of the falconer.  What Michael ends up doing with his life is secondary. What is at stake, what is the most important thing in Michael’s experience on the side of that mountain one long afternoon, is not his own faith but someone else’s.

Timothy is charged to ‘rekindle’ the mustard seed of faith that is within him. The mustard seed is tiny, almost undetectable to the naked eye. We don’t often recognize the gift that is already there.[1]

Perhaps we too need to wait on the side of that hill, and not just give up and go home.

Timothy is encouraged that there is something good within him working long before he even became aware of it. He has to be reminded that “grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began”. And that we are called to good things, “not according to our works but according to [Christ’s] own purpose and grace.”[2]

In prayer, in our relationships and interactions, the search-light of consciousness turns off ourselves and onto the living Christ. When the attention turns away from our stuff—good and bad—and onto Jesus, I believe we may feel a needed lift. Our heart alights. The pressure for performance relaxes. The guilt dissipates. And we can start by simply being in awe about the One whose purposes and faithfulness and love reach far beyond our own self-preoccupations, weaknesses and accomplishments.

What transformed eighteen-year-old Michael was not an argument about faith, not a debate which he won or lost and convinced him either way what to do with his life. What transformed Michael was an encounter with someone who showed him the way, who practiced faith. Our call is not to win all the arguments but to forgive as we have been forgiven and to love as we have been loved.

We are called to get in touch with the Giver of the gift of faith. We are called to give thanks for the One who beckons for us to stay on the journey, calling us not worthless, but friends along the way.

Let our prayer of praise therefore shout from the rooftops: “Great is Thy Faithfulness!”[3]Amen.

 

[1]Luke 17:5-10

[2]2 Timothy 1:1-14

[3]Hymn 733, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

To see beyond, and go deep

“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

We had a problem. In this perfectly finished renovation, something was not right. The microphone jack, on the floor in front of the pulpit here, was not working.

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How could this be? Everything was designed and installed as it should be. And yet, something had gone awry. The prognosis was not good. How could it be fixed, without tearing up the carpet, pulling off the baseboard and cutting into the drywall to find out exactly where the wire was shorting out?

For this problem to present months and years from now would be one thing. But to discover this problem in the first week or so back into our ‘new’ space. Uh-oh.

And yet, as you can see and hopefully hear today, it is working. And, as you can see, the carpet has not been ripped and there are no pieces of drywall cut and patched up. How was this problem solved? How were we saved from doom and destruction?

I will say this: For Brian who discovered the problem, it caused him some serious stress, at first. ‘Despair’ might be a word that comes close to describing his feeling, for someone who had already spent hours and hours of his time and energy and resources in the entire renovation project over the last several months.

All that you can see now is a tiny hole on the baseboard no larger than the size of a dime, just above the carpet line on the other side of the chancel. That’s all. A tiny hole, that doesn’t really reveal the depth and breadth of how the problem was solved.

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Apparently, a finishing nail had been shot into the wire from outside during the renovation. Unbeknownst to the worker strapping on the the siding, one of the nails embedded into the wire, thus shorting it out. It was, for Brian, a question of finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.

He employed the material resources at his disposal and years of experience in engineering and computer sciences. He brought in an oscilloscope to measure the current, and his infra-red camera, which he ran along the presumed route of the hidden wire. These instruments disclosed an abnormal, irregular heat signature which spiked at the spot of the short-out. From there, it was merely the task to go in with surgical precision, and remove the offending nail. And voila! The microphone now works!

This is definitely a feel-good story with a good ending. Especially because at first, it didn’t look good. It would have been easy to give up, to remain in despair and not do anything about it. And live with, and remain stuck in, some unhappy, dysfunctional space.

The Gospel story about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-42) has a feel-good ending, at least from the point of view of the woman. She starts by being defensive and confrontational — not seeing nor recognizing Jesus for who this man truly is. She leaves the encounter with Jesus, joyous, liberated, un-inhibited, free.

The story reveals God’s character in Jesus. To emphasize the point the Gospel writer John wishes to make about God’s character, John places this story immediately after Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in the previous chapter. Let’s compare briefly the two encounters:

For one thing, Nicodemus has a name. The woman is nameless. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and as such has status, authority and privilege in the social-religious culture of the day. The woman is a Samaritan with whom the Jewish authorities were in conflict. Nicodemus lived in a male-dominated society. The nameless, Samaritan woman is a nobody.

Jesus takes the initiative to cross the boundaries of geography, culture and prejudice to speak with the woman. And not only that, to draw from her the truth, and then empower her to be a missionary for the kingdom of God. The encounter with Jesus transforms her from a nobody to a somebody.

As the dialogue at the well comes to a close, the woman is filled with joy. She is so energized with passion and hope that she “left her water jar and went back into the city” (v.28). We now can see what is not immediately apparent. We can complete the sentence when the Samaritan woman exclaims: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” … and loved me anyway! She does not say these last four words at the end of verse 29, but they are implicit in her action and in the joy with which she runs.

“Everything she ever did” is a long list of sins. It is always before her, in the judgemental expressions of her neighbours and in her mind for the rest of her life; she has had many husbands, and the one she is living with now is not. For Jesus to have intimate knowledge of that list and for him to know her past, and still love and forgive her — well that’s unbelievably new and fresh as anything she has ever heard. The man who told her everything she ever did … and loved her anyway … is what saves her life. (1)

A caution: Her sin is not the main point in the story. (2) While Jesus’ offer of forgiveness is implied in the dialogue, the text itself says nothing of any sin she has committed (as we see elsewhere in the Gospel, for example, John 8:1-11); nor does Jesus ever actually say words of forgiveness to her.

The focus here is not sin. It is rather in the character of God, and the liberating result of a gracious, truth telling encounter with Jesus. In that moment, the woman sees God. She receives Christ — and leaps up to tell.

Would you? When Paul talks about suffering in his letter to the Romans (cited above) he is encouraging the faithful to see beyond their present, often difficult circumstances to the hope we have in Christ. Indeed our society’s values can make us feel, and keep us trapped in believing, we are nothing:

If we don’t have significant financial resources stored away in investments, bank accounts and property; if we don’t have that ‘perfect’ life, secure in our fortress worlds of private privilege and comfort; if we don’t have the perfect-looking body, the disease-free physiology, the magnetic, people-pleasing personality; if we don’t have the high-paying job, the investment-rich retirement plan; if we don’t measure up … the list goes on. The values of society make us feel like nobody.

And yet, Christ comes to remind us that we have everything we need to get through it, and more! We just need to see beyond what is immediately apparent. Jesus breaks all those boundaries of division and exclusion, casting aside our pretence and our cloudy vision. Jesus doesn’t pay attention to what society says is valuable or not valuable. Jesus comes to each and every one of us and says: “Look deeper. I know everything there is about you, and I love you anyway!”

So, what do you have to lose? Take the risk, and do something to make things better in your life, and those around you. Make the hole in that spot you may not be sure about because it’s not visible on the surface of things. And then trust what God has given to you already — the resources at your disposal, the unique gift of your very life, your talents, treasures and time — is worthy of using! And go for it!

Because God will love you anyway.

 

1 — Anna Carter Florence in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 2 (Lousville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.97

2 — Karoline M. Lewis in ibid., p.95

Waiting, still

Waiting for a response is not easy. After texting someone I’m usually impatient to get a response from them. Anything. And when they don’t, my blood starts to boil!

This whole notion of texting etiquette is a new one, of course. Back in the days when you had to actually pick up a telephone — one usually attached by a cord to a wall — to reach someone, it was pretty normal to wait an hour or two, or even more, to get a call back. And heaven forbid, you should actually send a letter — through the mail! You could wait weeks, even months, to hear back.

So, why do certain people wait hours to text back? One expert says the answer is pretty obvious: The person at the other end isn’t interested in communicating with you. A slow, or ignored altogether, text response is at root an expression of social rejection, usually excused by the socially acceptable reason: people are too busy. (http://www.inquisitr.com/1412393/text-me-back/)

I’m confronted by the need to learn how to wait. When you don’t have control over the timing of another’s response, your waiting is about letting go and being ok in the present unknowing.

Waiting and not-knowing are valuable, and legitimate, characteristics of leading a faithful, Christian life. Which, at first, might sound counter-intuitive. Like: How can you have faith and also doubt?

Jesus validated Thomas’ doubting the resurrection (John 20:19-31). Jesus did not chastise Thomas for his need for evidence. In fact, he acknowledged Thomas’ demands by inviting him to touch the holes in his hands and side.

The curious thing is that the Scripture does not indicate Thomas actually touching the scars of Jesus’ wounds. He simply confesses his now belief: “My Lord and my God”. Thomas does not need to follow through on his condition for believing, which was putting his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side (v.25).

Jesus then underscores the point about having faith: Blessed are those who have not seen (i.e. have scientific proof) and yet have come to believe (v.29). Having faith is about not needing to have all the information, all the facts, all the evidence at one’s disposal. There’s a quality of faith that defies the rational, cognitive-centred, explanation-driven character of Christianity especially since the Reformation. It’s almost as if we have forgotten that faith is as the author of Hebrews puts it: “… the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).

The quality of knowing (i.e.) faith that does not need to ‘know’ is reflected in a life of peace. Because as long as we feel we need to fix everything, as long as we believe we have to explain everything, as long as we feel we need have all the information before we can have faith — I am convinced we are not a people at peace with ourselves, with one another, with the world and even at peace with God. Peace is, as the Apostle Paul put it, that “which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

After Jesus was raised from the dead, you’d think he would want to shoot straight to heaven to be at the right side of his Father. Why would he even want to bother with humanity – this frail, broken, weak, sin-infested form he shared with us for thirty-three years? His temporary break from blissful eternity was hard enough. Why would he want to relate any more with human beings who, in their own delusion and compulsion, murdered him? Why would he want to re-connect with his ‘friends’ who betrayed, denied and deserted him in his hour of need? He is, after all, the divine Son of God whose rightful place should be at God’s right hand in heaven, no?

The disciples didn’t need to wait long for Jesus to return to them. You could say, he didn’t ignore or put off their message of fear, doubt, longing and sadness. He responded right away, even though he wasn’t in his usual ‘human’ form — after his resurrection he walked through locked doors, appeared and disappeared into thin air and the such. Re-connecting was more important, though. He wanted to re-assure them.

The book of Revelation reveals the expectations of the early church: That Jesus was coming back soon, and very soon. “Look! He is coming with the clouds! … who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:7-8).

Indeed, the early Christians lived with the expectation of the immanent return of Jesus at his second coming. Of course, after two thousand years of waiting, Christians have learned how to live in anticipation when we don’t know exactly when that time is. We may still need to wait for a long time to come.

Nevertheless we have the promise of scripture that Jesus does care for us, and will not hesitate to come to us. So, perhaps God is trying to tell us something here. 

Perhaps the value of our faith is not just about when that time comes, down the road. Perhaps the value of our faith is not just about eternal life in the far-off distant future. 

Perhaps there is value in the waiting, itself. And when we get impatient or perplexed, perhaps there’s something we are not seeing in the here and now.

Perhaps Christ is coming back to us all the time, and we just don’t see it. In the sacrament, in the Body of Christ — the collective unity of the Church, in the relationships we share, in the ordinary events of our lives. What are the glimmers of grace, the rays of hope, the good that you see in others and in the world? Where is Christ present for you, in life, today?

I saw a framed quote on the living room wall of someone I was visiting this past week; and it said: Not every day is a good day, but every day has some good in it.

We are a waiting people, yes. But people who wait have a choice to make: we can either ignore, deny, get down on ourselves and the world; or, we can learn to appreciate, be thankful for, exercise gratitude — all those moments and experiences where, in truth, Jesus comes through the doors of our hearts locked in fear: And tells us, “Peace be with you.”

In the Other

When we moved into our new house last Spring, there were no trees in our backyard. And so I went to a local nursery and bought a beautiful looking Norway Spruce tree, about four feet high, which I planted at the fence line. And I remember choosing this particular tree because it looked healthy; its deep and thick, verdant green branches were bursting with fresh, full buds, all over.

I watered it all summer long and fed it with fertilizer. In the winter I covered it with a folding board to protect it from the harsh winds and biting temperatures — which we had! I was going to make sure this tree would prosper!

So, tell me what you would do if you saw what I saw this Spring once all the snow melted: What would you do? (scroll down to see photo).

I must confess that my first instinct was to rip it out and start over. Find another tree. I thought, at first, that this tree was surely dead. There was no life in it anymore. Hopeless cause. Forget it.

But, for some reason or other I just let it be. I left it alone for awhile. And about a month ago, I noticed something remarkable. Do you see it? There are indeed signs of life showing: the green buds atop, and amidst the what looks otherwise like dead wood.

And I thought of my tree when reading the Gospel text for today (Matthew 10:24-39). Jesus seems intent on reminding his disciples of their worth, their value (“You are of more value than many sparrows” v.31) — despite everything that seems to the contrary. Remember, these disciples are not getting it; they misunderstand Jesus left, right and centre! They are imperfect, some would say — hopeless causes! Why would God even bother with those stupid disciples from Galilee? Riff-raff. Blue collar. Uneducated … the list goes on!

There is the story of a certain monastery — a monastic community which had fallen upon hard times. Only five monks remained in the motherhouse and all of them over the age of 70. Clearly, it was a dying order.

In the woods surrounding the monastery was a little hut, where a wise bishop lived. One day, the abbot thought it would be a good idea to visit this bishop, and ask him for any advice he might be able to offer, in order to save the monastery.

And so the abbot went and explained the problem to the bishop. The bishop commiserated with him: “I know how it is,” he said. “The spirit has gone out of the people. No one knows the joy and love of God anymore.” And so the old bishop and the abbot wept together. They read parts of the Bible, and quietly spoke of deep things together.

The time came for the abbot to leave. They embraced each other, and as they parted the abbot said, “It’s been wonderful that we should meet after all these years. But I must ask: Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me to save my dying order?”

The bishop looked straight into the eyes of the abbot and said, “The only thing I can tell you is this: One of you at the monastery is the Messiah.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery, he told his monks: “The bishop couldn’t really help me. We only read some Scripture and wept together. But he said some cryptic thing as I was leaving — he said that one of us is the Messiah. I really don’t know what he meant by that.”

In the weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered the bishop’s statement, and wondered among themselves if there could possibly be anything of significance to the bishop’s words. The Messiah? One of us? But which one? The conversations went something like this:

“Do you suppose he means the abbot? Surely if he means anyone, it is Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.

“On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Without a doubt, Brother Thomas is a holy man.

“But certainly he could not have meant Brother Eldred! Eldred can get really crotchety at times. But you know, come to think of it, even though he can be a thorn in people’s sides … when you look back on it, Eldred is virtually always right about anything. Often very right. Maybe the bishop means Brother Eldred.

“But surely not Brother Philip. Philip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, he has got a real gift of somehow always being there when you really need him. He just, like magic, appears by your side. Maybe Philip is the one ……”

And so, as they contemplated this matter together, the old monks began to pay greater attention to one another. They regarded each other with fresh eyes. They began to treat one another with respect, love and extra care. They related to one another keeping in the back of their minds always, that just maybe one of them might be the Messiah. Or, perhaps that each monk himself might be the one.

A beautiful forest surrounded the monastery, and people still occasionally came to visit the monastery — to picnic on its lawn, to wander along some of its paths, and even now and then to go into its dilapidated yet charming chapel, to pray.

And as they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of respect and grace that now began to surround the five old monks …

And radiate out from them.

There was something strangely attractive and compelling about the atmosphere about the community. Hardly knowing why, these visitors began to return to the monastery to picnic, to play, and to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of these visitors started to talk more and more with the old monks, and ask them questions: “Why are you here?” “What are you all about?” “Who are you?” etc. etc.

After awhile, one asked if he could join them. Then another. And yet another. And within a few years, the monastery had once again become a thriving order focused not on its own self nor plight — but in others with whom they came into contact in their daily routines about the community.

This story touches on the practice of being church. Community in Christ is not about navel-gazing and conformity. It’s not about seeking a gathering of the “like-minded”. Belonging in the family of God is not about being the same, or tying to be the same, with everyone else in the community.

Being in a church is about meeting others who are not like me. Being part of the church is about discovering God in difference, in others who are different from me and my ilk. Often that comes about by first noticing what you might not choose to be like, yet seeking to understand from where the other is coming, and appreciating their gifts.

And perhaps this story might give us a clue as how to appreciate the disruptive words of Jesus in our Gospel text — about loving God before loving our family. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about forming exclusive communities or clubs of like-minded people.

Rather, the Gospel is continually calling us to go out into the world in order to discover what God is already up to in other people who are not ‘part of our family’. Our worth and our value has a purpose — “to proclaim [the Gospel of Jesus] from the housetops” (v.27). As we have heard from many church leaders in recent years — “the church exists primarily — it’s primary focus — for those who are not members of it.”

This challenges each one of us, first to see the Christ in one another, and also see Christ in the stranger. And remembering that if God doesn’t give up on us who are far from perfect — if God sees the value and worth in us even when we might only see the blemishes — so God asks us to value an outsider as potentially being visited upon by Jesus himself.

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