Prayer as Silence – Advent sermon series 4

In this concluding sermon in a series on prayer this Advent, I invite you to consider prayer as silence. In the first, we acknowledged prayer as growth – that there come times in our lives when God invites us into a deeper communion of prayer; and so, a different way of praying. In the second sermon, we considered that the fundamental work of prayer was to listen – listen to the other and listen to God. Last week, we reflected upon an important type of prayer that often is missed especially during times of the year we are called to be happy; the lament makes our relationship with God real and our ultimate joy authentic.

The eagle changes its flying posture depending on the state of the air around it.  When in flight it encounters noisy, turbulent air, the eagle folds its wings straight down and underneath, riding the agitated, unstable winds in as compact a body mass as possible.

But when the air is calm high above the earth, the eagle will spread its massive wingspan to its farthest limits. It will expand its body mass to its fullest potential as it coasts and glides on the silent, peaceful air.

Silence gets a bad rap in the Protestant church especially. Since the Reformation and Enlightenment, we are suspicious of anything that is interior or to do with experience. When we still our minds, we are afraid that we will let the devil in! 

And, we will straight away point to bad silence – like the violence percolating beneath the surface of giving someone ‘the silent treatment’. Or, we rightly condemn the complacent, fearful silence in face of injustice. In both cases, words must be spoken. And better loudly at that!

Yet, there is a silence that is healing, transformational. We find it in nature. We find it in the stillness of predawn dew resting on flowers and blades of grass. We experience it the first night in the bush after driving all day away from the loud, noisy city. 

We also find silence in the bold action born of convicted hearts, action that happens behind-the-scenes. Not in the spectacular, the sensational. Not in attention-grabbing largess of personality shock-and-awe. But in the quiet, dedicated, barely perceptible giving of those who know themselves and respond to the still, small voice speaking in their hearts.

This is Joseph. He appears, indeed, to be the strong, silent type. But not because he is afraid to say or do anything. But because he has the courage to respond. He begins his risky venture with Mary “after waking from sleep.” Even though he went to bed “considering in his mind” all the problematic aspects of his relationship with Mary, “resolving” to leave her, his course of action changed dramatically after he stopped the busy-ness of his mind, the activity of his consciousness – as good and righteous as it was – and went to sleep. And dreamt.[1]

There is a difference between the absence of noise and silence. Something is already happening in this holy silence. Something we’ve been too busy, too rushed, too loud, too distracted to notice. Where God already is, in between the words, in between the spaces defined by our cerebral, ego-driven impulses and imaginations.

This is good, Lutheran theology! The grace of God already exists in our lives. We don’t have to make it happen. Really, we don’t! God is in the world, already. It is given. God is present. God is waiting for us, in the silence of our hearts. God is waiting, already, in the circumstances and situations of the world. God is always listening to us. 

But are we always listening to God? Are we willing to step into the river of God’s action and Spirit? Will we immerse ourselves into the prayer already flowing in our lives, a prayer flowing into the ocean of God’s presence and love? The late Thomas Keating was known to have said, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”[2]

It is in silence where we can be fully and truly who we are. We don’t have to hide anything. We don’t have to meet anyone’s expectations, put on a good impression or please anyone. We can let go and let all that is there come to the surface in the confidence that all of it is held in God’s love – the good, the bad and the ugly. We can stretch to our fullest without judgement. We may be, in truth, letting the devil out, not in.

May we step into the spaciousness of God’s mercy, peace and joy just waiting for us in the silence of God’s ever-present love. May we learn to pray in the gift of silence, especially when we may so desperately need it.


[1]Matthew 1:18-25

[2]Cited in Theresa Blythe, Fifty Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006) p.32

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

Kitchen vision

During Mika’s confirmation last weekend, I was grateful to reconnect with folks from her past and present, and hopefully future. At Mika’s confirmation party on the Saturday, we had just over thirty people in our house. It was raining, so all of them were, physically, in our house. It was crowded. Loud. Noisy.

You know I am an introvert. And they say that if you want to starve an introvert to death, put a stranger right in the middle of their kitchen. Far from being strangers, these were all friends and family. And yet, to have someone ‘in your space’ who is not normally there, was challenging for me. Add to that stress, organizing food for all these people and making sure everyone had somewhere to sit …

I remember first meeting Mika’s godparents in rural southern Ontario in my first parish. In century old houses, the kitchen can be the largest room. The kitchen is also where most people enter the house—not the front entrance facing the road. But ‘out back’ where friends, family and neighbours know to go in, right into the kitchen.

The kitchen in our first home there even had an Elmira wood stove in it. It was flanked by arm chairs and a small settee right beside the long counter and ample room for the kitchen table. Lots of people could fit in there!

Times have changed, indeed. Today, in average-sized homes there isn’t a whole lot of room to manoeuvre about. And for introverts such as myself, when I’m cooking or washing up the dishes, it’s a real struggle for me to share the space. I have to work at that.

I suspect I am not alone on this! We guard our spaces, covet our ground. We justify our beliefs and behaviour by appealing to social norms: Of course, everyone feels this way! Right? Let’s just say, having so many people crammed into ‘my space’ was a growth opportunity for me!

Jesus’ last prayer before his death and resurrection was for the disciples to be “one”—one in each other, one in Christ, one in God—bound together in the love of God.[1]The vision of God is an ever-expanding community brought together in love. The vision of God is that everyone can come to the table, everyone who is thirty, hungry, yearning for deeper connection with God and the world. The vision of God is that the dividing lines be erased—the lines that divide, exclude, deny, keep away.

The problem is, Jesus’ prayer and vision has come on hard times. We cannot deny it: the church has been fractured and divided more than anything—especially after the Reformation which brought some good things nonetheless. History in the last five hundred years has taught us, if nothing else, that fighting about who believes the right things about God can keep faithful people entangled with words about God rather than walking in the ways of God.

When followers of Christ draw lines in the sand, exclude and divide, when we quarrel and argue about dogmas and creeds and doctrines, the world will not witness the peace and love of God in us. So, the challenge of living faithfully is not only a call to private goodness or a superficial ‘everyone likes each other’.

It is a call to let our lives invite others to follow Jesus. Our lives ought not solely be preoccupied with right or wrong, guilty or not, in or out but whether or not our actions and behaviour contribute to the good of the world. Whether or not our actions contribute to a loving witness of what God’s vision is all about.

And we discover this path by experiencing the living presence of God in our lives. Not just talking about faith, but living it. And so, we are called to grow. And even when good growth happens, there will be growing pains as we stretch and flex our spiritual muscles.

There are two things ‘growing pains’ are not: First, when we are invited to do something differently, it is not an indictment against your history. It is not saying what happened in the past was all wrong. It is not dismissing the way you did things were bad.

When we are invited to do something new, something differently, let me suggest it is a challenge. A challenge to grow. Growth means change. When a plant or flower grows from its place in the ground, it changes. It’s ok to change our minds, as we grow. We are adults. We gain new life experiences. We learn new things, consider fresh perspectives. We have to integrate those experiences as we try new things.

Second, this discomfort is also not persecution. Please don’t confuse growing pains with ‘being persecuted’. We often hear that. When Christians, especially, are not interested in growth, some will conveniently use that interpretation: ‘We are being persecuted’.

When all along this discomfort is more likely about giving up privilege. It is giving up some of our privilege. Being comfortable at all costs—even the cost of avoiding difficult, vulnerable conversations, even at the cost of staying comfortable—is the very definition of privilege.

Growth will make us feel uncomfortable. But following Jesus is not about our degree of comfort. There is always a cost.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian in the last century, spent the last year of his life in a Nazi prison. And he was executed by the Nazis just before the end of the Second World War.

But in those last days of his life he reflected deeply on the meaning of Christianity in the world and Christian discipleship. One of his great books was called, “The Cost of Discipleship.” And in it he warns us in the modern world to beware of what he called ‘cheap grace’. He wrote that cheap grace was the mortal enemy of our church. What we need in the church today is a costly grace, a grace that costs us something.

What is ‘cheap grace’? It is the kind of grace we give ourselves. It is the kind we get when we use the church to satisfy ourselves. It is grace without really following, without really being a disciple. It is the kind of grace reflected by the Christian who says, “I like to stay as I am.” “I’m ok” “Leave me alone.” “Don’t ask me to grow.” “I am happy where I am.”

To grow. To go deeper. To expand. To overcome the divisions that separate, isolate, exclude—within ourselves, with others and the world around us. The twelve apostles each gave their lives for their discipleship. Theirs was indeed a costly discipleship.[2]

The cross stands at the centre of this process of growth and change. We are called, and we are challenged to grow. And to grow means to give things up: attitudes, attachments, ways of seeing things, our resources, whatever keeps us the same. This is the way of the cross.

“Lay down your life if you want to find it,” Jesus said. “Leave yourself behind if you want to find your true self.”[3]

John’s visionary writing in the Book of Revelation concludes the bible. It ends with a prayer that the grace of the Lord Jesus be with “all”.[4]The original Greek does not add the words “the saints” which some English translations do. Indeed, the grace, love and mercy of God is meant for all people. Everyone.

The Spirit of God says, “Come!” to everyone:

And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift …[5]

Divisions do not matter when people come to the table of good food aplenty. When people come forward to receive the gifts of God, differences do not really matter, do they? The bible’s climax is a marvelous image of countless people of all nationalities, ages, languages, sexes, classes—you name it!—drawing out water that is freely given as a gift to all.[6]

Differences do not matter in this climactic vision. What was of importance is the coming to the sacred waters, to the table. We come, to wash ourselves of prejudice and fear. We come to be challenged to grow. We come to receive grace. For everyone. Everyone is allowed in the kitchen. It’s not just mine, ours.

Come to the Table. It is for everyone.

 

[1]John 17:20-26; the Gospel for the 7thSunday of Easter, Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.

[2]Laurence Freeman, “Christian Life in the Light of Christian Meditation: Discipleship” (Meditatio Talks Series 2019 A Jan-Mar), Discipleship 3, wccm.org/resources/audio/albums.

[3]Matthew 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33; John 12:25

[4]Revelation 22:21

[5]Revelation 22:17

[6]Paul ‘Skip’ Johnson in Feasting in the Word Year C Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.534-538.

Traveling stones: a pilgrimage lesson in letting go

In the sixth century Saint Benedict said, “A monk should have death always before his eyes.”[1] ‘Death’ doesn’t need to refer only to our physical demise at the end of life but to any loss experienced in life. There are many deaths we experience in life: the death of a cherished pet, the loss of friendship, the loss of a job, divorce, death of a loved one, moving into another home. Any significant change, even positive ones, involve something lost.

In the second reading for today written in the first century, Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthians to live in this world “as though not.”[2] He is advocating a certain disengagement from the attachments and claims of our lives, including some of our most cherished relationships. The likes of Paul and Benedict reflect, as well, the wisdom of the prophets and poets of ancient Israel: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God stands forever.”[3]

Our earth-bound attachments come under scrutiny here, no doubt. The question remains for each of us on our own journeys of faith and life – what are those things of which we need to let go in order to move on? After all, in the Lord’s Prayer the words, “Thy Kingdom come”, mean little unless we can also say: “My kingdom go.”[4]

Following Jesus means leaving things behind — as the first disciples did, in our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:14:20).

You heard about the man who was hiking in the mountains when he slipped, and started to slide over the edge. Just as he was about to fall into the abyss, he grabbed a tree branch growing out of the rock ledge. He hung on perilously dangling in the air.

He didn’t know what to do. It was impossible to pull himself up since the branch stem was slippery and wet. He swung in the silence of the breeze contemplating his fate with growing terror. Finally he looked up to the sky and prayed: “If there is a God anywhere up there, I could do with some help, please.”

To his surprise and shock, he heard God’s voice respond instantly: “I will help you. But you first have to let go.”

The man was silent for a minute. He dared not look down. It was a long way to the jagged rocks of the canyon below. Again he looked up to the sky, and said: “Is there anyone else up there?”

A long-standing tradition in doing a pilgrimage is to bring a stone from home and lay it somewhere along the path. This home-stone represents a part of myself that I lose, and leave behind, where I have walked.

Last Spring when I walked a part of the Camino de Santiago, I wanted to leave my stone in the waters off the western coast of Spain, either in Fisterra or Muxia – both coastal towns are some one hundred kilometres west of Santiago.

I imagined this place a fitting resting place for my stone since I love walking by water and coastlines. Once, long ago, people believed the coastal town of Fisterra (French, for ‘the end of the earth’) was the physical limit of land – the farthest one could go. In my imagination, I saw myself facing the setting sun, having completed the 800-kilometer, two-month trek, looking west to the horizon line beyond which lies the land of my home in North America.

I imagined feeling satisfied at the end of a long journey, having reached my goal, grateful for the challenge and all the things the Camino taught me. In that moment of gratitude and joy, I would toss my stone as far as I could into the spume and depths of the Atlantic Ocean. That was the vision, anyway.

I found the perfect sized stone while wandering around my house one afternoon a week before leaving for Spain. Because I was running about making the last-minute preparations for the journey, I placed it temporarily on the landing railing in the garage, certain I would soon tuck it away in my backpack.

Two weeks later I was scrambling up a steep incline outside the town of Irun on the first day of my pilgrimage. As I expected that first day was incredibly tough going. The temperatures soared to above 25 degrees C and the sun shone brightly. Sweat pouring down my neck and back I struggled up that cliff wondering why on earth I chose to do this on my sabbatical. I dug my walking poles into the hard-caked sandy ground to make the next ledge and wondered sarcastically if I should have rather taken rappelling lessons in preparation for coming to Spain.

In that moment of physical and growing mental exhaustion, I realized I had forgotten to pack my stone. It was still sitting on the railing in the garage back home! I stopped in my tracks and exhaled deeply.

“What’s the matter?” my Dutch pilgrim friend asked me, huffing and puffing as I was.

“I forgot to bring my stone,” I confessed my failure.

“Don’t despair,” my co-pilgrim wanted to advise. “The Camino will give you an answer.”

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Several days later two significant things happened. The first was while I was walking down a slope towards the northern Basque town of Guernica, I thought I should take with me a couple stones from this path, as a keepsake from walking the Camino. So, I selected two small pebbles from under my feet where I stood beholding the town and valley below.

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That same day, my knee seized up, and I walked the remainder of my Camino in pain. Three days later, coughing and feeling very sick, I was on a plane homebound. Diagnosed with pneumonia back in Ottawa, I had to come to terms with my failure of not having reached my goal.

Not only had I not reached Santiago and Fisterra, I had done nothing with my stone which I had forgotten anyway. By forgetting the stone, had I already destined myself not to finish the pilgrimage? These dark thoughts swirled in my mind.

After having recovered a few weeks later, my wife and I flew to Lisbon for a week of vacation to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Originally, the plan had been for her to join me at the end of my pilgrimage, where I would meet her in Lisbon. Nevertheless, this time, I did bring my stone from home, renamed my ‘glory’ stone.

My glory stone represented all my aspirations, desires, longings which I knew deep down the Camino had taught me to let go of. I had to surrender even my human yearning and goals to God.

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And so, at Cabo Da Roca near Lisbon, Portugal – the farthest most western point of land on continental Europe – I threw my glory stone into the Atlantic Ocean facing the setting sun. I had to practice letting glory go.

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It seems I was still bound to finish some kind of pilgrimage during my sabbatical. I didn’t have enough time to go back to Spain and finish the Camino de Santiago. But I did have enough time to walk the entire length of the longest contiguous sand beach in North America – fifty kilometres on Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. There, my journey of letting go continued.

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There, on “Cape Disappointment” – fittingly named – I brought the two pebbles that I picked up in Spain on the last day I walked on the Camino. One glorious afternoon, I scrambled down into Dead Man’s Cove – also fittingly named – on Cape Disappointment. After reflecting on my disappointments of late, I realized on my journey of life not only did I need to yield all my dreams but also all my regrets and suffering. And so, I threw those stones of disappointment into the Pacific Ocean. I let these go.

 

I realized life is not lived well when we obsessively hold on to all those things that cause us grief. I had to offer these to God as well. Later, while I sat on a park bench near the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment looking over the Pacific, I met a couple of Americans visiting from Portland. In our conversation, we were able to affirm that “all great spirituality is about learning to let go.”[5]

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But I didn’t leave my pilgrimage empty handed. When I climbed out of Dead Man’s Cove that day, I picked up from the sand a smooth, round stone. Now, any rocks on the Peninsula are rare. Most of the fifty-kilometre stretch is sand, land created from the outflow of the mighty Columbia River as it spills into the Pacific Ocean. Most rocks you see on the Peninsula have been trucked in. So, I was delighted to take with me back home, a rare thing.

And hope is a rare commodity in this world of pessimism, denial, and despair. This is my “stone of hope”, that I hold forever, amidst all the human aspirations swirling in my life and all the disappointments and failures which I regularly need to practice letting go of.

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We hold not only that which we need to let go of, but we also hold hope throughout our lives. “We do not simply resign ourselves to the give-ness of the world, for we have planted within us a great hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven. This means we are a people who look to the future with trust and hope, confident that God is working God’s purposes out and that God’s realm is even now breaking into our world.”[6]

At this point in your journey of life, which stones are you holding — of dreams, of disappointments, of hope? Which ones do you need to let go of? Which do you need to hold on to? I suspect it is true when the likes of Saint Paul, and all the wise teachers over the ages, writes: “Hope does not disappoint us.” [7]

[1] cited in Ruthanna B. Hooke in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 1” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.280

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

[3] Isaiah 40:8

[4] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Thursday, January 18, 2018.

[5] Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, cac.org

[6] Ruthanna B. Hooke, ibid.

7 – Romans 5:5

Christmas – God goes home

Were you home for Christmas?

It is customary to be at home, or go home, for Christmas. For some, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without being home. And, in this meaning, ‘home’ refers to a specific, geographic location, a space usually defined by a building: the homestead back on the farm, the house you grew up in and is still in the family, the house you lived in for many years, etc.

Bing Crosby’s “I’ll be home for Christmas” echoes in the back of our mind, providing a mantra for constructing our idea of what Christmas must be like. Being home brings comfort and a feeling of stability. To do or say otherwise might threaten our very notion of what Christmas means. In discussing whether it is time to celebrate Christmas somewhere new and somewhere different, someone will always say: How could we do Christmas anywhere else than here — at home?

I heard over the holiday the story of a childhood memory of Christmas. When this person was a young child, her parents took her and her siblings to travel from Ottawa to the Eastern Townships to be with an aging and infirm family member. Friends criticized them: “How could you spend Christmas in a motel room and nursing home far away,” they judged. “You’re spoiling Christmas. Especially for the children.”

Contrary to our nostalgic sentiments, the first Christmas story points another way: Mary and Joseph make a home where there is no home – a stable behind a packed inn in a town far away from hometown Nazareth. The recluse shepherds have to leave the familiar abodes of the fields surrounding Bethlehem and go with haste to visit strangers in town. And the magi travel great distances, following a star, from the East and arrive to visit the Christ child after some time has passed since that Holy Night.

The Christmas story is more about traveling away from home, away from the familiar and towards the unknown, the new, the unfamiliar. If we assume that being away from home at Christmas would be unsettling, then we might be surprised that the dislocation of the main characters in the Christmas story does not appear to destabilize them.[1]

Brian McLaren argues that what matters most in religion “is not our status but our trajectory, not where we are but where we’re going, not where we stand but where we’re headed. Religion is at its best when it leads us forward, when it guides us on our spiritual growth.”[2] This is the meaning of the magi’s journey:

Religion is at its best when we, with the wise men, follow the star shining upon the place of Jesus’ presence in the world today. Like Jesus’ disciples who were to “go into all the world”[3], we are called from time to time to leave places of comfort and familiarity, in order to discover the new things God is revealing to us and participate in the mission of God.

Our comfort and stability come when, no matter where we find ourselves at Christmas time, we find our home in Christ. There is something true about a nostalgic portrayal of the nativity: the happy family and visitors huddle around the manger made of straw, a soft light shedding its warmth on the pastoral scene; what is right about this is that there is a home – a home whose hearth is Jesus Christ himself.[4]

As I pondered the idea of being home at Christmas, I found this wonderful definition of home: “Home is the abiding place of the affections.”[5] Home speaks of a shared intimacy, vulnerability, truth-telling and love. The abiding place of the affections is not limited to any one physical space, but is more a function of healthy relationships. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”[6] Whenever deep speaks to deep,[7] heart speaks to heart, that is home. And that is where God is.

In this coming season of Epiphany, we indeed discover God anew. We discover the revelation of Jesus in the world today. We discover with joy that God is at home in us and in this world.

“See, the home of God is among mortals; He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them.”[8]

Christmas means that the game for us has changed. For, no longer do we need to wait until the end of our life to go to heaven and be with God. For that matter, we don’t need to go anywhere at all.

Rather, Christmas means that God came home; that God and heaven have come to us. To where we are. And no matter where we are. For now, and forevermore. Amen.

 

[1] Cynthia L. Rigby in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008) p.118.

[2] Brian McLaren, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian” (Convergent, 2006), p.xi-xii, 12-13.

[3] Mark 16:15

[4] Cynthia L. Rigby, ibid.

[5] David Marine, cited in Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015) p.172.

[6] Matthew 18:20

[7] Psalm 42:7

[8] Revelation 21:3

Thanksgiving builds commUNItY

Sometimes what I see in nature represents how I feel. For example: “The dark, thunder clouds looked angry,” we say. Or, “The deer leapt with joy across the meadow.”

Nature has a way of evoking feelings within us. When I stopped in this cove on Cape Disappointment, I couldn’t help but feel praise for the creator God, and thankful for the beauty of life.

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This particular photo conveys to me first a state of peace. After all, not far from this lone pine the swirling waters, changing tides and ravaging winds off the Cape constantly threaten to uproot the tree. And yet, the tree lives on looking very peaceful.

But more than that, thankful. The tree shoots to the sky, to the life-giving sun. It’s not just hugging the rock in defensive self-protection. It offers its praise to the Creator by aiming and growing upward, giving a faithful witness to all that will see this tree.

For me, a life lived grounded and united in peace, praise and thanksgiving to God, is indeed a life lived in the gracious community of God.

During this month when we reflect on the legacy of the 16th century Reformation and celebrate together the 500th year of Reformation, we cannot avoid nor deny the sad reality of conflict and division. It seems you cannot fully appreciate the nature of things, including the church, unless you acknowledge the role of conflict among people of all times and places.

This is why it is noteworthy that Luke in the Gospel text assigned for Thanksgiving Day tells this story, which is not found anywhere else in the New Testament.[1] What is unique about this healing story is the response of thanksgiving by a Samaritan. Jesus sets this “foreigner” apart from the others who were also healed.[2]

The Samaritan was the only one who “turned back” to give thanks to Jesus.[3] So, there is much more going on here than a physical, medical cure of a disease.

Since ancient times, a political and religious rift was growing between Israel and Samaria. Samaria became “foreign” after breaking off from the Davidic monarchy and the establishment of Samaria as the capital of the northern kingdom.[4] Then, after the Babylonian exile, tensions mounted between the people of Samaria and the Jews who returned to rebuild Jerusalem.[5]

Luke includes this story in his Gospel to emphasize the importance of looking to the positive witness of the outsider. In other words, the normal divisions separating us in our religious and cultural identities matter little in the larger scheme of things. Especially when it comes to the expression of faith.

Those who are different are often the very people we need to look to for a positive example of faithful living.

This summer a friend of mine visited the German town of Dinkelsbühl in Bavaria. During the Reformation Era in the 16th and 17th centuries, this town was the first of only a small number at the time who identified as bi-confessional; that is, roughly equal numbers of Roman Catholic and Protestant citizens were allowed to live and practice their faith, with equal rights for both sides.

After the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, a few years after Martin Luther’s death, land in Germany was divided into Protestant or Catholic regions. The religious adherence of a population in any region was determined by the religion of the ruling prince in that area.

Except for Dinkelsbühl. The Peace of Westphalia a century later enshrined the bi-confessional identity of this town by establishing a joint Catholic-Protestant government and administrative system, and ensured a precise and equal distribution between Catholic and Protestant civic officials.

When you consider the animosity, violence and warfare characteristic of those centuries between Catholics and Protestants, never-mind the twentieth century history in Ireland and the unfortunately enduring oppositional attitudes between Protestants and Catholics today – this is truly remarkable.

Bucking the dominant culture of dualistic either/or, right/wrong, in/out, black/white thinking, the leaders and citizens of Dinkelsbühl chose to follow a different path. We don’t need to point to present day efforts of ecumenism and unity building. Right in the middle of the conflict of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries there were already efforts then to see a different way:

To see the good in the other. To search out and focus on common understandings first. To seek mutual understanding. Amidst everything around conspiring against such counter-cultural vision.

The point of decision for the Samaritan leper came when he realized he was healed, on the path as they went.[6] It’s important to picture this in your mind. Jesus didn’t snap his fingers and, voila! Yes, the lepers brought their belief in Jesus to the encounter, asking him for healing. Jesus then told them to go to the priest for certification of their healing.

It was on the way – after they had committed to doing something, even before any proof of their healing was given, amidst their still debilitating illness – they went. In doing something, on the way, they were healed. Healing is a process.

It was on this journey when the healed Samaritan had to make a decision.  He could have followed the other nine who were clearly pursuing their self-interest. Against the conforming pressures of the majority, he turned back to follow his heart, full of thanksgiving. We may wonder whether he was also motivated by avoiding potential ridicule and discrimination as a Samaritan appearing before Jewish authority in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, the Samaritan made thanksgiving a priority. It is to him that Jesus ascribes the affirmation: “Your faith has made you well”; or, as other translations have it: “Your faith has saved you.”[7]

Faith without gratitude is no faith at all. There is something life-giving about thanksgiving. Grateful people are more hopeful. Indeed, there is evidence now of a correlation between gratitude and the immune system. People who are grateful have a health edge. For example, an attitude of gratitude, reduces stress. So, your mother was right when she made you call your grandmother and thank her for the birthday card.[8]

A true expression of faith is complete when it includes thanksgiving. Coming to worship on Sundays is not validated because “you get something out of it.” Attending worship is not about the self-centered search for “what is in it for me?” Worship is not “me-first” exercise. Let’s be clear.

Rather, coming to worship is about offering thanksgiving, first and foremost. Sunday worship is an opportunity to give thanks to the God who gives all, for all. It is no wonder that the Holy Communion is traditionally called “The Holy Eucharist”, translated from the Greek as “The Great Thanksgiving”. We come to the table to offer our gifts of thanksgiving to God. Every week.

Thanksgiving changes the character of a community and its work. Stewardship is transformed from fundraising to the glad gratitude of joyful givers. The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts. Prayer includes not only our intercessions and supplications, but also our thanksgiving and praise of God’s good gifts to us at the Table.[9]  Thanksgiving builds bridges among people who are different.

We come to Communion to offer thanks to God not because we are good, but because God is good. And we see God reflected in all of creation, in all people, in the good they are.

We pray the legacy of the next 500 years of Reformation reflects the growth of unity among a people that are grateful for the good gifts God brings to us all.

Amen.

 

[1] Oliver Larry Yarbrough 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.169

[2] Luke 17:17-19

[3] Luke 17:15

[4] 1 Kings 12, 16

[5] Nehemiah 4, Yarbrough ibid., p.167

[6] Luke 17:14-15

[7] Luke 17:19, Yarbrough, ibid., p.169

[8] John M. Buchanan, ibid., p.169

[9] Kimberley Bracken Long, ibid., p.168

Cornered?

Have you ever wondered why this building was designed to be more-or-less round? Well, don’t you know, “The devil can’t corner you in here!” we say.

Like in the boxing ring, the combatants in the corner are at either end of the victory-defeat spectrum: In the corner they either have the upper hand, literally. Or, they are on the verge of collapsing in a heap.

Being in the corner is an undesired position. Cornering someone is to put them at a disadvantage. The one being cornered is vulnerable. Being cornered is to admit there are no options left.

We also use the phrase to mock contractors and builders worried only about the bottom line when they ‘cut corners’. Cutting corners may serve the bottom line, but in the long run cutting corners is a prescription for guaranteed repair and reconstruction work sooner than later.

At the same time, the latest fashion in contemporary urban design values right angles and sharp lines. The new buildings are rather square and boxy, aren’t they? Meaning, lots of straight lines. But a straight line can’t go on forever. Therefore, lots of corners.

People in many non-Western cultures don’t build as many corners as we do. The Zulus in southern Africa, for example, live in a less-carpentered world. They live in a history and culture where straight lines and right angles are scarce, if not entirely absent. (1)

What would it be like to live in a non-linear world? Where our material culture presents more rounded, softer, curved constructions such as our building!

And yet, there is a gift in the message of a corner. Not only can corners get us stuck. But they also are an indisputable sign that there’s always a corner to be turned. In truth, this is what we say, don’t we, when things are just starting to get better: “We’ve turned the corner on this.” When things are not yet better, we wonder: “When will I turn the corner on my illness, my fear, my problem, my troubled feelings, my strained relationships?”

Turning the corner means, nevertheless, there’s no turning back. Once you’ve crossed the line, there’s no going back to the way it used to be. That could be good. It can also be scary. Corners are necessary to find a way through a predicament, such as in a maze. Corners define clearly where one eventually needs to go, like it or not.

The story of Jesus’ resurrection is a huge corner turned in the cosmos of all that was, and is, and is to come. History is forever changed by the empty tomb. The ether of our very existence is transformed into the triumph of good that can be, for all time, for all people, and in every place. All the evil forces that led to Jesus’s crucifixion no longer need to triumph in the world today.

They say any lead in playoff hockey is a dangerous lead, as the first few games of the NHL playoffs have shown. More often than not the lead does not stand. If a team does have the lead however small, they are coached to employ the killer instinct:

Don’t let up. Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t sit back. Finish off your opponent with indiscriminating, ruthless power. Once they’re down, make sure they stay down. Hate your opponent. Don’t give them a chance to come back. Don’t be merciful, kind, generous, compassionate. Above all, don’t feel sorry for your opponent’s misgivings.

This is the philosophy of competitive play in professional sports. Why professional athletes and teams are so popular and generate billions of dollars in our economy is precisely because we humans are really good at believing this philosophy if not doing it from time to time.

Easter is God’s come-from-behind victory. The way of non-violence, of loving self-giving, and of trust in God is a victory against all the odds. It is, frankly, an unbelievable, unexpected move from our human perspective. Jesus’ demonstration of non-violence, of loving self-giving, and of trust in God is validated and redeemed by his resurrection. The surprising, brilliant victory of Easter morning is a poignant witness to what God is really all about.

The way of violence of our will/my will over yours, of greedy acquisition for more, of cynical mistrust of others — this is the way of the world that crashes in a heap of defeat in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. Now, the way of God is before us.

Resurrection says a lot about the nature of God’s purposes. Because Jesus lives. And Jesus is Lord. We therefore gather today to affirm that God’s purposes are good. And, in the end, it is not all doom and gloom. In the end, God comes through.

One thing I like about the re-modelled communion rail around the chancel, is that we have those corners at both sides. Some have said they don’t like it at the corner, because they feel squeezed out. Well, we can help each other with that. What the corners force us to do is pay more attention to who is standing beside us; and make room for them. And that’s not a bad thing!

What these corners force us to do, is to face and look at each other when we are standing or kneeling at the altar. We are not just individuals coming to face the Lord God one-on-one in a straight line, not seeing nor even respective of who comes along beside us. Now, it’s no longer just about ‘me and sweet Jesus’.

It’s about ‘us’ and sweet Jesus. And Jesus is not always sweet. We are a community gathered around one table, a people who embody the living Body of Christ in the world today. We are also the broken body of Jesus, whose power is shown through human weakness (1 Corinthians 1:18-29). What better place than to see our sisters and brothers in Christ, eye-to-eye, and practice right here what it means to pray for others, to encourage them, to recognize our unity in the living God.

And then take in word and deed that awareness and message from this place, into the world out there: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

1 — Wayne Weiten & Doug McCann, “Psychology: Themes and Variations” 3rd Edition (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2013), p.168