Here we (and God) go again

The horrible evil unleashed in Christchurch, New Zealand, this past weekend exposes so much that is wrong in our world. And in our relationship with those who are different from us. And in our relationship with God. When worshippers are gunned down in their house of prayer, to do anything now but grieve alongside and stand in solidarity with the sufferers exposes in us a serious God-image problem.

Our God-image problem, as Christians, starts with our understanding of God’s holy word. And specifically, our over-simplistic judgement of Jesus’ opponents. Typically, in the New Testament, these are the Pharisees. And we succumb to what I call the ‘black helmet syndrome’.

The ‘black helmet syndrome’ comes from how the bad guys are usually portrayed in popular culture—in old tv shows and movies like Star Wars. For example, the bad guys all wear the same uniform, usually the same colour, and we normally don’t see their faces because they are hidden behind some helmet or mask. They march to the same tune and move the same, predictable ways. They behave, essentially, like robots.

We know nothing of their unique personalities (unless a story evolves and develops, like Star Wars eventually does) and never gain insight into their unique personalities. They are trapped in their badness because individuals yield to the pressure to conform.

When we read the bible like that, it’s easy to lump all the Pharisees together under one over-arching label: bad guy. But that’s not the case, if we read the narrative more closely and contemplatively.

Portrayed in several Gospel stories as the antagonists, the Pharisees do scrutinize and criticize Jesus. Yes. But there are layers to that antagonism, even to the point of sympathy for Jesus. That is what first caught my attention in the Gospel text assigned for today, the Second Sunday in Lent.[1]

It was the Pharisees who warned Jesus he should get out of town because Herod wanted to kill him.[2]Jesus, after all, has become a useful target and a convenient scapegoat for the powerful elite. Let the restless crowds project their anxiety, their anger and fear onto the troublemaker Jesus rather than those holding tentatively to power.

Do you sense the growing tension? Jesus’ enemies have throughout his ministry flocked to him, hung on his every word and literally breathed down his neck. There is a power struggle strangling Jerusalem, and everyone, especially Herod Antipas, is looking over their shoulders.

The fact that Jesus had sympathizers and supporters  in the halls of power shouldn’t come to us as a surprise. After all, Joseph of Arimathea, on whose land Jesus was buried, exercised power in Jerusalem and had Pilate’s ear.[3]Joseph of Arimathea, we sense, was partial to Jesus and what he was all about. Nicodemus, who often questioned Jesus[4], in the end helped the Arimathean bury Jesus with respect and according to tradition. Who Jesus is and what he says somehow touches the hearts of those like Nicodemus.

These sympathizers, however, are caught between two worlds, two kingdoms. They have benefited from their privileged status, to be sure. They wouldn’t easily give that up, nor would they necessarily want to. And yet, this preacher from Nazareth who gives hope and the promise of God’s love to the downtrodden stirs something irresistible deep within them.

“Tell that fox, Herod …,” Jesus snipes.[5]“Tell him what’s really going to happen sooner than later. Tell him the truth about God and God’s intention.” Jesus gives a warning, and gives it to these ‘sitters-on-the-fence’ Pharisees to convey his cutting words.

At the first, we witness Jesus throwing his allies the proverbial ticking time bomb. For when they bring Jesus’ message to Herod, they would be bringing upon themselves unwelcome attention and even scrutiny. A shadow would pass over them, the seed of suspicion planted. “What were they doing so close to Jesus in the first place?” “Whose side are they really on?” And the political machine might start turning against them. The balance shifts ever so subtly, and the irreversible track to their eventual demise begins.

Indeed, Jesus’ words for these sympathizers lead them to a place of discomfort, to say the least. And Jesus knows what he is doing. These ‘good’ Pharisees must now face their own demons and answer to themselves. They must choose.

It’s as if Jesus is forcing their hands to come clean: Whose kingdom will you serve, now? Will you follow the values of Herod and the political self-serving machine of Jerusalem? Or, will you follow in the realm of God? Whose kingdom will you seek? The kingdom of hate? Or, the kingdom of love? And, are you prepared to let go of your privileged status, for my sake? And the sake of the Gospel?

We also live between two worlds. Being a follower of Christ creates tension before release and peace.

What about you? Where are you feeling the pinch in your life today? Where is your journey taking you? Where in your life is Jesus pushing you to decide in your heart whom you will follow—the voice of ambition and accumulation, the voice of privilege and protecting it at all costs, the voice of acquisition and preservation?

Or, will you follow the values represented by Jesus and the kingdom of God—the voice of compassion and forgiveness, the voice of reason and discernment, the voice of restorative justice and peace, of personal responsibility and collective wisdom?

We’ve seen this narrative repeat throughout the bible. Jesus even implies the repetitive nature of this story when in his lament, Jesus says, “How many times / How often have I desired  you….”[6]

Not only was this one of several, actual visits Jesus made to Jerusalem in Luke’s writing, the cycle has been going on since ancient times. God’s relationship with Israel reflects a similar pattern: At one point, they are not God’s people; at the next, they are God’s people, again.

The prophets preached God’s word to the people like a broken record: Judgement; Forgiveness. Destruction; Restitution. Rejection; Restoration. “How often have we been down this road before,” it’s as if Jesus were lamenting. Here we go again.

And yet, herein lies the grace, the Gospel, the good news: In confessing that we have an image problem with Jesus’ enemies—that we far too often succumb to the ‘black helmet syndrome’— we also must confess our image problem with God.

Because God is not some cosmic police officer ready to pounce on us should we be caught speeding. God is not some old man sitting on a throne pointing a finger of judgement and accusation. God is not about retributive, punitive justice. A tit-for-tat God who stokes the fire of revenge and escalating violence. God is not an exclusive God for only the rich, the famous, the perfect.

We learn three things that I can tell about God’s love from this passage. First, God’s love is true. God loves us, not to control us, but to free us. God’s love gives us the freedom to choose our way. God’s love allows us to figure it out for ourselves. God’s love lets us own it for ourselves, so our action is authentic and true. And then God’s grace follows.

We are not robots, mindlessly marching to some pre-determined rhythm of God’s master plan. We are not mindless creatures who can’t make own decisions. We are not co-dependent in some unhealthy, enmeshed relationship with a controlling God. As God’s love increases, so does our freedom. Union is not a breakdown of personal initiative and unique expression. Rather, God’s love is about ‘letting go’. This is true sacrifice.

Second, and consequently, God lets us fail if fail we will. If there is anything we learn about God’s love from Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem is that  Jesus’ sadness is the sadness of God. God grieves with us when we live the unfortunate consequences of our poor decisions. God understands and is ever near, especially when we fall to the bottom of our lives. That’s what they say about tears—they bear witness to how deep one’s love is for the other.

Finally, God never gives up on us. God is faithful. God will keep giving us second chances to grow and deepen our relationship with God, with one another, with ourselves and with this world we inhabit. God will always be there to give us those opportunities to make it better, to choose better. God will never abandon us on this journey.

As we follow Jesus on his path with ours this Lenten season, may we hold on, if anything, to this wonderful promise of God’s never-ending love for all people.

 

[1]Luke 13:31-35; the Gospel reading according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[2]Luke 13:31

[3]John 19:38-42

[4]John 3 & 7

[5]Luke 13:32

[6]Luke 13:34

Foolish advice

The following sermon is adapted from one preached by The Rev. Dawn Hutchings of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Newmarket, Ontario. You can read her excellent sermon on pastordawn.com. In her introduction she thanks a couple of professors from whom we both learned — Eduard Riegert and Donna Seamone. Dawn writes that preachers today stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before; today, I will add that we also lean on each other as we journey together in the ministry of preaching! 

The ‘fool’ isn’t normally taken very seriously. In period books and films set in Medieval times especially, the court jester is the character to whom nobody pays attention beyond their ability to make people laugh. These are the fools we relegate to the realms of distraction and mindless entertainment. And then they are dismissed with an impatient wave of the hand.

Who are fools in our day and age? Who do we pay lip service to, or not take seriously? Who do we seek for a little distraction for entertainment purposes — but whose advice or thoughts or words we do not heed? Because they are fools!

In the recent home release of the film, “Now You See Me 2” starring Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson, the main characters reflect on the role of “the fool” symbolized on a playing card which figures significantly in the plot of the movie. No spoilers; you have to see it!

The whole movie is structured around the power of perspective. By the end of the movie, we are dazzled by how the same words spoken at the beginning of the movie can mean the total opposite by the end. At the end of the movie, here is what they say about “the fool” (I paraphrase): “The fool starts with a blank slate. Therefore, for the fool it’s not about who they are, it’s about who they are becoming.”

Let’s turn to the Gospel reading for today in Luke 15:1-10. Among the teachings of Jesus, the parables of the lost and found are so well known, so familiar that we are in peril of failing to hear the foolishness they advocate.

Today, we just focus on the lost sheep (but the parables of the lost coin and lost sons which follow in chapter 15 of Luke can also be understood in the same way — as foolish advice!): Whether we are relating to co-workers, clients, customers, students, friends, or children none but the foolish among us would leave ninety-nine to the perils and dangers of the wilderness in order to go looking for one idiot who’d been stupid enough to get themselves lost.

These parables of the lost and found are outrageous. None of us would get very far in life if we lived by these teachings. Because we live by a different code; you know it: It is better to put the welfare of the many above the needs of one. Sometimes its better to cut your losses and move on.

The wisdom of the world lurks in us down to every last maxim: – charity begins at home. – God helps those who help themselves. – Count the cost or pay the price. – “They should just pull themselves up, by the bootstraps.” You fill in the rest…

And yet along comes Jesus, spouting such foolishness that even we who are predisposed to agree with him, even we can sympathize with the self-righteous and wonder how anyone could be expected to live like this. The chaos that would ensue if we followed the teaching of these parables as law would be horrendous. What Jesus is advocating is foolishness itself. It makes no earthly sense.  

And so the foolishness that Jesus advocates remains on the pages of our Bibles, or in the sanctuaries of our churches, or in the halls of the academies where they busy themselves arguing of the historical minutia and we smile as the familiarity of the text washes over us from time to time.

But we know full well that this is not the way for any self-respecting, 21st century person to live in the world. These are just parables after all and we can’t be expected to live by them. We’d be fools to try. After all we are not Jesus! And anyway look what happened to him! So, the foolishness that Jesus taught is reasoned into irrelevance and confined to the recesses of our consciousness. 

But what if we didn’t approach these parables with the idea of pinning down their meaning. What if we approached these parables without feeling the need to wrestle the wisdom they contain to the ground so that we can extract from them rules to live by. 

What if we allowed these parables to simply touch us? What might the foolishness they prescribe evoke in us? How might we respond to their touch? In brushing up against these parables of the lost might we feel the touch of the ONE to whom they point?

I have come to believe that only those who have known the fear, the pain and the joy of losing and finding can really feel the touch the parables of the lost. But then again, I’ve come to know that it is impossible to go through life without knowing the fear, the pain and the joy of loosing and finding again and again and again. 

Jesus came teaching in parables. The parables of Jesus come to us to “show” us what God is like and to call us to a way of being in the world. These parables, simply, have about them a “ring” of foolishness.

Because not only would a fool leave ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost. Not only would a fool leave the ninety-nine unguarded to wander aimlessly, to be ravaged by some unknown predator, to fall prey to God knows what. Not only would a fool leave to search for the stray who might be wounded, damaged, dying, not interested in being rescued. And not only would a fool risk a reputation as a wise shepherd, a careful guardian of the known and secure, to seek one lone sheep. 

But a fool would also find, restore, and be foolish to care enough to save the lost, the wandering, the lonely, the one outside the bounds of the flock. Jesus teaches by showing us in these parables: in such foolishness this God has broken into our world and does so again and again. 

The parable of the lost sheep points us in a direction of foolish and passionate abandon. The seeking shepherd who rushes off to find one sheep shows us the God who cares for us so much that the safety of the secure flock is risked so that the stray might be brought home. The mark of the reign of God will be foolishness such as this.

In the time of God’s reign shepherds will care less about flock security and principles of good management, and more about the vulnerability of the odd one out. In the time of God’s reign everyone will counted valuable enough to be cared for. In the time of God’s reign every stone, every clump of dirt, every thing, every one will be counted as valuable.

Today, as we do every Sunday, in worship, we gather in thanksgiving for the reign of God. In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. If only our lives could embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love.

In the telling of these parables, we remember that none of these stories is of the stuff of everyday fare. None of us can do this kind of relentless, reckless abandon constantly. But there are times, there are times when … The risk must be taken. The grasp on the known must be released to reach for, find and restore the lost the abandoned the wayward and yes even the self-righteous. Those we have every right to leave alone. 

In one frame of reference the shepherd should have been guarding the flock, faithful to home duties. But there is a moment that grips, a moment in which what might be choice is no choice. There is only abandon and care, compassion and joy… There is only a moment of foolishness; and then…. love.

These are not only words for individuals they are words for the collective, words for institutions and those of us who make up institutions. The parables were spoken to the Pharisees by Jesus whose comfort with the outcasts and sinners made those keepers of the gates of righteousness squirm in their holy seats. It was foolish action Jesus was about. 

The wisdom of the righteous was ossified righteousness. Theirs was the wisdom of those entrenched in their own role and task so deeply they could not see some new foolishness of God, as wisdom. These were people lost and in exile for most of their history over and over again called and delivered by God. These were the ones whose memory of deliverance could not release them to be deliverers. These people were very much like us.

The Apostle Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:20-27). These parables challenge us to be reckless and relentless in our loving and in our witness.

We are called to be vulnerable in our ministry, vulnerable to those outside the boundaries of our private lives and our community of faith: to give with no expectation of reward, to love without demand for return, to reach out to those in need with unrelenting care, to release preoccupation with the cares and concerns of our own lives (or perhaps through these cares) to reach out in love to those who are not easy to love. We are called to do all this in delight and with joy and in so doing we mirror the foolishness of God. 

St Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. By God’s grace we are the weak and the foolish. We are ‘the fool’; starting over again with a clean slate, becoming who God created us to be.

In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. We pray that our various ministries in the worlds in which we live will embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love. 

May we declare the foolishness of God by reaching out in love recklessly, and with great joy. Moment by moment….let it be so!

Love confronts violence

You can feel the tension rising. As we make the slow yet certain journey with Jesus to his eventual arrest, trial, sentencing and violent death on the Cross, the assigned texts for Lent heighten the tension between Jesus and his scrutinizing opponents in the religious institution of Jerusalem. This short Gospel from Luke (13:31-35) reflects the tone.

It starts with a warning from the Pharisees. “Get away from here; Herod wants to kill you!” they say to Jesus. They are alarmed yet perhaps enjoying the drama unfolding around their competitor in the religious marketplace. They don’t care about Jesus. They are just pressing his buttons to see his reaction.

Immanent violence is in the air. It’s the only way we know to resolve conflict. Whether with our words, our manipulative behaviour, our compulsiveness and in some cases our outright physical abuses — violence is the unfortunate reality whenever and wherever human beings mix.

I’ve learned in a course on conflict I have been taking, that violence is not just played out on a battlefield between warring groups. Violence does not only happen in a physical way between people or nations, as sure and as horrific as these examples are.

Violence is also something that occurs in our verbal communication — whether of a bullying, judging, teasing, condemning nature, or intentionally hurtful put down. Violent communication creeps into any competitive or self-defensive motivation. Which is usually fuelled by a deep fear.

Not outside of this escalating situation for Jesus, the obvious underdog in the power struggle, he announces words of love. He describes God’s favour towards precisely those who wish him harm. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings …” (v.34)

This maternal, protective, embracing, comforting image of God’s love for us intervenes into a world of violence and abusive cravings for power and corruption. This passionate love of God for us is not because we don’t sin, but especially because of our sin. This love of God is undeserved, and it is almost impossible to fully explain or justify. Precisely because it is exercised amidst a violent world.

“On April 16, 2007, the Virginia Tech massacre occurred in which a distraught student went on a shooting rampage, coldly killing fellow students. As many as fifteen were saved from death by an instinctively protective and caring English professor. 

“Liviu Librescu pressed his body against the door to his classroom while he urged his students to jump out a window to safety. This professor, a Romanian Jew who survived the Nazis in his homeland years earlier, died in his classroom after the killer shot through the door that Librescu was holding shut.

“Selfless love is real. In spite of the horrors of war and other brutal ways that humans treat one another, love is possible. Unselfish people reside everywhere. They love unconditionally, dedicate themselves to alleviating suffering, are willing to give their all for another, intent on being life-givers and spirit-transformers. 

“These are not do-gooders, holier-than-thou people. No, this kind of love is seared by trials, purified by personal growth, shaped by persistent rededication and self-giving that goes beyond required duty. Each day people on this planet open the door of their hearts and love pours forth. No matter how discouraged we might get about the world’s violence and hatred, let us remember that generous love thrives in kind souls and expresses itself daily.

“Caryll Houselander writes: ‘This is the first and last vocation of every Christian, to love, and all other vocations are only a shell in which this vocation, to love, is protected.’

“Our deeds of love may not be as enormous as Liviu Librescu’s, but they still contain great value. The unselfish giving and support we offer occurs within our homes and workplaces, in local grocery stores and on the highways, in hospitals, restaurants and other common places of personal encounter.

“Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was convinced that each act of love had a far reaching effect: ‘If we all carry a little of the burden, it will be lightened. If we share in the suffering of the world, then some will not have to endure so heavy an affliction … You may think you are alone. But we are all members of one another. We are children of God together.'” (1)

Librescu could have heeded warnings, and jumped out the window to safety himself. He could have heard the killer coming closer to his classroom, and acted in self-preservation. But, love for his students overcame his fear. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). 

The first words God speaks to Abraham, the god-father of three world religions, in this version of God’s Promise to Abram is “Do not be afraid” (Genesis 15:1). You would think the more important words of God at this point in the Scriptural tradition is the great Covenant God establishes with the people of Israel through Abraham and Sarah.

Yet, God knows us humans. We are a fearful lot, when propositioned with promises of greatness but which require letting go of seemingly important things. And Abraham would need to lose a lot — home, familiarity, security — in order to travel to the new place God was calling him. “Do not be afraid.” The most often quoted divine instruction throughout the whole bible! “Do not be afraid/Fear not!”

The journey to the Cross, and beyond the Cross is ultimately a journey of love. We can only carry our own crosses the whole way because of the love of God which sustains us. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” writes Saint Paul (Romans 8:38-39). Nothing. Not even all the violence in this world.

Thanks be to God!

(1) Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door”, Sorin Books, Notre Dame IN, 2008, digital copy Week 6 ‘Beyond the Door’ Day 2 ‘Bringing Love’ p.12-13

Community of the broken and blessed

This Sunday I will use the words of David Lose, in his fine reflection on the Gospel assigned for this 19th Sunday after Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary (Mark 10:2-16).

He suggests that Jesus’ difficult words here are not so much addressed to individuals as they are to a community that is broken and blessed. These words are not about divorce per se but about the law and under what circumstances it was applied.

Finally, these Gospel words are not so much about matters of the law, but about relationships of mutual dependence and health. He welcomes children, thereby painting a vivid picture of this kindgom community. This is a community comprising of relationships whose purpose is to be honest about our vulnerability, and whose mission is to protect the vulnerable.

Please visit his blog for the full text: In the Meantime

No partiality

At the beginning of every congregational council meeting, members take turns sharing a personal experience of God — whether in their day, or in the past, or in childhood.

Last week a young adult member told us about participating in the ice bucket challenge that went viral on Youtube in the summer. At first he wondered whether this was not just another gimmick he should ignore.

But then he inquired why people were doing this — to raise funds and awareness about ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He watched another video of how this challenge began and learned what this meant personally to its promoters.

Citing the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12; 22: 39) and the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:25-37) from the Bible, the council member concluded his devotions with the Gospel message: that Jesus shows no partiality. God’s love extends to Jews and Samaritans — even though in first century Palestine they were in conflict.

As a result, followers of Jesus are also called to love our neighbour as ourselves. Just because only 3,000 in Canada have Lou Gehrig’s Disease (a small number compared to the entire population) doesn’t mean we can ignore those who have this degenerative muscular, and fatal, disease. Minorities — however we define them — deserve our caring attention, especially if they are suffering in any way.

In another confrontation with the religious leaders of the day, Jesus confounds them by his response (Matthew 22:15-22). What we sometimes overlook in this tense exchange is the heated political context of the time:

The Emperor was putting more pressure on the local leadership in Palestine to firm its grip in the occupied territories. Rome was exercising greater power over the population by imposing currency imprinted with the Emperor’s face, and rescinding the privilege of the Sanhedrin to execute sentences of death. The pressure on Herod and Pilate in the region was mounting; their lives were at risk should there erupt any uprising or public defiance against Rome (read Shusaku Endo translated from the Japanese by Richard Shuchert, “A Life of Jesus” Paulist Press, Toronto, 1973, p.52-53)

At this point in the narrative, many remembered the recent beheading of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12). Those who opposed Rome recalled his charisma and powerful leadership. And now that he was gone, they looked to Jesus to carry the mantle of spearheading precisely such an uprising. All the various religious groups had stake in the politics of opposing Roman occupation of their lands — the Essenes, the Zealots, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Would Jesus be the one to rally the troops? Many were thinking it. And that is why they ask Jesus another trick question, significantly focusing on the new coinage.

It is also significant, I think, that there is truth in the Pharisees’ opening question: They say the truth about Jesus, even though they are plotting against Jesus who is aware of their ‘malice’. “We know,” they say, “that you show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”

They knew, despite their devious motives to trap Jesus, what Jesus was all about. The truth of the Gospel of Jesus is surprisingly expressed by sinful people. They, of all people, get it! Jesus stands with all people — even the minorities, those who live under oppression in occupied lands, even to those who we would rather ignore, or not see, or even hate.

Aboriginal people in Canada make up only 4% of the entire population. And we know their plight. As indigenous people on this land we call Canada, they are particularly disadvantaged in the dominant culture and economy. Things have started to get better for some of them. But certain systemic problems exist and persist — like endemic poverty, education inequality for children, lack of safety for women, and lack of access to safe drinking water.

Do we as followers of Jesus, like the religious leaders in Jesus day, know what Jesus is all about? That’s a good start. But it’s the follow-through that’s just as, if not more, important. What will we do to be more than just a Jesus-fan-club? What will we do when we encounter opportunities to live out the Gospel of Jesus?