The raising of Love

If I told you that during this past week I bumped into a bunch of little, green aliens that landed in my backyard in their saucer-shaped UFO, I doubt you would believe me.[1]  I also doubt anyone would believe it if you or I brought someone back from death to life.

Yet, that is what the story from Acts implies. Following the resurrection of Jesus, Peter raises from actual death the woman named Tabitha. It isn’t Jesus that is now raising dead people. It isn’t Jesus alone performing such miracles. These are common men and women, like you and me.

How can we accept the miracle of resurrection? How can we believe that ordinary human beings can experience such an incredible degree of change within themselves and others? Death to life is probably the most radical change we can imagine. And yet, this is the very proposition of the resurrection.

On the one hand, we know that nothing is the same forever. So says modern science: ninety-eight percent of our bodies’ atoms are replaced every year; Geologists can prove with good evidence that no landscape is permanent. And, apparently so do people of faith: In the introduction to a mainline liturgy for a funeral service it says: “Life is not ended but merely changed.”[2]

In the short term any change can look and feel like a death. Perhaps that is why we tend to be change-averse. What we really are is death-averse, even though dying must precede any kind of resurrection and new life. The challenge of the Easter message for us is to accept our part in the very natural yet incredible change that is happening in our lives.

Perhaps that is the miracle: to believe change to this degree is possible. And happening, already. So, we affirm the Easter proclamation: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

How do we live Christ’s resurrection in our lives?

First of all, I believe we must confess the limits of words alone to describe the meaning of resurrection. We need to go beyond words to describe the truth surrounding the mystery of Christ’s resurrection. Apparently, it was too great a mystery for artists in the first centuries as well.

Until the 6thcentury, the moment of Jesus’ resurrection was deemed unpaintable or uncarvable.[3] Trying to capture, as we would today with a camera, how Jesus appeared and what resurrection looked like is a task too difficult to pin down in a one-time, concrete way. Understanding ‘resurrection’ is not easy but easily can bewilder us as it did those early Christians.

Eventually, certain symbols emerged as telltale signs identifying the Christ-like way and understanding. We know, for example, that before the cross became the central symbol for empire Christians, the fish identified followers of the Way[4] especially during times of persecution. These symbols helped non-literate early century people identify with the profound and ineffable meaning of Christ’s resurrection.

Another symbol that circulated among early Christians was the gazelle. Yes, the gazelle. The symbol of the gazelle became the all-inclusive mark of Christ-like love.

Where the early Christians struggled, for example, with how, or whether, to welcome Jewish people into the Way, the gazelle incorporated and communicated the love of God to do so. Should they include the circumcised? Or not? Could you be ritually impure, and still belong? The image of the gazelle communicated the emphatic ‘yes’ to the questions that Paul would later put in words.

The image of the gazelle pre-dates Christianity. In Jewish art the gazelle was used as a symbol for YAHWEH/God. Even more specifically, the gazelle was used to illustrate the life-giving character of YAHWEH. Why is this important for our discussion of the text from Acts?

Well, the author of this raising-to-life scripture story from Acts introduces the woman named Tabitha in both the Aramaic and Greek languages. That, in and of itself, is significant, in casting the message of the life-giving God to include more than just one group in early-century Palestine. At the same time, the bilingual reference may very well be a writing technique to draw our attention into the meaning of this woman’s name.

In Greek and Jewish culture, everything is in the name. So, let’s go with it. Back to Tabitha. Dorcas, in Greek, literally means ‘gazelle’. Now, bear with me, ‘gazelle’ is a word that literally comes from an older Arabic word for LOVE. We sometimes call this splendid creature an antelope.

I know that we don’t often encounter gazelles in Canada. But they are very common in the Middle East especially the variety that has become known as the Dorcas antelope, which literally means the “love love”. This is why in a culture where the majority could not read, images of the gazelle were used to represent the details of the faith and life-giving character of YAHWEH who is LOVE.

The woman—Tabitha/Dorcas—symbolizes something far greater than we can even begin to imagine at first. For she bears the name of YAHWEH who is LOVE. This story carries us beyond the physical resuscitation of the body of a first century woman. This story carries us beyond the mechanics of a resurrection ‘miracle.’

Clearly, the author here has set his listeners up for a story that expresses more than words can tell. Should we pay attention to it. And go there.

This is the story of the raising of love in the lives of those who follow Christ. This, alone, is a miracle when it happens. The life and love of Christ being raised in us and in the world around us! Can we see it? Can we perceive it? Can we hear the voice of Christ whispering in our hearts to ‘love love’?

Last year at this time when I spent a week in Algonquin Park, I didn’t meet any aliens. But I do recall talking to you about the ice on the lake. In the span of the few days I was there, the lake went from being ice-covered, to completely ice-free. It was incredible to witness such a significant change in the life of the lake, in such a short time frame. In fact, it came as a surprise.

You might call it, the resurrection of the lake. A couple warmer days strung together and a day of rain and wind, and … voilà! When I hiked out of the bush on the last day I could not detect one chunk of ice. If it weren’t for the budding leaves on trees around the lake and the still-cool temperatures you would think we were in the middle of summer the way the lake looked.

How different it was on the first day of that week! A sheet of white ice had locked the waters in its icy grip. It looked like that that ice wasn’t going anywhere for a long time! To suggest the ice would be completely gone in a few days — I wouldn’t believe it. The radical change was imperceptible. Or, was it?

I sat on the banks of the lake shore on the second day, surveying the field of drifting snow and glimmering ice stretching across the entire surface of the lake. It was quiet, except for the occasional chirping of a bird and the sound of the wind through the pines above. But when everything was still, I heard it.

First, it was subtle, barely detectible. A cracking, a knocking, a whining and groaning. Things were shifting below the surface. The ice was beginning to break up!

Although I couldn’t notice it with my eyes, I could hear it. Just. The change was happening. But only by hearing it, being open to it, paying attention to it. And giving myself a chance, in the first place, to be present to it.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice … and they follow me.”[5] It’s not easy nor always quick to recognize God’s call amid the cacophony of sounds and distractions in our world. It’s not easy to discern the will of God in a complex society with moral questions and conundrums that can leave us spinning with confusion and mental paralysis . The noise can be enough to burn us out and leave us despairing.

The noise of delusion, false aspiration, needless worry; the allure of addiction, distraction and material comfort. It’s hard to hear that “still, small voice” of God’s resurrection change in the world and in our life. To recognize it, we must practice and learn how to pay attention, again, to the melting of the ice in God’s love.

Maybe, now that Christ is alive, it’s about a power that permeates all things. Maybe that power is a love that includes Jesus as much as it includes Peter, Tabitha, you and me. Maybe resurrection is about experiencing God’s love in all my relationships.

What a wonder to behold! What a love to live into!

No wonder so many are seeking solace in the practice of meditation—a safe place being in silence and stillness to practice paying attention, and listening to the voice of Jesus. Christians have meditated together since the early church in the form of the “Jesus Prayer”, for example. I encourage you to try it if you haven’t already.[6]

We all need starting points. The melting ice on the lake needed to start melting and breaking apart. Prayer in this way is a good starting point from which to live into the resurrection we share with all people and all of creation in the risen Christ Jesus. This prayer involves me in the life of Christ in the world that God so loved. I don’t have to worry whether or not I have the power to do these things—it is the life of Christ who works these miracles in me and in the world!

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Thanks be to God!

 

[1]Please read the comprehensive and insightful sermon by the Rev. Dawn Hutchings, The Raising of LOVE: the ‘more-than-literal’ meaning of the Raising of Tabitha – a sermon on Acts 9:36-41 (www.pastordawn.wordpress.com). I gratefully draw on her alien illustration, her research on the meaning of Tabitha’s name, and the reference to the dorcas antelope/gazelle. Thank you, Dawn, for your words.

[2]Richard Rohr, Raised from the Dead; Jesus’ Resurrection(Daily Meditation, www.cac.org), April 24, 2019

[3]Richard Rohr, From Darkness to Light; Jesus’ Resurrection(Daily Meditation, www.cac.org), April 25, 2019

[4]Acts 18:26; 19:9; 24:14

[5]John 10:27

[6]Faith has a weekly Christian Meditation group, which meets at 5pm on Wednesdays. See www.faithottawa.ca/calendarfor details.

With us, snowed-in

I wasn’t able to remove the Christmas manger scene from our front yard in time, before the snowstorms left everything buried. As we’ve approached Lent, the joke in our household is that Jesus, like us, is snowed-in.

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It likely won’t be until late April now when I will be able to remove the tableau from the frozen earth and its snowy cover. When will Jesus be set free from the tomblike confines of winter’s grip?

When exactly, no one knows. Meteorologists are calling for a cooler-than-normal late April /early May. It might be a while.

The Jesus story, for us, begins in winter around the winter solstice on Christmas Day. We begin again our Lenten pilgrimage in the throes of winter, when snow and ice cover everything. When will the sky brighten and warmer temperatures heat the ground again? When does the journey end?

The poet, Mary Oliver, who died in January of this year, wrote primarily about winter. In several pieces she twins snow with wisdom, the capacity to live with questions in silence, surrendering to its beauty. “I love this world,” she wrote, “but not for its answers.”[1]

I’ve considered Christianity to be a winter faith. We, as people of faith, live with many questions that are largely unanswerable. Why do we still live in a world beset by injustice, intolerance, hatred—despite all good effort in the name of Jesus to the contrary? Why death and disease? When will we find the answers to our deepest questions? Why? Why? Why? Winter is a time for questions.

And so, we continue to search, wander, and wonder with Jesus snowed-in, by our side.

But, is Jesus in over his head?

The temptation of Jesus—as this story is famously called—happens near the beginning of his divine calling and ministry.[2]He goes into the wilderness, the desert, for forty days. He goes into a place of harsh simplicity, stripped of all creaturely comforts, to serve a holy purpose.

We wonder, will he survive the challenge?

Given his life purpose on earth, he meets with what could be his greatest vulnerability—the seduction of power and its forceful implications. The man who is the Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Almighty and Everlasting, the man whom people would look to for guidance and leadership, the man who many would lift onto a pedestal—would Jesus succumb to everyone’s expectation?

Would Jesus yield to the temptation that he, the Messiah, will now lead the revolt to free the suppressed and oppressed Judeans out from Roman occupation? Would he be the political rallying point around which the crowds would mobilize and generate an effective, political movement?

And, in fact, the evil one touches on this potential weakness. Notice in different ways each of the three temptations seduce Jesus to grab hold of power that would make him this kind of King: One who satisfies his every appetite and hunger using whatever means at his disposal; one who creates God in one’s own image by forcing God’s hands, one who offers blind obedience to those still ‘above’ them while climbing the ladder of ‘success’.

But that’s not what Jesus was going to be about. We know that. In order to embrace his true identity, what happens?

Jesus is first led by the Spirit into this vulnerable place, not away from it. He was to first meet this human, shadow side.

The point of Lenten discipline, whatever it may be for you, is to be led into that shadow place in our own lives that we, on our own, don’t want and even can’t go. The Spirit leads us to face that which we normally distract ourselves from, where we normally deny, avoid. What is that vulnerability for you?

What does the light and Spirit reveal in the dark corners of your life? Is it a fear? Is it a conversation you know needs to happen? Is it confronting a situation you have been trying to avoid? Is it coming to terms with what is really going on deep down in your heart?

How does Jesus respond to his temptation? How does he return to his identity in God?

The scriptural quotations he cites are signs of his true identity—his ‘touchstone’, if you will. The scriptures point to his true self. By citing the scripture, he reminds himself, he aligns himself, he allies himself, with what grounds him in who he is. By citing scripture he relies not on his own humanity and resources of his own making, but rather on God.

This text provides rich support for our own journeys of Lent. As we wander into the wilderness of our lives and continue to trudge through the snow wary of still slipping on the ice, as we wonder with our questions, we meet our own shadow sides. And are called to stay rooted in who and whose we are.

And what is your touchstone for remembering your identity in Christ? Is it scripture? Is it the bread and cup of the sacrament? Is it a song? Is it an act of repeated service for another? Is it a prayer?

In her poems about winter Madeleine L’Engle writes a word of hope for the journey:

“Snow does not obscure the shape of things. It outlines them, like an icy highlighter, revealing the deep structure of the world. We walk through the woods, seeing differently, and, when we glimpse the hidden structure, we ask questions even as we experience its stark beauty.”[3]

Writer-theologian, Diana Butler Bass takes it further: “Strangely I have found in my own life that it is only through a wintery spirituality that I am able to affirm summer and sunshine. A friend wrote me recently, ‘Winter reveals structure’. Only as the structure is firmly there are we able to dress it with the lovely trappings of spring, budding leaves, rosy blossoms. Winter is the quiet, fallow time when earth prepares for the rebirth of spring.”

The word, Lent, means ‘springtime’. While the Lenten journey begins in the frozen winter, we can say in faith that the purpose of the journey is to bring us to Spring. Because by the end of the Lenten season, the snow will be gone revealing the soft, verdant earth underneath where new life is just budding to sprout.

In the end, the disciplines of Lent, the questions we now pose and with which we struggle on the journey, these are gifts from God. They point us to God’s presence in our lives and in our world. In the end, that is what faithful observance of Lent is—“a grace-filled return to the Lord our God.”[4]

Who begins with us, snowed-in and under.

 

[1]Cited in Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage: A Winter Faith (January 18, 2019)

[2]Luke 4:1-13

[3]Madeleine L’Engle cited in Diana Butler Bass, ibid.

[4]Kimberly M. Van Driel, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Vol 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.25.

Game of Thrones and the Throne of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

… and an Ancient One took his throne …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4]Isaiah 6:1-8

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

[6]Hebrews 4:16

The musical performance

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his followers.[1]

What does it mean, ‘to be a witness’ to all that happened around Jesus over two thousand years ago? How can we be a witness to these things with which we haven’t had a direct experience, when we haven’t seen with our own eyes and met with our own bodies the living, Lord Jesus?

The weather this weekend is a joke. There’s no other way of putting it, to my mind. It is the season of baseball not snowball! But sometimes when things don’t go our way, humour can be a good antidote. So, here is a music joke.

Last week I gave an example of a double bass player to illustrate how we need to go from the head to the heart. But we don’t always trust that movement from head to heart because it feels like we are losing control.

Imagine a picture of several double bass players standing at the back of an orchestra playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The bass players are swaying to the majestic sounds and rhythms; their bodies are into it. It is nearing the end of the epic masterpiece, and the caption at the bottom of the comic strip says:

“It’s the bottom of the ninth, and the bassists are loaded.” Hmmm. Maybe too much heart?

How do we live a life of faith that is heart-centred? At same time, how do we deal with our performance anxiety, worried about how people will perceive us when we do our thing, as Christians? We do put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform to perfection and make a good impression. Unfortunately, this kind of self-talk keeps us from being the best we can be. That’s why, unfortunately, too many musicians have too much to drink prior to a performance.

We need not be too hard on ourselves. Easily 50% of the population make decisions based on fear.[2]The annual “Back to Church” movement creator, Michael Harvey, claims that there is only one socially-accepted sin in the church today: fear.[3]

Yet, none of the Gospel accounts of the risen Jesus condemn the fear. It is to be expected. Jesus meets the disciples, and meets us, where we are even in our uncertainty. Jesus’ initial purpose, after all, is to bring peace. “Peace be with you,” are Jesus’ first words to his disciples after the resurrection.[4]

But Jesus calls us, as he called his disciples, to move beyond our fear, move beyond the fearfully locked doors of our hearts.

The ultimate purpose of the Gospel is not just to allay the fears of Jesus’ followers. It is not to convince us of the miracle of God. In other words, ultimately, who and what we’re about leads us beyond ourselves. The point of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not the miracle per se, but that it becomes the engine of the proclamation of Jesus Christ to all nations.

Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist noted recently that, “Jesus’ resurrection was indeed a miracle; however, Jesus’ resurrection needs to be more than a miracle. It needs to be normal, everyday, how we live and breathe: with resurrection power.”[5]

God’s grace finds expression in flesh and blood – in our bodies. First, as we experience it coming through the Eucharist, the presence of God is made manifest in humanity. And today, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that means, in us and all our brokenness and despite our imperfections.

How can we say this? Because in Jesus’ resurrected body, his scars were still visible. His humanity was still intact – in some mysterious way, in an mysteriously enhanced body to be sure. But the fact that Jesus bodily resurrection is so defended and argued by Paul and Luke and other early Apostles suggests, does it not, the crucial importance of the earthly, human manifestation, and receptivity, of God’s grace and presence.[6]

This is the power of the resurrection. That in the midst of our fear, Jesus comes to stand among us. In the midst of all that is wrong, broken, suffering in our lives, Jesus comes into the locked doors of our hearts and bodies. And then, calls us out.

How do we ‘proclaim’ Christ to all the nations? Again, nothing spectacular, here. Through our ordinary, simple selves, reaching out.

Leonard Bernstein, 20thcentury musician and famous conductor of renowned orchestras around the world – the Berlin Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic – once said: “The only way I have of knowing I’ve done a really remarkable performance is when I lose my ego completely and become the composer. I have the feeling that I’m creating the piece, writing the piece on stage … making it up as I go, along with those hundred people [in the orchestra] who are also making it up with me.”[7]

Working together, like in an orchestra, we are playing the music of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, and in the world. Even though the music was first created a long time ago, we are making it alive and real for us and for the world, today.

We do so, using the gifts and grace and resources given to us from the Composer of the whole experience. We do so, through our own bodies, minds and spirits. At the same time, we let go of our ego, because it is not about us; it is about something much bigger than all of us.

Order of Canada recipient for his work in fostering Christian unity and inter-religious dialogue, Father Laurence Freeman said: “…grace works on nature. The grace of God that enters into human existence doesn’t come from out of space; it comes through nature. That’s why it is very dubious to talk about supernatural things. We are always interested in the supernatural, but what’s much more real and interesting is the real meaning of the natural. It is through nature, through the natural, through our own nature, our own psychology, our own physiology, our mind and body – through our human nature – that grace touches, emerges and transforms us …”[8]

So, it is our ordinary selves through which the grace and purpose of God works. What does this mean? First, it means we have to believe in ourselves. We have to trust that God has given us what we need to do God’s work, to be God’s instruments and vehicles through which God accomplishes God’s purposes.

Then, we need to perform the music, so to speak. And, it doesn’t need to be perfect, complicated or anything spectacular. Just simple, ordinary. We have to start somewhere.

One of our members asked recently a neighbor to describe what happens on and around our property on an average day in the Spring, Summer and Fall. And the neighbor reported that between 2:30 and 3:30pm every week day, about 30 kids on average, children of all ages, walk across our property from the bus stops along Meadowlands to their homes in the City View neighborhood. Thirty.

With presence of mind, our member asked the neighbor: What do they do when they walk across? Is there anything in particular that stands out in their behavior?

The neighbor said many of them like our benches outside the front doors. They like to sit and visit. They like to rest for a few minutes before continuing on their walk home.

When the member and I reflected on this, we realized there aren’t many, if any at all, public places in the neighborhood where people can sit awhile. Not only do we fill a need providing a place to sit, we encourage community-building, relationship-building right outside the doors to the church. How appropriate!

And for so many young people who are turned off the church, or at least afraid to enter into a church building these days, providing benches for children and young people to sit and visit sends a positive if subtle message about our identity and purpose as a church. It also sends a subtle yet real message of welcome.

This example is simple, ordinary, unspectacular. Yet, it is a first step in the right direction. As a community. Not as individuals doing our own thing. But, together, as a church, an orchestra playing together.

And isn’t that what the walk of faith is all about? We can only do what we are able to do, together. And then, when we take the first step, we watch as the Spirit of God can surprise and delight in us. All because we began by simply using what God has given us. Giving from ourselves, for the sake of others, for something larger than all of us.

That is, being faithful witnesses to these things.

[1]Luke 24:48, NRSV.

[2]Richard Rohr & Andreas Ebert, “The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective” (Crossroad, 2001).

[3]Michael Harvey, “Unlocking the Growth: You’ll Be Amazed at your Church’s Potential” (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2012), p.52.

[4]Luke 24:36; John 20:19-21, NRSV.

[5]Brother Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” on April 10, 2018.

[6]Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is a testimony both to Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and to our bodies being the imperfect vessels for the transmission of God’s grace and wisdom.

[7]Cited in Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Music: The Classic Guide to Reaching a New Level of Musical Performance” (New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1986), p.95.

[8]Laurence Freeman, OSB, “Finding Oneself 2” transcript (Singapore: Medio Media, 2017), p.29.

The human face of a vulnerable God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] @moltmannjuergen, March 15, 2018

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

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

[5] John 18:36

[6] 1 John 1:1

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeremiah 31:33-34

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

Sabbatical journeys

Life is both an outer and inner journey.

The outer journey comprises the various travels, trips and destinations we make. During my sabbatical, these were the places I visited and geographies traversed: Barcelona, Irun, Guernica, Bilbao, Lisbon, Cabo da Roca, Munich, Portland, Long Beach, Astoria, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Algonquin Park, Kitchener-Waterloo, Golden Lake, Lac Philippe. The outer journey took me away from home where I engaged other people, different languages, cultures and histories, and embraced community in fresh ways. In this outer journey I made new friends, and rediscovered old ones.

The inner journey, on the other hand, involves meeting myself and the mystery of God. It meant letting go of comforting routines, familiar places and a sense of security. It meant exploring the quiet, slower spaces which allowed deeply buried longings, hurts, joys and memories to rise to the surface of my consciousness. It meant learning to hold both the good and the bad in my life. That journey meant meeting myself in a new light shining on the darkness of grief and loss. I agree with Thomas Merton who once wrote that our real journey in life is interior. And more difficult. For me, time and space away from the routines, familiarity and usual distractions could afford the launching of this inner exploration. That journey is not over. I don’t believe it ever ends.

Integrating the two journeys is what making a pilgrimage is all about.

This inner exploration is important for the development of leadership. Spiritual director and social activist Janet Hagberg writes about power: “People who aspire to be leaders need to be more concerned with internal or inner power than they are with external or outer power.” (1) When a leader is honest with themselves and to others about their biases. When a leader is honest first with themselves about their inner issues, when they know the contours of their psyche — their needs, desires, longings, pains, hurts. These leaders will not only lead with authenticity, they will inspire others to be bold, take risks and make these journeys themselves. These people will lead with compassion, forgiveness, patience and courage. These leaders will accept reality as it is, and will also challenge it from an inner place of trust and confidence.

1 – Janet O. Hagberg, “Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations” 3rd Edition, Wisconsin: Sheffield Publishing Co., 2003, p.xx

Slave to none, servant to all

Especially at the beginning of a new school year, the gospel story of little children sitting on the lap of Jesus warms my heart. This saccharine image speaks to Jesus’ welcoming the children as we would welcome them to church and the start of a new year of Sunday School programming. 
We tell ourselves, “So should we be towards the children, like Jesus was.” Or, “We should be like the children.” Here perhaps lies the genesis of any motivation and focus of children’s ministry in the church. This act of Jesus witnessed by the bible’s words becomes our authority for action.
Indeed, the Gospel text for this Sunday (Mark 9:30-37) is about God’s view on power and authority. How does authority work, in the kingdom of God? What does it look like?
And it is here, admittedly, we Lutherans get into trouble. We say that authority for a congregation in the Roman Catholic Church is the Pope. We also say that authority for a congregation in the Protestant tradition is the Bible. For Lutherans, it is a former pastor! 🙂
This Gospel story is more about Jesus’ stance vis-a-vis the powers-that-be in society. This is revolutionary and counter-cultural. He makes irrelevant the political-economic-cultural pecking order, as far as the kingdom of God is concerned. The root of the Greek words “servant” and “child”, spoken in the same breath, is virtually the same (pais/paidon); on the basis of vocabulary alone, those who first received this story were principally hearers and not readers. Mark’s Greek-speaking audience would have made the close connection between servant and child. Neither had any real social value.
Therefore, this story describes more a stance towards people in general, an attitude and approach for relating to those who do not have power, who are of particularly low social status. Contrary to what the economic and political powers espouse, Jesus assigns worth and importance to every person (Sharon Ringe in Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 4 eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, WJK Press 2009, p.97).
This is no longer a sweet, warm-fuzzy message as much as it is a direct stab at our social hierarchy of values. And the disciples know it, deep down in their hearts. But they are afraid. In their silence, they betray their weakness and fault in not ‘getting’ Jesus nor willing to ‘go there’.
Jesus didn’t come to pander to power. He didn’t come to play the game. He didn’t come to compete in the smorgasbord of religions in the first century Palestine. He didn’t come to prove that he is right and everyone who doesn’t agree with him is wrong. 
He came to show that God loves everyone, including the lowly servants and children.
Jesus came to turn on its head the regular way of thinking about power. He lifted up children and servants as those who receive the grace and love of God, not just those deserving it because they happen to be higher up on the social pecking order. 
We know how Jesus’ earthly story goes. Jesus was a victim of his ministry of unconditional love, compassion and healing. And how did that go, for Jesus? The Cross. To say he was misunderstood is an understatement. Even his closest friends didn’t understand, or were too afraid, to face the truth of their hearts.
Perhaps we may take from this some measure of comfort, in tough times. For example, if you are ‘thrown under the bus’ by your closest friends, when you are misunderstood, when you are derided and put down for trying to do right, maybe you are indeed on the right track?
On the other hand, when you become puffed up in your righteous defence of the status quo of your life, when you engage in defensive, combative and competitive stances against those who differ — then, well, how is this the way of Jesus? It is not. It is a way, to be sure, heralded by the prevailing culture of human achievement, reputation-defending self-righteousness, one-up-man-ship and glory, yes. But far be it from being the Christian way.
We are asked by the Gospel message to examine our relationships with those in society with little economic or social value. How is our relationship with the physically disabled, the mentally ill, the refugees and newcomers to Canada, young people without direction, those who live on the streets, the poor, the Indigenous people of this land? 
I listened recently to how a graduating university student was deciding which job to take. Upon graduation he was offered a high-paying job from two different well-respected companies at the same time, one in Chicago and one in New York. The student sought advice from his pastor.
“Which job should I take?” he asked. “Both offer similar compensation. But I’m torn as to where I should go — Chicago or New York. Both have pros and cons. What do you think, pastor?”
The pastor hesitated, for a moment. Then he said, “It’s wonderful you have been given the privilege of a job offer. Many young people today don’t have one, let alone two. You are very fortunate.”
“Yeah, right,” the student responded. And quickly added: “But where should I go?”
“I really don’t know,” the pastor mused. “Does it matter?” It’s usually at this point in the session that people realize why pastoral counselling is free. 🙂
I think we tend to lose energy, even waste it, on these kinds of first-world problems. After all, the truth is there is no place we can go, no decision we can make that is out of the reach of God’s grace, love and healing (read Psalm 139). Where there is a fork in the road … take it! 
In most, if not all, of our dilemmas do we acknowledge that no matter what we decide, even for less-than-stellar motivations or for high and righteous ones, God will not abandon us? Because God’s grace will not come up short, ever.
In the end, the Gospel story of Jesus welcoming little children comes to us not a word about how we should act. It’s not primarily about us serving others. Rather, the Gospel is about Jesus serving us.
Jesus asks each of us: How can I serve you? Jesus reflects God’s favour towards us, and all people. Jesus will not do what we so regretfully and naturally fall into — a tit for tat food fight with whatever first-world problems we wrestle, about which we complain, and over which we fight for ‘the advantage’. That’s not what Jesus is about. 
At the same time, Jesus will not stop at our human divisions. If you are at the bottom of the ladder, Jesus will come to you. If you are at the top of the world, Jesus will come to you. Jesus will make the ladders of our lives irrelevant. These ladders of success, upward-mobility and power are nonsense in the kingdom of God. Jesus comes to us all, and asks us — “I will welcome you and serve you. What do you need today, in order to follow me?”

Do we see the elephant?

You think when something happens frequently in a short period of time, perhaps I should pay attention to it? A sign? A reflection of something happening on a deeper level?
In the last couple of weeks I’ve attended a couple of administrative church meetings reviewing minutes taken at their annual meetings. One was the Christian Council of the Capital Area (CCCA) and the other was our very own monthly council meeting. And, in both cases, I sat around a large table while members studiously reviewed the draft minutes. In the silence, you could hear the crickets.
“Fine!” “Good job!” “Everything looks great!” “Thank you!” “Yup!” — the responses came rapid fire. And then — in both cases — someone caught it. “Ahh, it says at the top ‘Annual Meeting 2013’. Wrong year. Minor detail. Yet significant. It was worse at the CCCA where there were two different incorrect years on the front page highlighting different text!
I mention this not to slight our very capable secretaries, because it is the responsibility of the entire council to ensure the final copy is in order. But, I say this to emphasize how easy it is to see, but not to see. How very human it is — natural — to stare something straight in its face, and not have it register. 
In the Liquor Store the other day I was looking for Jessica’s favourite white wine from Chile. So I went to the South America section, where it always is. And I couldn’t find it! I stood there for an entire minute rubbing my chin and scanning the shelves. Finally I went to the desk somewhat frustrated. The attendant smiled and said, gently, “We have it.” I said, “No, you don’t.” He calmly led me to the exact same shelf where I stood staring at — I don’t know what. But there it was!
Psychologists might point to the need for us to be more ‘mindful’, in each and every moment of our lives. People of faith might consider how we are present to God’s presence always in our lives. There is often a disconnect, is there not, between my perception and reality? Some have called it ‘the elephant in the room’ that everyone feels is there but for whatever reason refuses to name it, address it.
The Gospel text for this last Sunday of Easter, is about Jesus’ prayer to God (John 17). It is, what liturgists call ‘intercessory prayer’ — that is the genre, or form, that this scripture takes. Prayer is the context. Jesus prays for his disciples, as they take over the mantel of responsibility for Jesus’ mission on earth, after Jesus ascends to heaven.
Since the time Jesus gave this ‘high priestly prayer’ over two thousand years ago, the church — the Body of Christ, the people of God — has continued to pray. I like that. Because no where that I can find in the Gospels does Jesus command his disciples to ‘worship’ him, to ‘praise’ him, to engage in the act of worship to which we contemporary Christians have come to narrowly define our Christian lives ‘on Sunday morning’. But Jesus does say, very often, ‘follow me’ and ‘pray’ and ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (referring to the Holy Communion), and ‘love your neighbour’.
What we are talking about here, is a lifestyle of following Jesus. And with this understanding, I believe, we can get a better handle on what Paul means when he says to “pray always” or “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This phrase makes no sense if we see prayer merely as ‘asking God for things we want’ — how is it physically possible to do this? 
Prayer is not about trying to get God to change, according to our grocery list of desires and wants. Rather, when we pray what we are doing is asking God to change us. Prayer is about allowing God to change us. Always be open in your connection with God in Christ to being changed, transformed, grown in your own life into the image of God and the person God created you to be — regardless of what or for whom we are praying.
Problem is, some of us may be thinking: why would I want to change my life? There isn’t anything that needs changing. I am happy the way things are. Why would I want that? 

We may not able to be always ‘mindful’. But at least, could we not confess our sin in not hearing the voice of God calling us, not seeing and accepting the answer to prayer already right in front of our eyes?  I think it was Meister Eckhart who defined sin as simply refusing — by our actions and thoughts — to see ourselves as God sees us. What is the elephant in our room? What are we doing that is disconnected from what God is doing and what God sees in our lives?

We come to church with our pains, sufferings, hurts. But we also come to be Christ’s hands, heart and mind to those around us. We don’t come just to see ‘what’s in it for me?’ ‘What can I get out of this experience?’, like a consumer. We don’t come just to have my selfish needs, social or otherwise, met. Rather, we come to pay attention to those others who are hurting in any way.
What does God see? How are we paying attention to those in our midst with mental illness? Are we giving any time or effort of love to these people? How are we paying attention to those who come with marital or relational problems? Are we attending, with compassion, to this need at all? How are we paying attention to those who come, who are financially poor or new-comers to Canada, or students with all their complex needs? Talk about the elephant in the room when all we do when we come to church is notice the elephant poop in the corner and complain about that. Talk about the elephant in the room when all we do is talk about what colour paint we should apply to the walls of the room.
After eighteen years of pastoral ministry and leadership, one of the top-rated questions that has come my way, is: How do I know the voice of God? How do I know that it is God’s voice speaking? How is that in prayer, God communicates to us? How do we know it’s God and not just my ego?
I wonder whether it’s the elephant in the room syndrome that so much defines or characterizes church life today. Perhaps the answer is staring us in the face. And we just don’t want to see it. We don’t want to see it or confess it because we are afraid. And we are addicted. Addicted to a lifestyle that is all about consumption. Getting more. And more. And more. For me.
The Executive Director of the Mennonite Church in Canada, Rev. Dr. Willard Metzger, said during the “Justice Tour 2015” stop in Ottawa last week, that those of us who are older are addicted. And it is much harder for us in the second half of life to divest of our material addictions, compared to most young people today who will never earn the kind of pensions that, in general, retired folks today are enjoying; young people whose starting incomes will likely not increase to the same degree that was the case a generation or two ago; young people, more of whom will be working at full time jobs but barely making enough to enjoy the kinds of lifestyles most of us older people are enjoying today. Yes, we are addicted. And we don’t want to let go of this. And we don’t want to make sacrifices along these lines. Not easily, anyway.
National Bishop Susan Johnson (ELCIC) said at the same meeting that ‘the cries of the poor, this is the voice of God in our time. Are we listening?’
In v.18 of the Gospel text, Jesus’ prayed, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” While Jesus also says the disciples “do not belong to the world” (v.14), this does not mean escape from the world. While we affirm values and beliefs that do not correspond with the world’s values, we are not called to abandon the world, disengage nor hide from it, however bad it is. Because, Jesus prays that his disciples “may have Christ’s joy made complete in themselves/among themselves” (v.13). The joy that Christ gives is not found in escaping the world’s reality, but on the ground, in community engaging the world with all of its distorted powers, pressures and conflict.
God’s voice calls us into the world, not away from it. At the same time, God does answer our prayers, in a sense, because God already knows what we need (Matthew 6:7). And it’s a consistent answer, that we will read and hear about more in the coming season of Pentecost. God’s answer is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). And the Holy Spirit is all about power. So, God’s answer to all our praying, is the power of God to do what is right, even if it means a sacrifice of part, or all, of our lifestyle and our privilege. God gives power more than answers (1) to change ourselves for the better, and for the sake of the world that God so loves (John 3:16).
May we be faithful in listening to God’s voice, and responding in the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s answer to prayer. We’ve prayed, in this morning’s service. Now, we are called to follow Jesus into our lives, away from this place.
(1) read especially chapter seven in Richard Rohr’s, “Breathing Under Water”

It’s ok to fall (2): God is in control

Falling is a bad word if you are over the age of 70, because it can precipitate our dying. So our knee jerk is to take control! We are told not to fall. We avoid slippery, icy parking lots. We rig our homes to prevent falling — getting rid of area rugs, installing grip handles in the washrooms, renovating away any unnecessary steps. Ageing bears with it the mantra: “It’s NOT okay to fall!”

But we will at some point, anyway, whether we like to or not. And when we do, we pray for healing and mending of broken bones and tendons. We may come on our knees in submission and confession, asking God for help.

The story of the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-14) is normally read during the preceding season of Epiphany, when Ash Wednesday starts later in the calendar year. Because Lent starts earlier this year, it’s not in the lectionary. But this story is an excellent one upon which to reflect at the beginning Lent.

First, it is one of the most well-read stories of healing from the Hebrew Scriptures. And healing is a theme in these weeks leading up to Easter, when we take notice of our sin, weakness and brokenness, and pray for our restoration in Christ.

The journey of Lent is one where we follow Jesus on his journey to the Cross. And by recalling this holy story of Christ’s passion, suffering and death “for us”, we are invited to reflect on our life’s journey of suffering reflected in the hope of faith.

The story of our healing will thus follow the path that Jesus trod. It is our task, therefore, to pay attention to the nature of this path, and not to waver despite the temptations of the world around us to venture in another direction.

Because of the Cross of Jesus, I claim the theme of my sermons this Lent — “It’s okay to fall.” Why? Because God is in control. And this is one of those counter-cultural messages because our world tells us to take control so that we will not fall —

Tighten your grip. Strengthen your resolve. Become the master of your destiny. Show you are strong, even when you are not. All the politicians know this — never apologize or concede to your opponent, never give them the upper hand. In a national election year, we will notice this often, I am sure. The political leaders must show strength, power, control and righteousness.

The Gospel of Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to show weakness and vulnerability. For me to stand here and say, it’s okay to be vulnerable, show weakness; it’s okay to be honest about our stumbling in life; It’s vital for our soul to apologize when we have fallen and to seek forgiveness from the other —

This is revolutionary — totally counter-cultural! Totally going against the grain of our lives! How can we be okay with our ‘falling’? How can we even risk that?

When we camped a couple summers ago at Sandbanks Provincial Park on Lake Ontario, it was windy for the first couple of days. And the kite-flying enthusiasts were out on the beach in full force. Fortunately, we too had packed a kite.

And so there I was, with all the rigging, trying to keep the kite afloat high above us. I thought I had the knack of controlling the strings and handles — even controlling by my direction the flight, height and movement of the kite up or down, regardless of what the wind did — or so I thought.

Because ever so often, a micro-burst of air would come upon us unexpectedly — and only the most skilled (and lucky!) of us kite-fliers was able to anticipate and compensate for the burst of air that brought most of our kites diving into the sand. No matter what I did, the control was ultimately in the wind.

General Naaman was a command and control guy. He was the successful leader of the army of Syria (or Aram). He was used to issuing orders and getting results. People admired him for his strength, his resolve, his prowess on the battle field. He commanded the respect of not only his king but the kings of his enemies. He would be the poster boy for our culture when we imagine ‘strong leadership’.

Except for one thing. He suffered from a skin disease. It was his ‘thorn in the side’, as Saint Paul described one thing that brought him to his knees (2 Corinthians 12:6-10). General Naaman was hurting. And he tried everything to find healing. He used the resources of his country, accessed the healers, magicians of his nation and the powerful ones, all in order to rid him of his ailment.

Isn’t it true — relief from suffering becomes our sole desire, our fixation? When it comes to dealing with our suffering, control is exactly what we want. Like Naaman, we would like to control when and how this relief will come, expending all the resources at our disposal. And it wasn’t working. Nothing was. His command and control approach failed.

When we are really hurting, we will listen to anyone with a good suggestion, even those at the bottom of the food chain. In Naaman’s life, it’s the servant girl of his wife who first suggests the prophet Elisha, and the low rung servants who convince Naaman to listen to the prophet’s simplistic remedy to wash seven times in the Jordan River.

In his suffering and journey towards healing, Naaman is humbled. He concedes control to a process that is not normative for him. His world of protocols, kings, wealth, and well-known rivers is turned upside down. He has no option left at the end, in his journey, but to let go, and let God work through the prophets and the servants, and the dirty Jordan River.

We witness here, in the story of Naaman, falling can be redemptive. How letting go of control in those areas where we really do not have any control over anyway, is critical. How listening to the voice of God in unexpected places, and being obedient to that call even if it means doing something outside of the norm.

It’s okay to fall, because God is in control. This is the point of the passage, which shows us how in the end our ‘getting up’ is not because we know the best ‘rivers of healing’, have all sorts of money to buy it, or have connections with the people in power. We ‘get up’ not because we have engineered it somehow, not because we have employed our resources and worked hard to convince ourselves that we are the reasons the kite can fly.

We ‘get up’ solely and only because of God’s initiative to love us. We get up only because God, not us, is in control.

It’s okay to fall, and be humbled in our suffering. It’s okay to fall and admit our need. It’s okay to expose our vulnerability, our anger and doubt, and confess our sin. Because, in the end, the healing comes by the grace of God.

When Saint Paul prayed to be healed from his ‘thorn’, God assured him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Naaman was not the only one in the history of faith in God that needed to hear and heed the words of the Psalmist (147:10-11):

“God’s delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but the Lord takes pleasure in those …
who hope in his steadfast love.”

Politics and church unity

At one point during this provincial election campaign, I believe I saw some lawn signs for local candidates stuck in the ground in front of the church. And I must confess, at first, it didn’t sit right with me!

Indeed, should religion and politics mix? If someone asks you, “Should Christians be involved in politics?” “Should politics be preached from the pulpit?” What would you say?

I guess I’m the product of an age when it was taught that religion and politics don’t mix. My reaction, I guess, is based in the constitutional value of separating church and state; that is, the leader of the church should not simultaneously be the leader of government, right?

But does that mean Christians shouldn’t be involved at all in politics? The reason I question this is because God is interested in every detail of our lives. God is interested in what happens not only in church on Sunday morning but what happens in our lives from Monday through Saturday as well.

But not only is God interested in all aspects of our lives — including our political activity on an individual basis — God comes to us in community. You will notice in the readings over the next few weeks as we celebrate the Day of Pentecost and coming of the Holy Spirit that only when the disciples are together does the Holy Spirit descend upon them.

My neighbour told me this week that he found refuge in the words of a tour guide in a cathedral in Italy he recently visited. When his tour group asked the guide whether he was Protestant or Catholic, the guide said, “It doesn’t matter whether I am Protestant or Catholic; that’s just politics!” He practically spat out that word: politics!

It seems there is a growing appreciation that what is most important is not the label we wear — whether Protestant or Catholic — but what is the meaning of it all, and the unity we already share in Jesus Christ. And that is good!

At the same time, there is still something there that begs us to respect boundaries, respect our differences and not just white-wash them away. On the one hand, is respecting our differences; on the other hand, acknowledging – yes, even — celebrating our unity. The two tensions must be held.

I was always taught in school that there are no bad questions, only bad answers. I suppose this was told to young people especially to encourage us to be inquisitive and explore the meaning of things. What better way than to ask questions.

It would be a mistake for teachers to reprove anyone for asking a bad question; this would be seen as shutting someone down and discouraging them from thinking for or being themselves. Moreover, especially for grown-ups, we would take it as a criticism of our intelligence. And, normally we do not take too well to criticism, do we? Especially in front of others.

In the first chapter of Acts which describes the Ascension of Jesus, Jesus and the two heavenly beings appear to commit a pastoral care faux-pas, precisely when you would think the disciples needed some comfort and encouragement in anticipation of Jesus’ departure from them.

If we examine the dialogue in this biblical text (v. 6-14), we will see that first Jesus, then the two angels, reprove the disciples. First, Jesus reprimands the disciples for asking the wrong kind of question. It is not for them to know these things — referring to the timing and events surrounding the wished-for defeat of Roman occupation of the Holy Lands. This is the liberated kingdom which was anticipated by the coming of a Messiah.

Indeed, from our vantage point, this was a terrible question. It reveals a continued misunderstanding of the whole purpose of Jesus coming to the world in the first place. It wasn’t to be a political-military leader. And these disciples, after spending three years with Jesus, still don’t get it!

We may agree with Jesus’ reproof. But imagine being one of those disciples at the receiving end of their Lord’s censure. How would you feel getting criticized in front of your peers and colleagues — again?

And then, after Jesus ascends and disappears in the clouds, two angels appear standing beside the disciples as they are gazing into the heavens. The disciples of Jesus are on the cusp of a great mission and work; they will be the hands and feet of Jesus to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8); they will be witnesses to the message of Jesus Christ. And what are the first words from the mouths of these angels? Another reproof: Why are you looking upwards? Stop day-dreaming! That’s not where it’s at! Get going. Do your job!

You know, I wonder if it were us 21st century Christians standing there on the mountain, how well we would take to being – pretty much – constantly barraged and berated with critical words from Jesus and the like. I don’t think we would take much of it, quite frankly. When the work of the church gets a little heated and stressful often one of our first reactions is to throw up our arms in frustration and say, “I don’t need this!”, “church politics!” and walk away.

How did those first disciples stick to it? How did they restrain themselves from fighting back: “You can’t talk like that to me!” Why didn’t we see more disciples quit following Jesus. Because — and I don’t mean any disrespect to our Lord, but — Jesus didn’t seem to be practising good leadership skills here by being critical of their questions. Or, perhaps, there is such a thing as a bad question….

We may do well to notice that, using Lutheran language, the “Law” here has not the last word. Recall that the ‘Law’ is anything that reminds us of our failing, of our weakness, of our sin and inability to do that which only God can do. In contrast, the “Gospel” is the good news of promise; it focuses on the action of God.

In this case, the ‘Law’ can be these words of criticism, from the lips of Jesus and the angels. But there is more, here.

We will notice what follows both these statements of reproof are also words of promise. In the first dialogue, immediately following the reprimand is Jesus promises the disciples that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. After the second question when the angels criticize the disciples for looking up into the heavens, comes the promise that Jesus will return one day.

Words of promise and hope, comfort and empowerment. And maybe, just maybe, because of this good news of hope, the disciples didn’t abandon their community, they stuck to it, they believed the promise, they expected great things from God.

But they were able to see that the power given would only be realized in the community, not apart from it. They had to get over themselves; they had to get past their own, individual, pride, and embrace the bigger picture of God’s vision. They had to understand that being in community didn’t mean, on the one hand a bland, idealistic masking of all differences between them; and, on the other hand, quitting the community whenever anyone didn’t get their way.

When the disciples returned to Jerusalem, they waited in the upper room, together. And while they waited for the day of Pentecost to come, they prayed together. In prayer, then, they experienced a real connection with the living Lord. They remained united, in the prayer of Jesus now re-united with his Father. And what a great reunion that must have been: Imagine, since the birth of Jesus, God the Father had been separated from his Son. And now, at the ascension of Jesus, Father and Son are reunited once again.

This is the foundation of prayer — this unity between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The disciples praying together in the upper room must have sensed this real connection with God by waiting for God’s action, and paying attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit, together. They must have finally realized tat their discipleship wasn’t about themselves, individually; it was about something much greater than them.

They had a real sense of the community, that they were part of the body of Christ. The meaning of religion is to be in communion and in unity with God. As followers of Christ, this unity is realized in the Body of Christ, the church on earth. Christian unity is a profound witness to the power of God in the world today. Especially today, when sadly structural fragmentation and division describes the church more than anything else.

The Holy Spirit still blows today among people of Faith. The church continues to be re-formed and renewed. It is a work that is experienced corporately, not individually. Author of the book, “Introducing the Missional Church” (Baker Books, Michigan, 2009), Alan Roxburgh, writes: “We are being formed as the people of God, not simply individuals using God for some process of self-development in the midst of trying times” (p.158).

We are changed into God’s people, together. That doesn’t mean we are conformed into like-minded robots marching to the same tune. That also doesn’t mean we splinter into another church whenever there is a disagreement. It means we celebrate our unity within the diversity of the church.

I think if the church would have political lawn signs in front of it, there should be a lawn sign from every political party campaigning in this election. Because that would say some very important things about the identity of the church: First, we take seriously our calling, as Christians, to be concerned and involved in the well-being of the wider community; that is to say, we are interested in what goes on in the world, and therefore we vote and are politically active. We are interested because God is interested in every aspect of our lives, not just what happens here on Sunday mornings.

Second, the church is much more than political divisions, because sitting in this room are people representing the vast array of political orientations anyway. We are not here because we share the same political mind-set but because what unities us is greater than what divides us.

And finally, what holds us together is not that we agree on everything, but that God loves us all despite our differences. This is the basis of our unity in Christ, a unity for which Christ prayed (John 17:11):

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. Amen.