Happy Birthday! (funeral sermon)

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26)

It may seem strange to say this, today: On a day we mourn at the death and loss of a loved one. A loved one, nonetheless who lived to a 103! A loved one whose 104th birthday is today! “Happy birthday Wilma!”

When we say a funeral service is a ‘celebration of life’ we affirm this with mixed feelings, to be sure.

Kind of like the other paradoxes in our lives: Because, for example, we know that we are better fulfilled in giving rather than receiving. Because, as people of faith, we know that it is in dying that we live — on many levels.

That is why a funeral service is like an Easter service when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. That is why, the day Jesus died on the cross is called “Good” Friday. Talk about paradox.

So, with confidence, we gather today to have a birthday party. Because Wilma, a person of deep faith in the living Lord, lives today in heavenly glory! 

Happy birthday Wilma!

At birthday parties we often tell stories about the person’s life, to date. There is one story from early on in Wilma’s life that I wish to highlight: When she was five years old, the windows of the Halifax house she and her family were living in blew inward, planting shards of glass deep in the layers of the skin on her head. She and her family survived the famous Halifax explosion.

Until Wilma was well into her 40s she was pulling little pieces of glass from her skin. For a large chunk of her life, especially in her formative years, she had to live with this reminder of her near death experience at such a young age. She was, in the first part of her life, regularly made aware of the fragility of her life and the reality of her mortality. That with each step we take in life, death walks along close by. Maybe that’s why she lived so long.

We try to avoid death. We deny it at every turn. We don’t want to see it. And yet, in avoiding death we also avoid living. Living to the upmost. The key to a rich life is to be aware that our death is only one breath away. 

It is common knowledge that the most effective, greatest and skilled soldiers in history were men and women who were willing to die in giving themselves to engage each combat situation. When you accept your own death at any given moment, then you can truly live.

An incredible paradox, isn’t it? How can we live in the ambiguity, uncertainty and mystery of this reality?

Wilma, as I said, was a woman of deep and enduring faith — through it all. It’s amazing when you think about the history she lived through: the rise of the automobile; the radical advance of technology from wires to the digital age; the many wars and two world wars of the last century, the Depression and economic ups and downs, the social revolutions. Through it all, she nurtured, and was nurtured in, a life of faith in the God who died in order to live.

Perhaps a deep knowing of this leads one to bless others. Indeed, this is how I got to know Wilma in these last four years of her life. Mostly through touch. In the tradition of the church, a blessing of healing and grace was given primarily by the ‘laying of hands’. It was a challenge to communicate with her, and yet, experts affirm that 70% of communication is non-verbal.

Wilma’s image of God was of a gracious, giving, loving God. She bristled at me early in our relating when I said the version of the Lord’s Prayer that has the line: “Lead us not to temptation …” She stopped me right in the tracks of that prayer, right there: “Stop,” she said. “God does not lead us to be tempted!” she objected. So, we changed the words. And that is why you read a slight variation in that sentence in the liturgy today.

God is a God of compassion and caring. God loves. Even when we can’t. Even when our love is imperfect and fraught with our own sin and misgivings. God comes to us first with a word of compassion, healing and mercy. This is the God Wilma believed in.

Her mission in life, in the last few years, was to bless others who cared for her. I learned this when she was at Fairfield Manor in Kanata, that she would routinely bless the nurses that attended to her. 

And after our many visits there, she would lean close to me and kiss me on my forehead. She said: “That’s the kiss of Jesus, saying that he loves you. And I do too.”

I responded: “I love you too, Wilma.”

Then, ever true to her belief, Wilma said: “That makes the Holy Trinity — three loves!”

Perhaps, then, Wilma leaves us with the legacy of faith that doesn’t pretend life is meant to be perfect. Because she wasn’t. But life is meant to be lived as long as we are given breath, in order to be a blessing of love to one another, as best we can.

Because God does.

Amen.

Better together

The story is told of a wide-eyed enthusiast who visited Mother Theresa in Calcutta. Over the last century, Mother Theresa has been admired by Christians worldwide for her dedicated, self-giving work for the poorest of the poor in India.

The young man approached Mother Theresa and said, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do what you do.”

Mother Theresa, not missing a beat, replied, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do what I do either. I do this because I was made to do it.”

When we speak about the Holy Spirit in this season after Pentecost, we speak about the breath of God breathing in us. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, which means “breath.” 

Breathing is one of those automatic, biological responses that we don’t even have to think about. It is natural and does not really take any effort at all. We are seldom aware of our breathing. And yet, it is vital to our health. Breathing is critical to our very life and purpose.

You could say, we are made to breath.

And yet, though breathing is integral to our life we may forget the gift that is in us: The gift of the Holy Spirit. We forget that living in the Spirit is as natural as breathing.

The Spirit of God is like our breath. “God’s spirit is more intimate to us that we are to ourselves,” writes Henri Nouwen. “We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a spiritual life. It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy.” (1) 

Breathing is so essential for life that we only think about it when something is wrong with it. When disease, shock or accident leaves us without breath. When breathing becomes laboured. When oxygen levels are critically low in our bodies. When something we have taken for granted for so long no longer works, then what?

The way to arrive and remain in the Holy Spirit of God is both very simple and very hard: We have to remain in love. Breathing the Spirit of God’s love nips negativity, hatred and violence in the bud. It begins by retraining our initial thoughts.

We can’t risk walking around with a negative, or resentful, or gossipy, or critical mind. Because if we let the mind operate in a paranoid, angry, and resentful way, we aren’t going to breathe the Spirit of God. We won’t be breathing. We can’t be God’s usable instrument. 

That’s why Jesus commanded us to to love. It’s that crucial for life. Like breathing. That love can begin in the mind. As Eleanor Roosevelt apparently said: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” (2)     

In Jewish tradition only the consonants for Yahweh were printed in the Hebrew text – YHWH. As such, this most holy name for God was unspeakable. Interestingly, even the Hebrew consonants used in YHWH do not allow you to close your lips when you try to speak them.

We cannot confine God in one place as much as we cannot contain breath. We cannot point to one specific place and say, “God is there!”, turn around, point in the opposite direction and say, “And God isn’t there!” We can’t dare try to close our lips over breathing and pretend we have God all figured out! Identifying with God since ancient times was simply the intake and exhalation of breath. The great “I AM” was the breath itself.

It is the great mystery we enter into when we follow Jesus. Someone said, “life is a mystery to embrace, not a problem to be solved.” God is always beyond us but totally around us, within us and outside of us. And we all share in that same air and that same breath. It is the first thing we did coming out of our mother’s womb, and there will come that moment when we will do it for the last time.

But in between, we continue to take in the breath of God and exhale the breath of God – the totally accessible One, the totally given One, who like breath just waits to be received. Waits to be engaged. In bold acts fuelled by love for the other.

The late Swedish Lutheran bishop, New Testament scholar, and pioneer in Lutheran-Jewish relations, Krister Stendahl, gave helpful advice in this regard. How is it we can love others who are so different from us, so unlike us? Because it is easy to ignore, write off, dismiss and be critical of them.

To Christians living in a diverse and multi-religious environment, Stendahl encourages us to cultivate an attitude of ‘holy envy’ (3) towards the other. That is, we first recognize the gifts, the positives, that the other offers by their life. Rather than thinking first we need to persuade them that ‘they are wrong’, we first seek understanding based on admiring a gift they have. What does the other offer that I/We do not have? Because others have gifts I/We do not have. So, what is it the other has, that is good?

In such a way we begin to see the image of God reflected in creation — in others who are different. We begin to practice seeing Christ in the other. We begin to see the unity we share in the purpose of God, the mission of God. It takes us working together, each with their gifts, to make it happen.

This mysterious God we worship chooses to self-reveal as the Trinity — three persons in one. In other words, this one God we worship is a holy relationship. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit must function together by nature.

So, too, we must learn, practice, be intentional, about being in relationship with one another: working together, breathing in together and breathing out together the love and purpose of God on earth.

Once there was a Washer-man (a man who washes others’ clothes for hire) who was raising two donkeys. One he called Donkey-A and the other Donkey-B.

Donkey-A felt he was more energetic and could do better than the other donkey. He always tried to get the Washer-man’s attention by taking more of the load and walking as fast as he could in front of him.

Donkey-B was just a normal donkey. He tried as hard as he could, but he couldn’t carry as much as Donkey-A or impress the Washer-man by walking in front of him.

One day Donkey-B was crying and asking Donkey-A to help. He said, “Dear friend, it is only the two of us. Why do we compete against each other? If we worked together we could carry an equal load at a normal speed.”

Donkey-A became even more competitive after that. The next day he boasted to the Washer-man that he could carry more and run faster than Donkey-B, and he did.

Under the pressure Donkey-B collapsed in great fatigue and quietly passed away. As a result of the collapse, Donkey-A felt like he was on top of the world, having proved his superior skills and abilities. 

But now he also had to carry Donkey-B’s load.

For a short time Donkey-A was able to carry both loads, but he eventually became fatigued and weak. Finally the day came when the Washer-man was tired of this fatigued and no good donkey. He put him to pasture, and went searching for some other pack donkeys to get his work done.

The moral of this story is, you can’t do it alone. If we are made to breathe the Spirit of the triune God, we are by nature ‘relational’. It is important to learn how to work well together.

Worrying more about individual performance, taking all the credit and trying to do more than you are capable of doing eventually comes back and bites us one way or another. Christians, at their best, are team players.

Donkey B may not have been the strongest nor the fastest, but he was consistent. Everyone brings something valuable to the table. And so do you. Just because you may be different from others, doesn’t qualify you or them to be in competition nor be shunned.

Stronger together. Better together. This is what we were made for.


(1) Henri Nouwen, “Bread for the Journey; A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith”, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, May 18

(2) cited in “Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation” Centre for Action and Contemplation, May 19

(3) cited in Kristin Johnston Largen, “Interreligious Learning and Teaching: A Christian Rationale for a Transformative Praxis” Fortress Press, 2014,page 4

Prayer: “Help”

When I heard this prayer I thought it related well and in a humorous way to how well we follow the ‘rules’ of our faith:

“Dear Lord, I am happy to report, so far this day has gone well: I haven’t coveted anyone their belongings; I haven’t harboured ill-will to my neighbours; I haven’t spoken hateful words or done anything out of spite to harm anyone; I want to help out in the church food-bank this week; I’m even praying to you now! I am thankful that this day has been going so well, Lord. But I think I’m going to need some help, once I get out of bed. Amen.”

Indeed, how well do we follow the commandments of God? The very act of getting out of bed almost guarantees we will make mistakes no matter our good intentions. It is our common humanity.

One of the functions of the Law, from a Lutheran point of view, is to make us realize that we totally depend on the grace of God. Let’s be honest. We need help, and we can’t do it on our own. No matter how hard we try, we will always miss the mark and mess up in some way. If there is anything good that comes out of our work, it is a gift and a grace.

This morning’s Gospel (John 13:31-35) was also read at the Maundy Thursday liturgy last month. Maundy means the commandment to love. It is fair to say that these words of Jesus capture the essence of who we are called to be and what we are called to do: In all we are called to be and do, is to personify love.

In this love, we see the glory of God. Glory. A statement attributed to Saint Ireneus of the early church comes to mind: “The glory of God is a human fully realized”. 

I take that to mean that God’s glory is not something other-worldly so much as something discovered in the ordinary, real, weak, broken life of a person who is able to receive with open heart the gifts of another, the gifts of grace and love. That is the glory of God. So intertwined with Jesus’ suffering as a human on the night of his betrayal (v.31-32), when Jesus needed to depend on his Father.

Faith is not just about believing and thinking doctrines and dogma, it’s more than that; it’s not just about believing, it’s about behaving. We have to pay attention to the behaving part. We must remember something I have heard our bishops say for many years now: Those who claim the greatest truth must demonstrate the greatest love.

Peter Steinke, who has given much thought, books and workshops about healthy churches and leadership today, told the true story of mega-church pastor whose congregation in the southern U.S. was doing really well. By all counts, Pastor Chase was enjoying unprecedented success in his vocation. 

And yet, he had confessed to Steinke, he was suffering from a malaise of the spirit. You could call it, a crisis of faith. Chase was losing a sense of personal direction in his work. 

Hearing about his struggle, a brother-in-law who was a member of a Franciscan order invited Chase to visit him in Italy. And so, Chase took his leave and spent that time resting, reading and visiting his extended family. 

Nearing the end of his time away, the brother-in-law invited him to come for a day to the AIDS hospice which the Franciscans managed and served the several men who were terminally ill. After working in the kitchen a couple of hours, a care-giver invited Chase upstairs to help with one of the residents. The man he looked upon was emaciated. His skin looked like it would fall off the bone. He couldn’t have been more than 90 pounds.

The care-giver greeted the man with a kiss on the forehead, and then looked at Chase: “Could you please lift him into the bath for me?” Chase carried the man and laid him into the bath water. The care-giver then asked, “Would you please wash him?” At first hesitant, Chase understood that this man needed a thorough wash. And so he did.

When they were finished and walking down the stairs the care-giver thanked Chase for his help. She indicated they were short-staffed that day and Chase had provided a real service to the hospice. “I can tell you have a Christian background,” she said. Chase responded: “It is I who need to thank you, Sister, because today I became a Christian.” (1)

“They will know we are Christians by our love,” goes the song. We have a choice to make. We need to be intentional as Christians. We cannot afford not to be, in this day and age. We can choose whether or not to love. 

We can’t save ourselves, or do anything to garner points for heaven, for we will always fall short no matter how heroic, self-giving or impressive our good deeds of faith appear. This is not about doing these things in order to make ourselves right with God. It is not about not doing anything at all. It is, however, about choosing actions that demonstrate care, compassion and love for the sake of others, and so, for God. 

It won’t ever be perfect. But that’s not the point. It is about behaviour that flows genuinely from a heart of love. And understands that all is a gift: The gift of faith, the gift of each other, the gift of community, the gift of Jesus Christ who is alive and lives in the Body of Christ, the church, and in the world he so loves.

(1) – adpated from a video entitled, “To Make a Difference”, presented in an upcoming workshop called “Apple Tree” by the Eastern Synod-ELCIC. Apple Tree is a workshop to help stimulate conversations about purpose and mission

Today

In Andy Weir’s book and movie entitled, “The Martian”, the character played by actor Matt Damon – Mark Watney – is stranded on Mars. And he decides to survive using whatever scientific means possible and using whatever resources are at his disposal until a rescue mission is mounted. 

The book and movie differ in some ways — although the deviations in the movie aren’t as pronounced as in other script to screen adaptations. The most significant difference is, perhaps, the last scene. In the movie, the rescued and now teacher, Mark Watney, gives advice to a classroom full of students in astronaut school.

He counsels that in the face of almost certain death, the way forward is to focus all your energy on solving the next problem, and then the next, and then the next. After all, he survived almost two years alone on the red planet on account of his determination, and despite the odds to remain focused on the immediate task at hand. And not get lost in imagining future outcomes, or wallow in past mistakes.

His advice points to the importance of being present to the current moment of existence, paying attention to what is (not what might be or what was), and acting in confidence for all his efforts.

In the Gospel story, Jesus uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to announce his mission, his purpose (Luke 4:14-21). Jesus will bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners and good news to the oppressed. In summary, he declares his mission to bring compassion and healing to people. And significantly, he closes his public reading in the Nazarene synagogue in 28 C.E. by announcing that “today” this scripture has been fulfilled.

For all who wonder about who this Jesus is, this season after Epiphany ought to give us some clues. Epiphany means ‘revelation’, as Jesus is revealed to us. And, in this text his purpose is made clear. In fact, the writer Luke throughout his book de-emphasizes moral correctness, and rather underscores acts of compassion (1). The underlying question in Luke is not so much: “What does God demand?”; Rather, “Who needs attention and compassion?” This line of questioning can re-focus the purpose of any follower of Jesus.

If someone asked you today, “What is your purpose in life?”, what would you say? Could you describe your mission, specifically and in concrete terms? And, how does your life today reflect the values of your mission statement?

These questions cannot be directed solely at individuals, but the church as well. In the reading today from 1 Corinthians 12, our ministry and purpose finds purchase in the context of the collective. Saint Paul describes the church as a body with many members. The church is the Body of Christ, today. Do you know what your faith community’s mission is, to which you belong?

In coming to terms with his own ministry, Jesus had to make some decisions. He omits a phrase from the Isaiah scroll handed to him. While Jesus cites Isaiah 61:1-3 word for word, he excludes the second part of verse 2 — “… and the day of vengeance of our God.” In order to be true to his purpose, Jesus also needs to be clear about what he will not do. He needs to leave something out of his life altogether in order to remain on the path of healing and compassion. How can he reconcile divisions and heal the brokenhearted by bringing punishment and vengeance upon the people? Impossible.

In pursuing your mission, what do you need to omit? What do you need to stop doing? What are things you need to let go of, in order to make room for the new life which is calling you to grow in the Body?

And we can’t put it off or rationalize it away. There is a sense of urgency in the life of faith. Almost a dozen times in his Gospel, we find the word “today.” The writer Luke emphasizes the importance of the present time. Jesus says, “Today” the scriptures have been fulfilled (Luke 4:21). To Zacchaeus, Jesus announces that “today” salvation has come to his household (Luke 19:9). Hanging on the cross moments before he dies, Jesus turns to the criminal hanging beside him and says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Today, not yesterday. Not when I was young. Not in the heyday of church planting and growth. Not in some glorious vision of the past to which we hang on, pretending it was perfect, wishing to turn the clock back.

Today, not tomorrow. Not at some future date when things will be better. When we will have enough money. When I will have more time. When the kids are old enough. When I retire. When I die. When the church will be full again. When I/we find healing or deliverance from whatever hinders me/us from pursing my/our mission.

God gives us no other day than today to do what we must, what we need to do.

What in my life is it too soon for, too late for, just the right time for? (2)

The Holy Spirit gives us something to do for God. And God doesn’t leave us bereft of resources. The solution may very well be under our eyes, very near to us. Everyone seems to want to know these days: “How are we doing as a church?” and “How are you doing as an individual?” Perhaps the questions need to change. The real questions may be: “As a church, what are we doing for God?” and “What are you doing for God, today?”
This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! – Psalm 118:24


(1) Carol Lakey Hess in Barbara Brown Taylor & David L Bartlett, eds. “Feasting on the Word” Year C Vol 1, WJK Press Kentucky, 2009, p.286

(2) Dawna Markova, “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life” in Joyce Rupp, “Open Door: Journey to the True Self”, Kindle version, 2008, p.18 of 36 in Week 1

The apple of the eye

Guard me as the apple of the eye; Hide me in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 17:8)

Last week’s children’s chat got me thinking even more. I told the story of ‘that mom’ who carried with her everywhere the biggest purse you could imagine. Everywhere she went her two young children trundled behind. And everywhere her kids went, so did she.

Mom was prepared for every contingency. When one of the kids fell in the school yard and scraped his knee, out came the bandaids. When the other ripped her shirt sleeve on the sharp edge of the door at school, out came the needle, thread and scissor set. And even though they left in the morning without a cloud in the sky, if by the end of the day rain showers dumped a deluge, out came the rain poncho. She carried everything you ever needed in that purse.

Or so we thought. I asked the kids what else she should have in her purse. “Some snacks, in case they became hungry.” “A flashlight in case the lights went out wherever they were.” etc. etc. So, she didn’t have everything you could imagine they would need. As prepared as she was, Mom wasn’t prepared for everything. She would also have to go by faith.

“Faith in what?” In Advent, the church has traditionally prepared for Jesus’ coming — in the four weeks leading to Christmas. Our faith, it would seem, leaned heavily on our ability, or lack thereof, to be prepared. Have we done everything we could to be purged of our sin? To be purified? Have we repented enough? Done enough penance? Confessed all our sins? And changed our ways? 

Have we done everything we can to be prepared for Christmas? Bought all the presents? Sent out all the cards? Cleaned and decorated the house? Finalized the invitations, menus and schedules?

Are we ever prepared enough? I’ve talked to more and more people over the years saying they are simply not doing everything any more. It’s too much. And they’re not going to worry about if things aren’t just perfect, anymore. I think they’re onto something. Because the truth is, faith-in-us is only (a small) part of the equation.

Would Jesus still come at Christmas even if we were not totally prepared? Of course. Therefore, a significant part of the Advent message is to emphasize that not only do we do what we can ‘to prepare’, we must also receive everything that we experience in life — the good and the bad — as God’s way of preparing us for the coming of the Lord. In the end, the Lord’s coming is not dependent on how well we prepare. Because Jesus is coming anyway, ready or not!

When we appreciate that everything that happens in our lives is God’s way of preparing us, could we not approach life’s circumstances with a heart of faith and trust rather than resentment and despair? When we appreciate the trials and tribulations of life as the way God is, in the words of the prophet Malachi, “refining” and “purifying” (3:1-4) our lives, would we not then have peace?

How can we ‘see’ the Lord’s hand in all the circumstances of life? I think ‘seeing’ is the key. And I’m not speaking merely of the physical ability of seeing. It’s more of a deepened awareness and perception of reality.

The origin of the phrase “apple of the eye” refers to the reflection of oneself that can be seen in another’s pupil. To hold someone as the ‘apple of the eye’, means that they are close enough to the beholder that they could see their own reflection in the beholder’s pupil. As a metaphor for God’s love, this phrase builds on the idea of humankind having been built in God’s image. We are close enough to God that we can see our own reflection in Him, and He in us. (1)

So, the purpose of ‘preparation’ and ‘purification’ goes beyond merely removing the impurities. Apparently, a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when you can observe your own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal. (2)

If that is the case, the prophet Malachi implies that God’s image in us is restored precisely through the challenges and difficulties of life. Not apart from them. This is the peace we find. The prophet’s message is that we are deemed good and righteous when once again God’s image is reflected in our lives. 

The end point is not the pain or discomfort. We often get stuck there, and give up. The point is God being made manifest in who we are and what we do with our lives. And this takes time. And lots of work. And the gift of faith, to see God always close by. And trust, that whenever I take one step toward God, God takes ten steps toward me.

Questions of purpose, therefore, are important to ask in this season. For many good reasons. Especially when what occupies us in the ‘shopping season’ often distracts us from what is most important in our lives. The prophet is annoyed by the peoples’ wayward practices. How can God’s image be reflected in a selfish, me-first, immediate-gratification motivated people?

Who are we? And who are we called to be? John the Baptist’s cries in the wilderness echo the ancient prophets’ messaging (Luke 3). Stop distracting yourself to death! Return to the source and the ground of your being! Reclaim your true self, your original reflection of God’s goodness in creation.

In a year-end letter from the treasurer of the Eastern Synod to all congregational pastors and treasurers, Keith Myra offers some helpful, universal suggestions around financial issues facing churches today. One of his reminders states: Remember, “The church is not a club — membership does NOT have its privileges.” 

Here, he suggests that especially during this time of year our redemption does not lie in: “What can I get out of life, the church, my family, the economy.” Our redemption does not lie in: “What is in it for me?” And, “It’s up to me!” Rather, the church has always proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ, which is about: “What can I first give to others?” “How does my life reflect God’s image to the world?” “What does the life of Jesus call forth from me?”

We are chosen and loved, yes. Even so, in the end God choosing us is not for privilege, but for a purpose. Belonging to God introduces a great purpose and an important mission.
There is a reason for which we are being purified! And it points beyond the warm fuzzies of this holiday season. It points to actions in the world by Christians that communicate God’s love for all — especially to those without hope, without home, without peace. Then, every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill be made low … the rough ways made smotth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Luke 3:5-6)

Poet Christina Rossetti writes this prayer:
Lord, purge our eyes to see /Within the seed a tree, /Within the glowing egg a bird, /Within the shroud a butterfly, /Till, taught by such we see /Beyond all creatures, Thee /And hearken to Thy tender word /And hear its “Fear not: it is I” (3)

Amen.

(1) Lutherans Connect, “The Trees of Jesse: Day 3” lcadventdevotional2015blogspot.ca
(2) in David L. Bartlett, Barabara Brown Taylor & Kimberly Bracken Long eds. “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.32

(3) Christina Rossetti, from “Judge not according to the appearance”  

The glory: Worth the sacrifice?

I commend to you the reflection entitled “Storied Stones” (Nov 2015) written by Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, found at workingpreacher.org. What follows here is basically her wording with some addition and adaptation —

“What large stones and what large buildings?” If you have ever been to the Holy Land, you know just how big those stones really are. If you haven’t been, you can find online a picture of the western wall — the Wailing Wall — a remnant of Herod’s temple; these blocks of stone are far taller than most people.
Massive. Impressive. No wonder the disciples were agog and amazed. I certainly was. And suddenly, this Gospel story (Mark 13:1-8) made sense. Suddenly, I completely understood the astonishment of the disciples. The impetus for awe is typically justified — and on many levels.
“What large stones?” We love bold. We love big. We love better. That’s the human motto, in every form, it seems. The bigger, the better. The disciples are no different than we are and we are no different than the disciples back then. While we tend to trust in our two-thousand-plus-years insightfulness or insist that the disciples are less than insightful, Jesus calls out the truth of our humanity — both for his past and for present disciples: 
It is true: Like the first disciples we are attracted to splendour and grandeur. We are drawn to the biggest and the best. The most influential. The most powerful. The most anything. We love superlatives. Lest we think we are any more knowledgeable than Jesus’ first disciples, we are not. We only know different attractions, manifestations, and incarnations of magnificence, especially when it comes to what it means to be a Christian today.
Membership numbers, programs, innovation. Stewardship campaigns, “transformative” preaching, Christmas pageants. Christian education, moving worship, building projects — there is no end to what large stones we seek to erect. Our large stones are meant to draw the attention and wonder of onlookers. Our large stones are put in place to attract potential members. Our large stones are even constructed so as to secure the dedication and continued wonder of our own flock. Our faith, our religious life, our churches are not free from the want for prestige, for desire of greatness and grandness, for a yearning for a majesty beyond comparison. 
Why is that? Is it fear? Is it insecurity? Is it a belief that church is really just one big competition?
On the brink of his own arrest and death, Jesus’ lesson to his disciples — to us — is critical. As Jesus’ ministry comes to a close in Mark, it will be all too easy to fall back into a kind of mode of expectation that seeks to compare Jesus’ kingdom with those of this world. As we look toward to the end of the church year and Reign of Christ Sunday, it is easy to be convinced that bigger and better are marks of God’s church. As we get settled into Sunday morning routines, it is easy to disregard that God’s criteria for success is not bigger and better, but faithfulness. That what God cares about is not the “blank-est,” but our best — and there’s a difference between those two.
“What large stones?” is something we are quick to notice but we are not as quick to ask what stands behind the perceived greatness. There is always a backstory of which we are not privy. We cannot tell from the outside the story the lies on the inside. We cannot see in first impressions what has made possible the result or the efforts to get there. We cannot know what it took to make our amazement possible.
In part, Jesus is asking us to ask what’s been overlooked in the past for the sake of what is viewed in the present. And, usually such large stones do not come without a significant price. That those whom we prop up, admire, wish to be, or envy, have particular reasons and rationales for being what and who they are. 
How would we feel if we knew the truth about how the large stones came to be? Well, we may not like what we hear. We may start to realize that such greatness is not worth the overhead. And we may begin to understand that another’s striving for greatness has come at the expense of others, and perhaps the cost of one’s very self.
“What large stones” is a phrase never without sacrifice, either the sacrifice of others or the sacrifice of who you intended to be, wanted to be, and thought you could be. Sometimes this sacrifice is positive. But we can never think that the greatness of another is achievable on our terms. Our tendency is to see this greatness and think we could have done better, rather than inquire about how the greatness came to be. Sometimes this sacrifice is negative, because the allure of grandeur then throws all others under the proverbial bus or the grandeur itself takes over the soul.
In the end, “what larges stones” is itself a statement of faith. And it’s a statement of faith that Jesus asks us to reconsider.
What large stones in your life reveal sacrifices you have made, or are making, that are positive and/or negative? Is it time to reconsider your striving for the ‘large stones’ in your life? Is it time to reconsider your yearning and desires for grandeur and splendour and glory? is it time to reconsider the purpose of your life, and address those decisions you are making to maintain a false, unhealthy striving based on the world’s values? Is it time to meet Jesus, again, at the foot of the cross? Will you bring your concerns to God, and lay them at the altar today? And start anew?
I love the NRSV translation of the closing verse in this text: The trials Jesus describes that will characterize difficult times of transition are “but the beginning of the birth pangs” (v.8). Birth pangs. Jesus uses imagery from the natural course of life, which begins in considerable pain. Birth pangs normally announce the start of something wondrously new, unimaginably joyous and indescribably loving — the birth of a new relationship, the gift of new life.
The large stones will not last. Life, love and hope will endure forever. Have heart. Never give up.

Planting chestnut seeds

“Once upon a time a king was strolling through the forest and he saw an old man, a poor man, bent over a furrow. He walked up to him and saw that he was planting seeds for chestnut trees. He asked the old man why he was doing it and the old man replied, ‘I love the taste of chestnuts.’

“The king responded, ‘Old man, stop punishing your back bent over a hole in the ground. Do you really not know that by the time even one of these trees has grown tall enough to bear nuts, you may not be around to gather them?’

“And the old man answered, “Your Majesty, if my ancestors had thought the way you do, I would never have tasted chestnuts.'” (Juan Gomez-Jurado, God’s Spy, Orion Books, Great Britain, 2007, p.164-165)

Questions for reflection:

1. Who are your ancestors — in work and family, community and nation, church and neighborhood — who planted the seeds of privilege and success you can enjoy today? Name them. Thank them.

2. a) What have your predecessors done to make life a blessing for you today? Financially? Socially? Vocationally? Be specific.

    b) How did they themselves benefit from their sacrifice of resources, time and energy?

3. To what extent do you live your life today for the benefit of future generations, and not primarily your own? What areas of your life reflect this future-orientation of your work, time, and leisure activities?

4. Why do you think it may be a challenge to consider how you live now as extending beyond the scope of your own personal interests? What are the obstacles to living life ‘for the sake of others’?

5. What is one thing you can do today that represents:

a) a thanksgiving for the sacrifice of previous generations? and/or

b) a prayer, a gift to others or a specific action whose purpose is primarily for the benefit of future generations and not your own?