The God who forgets

The prophet Jeremiah describes a remarkable characteristic of God. He says God will “remember no more”[1]Israel’s sins. In other words, God forgets things. Now, I’m not sure we are accustomed to perceiving God in this way. In fact, I would wager many of us will be unsettled, even disturbed, by this notion.

If God is God Almighty, all-knowing, all-everything – then how is it God will intentionally forget something about us? It’s hard to believe that God is telling the truth, here. In fact, I’m not sure we would get excited by believing in a God who isn’t all-powerful and all-knowing.

The other night was a good sports night for me. On the same night Toronto FC won their do-or-die game against New York to advance to the Eastern Conference Final in Major League Soccer. The same night, the Ottawa Senators won their second hockey game of the year! Winning is not easy for that team these days, so that win was huge. It’s a good feeling to win!

It’s invigorating and stimulating to compete, especially when you win. Indeed, we live in a world of winners and losers. And all the hype on the fields of play mirrors the values with which we live day to day.

To be better than the other. To be more beautiful than the other. To be more skilled, have more luck, be more privileged than the other. And life becomes this rat-race to establish yourself ‘over and against’ the other – to beat out your biggest competition for a position on the team, to nail that audition and get that role in the play instead of someone else.

Often climbing to the top means climbing over someone else. It’s the zero-sum game of life. We say, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, where it’s survival of the fittest. Whether or not we like it, we take it as normative even defensible. We shrug our shoulders and say, “that’s the way it is.”

God, however, does not compete. This is the remarkable thing about the biblical witness of God in light of the Gospel. God does not fight for space in this world. God does not need it. There is this self-withdrawing feel to God’s presence. Here, we would affirm the central paradox in Christianity: In God’s absence we find God’s presence; or, in death there is life.

God will remember their sins no more. Because if God was to remember their sins, God would still be in the game. The game of tit-for-tat, the game of revenge, retribution and punishment for sin. The game of reward for good works. The game of earning and deserving God’s favour.

But no. There is a new game in town. And it’s not really a game anymore – at least not one with winners and losers. It’s a new covenant and a new promise from God. Where everyone and everything in creation is a winner.

God will make us all winners. How? Almighty God will release a grip on the tug-of-war rope. God will let go of the imposing forces of the battle ground. God will forget. God will not compete for space in our lives. God will not compete for space in this world. God will forgive. God will ease our anxiety about all the harsh lines in our world.

The dividing walls between people, nations and teams will no longer carry weight. In God’s giving-up, they become largely irrelevant. The dividing walls in our hearts collapse into the total-immersion love of God. These dividing walls dissolve in the self-giving of a God who ‘emptied himself’ of all pretense to glory. And, taking the form of absolute humility – ‘being born in human likeness’ and ‘obedient’ even to the point of ‘death on a cross’[2]– God gives us abundant life.

In this vision, austerity is not the path because nothing is scarce. Self-denial is no longer needed. We don’t operate in a transactional reality where God is concerned. Because God is in all of life – even in the places we thought God could not be. There is so much to see. There is so much abundance everywhere!

Therefore God is in the glories of physical and mental achievement just as much as God is in the depression and defeat of Alzheimer’s disease. God is in the accomplishment and success of youthful enterprise as much as God is in the tears of failure. God in the beauty of creation as much as in the ugly storms. God is in the cyberworld of Tik Tok and Snap Chat as much as God is in the dusty pages of books long left on a shelf. God is in the nicest neighbourhoods and ivory towers as much as in the ghettos of poverty.

In the world of faith, too! God is among the Roman Catholics as much as God is among the Lutherans. God is among the Muslims and the Hindus as much as God is among Jews and Christians. Lutherans have a prayer schedule where we pray for a different Anglican congregation in the area every Sunday. Did you know that on their prayer list, today – Reformation Sunday—Anglican parishes in Ottawa are praying for Lutherans?

Will we see God everywhere in our lives? Will we rejoice and be glad because God is the God of the Cross and Empty Tomb? Will we seek to work towards a world in which all people can see the face of God in each other?

Today is Reformation Sunday. In the Lutheran tradition a big deal. One of the hallmark sayings of Reformation is that we are a church ‘ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda’ – the church reformed, always reforming. We have seen how, since 1517 when Luther nailed those 95 arguments for reform on the Wittenberg Church door, the church has changed over five hundred years. Always reforming, always growing, always deepening in the love of God for all people.

Let’s continue in that tradition. Let’s continue in God’s word!

 

[1]Jeremiah 31:34

[2]Philippians 2:5-11

Surrender, to be free indeed: a sermon for Reformation Sunday

I am grateful that by some coincidence the choir sang today a piece whose title was, “I surrender to Jesus”. And, indeed, the thread that runs through the whole song is the act of of surrendering. This theme might, on the surface, appear incongruent and disconnected with Reformation Sunday.

As a child, I remember Reformation Sundays in the Lutheran Church were indeed ‘celebrations.’ As if we were remembering and celebrating a victory on the battlefield of religious truth. Against our opponents in the religious marketplace.

When we retold the stories of Martin Luther who five hundred years ago stood up to communicate his theological emphasis — that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to scripture alone — the upshot was that those who didn’t believe this were lost, even despised. Worthy of our judgement. Illumination translated into pressure to conform, need to compete and become embroiled in violent conflict.

Indeed the history of the Reformation in the decades and centuries following Martin Luther’s assertions reflects violence. Wars, based more on political and economical divisions, were fought in the name of Protestant or Catholic truth. Blood was shed. Common folk lost their livelihoods even their lives in the upheavals of the so-called religious wars across Europe. Marching into battle to defend truth became the vision and basis for ‘celebrating’ the Reformation.

Martin Luther’s unfortunate anti-semitism whose words the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada repudiated became grounds for hatred against Jewish people to this day, such as in Pittsburgh yesterday. Indeed hatred and violence are as much a legacy of the Reformation as anything else.

Surrendering is indeed counterpoint to the flavour of victory. The cross always stands in contrast to the wiles of glory-seeking fanatics. It is not an easy path: Waving a white flag in the wind may feel like we are ‘giving up’ on who we are, or not caring anymore, or losing our identity. And, here, it doesn’t matter whether we surrender spiritually to Jesus or surrender to anyone on earth. It is the act of surrender that offends our sense of being. And scares us.

That is why, perhaps, we react to this notion that surrender is a good thing. And so, we keep fighting, defending, being all self-righteous. And violent against others, in word and deed. When all along, the truth of it and the real problem is: We find it difficult to admit that in some things we were, and are, wrong.

Martin Luther didn’t want to create a new church. If he knew today that his actions resulted not only in the proliferation of some 30,000 Christian denominations and a plethora of Protestant churches across the globe, but that there was even a church named after him—he would be rolling around in his grave. And yet we trust that despite Luther’s good intentions to merely reform the Roman Catholic Church of which he wanted to remain a member, what has happened is part of something much larger than Luther himself.

The truth is, when we take the risk to do what we are called to do, we fall into a larger reality, a larger good, that is beyond our control. Do we do good, or even pray, in order to control the outcome? Do we do good, and pray, so that what we want to happen will turn out? And if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with the prayer, or God? Is the religious life about an escape plan from this world into heaven? Because following Jesus is not management-by-objective. We don’t pray and do good to get an insurance policy for heaven.

Rather, we do what we must do because we are stepping into the flow of a greater good in which we participate. We move into active response to God’s love and grace because whatever we do is not for our sake alone. When we do good and pray, for example, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Following Jesus is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water.

The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. It enlivens us with refreshment and purpose. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is the ocean of complete, loving union with God.

We can also learn from the example of Jesus. In the Gospel text for Reformation Day (John 8:31-36) , those who oppose Jesus try to draw him into an argument. Jesus suggests they are not free. They are slaves to sin. His opponents reply by saying they are descendants of Abraham and therefore have never been slaves to anyone.

They are blind to their own inner captivity. They can’t see how enslaved they actually are. Indeed they are not free to grow, in Christ. Because they are right. And everyone else is wrong. They are their own worst enemy.

When Jesus hangs on the cross, and prays to God, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” (Luke 23:46) he expresses a profound and deep surrender, a letting go, into the immeasurable vastness that is God. From his moment of ‘forsakenness’ (Mark 15:34) that we all must one day experience we learn that faith is not about belief at all. It is about trust and love.

This is a surrendering that does not compromise in any way who we are. Letting go is not ‘giving up’, as if we don’t care anymore about whatever it is we’ve been so inclined to manage and control.

Surrendering to God is releasing our managerial faculties. It is like forgiveness, when we let go of the resentment that keeps us trapped in wanting revenge and retribution. Surrendering to God is an expression of complete trust in that which is wonderfully greater than anything we can imagine let alone accomplish on our own.

Over twenty years ago, Carl Sagan’s book, Contact, was made into a movie. This is basically a story of aliens who send the makings of an interstellar vehicle to earth. Engineers and scientists figure out how to complete this egg-shaped pod that would transport one person through gateways and wormholes to other worlds in the universe.

It is during the inaugural flight that the character played by Jodie Foster discovers a solution to a serious problem. She discovers that what humans think is a sensible, reasonable thing to do actually is the problem.

You see, in this orb that would be Jodie Foster’s mode of travel, there was at first no chair, or anything to keep her in place. And how could someone travel at untold speeds to unimaginable, unknown places without some way to secure her body? Otherwise she could seriously hurt herself tumbling about inside.

So the engineers and scientists construct an elaborate chair which they fasten to the inside of the capsule.

As expected, during the initial flight, Jodie Foster’s character experiences an excruciating degree of turbulence and vibration, to the point where she might expire from the stress of it.

At the height of the extreme shaking, a pendant that had been around her neck comes loose. And floats in front of her eyes. Surprisingly it isn’t subjected to the violent turbulence. It isn’t moving at all. Just floating, suspended in space. It is still. Peaceful.

An idea comes to her in a flash. Without hesitating she unbuckles her chest strap, and releases her body from the chair. From that moment on, her body is finally free from being confined to the chair. She could then fully appreciate, enjoy and embrace the wonder of her interstellar experience.

She understands now that the aliens knew what they were doing in sending a chair-less vessel to earth. They had indeed done their homework before coming to make contact with humans. In unbinding herself, she discovers she can trust them, the experience, and the greater good of what was happening to her.

Had she fixated on remaining bound in the chair, she would not have been able to discover the wonders of the universe to its fullest. Worse, she could have died.

She had to let go. She had to surrender any notion of security to survive. She had to take the risk to unbind herself. She had to trust, and have faith, that in the letting go, she would find peace. And be free.

We don’t have to be right. Only faithful. That when we surrender to Jesus we express in our praying and in our work a trust that we, and the whole universe, are held in the loving embrace of God.

From the scrap heap of metal, we find two pieces. These pieces are ready to be disposed of. The bare bones. The raw material. Broken pieces. These pieces represent our broken, common humanity.

We can do something with these pieces, to be sure. These scraps of metal can be used to brace structures of our own doing—reinforce supporting walls, strengthen sides in a piece of furniture, cover holes and be painted over in appealing colours.

But when these scraps are left alone, God makes something out of nothing. From the ‘scrap’ consciousness. You see, it is no good when these pieces are already made into something by our own hands. But in our dissembled lives, when either the world only sees just scraps and/or we only see the broken dissembled pieces of our lives.

It is only when we let go and let be ‘just as we are’ that God does something with us through the cross. We then become part of the greater flow of love running forever towards God.

Reformation Themes 2017

The Day of Reformation (October 31) for Protestants, and especially Lutherans, calls us back to basic questions about who we are, as people of faith. Celebrating this day gives us the opportunity to ask again, “Who are we in the variety of religious expression on a diverse, social landscape?” And what do we have to offer?

For Protestants, the word itself may give us a clue. Protestants have often identified themselves as protesting against something. Many of us know the history: In 1517 Martin Luther nailed those 95 arguments on the doors of the Wittenberg Church. “Theses”, we’ve called them, were statements against certain religious practices and beliefs in the 16 century church. “Here I stand” has become a popular Martin Luther quote as he stood his ground and accounted for his beliefs before the Pope and Emperor at the famous meeting in Worms, Germany, shortly thereafter.
Many of us remember the Lutheran legacy as substantially a theological assertion: that you cannot ‘buy’ your way into heaven (by purchasing indulgences); rather, we are justified by grace through faith. Faith and salvation are fundamentally gifts from God.
And this is why the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) — a worldwide communion of 144 national churches — has come up with the theme of “Liberated by God’s Grace” for the 500th anniversary in 2017, commemorating Luther’s first protestant act in Wittenberg. Its sub-themes resonate with the indulgence debate: “Salvation not for sale; Humans not for sale; Creation not for sale.” 
In the pronouncement of these themes Lutherans worldwide and in Canada are claiming that we are not only celebrating something that happened in history. We are also asserting that we are a continually reforming church; that century-old themes can be relevant even today.
“Salvation – not for sale; Humans – not for sale; Creation – not for sale”. When something is not for sale, it is not on the market. We can not procure it by our means — any material means for that matter. When something is not for sale, it is a gift. We cannot possess it, in the same way we can never really possess God, salvation, anyone else, nor can we possess the earth.
The world today wants us to think and believe we can. We therefore delude ourselves into thinking and believing that we can buy salvation, that by our own hands, efforts and hard work we can earn God’s favour, God’s forgiveness. Do we go to church because we feel we need to manage our spirituality more as an insurance policy against hell, even though we are not sure about living out the mission of Jesus today? But God’s love in Jesus is unconditional. It is free. We have nothing to lose in positively living out our faith. Really! “Salvation — not for sale!”
Second, humans: It’s incredible that in the 21st century, there is still slavery practiced in the world; according to a 2013 study, there are still some 30 million slaves in the world today. Even in Canada, young people are gone missing and forced into the sex trade. Many Aboriginal women have disappeared, some murdered and some no doubt exploited in some despicable way. But, we claim: “Humans — not for sale!” What are we doing about this?
Finally, creation: As I said, our culture wants us to believe we can buy it. In fact, a recent survey measuring happiness revealed that our happiness is often dependent on ‘owning’ property. While the exchange of goods is in many ways an important building block of our economy, how differently would we look on our lives if creation (the environment, the land, the water and the resources therein) was not only something we must buy, possess and exploit for profit — but simply given as a gift from God that we share with all people? “Creation — not for sale!” Is finding meaning and purpose in life not the real sources of happiness? (“Money Really Can Buy Happiness, Study Shows”, thecanadianencylopedia.ca, 2013)
The confirmation class last week planted a tree in our church yard. Not only did we do this to respond to one of the Reformation challenges of our church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) to plant 500,000 trees by 2017, we performed a loving and caring act towards God’s beautiful creation which we share with all living creatures.
  
When it comes down to it, and we are honest, we must confess that it is often very difficult to be loving. It is challenging, even though we say we believe in a God who loves us unconditionally, loves the world unconditionally, loves creation unconditionally. 

So, how can we learn to love better?

Diversity in unity: A Reformation sermon

Of all that can be said about the tragic events of October 22, 2014 at the War Memorial and Parliament Hill, one thing we can agree on: something changed. In the aftermath of the shootings, we are still figuring out exactly what.

The day started for me with great anticipation that evening of the ‘battle of Ontario’ between the Senators and Maple Leafs at the Canadian Tire Centre. The day certainly didn’t end that way.

As I drove past the quieted Canadian Tire Centre with its vast, empty parking lots on my home late that tragic day, I marvelled how a single act of cowardly violence could alter the psyche of a city: The anticipation of a sell-out, jam-packed arena was suddenly silenced. Instead, I along with the rest of the city was eager to get home to be with family and loved ones after a day of anxious and often chaotic lock-downs in schools and downtown buildings.

Images of armed officers and special police units swarming familiar and beloved symbols of national remembrance, barricaded Members of Parliament, horrific visions of a slumped body at the foot of the war memorial ricocheted in my mind. Sounds of gun shots from security personnel in the Hall of Honour in Centre Block echoed in my head.

And then, words from the Prime Minster and other party leaders assuring Canadians that this attack was aimed at undermining our values. It seems times of collective crisis, such as this one, burn through all our usual distractions and reveals what is truly important to us. Indeed, now is the time to affirm, and attempt to clarify, what is the nature of our identity and community.

Earlier in the day I went to the Ottawa Civic Hospital where the victims of the violence were taken. The place was streaming with extra security personnel at the entrances and in front of the emergency department. What struck me was the way in which the medical staff went about their usual business of caring for the patients in the hospital. Obviously aware of the ongoing, ‘dynamic’ operation downtown and the possibility of many more injured to arrive any time, they nevertheless kept to their scheduled procedures with smiles and loving attentiveness to others. Their jobs, however routine, became infused and enlivened with caring compassion, in the moment.

On the eve of the shootings, Bishop Munib Younan — president of the Lutheran World Federation and Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Lands — spoke in downtown Ottawa to a diverse group of Lutheran leaders and laity about peace. He described an image often portrayed in the media of young people in his part of the world throwing stones at their enemies. Bishop Younan prays for a day when those stones could be used to build bridges of peace.

How appropriate. He was, after all, speaking to Canadians whose international reputation is one of peace-keeping and building, respecting the humanity dignity of all people.

In all the media reporting on Wednesday, I heard an American security official comment on what he saw to be a typical Canadian response: He observed how RCMP officers and Ottawa Police communicated with the public on the streets of downtown Ottawa in the hours following the shooting; they would often say ‘please’ move to the other side of the street. Politeness and consideration continued to be hallmarks of our public interaction, even in the midst of a crisis.

Some say now we should no longer be so ‘laid back’ as Canadians. We should be tougher, more aggressive. On Reformation Sunday today we sing with pride Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”. Let us, dear friends, not become the fortress where we exclude others who are different from us. Let us, dear friends, not become a fortress where violence escalates and hatred is encouraged — which is precisely what the haters want. Now is the time to affirm what has always characterized us for the good.

But what is that, as Lutherans? Martin Luther affirmed that we are saved ‘by grace through faith’. What is a good metaphor for grace? Where does it come from, and where does it go?

Grace pools like water at the bottom of things. Water flows naturally into the lowest recesses of a land’s topography. Vast rivers seek their way downward towards the ocean. The grace of God is like water, whose primary direction is downward.

The cross of Christ is a symbol that God is discovered precisely where it hurts the most, where we feel the most vulnerable and shamed and exposed. This was central in the thinking and theology of Martin Luther — the Cross: God is found where we least expect it, when we least expect it. This is relevant especially to Canadians and Ottawans in particular, in light of what has just happened.

Could we respond not just with pronouncements of who we should be more like, but with a sober affirmation of who we are? Could we respond with a commitment to paying attention to what is reality for most of humanity around the globe, and not just for the rich and famous, privileged and elite? Could we respond by embracing again a faith that proclaims resurrection and new life through the ‘momentary’ suffering that comes to us all?

Martin Luther experienced the devil, at which he threw ink wells and much profanity, while alone in his study at Wartburg and during an immense personal struggle and angst. The Germans have a good word for it — ‘anfechtung’ — which describes an internal battle. The devil is not personified in any particular religious group or ethnic profile, but comes to us all in our own personal struggle with hatred, blaming, and self-righteousness. In Ephesians 6 Paul writes that our struggle is not against enemies of ‘blood and flesh’ but against ‘cosmic powers and spiritual forces’ to which we are, each and everyone of us, vulnerable. Therefore, in the words from 1 Peter 5:6-11 …

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever.

A mighty fortress IS our God. God will shelter us under the wings of God’s care and protection. No matter where we go — in the public spaces or by ourselves, alone. God will never leave us nor forsake us.