Christmas, now

Just a couple of years before he died, Martin Luther preached one of his last Christmas sermons. In it, he challenged his 16thcentury German congregation to bring the nativity into the present moment – the present reality.

Martin Luther described the squalor and desperation swirling around Mary and Joseph arriving late in Bethlehem and not finding room in the inn, leaving them to give birth to Jesus in a small barn out back. Then, he said:

 There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen!” … [Well] Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbour. You ought to serve them, for what you do to your neighbour in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.[1] That was preached in 1543.

At Christmas 2018, we are not just called to hear the story again, but to be in it, part of it.[2]

Essentially, Martin Luther was getting at the meaning of Christmas for his contemporaries. And for us, today. How can we be inspired by the children, the music, the gifts we bring at Christmas to step out of the nativity ‘play’, and into the real story unfolding around us today?

We share in the communion tonight. In the chaos, noise and crowd, celebrating the sacrament might not fit our idea of a neat-and-tidy, perfect Christmas service. It’s hard to sentimentalize the Eucharist.

But it’s important to offer it tonight. Because the sacrament brings us to the present moment. The meal tells the story of Jesus being in our hearts—not decades ago when things were golden and sweet in our memories, not two thousand years ago, not in the Martin Luther’s day, not lost in words of scripture alone—but right here, right now, in the present day, in our own experience of life in this world.

Receiving the bread and cup doesn’t mean your life is perfect, doesn’t mean you are now ready for Christmas, doesn’t mean y our life is in order and worthy of God.

When you receive the Communion, you are affirming that God is somewhere in the mess and chaos of your life. Our life. Emmanuel–God with us.

Celebrating Christ’s birth does not bring us outof history, it involves us with it—in the present time.[3]The Christmas story gets lived out by our attention and care for the dark shadows in our own hearts, as well as reaching out to vulnerable people in our world.

I heard with dismay on the local radio station last week that the City of Ottawa is putting up 230 families in cheap hotels this Christmas, where they have to live for over a year before social housing spots open up. Talk about conditions of squalor entire families, all of them poor, need to live in at Christmas. And we’re not talking about a handful. Two Hundred and Thirty families, in Ottawa alone.

Have we considered that when we pray for and help in whatever way we can these people, we are serving Christ himself? After all, our Lord was a refugee himself right after his birth, fleeing to Egypt with his parents to get away from Herod’s violent and murderous intent.[4]

Popular TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie just came out with a book this Fall entitled: “Everyday Hockey Heroes: Inspiring Stories on and off the Ice”[5]

In one chapter about an inspiring Ottawa story, Bob McKenzie relays the words of Karina Potvin, a minor hockey coach. She writes: “So much about Canada is welcoming. Well, except maybe our winters, but they’re a small price to pay in order to play hockey …”

As Karina watched on the news refugees being greeted at the airport, she writes: “I knew I wanted to help these new Canadians feel at home. I just wasn’t sure how.

“A few months later I was at practice when I saw one of my fellow coaches … coming towards the bench … [he had a] new idea for Reach Out. Reach Out is a program in our hockey association that helps low income families pay for equipment and registration fees so that their kids can join our league …

“‘You know how my wife and I have been working with some of the Syrian families who have settled here in Ottawa?’ He went on, ‘We took a family to …[a] game last week, and their sons absolutely loved it. They had never heard of hockey before, but they want to play.’

Karina ended up coaching three boys—Mohammed, Ahmad and Ismael—who quickly got the hang of skating. “They’re all over the ice!”

“The three boys breathed hockey all day, every day. As did their parents. By midseason, the parents were typical Canadian hockey moms and dads.

“One Arabic word I learned was hebbak which means “I love you.” Sometimes when we were on the bench, I would turn to Mohammed and say it. He always gave me a strange look.

“’Yeah, I just told you that I love you. Because you’re playing really well tonight and listening to us coaches.’

“He shook his head, ‘Coach Karina, you’re weird.’

“’If you ever make the NHL and they ask you who was your first and favourite coach, you have to say Coach Karina.’

“’Yes, of course.’ He laughed.

“’And if you ever play for the Senators, you have to get me tickets.’ Every time I said this, he would smile and reply, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’”

Just imagine: The year before, these kids had been in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Now, they were playing hockey just like so many other kids in Canada.[6]

May the first Christmas story become alive and real for you, as the Christ child is born anew in your hearts thisday.

Here are the words of American writer Madeleine L’Engle in a poem entitled “First Coming”:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Merry Christmas!

[1]Martin Luther, Christmas Sermon, 1543; Matthew 25:45

[2]Lcfaithinthenight.blogspot.com, 19 Dec 2018, (Lutherans Connect, @LuTConnect).

[3]Gustavo Gutierrez, cited in LutheransConnect, ibid.

[4]Matthew 2:13-15

[5]With Jim Lang (Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2018)

[6]The full story in ibid., p.45-56

Funeral sermon for an African-Canadian: Room for all

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:1-3,27 NRSV)

The more I reflect on the gospel text you chose for reading this day, I have to conclude that Jesus has always been preparing room for your beloved, throughout his life.

The first room was in Ghana, his birthplace. Shortly after he was baptized in a Presbyterian church, and later attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church there. You were married in 1971. Over the next several years you had four children and started to build your family life. A room you called home.

A political coup in Ghana in the 1980s created conflict between the nation’s lawyers and the self-acclaimed government. Lawyers defended the rule of law which threatened the legitimacy of the coup d’état. God was preparing another room for him and the family.

Fearing for his safety he fled to Nigeria where he stayed for five years while the rest of the family stayed in Ghana. You came to Canada in 1988 for six months, as participant of an exchange program between Carleton University and Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration where you were a lecturer. Your husband visited you in Ottawa and decided to put in an application as a refugee in order to unite the family. It took five years, but in 1993, after 10 years of separation the family was finally together in Canada.

You received help from this congregation as they settled into their new life in Canada. People in this congregation, and other friends, gave you furniture and other means for getting used to living through cold, Canadian winters. Here was yet another room, on earth, that the Lord had prepared.

I recall some of this family history to underscore, broadly put, the importance of community in a Christian’s life. The story of immigration and supporting refugees escaping untold threat and terrors in their homelands is not unique to Theo and his family.

Standing on the side of refugees and migrants and immigrants—this is a central part of our identity not only as Canadians but as Christians and Lutherans. Our values are thus defined because we are a nation of immigrants, to be sure. And in God’s love for all humanity, we continue to this day to do what we can to support those newly arriving in Canada.

God sets the bar and calls us to follow—there’s room for everyone!

Through the turmoil and disruption of those decades late last century, your beloved had to believe, and nurture his faith. He had to trust that good would eventually prevail. He had to lean on God to get him through those lonely days separated by a vast geography from his loved ones. He had to depend on others—his own resources, the gifts and good-will of friends, and upon the grace and presence of God in his heart.

In the last six years that I have personally known him, especially as his cognitive and physical abilities declined, there was one thing that did not change each time I visited him: His face brightened, and his eyes looked like they were going to pop when I opened the bible and prayer book. He was fully attentive as I read familiar prayers and scriptures.

And for all that cannot be known and cannot be said about the mystery of the sacrament, he craved the sharing of the bread and cup in the Holy Communion. With few words spoken, he grasped for and received a tangible sign of the true presence of the living Lord Jesus.

Enough cannot be said about his expression of faith, especially the last years of his life. As he declined, he had to stop attending all the activities in which he loved to participate.

Except bible study. To the end, he would faithfully attend the regular bible study at the nursing home. If when I dropped by he was not in his room and I would ask a PSW or nurse where he might be, the answer was unanimous and consistent every time: In the chapel. Everyone knew that about him. And, more often than not he was there with his bible and prayer books open on his tray.

Even in this latter time of his life, his faith was expressed in community. It was room shared by all. And it was and is in a faith community where God prepares the soul for our final home in union with God. Just like when others supported him get to and settle in Canada as a refugee, decades ago—his faith was again validated by the loving presence of care-workers, church volunteers and staff in the nursing home. In faith, we are not an island unto ourselves. His life and faith demonstrated this in so many ways.

Jesus has indeed prepared an eternal dwelling place for your loved one. Today, he rejoices in the full presence of God where he now sees face-to-face. I believe his death on Thanksgiving is significant. It is a heavenly signal to us about what we need to do during times of loss and grief. At a time in Canada when we pause to give thanks for all the good in our lives, we therefore give God thanks and celebrate the gift of your beloved—a dear husband, father, brother and friend.

Thank you, God, for giving him to us and to the world, to know and to love. Amen.

Canada is a neighbour

Happy Canada Day!

On this July 1stit is good to reflect on what makes Canada great. Let’s be positive! What is it about our society that stands out in a positive way – amid all that is not so good?

I would like to say that we are a country that aspires to a healthy neighbourliness. Being a good neighbour – whether striving for better relations with Indigenous people, whether relating to newcomers to Canada today, whether reaching out in kind to those who are different from me who live across the street – is our national identity.

Asserting this quality for Canadians, I believe, is not new. Being a good neighbour is not a recent trend in progressive society. Hearing preachers spout the virtues of neighbourliness reflects a deep seeded consciousness influenced by popular culture already in the last century.

It was in the 1950s when children fell in love with the Friendly Giant on TV in Canada. Some of you might recall watching actor Bob Homme on CBC TV from 1958 until 1985 being friendly to his puppet animal friends.

Then there was Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood which first aired in 1968. Although an American show, did you know that Fred Rogers spent several years in Toronto in the early 1960s working with Ernie Coombs – Mr. Dressup – airing a prototype show called the same Misterogers?

Over his career, Fred Rogers was intentional about being more and more inclusive. He brought, for example, an African American person onto the show yet didn’t draw undue attention to it. This was a subtle yet poignant statement about neighbourliness when American white culture was anything but, towards people of colour.

To assert that these cultural icons were birthed in Canada would not be an overstatement. To be Canadian is to be a good neighbour. It is in our DNA. It is our calling, our witness to a world that wants to be anything but, especially these days.

Yet, it seems every generation of Canadians needs to learn anew how to be a good neighbour. We need to be continually reminded and encouraged to practice being a good neighbour because we tend to be a fearful lot. And fear keeps us from this holy calling.

Having faith doesn’t mean the absence of fear. Having faith means stepping into the fearful place. Having faith means action. It means “leaning into” the situation as we are.[1]

Our lay delegate from Faith Lutheran Church to the Eastern Synod Assembly in Toronto last week, admits being fearful taking the train for the first time. Julia is a seasoned, experienced OC-Transpo bus rider here in Ottawa. Despite the similarities in travel experience between the train and bus, she confesses taking the train across the province for the first time was an anxious affair.

What is more, we missed each other on the train ride to Toronto. Even though we were on the same train, we boarded at different locations – Julia, downtown; and me, at Fallowfield Station in Barrhaven. In fact, as it turns out, we were on the same car – but I never once caught sight of her.

Until on the last leg of the journey, when we were on the Union-Pearson Express train. My phone dinged. Julia texted me to confirm whether I knew where to catch the hotel shuttle to the convention centre where the Assembly was to take place.

Despite her fear of riding the train for the first time, and alone, Julia reached out to me. She was being a good neighbour by making sure I was ok. Her reaching out to me was helpful since, truth be told, I was not sure about where to catch the airport shuttle bus.

“Who is my neighbour?” Jesus asks before telling the story of the Good Samaritan.[2]“Liberated by God’s Grace … to be neighbour” was the theme of the Eastern Synod Assembly. Through thoughtful, provocative and compelling bible studies, song, and interactions with various peoples, the Assembly reflected and re-committed to become even better neighbours, as a church.

Interesting, in keeping all this in mind, that we encounter the nameless woman in the Gospel reading for today.[3]She approaches Jesus in the crowd, hidden, secretly. No wonder. She is powerless and outlawed in public spaces on account of her bleeding.

The main point of the story is not that she is miraculously healed. She could have remained hidden, quietly disappearing into the crowed after she is healed. That is the way she would have wanted it, likely.

The point is that Jesus calls her into a deeper relationship. She must come out of her private suffering. She must confront her fear, and make a deeper connection with herself, with others, and with Jesus.

“Who touched my clothes?” Jesus says out loud even though he knows the woman has already been healed when he felt the power drain out of him.[4]He, too, could have enabled the woman’s secretive behaviour, letting her go and moving on. He could have protected her in her fearful existence after she is cured.

Instead, Jesus calls for her to step up and be known. Demonstrating incredible courage, the woman responds to Jesus’ call and approaches him “in fear and trembling, fell down before him and told him the whole truth.”[5]

Jesus seeks out a relationship with her. It is of God to do this. God continues to call us into ever deeper relationship – with ourselves, with others and with God. The point of the Gospel is that we affirm our connectedness with others in healthy and compassionate co-existence. This is the path to truth.

Jesus’ ‘touch’ can heal us and the world. The touch of God’s grace can give us peace. We are shaped and made human in relationship with others. All our relationships – in church, in friendships, in marriage – are not just something extra added on to life for distraction and entertainment as if we would be complete human beings in individual isolation.[6]Relationships are not some added feature to our lives in order to get something, a means to some autonomous end.

Relationships are the fabric of life. Relationship – touch, if you will – makes us human and whole. Being neighbourly can heal us, make us better people. “Perfect love casts out fear,”[7]our scriptures say. Love can only be expressed in relationship.

The reason Julia was not afraid of riding the bus in Ottawa, was because she was practiced at it. She had done it many times. Even though the train is not that much different, she had never before taken the train. The difference is, some intentional, risk-taking exercise.

Later this week, members of Faith council will be volunteering for a couple of hours at the Mission downtown for homeless, impoverished men. We will get a tour of the facility and help give out some ice cream to those who are there. Practice, to move beyond fear to faithfulness, isolation into community, to where our neighbours are.

We need to practice being a good neighbour – to those who are vulnerable, to those who are powerless, to those who are stigmatized, to the homeless, the LGBTQIA+ community, to refugees and migrants. We have to lean in to the places of fear in our lives and to take some risks vis-à-vis people who are different from us. In doing so, we realize we are not alone, and we have meaning and purpose in our lives for the common good.

Canadians and Christians share something in common, to be sure. We are called to reach out. And be a good neighbour to the world. We are not left alone stuck in our fear. Because God continues to call us into the deeper waters of grace and love. God will never abandon us, despite our fear.

Let us approach boldly the seat of grace in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[1]Brother Luke Ditewig, “Brother, Give Us A Word” for June 28, 2018 (Society of Saint John the Evangelist) friends@ssje.org

[2]Luke 10:25-37

[3]Mark 5:21-43

[4]v.30

[5]v.33

[6]Michael L. Lindvall in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 3 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.192.

[7]1 John 4:18

Driving me crazy

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There are times in life that come our way to remind us that something is ending. And even though at some deeper level we know it to be true, we hesitate to face that ending, whatever it is — the end of an era, the end of the life of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the end of a career, the end of youthful health and energy, etc.

How do we face these movements in life?

In planning our family vacation to Italy a couple summers ago, we decided to rent a car. Our host family lived in Naples. So, right off the plane, we jumped in our small Fiat, yours truly engaged the manual shift, and we immersed ourselves in the mayhem of driving in Naples.

What added to the heightened anxiety of driving in the sprawling metropolis, was that I had to follow our friends from downtown to the suburbs – no short jaunt ‘round the corner.

Not only did I have to deal with the speedy and crazy driving conditions, I had to slice through the haze of jetlag in my mind, and pay attention. I had to keep up to our host family already long acclimatized to the riotous driving culture there.

What is more, shortly after recovering from the stress and thrill of that first-day drive from the airport, the next day, in our separate cars we took to the winding and narrow road along the Amalfi Coast. To get there, we had to cross Naples first. Been there done that. No small feat.

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Then, once on the rocky Amalfi coastline, my face was practically pasted on the front windshield. I had to make constant reflexive maneuvers rounding blind, hairpin bends. At relatively high speeds I squeezed our little Fiat between oncoming Vespa scooters, ginormous tour buses and sleek, racing, tinted-windowed Audi sedans. All the while wiping the spittle from the glass in front of my mouth emitting profanity after profanity.

 

Caution thrown to the wind, I threw myself into it without thinking too much. Reactive, assertive and confident driving skills required! Since I didn’t exactly know the route we would take, I had to focus on what was directly in front of me. I had to pay attention and respond not only to the immediate conditions I found myself in. I also had to keep an eye on the dark blue Hyundai some car lengths in front, leading the way.

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Following someone in another car, requires certain skills best developed in the context of faith. Let me explain.

First, you have to trust. You must trust that the One you are following knows what they are doing and where they are going. You have to believe that following them faithfully will take you to where you want to go. At some gut level, you have to relinquish your claim to knowing better. And trust the other. And believe that they believe in you and your skill, too.

Second, you have to pay attention. You have to stay aware of your surroundings, even though the distractions and obstacles are frightening. As with driving in general, you can’t be looking inside the car or admiring the scenery to the side or behind you. Rather, you have to remain focused on the road ahead. Better yet, for as smooth a ride as possible, you have to envision yourself already being a certain distance down the road.

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Third, you need to act on in-the-moment decisions. Following another car is a whole different way of driving then when you are on your own. On your own, you can stop whenever you want, you can go however fast or slow you want to go, and you are not accountable in any way to another vehicle on the road.

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All that changes as soon as you say, “I will follow you.” If you don’t want to get lost, you have to keep up. You have to do it. You have to match the velocity of the lead car, whether they speed up or slow down. You have to drive in a way that will keep you within eyesight of the lead, which will affect how you negotiate traffic signals, lane changes, roundabouts, traffic jams, and toll gates.

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Finally, in order to follow another successfully, you have to take the primary focus off yourself. And fix it on whom you are following. There is no time to dwell on your past mistakes – the guy you cut off coming onto the expressway, your cursing a fellow driver weaving across multi lanes going 130 kilometres an hour, or the slight yet growing pressure you feel on your bladder from all the espresso you drank earlier in the day.

There is no time for self-indulgence of this kind. There is no time for regret, guilt or self-absorbed mental gymnastics. There is no time to stop to lick the wounds of obsessive introspection.

Because your energy is required now for the task at hand: trust, focus, action.

Jesus describes at least two opposing lifestyles in the Gospel reading for today.[1] The sheep are on Christ’s right hand – they are the good guys. The goats are on Jesus’ left hand – they are the bad guys. I suspect we can relate to being both a goat and a sheep at different times and conditions of our lives.

Either way, both groups are surprised to hear Jesus’ answer to their question: “When did we see you …?”[2] Both groups failed to see Jesus in the faces of the stranger, sick, hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned.

The only difference is that the sheep already happened to be serving those in need, before they heard this news, before they had a chance to think about it too much, strategize and create impressive mission plans. That group was visiting the sick and tending to the needs of others as a matter of course, moved by a simple compassion for the needy. Doing so was part of their regular routine of life.

On the other hand, the goats apparently never thought nor believed that their very salvation depended on helping others, going to the poor, attending to the weak and vulnerable in society. Instead, they must have made life predominantly a game of ‘who can get the most stuff and be most comfortable and take care of their own first.’ Their faith must have been assigned to a God who existed only in their minds, in abstraction, a matter reserved only for intellectual discourse,polite company, and board room strategy sessions.

At this turning point in the calendar year, we shift gears and look ahead. We leave behind the relative calm and ease of the long summer season after Pentecost, and enter the fray of the holiday season. How we drive through and around the many distractions, noise, pace and twisting corners of our lives in the coming months will reveal a lot about who we follow or whether we are following anyone at all, let alone Jesus.

So, let’s not forget where Jesus goes. Let’s not forget what he was all about, whom he visited, whom he cared for and where he spent his time. This is our focus. Let’s trust that Jesus knows what he is talking about and the path he takes, even though God’s reign feels countercultural and unpopular in a season of getting more stuff and self-indulgent sentimentality.

Perhaps we will need to practice looking for Jesus on the streets, in the hospices, the safe-injection sites, the social housing units, the shelters, the refugee lines and immigrant ghettos in our city.

Let’s trust that Jesus’ way will lead to our resurrection and transformation in this life as much as in the next. Let’s pay attention to our surroundings and the various ways God encourages us on the way. Let’s not remain idle, nor get stuck in self-centred living. Let’s not coast nor ride the clutch too much. Because we’ll stall the car. And stopping is not good on the highway of life. In fact, it’s dangerous.

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Instead, let’s act faithfully in small, concrete ways that make a difference for the better in the lives of others in need.  Let’s do so assertively and confidently, knowing that we don’t travel alone; there are others in the car with us and on the highway around us. Because despite our many failings, and the mistakes we will make along the way, God continues to have faith in us.

There is too much at stake. And no time to lose. Still today, in our country – Canada – and in our nation’s capital, Ottawa, there are still over 10,000 households needing adequate, safe and affordable housing.[3] And, 15% of the population in the whole province of Ontario still lives in some kind of housing need.

Where is Jesus? The bible makes it very clear. The better question is: Will you follow?

Recently I came across this anonymous quote about the merits of volunteering in ways that can reflect the reign of Christ in our lives and in our world:

Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections … [once every four years], but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.

When you volunteer for good causes you add value to the vision of God in earth. The Reign of Christ is about the kind of world God wants us to live in. Where is Jesus? Will you follow?

We end today a church season. This annual observance can remind us that endings only herald a new beginning just around the corner.

[1] Matthew 25:31-46

[2] verses 37 and 44

[3] check out http://www.multifaithhousing.ca

Better is not what you think

What happens when doors close and we don’t see other doors open? Life is full of closed doors: unemployment, failure to graduate, illness, tragedy, lost friendships, divorce — the list goes on. What happens when you are stuck in the middle of that transition and can’t see a way through? For whatever reason, doors close. The fact we sometimes don’t know why may make it harder to take.

Paul wanted and “attempted” to go to Asia. The lectionary doesn’t include the verses (6-9) immediately prior to the first text today (Acts 16:9-15). For some inexplicable reason, the Holy Spirit “did not allow” Paul and his cohort to travel there. A door is closed. 

But you’ve heard the cliche: When God closes a door, another one opens. Which is, presumably, a better deal.

After the door to Asia, and Paul’s ‘wants’, closes, he then goes to Macedonia after a convincing vision and on to Philippi where he meets Lydia. The result of their encounter is that “she and her household were baptized”. Good things happen. This open door was a successful mission. Even though, originally, this mission-field was not for-seen, planned, even desired.

The church finds itself in an uncomfortable situation these days. The glory days of ethnically-defined church planting and building are long gone. We still yearn for those good-old-days, the hey day of the kind of church we still try to maintain when Lutherans from Germany were streaming off the boats, church budgets were growing and pews were filled. For the institutional reality, it feels like a door is closing. And we don’t see a clear picture of what it is changing into.

It’s not a comfortable place to be, when doors close. Where’s the open door?

Earlier this year a couple members of a Lutheran church in Southern Ontario, decided to partner with a neighbouring church to organize a refugee sponsorship initiative. They complied with all the regulations, began a fundraising appeal, and the word got out.

Before long they had attracted fourteen people from the community to work alongside them. They found unprecedented success at mobilizing resources and motivating people to help. Tens of thousands of dollars was raised in no time. An apartment was secured and furnished without problem. A Syrian family was on the way.

The Lutherans on the committee made sure their own congregation was brought up to speed with regular reports, appeals for help and updates. To their surprise, and dismay, all but a couple on that growing committee were members of their church.

The gentleman who had initiated this refugee work lamented to one of the Synod staff who was close to the community, “What’s the point of doing all this work, when the people working on the committee don’t come to church on Sundays and put offerings in the plate?”

“Are others aware you are a Christian from a local congregation?”

“Are people being helped?”

“Is good coming out of all your efforts?”

“Are you doing this from your conscience as a Christian?”

“Do you feel God is calling you to do this work?”

All these questions were answered in the affirmative. So, what’s the problem? Maybe a door is closing, and maybe another has opened? It just isn’t what we may expect or think we want. The Holy Spirit is active in the world and among people. The question is, are we willing to walk through that open door? Congratulations to that Lutheran who took the initiative to do something when there was a need.

When a door closes, it can feel like you are unprepared for whatever may be. In life transitions, especially, the in-between ‘close door / open door’ time can be unnerving. When a baby is born, for example, no manual comes out with the baby. Being a parent is feeling your way to make decisions with each passing moment. Preparation — you can throw that out the door!

Of the top three major festivals of the church year, the Day of Pentecost comes up almost unexpectedly. Did you know it’s two weeks from today? Unlike Christmas and Easter which have long weeks of preparation (Advent and Lent, respectively) leading up to these high, holy days, Pentecost does not.

We only have Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John (14:23-29) to his disciples, these days, preparing them for his departure. And giving the promise of the Holy Spirit.

Occasions like this should be sad, unnerving, disquieting, too sudden. And, on some level, it is. It cannot be denied. After all, the disciples will no longer have Jesus physically present with them any more. In a way, they are losing something precious and dear to them: their leader, their confidant, their friend. The common reaction to a loved one’s leaving is sorrow and despair. We can understand. Sympathize.

And yet, Jesus tells them to “rejoice” that Jesus is going back to the Father. Be glad, that Jesus is leaving them? It doesn’t make sense. Be glad, that you are going? – You can probably hear the disciples murmur under their breath, trying to figure it out.

In coping with his absence, Jesus nevertheless gives them something even better. The door of his physical presence is closing. But another, better door, is opening. This is unexpected, never-before-seen, and unplanned (from the disciples’ point of view):

After he leaves, Jesus’ presence will be within them: Earlier in this chapter (v.20), Jesus says: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, they will have the power and the grace to do great things in the name of Jesus. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12).

In order for the new door to open, the old door must close. The only way the disciples of Jesus can receive the Holy Spirit and do and be all that they are meant to be and do, is only after Jesus leaves them and returns to his Father in heaven.

The promises of God are rich. We may not see the outcome or how it will all turn out, in the end. Yet, it is true: Once a door closes, another will open. And it will not be what we think. It will be better!

The life-giving gap

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (James 3:11)

The writer, James, makes a case for integrity and authenticity in the Christian life. For us moderns, living in a day and age where how we look, our reputations, our social standings and our bank accounts seem to speak louder than anything else about who we truly are and what we truly want. Is our joy at living based on these ‘worldly’ values, when we are honest about it? 

It becomes particularly challenging for us Christians, whose value system is acutely counter-cultural. It becomes a real war, actually, to embrace the true source of our lives in a world of celebrity politicians and glory-seeking suburbanites. And I think, for the most part, we live a bifurcated existence. We say one thing — I believe in the God who asks us to bear our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34) — but so easily slip into a lifestyle that is really narcissistic, self-centred and selfish. The easy way.

It’s a rhetorical question. “Does a spring pour forth both fresh and brackish water?” In James’ mind, of course not. A spring will either bring forth, on balance, mostly fresh or mostly dirty water. The meter will lean one way or the other. 

Which way do you lean? In your work? In the way you invest? In how you spend your money? In how you spend your free time? With whom? In what and how you communicate?

In the Gospel for today (Mark 8:27-38), Jesus says some difficult, counter-cultural things about what kind of way Jesus — the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, God incarnate, Almighty and Everlasting God — will travel the journey of life. And it is this God who beckons us to follow: in order “to undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31). Really? That doesn’t sound right for a person claiming godly power!

In an upwardly mobile culture we are suddenly and shockingly presented with a downwardly mobile God. Naturally and understandably, through the lens of worldly value, we shudder. Peter rebukes Jesus. And it is in response to Peter’s communication that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan.

The first lesson from Isaiah, the third chapter in the Epistle James and the Gospel reading for today are a call to discipline our speech — how we talk, and for what purpose. I would broaden this to say: How we communicate. The words we use. The body language we employ. They say that 70% of communication is non-verbal. I believe this truth is what prompted Francis of Assisi to say: “Preach the Gospel; Use words only when necessary!” It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Our actions speak louder than words.

We are called to pay attention not only to the words we use — important though they are, but our actions, our tone, our presence with another. We are called to pay attention to these details in assessing the quality of our relationships. Not to do so, to ignore and dismiss our attention to these aspects of relating, is evil. Not to hold ourselves accountable to what we say and how we say it to another is a satanic time-bomb waiting to happen.

The eighth commandment reads: Do not bear false witness against your neighbour (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). This means, what we say about them. Of course, first we have to look around and ask: Who is our neighbour? On Meadowlands Drive West, in Nepean, Ottawa, and in Canada. Who are our neighbours today? Do we know their names? Who are they? And then, what do we say about them, to them?

In his explanation of all the Ten Commandments, Martin Luther makes clear these are not simply about ‘not-doing’ — not gossiping, not slandering — but even more important what positive behaviour we do for the sake of the neighbour. He writes that it is imperative that Christians should do all they can to protect the good name and social standing of their neighbours — and he lifts up particularly the “sins of the tongue” in this context. (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in the Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p.420)

I can’t help here to think of the millions of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. I can’t help here but think of the many ways Muslims are disparaged in the media in the West not only in the press, but also in those malicious forwarded emails that circulate “like a hydra with multiple heads: so pernicious and so difficult to stop” (Kristin Johnston Largen, “Inter-religious Learning and Teaching” Fortress Press, 2014, p.57).

James concedes to our human predicament. In the end, no matter how hard we try to do right by this, “no one can tame the tongue” (3:8). It’s as if the narrative of Scripture accepts the impossible capability of us, on our own, to get it all right all of the time. Even though Peter is in one moment ‘Satanic’ he is, in the next, the rock upon which the church will be built against whom “the gates of Hades will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). Martin Luther’s well-known paradox can help us frame this apparent contradiction: We are simultaneously saints AND sinners (simul justus et pecator). 

This ‘word’ today may make us feel uncomfortable. It does, me. And, probably for good reason. Yet, there is good news. God speaks into this confused darkness of our lives. God speaks the Word of creation into this murky existence (Genesis 1). A Word of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. 

And the Word that God speaks sets up the endless harmonic of sounds in the world. And as we speak, and try to speak truthfully, perhaps what we are doing is far less hanging labels around the necks of the things of the world. And instead we try to find those divine harmonics and speak and act ‘in tune’ with that Word first spoken into silence and darkness.

The image I like of creation is that God first makes a great cave. And then breathes into it. Speaks into it. A Word. And from the cave the echoes come back. Differently pitched. Differently aimed. A world of Word. And we find our place in that world listening to those harmonics, trying to speak and act in tune with them. Not to speak and act from our will or our passion for control. But to speak because we want to join in what an earlier generation would have called the ‘music of the spheres’. (Rowan Williams, “The Spirit in the Desert” Meditatio Talk Series 2015 B Apr-June CD).

Those of us preachers and public speakers, especially need to think more about this. Paul says that the Body of Christ is made up of all parts, each important in their own right (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) — you are a hand, you a leg, you the eyes, you the foot. This morning, I am the mouth! And, like James, Paul also says that greater scrutiny and possible judgement will be brought upon those who speak (2 Peter 2:3;Colossians 2:20;1 Timothy 1:2-4). A timely word, perhaps, in a season of political campaign, mindless rhetoric and questionable election promises.

How do we speak in such a way that is authentic and true? Only by looking for the harmonics that that Word of God sets up. By refusing the mass pressures of culture. By becoming in our speaking as in our living a kind of invitation into the gracious harmonics of God’s world, into the resonances and echoes that are set up by that primordial utterance of God into the cave of creation.

Simone Weil used the concept of ‘hesitation’ to describe how to communicate in a healthy way For her, part of the essence of spiritual maturity was leaving the ‘life-giving gap’ between you, the act, and the other person (quoted in Rowan Williams, ibid.). Learning not so much to project straight away our ego compulsions into the other person; learning not so much to move right away into solving a problem on our own terms. But drawing away momentarily to listen for the sake of the other. And for the sake of the truth.

At the end of the day, we are called to check the compulsion to speak. And move back into a momentary stillness into which God’s draws us, and out of which God calls us to speak and to act with integrity and authenticity.

We would make James proud.

(Hoping for) A happy ending: Why not?

“God will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:4)

When the prophet Isaiah promises salvation to the people, people who are “weak, feeble and fearful” (Is 35:3-4) what does he mean? What does he mean when he says: “God will save you”? Does he mean, the promise of heaven? Does he mean, remission of sins?

In the news this week we have seen images of desperate people risking their lives to escape the dire situation in Syria. Refugees are literally dying for the sake of finding a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people dispersed from their homes. He spoke to a people who were displaced for political reasons. Emerging empires, such as Assyria, Babylon and then the Greeks, swept through the region in the centuries before Christ leaving those without power or privilege to fend for themselves in foreign lands. Sound familiar?

The Bible gives us Christians a broader perspective on ‘Salvation’. Because when we look carefully at texts such as Isaiah 35, salvation is not about heaven and remission of sins. The people who are exiled, lost and experiencing the worst circumstances of life, will be saved from those circumstances. In real time, earth-bound, flesh and blood realities.

From the perspective of Jesus Christ, of course, we can express, in all truth, the promise of heaven and remission of sins. For sure. And yet we cannot, if we engage the bible honestly, limit the concept of salvation to these albeit abstract notions of faith. Salvation in Christ has just as much to do with our lives on earth, and the lives of others, “in the flesh”.

We may despair, watching the news. What can anyone do to make the situation right for the millions of refugees now flooding Europe? How can there be a happy ending, in this mess? We can be paralyzed in our fear, and look away, despondent.

And yet we have this fantastic story of restoration. We know how the story ends for the remnant of Judah in Babylonian exile. We know that their earthly suffering ends happily. On earth. They eventually return to Jerusalem and restore their fortunes. We can get giddy with faith at this happy ending. Surely, this is the promised outcome for all who suffer in any way!

Listen to how Professor of Old Testament, Patricia Tull, writing in workingpreacher.org, expresses the puzzling truth of this story:

“Events as deeply woven into our history as Jerusalem’s restoration take on for us an air of inevitability. Yet they cannot be taken for granted. Other nations destroyed by great empires — including Aram, Moab, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel — failed to reestablish when their crises passed. We have Judah’s story only because it transcended destruction. Every time our scriptural reading brings us to Jerusalem’s phoenix-like restoration 2500 years ago is a moment to stop for gratitude and wonder. As Isaiah 34 and 35 vividly show, reversal of fortune isn’t guaranteed. But it is possible. Judah’s success story sets a precedent for hope, showing that happy endings have occurred and can occur.”

The first prime-minister of the modern state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, said, “Anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.” To be hopeless, however grave the circumstance, is unrealistic. It works both ways: To believe that there is a happily-ever-after for each and every person in every situation imaginable is unrealistic; we know that’s not the way life works. At the same time, to dismiss altogether the possibility of happy endings and miraculous turn of events is unrealistic as well. For God, all things are possible.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Some people see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ Others see things as they could be and ask, ‘Why not?’

As Christians, as people of faith, aren’t we a people of a ‘Why not?’ -capability?

Why not be grateful at the start and end of each day — grateful for all things that have gone well in life?

Why not focus on the blessings and abundance rather than the scarcity?

Why not celebrate the victories of God that you see in the world in the lives of others even if those victories don’t benefit you personally?

Why not rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep?

Why not sing a song of gladness when the underdog takes it all?

Why not see the face of Jesus in the stranger, the immigrant, the Muslim neighbour, the un-churched youth and mid-lifers?

Why not envision a future for your life and the life of the church that is better than what it is now? Why not? Why not? And then, see where that leads …

We are not in the business of faith for what we make of it or get out of it. We are in the business of faith for what God has done, and continues to do all around us, and even despite us.

We can be strong and do not need to fear because God keeps promises. God keeps God’s word. As Isaiah foretold, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped … the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:5-6). 

In the Gospel today we read about Jesus doing precisely this: Jesus brings miraculous healing to the lives of those distraught and torn apart by illness and disease (Mark 7:24-37). Jesus is the glory of God shining through the brokenness of our lives. Jesus is the majesty of God embracing the sweat and tears of our lives. Jesus is the active presence of God working in us and through our poverty and pain, amidst the blood and grit and earthy, daily activity of our lives.

The story of the Quilt Holes inspired me recently at a funeral I attended. The preacher told the story of one who faced God at the last judgement, as spoken through the first person: “I knelt before God, as did everyone else. Our lives lay before us like the squares of a quilt in many piles. An angel sat in front of each of us sewing our quilt squares together into a tapestry that is our life.

“But as my angel took each piece of cloth off the pile, I noticed how ragged and empty each of my squares was: They were filled with giant holes. Each square was labeled with a part of my life that had been difficult, the challenges and temptations I had faced in every day life. I saw hardships that I endured, which were the largest holes of all.

“I glanced around me. Nobody else had such squares. They just had a tiny hole here and there. Their tapestries were filled with rich colour and the bright hues of worldly fortune. I gazed upon my own life and was disheartened.

“Finally the time came when each life was to be displayed, held up to the light, the scrutiny of truth. My gaze dropped to the ground in shame. There had been many trials of illness. I had to start over many times. I often struggled with the temptation to give up. I spent many nights in tears and on my knees in desperate prayer, asking for help and guidance that took a long time coming.

And now, I had to face the truth: My life was what it was, and I had to accept it for what it was. I rose and slowly lifted the combined squares of my life to the light.

An awe-filled gasp filled the air. I gazed around at the others who stared at me with wide eyes. Then, I looked upon the tapestry before me: Light flooded the many holes, creating an image, the face of Christ. Then Jesus stood before me, with warmth and love in his eyes. He said, “Each point of my light shone through the holes, the rips and ragged, empty squares of your life. When you were down and out, and honest and still trusting, my light continued shining through you.”

At the end of it all, we may be threadbare and worn. It may look like a failure, a sad ending. And yet, Christ in us is the end of the story, not us.

Why not, then, just be the Body of Christ in the world today? Why not be, together, the hands and feet of Jesus? Holes and all? What do we have to lose? Why not be the answer we are waiting and hoping for — for others who have no hope, for the refugees of the world? 

I recently read the story of a woman who had walked seven hundred miles as a refugee to escape a violent war. She was finally able to cross a national boundary out of the war zone. She walked all that way and brought with her an eight-year-old girl, who walked beside her. For seven hundred miles, the child held her hand tightly. When they reached safety, the girl loosened her grip, and the woman looked at her hand: It was raw and bloody with an open wound, because the little girl had held tightly in her fearfulness. This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. (Walter Brueggemann, “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now”, WJK Kentucky, 2014, p.88-89)

God’s hands do not let go of us, even though we may fear, even though we may be scared to take the risk and do the right things. This is the promise that God will never break.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) was onto something when in convention this past summer we adopted the Reformation challenges — one of which is to sponsor, by 2017 (the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses, or arguments, on the doors of the Wittenberg Church in Germany thereby launching the Reformation), 500 refugees coming to Canada.

We are the people we are waiting and hoping for. We have a responsibility, in faith, to be grace, forgiveness, mercy and compassion to those who are unloveable, undesirable, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the refugee, the marginalized. Can you imagine what a show of grace might do in the lives of those to whom the unexpected is given?

Why not?