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

Grace first

Over the past six weeks I’ve transited through nine different airports on two different continents. One of the expectations of travellers is that when you are in an airport waiting for your flight, you can access free Wi-Fi.

But, more often than not, it isn’t really free. When your device locates the airport network, and before you can access the internet, you are directed to a page that requires you to give your email. And, be careful to click that box that says you do not wish to receive promotional material.

Even if you are not an airplane traveller, this marketing strategy infests so many of our common life activities. I had my car at the service department this summer a couple of times, and each time I received a ticket to enter into a draw: first prize, a new car! But first I have to go to a website to register the number on my ticket. And, of course, give my email. And, remember to check that box declining promotional material!

In any case, companies are finding ways of expanding their reach into our lives and pocket books. Restaurants, as well, if you want to use their ‘free’ Wi-Fi. What may on the surface appear ‘free’ is merely a way to hook you in. This culture of doing business so infects our way of thinking.

The internet access is merely a modern day example. And yet, it is built on the way human beings have always tended to relate with one another at a more base level. A way of life and inter-relating that screams loudly: “Nothing in life is free!”

What is alarming, from a Christian point of view, is that we seem to be ok with that, and go about living in this tit-for-tat culture we have largely created.

Yet, I continue believing that it is in giving grace that describes best our journey as (Lutheran) Christians. I place ‘Lutheran’ in parenthesis because I believe all Christians today need to put grace first and foremost in our practice of faith and life.

Stories are a great way of conveying the deepest truths. This story is about a rooster in a chicken farm. And I heard it told at the National Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, in Regina, last month, by the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Martin Junge. Here is my adaptation:

Every morning when it was still dark the rooster went out to crow. He did so with amazing commitment, crowing from the depth of his heart and making use of all available resources and art. Actually, he was convinced that it was because of his crowing that the sun rose every morning. When he had finished his daily job and went back to the farm he used to look around with a sense of paternalistic pride at the hens. “There you go, darlings, I’ve made the sun rise for you”, he even said once. “I am the chosen one.”

One morning the sunrise was really wonderful. The rooster got so enthusiastic that he couldn’t stop crowing. The sun had long risen, but he continued crowing, just wanting to make the whole scenery even more perfect.

When he went back to the chicken farm he noticed that he had crowed too long. His throat was aching. Laryngitis. He was only able to produce a weak croaking noise. The rooster panicked. “What will happen tomorrow, if I can’t crow anymore? What will happen to the chicken farm and to all these chickens and hens, which depend so much on my power to make the sun rise…?” He went to sleep very early, just hoping that next morning he would be in good health again.

But he was not! The pain had worsened overnight, and he could not even croak but make only a ridiculously weak squeak. Yet, he went out, like every morning, just pushed by the awareness of his plight and the panic that otherwise the sun wouldn’t rise, and they would all perish. He tried his best, he tried hard… yet there was nothing resembling real crowing coming out of his throat.

Great was his surprise when he suddenly realized that the sun seemed to be rising anyway! Slowly but surely it came up behind the hills, like every morning. Actually, it was again one of those wonderful mornings. But this time, it came without his doing! He turned slowly and looked back to the chicken farm. He couldn’t believe what he saw there: the chickens and hens had come out like every morning as well!

Terribly depressed he went back to the chicken farm. What could be his place there? Didn’t he lose his role and reason to be? And why should he go out the next morning, if the sun rose anyway, without his help? Oh, and he felt so embarrassed and ashamed. He didn’t even dare to look into the hens’ eyes.

“Hey, don’t worry”, said one of the hens. “You can continue crowing”, she said. “Just go out tomorrow as usual. But don’t crow in order to make the sun rise. Just crow because the sun rises!”

This story explains how we understand grace. Grace is like the rising sun. It is there, just because God wants grace to be there. As nobody can prevent the sun from rising, nobody can stop God from being gracious either. That was – in a nutshell – what Jesus revealed about God. That is in all its powerful simplicity the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Good works are an expression of faith, to be sure. Yet, good works are a response to God’s grace. This is how we understand the relationship between justification by grace and sanctification of our lives. Sanctification arises from hearts overflowing with joy and love because of God’s wonderful gifts. It is out of the gift of freedom, which God has acquired for us that we respond with good works.

God’s relationship to us is not conditional on anything we say or do. We don’t first become Christian in order to go to church. We come to church in order to become Christian—over time, even a life time! God doesn’t love us because we are ‘good’. God loves us because God is good. Do you hear the difference between those statements? I hope you do. A subtle difference, maybe yes. But huge implications for how we live our lives. It doesn’t hinge on us.

Because of the culture in the world that operates NOT according to grace, it is a huge challenge for Christians to live out of grace-first principles—such as forgiveness, mercy, and showing compassion unconditionally. It is a huge challenge for us not to put conditions on others before we deem them worthy. It is a huge challenge not to place any expectations on others and ourselves before we can justify helping them or loving them.

No wonder many young people today are cynical about the message that comes from ‘The Church’. “Your mercy is great,” we Sunday Christians pray to God. “But,” they ask, “Is it, really? What’s the catch? What do you want from me?” This cynicism is rampant. We have been infused with, and grown into, a transactional culture: I do something for you (in order that) you do something for me; I do something for God (in order that) God does something for me.

In this world, so anti-grace, we are called to become more fluent in the language and lifestyle of grace-first. We are challenged to give grace, first. Grace first, not judgement. Grace first, not fear. Grace first, not condemnation:

In our relationships with family members whose behaviour or lifestyle we may not be inclined to approve. In our relationships with others outside our circles who represent politics and opinions we are not inclined towards. In our relationships with those marginalized and the poor, Indigenous people and their plight. In our relationship with the land, water and air. Even, in our relationship with God and religion. Maybe most importantly.

The Gospel stories abound with examples of the way Jesus embodies this grace-first approach of God. In the story today (Luke 13:10-17), it’s not about deserving God’s grace first. It’s not about the woman earning Jesus’ favour first, before she is healed. We really know nothing about her — whether she deserves Jesus’ attention. But, you see, that’s not the point. It’s not even about following the rules of religion, which the Pharisees defend at all costs.

Jesus simply ‘sees’ her, and heals her. Jesus exposes the sin of a culture that places rules before grace, a culture which values conformity over the truth of what the sabbath represents: A holy day when the best of what God offers to us is actually demonstrated and given. No matter the rules. Grace first.

Images of water permeate the scriptures. These verses from Isaiah about water stand out. Water, like the sun, is like grace. Water gives sustenance: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

A last-minute addition to the itinerary of my family’s western Canada road trip this summer was a visit to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia. There, visitors can sink into a natural hot water soaking pool, then slip into a cool water pool. This is hydrotherapy, like the Scandinavian tradition of hot and cold water-immersion cycles. People come here for healing.

We know the stats: 71% of the earth’s surface covered by water. The human body is composed of over 60% water. Water provides a place for renewal, reconnection and rejuvenation. Water is essential for life. We all need it to live.

It is there before we do anything. Whether or not we choose to step into the healing waters of God’s presence and love and mercy—it’s still there for us. Ever present, despite us. The prophet Isaiah in the same text expresses this truth: “You shall cry for help, and God will say: ‘Here I am’” (v.9). I hear in these words the sense that God is saying, “If you want help, I am here. I’ve always been here right beside you! Hello!”

Christians of old have written about life as a journey of becoming more aware of how we block the flow of God’s love and grace. Blockages, such as fear, greed, selfishness. And then, doing what we can to ‘unblock’ and ‘allow’ divine love to flow more freely through us. Of letting go and allowing the current of divine energy, creativity and love to carry us downstream through life.

Whether or not we respond to the sunrise, as the rooster had to learn, whether or not we choose to participate in the action of God’s grace, the ever-flowing stream of God’s love is already there. It has been flowing from the beginning of time, continues to be the most powerful force in the universe, and is an ever-present reality in the world today.

Whether we know it or not, we’re continually immersed and surrounded by Divine Love, by Sacred, Holy Presence. This is our ultimate confidence and security. “Here I am,” God says to us. “Come to me. I am always by your side to show you mercy, forgiveness, and love.”

And that is why we pray and affirm repeatedly this summer in the petitionary prayers: “Your mercy is great!”

Because it is.

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.

A meaningful religion

I like how Richard Rohr distinguishes between religion and spirituality. In his short, concise and excellent book “Dancing Standing Still” in which he relates prayer to justice, he writes that religion is for folks who fear hell, while spirituality is for those who have gone (or, are going) through hell.

Religion is for those who fear hell …. whether that be some notion of eternal damnation, financial ruin, making moral mistakes, earthly tragedy and accident … you name it. Basically, religion placates, and enables, fearful living. As if we can somehow avoid all of the above on the journey of life.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is for those who have gone, or are going through, hell. People who have experienced profound suffering — physically, mentally, socially and even religiously. Spirituality is for those who are aware of their own poverty, who have failed time and time again, who know their sin, who struggle honestly in the truth of their brokenness — materially and internally.

Just read the story from Luke 18:9-14 for a good biblical example showing the contrast between the two stances and their implications.

Where today do you find yourself are on the spectrum between religion on the one hand, and spirituality on the other? What do you like most about your religious, or spiritual, practice? What does it do for you?

How can religion (any religion) become more attentive to a growing number of people who are seeking a more meaningful spirituality despite their particular religious background?

Mistaken identity

This morning I preach at Merrickville (Ontario) United Church, as part of a pulpit exchange. Today Merrickville United Church celebrates its annual Anniversary Sunday.

Thank you for welcoming me to speak at your anniversary Sunday celebration. Anniversaries are about celebrating who we are. These are occasions for affirming our identity. So, let me introduce myself to you so that you may have some idea and experience of who I am.

Questions of identity are important to me. I have an identical twin brother who is also a Lutheran pastor. What is more, my brother and I are twin sons of parents who are both also (retired) Lutheran pastors in the same Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Challenges around mistaken identity have followed me all my life! Which Malina are we talking about?! That is why who I am and how different I am from my rather homogenous nuclear family is an important part of my personal journey.

Another level of mistaken identity in my life revolves around the church to which I belong. Your pastor told you, I suspect, that you were going to have a preacher from the “Evangelical Lutheran Church” visit you today. I wonder how many of you thought you would be getting a shellacking from a hard-core conservative, fundamentalist preacher. The word that likely derailed you was ‘evangelical’.

Over a month ago after Billy Graham Sr. died, the local Ottawa CBC morning radio host called me to say they wanted to have an ‘evangelical’ represent the views of Billy Graham in a live discussion panel the next day. The reason she called me was that the name of the parish I am pastor of is called “Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church.” She assumed that the same word meant the same thing. I had to steer her in another direction.

Because for Lutherans, we use the word evangelical from its German roots, ‘evangelische’. The meaning here, is ‘Good News!’. Unfortunately, in North America the word evangelical has been coopted by conservative fundamentalism. You can breathe more easily now!

Indeed, it is the focus of the word Good News (Gospel) that can summarize the purpose of Lutheran preaching, in a nutshell. We are all about proclaiming what is good news to the world today. Lutherans traditionally use the concept of ‘law’ as a counterpoint to understand better where we fall short, and why we yearn and seek God’s grace, forgiveness and love.

In the Gospel reading for today, from Mark, Jesus breaks the law in order to eat (Mark 2:23-3:6). He and his disciples are poor wanderers. They pick grain from the field on the sabbath. Two things Jesus says in this text worth noting: First, “the sabbath was made for humankind” — and not the other way around. In other words, the sabbath law and all law serves us. “Is it lawful to do good or do harm on the sabbath?” Jesus asks. He says that even the law is subject to God’s grace and the common good.

We do our thing as Christians not primarily to serve the tradition and keep all the laws and conform to precepts and rules. No. We do our thing as Christians primarily to follow in the way of Christ which is a way of love, grace, and doing the right thing — despite what the law says.

I love the name of your church: United. And I love that you are undergoing a renovation of your gathering space in your building here. It may be disruptive and stressful — all meaningful transformation is. But it tells me a lot about who you are. Let me attempt an affirmation of sorts.

You are a church ‘on the move’. You are transforming your space in order to make it a more inclusive, accessible building. Moreover, you are making this transformation and renewal to make it a more flexible, multi-purpose space. So different groups, musical, theatrical, social, community groups can use it. You are creating a welcoming and affirming space. This is wonderful! By increasing the possibility of diverse interaction you are, paradoxically, building unity among people!

German reformed theologian Juergen Moltmann wrote that “Christian fellowship — which means liberating fellowship — no longer means just sitting down beside the people I agree with. It means sitting beside the people I don’t agree with — and staying there.” (@moltmannjuergen)

As the inclusive, expansive vision of God’s unity shines before us, we become not a community of like-minded, conformists. Rather, precisely in celebrating and affirming our diversity, we deepen our unity. That is what the church on the move is all about!

Early twentieth century French philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, expressed how people grow in unity by becoming more ourselves. By embracing our uniqueness as individuals and communities, by differentiating, we discover our unity. Contrary to what may be our initial impulse — that unity is experienced only if we become what someone else wants us to be, or others become like us — the opposite is true. Not by becoming the same — that is not loving — but in the freedom of our being different, we find unity in love.

The word religion from Latin, ‘religio’, literally means, re-binding together. “Bind us together, Lord,” is a favourite song in the Lutheran church. Unity is found by recognizing our differences, appreciating them, and choosing to love anyway, which is the form of love most often used in the New Testament (agape).

The church moving forward is the beacon of Christ’s light. “Let light shine out of darkness” (2 Corinthians 4:6), Paul writes in the Epistle reading for today (Pentecost 2B, RCL). The church is not the brake lights on a car, but the headlights. Shining a vision forward, an ever-expanding, inclusive, affirming vision for all people. Because light pays little heed to the lines we draw in the sand. Divine light and love recognize in each person and each relationship a unique reflection of Creator God.

In Christ, then, there is no need for mistaken identity no matter how similar or how different we may be.

Faith in the dark

Sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther claimed we are “justified by faith”. That means, we are in a right relationship with God because of the gift of faith in us.

Anyone and everyone, therefore, can live in faith. And there is nothing anyone of us can do to earn good favor with God.

Faith, to Luther, was to trust in God and God’s promises, despite your circumstance or any evidence to the contrary. What validates faith in you is not your external situation or material well-being, but God’s purposes, intentions, and promises for your life and the life of others.

Nevertheless, faith is not something you have. It is still something you do, but not to save ourselves. How do we deal with this paradox?

A brother once asked an older monk in a desert community, “Which is holier, someone who leads a solitary life for six days a week, giving himself much pain; or, another who simply takes care of the sick?”

The old man smiled and replied, “Even if the one who withdraws for six days were to hang himself up by his nostrils, he could not equal the one who serves the sick.”[1]

Self-denial and isolation never substitute for an active faith born out of love for our neighbour.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” Jesus answers the trick question posed to him by the Pharisees, “And give to God what belongs to God.”[2] The giving-to-God part, we get. But giving to Caesar?

Giving to Caesar ties us to this earth – to its politics, to its confusion, despair and hardship. Giving to Caesar, after all, was not popular among the Jews resisting Roman occupation in 2nd century Palestine. Giving to Caesar was fraught with political controversy – as it is today in the parlance of paying taxes. Giving to Caesar is not something we would normally associate with being faithful, being Christian.

But it is. Why? It certainly is not a perfect activity free from blemish and beyond reproach. But we do it anyway.

It is not a perfect thing to do faith. But when has it ever been? We give, in faith. We act, in faith. We love, in faith. Even though our response in faith is never perfect.

In faith, we always walk in the darkness. We see, using Paul’s language, “a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Medieval Spanish theologian, John of the Cross, called it “luminous darkness”. Because the darkness is also part of God’s creation. We need darkness in order to see the light.

Classical literature and art suggests the spiritual significance of darkness in one’s journey of life and faith. Parsifal’s quest for the Holy Grail begins by entering the forest at “the darkest place.” Dante begins his paradise journey “alone in a dark wood,” and it continues through purgatory and hell. Darkness is often the language of faithful, committed, spiritual people, a language and reality that cannot really be separated from light.[3]

Even in the beginning, as recorded in Genesis, the Bible brings the two together. In the first verses of Genesis, God names every day of creation “good”.[4] Except the first two days – the days when darkness is separated from light and when heaven is separated from earth. Darkness and light must not be separated. The real world, as Jesus teaches, is always a field of weeds and wheat and we can never presume to eliminate the weeds.[5] Light and dark belong together. You can’t have one without the other, to do faith.

In the Hebrew reading for today, the prophet Isaiah renders God’s words: “I create darkness”. God says that God will “give you the treasures of darkness … hidden in secret places.”[6]

This is the way of living without all the answers, living with ambiguity, living without denying or pretending away or even avoiding the contradictions of your life.

This is the way through the desert.

When King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon around 539 B.C.E. he let the exiled Israelites living there go back home to re-build Jerusalem. After living by the rivers of Babylon for decades, the people of Israel had a decision to make in response to their newfound freedom: Would they stay? Some did. But many – a remnant, we call them – decided to make the long trek through the desert back home.

What is more, King Cyrus of Persia did not even know God.[7] And yet, he was chosen by God to fulfill God’s purposes. God would even “go ahead”[8] of Cyrus to clear the way for God’s mission.

The way through the desert is not the way of certainty, security and safety, to be sure. The way through the desert is not an easy way. But the dark way, often in biblical times encountered in the harsh climate of the desert, is the way home. It is the way of healing, transformation and the new, good thing God is doing for us and in us and the world.

The Israelites could not avoid the desert even though they were freed from exile. They had to trust not only the dark way, they had to trust the foreigner and pagan King Cyrus to believe what he was doing for them, to believe he was in truth an instrument of God.

Talk about contradiction and ambiguity in faith! Would we, today, confer such a trust in someone outside the traditional community of faith? Would we, for example, take to heart Gord Downie’s medium of pop rock to advocate for better relationships with Indigenous People? Would we trust the revelation of God’s purposes in people of other religions, newcomers to Canada who bring with them different cultures from ours? Could these people and others also be instruments of God and God’s purposes, for us today?

The Israelites were faced with such a conundrum. And we know what they decided to do. They had to walk home in the desert, in the darkness, and trust that even through Cyrus, God’s unknowing servant, the mighty God of Israel was moving behind the scenes of everything that was transpiring.[9]

The way to healing and resolution of whatever troubles you today is a desert way of darkness. Yet, as someone once said, “In every cross we bear, therein lies a great treasure.”

A group of white settlers learned the hard way in the fall of 1849 as they set out from the Utah Territory toward gold fields in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Taking a shortcut recommended to them by the leader of a passing pack train, they headed into a 140-mile long stretch of desert waste known to us today as Death Valley. It was a tragic mistake.

Twenty-seven wagons started into that long desert valley east of the Sierra Nevada. Only one of them came out. A survivor of that misguided party spoke of the dreadful sameness of the terrain, the awfulness of the Panamint Mountains, remembering only hunger and thirst and an awful silence.

Two months later, as the only surviving wagon topped the westernmost crest of the distant mountains, one of the settlers looked back on the place that had nearly claimed them all, and said: “Goodbye, Death Valley.” That’s how the site received its name.

But there’s another name the Spanish used to describe this God-forsaken land. They referred to it as ‘la Palma de la Mano de Dios’, the very palm of God’s hand.[10]

Could it be that even in the midst of the most dangerous climate and terrain on earth, where it’s 134 degrees (57 degrees Celsius) in the shade exposed to winds in excess of one hundred miles (160 kilometers) an hour, wanderers have found God? It is God, actually, who finds us, in the darkest most arid times and places of our own lives.

It is during these times and places where people become accustomed to risk, vulnerability and brokenness that they build an unshakable trust in the other? It is during these dark times and places where you confront your inevitable loss of control and the specter of your own eventual demise head on. It is in these moments where we have to wait for God, ask God for help, and learn to trust God over and above anything we may be able to accomplish by the might of our own hand.

In the dark, desert journeys of our lives especially, we remain inscribed in palms of God’s hands.[11] La Palma de la Mano de Dios. You may not understand all the contradictions and ambiguities of your life, right now. You may not be able to figure out all the inconsistencies and paradoxes of life. You may not be able to resolve the problems of your life or in the world.

But, believe this: There is Someone who does. As you wander in the darkness of faith, never forget that God is bringing to resolution and completion all the confusion and contradiction of your life and the life of the world.

And, it is all good.

 

[1] Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (.202

[2] Matthew 22:21

[3] Richard Rohr, “Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2016), p.39.

[4] Genesis 1:3-8

[5] Matthew 13:24-30

[6] Isaiah 45:3,7

[7] Isaiah 45:4-5

[8] Isaiah 45:2

[9] Carolyn J. Sharp in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.175

[10] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.231-232.

[11] Isaiah 49:16

Funeral sermon for an astronomer

Read Psalms 136:1-9 & 19:1-8

Rolf worked at many things. My impression is that he accomplished so much. Rolf was always on a project, whether clearing large rocks off his land, growing grapes, gardening, building structures, star-watching and -tracking.

His scientific mind, inductive reasoning and clarity of thought all translated into a degree of productivity not many of us will ever achieve. His gentle, methodical approach to his work reflects a state of mind that mirrors the great, spiritual giants of history.

Yes, spiritual.

Often science and religion have been pitted against each other in the philosophical and doctrinal wars of the contemporary age. And yet, in the lives of common people, we can begin to see that the two are not opposites in the seesaw battle for truth. Science and religion, in all truth, go hand in hand.

Some argue that besides the bible, no other book has likely influenced the course of western history more than the Rule of Benedict from the sixth century of the Common Era. Only some 13,000 words long, The Rule outlines instructions for the monastic tradition including prayer and work. In The Rule, Saint Benedict ordered the monks not only how to pray the Psalms, but how to work.

This work involved primarily manual, physical labour — fixing things, gardening, building. This work also evolved, happily, into artisan endeavours — wine-making, beer-producing, food preparing, and the such. Finally, the intellectual work of scribing and reading.

With singular attention focused on one task at a time, work becomes a contemplation. Even, you could say, a prayer. When it is done with joy and thanksgiving in each given moment. When we are present to our work, it is an offering of the natural rhythms of life, unfettered by distraction and self-consuming narcissism, which is often characterized by the demands and expectations of a hurried, anxious immediacy.

We remember and celebrate a precious life today. We recall moments that reveal a story of a person who reflects some of the best of what life and work is all about. Creation is indeed beautiful. God did good! And it will take eternity for us humans to begin to even scratch the surface of the brilliance and wonder of all that is.

The spirit of expansion, I would say, characterized Rolf’s life — a moving outward to include all, to embrace all, to reach to the farthest limits of all that we can know in God’s creation.

When Rolf was baptized at St James Anglican Church in Gatineau a few months after his birth, he was not only baptized into that particular faith community. His baptism signified his connection to the vast communion of saints. This community of faith spans the globe in all times and in all places. His baptism connected him to what Christians often call the ‘Body of Christ’ which has many members and includes all the baptized around the world: Starting here in the Ottawa region, and expanding outward.

In the funeral liturgy, one of the traditional prayers acknowledges the ‘mystical communion’ we all share in the Body of Christ. It speaks to the connectivity among all creatures.

Rolf’s passion for astronomy demonstrates this expansive spirit beautifully. The stars, of course, symbolize the mystery of heaven and God, and our human yearning for the unknown to become known. To connect to this great mystery, Rolf built his own observatory in the backyard of his house. 

And in 2005 he took a superb photo of Mars, his favourite planet. This image, which you see displayed here today, was possible because in 2005 Mars was in a close approach to earth at a high elevation — which means the angle at which viewing the red planet from the earth’s surface was exceptional.

Apparently Mars doesn’t behave like this every year. But in 2016, this year of Rolf’s death, Mars has again dipped close to the earth. Almost as if it was coming in to scoop Rolf up and connect his spirit once again to the vast universe, where now Rolf can see with his own eyes the expansive realm of God, whose love, mercy, and grace knows no limits.

Although we grieve a particular connection we have known with Rolf on earth these past six-plus decades, we touch today on the truth of the eternal connection we share with Rolf, all people, with all of creation and with God, forever.

Thanks be to God.