Remembrance Day Centennial

One of the reasons I wear my poppy year after year leading up to Remembrance Day, is to remind myself that freedom has a cost.

And that cost is not just ‘a drop in the bucket,’ spare change for which I reach into my deep pockets that doesn’t really make any difference in my life to do without. So, I throw them at some otherwise good cause. And feel smug.

In the Greek language in which the Gospel text from Mark[1]is originally written, we read that what the widow cast in the temple treasury was her bios. Her bios — meaning, literally, her very life. This text “invites us to imagine not two copper coins going into the treasury, but the very body and soul of the widow; her bios falling into the treasury.”[2]Freedom is not cheap. Freedom demands a whole lot of giving. Whatever good we see at the end of it all calls forth our very life.

Then, the punch to the gut. If we read on into the next chapter of Mark, Jesus says that this temple in Jerusalem—to and for which all those people were making donations—will soon be destroyed.[3]Throughout the Gospels, we know the temple and its culture was corrupt. Jesus had criticized, even became angry against, what was going on inside. In a fit of rage he had upturned the money changers’ tables in the temple. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” He cried, outraged.[4] Such behaviour from Jesus incited a condemning response from temple authorities, precipitating plans to have him silenced. The conflict between Jesus and the temple was well documented. And soon, Jesus would have the last word, promising that this building will be “thrown down.”

And Jesus is not just talking spiritually, here, referring merely to his body. His word was actually fulfilled: During the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Roman armies destroyed the temple.

The juxtaposition of these texts is not without purpose, its meaning dare not be ignored. The structure of the narrative strongly suggests that the widow gives all she has to an institution that is going to be utterly destroyed.

According to Jesus, the widow gave more of her life than the rich people because she gave “out of her poverty”.[5]I think this is the key to understanding what Jesus is really getting at by drawing our attention to the widow’s gift.

She gave out of her poverty. I suspect we associate the freedom won on the battlefields with freedom to seek after material prosperity and amass financial wealth. In other words, we attribute freedom with permission in this land to become rich if we can.

The freedom of which the bible speaks, however, is not a freedom to invest, but to divest; where power and privilege divests itself in weakness which the world considers “foolish”. Remember Paul’s words from Corinthians: God made foolish the wisdom of the world.[6]

The widow gives her all, her bios, not for the temple treasury, not for the sake of the institution, not to build and maintain the stones, the bricks, the mortar, the properties, the buildings, the skyscrapers and the material wealth of church and society. Not for building an empire under the guise of ‘freedom.’ The giving of the faithful is not for these things.

Rather, the widow gives her all, her bios, for her neighbour. For the sake of relationship—relationship with the poverty within her own soul, relationship with the poverty in her neighbours, and relationship with the poverty of God: Christ crucified.

The placement of these stories in the Gospel narrative is significant, because even this story—often interpreted solely about stewardship and ironically giving money to upkeep an institution that is dying or will die—ultimately points to Jesus Christ, on the cross.

The widow, like Jesus, gives her life for that which is going down. The widow, like Jesus, gives her life for that which is imperfect and corrupt. The widow, like Jesus, gives her life for what we might regard as foolish, unproductive and a waste, to that which is undeserving.

She gives her life for us, trusting in a resurrection that will rise out of the ashes of her divestment, out of her poverty.

The cost for freedom does not happen when we go to church. We don’t do good by coming to church. The service women and men who risked it all, and as such modelled for us a self-giving that is truly remarkable, didn’t do it in church. But, rather, on the battlefield of life. We do good by going out from the doors of the church into the world, for the sake of the Gospel. And for the love of the God, in Christ, who gave all, for us—corrupted, broken, sinful, weak, sometimes useless people. Can we do in like for others, out there?

This year, 2018, is significant for the Canadian Armed Forces for several reasons, including the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. And, as such, the 100th anniversary of Remembrance Day on November 11th observed every year since.

According to Veterans’ Affairs Canada, since Confederation in 1867, approximately 2.3 million Canadians have served in uniform, and more than 118,000 have given their lives.

As people of faith, not only do we this day thank our brave men and women who have served Canada at home and abroad, we also express our thanks to and support efforts to walk with and help our veterans after they complete their service.

We may not be aware of the plight of many veterans, trying to live, trying to survive, in this very city of Ottawa. In the attached video link, see and hear what Multifaith Housing Initiative Ottawa is doing to provide affordable and safe housing for dozens of homeless veterans. The new project, planned for the grounds on the old Rockcliffe Airforce Base, is called, “Veteran’s House.” The desire, here, is to serve those who have served us.

The task is ours to practise the gift first given to us in Christ, the gift of grace and mercy that is the way of freedom.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=H4DFg9_hhig&feature=share

 

[1]Mark 12:38-44

[2]Professor Allen Jorgenson, Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, writes in his bible study on this text given at the 2018 Eastern Synod Assembly, Mississauga.

[3]Mark 13:1-2

[4]John 2:16

[5]Mark 12:44

[6]1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Reforming Remembrance

In the last couple weeks, we have worn our poppies and have been challenged to remember.

There is little to question about what actually happened in the First, Great War, the Korean War, The Second World War and all the military conflicts in the last century including Afghanistan. We have the numbers, the maps, the results, the casualties. We honour the soldiers and veterans who made sacrifices in service to their country. We recall the horrors of war and pledge to be agents for peace in the world.

Remembering is important to do. How we remember and what we remember is another question worth pondering.

In recent years whenever my twin brother and I have gotten together we are intentional to remember times especially with my Father, growing up, travelling, spending ordinary days doing ordinary things. As with any life, there are lots of stories to remember.

And what is almost always the case, is that David remembers one aspect of the same event that I don’t; and, I remember a completely different part of that event – which David doesn’t. For example, David remembers the imaginative story Dad told us when we were about ten years old about Mr. Black fighting Mr. White. While he remembers more the content of the story, I remember that when Dad told us that story we were sitting on the back porch after having gone for a bike ride together.

We spend these times reminiscing by ‘filling in’ each other’s gaps in memory. Same event. Just different things remembered. And different things forgotten or overlooked.

In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches have attempted a different tact from the way we have ‘celebrated’ Reformation anniversaries in the past. Listen to what the Lutheran World Federation scholars and Roman Catholic leadership wrote together recently about the task of how we remember the Reformation events of the sixteenth century:

“What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change. Remembrance makes the past present. While the past itself is unalterable, the presence of the past in the present is alterable. In view of 2017 [the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation] the point is not to tell a different history, but to tell that history differently.”[1]

That same history, you will know, was used for centuries to incite conflict and division between our churches. Reformation was traditionally a time to celebrate how good we are and how bad they are. Today, in a changed context reflecting globalization, ecumenism and a pile of new research and study about Martin Luther, his times and his theology — these have yielded fresh approaches that emphasize unity rather than division.

Perspectives have changed. And continue to change.

This year in Canada we are also celebrating our 150 years of history with more of a critical eye. We acknowledge publicly, perhaps in a new way, the fact that Canada was already occupied by people long before the first Europeans settled here. This understanding may be challenging for us settlers because for so long we have reaped the vast material benefits of settling and working here.

Part of my sabbatical journey took me to Lisbon, Portugal. On the far westernmost coast of continental Europe, Lisbon was a natural launching point for the various expeditions and voyages made by Europeans during the “Age of Discovery”.

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On Lisbon’s extensive waterfront at least a couple of impressive monuments stand in celebration of the achievements of European explorers and aviators. There is the looming Monument of Discovery which depicts the personalities of various explorers making their way across the ocean.

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And there is an airplane monument commemorating the historic first south Atlantic crossing in 1922 flown by Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral.

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In the decade following Coutinho’s and Cabral’s inaugural south Atlantic flight, another adventuring aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who is perhaps most well-known for writing the children’s book “The Little Prince”, reflected on what flying did to our understanding of the land upon which we live:

The airplane, he writes, “has revealed to us the true face of the earth. Through all the centuries, in truth, the roads have deceived us … They avoid barren lands, great rocks and sands, they are wedded to the needs of men and go from spring to spring …But our perspective has sharpened, and we have taken a cruel step forward. Flight has brought us knowledge of the straight line. The moment we are airborne we leave behind those [winding] roads …  It is only then, from high on our rectilinear course, that we discover the essential bedrock, the stratum of stone and sand and salt…

“Thus do we now assess man on a cosmic scale, observing him through our cabin windows as if through scientific instruments. Thus we are reading our history anew.”[2]

As we retell our history, as we seek understanding of what and how it happened, do we take the winding road, or do we take to the skies?

Amos the reformer was a prophet in ancient Israel. He challenged especially the northern kingdom in the eighth century B.C.E. to accept a new way of worshipping God. No longer where they to worship at the old shrines established by earlier prophets Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha at Beer-sheba, Bethel and Gilgal. Now, they would have to learn to worship God in a central location, at the temple in Jerusalem.[3]

In order to persuade them, he railed against the rituals and heartless pomp often associated with worship in that day.[4] The Israelites’ understanding of their own history needed changing. Without denying or changing the history itself, Amos helped them grow into an appreciation of the centralized worship which was not inconsistent with the Hebrew faith, a faith that had always emphasized care for the poor, the widow, the destitute. As such, Amos was “an agent of reformation”[5].

Whether we speak of ancient Israel, or the Reformation, or the Age of Discovery, or World War Two, or present day Canada, our remembrance is being reformed.

This first week of November is Treaties Recognition Week in Ontario. Listen to what perspective is offered in the writing of our history. Again, this perspective is not untrue. It simply offers a fuller understanding of what happened when Europeans ‘discovered’ this land:

“This native land was the home of many peoples, who have lived here for centuries and millennia. There is extensive archaeological evidence to confirm this statement. North America was occupied long before European strangers from across the ocean ‘got lost’ on their way to India and ignorantly named the inhabitants ‘Indians’.

“The residents of this new land had a deep regard for the practice of hospitality. So they welcomed the strangers to come ashore and opened their lives to these ‘lost’ explorers. This invitation to step out onto the land conveyed a message that did not make sense to the newly-arrived who had their own primary interests; wealth and resources.

“These alien visitors were nominally Christian. They were supported by ‘Christian’ interests intermingled with commercial and imperial motives. The biblical foundations and the practice of hospitality had been lost or buried under the exercise of abusive power that appears to be the inevitable companion of empires seeking to expand their influence and control. Equally forgotten or ignored was the fundamental biblical concept of covenant whose goal is establishing and nurturing respectful relationships that honour the Creator.

“These European strangers had been told by their highest authorities that any people unlike themselves actually were nobodies. The Doctrine of Discovery … reminded the newly-arriving aliens that they were superior to the ‘nobodies’ greeting them in hospitality. The rest is history and now we are trying to ‘get it right’ so that we can discover what it means to live in peace and mutual respect. It is time to set aside suspicion and abuse so that we can again become hospitable to one another as well as to contemporary visitors.”[6]

This anniversary year we sing “O Canada” and this Remembrance Day we’ve worn our poppies. It is important that we remember. It is important that we commemorate our history, good and bad.

How we remember is important, too. What aspects of our remembrance we emphasize speak loudly about the kind of people we are and aspire to be.

Amos presented a pretty bleak picture of Israel’s plight in the eighth century B.C.E.  The tone of his message is harsh, doom-and-gloom. It seems the Israelites can do nothing to avoid the inevitable calamity that awaits. It’s easy to lose hope and despair in the present circumstances. It doesn’t look good, what with all that’s going on in the world today.

From the perspective of history, though, we know how the story ends for them. We know the people of God are headed to the trials of Babylonian exile a couple of centuries later. We also know that one day, they do return to Jerusalem to restore the temple worship and re-build their lives at home.

Antoine Saint-Exupéry tells the story of when he and his friends from northern Europe invited some north Africans from the Sahara to visit with them in France.[7] These Bedouin, up until this point in their lives, never left the desert; they only knew the scarcity of water that defined so much of their lives and perspective.

When they climbed in the foothills of the French Alps they came across a thunderous waterfall. The French explained to their astounded friends that this water was enhanced by the Spring run-off of melting snows high above them. After minutes of silence during which the Africans stood transfixed before the bounteous and gorged scene before them, the Europeans turned to continue on their mountain path.

But the Africans didn’t move.

“What are you waiting for?” Saint- Exupéry called back.

“The end. We are waiting for the water to stop running. A stream of water always runs out. We are just curious to see how long it takes.”

They would be waiting there a long time. The prophet Amos concludes his diatribe by doing what so many other prophets of Israel do: They call on the people to have faith in God’s action in the world, God’s righteousness and justice. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[8]

God’s justice never runs out. The waters of God’s grace, mercy and truth never cease flowing. Our perspectives, our experience, our opinions are limited and sometimes scarce, if we rely on these alone.

But God’s work continues to gush forth in and all around us. Let us trust and have faith in the never-ending flow of God’s love and presence in the world today. So we may grow into the fullness of God’s vision for us all.

 

[1]  “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017” (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt/Paderborn: Bonifatius, 2013), p.16

[2] Antoine Saint-Exupéry, “Wind, Sand and Stars” trans. by William Rees (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), p.33-34.

[3] Wil Gafney in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 4” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.266-270

[4] Amos 5:18-24

[5] Wil Gafney, ibid., p.268

[6] Reconciling Circle: reconcilingcircle@execulink.com, Daily Readings for Treaties Recognition Week: 5-11 November 2017, Day 1 “Have You Ever”

[7] I summarize and paraphrase his telling from “Wind, Sand and Stars”, ibid., p.54-55

[8] Amos 5:24

Not a passive remembrance

I catch myself whenever I pin my poppy on my lapel wondering: How is it that I am living out this symbol of remembrance? In my own life, and in the community of faith, how are we demonstrating the values of freedom and protecting the dignity of all people? For example, it is estimated that some 140 war veterans are homeless on the streets of Ottawa. Men and women who gave their lives to service of this great country are now destitute. What are we doing about that?
Because in the Gospel text today (Mark 12:38-44) Jesus condemns those whose mere formal, ritual observance characterizes their faith. When ‘saying prayers’ is the only thing we do as Christians. There may be times in our lives when that is all we can do. Yet if the practice of faith is enacted solely as a “pro forma ceremony”, it only reveals a questionable faith and a “fallow, craven piety” (1).
What problem does Jesus identify here? Well, the religious leaders “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say their prayers” (v.40). Their heart is not in their religion, we may say. They typify the delusion of sacrifice — believing they give more than they should but less than they can. In the end, whatever they perform to impress others does not really change their lives. Their worship does not call forth from them any measure of risk and trust. It does not involve their whole being.
Are you, like me, feeling increasingly uncomfortable? As is the case with difficult Gospel texts, we may perform an impressive, interpretive slalom course around the issue. We may focus on the money, for example: “Shouldn’t the temple treasury be happy for the large amounts of money given by the rich? What is Jesus doing offending the rich? Not very smart!” 
Or, our self-justification may target the poor. We idealize the sacrifice they make. But to what extent? To justifying a social-economic system that maintains benefits to the rich and demands even greater sacrifice from the poor? But, in the end, Jesus’ words suggest that what is important here is not the amount of money, per se. Why? Yes, both the rich and the poor give varying amounts. 
But both give to the temple treasury that will soon be utterly destroyed. This gospel story in Mark is positioned right at the end of Jesus’ public ministry, and right before his temple speech and passion story — Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross. In the verses that immediately follow this text, Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple — “not one stone will be left upon the other” (13:1ff). 
When you compare the amount of pages that the passion stories in all of the gospels occupy, that material is proportionally greater than everything else in the gospels including Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry. The story of the “widow’s mite” abuts right up against the beginning of Mark’s telling of Jesus’ journey to the Cross. This literary structure must therefore influence our reading of it. 
Jesus not only condemns the heartless, faithless pretence of giving, he shows that unjust, self-serving religious enterprise won’t last. You could say anyone giving anything to the temple was ‘throwing their money away’ to a worthless cause. At best, we could say that the widow gives everything she has to an institution that does not deserve it. 
The only true mark of religion is how the institutional community engages the poor. Our Sunday morning worship services mean absolutely nothing if what we do here does not translate into practical life-giving, grace-abounding giving of who we are and what we have to the world out there.
This passage gives us the opportunity to explore what it means to put in everything we have on the line, and all that we are to live on as people of faith. The giving of ourselves will have power when we put our heart, and our full trust, in God who will not abandon us in this giving.
An apple tree never tastes its own fruit. The fruit is meant to be tasted by others. Martin Luther would plant an apple tree even if he knew the world would end tomorrow. The point is the gift of grace is meant to be given. Our responsibility is not the preoccupation with the final result. The temple was going to be destroyed anyway. But did that mean no one should bother giving to it?
It is worth it! We are that apple tree, producing fruit to be enjoyed by all. If we stop producing fruit, then we stop being who we are as Christians. It is the free act of giving where value and meaning is experienced.
The test of a Christian community is this: If we asked the poor for a letter of reference, would they give it to us? How welcome do all people feel here? Do all people, regardless of their station in life, feel safe to be themselves in this place? Someone once said that a church without the poor is a place God has obviously left.
Who is our neighbour? As we look to our neighbours who are vulnerable, marginal and even despised — the homeless, Aboriginals, the physically disabled, newcomers to Canada, refugees, seniors, Muslims, gays and lesbians, rich and poor: these are our neighbours. They live among us, beside us, even in the church. If we say we are welcoming, does our congregation have a letter of reference from these people?
We shall not despair! Regardless of how we interpret the widow’s offering, this bible story ultimately is not about how much we should give.
It’s about how much Jesus will soon give for a people who do not deserve it.
The story of the widow’s mite, in the end, points towards the greater sacrifice Jesus will make — Jesus, who will give his life and his all for us, a people not deserving of God’s grace yet recipients of it nonetheless.
Where does that leave us?
To be changed, to change. We read in the Bible about people who are changed in Jesus’ presence: Peter, John, Paul, just to name a few. On the road to Damascus, on the beaches of Lake Galilee, in the synagogue and temple — When people encountered Jesus, their lives changed. How can we presume, then, that we ought not be changed ourselves in the presence of a God who pays attention to every detail of our life.
As we shift our gaze outward and reach outward to pay attention to who is around us, we discover that Jesus is paying attention to us. As he sat in the temple, across from the treasury watching people come to make their offerings, so Jesus notices us — not in a ‘ready-to-pounce’ judging way. Jesus is not the cosmic policeman watching to catch us in the act. But only to bring loving light to the truth of our lives.
In the end, Jesus pays attention to the details of our lives and beckons us to journey with him to the Cross. Because no matter how good we are, or how bad, Jesus gives himself for us out of love and grace. Though we may be unworthy of God’s love, Jesus still makes the ultimate sacrifice. We, and everyone else, are still worth it — still worth God’s incredible sacrifice and love.
(1) Emilie M. Townes in Bartlett & Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 4” WJK Press, 2009, p.286

Making a way where there is no way

Year after year I ponder how “Remembrance Day” carries with it so much staying power — especially for older generations of people. While on the surface our observances acknowledge the sacrifice made by many young service men and women in the wars of the last century, a deeper vein is struck.

It is important ‘to remember’, because so many lives were lost in war. Death separates loved ones. Death means, for many, that relationships are severed and hopes are dashed. Similar to attending funerals of loved ones, Remembrance Day observances expose one of our deepest, human fears — being abandoned by our loved ones. Being abandoned by our loved ones is a horror too deep to even want to go there.

In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church, he addressed a pastoral need. The early Christians living in those immediate decades after Jesus ascended to heaven believed that Christ was coming back in their lifetime. They believed his second coming was immanent. They looked forward to it.

The problem was, when their friends and family members began to die, they wondered if their loved ones would share in the glory of the resurrected Jesus at his second coming. Paul assures the church that not only are the dead included in resurrection at the end time, but that they will be “first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16) to join Christ at his return.

This passage forms a reading for one of the last Sundays before Advent. The season of Advent is about the ‘coming of Jesus’. We normally attribute this season to anticipating the coming of baby Jesus to Bethlehem — the incarnation of God — and we recall this history with much joyous tradition and emphasis.

But the ‘coming of Jesus’ theme is more than just the Christmas story. The Advent of Christ is attributed as well to the “Second Coming” when Jesus will come in at the ‘eschaton’ — the end time. We read in the Nicene Creed: “And he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

Finally, the ‘coming of Jesus’ is meant to pique our attention to the ways in which the Holy Spirit comes to us daily, in the ordinary people and happenings of life, as well as in Word and Sacrament; in other words, the coming of Jesus is not only an event of history nor of future expectation, but something that happens now — all the time, in every moment. Especially at times of grief and loss when we fear abandonment, the assurance of a coming divine presence — or anyone’s presence for that matter — can bring comfort and hope into the moment.

How, then, do we experience a re-connection with those we love, especially because for whatever reason, we have been divided from them? There are many reasons why loved ones may be separated from each other, besides death: the friction of personality, vast geographical distance, emotional wounds, hurtful memories of a ‘water-under-the-bridge’ variety. Many reasons exist for why that division remains. And even though we may desire a better relationship with a loved one, we time and time again come up against those blocks. So, how do we even begin to make things better — amidst the grief, when facing hard times, when you can really use a friend to lean on?

An answer from the tradition of our Christian faith is, I’m afraid, not an easy one. First, in the words of Jesus from the Gospel for today: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13), there is this element of not being in total control of the outcome. And this is disruptive, especially for those of us who feel they need to be in some semblance of control over not only our relationships, but our lives in general. We can try. But the trying ought not be motivated by the result we envision.

Moreover, there are these dramatic and vivid images in Paul’s description of Jesus’ coming (1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17) that are, frankly, unbelievable and unrealistic: being drawn into the sky, trumpets sounding, the archangel calling, clouds whipping across the panorama — seems more like some filmmaker’s fantasy than anything that is real. The coming of Jesus into our lives is thus underscored with disruption, incredibleness and an unravelling of what we believe is possible.

Then again, this is a prevalent theme in the Scriptures. Two things: First, in our hope to re-establish relationships marred by whatever divides those relationships, can we be open to going to where it feels uncomfortable, unravelling of us, vulnerable — and being lovingly honest about it? If Jesus will bring his healing power to the relationship, the “refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2-3) will sting and singe, momentarily. The new thing that Jesus comes to establish in your life, in our lives, does bring judgement of sorts to what has been. We really cannot move forward unless we can lovingly and honourably discharge the past, and confess our own failing.

And it’s not just about healing the other’s issues — like pointing the finger at what you perceive to be ‘their’ problem. More importantly it is addressing your own issues that have contributed to the problem. And this is never easy. To even bother going there. Some would say impossible: to go inside yourself and let go of past hurts, to forgive others, to live in grace not anger and resentment. Impossible, you say?

But, and this is the second point from the testimony of scripture: God does come to make a way where there didn’t seem to be a way through: After all, God turns a rock into a pool of water (Psalm 114:8) and makes a path through the wilderness where none exists (Isaiah 43:19). Christ comes to disrupt the current, messy, state of affairs, yes.

But, to work a total transformation of our lives for the better. This turbulent coming creates a way to reconciliation, resurrection, a new life. As one theologian wrote: The kingdom of God “breaks into, disturbs, disorders, and troubles the waters of our fallen reality” (Jennifer McBride, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p.282).

God comes, in Christ, to make a way where there is no way. In the fallen reality of death, abandonment, and separation — God comes to reunite and reconcile in acts of forgiveness, generosity and mercy.

In the fallen reality of dying church institutions and perceived dwindling of resources — God comes, in Christ to stir things up and create new ways of being the church in today’s world.

In the fallen reality of clashing religions and cultures where extremism threatens to escalate violent acts — God comes, in Christ to disarm and disable ideologies of hatred and make swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4).

And so we can have hope in the new thing that God promises. This hope is not in what is possible, but precisely in what seems impossible to us. What we can never on our own merit or strength, God will. Get ready! God is on the move!

Remember hope

In “Saintly Connections” I wrote of how playing Scrabble with my brother was often derailed by arguments over whether or not a word one of us placed was in fact a real word. We were distracted – taken off course – in our gaming by these time-and-energy consuming debates. We spent more effort, it seemed, in proving ourselves ‘right’ instead of focusing on the essence of the game – using most of our letters to maximize the points in a single move.

Our readings today put these ‘distractions’ in proper perspective. Jesus’ response to the Sadducees’ questions about the resurrection – which they did not believe in – suggests we are lost when not grounded in the present moment. “Now, he is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:38). Indeed, the Gospel focuses on what directly concerns us, now. Everything is focused on today, as the acceptable time – in the present moment.

In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonian church, the people are encouraged “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed” (2 Thess 2:2) by claims of the end times. Paul is doing here what authorities in October of 1938 had to do; police logs across the United States chronicle the chaos of people who had heard the Orson Welles radio program “War of the Worlds” – and thought it was a true news story! A tremendous amount of energy and damage control had to go into calming people down.

Indeed, we are a people easily distracted. Consider this fact alone: Let’s presume the amount of information available to the ordinary person at the time of Jesus as one unit; it took until the year 1500 (around the Reformation) for that to double. After the invention of the printing press at that time, the amount of information available to the ordinary person doubled every hundred years, then every fifty. Then, in the 1900s every ten years. At the turn of the second millennium the amount of information available to the ordinary person has doubled every seven months (p.39, Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs). Our problem is not that we need more information. We may feel overburdened with so much information that we are understandably confused and conflicted! Any wonder we are anxious and distracted?

Is it any wonder that we struggle to find meaning in our short existence? There was a movie some decades ago called “Amadeus”. It chronicled, in a creative and entertaining way, the life of music great, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was by any standard, a genius, who started at age four playing several instruments and created at least 528 musical compositions over the course of his life. His music is still enjoyed the world over centuries after his death.

The film ends showing Mozart’s undignified funeral: The scene is dark and dreary, and his composition, The Requiem Mass in D Minor, provides the sweeping, emotionally dense yet majestic background music. He is carted to his grave in a blizzard. Only the grave digger and wagon driver attend, mindlessly going about their jobs. There is a trap door at one end of his plain, wooden casket, and they dump his body through that trap door into a giant hole in which there are several other bodies. And then they quickly depart. He was only thirty-five years of age – a prodigy.

What a waste, we might think, that he should have died so young. Imagine if he had the years most of us enjoy – what he might have accomplished! And it makes us wonder, does it not – is this life all there is? In our information-over-loaded age we can see real-time images of starving children, millions displaced by civil war, political corruption even in our own country. What a waste of precious resources, energy, stress and life! Or, remember as we do these days the many military service men and women who have died in the wars of the last century – people so young and healthy. And we think of those who still die today in senseless killings, wars and accidents.

Is this life all there is? What a waste! What is the purpose of it all?

As the father of theologian Adolf Schlatter lay dying, pious friends stood around his bed trying to comfort him with reassuring and edifying thoughts such as: “Soon you will be in the golden halls of Zion gazing across the crystal sea. Soon the radiance will surround you.” And so they talked and talked and talked, mainly comforting themselves, it seemed. Finally, the dying man raised himself up and snapped: “Shut up! Don’t bother me with all that talk! Just show me a picture of the Father embracing his prodigal Son. I only want to embrace my God.”

Even on the darkest day of our lives, may our focus be God’s loving embrace reaching out to us. Everything we do and are in this world stems from what God has done and is doing for us.

The story is told that one day back in early Puritan New England a couple of centuries ago there was a major eclipse. The sun was blotted out, the day turned dark, and people were terrified. “The world is going to end. What shall we do?” One insightful man replied, “Let us be found doing our duty” (p.282, Neta Pringle, Feasting on the Word Year C Vol 4).

Questions about the after-life and end times may understandably consume our imagination and get us thinking about so many things. People have written and talked and speculated about how things are going to be and to watch for the signs of the times. We have so much information about all this. But underlying and motivating all of this chatter, is there not a lot of fear and anxiety?

The Gospel resists this kind of distraction. The bible is hardly ever really clear on all the details anyway. We are called, instead, to focus on God’s abiding presence, God’s promise and grace, and God’s mission. “Give thanks,” Paul instructs the fearful Thessalonians (2 Thess 2: 13-17). See the big picture.

If our remembering this Remembrance Day causes us to be afraid, disturbed and anxious about the ways of the world, remember above all whose we are! “God chose you for salvation!” Paul exhorts the church. “Stand firm in faith” and remember that God “loved us and through grace gives us eternal comfort and good hope.” So, “comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

Our job, it seems, is simply to keep on keeping on. No matter what.

And leave the rest in God’s hands. That is all.

A Children’s Chat on Remembering

In the County of Flanders, in southern Belgium, there is a large field — a cemetery — lined row on row with white grave stones.

Do you know who is buried there? — Soldiers, mainly from the First World War a long, long time ago. It was a big war and many people died.

Inbetween all the stones grow tiny little, red flowers. They grow wild there. No one planned a garden or planted them on purpose. They just pop up freely from the ground in this large cemetery.

Do you know what these flowers are called? — Poppies!

Almost a hundred years later and thousands of kilometres away we still remember the soldiers who died during the Great War and who are buried in Flanders Field. What reminds us of their great sacrifice? — We wear poppies.

In order to help us remember something important that happened a long time ago, we sometimes need something we can see, touch and feel. We need something concrete.

And that’s what happens whenever we eat a Holy Meal during worship at church. We gather at the altar at the front to remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us by dying on the cross and rising to new life on Easter. It’s a celebration of remembering because what Jesus did was truly amazing.

We eat the bread and drink from the cup to remember Jesus. We taste and feel and digest real food. In doing something concrete, like eating and drinking, we recall that Jesus’ love for us is real, even today.

In church we don’t just remember something that happened a long time ago. We remember in order to celebrate something real that is happening right now, right in front of our eyes. Because Jesus is alive. And his love for you and me is very real — as real as we’re sitting here this morning talking and listening and singing and praying.

Thank you, Jesus, for giving me things to wear, to eat, to drink — so that I can remember important events in history. Help me to be faithful in act of remembering — so that I can live out the promise of your presence, and the reality of your love for me and my neighbour.

Amen.