The Prodigal story: Three in One

Most of this sermon today is the work of the Rev. Monika Wiesner who first preached it. A lay member of our congregation, Sharon Wirth, then also preached Monika’s sermon at Faith Ottawa last year. A heart-felt ‘thank you’ to both for this contemplative and grace-filled approach to a popular parable of Jesus.

 Many will regard the turning point of the story as the call to repentance[1], when the rebellious, prodigal son comes to his senses in the sloppy mud of a pig pen.[2]And therefore, according to this interpretation, repentance must be preached and communicated to others who have or are falling away.

You will notice with me, however, that it is not because someone in town or the farmer on whose land he was working told him to repent. When the rebellious younger son comes to the end of his rope and realizes his folly, it’s not because someone guilted him, pressured him, preached him into repentance. The message of changing the Prodigal’s moral direction did not come from outside of him. But from within.

Repentance does not precede grace and mercy. Rather, the other way around: First and foremost, compassion and love changes lives. The experience of the younger son at the end of himself was an inner experience. His changed reality resulted from something that happened within himself. The state of his inner life shifted somehow.

Within himself, the younger brother heard the voice of self-love and acceptance. Not once. But twice in the story. First, in the pig pen he came to self-love within himself. Enough love to stop hurting himself. Then, later, from the father, this Love was reinforced.

Since we see the turning point of this story as primarily a movement of the inner life, imagine then, that this family of three actually lives together within each of us, within our souls.

Within our soul we first have a younger son or daughter that is severely wounded. We might call this our “wounded inner child”.  This is the part of our soul that experiences shame. It is the part of us that feels there is something intrinsically wrong with us.

Within our soul, we also have a critical older sibling. We might call this our superego or our “inner critic”. This is the part of us that actually triggers our shame, telling us where we’ve done wrong, wagging their finger at us in judgement whenever we step out of line.

Finally, there is also within our soul a compassionate parent, the compassionate parent that can heal our shame. We might call this our True Self. We Christians, knowing that God lives within each one of us, might call this our God-Self or even our Sacred Self.

It is the message of Jesus’ Priestly Prayer to his “Father” for his disciples: “As you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…”[3]And again, Jesus said to his followers, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit …”[4]

I invite you to imagine that this family lives within your own soul: the wounded child in you, your inner critic and your compassionate divine parent. All live within you.

In the rest of this sermon, heads up, I will intentionally switch to both male and female pronouns, so that each one of us may connect more personally with the experiences of these three different persons in the story.

How do these three persons relate within us?

When we are born, our soul and God are one. As an infant, we smile when we’re happy and we cry when we’re unhappy.

Then something happens to this unity within our souls. We experience events that we interpret as painful or as trauma. Our primary caregivers may be limited in their ability to parent or they may over-worked and overtired. And they hurt us.

Or maybe we simply need to leave the security of mommy and daddy for the first time and we discover that the world does not revolve around us. We experience hurt and rejection and intense anxiety and fear. Have you ever watched a young child who is being taken away from his/her mother? Do you ever wonder what is happening within that child’s psyche? These separation experiences may be necessary. But they are experienced as wounding.

What’s important for us to note is that these first experiences of woundedness follow us a lifetime. They might be called “holes within our souls”. We experience those first feelings of not being lovable or not being safe or not being of worth. Because our souls and God are one, this is where we feel our first disconnect from God.

Over the years, more holes are created. Our intense feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, depression, anger or jealousy or shame all have their roots in these holes. Whenever you feel these feelings, you are in touch with one of these holes in your soul.

So what do we do? We try to fill these holes by looking outside ourselves. As young children, we learned to please people by doing things that would make them happy and then we felt lovable and safe.  As we grew in years, we became the responsible one, the wise one, the funny one, or the caregiver. We became beautiful or educated or rich. We did whatever the outside world said would make us feel valued.

We did whatever was needed to fill those holes in our soul that were wounded and crying out in pain. We believed the outside world held the answers.

That is exactly what the younger brother did in this parable. He took his inheritance and he spent it on everything the world suggested would soothe his wounded soul. But in the end, nothing worked. One day, he simply came to the end of himself … and he was drowning in shame.

So the prodigal child remembers her home and her parents. However, her shame went so deep that she believed all love was gone from her life. Her parents would never take her back, so she decided she would do whatever it took to earn her place in the household. She needed to earn their love.

But to her amazement, the prodigal child found loving parents waiting for her. When they saw her, they were filled with compassion and ran out to her, put their arms around her and hugged and kissed her. The wounded child began to confess what a failure she was, no longer worthy to be called their child. But her parents would hear none of it.

Instead, this prodigal child found herself in a beautiful robe … with the family ring on her finger … and a huge “Welcome home” banner hanging over the dining room table. A celebration was being prepared in her honour.

This is the compassion for oneself … this is where all healing takes place. This is where we experience the compassionate God … because God and our soul are one.

But there is one other character in the story, namely the older critical brother, our inner critic. Our super-ego. This is the inner critic who can’t accept the “easy” homecoming of the wounded child.

This older sibling doesn’t believe in compassion, does not believe in grace. And so she becomes critical and angry and refuses to participate in the homecoming. She’s the one who says to the wounded inner child, “You don’t deserve this!”

This is the inner voice that holds us back from experiencing the compassion of God within and for ourselves. This is the inner voice that uses those feelings of shame to stop the healing of those holes in our soul. This is the older sibling who sits on the doorstep and sulks, refusing to go to the party.

Oftentimes, Christians confuse that critical inner voice as the voice of God. It is not! It is not. If anything, it is the voice of our primary caregivers at their worst.

One thing is for sure – when we decide to return home, to find healing for all those holes in our soul, our inner critic will become very active and tell us we don’t deserve compassion, acceptance or love and we don’t deserve the healing we so desperately want. The inner critic will pull out all the stops to keep us feeling shame. But just remember, if it isn’t the voice of compassion, it isn’t the voice of God.

And so the wounded child no longer needs to listen to the voice of the inner critic because our soul and God are one and God has already embraced us in love. We need only listen to the compassionate, holy and sacred that lives deep within each one of us. And that sacred God-Self is saying, “I’m preparing a banquet in your honour! Come to the party!”

In this parable do you hear the voice of God embracing you in love? Welcoming you home? Herein lies the nugget of truth that is at the root of all emotional or spiritual healing.

So let the party begin! We’ve all been invited!

 

[1]Meaning: metanoia –a change of mind.

[2]Luke 15:1-3,11b-32, the Gospel for the 4thSunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)

[3]John 17:21,23 NRSV

[4]John 15:5

There’s a wild-ness to God’s mercy

“Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths …

All your paths, O Lord, are steadfast, love and faithfulness

To those who hold on to your promise …”

(Psalm 25:4,10)

When I walked fifty kilometers on the sand last summer on Long Beach Peninsula on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Washington State, I was obviously forging my own path.

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Even though the beach was not busy any time I walked it, it was also obvious to me that many had travelled this route – by foot and vehicle, since cars are allowed to drive portions on this way.

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I couldn’t trust these other paths, however, since I was by myself I had no idea how long the footprints or car tracks had been there. And with the dramatic shift of tides on the beach every twelve-or-so-hours, I could easily lose a path someone else made.

And, you might presume that my 130-kilometer hike on the Camino in Spain  a month earlier would have been harder on my feet. While I did not get one blister in Spain – no problems there whatsoever with my feet – walking on Long Beach Peninsula was brutal by comparison.

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Often, we make assumptions about our faith journeys. We presume things about following the way of Jesus that are, simply, untrue. And only experience can verify. The first myth is that this path is easy – a walk along the Rideau Canal among the tulips on a sunny, quiet Sunday in May.

I’m watching  Mark Burnett’s TV production of “The Bible” this Lent. And I was impressed by the actor playing Moses, who when he parts the Red Sea with water spraying all around in the tumult, mayhem and stress of the moment – when the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites – he calls to them, “Follow Me!”

It’s like an invitation to a roller coaster ride. Or worse! A part of me wants to say, “Thank you. But, no thank you. I’ll take that walk by the canal.”

These short verses from Mark’s Gospel focus on Jesus’ personal experience of change, leading to a simple message to his listeners to follow in his way. And his way leads through disruptive changes in one’s life. True growth is a wild journey, to say the least, to follow the path of Jesus by making our own through the desert of our lives.

Jesus’ baptism by John is something which Jesus experiences by himself. Mark gives no indication whatsoever that Jesus’ baptism is some public event witnessed by many. It is intended for Jesus alone. Jesus is set apart to experience a deeply personal, largely private, and divine event in his life.

“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”[1]

This personally divine experience is not a pleasant, comforting event for Jesus. The word “torn apart” in Greek is used only at one other time in Mark’s short Gospel – at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, when the curtain in the temple was “torn apart.”[2] When Jesus experiences the blessing and call of his life, it’s not about gentle doves cooing from heaven. God does the ripping apart in both cases.

There’s a wild-ness and a danger in God’s grace. This is a disrupting affair. This is life and death stuff. You can only wonder whether Jesus didn’t see in a moment of churning clouds his own death – the end of the journey he was about to begin.

After Jesus’ baptism, the text takes a rapid shift, as Jesus is “immediately” driven into the desert. Mark does not go into the details of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. He does not reveal what it meant for Jesus to be with the “wild beasts”. His temptations are not described in detail, only that he was tempted by Satan. And, by the end of the time in the desert, the angels waited on him.

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Mark preserves these truths about anyone’s wilderness journeys: It is wild, for sure; and, no one else can make that human journey for us.

As Jesus was privy to his own struggle with the wild beasts, so is it with our journeys in the wilderness. Whenever we go through challenging times and transitions in our lives, whenever we experience the severity of life’s choices and consequences of our misdeeds, whenever we receive the blunt end of life’s punches in the death of loved ones, in the loss of any security, the pain of ill health – these are intensely personal demons we struggle with.

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No one else, really, can fully presume to understand this journey of ours. They are unique to us alone. Our temptations are unique to us as spiritual individuals on a human journey. We need, as individuals, to take ownership of our own wilderness journey.

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Some of you may have been surprised in the Ash Wednesday liturgy this year when I asked you to impose the ashes on your own forehead as I said the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

For those of you who were here last Wednesday, I hope you reflected on the subtle change’s significance. If you are entering this forty-day journey, embracing the path of Jesus in some way, through the desert of your life – however you define your wilderness journey – then you need to own it yourself. No one else can do for you. At the start of this interior and life-changing journey, you will own your own ‘ash’, you will enter the desert of your own heart.

This journey is a journey of repentance. Repentance means, “a change of mind.” This is the original, basic meaning of the word – more than a renewing of the mind as Paul puts it,[3] repentance entails a radical turn around in thinking. This is largely an interior journey, in your mind and heart. “Rend not your garments,” the prophet Joel preached, “Rend your hearts.”[4] Will you go there, this Lent?

Martin Luther defined repentance as a returning to your baptismal waters. Returning to God’s grace, God’s love, God’s unconditional forgiveness and mercy upon your heart.

The Lenten journey can be taken by holding on to the promise of your baptism.  The path we make is only possible by the waters of faith. In the end, the waters of grace, of eternal presence of God, will wash away our delusions and give us sustenance for the journey. If we must forge our own path, we are not alone nonetheless. For, another has gone before us. One who loves us.

In his description of the journey of the Lenten season, American theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”

He, then, outlines several questions for Christians to ponder during Lent. Among them:

  1. When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
  2. If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be – in twenty-five words or less?
  3. Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo?
  4. Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
  5. If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
  6. Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
  7. If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

“To hear yourself try to answer questions like these,” Buechner goes on, “is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all. But if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”[5]

[1] Mark 1:10

[2] Mark 15:38; Stanley P. Saunders in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.47.

[3] Romans 12:2

[4] Joel 2:13

[5] Frederick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking” (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Love got down and dirty

I am not a pet person. In the sense that we don’t own a pet and we don’t have any animals currently living in our home.

However, we do enjoy visiting with the pets of others. And, if we did have a dog at home, I would probably consider a terrier. The word, terrier, is derived from the Latin word terra, meaning, earth.

And, I’ve heard, a terrier will eat dirt. And dig holes in the dirt. It is a solid dog with short legs. It is scruffy and tough. A terrier is, indeed, an ‘earth dog’, living very close to the ground.

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent. This long season of the church year, some forty days’ pilgrimage, leads us somewhere. It is not an aimless wandering. Though it may sometimes feel like it.

The forty days is largely symbolic, let’s be honest. Though the Lenten season is an ancient Christian tradition going back in its variations to at least the fourth century after Christ, our observance of it today is slight, for the most part.

How can we re-discover its meaning?

At the beginning of any journey – I prefer to see the progress of life and faith as a journey – I want to see in my mind’s eye at least, the destination – the finish line so to speak.

Before I set out on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain last Spring – some 800 kilometres long – I needed to know my destination, which was the city of Santiago. Not only did knowing the destination help me navigate the trail, it motivated me on the way.

What is the finish line of the Lenten journey? Easter, of course.

I said the observance of the faith journey is marked by symbol or ritual. These rituals in the church take the form of sacraments, such as baptism and Holy Communion. At Easter – the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection – we not only receive the promise of our ongoing transformation and new life in Christ, we have arrived at the destination of the Lenten journey of our healing, our forgiveness, our change.

Because of Easter, we can do Lent. The disciplines of Lent would be groundless without the Easter promise guiding our way. The joy of Easter is the destination – the very point – of the long Lenten discipline.

That is why baptisms and confirmations happen during Easter. This so-called first sacrament of the church, baptism, involves using water to make the sign of the cross on baptized forehead.  In some churches, the congregation gathers literally by the river to participate in a baptismal celebration.

Diana Butler Bass grew up as an evangelical Christian. She remembers that more often than not, “The water would be murky, seemingly impure rather than sanctified … The pastor would dunk the newcomer anyway, a drenching testimony of sin washed away and new birth in Christ.” But she wondered “how one could be washed of sin when the water itself was not safe to drink.”[1]

It seems, we cannot avoid getting dirty on the road to Easter and new life. In truth, is there not something good about dirt?

Some years ago, Diana Butler Bass spent the forty days of Lent focusing her discipline on priming her vegetable and flower garden in Spring. Obviously, she lived farther south than where we are. During Lent, she readied the garden, worked the soil, coaxed dirt to life. And, she concluded,

“Dirt was not dirty – it was beautiful. God made it. I was tending it. Caring for soil is hard work. The last thing I wanted to imagine was it being washed away. I was fighting for the dirt. I wanted more dirt, better dirt, richer dirt. I was adding stuff to it to make it mealier. I wanted dirtier dirt.”[2]

Yet, I would agree with Butler Bass, the symbols of the church have become sterile over the centuries. We have become germ-a-phobic, averse to dirt. And this, to our spiritual peril.

“In many dictionaries, the definition of ‘soil’ as a noun is typically scientific” – a particular kind of earth, a portion of the earth’s surface, the ground, etc.”

But the second definition, as a verb, turns sinister: ‘to soil: to make unclean, dirty or filthy; to smirch, smudge, or stain; to sully or tarnish, as with disgrace; defile morally. Its synonyms are ‘blacken, taint, debase, pollute.’ The term ‘dirt’ is perhaps even worse than ‘soil’. ‘Dirt’ comes from Middle English … meaning ‘mud, dung, or excrement’; or related ‘smutty or morally unclean.”

It’s easy to understand the theological leap from dirt and soil to sin and evil.[3] This is why we need Ash Wednesday in our faith journey. We need to feel the dirt on our foreheads in the sign of the cross as much as we make the sign of the cross with baptismal water, impure as it sometimes is.

This may seem like “a tempest in a linguistic teapot”[4] except for the fact that the bible points in another direction:

“Biblical creation stories abound with praise for the soil: God creates the ground and calls it good. Then the land brings forth life, and God calls it good. Humankind is made from the dust; God breathes life into the soil and Adam is born, this ‘soil creature’, and God sees that as very good.[5]

Humans beings are, literally, made from the humus, the ground. We are, simply, animated dirt.

In the famous Gospel story of the sower and the seed – where some seed falls on rocky ground, other seed on fertile, deep soil, other seed on the path, and other seed on shallow soil – Jesus explains that the seed is God’s love and the soil is us. The moral of the story?

“We are not soil-y enough! Spiritually, we would be better off more soiled rather than less. Being soiled is actually the point. You could say: ‘God loves dirt more than plants, soil more than what it yields. God is a dirt farmer, not a vegetable gardener.’ Soil is not sin. Soil is sacred, holy, and good. When we care for it, we are doing God’s work. Soil is life. And it is time for us — Ash Wednesday is a good time, symbolically at least — to reclaim the dirt.”[6] Why?

God became humus. God’s love got down and dirty. In the person of Jesus, God’s love was shown – in a human being. God is, according to Paul Tillich, not apart from us “but who is the very core and ground of all that is.”[7]

God is part of us, because of Christ Jesus and the incarnation. I read that every day more than sixty tons of cosmic dust fall to the earth. These are microscopic elements we can’t see, travelling in space from the farthest reaches of the universe. This cosmic dust enters our atmosphere where it mixes with existing soil on earth and enters the food chain.

Imagine, this cosmic dust is a source of ongoing creation. We eat and breathe it. Quite literally, human beings are made and being made of ‘stardust’. As the biblical story reflects: the divine and the soil, the Creator and created, are part of the same, theological ecosystem.

The Easter baptismal celebration is the end goal. We see it now, from the perspective of the starting line: Ash Wednesday. Tonight, we also make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, not with water – pure or murky. But with ash. We start by embracing the soil in and of our own lives.

Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. The traditional words spoken at the start of Lent, and significantly, when our bodies return to the ground. A reminder, viscerally by the imposition of ash on our foreheads, that we are not only mortal, but that we belong to the earth. A reminder of our own need for repentance and new life.

At very least, we have to say it starts with dirt. We are dirt. Really. We therefore have to care for the dirt that is us, and in the earth, on this journey.

“We are not tourists here,” writes philosopher Mary Midgly, “We are at home in the world, because we were made for it,”[8] a world God so loved.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), p.53.

[2] Ibid., p.53-54.

[3] Ibid., p.54.

[4] Ibid., p.54.

[5] Ibid., p.57.

[6] Ibid., p.58.

[7] Cited in ibid., p.31

[8] Cited in ibid., p.64

Christmas – God blesses the dirt

Why do we celebrate Christmas? What is the reason we pull all the stops to mark this annual tradition in our lives?

As is the case when defining something, we can start by saying what it isn’t. So, Christmas is not about a little baby Jesus being born. That already happened two thousand years ago. The historical fact of Jesus’ birth is not why we bring so much energy, passion and personal sacrifice to making this happen today!

We do Christmas not because we are history buffs on a mission to generate public enthusiasm about a long- ago event no matter how enthusiastic we are about it. The church is not a history club. Christmas is not just about memory – because none of us were around two thousand years ago. Christmas is about reality, today.

We celebrate Christmas to welcome Jesus Christ again into the life of this world. The church is about what matters today. Because of that first Christmas, Christ is forever being born into the human heart. And, we do have to make room for this ongoing event, because right now there is no “room in the inn” for such a mystery; our lives are cluttered by distraction, compulsion, self-centeredness and selfishness. If anything, Christmastime in the public sphere exposes this narcissism of our collective soul.

We are human, after all. And we see things pretty much in their physicality, materiality. We have trouble, naturally, seeing the light shining through the ordinariness of material life. Francis of Assisi, who popularized the celebration of Christmas beginning in the 13th century, said that “every tree should be decorated with lights to show that it’s filled with light anyway.”[1]

A couple centuries later, Martin Luther dragged a pine tree into his house and placed lighted candles on its boughs. He told his children that he looked up at the starry sky whilst walking through the pine forest near their Wittenberg home. The sight was so beautiful that he wanted candles on the tree to remind them of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth. To be entwined in the stuff of earth.

Thus, we have tangible reminders in our Christmas traditions today – tangible reminders, indeed, in the sacraments but also in everything – to remind us of this incredible move of God to be distant no longer, cut off, and separated from earthly existence no more. But, from that moment onward, God would be intimately invested and incorporated, literally, into every human body, heart and mind. Indeed, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”[2]

And so, God continues to become flesh and live among us. Christmas in 2017 as it was last year and will be next year, again, is about waiting, watching for and celebrating God’s forever decision to say “yes” to the material world. To watch for how the Spirit of the living God is being manifested in our lives and in our world today. Through, in, around each of us. God said “yes” to physicality.

We need this celebration every year because we are still preparing to understand and enter this great mystery of our lives with each passing day. In this preparation, we need to celebrate not only Christmas on December 25, not only Christmas-in-July, but Christmas every day of every year!

Christmas announces that it is good to be human. It is good to be on earth. Why? Well, because God became human in Jesus Christ. God came to earth. I hear echoes in the creation story from Genesis; after each thing was created God said it was good.[3] The earth and the waters, the plants and vegetation, the sun and stars, sea monsters, every living creature and every winged bird, wild animals, cattle of every kind and everything that creeps upon the ground. “It was good!” Not once, but repeatedly, to emphasize the point. It is good! It is good! It is good!

Whenever we can see in the material world – humans, trees, sky, water, dirt, animals – the Spirit and presence of Christ – whenever that happens, we are celebrating Christmas. God blesses the dirt on earth, from which we all came and to which we all will return.

It is already so. And to a large extent, it is a matter of perspective. When the ordinary becomes extraordinary. When we recognize the good in that which is broken or imperfect. It is a matter of vision.

When you are invited to a family dinner gathering, the food always tastes better, doesn’t it? How is it that Grandma’s pumpkin pie – made straight from the recipe off the label on the canned pumpkin – tastes better than any other? And when you go home and use the same product and follow the same recipe, it’s not quite the same. The ordinary is made extraordinary because of a frame of mind which has somehow shifted into an attitude of thanksgiving, gratitude and appreciation in a certain context.

The ordinary is extraordinary with a change of mind, which is the true meaning of repentance[4]. When we begin to see the holy in the simple. When the basic stuff of life – including the blemishes, the brokenness, the weakness – is imbued with a vision of holiness. God blesses the dirt.

When a common teenage couple gives birth to a baby in the back shed of some inn in a non-descript rural town, surrounded by the lowly shepherds and visited by strangers from the East. God blesses the dirt.

When all of what makes us human – including our doubts, our failures, our misdeeds, our egos – is unconditionally loved and embraced and held in compassion and forgiveness. God blesses the dirt.

When our caring and loving moves beyond the self and ‘our own’ to include foreigners, animals, trees and those who go hungry this day. God blesses the dirt.

Because it is good to be human. It is good to be on earth. Today.

Merry Christmas!

[1] Cited in Richard Rohr, “An Advent Meditation” (Unedited transcript, Center for Action and Contemplation, 2017).

[2] John 1:14

[3] Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25,31

[4] translated from the Greek word, metanoia, literally meaning “change of mind”, to turn around and face a new direction

It’s ok to fall (4): It’s the only way

It’s only the second Sunday in Lent. Time seems to drag during this long, hard season. At least Advent — a similar season of preparation, repentance, and waiting — is only four weeks long; things seem to go faster in December.

The pace for Lent is perfect for Sarai and Abram. They are old — in their nineties, now in the twilight of their lives (Genesis 17). They are, likely, slower in moving about and more reflective than the young. They are, likely, more contemplative and more aware of the mistakes they have made and the wounds they have caused — all of which is appropriate for the Lenten journey (Craig Kocher, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Vol 2, Westminster/John Knox Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.50). I agree — although it’s hard to admit — sometimes we need a slower pace, and a place to listen and pray carefully, to confess our sin, as we turn toward God.

I tried something for the first time this past week which goes against the grain of my personality. When I go for my 45 minute walks, my route takes me along streets, roadways and eventually into a beautiful multi-acred forest called ‘the Grove’ whose trails lead to the Ottawa River. 

But I always carry my smart-phone with me. I have justified doing so for safety reasons. My hyper-vigilant personality loves this — no matter where I am on this planet I am only a text or phone call away! If there is a crisis or emergency, I can respond with efficiency and lightning speed to get help.

As I pondered leaving my phone at home, before going for my walk, I reflected on how dependent I have become on this device. Addicted, perhaps? I wondered what I would have done before the smart-phone era — not long ago, but long enough! If there was an emergency, I would have sought a neighbour’s help by knocking on their door; I would have paid more attention to my surroundings and where I might find help. I would have prepared better for my walk. I would have rested more in the moment, trusting more in the interrelated fabric of life around me.

So, here’s the good news. (But the structure of this sermon goes like this: There’s good news, then bad news, then really good news. Stay with me!) First good news, from this experience: I felt liberated. Leaving my phone behind wasn’t really that hard to do — and yet, it was a small step in a healthy direction, a simple sacrifice for evaluating my life-style and making concrete changes for the good. I will now practice more often ‘leaving my phone behind’, for its obvious benefits.

These are the ‘small’ steps we can make during Lent. Others give up chocolate, sweets, meat. Others still will ‘add’ something to their lifestyle — exercise, working out, volunteering more, coming to church more often, giving more money for some overseas mission, spending more time in prayer — all these good disciplines that are popular for Christians in Lent. And these are good!

During Lent, however, we are called also to contemplate the journey of Jesus to the cross — and the implications of that kind of sacrifice on our own lives. And so — and here’s the rub, the ‘bad’ news: Giving up chocolate or the cell phone is not ultimately what the Lenten journey is about. Jesus’ death on the cross was not making a ‘convenient’ sacrifice. Jesus’ death on the cross was not a little discipline that pinched but really didn’t change anything significant when Easter morning came around.

Jesus’ sacrifice goes to the jugular of our lives; it demands a costly cost; it means a radical change and giving up of something that is near and dear to us.

God calls Abram and Sarai to change their names. And it was a big deal in their day. In our times, names are often considered nothing more than labels. In our world, names are often chosen based on nostalgia, diction or popularity.

In the ancient world, however, names reflected the character and destiny of that person. To be called by your name, was a big deal. To change that identification was radical! Names were wrapped up in the core of one’s identity and purpose.

The name of God, above all, was untouchable — literally. The Jewish people withheld from spelling God’s name in scripture, from saying God’s name out-loud in worship. To call ‘on the name of the Lord’ was an act of profound devotion. To call ‘on the name of the Lord’ was a radical act of identifying with an un-nameable God.

And yet, in this text, even God is given a new name. For the first time, God is given the name “God Almighty” (Genesis 17:1). It is transliterated from the Hebrew, “El Shaddai” which might be translated, “God of the Mountains” (ibid., p.52).

So, here is my invitation to you today: Consider what profound and deep aspect of your life God is calling you to change. You may object, on the grounds of scriptural interpretation alone: “This text is not about us needing to change! God called Abram and Sarai to change their names. That was them. But not us!” 

Yes, we may think on occasions — even religious in nature — where we do still change our names — at weddings, some women will change their last names; and in Christian baptisms practised in some churches, babies take on their “Christian” name for the first time.

And yet, when we read this Old Testament text, and while we would do well to acknowledge its original context and meaning to the first people who received it, we are still asked today: What does it mean to us? How can this text become alive for us today?

And when we relate this text to the Gospel for today (Mark 8:31-38), where Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, where Jesus challenges us to ‘lose’ our lives in order to ‘gain’ life — what does that mean? It’s not just about throwing a little more cash in the offering plate, or not indulging in sweets.

What may God be calling us to change, in our own lives? What may God be calling us, whispering into our hearts, to ‘lose’? Are we prepared to fall? Big time?

Jesus shows us that it’s okay to fall, because it’s the only way to go: The Cross. If anything, don’t skip opportunities in Lent to worship — during mid-week studies, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. Why? Going to the Cross, through the Cross, is the only way for us to know and experience the joy and truth of resurrection. Being uncomfortable by facing our fear, anger and shame is the only way for us to know and experience the joy of life. If you yearn for true joy, satisfaction and rebirth in your life, being uncomfortable is the only way for you to be healed, to be redeemed and forgiven, to find your way in this world.

You can’t have Easter without Good Friday. We need to be prepared to ‘lose’ ourselves — to fall — in order to ‘find’ ourselves — to get up, again. In Christ. “El Shaddai”, God of the Mountains. Mountains define valleys. You can’t have mountains without valleys. Mountains encircle valleys — valleys of despair, valleys of impatience and sorrow, valleys of Lenten confession and discipline. Wherever you have a range of mountains, you will have valleys. But whenever you find yourself in a valley, don’t give up. Don’t get stuck in the valley. Don’t get comfortable there, either. Get up and keep on, because there’s a mountain just up ahead pointing our vision to the skies. 

And here comes the really good news (after the bad news, after the first good news): Abram is ninety-nine years old when ‘the big change’ happens. Ninety-nine! It’s never too late. Never too late for God to call us to change. Never too late for God to call us into ‘losing’ something that we have for a life-time believed to be important. Never too late for God to give us the strength we need to endure and follow-through on that change. Never too late for God to bless us with a wonderful gift of the new thing God is doing for us — whatever that may be.

God will never give up on us. God will wait a life-time, and then some! God is the God of Mountains. And mountains are steadfast and true. Mountains point upwards to the vastness and infinite beauty and glory of the sky and the stars. God pointed Moses’ vision upwards to see the Big Picture of God’s promises and God’s future.

Mountains will remind us, I pray, that God’s promises are sure. God’s covenant to us cannot be broken, even as we follow Jesus down this long, slow road. But, “whose destiny is our destiny: the cross, the grave, the skies” (ibid, p.54).

It’s ok to fall (3): Jesus leads us there

The beginning of a story introduces the characters, but it also sets things up for what readers can expect later in the book. The writer of a good story will craft, early on, a good ‘set up’ for the plot development. Here’s an example, and you tell me what you think will happen later in the story:

At the beginning of this story, we read about a couple of children walking home from school, as they always do, along a familiar path. However, their route goes by the town’s cemetery, a place they have never visited. It remains a mystery to them. The cemetery is guarded by spiked, iron-wrought gates and surrounded by tall, thick cedar hedges.

The children are coming of age when their curiosity is piquing, and they ask their parents if they can venture into the cemetery. But they are warned repeatedly from all quarters: “Don’t ever, ever, EVER play in the cemetery! Especially, after dark!”

Now, what do you think will happen as a result of this ‘set up’ in the story line? They’ll likely go there! — into the cemetery, at night, perhaps under scary or tension-filled circumstances. And, we want to read on to find out how, as our own imaginations grow! It’s true, when we are ordered not to do something in some unequivocal, unyielding, non-explanatory way, it’s something we will usually end up doing! The story is a snap-shot of life.

Social history bears witness to this human dynamic: In 1920, law-makers south of the border enacted the 18th Amendment which attempted to curb the evils of liquor. Laws were passed against the sale and trade of alcohol. The result? After Prohibition was finally lifted, historians showed that the consumption of alcohol by the general population actually increased during those ‘prohibitive’ years. (Strayer & Gatzke, “The Mainstream of Civilization since 1500”, Harcourt, Toronto, 1984, p.730)

“Brick-wall” parenting, as some call it, often fails. Because children don’t grow in an environment where the evils of the world can be talked about, reasoned through and struggled with in loving, patient and understanding ways. They just outright rebel.

Perhaps it was employing some reverse-psychology that spurred Martin Luther to say those infamous words: “Sin boldly … !” But I like to emphasize the latter part of that quote: “Sin boldly … and trust the Lord even more.” Luther doesn’t deny or hide away from sin. He just trumps it, with the Lord!

When I assert repeatedly the theme of this sermon series for Lent: “It’s okay to fall”, I am NOT encouraging you to sin. Because you don’t need to purposely go out and find sin and suffering. You don’t need to seek out suffering, as if it’s a choice we can make (eg. “I think I’ll go out and sin today”; or, “I don’t think I’ll sin today!”)

Sin is something that we must learn to live with. It’s a part of our lives. Sin is not something we can ‘will’ away by the force of our self-righteous toil to purge ourselves somehow. If you think yourself a good Christian, you may be good at hiding your sin. But honest, faithful, authentic Christians will struggle monumentally with their sin, and not need to put on masks of perfection when they come to church.

Life happens. Life is ‘done unto us’. Mistakes are made. I can’t explain why God created a world where suffering is so much a part of the journey of life. The better, more meaningful question, I believe, is to consider what the suffering and the sin has to teach us about ourselves in relationship to God, in the journey to redemption.

In other words, it’s okay to fall, because that is where Jesus leads us. In the Gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent, after Jesus is baptized, “The Spirit of God immediately drove him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) where he spent forty days, tempted by Satan. This part of Jesus’ life is for me the image I hold whenever I pray the traditional English translation of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation”.

Because, while Jesus does not cause my sinning, Jesus leads me into the wilderness of my life where I must confront all those temptations, the brokenness, weaknesses, despair, anger, fear, guilt — that cause my sinning. Jesus takes me there, into the barren land of my soul. He leads the way. I must follow.

The formal ‘Invitation to the Lenten discipline’ in most liturgies begins with a call to self-examination — even before repenting, praying, fasting and works of love strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Leader’s Desk Edition, Augsburg Fortress, p.617). Self-examination is an act of profound humility and honesty. And it could very well be the most difficult task in the Lenten journey.

Here is some good news: Jesus is not afraid. Because he has already gone to the darkest place of all — the Cross, and then even descended into hell as we affirm in the Creeds. I can persevere through any turmoil life may offer, because Jesus is there, right beside me, helping me get through it.

What makes the consequences of our sin worse, I suspect, is the kind of thinking that suggests Jesus cannot be present if or whenever we go into those dark places of our lives. Our prejudice may be that Jesus cannot be there in the shameful, anger-ridden, fear-devastated places of our suffering. We thus delude ourselves into believing “I am alone” in my suffering. The Gospel, however, teaches us otherwise.

I was so inspired by the record number of folks we had out on Shrove Tuesday for our pancake party — including almost a dozen folks from the neighbourhood who had never been with us before! We danced, we sang, we ate, we enjoyed music together.

When we are in the desert of our lives confronting our sin and suffering, it is so important to know, again, who your friends are, your family, your community, your church — and simply experience their presence. And by their presence, their loving support — even in the darkest time of our lives. Just being there together, can make a huge difference.

Therefore, I can be encouraged that as Jesus was waited upon by the angels who gave him the things he needed to get through his wilderness suffering, so then Jesus will not abandon me in my desert. He’ll be right there beside me, and give me what I need (and maybe not always what I want).

It’s okay to fall, because Jesus leads me into that place that I would rather avoid. And even that place where I might be tempted to go. Because I don’t go alone. Thanks be to God.

On the path of hardship tempered with grace

I suspect that some of you really like John the Baptist, while others would feel intimidated and back off from his forceful energy. Similar to the way two very different recruits into the Canadian Armed Forces reacted during the first days of regular duty.

A friend from Petawawa who is a sergeant and has put many years in the Forces told me last week how very differently some personalities react to his dissing of discipline. When boots aren’t polished, collars not ironed, and back-packs not kitted properly, he would lean in on the rookies and set them straight.

The one young recruit began to well up in tears when my friend started criticizing him for not being prepared. The other, being disciplined for the same problem, smiled, and was energized by the confrontation: “Wow, this is just like the movies, when the sergeant major yells at the recruits, spitting inches from the other’s face, turning the air blue!” Just loving it! The first recruit didn’t last long in the army. The other, was spurred on and challenged through his mistakes, to have a successful career.

John the Baptist is the ultimate reality check for Christianity. In the best of the prophetic tradition, he epitomizes the no-nonsense, truth-telling, going-for-the-jugular style not often associated with a more sanitized approach to religion.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you want religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Is this how you feel about belonging to the church today? Many stand in the line of John the Baptist tradition. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon — influential theologians of the last century wrote: “There is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring, and offensive people into ministry” (p.45 Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 1). What do you think about that? Would you like that?

John the Baptist’s hard words to the religious leaders of the day call them to repentance. Judgment underscores the tenor of this text assigned for Advent. And that’s why some of us would rather read scriptures and sing songs about sheep softly grazing in fields during these weeks leading to Christmas. Because you may know people in your life who have been hurt by the judgment of others — many of those doing the judging from the church. Even as we in the church have been warned NOT to judge others (Romans 14).

God calls ALL of us to fall on our knees, confess and repent — especially those of in the church.

The original Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally means — “moving beyond the mind.” We need to have a change of mind as much as a change of our heart. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” argues Saint Paul (Romans 12:2). He goes on to say that this change of our mind would happen, “so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable …” Our changed minds, our renewed way of thinking about things, will then affect how we behave.

“Moving beyond the mind” means that we need, at first, to have our fundamental assumptions questioned. Fundamental assumptions about God and the ways of God in the world. Is it true that we don’t have to do anything more in the church because we were baptized and confirmed here and our grandparents and great-grandparents were Lutheran? Is it true that God hates us and is only out there to catch us breaking a rule in order to punish us?

John the Baptist might have a field day in the Christian church today. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that only makes sense when embraced in the desert, in the wilderness of our lives. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we have learned to weep at our faults and let go. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we are called out of our complacency, selfishness, and self-righteousness to a greater cause, a greater good.

Barbara Marshall wrote this prayer poem cited in an Advent devotional for the season (Lutherans Connect); in it she describes the times of her life when she was truly invigorated, motivated and inspired in faith:

“… It was never the turbulent waters that raged and tore through my life that left me floundering, helpless adrift in the surging tide. But rather the lulling beauty and lure of familiar shores that fashioned my days with indifferent thought and compelled me to stay where I was. So, Father, give me a yearning for the valleys shadowed and steep, for deserts that breathe their fire and dust, for waves that crash at my feet. And surely then I’ll accomplish much …when inspiration is fueled on the path of hardship tempered with grace.”

So you can see why I suggest that nostalgia may be a great enemy of Christianity. For it keeps us stuck in apathy and inaction. But, ironically, looking to the past is an essential ingredient in faithful living. John the Baptist himself quotes directly from Isaiah when preaching his sermon: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight …” (40:3). In writing about John the Baptist, the Gospel writer Matthew uses descriptive words right out of the Hebrew Scriptures originally describing the prophet Elijah who was “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8). John the Baptist may breathe fire into a soppy nostalgic faith — but he certainly doesn’t dismiss the past.

Remembering the past is important. But there’s a difference between nostalgia and remembering. Biblical commentator David Bartlett writes that “nostalgia is memory filtered through disproportionate emotion. Faith is memory filtered through appropriate gratitude” (p.48, Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 1). In Advent we re-member, we reconnect. The word “religion” literally means to re-unite, re-align, ourselves out of isolation and into a holy union. In Advent when we remember, we embrace the good God has been and done for us in our past. In Advent we remember, together, as a family, as a church, as a community — what God has done for us in Jesus. We do this remembering at the Table — we remember that in the night in which he was betrayed …. We do this remembering singing out loud together our seasonal songs so precious to us.

We pray. We sing. We remember. Doing this, NOT to a disproportionate emotional longing for a time gone by. No. But rather, to embrace an occasion for re-affirming the good God has done for you in the history of your life, and to affirm our on-going hope and belief that God does care about us and our behavior this season, and beyond.

This Advent, know that we are cherished by God not only for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do. This is good news, because if God does not care about what I do, I may begin to question whether God actually cares about me. If God loves me enough to welcome me into the family, then God loves me enough to expect something of me.

“One December afternoon … a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the ‘surprise’, the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The ‘surprise’ flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash. The child … began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, ‘Now, that’s all right, son. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.’ But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, swept the boy into her arms and said, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal.’ And she wept with her son.”

It does matter to God. God is that mother who embraces us when we weep after making a big mistake and mess up. God doesn’t punish us, but rather holds us, and cries with us.

Perhaps the church can give up on judgment, but we cannot give up on responsibility. We can continue remembering and being faithful to our calling in Christ, especially in the desert, because we know God does care for each of us.

So, let’s sing on and re-member!