The angel

I know an angel.

She’s the deli counter server who smiles when taking my order.

He’s the fourteen-year-old who dreams of winning $10 million to give to Parkinson’s research because his grandpa suffers from the disease.

They’re in the bus shelter laughing and giving hi-fives and kisses to friends who do not share the same skin colour, age, language and physical ability.

She’s the one who comes in the nursing home room to encourage with a soft and happy voice.

She challenges world leaders to pay attention to and do something about the climate crisis.

I know an angel.

Today, and every year on September 29, the church recognizes the annual festival, “Michael and all Angels”. In the bible, we acknowledge the popular ones: Gabriel, who brought news to Mary of God’s intention to give her Jesus. And, Michael the great protector whom we read about in Daniel and Revelation.

Herein lies one of those very grey areas for Lutherans who have, in our recent history, become increasingly nervous about the angels. Why is that?

In the Confirmation class which started this past week, we closed our time together by praying Martin Luther’s evening blessing: “I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today. I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.”[1][emphasis mine]

By the way he prayed, we can tell Martin Luther believed in angels. On the other hand, Luther didn’t care too much for those parts of the bible that suggested allegory—those so-called apocalyptic descriptions that described futuristic, other-worldly, colourful, image-rich portrayals of angels, arch-angels, cherubim and seraphim, of sword-wielding horseman, dragons and giant wheels in the sky. Luther consequently relegated these scriptures to a lower priority for the biblically literate.

“Angels cannot be our intermediaries between us and God,” we reformers insist. “There is only one mediator and that is Christ,” we claim. Christ alone, we’ve made things simple. Concrete. More about this in a minute …

And yet, at the same time, we cannot deny the reality and the truth, that just beyond the thin curtain of our awareness and perception there lies a dimension of reality in which we, too, participate—for good and for evil. Our highly trained, rational minds—thanks to the Reformation and Enlightenment eras of the last few centuries—have made us suspicious and skeptical of making such risky forays into those ambiguous, beyond-rational notions. We just don’t know what to do with that part. We just don’t know …

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells a beautiful story about an experience he had following his mother’s death: “The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, ‘A serious misfortune in my life has arrived.’ I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother.

‘But one night in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut of my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk with her as if she had never died.

‘When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.”[2]

Perhaps you, too, can point to these subtle yet profound moments—especially following a loss or some great suffering or deepest love—when the cloud breaks, the sun streams through, a bird calls, an image flashes across your vision, a dream’s effect captivates you, a momentary feeling of peace and well-being engulfs you, a stranger impresses you in some unexpected, surprising way.

This is real. People talk to me about these experiences all the time. We can’t put our finger on it. We can’t rationalize our way through it. Well, we try, by talking about neural impulses and undigested fats in our bellies. But here we go again, dealing with our discomfort by reaching for yet another rational explanation. But can we explain away these experiences? Should we?

It’s easy to place religion into the esoteric realms of doctrinal outer-space. That’s our head space whose thoughts, theories and machinations serve to disconnect us from what is, right in front of us. And, sadly this state has almost exclusively defined the Reformation since the days of Martin Luther.

What about our bodies? What about our feelings? What about the natural occurrences in our daily lives? Are these not the purview of God as well?

Martin Luther insisted on the real, the tangible, as a valid and powerful expression of the divine. A faith that is characterized by the incarnation—Word becoming flesh—is a faith that cannot deny what we see, hear, taste and feel. When God became human in Jesus. When the Holy Spirit indwells in our hearts, our bodies. When we eat the body of Christ in the sacrament. God makes our reality God’s domain. Angels among us. The spiritual becomes tangible. Matter is, and has always been, the hiding place for God.

One of the clever jingles of the TSN1200 radio station in Ottawa is their oft-repeated phrase introducing whatever sport they broadcast: “The Sens play here” (NHL hockey); “The NFL plays here (football)”; “The RedBlacks play here”(CFL football); “The Fury play here” (soccer); “The 67s play here” (junior hockey).

That needs to be the church’s motto: “God plays here.” In real, tangible, visible, ways. “God plays here” among mortals, among real people in real situations. “God plays here” along with the angels and archangels.

We may not be able to figure it out completely. We may not know the mind and ways of God fully. We may not know this spiritual realm that interplays with our own. We may not even be able to rationalize it in the usual ways. And yet, we trust.

In the last line of the Evening Blessing from the Small Catechism, Martin Luther, after praying for the holy angel to be with him, he gives the following instruction:

“Then you are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.” And falling asleep quickly and cheerfully can only happen when, despite our inability to have all the solutions and figure out all our problems, we can feel that it will be well with my soul.

God will make God’s ways and purposes knowable to us, in the regular grind, routines and ordinary circumstances of our lives.

May you know some angels, too.

Trust.

 

[1]Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p.1162.

[2]Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life (Riverhead Books: 2002), p.5.

Alive with the sound of music – a funeral sermon

“The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

Do you know where that comes from? Yes, the Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, released in 1965. It was my favorite movie for many years. In fact, it was the first movie I saw as a little boy in the theatre.

A historical piece, it is set in the tumultuous days preceding the Second World War, in Austria. Julie Andrews plays Maria who is governess to the children of Baron von Trapp. The story is based on the real-life adventures of the Von Trapp Family Singers, one of the world’s best-know concert groups in this era.

In a public-school musical version of the story, I played Rolf, the young Nazi sympathizer who was courting one of the Von Trapp girls. I have come to know the songs and recognize them to this day. I can still see Julie Andrews running in the grass on a mountain side near Salzburg, her skirt twirling in the wind, and her face turned up to the sky. And she is singing at the top of her voice:

“The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

When we think of mountains—like the Alps in Austria or the Rocky Mountains in Canada—we think of the most outspoken aspect of all the various geographic land features. These are the kings of topography. This past summer my family stood at the base of Mount Robson looking up at the highest of the Rockies in Canada. Way up. Almost four thousand metres high.

It’s no wonder we’ve come up with the saying: “Shout it from the rooftops” because the higher you go, the louder you can sing and bellow out what you have on your heart. And Julie Andrews does just that.

I think of Edna with her bright, ‘mountain top’ way of expressing herself. Whenever she was in the room and had something to say, she expressed it with verve and vigor.

She was an outspoken advocate for community issues. Neighbors rallied around her strong voice speaking for or against certain municipal projects and policies. Edna spoke and people listened whether or not you agreed with her. Among thousands and thousands of hockey fans in the Canadian Tire Centre I am certain you could hear her voice above all the rest cheering on her beloved Senators. Edna did not hold back in letting her voice be heard in public and on Lowell Green -type radio call-in shows.

In the narthex of the church following worship, she talked to everyone in a voice we will never forget. Even during the prayers of the people when there was opportunity for the assembly to offer the names of those held in prayer, she always, always spoke up.

The prophets and poets, like Isaiah and David the Psalm-writer, look to the mountains where people gathered and good things happened. Isaiah describes a joyous feast that the shroud of death cannot overcome. We can’t imagine a table of rich foods and wines without the banter, laughter and voices heard loudly and emphatically. And so, the Psalm-writer instructs the faithful to look up, from where our help comes.

Mountains reach to the heavens and announce like no other vision the glory of God and the majesty and splendor of all creation.

And yet, when my family and I climbed (not Mount Robson!) a couple mountains this summer, something unexpected struck me when we were walking amidst the clouds. The silence. It was almost unnervingly quiet. The higher you go, the quieter it becomes. Moments of profound stillness.

“The hills are alive with the sound of music.” They say the spaces between the notes in music are part of the music. The pauses. The breaks. The rests. When no sound is made. Those can be the most important moments in a musical piece. The hills are still alive, even in the sound of silence.

At times in our lives when there is no sound, this can unnerve us. When life seems to screech to a halt. When nothing seems to happen. When no one says anything. When we feel unproductive. These moments can leave us feeling at best uncomfortable, and at worst anxious and despairing.

There are times when silence gives us all the opportunity to receive, not just to give. In a posture of receiving, of accepting, sometimes words aren’t necessary at all. At the Communion rail, we receive the grace and love of God. When Edna came forward and knelt in silence, she often had tears in her eyes. The feast on earth was for her a foretaste of the feast of heaven.

In her last moments, she was still ‘speaking’ with her body, her eyes. What strength she still could muster, she reached out with her arm to Someone ‘up there’ who was waiting. And, then, at the right moment, God reached out to hold her hand and bring her into the bosom of God’s eternal love.

We discover God not just when we feel the full force of the wind on our faces or when the waves crash on the beach or even when the mountains sing out the glory of creation. But also, just as real, when there is a lull in the breeze, when the waves retreat, when there is a pause in the music of life, when it is time to receive the Presence that has always been there for us.

The hills, indeed, are alive with the sound of music.

Resurrection in community

In the artwork of first centuries, for example, we see a striking difference between western and eastern portrayals of the resurrection of Christ. From western art we see pictures focusing almost exclusively on the risen Christ. Jesus emerges from the tomb alone as if to say, “Look at me! I made it!” Light glows from behind him. Whatever else there is in the painting, it is background material. Resurrection is primarily and exclusively about Jesus. And we declare “Jesus rose from the dead” as an individual.[3]

A good example is The Resurrection by Italian artist Andrea di Bonaiuto found in the Spanish Chapel, Florence, Italy.

Contrast this western artwork with the East. From eastern Christians, we see greater emphasis on the resurrection community. Resurrection is depicted more as a corporate event in the overcoming of death, evil and sin. Without denying the work of Christ in all of this, the implications are emphasized. So, it’s not so much about Jesus-the-individual conquering the grave as it is about all of creation rising from death to new life.

A good example is the painting outside the Church of St George in Romania.

The Eastern interpretation makes sense of challenging scriptures as one from the Gospel of Matthew; at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection: The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After Jesus’ resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.[4]  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus has implications for the whole people of God. Including us.

Both our tradition and the bible challenge our western bias. Instead of focusing only on the individual, we can learn how to be, and embrace being, in community.

Being and remaining in community is not easy. Relationships are messy. We would rather avoid having a crucial conversation.[2]We would rather not commit to a community because it’s easier to just leave when it gets tough. Especially when we can fall back to our individual, autonomous, private lives and independence. We would rather escape the boiling cauldron of community life.

We need to come clean with our natural bias towards individuality. That we value it. Really value it.

Let’s look briefly at today’s scripture. The story we read from Acts, chapter eleven, is actually a repeat of the same story in the previous chapter ten in Acts. The story line remains consistent: Peter has a vision from God and then meets three emissaries from Cornelius. And the message in both is the same:

Peter is called by God to expand his vision and mission of the Gospel to include Gentiles. Peter is challenged to overcome his stereotypes and distinctions between the Jews and Gentiles, and see God’s mission in more universal terms. No issue was more important to the early church than whether their newfound faith was intended only for Jews, or whether it was to include Gentiles while allowing them to remain Gentiles.[5]

The same story, told twice, in successive chapters. In fact, some of the words in chapter eleven are taken verbatim from chapter ten. Why did the author repeat the same story? Obviously this story was very important to the early church that it was re-told. Maybe a way to understand why, is to note what is different between the two. What’s the difference?

What changes in chapter eleven is the confrontation with ‘the apostles and the believers’ in Jerusalem.[6]Peter has been called before them, has heard their criticism, and now responds to it by telling them the story first conveyed in chapter ten. The difference is the context; and that context is Peter being called to task for his eating profane foods with those uncircumcised Gentiles.

We learn from the early church that believers were not reluctant to voice their differences. Peter did not escape. He didn’t go hide in the anonymity of a large shopping mall, airport or Caribbean vacation. He didn’t jump in his fishing boat and disappear on Lake Galilee.

Peter entered Jerusalem and squarely faced his critics. Too often, we try to be ‘nice’ at church. We try not to be confrontational. We try to sidestep controversy. We closet our differences. We paint smiles on our Sunday-morning faces. Even as we know deep down there may be an elephant in our collective room, and even as we suspect in our hearts irreconcilable issues. And, if we can’t handle this posturing, we leave. Get out of dodge. Back to being individuals in our private lives.

This text reminds us that controversy and difference needs to be voiced, not avoided. Conflict needs to be transformed, not ignored and swept under the rug. Living in Christ does not mean putting our heads in the sand. It means looking each other in the eye. It means accepting the other is unique, different from you.

What does this mean for us? First, when we say that we participate in the resurrection of Christ, we begin to see with fresh eyes the whole world not as risk or threat but as gift, invitation and trust. There’s what we call a ‘mutuality’ that informs our relationships—the way we relate with one another and especially those whom we may dislike or are fearful of.

In other words, mutuality can be described this way: what I see in you I see in me; what I see in me I see in you; seeing myself both in those I love and those I dislike.

Jean Vanier, the creator of the L’Arche Communities around the world, died a couple of weeks ago. He was the founder of homes for the disabled after he realized that all people, especially those with severe disabilities, have something important to offer to the world. In his writing entitled, “Ten Rules for life to become more human”, he said:

“The big thing about being human is to meet people. We need to meet people who are different and discover that the other person is beautiful.”[7]

To make this discovery for ourselves, especially in people we dislike, we need to practice paying attention for the gift in others.

The disciples are commanded by Jesus to love one another.[8]The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus means the focus will shift to the community. The spotlight of faith is now not on some heavenly, other-worldly reality. It is on the Body of Christ. The focus now is not so much the individual, historic Jesus. Jesus now lives in the Body of Christ—the church, the community, wherever the Spirit of the living God blows in all creation, in every time and every place. This is the expansive vision of being a follower of Christ today, in real time.

When we share the Peace of God—a tradition in our preparation for receiving Communion—we can practice paying attention to the diverse ways in which we communicate that Peace of Christ and participate in vastness of Christ’s presence. We practice how it is to love. An analogy, you might say. Because we are all different.

And just because some may wish not to share the Peace in the same way as you do—shaking hands, or giving/receiving a hug—doesn’t mean they don’t want to participate.

Our intention comes from the heart. The desire to participate emerges from inside of us. I suggest the first thing we pay attention to is eye contact. When we turn to the person beside us look them in the eye. These eyes of ours are windows into the soul. They reveal this good intention in our heart to communicate the love and peace of Christ. This is when you can say, “the Peace of Christ be with you.”

The second thing is, pay attention to what you do with your hands. When you open them outward and upward you are giving a cue that you are open for a hug. Mind what the other is doing with their hands after making eye contact. Are they also opening their arms? If not, they are giving you a cue not to hug. What else can you do?

Your hands can come palms together in a prayerful pose—the namaste. While keeping eye contact and bringing your hands together over your heart, you may bow slightly, saying, “Peace be with you.” You can also give a fist-pump/shoulder-pump if you do not wish to shake hands. Obviously if both of you are reaching to each other in a motion to shake hands, your cues are mutual.

Two assumptions to review: First, please do not assume everyone will do it the same way as you. That’s Community 101 and it applies to lots of things. Pay attention to body language. There’s more to this liturgical act than saying the words. Second, just because you receive different cues from the other doesn’t mean they don’t wish to participate in conveying the love and peace of  Christ to you. We just have to work harder at discovering and respecting their way.

There are various ways we can communicate to another that we participate in the life-giving activity of God in the world that God so loved. And continues to love, through us.

 

[2]Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High (Toronto: McGraw Hill, 2012), p.11-14

[3]Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Resurrection (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org), 21 April 2019.

[4]Matthew 27:52-53

[5]Stephen D. Jones in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 2 (Louisville: WJK Press, 2009)  p.451-455.

[6]Acts 11:1-3

[7]Jean Vanier cited in Canada Lutheran Vol 34 No3 (April-May 2019), p.8

[8]John 13:31-35, the Gospel reading for Easter 5C, Revised Common Lectionary.

What is Jesus doing?

I have a small humidifier for my guitar. I combine special crystals with distilled water in a small tube that I insert between the strings. This helps prevent the hardwood casing of the guitar from cracking and splitting. I need to keep filling the small tube with water at least once a week during the dry months of winter to preserve the wood.

At this time of year in Canada, especially under the influence of a continental climate, the air is dry. Very. But we don’t even notice or think about it. The only way I know it’s really dry when it’s so cold is my skin is itchy and my hands get cracked and rough. Also, a device at home tells me the humidity levels are quite low around 20-30%. Not only does our skin pay the price in dry conditions, our organs internally need hydration. So, we have to drink more water.

It’s hard to imagine, but we can actually be dehydrated in the winter. And these conditions are not overtly noticeable, really. Unless we pay attention to our skin or check the humidistat, it’s not apparent.

When we consider faith, or spirituality, we enter into a level of awareness similar to our awareness of water around us, or lack thereof. It’s not immediately nor easily perceptible where the water is or goes.

When we approach a problem or a challenge in life with the good intention of bringing our faith to bear on it, we must first uncover our way of thinking about it. Because how we think about it influences the choices we make.

Here are a couple ways of thinking that we are usually not aware of, in the choices and decisions we make. These are ways of thinking that the Gospel for today exposes.[1]

First, underneath all our words and actions often lurks the virus of dualism. ‘Dual’ means, two: Either/Or, This or That; This belongs and That doesn’t belong. This mental strategy exists just below the level of consciousness, and is ingrained in our western thinking especially since the Enlightenment and Reformation. This way of thinking has dominated our approach to faith, even though it was not the way of thinking of those who first scribed the biblical stories.

For example, John the Baptist in the Gospel story today says that he baptizes with water but the one coming after him will baptize with Spirit and fire.[2]We may comprehend this dualistically, suggesting that Jesus was not going to use water in his baptismal ministry. We then interpret this is as: In Christian baptism, water is irrelevant, unnecessary. After all, if Jesus, Son of God, won’t baptize with water, why should we? … and so on and so on.

You see how dualism creeps into our encounter with Scripture? It doesn’t help, then, that nowhere in the New Testament do we see Jesus performing anybaptisms, let alone with water, Spirit or fire.

When we get up in-the-head with these Gospel texts, we easily can get ourselves into a twisted, confused state. We start fighting amongst ourselves over right-thinking, doctrine and the efficacy of baptism. The church divides and we see in the history, especially after the Reformation, a proliferation of denominations. And how well has dividing-over-doctrine worked for us?

But, what if the solution lies in another way of thinking? It’s interesting that in our thinking that can go astray in this Gospel text, we do get some helpful cues to help us out of the quagmire of dualism:

“Repent!” is John the Baptist’s primary message which we see clearly in the other Gospels,[3]and earlier in the Gospel of Luke.[4]The Greek word, metanoia, translated as “repent”, literally means ‘to change your mind’. Then Saint Paul comes along and instructs, “Be transformed by a renewal of your mind.”[5]So, repentance does not start by changing bad habits, or feeling guilty for bad behaviour. Repentance is not fundamentally moralistic.

First, repentance means changing our way of thinking about a problem. Repentance means looking at a challenge in a completely different way from the way you’ve always thought about it. The message of repentance is about nurturing a healthy self-critique about your thought-process, and changing it. Once the mind is changed, hopefully the heart will soon follow.

So, from this text, what if it’s not either/or but both/and? What if water, fire and Spirit were all important aspects of our experience and expression of baptism in Christ? And nothing was being excluded from the mix?

Because from the story of creation in the book of Genesis, the Spirit hovers over the water and God speaks to create. So, in Baptism the ‘word’ and ‘water’ are vehicles of God to create something new in you.[6]

We don’t often think about our need for water, especially in a country like Canada where fresh drinking water abounds. After all, over 60% of our bodies are made up of water and most of this planet is covered by water. How can we take it for granted? How can we not see it?

Water, in its various states—frozen, liquid, gas—is integral to all of creation. It is pervasive. We cannot get away from it, or remove ourselves somehow from its all-encompassing reality. We cannot divide it out, easily. It cannot exist, apart from anything else in the natural world. Water connects all things. And we can only participate in its existence within and all around us. We belong to it; it belongs to us.

Often when the Baptism of our Lord comes up in the church calendar, we immediately think this story must primarily be about our baptism. Here is another way of thinking that we don’t usually uncover: a lifestyle that places the ultimate onus on us, individually.

So, this story gives us license, we presume, to make it all about us: our faith, our work, our sin, our need to somehow earn God’s favour by seeking out baptism or proving the worthiness of our faith. The upshot of this story of Jesus’ baptism must, therefore, mean we need to imitate Jesus as best as we can.

But what about asking another question? Instead of the popular question, “What would Jesus do?”, what about asking, “What is Jesus doing?”[7]

The first question—What would Jesus do?— assumes that the Savior is on the sidelines of our lives and that the burden of life and work is on our shoulders. When we seek to imitate Jesus’ life, we presume the Savior is not really saving but is setting impossibly high standards that we attempt to imitate by doing what we assume he would do if he were in our situation.

But to be clear, we do not imitate the Savior’s life; we participate in it. In first century context, this Gospel story has less to do with the nature of Jesus and more with his purpose.[8]

“What is Jesus doing?” is built on the conviction that he is alive, reigning, and at work in our lives. In other words, he is in our situation. And that changes everything, first about our thinking then also our mission. Instead of believing that the work of Christ is done-and-over and that now it is our turn to try to imitate his life and work, we take on the identity of being witnesses who watch and testify to his continued work of salvation that is unfolding before our eyes.

Obviously, Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, cross, and resurrection make up the decisive turning point in the great drama of salvation. But the Kingdom is still coming. And it doesn’t come through ourefforts at doing Christ’s work. It comes through the ongoing ministry of the ascended and reigning Son of God, who completes his own work through the Holy Spirit so that we may participate in what Jesus is doing.[9]

Not, what would Jesus do. Rather, what is Jesus doing.

So, Baptism gives us a physical assurance that our final destiny is no longer determined by the brokenness of our world and lives and twisted ways of thinking. Baptism gives us a physical assurance that our final destiny is the realm of God already breaking in all around us. Baptism is an invisible mark initiating us into a community that anticipates the fullness of God’s kingdom.[10]Baptism calls us to pay attention to what Jesus is doing all around us, like water.

God’s voice from heaven identifies Jesus as God’s son, in whom God is well pleased. The Baptism of our Lord is not what we are about, but about what God is up to in Jesus. If anything, this text calls us to choose how we will align ourselves with the purposes of God in Christ, in the world around us today.

To that end, when we love others, when we have mercy on others, when we show compassion, and affirm all people and creation—these are worthy strategies to align ourselves with what God is doing to make everything belong.

May the grace of God, like water, wash us and surround us in hope and in thanksgiving for all that belongs to God.

 

[1]Luke 3:15-17,21-22; Baptism of our Lord, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary

[2]Luke 3:16

[3]For example, see Matthew 3:1-2 and Mark 1:4

[4]Luke 3:8

[5]Romans 12:2

[6]Donald W. Johnson, Praying the Catechism  (Augsburg Fortress, 2008)

[7]M.Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), p.59.

[8]Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary on Luke 3:15-17,21-22” in workpreacher.org for January 13, 2019

[9]Barnes,ibid.

[10]Ibid.

Christmas, now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“’Yes, of course.’ He laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

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

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

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

[4]Matthew 2:13-15

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

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

We the Saints

Death will be no more … for the first things have passed away… ‘See, I am making all things new.’ (Revelation 21:1-6a)

Who are the saints? And, who cares?

I recall an image of running the Boston marathon described by a church leader in the context of social justice. She said that congregations and persons of faith are like marathon runners. When tens of thousands of runners line up at the start of the race, only the best runners are at the front of the pack. And when the starter’s pistol signals to begin running, it takes hours by the time everyone crosses the starting line.

The implication, I believe, is that some persons or congregations are better at this job of being the church. They belong at the front. The implication, I believe, is that there is a small group of super-stars that must lead the pack and give witness to the rest of the runners ‘how it’s done’, spurring the rest of us to be better than we are. The implication, is that not everyone is as valuable as those at the front, leading the way. The implication is that there are, to be sure, the saints; and, then, there are the SAINTS. A hierarchy.

I wondered about this. And, on one level, she is correct: The kingdom of the world needs, or wants, superstars. To survive according to the world’s rules, we want to find motivation to be better. The NBA wants the Stephen Currys and Lebron James’. The NHL wants the Conner McDavids’, Austin Matthews’ and Sidney Crosbys’. Business wants the Elon Musks, Oprah Winfreys and Bill Gates’ of the world—for better or for worse. Politics wants the Doug Fords, the Kathleen Wynnes, the Andrew Scheers and the Justin Trudeaus—for better of for worse. They set the bar—high or low, depending on your perspective.

The kingdom of the world wants superstars. The world wants to compete, to compare and to conflict. Even kill. Because, some are better. And some are worse. Some are more valuable, and some … not so much. Some set the bar while others don’t quite measure up. Yes, we like to say on All Saints Sunday that we are all saints. But, there are the saints; and then, there are the SAINTS.

We identify and glorify the heroes of faith, while overlooking the value in the sainthood of the less noticed, the less attractive, the less ‘gifted.’ The kingdom of the world—its culture of comparison and competition—has indeed infected our idea and practice of the Reign of God on earth.

We are all the children of God. We are a community. Some will say, a family, whose purpose and meaning we discover in our lives on earth. “Thy kingdom come on earthas it is in heaven,” we pray. On earth. First, we do need to accept that the church on earth is where it’s at for us. The vision of heaven on earth, of the new Jerusalem descends upon the earth. We don’t find who we are as followers of Christ—as Saints—apart from our community. To be a follower of Christ is to be discovered in community.

Not by ourselves. Not alone on the mountaintops, nor alone in the valleys. Not enlightened in the ivory towers of private illumination. Not sequestered in solitude in the libraries of ancient wisdom. Not by winning individual races. Not in individualistic endeavours that don’t need anyone else, or to which everyone else needs to conform by our powers of persuasion, force or pressures.

We don’t find who we are and what we are to do as followers of Christ—as the Saints on earth—apart from community. Even in the traditional format, the saints and conferred their title by the community. The process is, no doubt, elaborate and needs the validation of the Pope and subjected to all manner of procedure.

In Protestant theology, generally, our sainthood is conferred upon all the baptized. In baptism, we are united and joined into Christ’s death and resurrection. We are enjoined with the church on earth and the saints of heaven on a journey towards full and complete union with God when we will one day see face to face. In baptism and at the communion table, we are all placed on a level playing field.

As such, relationships matter. How we behave with one another on that journey, matters. What we say to one another, matters. How we communicate with one another, matters. The words we say, and the words we don’t say, to each other, matters. How we do church, today—not yesterday, not fifty years ago, not in the last century but today—matters. ‘Thy kingdom come on earth.’ Today.

The vision of God is meant for us to grow, to transform, to change into the likeness of Christ Jesus. The community on earth strives to reflect the divine, eternal vision. The community on earth, the church, grows into what we are meant to be, on earth. The community on earth includes and embraces all of creation, excluding no one and doing violence in word and deed to no one.

It is vital that when violence is done against any group, we stand up for the downtrodden. We stand beside those who are victimized because of their religion. As Lutherans, especially today, a week after the gun-shooting and murder of Jewish people while they prayed in their house of worship in Pittsburgh, we stand up against such hatred. As Lutherans, especially today, we must repudiate again Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. Just because we are Lutheran doesn’t mean we regard Luther as infallible, without sin, as anything more than the term he used to describe us all: simul justus et peccator—we are simultaneously saints and sinners. So was he.

The Dean of the Ottawa Ministry Area of our Lutheran Church underscored the nature of this church on earth of which we are members. She said in her sermon on Reformation Sunday last week: “In Ottawa we are really one church but worship in different locations.” Ottawa Lutherans are one church. This is a change of thinking. We are becoming the new thing God is calling us to.

Together, as one, standing beside all the saints and sinners. Together, as one, standing alongside the downtrodden. Together, as one, standing with the victims of group-identity based violence. Standing against all forms and means of hatred towards ‘others’ who are different from us. The vision of John of Patmos is an inclusive one. The new earth and the new Jerusalem does not exclude anyone. The new community includes all.

Even you.

The one who just got some bad news. Even you.

The one whose marriage is on the rocks. Even you.

The one who lost their job. Even you.

The one whose health continues to fail. Even you.

The one whose anxiety and worry crushes any hope for the future. Even you.

The one whose sexual identity invites judgement from others. Even you.

The one who is new to Canada. Even you.

The one who failed the math test. Even you.

The one who was bullied at school. Even you.

The one who broke the law. Even you.

 

Together we will find our way. Better together.

Thanks be to God! Welcome home, saint and sinner. Welcome home. Amen!

Pilgrims rising

Don was a husband and father who one day was commuting home after work in a bad thunder storm, when the car he was driving was struck by lightning. Don was okay, and he managed to get home. Sitting down with his teenaged children, he relayed to them his harrowing experience.

Expecting at least a small degree of sympathy from them, Don was perplexed when his eldest interrupted: “Quick, let’s go buy a lottery ticket because they say the chances of being struck by lightning are like the chances of winning the lottery.”

The disconnect we feel in how Jesus’ disciples often responded to him is not dissimilar. He tells them he must die a horrible death. And they respond by demanding seats of power, authority and glory beside Jesus. His disciples continually seem out of sync with their leader’s meaning.

The Gospel for today[1]must be read in the larger context of Mark’s writing here. In Mark, we see that this is the third time Jesus announces his death, the third time the disciples respond in perplexing ways, and the third time Jesus responds to them by giving them a commentary on true discipleship.[2]

By looking at the what comes immediately before this text, we also discover that the disciples who followed Jesus were afraid.[3]It’s fair to presume, then, their desire and request to secure positions of glory once Jesus took his rightful throne on earth and/or in heaven was born out of fear.

The connection between fear and striving for security is common in all of us, to this day.

We are afraid. We fear the changing realities which make new demands on our time, energy and resources in the church. We fear the outcome of our health concerns. We fear the effects of an uncertain future, in our nation, our world and in our personal lives. In the fear of the unknown, it is a natural knee-jerk to secure anything down. Do something, anything, to give yourself the illusion of control. An insurance policy.

Let’s give the disciples the benefit of the doubt, to suggest perhaps they were aware that Jesus’ path was going to lead to his arrest, torture and death. And they knew that likely they, too, would be caught in the crossfire. They were probably aware that Jesus was causing an uncomfortable stir among the powers that be, religiously and politically, in Jerusalem. They saw the writing-on-the-wall.

And in the midst of this fear, the Sons of Zebedee tried to insure some benefit for all the sacrifices they were already making and would likely continue to make. Perhaps if they didn’t understand something, it was they couldn’t yet grasp the depths of the sacrifices they would make as a community of faith.

What Jesus stands for is a different way altogether from the way of the world. The disciples are caught up in the power plays of the world. They have in mind a hierarchy, a pecking order, of who’s on top. There is this Machiavellian feel to the debate amongst themselves, as if relationships of power must only be a win/lose scenario, a zero-sum game where in order to get ahead some people have to be left behind.

The way of Jesus, in contrast, is the way of the Cross. Jesus exposes the false way of the world by surrendering to it and dying by it. The way of the cross exposes our folly and calls us to a deeper more inclusive way.

Martin Luther first coined the phrase in his Heidelberg Disputation written in 1518. He called it, “A theology of the cross.” It is a way of understanding and imagining God. That is, God was, and is, being revealed to us in all truth most clearly and unequivocally in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed—and continues to reveal—the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world.

Luther thus criticized a “theology of glory” which presumes God validates faith, and is only validated by, success, measures of progress and triumphal conquering over any weakness or adversary. This theology dominates not only in our society, but sadly also in the church.

A theology of glory reflects an unbridled, Pollyanna optimism that avoids and resists places of defeat, failure, vulnerability and weakness as having anything to do with divine identity or purpose. A theology of glory undermines real people and a God who is known in the darkest times and places of life. It despises our common humanity and the losses we all endure.

The way of Jesus is for all people, not just for those who make it to the top. The way of Jesus is for all people, because we all have our crosses to bear. We can share in our common suffering. And grow together. It is therefore in community, the Body of Christ, the body ‘broken for all’ we say in the Communion, where Christ is revealed and where our true purpose is born.

#OttawaRising is the hashtag used, announced and displayed on Ottawa Senators Hockey club promotional material. The vision is of the team rising out of the ashes of disappointment from last season. That was the season from hell, when they finished second-to-last place in the league standings, suffered through a broken, conflicted locker room and as a result had to trade away star players.

But it is only standing in the ashes that you can claim the vision of ‘rising’ again. The Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals wouldn’t declare resurrection as their identity, this season. It only makes sense to proclaim the resurrection in the midst of the defeat of the cross.

The Gospel abounds with a promise. The disciples may not hear it as such. But Jesus has great compassion on them. He does not rebuke them for being out of sync with him. He affirms that they will indeed drink the cup that he must drink and be baptized with the baptism that he must endure.

Jesus will continue to offer this promise and hope to us, that we will not always need to act and respond out of our fear. That what we do as a community does not need to be knee-jerk platitudes that only keep us stuck in cycles of fear, self-preservation and defensiveness. Jesus will continue to call us into deeper expressions of serving others and of paying attention to the needs of others not just our own.

If there was anything the disciples should have known with any amount of certainty, is that Jesus’ promise is secure and very sure. Because by being in last place, and losing it all, those first disciples would one day rise.

And so will we.

[1]Mark 10:35-45

[2]C. Clifton Black in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common LectionaryYear B Volume 4 (Louisville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.189.

[3]Mark 10:32