Lift, and open the gates!

I reacted with sadness and sympathy looking at the photo of my friend’s dog whose entire face, chest and front legs were pierced with dozens — maybe even hundreds — of the sharp quills of a porcupine.
The photo was taken of the dog in the back of the car on the way to the vet, and she seemed stable enough — like the look of someone who knows they’ve been stung and know they just need to hold it together for a bit longer.

I felt sorry for that dog because it was simply being true to its nature — maybe motivated by a natural impulse to be friendly and play with another creature. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always yield the desired results in relationships. Often, expressions of love and care are misunderstood. And the response can sting — just like this poor dog! I wonder if this dog will ever approach another porcupine again with such exuberance. 

On All Saints Sunday, Christians remember not only those who have gone before us who now taste and see the glory of God in eternity. We also reflect on the “communion of saints” on earth. And, like we did last Sunday during the celebration of the Reformation, we ask the good question: Who are we? Who are the saints? What qualifies a Christian for sainthood, beginning in this life?

Psalm 24 may suggest that no one living can belong to this glorious, virtuous group of people. Only those with clean hands and pure hearts who do not swear deceitfully (v.4) can qualify. A sharp tone of exclusivity rings throughout our tradition. Since I am not good enough, and will never be good enough, I have nothing good to offer. And so I will grovel in the dirt, turned in on myself and my sins.

Such negativity dominates our way of life. We don’t see abundance, we see scarcity. We don’t see forgiveness of sins as much as we love to talk about and dwell on our sinfulness. We don’t see the good, we see the bad. It’s a dangerous world out there, after all, and so we need to build closed, protective fortresses around us. And therefore, we get stuck in a self-centred, self-inhibiting style of life. Who am I to be able to offer anything of value? Let alone be counted among the saints?!

The bible’s poetry, today from the Psalms, offers insight into this problem. The Scriptures reveal a way of emphasizing what is important. Really important. We see this method most in the Hebrew scriptures — the Old Testament Psalms and prophets: Repetition.

Repetition of words and phrases underscores a sense of urgency or jubilation. In the Psalm for today — 24 — certain phrases are repeated. The context is a massive procession coming up the road to Jerusalem; God is returning to the temple being restored in the city of God. 

And as the people ascend to the walls, the cry goes out not once (v.7-10), but several times: “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” (x2) The general image of ‘lifting up’, in fact appears almost half a dozen times in this short Psalm. What emphasis is being sought by the Psalmist, here?

The insistence of lifting up the gates mounts beyond the request to raise the gate just high enough, or the doors just wide enough, for the King of glory to enter and then to be slammed shut in the face of the others in the procession. Rather, the intent is for the gates to be raised so high above the walls that they will never need to be shut again. The intent is for the doors to be flung off their hinges, in order that the seekers and followers of the Lamb may follow him, redeemed and welcomed, into the courts of God. (1)

“The barriers to paradise, like the stone rolled away from the empty tomb in the garden, have been pushed aside to give us unfettered access to behold the smiling face of a gracious and accepting God, whose mercy, rather than our own merits, enables us to pass through the open door.”

We need to remember and appreciate who our King of glory is: A man, named Jesus, who encountered in his short life on earth all that we must endure and suffer. Our God is a God who became one of us in order to fully appreciate our own station in life. God understands our human weaknesses, suffers and endures with us on the road up to Jerusalem, and longs to welcome us into the divine presence. 

Ours is a God who bears the scars and wounds of crucifixion, even in his resurrected form. God is one who identifies with us seekers and wanderers who bear the scars of life, the woundedness of sin — and yet who long for something more: a deeper communion with God and the saintly procession going to Jerusalem together.

If we want to know God, we must know and accept ourselves; if we want to accept ourselves, we must know and accept God. Who are we? Well, perhaps we first need to ask: Who is God? Clean hands, a pure heart, a humble spirit, integrity and honesty — these are infinitely more difficult and subtle a list of characteristics suggested by this Psalm than the mandates against theft and adultery and the taking of another life (as in the Ten Commandments).

The qualifiers for sainthood are not a cut and dry check list easily accomplished like completing a shopping list. Rather, the qualifiers for sainthood are worked out in a life-long journey and sometimes seesaw struggle with the One who despite bearing the scars of suffering is the only One with clean hands and a pure heart.

Who are we? Well, then, Who is God? In Jesus, God is the One who welcomes us all into the holy city, whose cry goes out to lift up those gates — I mean, really lift up those gates — forever — in order to let in that whole procession of rag-tag, diverse, wounded, broken followers!

Knowing who we are, appreciating fully the grace and acceptance of us by a God who knows us, what do we have to lose? We can offer what little and what much we have to help others. We can use the gifts we have been given for the sake of the other, and with others, on this journey. We don’t have to be afraid. We can take the risk to reach out — not worried about the results but only convinced of the value of what we do.

Whether we have been stung by the quills of disappointment; whether we have been hurt by the failures of our lives; whether we have been weighted down by the pressures of performance in work and play; whether we endure the pain of physical, mental, emotional illness; whether we grieve through the losses of life — we are still on the way! And will always be!

The highlight for me during the clerics cycling challenge (clericchallenge.com) was the finish line, when we all crossed together. This experience symbolized for me what the culture of Christian community ought to feel like and be like.

   
 We are part of a holy procession led by the King of Glory whose destination is sure. We have nothing to lose. If God’s grace is extended even to the generation of seekers (v.6), then we have nothing to lose. If what we are about is not a competition, then we have nothing to lose. If we don’t need to find fault in the other to prove our own self-worth, then we have nothing to lose. If it’s not about one-up-man-ship, then we can go for broke and not worry about it. If we don’t need to question who our Saviour is — who already accomplished for us our salvation — we don’t need to doubt our final destination. Then, why not share now what we have with others on this road?

All the saints on earth, despite the scars of life we bear, have gifts to share with other seekers on that journey. What gifts and blessings of God reflect in your life? In discerning this, remember: It’s not up to you alone! We don’t need to be perfect. We gain the gates not by our own merit or even hard work. Ours is the victory only because of the One for whose reason the gates are lifted in the first place.

Thanks be to God!
(1) — Michael Morgan in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. of “Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 4” Fortress Press, 2009, p.228

Are you an honest sinner?

A Christian leader (Laurence Freeman) commented on the 25th anniversary edition of “Rolling Stones” magazine. It contained interviews with pop music icons over that time period, starting with John Lenin all the way to Madonna.

He was wondering why young people especially were drawn to these, their idols. Of course, many pop stars are not exemplary people. They are not saints.

But they are, what he calls, ‘honest sinners’. Which reminds me of what Martin Luther said about us: That we are at the same time: Saints AND Sinners.

In the church, I think we get the ‘Saint’ part. But how do we validate the ‘Sinner’ part of ourselves?

In the Gospel text for Ordinary Time on this last Sunday in September 2014, we continue to work through the parables given by Jesus, in the latter part of the Gospel of Matthew.

In the assigned pericope, the authority of Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees (Matthew 21:23-32). In response, Jesus tells a story of a Father who asks both his sons to work in his vineyard. The first son says he wont do it, but does. The second son says he will do it but doesn’t.

What do we make of the first son who does his Father’s bidding? He does not want to obey. And he is honest about it.

The verb in the original Greek in this text (v.29) for “changed”, as in, “he changed his mind” (or as many English translations have it — “he repented”), is not the common one usually associated with the idea of a total transformation of character (as is implied in, for example, Matthew 3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”).

In fact, the only other place in the Gospel of Matthew where the exact same form appears is in Matthew 27:3, when Judas experiences a regretful change of purpose that ends in despair, remorse and his demise (see Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers).

Perhaps a better translation would have it as “a caring change of heart”; or, “a change of heart burdened with care.”

This form suggests that a heart nurtured in the love of God leads to action that not only obeys the call of God, but does it willingly. Even though the first son’s mind and his words at first are contrary to the will of the Father, his follow-through redeems him in the end. An imperfect confession it is, to be sure. But, ultimately, words are not enough.

Although in the case of both sons words do not match the deeds, “the repentance of the former is preferable to the hypocrisy of the latter;” Kathryn Blanchard says it best: “True righteousness is in the doing, rather than in the confessing” (in “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, WJK 2011, p.118).

I see a possible link here with the alternate first testament text assigned for this Sunday, from Exodus 17:1-7 (We also encounter this text on the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A). The Israelites are on the journey to the promised land, and yet again (for the fourth time in the sequence of these texts from Exodus) they complain to Moses about their lack of food; and in this, case, water.

They are thirsty. They are without a basic need for human survival. We are not talking here about typical ‘first-world problems’ — complaining about the weather, or unable to sync online calendars among family members with different smart phones, or dealing with a dilemma of how to invest money in competing markets, or having to cancel a credit card that was stolen, etc. These are things we complain about, and may even pray about.

But the Israelites’ complaints to Moses are about a basic, human need that they lack. I cannot blame them for being upset! They will die without water. They are being ‘honest sinners’, aren’t they?

Scientists, medical professionals, and child care workers will agree today that love is such a basic human need. If a person, especially at a young age, lacks love in their life, this absence of love will even stunt their physical development. They will be underdeveloped, physically, because of love being absent. The giving and receiving of love is a fundamental, human need.

Jesus tells the Pharisees that the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter heaven before they will. Maybe because these ‘lowest rung’ folk in the religious hierarchy of the day certainly don’t present themselves in a religiously acceptable way. There is no pretence, performance, pious evasion. There is no making appearances, no self-denial nor self-repression. There is no saying-the-right-things, no artifice, no self-consciousness to their being and behaving. They are truly ‘honest sinners’.

Both of Moses and of Jesus, the people demanded ‘signs’ of God’s presence. The Exodus text ends with those ominous and faithless words: “Is God with us, or not?” Even after the visible and tangible sign of water was given to quench their thirst, the Israelites still doubted. Even though Jesus performed miracles; even though the resurrected, bodily form of Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee following Easter morning, they did not ‘believe’ (Matthew 28:17).

The ‘signs’ are not the point of the Gospel — God’s love IS. Acts of love demonstrate our Christianity more than dogmas and creeds.

And when we participate in loving, caring action …

We are truly free. Free to be ourselves. And free to do the right thing. Perhaps whatever good things honest sinners do, they do it then from the heart. Their giving of love, however unnoticeable and seemingly irrelevant acts of love, is authentic and real — something the Pharisees so stuck in their heads and dogmas could not grasp.

You might notice that the Father — who in this parable may represent the attitude of God — does not condemn the first son for saying the wrong thing. The Father does not ‘correct’ the son’s imperfect words. The Father accepts him just as he is. And in the freedom of God’s love, the son then experiences a change of heart.

God accepts you as you are. God has faith in you. Because of God’s steadfast love and unwavering faithfulness in you, what will you do?