The case of the missing pulpit

As we worship this morning, the sanctuary at Faith Lutheran Church building is gutted — empty, a shell. Not only is the cork on the walls now removed and the old carpet disposed. The light fixtures, most of the furniture, liturgical items and holy hardware is stowed away for the time being to be recovered, restored and positioned again in their proper place once the renovations are completed.

I know some of you who have been at the site in the last day or so helping to get it ready for the workers, have been asking the question: “Where is the pulpit?” I can see the title of the next best-selling mystery novel: “The Case of the Missing Pulpit.” Where is it?

What a mystery! Well, this is what happened …

Last Sunday afternoon as I was helping members of our altar care committee removing certain items, we ran into a little problem. Our pulpit is mobile; it sits on wheels. So, depending on the needs of the day, we move it around. 

Well, we moved it alright — all the way to the door of the sacristy where we were hoping to store it. Without doing serious alterations (and damage!) to the door frame, there was no way that pulpit would get through. And the cloakroom, where we normally store the pulpit at Christmas, was going to be filled with stacks of chairs. Where on an already compact floor space would we store a rather heavy and cumbersome piece of teak-wood furniture?

It was the spur of the moment when I offered to put the pulpit in my car. I had the back seats down anyway at the time, and the rear hatch opened just wide enough to allow the pulpit to slide in fairly easily. And I drove away with church’s pulpit in the back seat of my car! Truth be told!

During the 45 minute drive home to Arnprior, my mind raced: What would I say to someone who would behold this mystery! I was also wondering where on earth I would put it. I had no clue. There was room in our garage, but most of that space was already tagged for bikes, tires, canoes and garden implements for the winter season.

My wife and I sat in the living room that evening scratching our chins and trying to come up with solutions. But to no avail. I guess I would drive around with a pulpit in the back seat of my car for three months! A mobile preacher who comes with his own pulpit! What a deal!

Barbecuing on the back deck that evening, I looked above the tree line and my eyes rested on the steeple of a church, just around the corner from our place. After making a phone call, and depending on the good will of their pastor and the muscle of a couple of their men from that community — and our pulpit now has a resting place. 

So, if anyone asks: Our pulpit is in the safe-keeping in the building of the good people of St John Lutheran Church in Arnprior. Let it be heard! “The case of the missing pulpit” … mystery solved!

I’m usually the kind of person who wants to have a plan, to know how things ought to go and what the end result should be, before doing anything. This is also usually a good thing. Driving away with the pulpit without any clue as to where it should go, was a little unnerving for me. It was, nevertheless, a good exercise for letting go and trusting that a solution would present itself. And it did, in a most gracious, natural and expedient way.

Some of you know that I am planning to go on a sabbatical next year. The theme of my sabbatical is ‘pilgrimage’. And part of the experience is to walk an ancient path, some eight hundred kilometres long, on the north coast of Spain on the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I’ve read that a majority of people who start the pilgrimage — hundreds of thousands every year — don’t finish it. Many pilgrims give up, some even just 25 kilometres into it. 

What many successful pilgrims learn is that all that is required is to remain committed to the journey itself. What is needed, is to unlearn deep-seeded attitudes about what justifies us, as human beings. To persevere in that un-learning process over six-weeks, even against all the challenges of the trail. To learn that all that is required is simply to put the next foot forward. To not give up, to not lose heart. And to pray always.

To dial it down to accepting that it’s all about taking the next step faithfully — nothing more, nothing less. Although simple, it is not easy for most of us to comprehend let alone do: Just walk. Eight hundred kilometres. Because it’s not about our ability and resourcefulness in the end. It’s not about rushing to the next distraction, checking off the next thing on our list in a busy, hectic lifestyle. It’s about something much bigger than us and our ‘stuff.’ A pilgrimage can teach us that.

That was the message from last week’s Gospel from Luke 18:1-8, to pray always. The most important thing is to remain focused on staying the course, to do the prayer. The solution — the answer, the benefit — will present itself as long as we remain committed to the journey, the adventure. 

Last week, we learned to persevere in prayer. This week in the story that follows we learn how to pray. And I want to reflect David Lose’s perspective here (1), to watch for the trap that Luke sets for us readers. Remember, the Gospel of Luke is full of reversals — the song of Mary, the beatitudes in the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ conversation with the thief hanging beside him on a cross, etc. Luke, it seems, delights in setting up his readers with presumed expectations, and then pulling the rug from under our feet.

It’s too easy merely to paint the bad guy as the Pharisee. Because don’t forget, the Pharisee is law abiding, has fulfilled all the demands of his religion, lives a pure and righteous life. Isn’t this what faithful living looks like? After all, we shall know others by their fruits, no? The Pharisee does a lot of things right. Except for one thing:

The Pharisee, while living the right life, has forgotten the source of his life and all the good in it. Otherwise, he would not despise another whom God loves. He falsely believes it’s all about him and his efforts alone. He falsely believes others who are not like him, need to be, in order for them to be good people.

And, it’s too easy to side with the ‘humble’ tax collector. Let’s not let him off the hook too easily. The tax collector only recognizes that all he is about is depending on the mercy and forgiveness of God. That’s in good contrast to the Pharisee, yes. And that’s the challenging starting place, to be sure.

But nowhere do we see a sign of his repenting. Does he desire to have his life turned around? He may very well be as self-engrossed as the Pharisee. Just the other side of the same coin. The tax collector strikes me as one who might remain stuck in cycles of self-pity, negative self-talk and depression. 

He might be one who goes back every Sunday to remind himself how bad he really is. A false humility, we may call it, where it feels good, actually, to put yourself down before others. “I’m not good enough.” “I don’t have a strong faith.” “I can’t do this or that.” 
Will he not hear that God’s forgiveness can lift him out of what may appear a chronic negativity? Will he not hear that he is not all of the time all worms and dirt and badness within? Will he not hear that God has given him a great gift within himself, in himself?

No matter with whom we relate, or cheer for, in this text — the Pharisee or the tax collector — we run into a wall with both of them. And I believe this wall is meant to test to what degree we focus too much on ourselves in the practice of our faith and in our prayer, and not on God.

The trap is to call us out whenever what we do or what we decide as communities of faith is more about our own stuff, than about the bigger picture, the holy and wonderful mystery that is God.

At least one item from our worship practice is not in storage, but stands in this place alongside yours — the Paschal Candle. It is called, ‘paschal’, because it describes the ‘mystery’ of Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. We call it, ‘the Paschal Mystery’. 

We are not talking here about a mystery like ‘the case of the missing pulpit’, where it is simply a question of information about something that is already known, just not to everyone. “Mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand”; A mystery, in the holy sense, is as Richard Rohr puts it: something you can “endlessly understand” (2). We never ‘arrive’ at a complete knowing, this side of eternity, of what God is all about. We never completely ‘get it’. We are always growing, changing, discovering, adventuring.

It is natural to seek signs. The Pharisees and disciples demanded Jesus: Give us a sign! And the only ‘sign’ that Jesus was willing to give them, was the “sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29). Many of us know that story from the Old Testament, where Jonah fights against God’s will, refuses to follow where God calls, doesn’t want to do it! 

Only by spending time in the belly of a whale for a few days, where he can do nothing, does Jonah become aware and accept that it’s not about him, or his mission, but about God’s purpose, God’s call, God’s mission. Doing God’s mission will call us beyond our own agendas, preferences, and even personalities. Not that those things are bad. But this is about something a lot bigger than our resumes, list of accomplishments, or even our baggage and painful histories.

We are on a journey moving forward, a pilgrimage, to discover what God is about in this holy space and in the world around us, now. We already received signs of God grace — your authentic and heartfelt welcome and accommodating us, for starters. This beautiful space and hospitality we can share. This is God’s good work among us and through you. Thank you!

We might not know what this will look like at the end of the journey together as Faith Lutheran Church worships alongside Julian of Norwich Anglican Church over the next few months. “I’ve got this pulpit in the back seat of my car, and I have no idea where it’s going!”
We might not know where this adventure leads.

But we don’t go alone. We travel this uncertain road together, side by side. We may suffer through some moments together as we figure things out, as we feel our way into this journey, as we learn and perhaps go through some growing pains together on these first few steps.

But let us be encouraged by the Paschal Mystery, which points to the way of Christ, the self-emptying and giving that leads to a marvellous and wonderful resurrection from all that is passing away, transforming us into the new thing that God is doing. The light of Christ shines ever and ever, even in the darkness and through our most challenging journeys. 

Thanks be to God! Amen.


(1) David Lose, “The Pharisee, the Tax Collector, and the Reformation”; Monday, October 21, 2013; http://www.workingpreacher.org 

(2) Richard Rohr, “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation” (Whitaker House Publishing, Pennsylvania, 2016)

Sanctuary

For a year and a half my wife and I took dance lessons. We learned Latin dances such as the Salsa, Rumba, Samba, Triple-Step, Merengue, and the Cha-Cha. 

I was motivated, at the start, by a beautiful vision in my imagination: I could see my wife and I swinging to the music, sweeping across the dance floor, effortlessly. I had a vision of us moving in complete sync with one another, twirling and swaying together in perfect rhythm and harmony. What a vision!

When I first proposed we take these lessons together, she was all game. So, every week we dutifully went to our lesson and met with our dance instructor who showed us the steps and taught us the moves. We were doing this together!

After a few lessons, however, I was becoming a little bit disappointed. My vision was not panning out. We weren’t always in sync with each other. Indeed, more often than not, we were stepping on each other toes! Oh yes, we giggled about our missteps, but it seemed we were not getting anywhere.

Our instructor calmly yet persistently reminded us that we needed to practice. Before the fun would come, she said, we had to master the steps. And for me, the lead, I had to memorize the patterns and in my mind always be one step ahead, knowing where we were going with each and every move. And this took work! And persistence. And time. The fun would come later, I held on to the promise.

It wasn’t as easy as I imagined it would be, working towards that vision. In fact, it was my wife who grew into the love of the dance and often had to cajole and encourage me to keep up with the program.

The Gospel text (Luke 18:1-8) today describes a woman who is persistent in her pursuit of justice. Jesus tells this parable to illustrate what it means not to lose heart. In the story, persistence is not just about building up the courage to do something beyond one’s comfort zone just once, and then give up because it doesn’t turn out. 

How often, isn’t that how we operate when trying something new for the first time? Something doesn’t please us the way we expected or wanted the first time we try, and so we just give up on it. No, in the story, she goes back “continually”. The vision of justice never wavers in her commitment to do the hard work.

This relentless pestering is accomplished in adversity, and really against all odds. Why the woman would even consider trying, up against someone in power who has no fear of God and no respect for anyone, is remarkable. At the onset, we would say she is hardly setting herself up for success!

Setting up a contrast of visions to describe God, is what Jesus is up to in telling this story. The place where we meet God is a place of mercy, of sanctuary. People, in the course of history, could enter a church and find respite from the condemnation of the law. The police, the authorities, the powers that be, even the force of the law could not touch you in the holy space. Here, you found immediate relief and mercy, just by entering the space.

The place where we exercise our prayer is a place where we receive forgiveness, despite the imperfection and sordid realities of our lives in the world. That is why Jesus tells of a woman receiving justice, not because she goes to the temple per se, but a court of law in the secular world: Even there, you can find justice, despite the unjust and sinful people involved. God’s love is greater even then the most powerful, unjust judge.

Indeed, this is our challenge today. God is not just in one, holy place that we have cherished for the past fifty-five years. God is out there, too! In the imperfection of our Monday-to-Saturday lives. In the imperfection of our secular world. In the seat of government. In the marketplace. And, would you believe it, also in other churches. The truth of the Gospel resides in a worshipping community that is far from perfect. That, in fact, has weakness and brokenness imbedded in our very being together.

When Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the River Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-31), he didn’t hold back any punches, so to speak. He let God have it, and prevailed! His encounter with God, nevertheless, left him with a physical reminder of relationship with God: A bad hip. He would live the rest of his days, “limping because of his hip.” 

To be in communion with the Holy One is to bear the physical, real mark of sacrifice, of weakness, of imperfection. Followers of Christ, if you want to know them, are not perfect people. And if you meet Christians who appear to be perfect — or you want them to be — you are missing the truth of it I am certain. In fact, we would throw our lot in with the unjust judge, more than anyone else in these stories I would guess.

I read recently a story told by Marianne Williamson in her most recent book: “Tears to Triumph”. It’s “about a chimpanzee troop in which a portion of the population displayed depressed behaviour. They didn’t eat with the rest of the chimps, play with the rest of the chimps, or sleep with the rest of the chimps.

“A group of anthropologists wondered what effect the absence of these depressed chimps would have on the rest of the troop and removed them for six months. When they returned, they found that all of the other chimps, those who remained in the troop, had died! Why?

“According to one analysis, the chimps perished because the so-called depressed chimps among them had been their early warning system. The depressed chimps had been depressed for a reason; they registered that a storm was coming or snakes, or elephants, or disease. The presence of the depressed chimps had been an aid to the survival of the entire population … ” (1)

We need each other. We need our faults, you could say, just as much as we need our strengths. To remind us of what it’s all about. To point us to the Cross and the Empty Tomb. To help us remember that the church is not about our mission, but about God’s mission. To emphasize the grace of God under which all of us stand. To encourage us to work together with others that appear different from us. Going to, and persisting with, people that do things differently from us — in some ways better, in other ways not so much — is vital for the health and survival of the whole church.

So, after today we begin an adventure. Worship and faith and life-in-our-community does not stop now because this particular space becomes a construction zone for a couple months. We will continue to worship as a community, as Faith Lutheran Church. Yes we will! 

Our prayer will continue, and we will persist with others who are different from us (and I suspect we will soon discover they are not that much different from us!) at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Being outside our comfort zone is a critical, healthy, spiritual exercise. Should we persist together in this adventure, I believe we will grow in ways that are both vital and healthy to the future of Faith Lutheran Church; persisting together in this adventure will also deepen our walk with God.

I want to encourage you over the next two months to embrace this challenge, not shy away form it, maintain the vision, not lose heart, and pray always! Because God is already and always merciful and just.

(1) Marianne Williamson, “Tears to Triumph; The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment”, HarperOne, New York, 2016, p.84-85