Over mangoes

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Mercy Lawluvi’s first days in Canada were met by the famous ice storm. Arriving from Ghana a young woman in 1997, Mercy had never seen first-hand, touched nor felt snow, let alone freezing rain that made moving about a danger and terror for slipping and falling.

Mercy was alone. And she felt lonely, surrounded by the four walls of her apartment. She couldn’t even see her backyard garden bushes and trees buried and drooping under the heavy, thick accretions of ice.

Nevertheless she decided to slip-and-slide over to the nearby Loblaws. Surviving this first test of Canadian living, she made her way to the fresh produce section. Mercy was delighted to find some mangoes, her favorite fruit.

And as she was standing there, turning over a small reminder of her homeland, a woman came up to her looking for mangoes herself. “Hello,” she smiled. “The mangoes look good. What’s your name?” she asked.

“Mercy,” she responded.

“Where are you from?” the woman asked. “Ghana, in Africa. And these are my favorite fruit. I am so happy they are here.” And so, the two stood there for a long time chatting and exchanging mango recipes. Finally, the other woman asked, “What is your occupation?”

“I am a teacher.”

“I know the administrator of an ESL (English as a second language) school in Ottawa. Let me get the name of my friend to you. Maybe you see where that goes?”

“Thank you so much!”

Twenty-one years later, Mercy stands before us during the “Welcoming the Newcomer” session hosted by the Ottawa Lutheran Refugee Sponsorship Committee[1]this past Thursday, to tell us this story of her first welcome to Ottawa.

Because of the kindness shown by that nameless woman in Loblaws twenty-one years ago, whom she has never since met again, Mercy was able to find the emotional strength and resources to settle well and grow in her new country.

She said how much that simple encounter by the mango display made all the difference in the world to her, not only on that first day during the ice storm to help her through the loneliness and fear. But how important that encounter was for her development, networking and success-finding in her new home in Canada. Someone—a stranger to her— acknowledged her. And was genuinely interested in her.

Twenty-one years later she stands before us as the executive director of “Immigrant Women Services Ottawa”.[2]

And it all started by a caring, open-hearted person asking, “What is your name?”

Indeed, what is our name?  We have a family name sign in front of our house. In my first parish twenty-one years ago in the heart of farmland in southwestern Ontario, every house along the long and straight rural concession roads had one of these kinds of signs hanging or posted in the front yard.

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Fast forward to today, I believe we are the only house in Arnprior, maybe even the whole of Ottawa, who has one. Obviously, it’s not a thing.

I understand Millennials prefer their private, cocooned lifestyles. I understand that, fueled by fear, we are hyper-sensitive about things like identity-fraud and being targeted by criminals. So, if there’s anything we can do NOT to be publicly identified or exposed, the better.

I wonder, though, how much we have, because of this attitude, dampened, even snuffed out, any collective heart-filled reaching out. Because before newcomers, or anyone for that matter, can get to know us and trust us, we need to be available, visible, transparent, accessible to them. In other words we cannot hide from others, and then say that we are welcoming.

I read this week that the first step to building an ethical culture in churches, in business and in society in general, is to let people be who they are. Without needing to persuade, sell something, impose our opinion or argue a point. Without believing they first need to conform before I/we will give them any time. Without needing to protect, defend and uphold my or ‘our’ way of thinking, fearful that any such approach means a loss of integrity or personal safety.

Letting people be who they are, first. Means an open heart. Means, listening first. Means, asking questions first. Means, listening for points of similarity – mangoes. And, then, when trust begins to build, going from there.

“I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you,” Wisdom says.[3]I have the image of a couple of friends getting together at the end of a long day over drinks. And each takes turn pouring out their hearts to the other. Arms waving. Voices rising and falling with each impassioned response. Laughter. Silence. A mutual-inpouring!

I heard recently that each human being requires these two things to survive and thrive: unconditional love, and complete understanding. Both are met in this image from the Wisdom writings of the Bible. An intimacy that affords love and understanding to the partners involved in relationship.

Intimacy. God promises a deep and lasting connection within us. Despite our foibles, our missteps, our compulsions. God promises a deep connection within us despite our mistakes and failures.

Transparency, on the surface, goes only so far to the truth of who we are. You may see the name sign outside my home. You may see my license plate on the highway or city streets. This may be a good first step, I believe, to an honest transparency and invitation for conversation. But, that only goes so far.

When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, the question reveals more about the disciples than it does about Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?”[4]Jesus ask them, not because Jesus doesn’t know the answer himself but because the disciples are on a journey of growth with Jesus. These wayward disciples don’t often get it right on this journey. They miss the point of Jesus time and time again.

Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is consistent with how the disciples are portrayed by the Gospel writer.[5]And while Peter might I.D. Jesus correctly, while Peter can give Jesus his proper title and name—the Messiah—he still doesn’t understand what that name actually means in Jesus:

That this Messiah will suffer and die; that this Messiah will be rejected by the powerful, scorned by the knowledgeable, that this Messiah will be arrested a criminal, tortured and die a brutal death by capital punishment. And that this Messiah will rise again three days later. The disciples, Peter among them, do not really understand Jesus.

Just because we may know God’s name, doesn’t necessarily mean we know what is called of us under that name. Just because we can name Jesus and say the right words of faith doesn’t mean we get the follow-through right all the time. In another Gospel, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”[6]

Because, ultimately, our titles and our names only give us an entry point into who we are. Words, titles and names cannot capture the totality of who we are. As James so pointedly writes, the words we say by our tongue will get us into trouble; “though small, [the tongue] stains the whole body.”[7]

Getting it right verbally isn’t what faith is about. It’s rather about experiencing God in our own lives and in relationship with others. Wisdom pours out her thoughts into us, not at us. God writes God’s law upon our hearts, deep within, despite our mistakes.[8]This faithful following of Jesus is not just a function of our brains.

Intimate relationship with God and with others in Christ is a matter for the heart. We know God and we know truth not by the words we say or the names with which we identify, but by a deeper knowing marked by deeds and experiences of faith, hope, trust and love.

When the heart is in a good place, we start simply, in small ways, to see the other, reach out to them with a smile and a question: “What is your name?”

And God replies, “Mercy.”

[1]olrs@bell.net

[2]http://www.immigrantwomenservices.com

[3]Proverbs 1:23 NRSV

[4]Mark 8:29

[5]Mark 6:51-52; Mark 8:21; Mark 9:32; Mark 10:23-32,38; Mark 16:13

[6]Matthew 7:21 NRSV

[7]James 3:1-12 NRSV

[8]Jeremiah 31:33

Take a knee

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On the Camino de Santiago, you had to take care to follow the signs. Yellow arrows were common and well-known markers to all pilgrims along the path.

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It was easy to get lost, especially in the big cities, if you missed one of these markers. But also at critical junctions in the forests, the fields or roadways where if you were not paying attention, you could lose hours on the journey and have to double back.

I learned, sometimes the hard way, to pay attention to what others might consider obvious. Some markers are easy to notice.

Some are sort of easy to notice:

But often it was a challenge to find that yellow marker:

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The signs — like the sacraments of baptism and holy communion — are reminders of what kind of journey we are on. These signs are embedded in the journey itself, on earth. These holy signs don’t stay in some other-worldly realm; they are very much a part of this world: Baptism uses common water; Communion uses bread and wine – basic, earthly elements which remind us of what God is all about on earth.

The signs are part of our daily, ordinary lives. The signs are already there, along the way, before we even commit to the journey. We only need to open the eyes of our heart and mind, and pay attention. Because the signs are too easy to miss. And when we do miss them, we get lost and go down other paths, paths that lead to division in the Body of Christ, the church.

I remember when our then 12-year-old son started playing football I first learned what it meant to ‘take a knee’. According to the tradition, if a player on the field was injured everyone ‘took a knee’. And it didn’t matter which team the injured player was from; that is, all the players from both teams knelt down and waited there until the injured player either walked off the field on their own strength, or was carted off on a stretcher.

Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick have both attracted world-wide media attention for ‘taking a knee’ in the last couple of years, although for very different reasons. Both have made a public display of their faith. Both are prayerful, and devout. One grew up the son of Baptist missionaries to the Philippines. The other was baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran, and attended a Baptist church during college.[1]

Tim Tebow, however, is a darling of the church while Colin Kaepernick has been reviled. Their differences reveal much more about the brand of Christianity preferred by many in the church today. Tebow is known for his signature move – dropping to one knee on the field, his head bowed in prayer, his arm resting on his bent knee. He’s clean cut, polite, gentle, respectful.

Colin Kaepernick, starting last year already, refused to stand to attention during the playing of the American national anthem. Originally, he did so in support of Black Lives Matter and to protest police violence against black people. Kaepernick was voted most disliked player in the National Football League (NFL). People posted videos of them burning his jerseys. He was called “an embarrassment” and “a traitor”. Of course, with recent events in the NFL, his witness gains momentum nonetheless.

Two players, two brands of Christianity:

Tim Tebow represents personal piety, gentleness, emphasis on moral issues. Colin Kaepernick represents social justice, community development and racial reconciliation. One version of Christianity is kneeling in private prayer. The other is kneeling in public protest. One is concerned with private sins like abortion. The other is concerned with public sins like racial discrimination. One preaches a gospel of personal salvation. The other preaches a gospel of social transformation. One is reading Paul’s letters. The other is reading the Minor Prophets.

Are these versions of Christianity mutually exclusive? Much of Christian history, especially since the Reformation, would suggest, ‘yes’, even among Lutherans. The proliferation of Christianity into some thirty thousand different denominations by the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 would suggest, ‘yes.’ The divisions within Christianity is leaving the church all the poorer, with each side needing to be enriched by the biblical vision of the other.

Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann expresses it well: He writes that Christianity should be “awed to heaven, rooted in earth.” We should, as he says, be able to “join the angels in praise, and keep our feet in time and place.”[2]

Christianity, sadly, remains on its knees because of our divisions, when all along the vision of the Gospel, expressed best by Paul himself, is that “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth”[3]. How do Christians today, regardless of background and orientation, contribute to this vision in ways that actually make a difference on earth?

In the second reading for today, we learn about the essential character of the biblical God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, all of God’s acts, blessings, and delights in creating are for the sake of others. This is typical of God, “who is intimately concerned with justice, peace, and the flourishing of all creatures.” This is typical of God, “who is ‘on high’ but never remote, who is ‘over all’ but faithfully and dramatically invested in life on earth.”[4]

God does not embrace hierarchy. Nor does God rest in privileged autonomy, according to some deist idea of a distant and uncaring God. God is love. And the New Testament witness continues this description of a God who cares intimately about our humanity, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God is Immanuel, God-with-us and for us.

In setting up this wonderful hymn that Paul includes in his letter to the Philippian church, Christians are called to exemplify a humble regard for others, seeing them as “better than yourselves”; we are not to primarily serve our own interests, but the interests of those who are different.[5]

These may be an impossible task for us in our self-centred, me-first culture. Nevertheless, we are encouraged, as Paul encouraged the early church in Philippi, to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”[6]. Why even bother?

Because God is already at work in us.[7] God is already at work in the world, as difficult as it can be to spot those signs of God’s grace, God’s justice, God’s good work. As Martin Luther insisted, matters of salvation revolved around God’s actions, not human activities. Justification — being placed into a right relationship with God — is totally God’s activity. After all, as Paul wrote earlier in his letter to the Philippians, we need to believe – despite what appears to be everything to the contrary – in the promise and the vision that God “who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.”[8]

God’s grace precedes all. Just like the signs on the journey before us and around us. Even though we may miss them from time to time doesn’t mean they aren’t there, waiting for us to notice. God’s grace continues to guide us and point in the right direction.

We therefore have nothing to lose, to take a knee for the sake of those who do not have a voice. To take a knee for the sake of others who are silenced by discrimination and abuse. To take a knee for all God’s creatures who long for a better day.

We pray for and support agency to help the refugees today escaping violence and oppression in Myanmar. We pray for and support agency to help victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. We, so, ‘take a knee’, in the spirit and mind of Jesus Christ who took a knee for us all.

[1] I thank Michael Frost, “Colin Caepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A Tale of two Christians on their knees” (The Washington Post, September 27, 2017) for much of the content I use in this section of my sermon

[2] cited in Michael Frost, ibid.

[3] Philippians 2:10, NRSV

[4] William Greenway in David L. Bartlett & Barabara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.112.

[5] Philippians 2:3-4

[6] 2:12

[7] 2:13

[8] 1:6