Prayer as Growth – Advent sermon series 1

In the movie, “Good Boys”, three young friends explore the meaning of friendship and growth. On the journey towards maturity, Max, Lucas, and Thor discover what it means to be in a healthy relationship that can change over time.

Everything is going fine until each boy begins to pursue individual goals. At the same time, they realize that what one of them wants to do is not necessarily what the others like to do. It looks like they are going their separate ways. And the friendship group appears to dissolve.

When Lucas sits down with his parents in tears, bemoaning the breakup of his friendships, his parents offer some sage advice. They recall an old pet Lucas used to have – a hermit crab. But, when Lucas was much younger he wasn’t told how exactly his hermit crab had left them. His parents, now, tell him the truth:

The hermit crab had to find a new shell, they say. And died on its way to the beach. They explain that a hermit crab eventually outgrows its shell. And must find another shell that is larger into which it can continue to grow. If it doesn’t find a larger shell, it will die one way or another.

Lucas makes the connection that he is growing, and may need to find a larger shell to grow into – a larger social group, new friends, other activities. Leaning on this truth, Lucas is freed from the self-blame for the recent troubles with Max and Thor. It is normal and healthy to go through these growing pains in relationship. As it turns out, the boys learn to find a new way of relating with one another – a way that respects each other’s unique talents and personalities.

Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul describes a healthy relationship to God.[1]And as we grow in this relationship, we change. And the way we relate to God changes.

In this first part of the series of sermons in Advent on prayer, I would like to underscore this theme: Prayer as growth, in our relationship with God.

There are times in our lives, events and circumstances, that give us this sense that our whole person–our deepest desires, the core of who we are–is actually waking up. At first some experiences may not feel particularly enlivening. Ironically, it is often difficult, challenging times in life that cause this re-birthing within us.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “Wake from sleep, now is the moment! Shed your clothes of darkness and ignorance and be clothed with Christ.”[2]This imperative is a common theme in Paul’s writings; to the Ephesians he writes: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead!”[3]

And in our Gospel text today, Matthew records Jesus’ instruction to “Keep awake!” especially at the time when you are in the darkness of not knowing, or in grief, or loss or some kind of suffering. This is the time to wake up, for God is doing a new thing for you.[4]Do you not perceive it? It is time to get up. It is time to slough off the old and make room for the new. It is time “to live into the reality of the new age about to dawn.”[5]

We hear the call at this start of a new church year and the first Sunday in Advent. We hear this call to spiritual renewal as we seek to deepen our lives of faith and wait upon the coming of the Lord into our lives. The call to renewal starts with prayer.

I started by saying there are occasions in our lives that become opportunities—divine invitation, you could say—to try a different way of praying.  Like spokes on a large wagon wheel, there are different ways to pray—intercessory praying, devotional prayer, prayers with lots of words, prayers without using any words, imaginative prayers, body prayers, sacraments, song, music, art.

A variety of prayer forms give us ways of growing and deepening our relationship with God in Christ. Because at the centre of every wheel—even one with several spokes—is the hub, which is Christ. The ever-present, living Lord, moves with us and in us down the road of life.

As we grow older, for many of us, the only real question is: Why doesn’t  God answer my prayers? Because of this conundrum alone, many of us frequently just stop praying and hope for the best. Hopefully on our life’s path, when we meet others we listen to them and discover that no two of us have exactly the same spiritual journey.[6]So, why would we believe there is only one way to pray or only one way of understanding what happens in prayer?

We are each like the hermit crab, seeking to find a larger shell to grow into.

But how can we be encouraged to find a larger shell? How can we even believe that we are growing, that our broken lives so weak and stained by life’s hardships be the place wherein Christ makes his home and through which Jesus’ light shines? How is this even possible?

I heard this week the story of someone recently walking through the woods. Without yet any snow on the ground to brighten things here in Ottawa, the landscape is shrouded in browns and darkish colours. Blah. While walking the forest path, she stopped at large, oak tree which still held its leaves.

But the leaves weren’t full and vibrant with life as you would see in late Spring. They were curled at the edges, no longer pulsing with life-sustaining chlorophyll. Like crumpled, dried paper, these leaves hung there, lifeless and dead. Just waiting for the inevitable drop to the ground.

In that instant, the clouds high above suddenly broke. And streams of sunlight immediately penetrated the darkened woods and shone upon these listless leaves. In that moment of brilliance the leaves were clothed in the light. They were animated in the sunshine and restored to an incredible vision of renewed life. They absorbed and reflected the light. Their previously deadened state was transformed.

In the darkness of predawn, it is indeed hard to believe there is anything but the night. But arise, awake! The light is coming. And when the son comes as it does every morning, we are transformed and renewed in the light. And our lives reflect again God’s grace and love.

 

[1]Patrick J. Howell in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.18.

[2]Romans 13:11-14; ibid., p.16.

[3]Ephesians 5:14.

[4]Matthew 24:42; Isaiah 43:19.

[5]Howell, ibid., p.14.

[6]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within: Contemplative Prayer for Prisoners (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.1,41.

The way the story is told

Look at the man whose community has judged as possessing a legion of demons. He has been pigeon-holed. Ostracized. Bullied. Looked down upon. Pitied. The man whom they looked upon, and said to themselves, ‘Thank God it’s not so bad with me.’ This is the kind of person who, it has been argued, we need. If only to make the rest of us feel better about ourselves.

Schadenfreude is the term we use to depict and distinguish those ‘less fortunate’ than us to justify our complaints and our more privileged status. So, we need ‘them’. And we need ‘us’. We need the distinction. To envision the opposite, to imagine some kind of union, to unearth the unholy distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’—well, that may be far too threatening to our fragile egos.

The way the story is told is not to focus on the man’s illness. Though, that’s what we like to talk about: the frothing at the mouth, the rattling of the chains which bound him, the pigs rushing dramatically to their watery deaths. The way the story is told, however, is not to fixate on whatever ails him, his sin, his problem. We say this is a healing story. But who else besides the man is invited to be healed?

Important though it is not to overlook the man’s problem, the way this story is told leads us to the climax of the telling—the last few sentences that describe the reaction of the man’s community, there across the Lake in Gentile territory.

When, at first, he is healed, and is shown to the people, how do they respond? You would think they would rejoice. You would think they would praise God. You would think they would marvel at the goodness, the promise, the hope, the delight of God in bringing transformation and healing to this man who once was lost in sickness and despair but now is saved. In Greek, the word for salvation is the same word for healing. This man we look upon, alongside the Gerasene community, is now restored, healed and given a new beginning in life. A second chance.

You would think those who witness this would rejoice in the promise and anticipation that this healing and transformation be offered to each of them also. Amen?!

The way the story is told, however, emphasizes the point not once at the end of the story, but twice: They were afraid, seized with a great fear.[1]They didn’t like what Jesus was doing. They had become too comfortable in their opinions, their prejudices, their categories, their pigeon-holing this man. And they didn’t like what Jesus was doing to upturn and completely reverse their world-view. They even had the gall to tell Jesus to leave. No more of this. Do you blame the healed man for wanting to get out of there, too, with Jesus?

This story shines an uncomfortable light not on the Gerasene Demoniac. The title of this story should rather be the community’s demoniac. The community’s sin. Their prejudice. And their incapacity to repent—to change their minds about the people they have normally pigeon-holed into convenient places of malice and schadenfreude, them and us.

The Gospel story opens with Jesus taking his disciples to the ‘opposite side’ of Galilee. To be faithful to Jesus, to follow Jesus, they have to leave their zones of comfort and familiarity to go to the Gerasene territory across the lake.  Every city, every community, every country, every culture, every church, has an ‘opposite side.’ And it’s to that ‘opposite side’ that we—Lutheran Christians in Canada today—are called to go.

The way the story is told, is that Jesus’ presence and power disrupts the social order of the way things are. Because, for one thing, to the people whose living depends on the pigs, their loss is catastrophic. The swineherds are understandably afraid.

From this standpoint, the way the story is told, the coming of the gospel of Jesus brings upheaval and sets in motion forces that will disrupt even economic and social arrangements. In other words, the good news will not seem good to everyone at first. Maybe, to us.

Especially to those who are comfortable, privileged and set in our ways. Indeed, for the community in Gerasene and for us, we might prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not. We might take a false sense of security from the dysfunction, the prejudice, the self-righteousness we have learned to tolerate in ourselves, cope and live with, ignore and sluff off. And we might therefore fear what change—even change for health—may bring.

We fear freedom from what binds us:

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—telling ourselves we are not good enough, that we can’t do it, that we don’t deserve the immeasurable love which God has for us.

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—telling ourselves and each other that the poor, the newcomer to Canada, the Indigenous people of this land, our home on native land—deserve their plight as if we don’t have any responsibility to care for them. To tell ourselves we need not seek understanding from another’s point of view.

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—maintaining beliefs, even religious ones, that serve only to belittle others from a different social, religious background than ours, others whose gender orientation is not ours, others who are impoverished financially. Maybe Paul’s words must ring true again today to our hearts that are divided and distressed over these issues: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[2]

What is the ‘opposite side’ of the lake, for you? Is it a troubled personal relationship? Is it a long-held assumption or belief? Is it something you’ve wondered about doing but had up until now been too afraid to try? Perhaps in this season after Pentecost, the Spirit of God is calling us to consider going there.

To discover anew that whether we succeed or fail, whether we accomplish our goals or not, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s forever.[3]Healing and salvation will come to us, regardless of our pedigree. For, again in the words of Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”[4]The gospel doesn’t begin with us. It’s always about what God is doing in us.

As Richard Rohr writes, “It’s not what you do that makes you holy, it’s what you allow to be done to you that makes you holy.” (in today’s ‘daily meditation’, http://www.cac.org)

Grace does that. One doesn’t first become Christian, then go to church; One goes to church to become a Christian—and it will take a life time, and beyond. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. As fourteenth-century Saint Catherine of Siena once said: “It’s heaven all the way to heaven, for Jesus is the way.”

Jesus invites us to join him on his journey to the opposite side. To grow and change. To reach further, deeper, into health and wholeness. To open ourselves to the unity we share with all people in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And that story will have a good ending.

 

[1]Luke 8:35,37, NRSV

[2]Galatians 3:28

[3]Romans 14:8

[4]Galatians 2:19-20

Super-hero busted

With Marvel and DC the biggest box office attractions in recent years, the popular culture exposes our desires and fantasies. These super-heroes are really just projections of our own wants and longings. We put ourselves in these roles, vicariously living out the super-hero life.

What from the super-hero culture inform and influence our real lives, you ask? What does it mean to be a hero, living day-to-day?

Last week, we concluded our Lent book study about our medical culture. When the stakes are high and decisions have to be made about treatment of serious illness, what do we want? How do we respond? In the book aptly entitled, “Being Mortal”, author Atul Gawande writes:

“The pressure remains all in one direction, toward doing more, because the only mistake clinicians seem to fear is doing too little. Most have no appreciation that equally terrible mistakes are possible in the other direction—that doing too much could be no less devastating to a person’s life.”[1]

Being heroic means doing more, not less. More power. More strength. Super-human capacity. Fighting evil means counter punch for punch—just harder, faster. Solving problems means finding more resources, generating more capacity to meet the demands. Doing things better. This is the culture of heroism in our day. We want to be heroes.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, is our biblical hero. We like him. We get him. He always wanted to be Jesus’ hero, protecting him from the suffering of which he spoke, jumping into the water not once but twice to be the first of the disciples to get to Jesus.[2]Jesus, at one point, even had to say to Peter: “Get behind me Satan” when Peter said he would not allow the suffering and death of Jesus.[3]

Even in the Passion narrative Peter is still delusional, believing he will follow Jesus, heroically, to the end. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”[4]Peter is the consummate hero.

The part from the Passion narrative where he then ‘denies the Lord three times when the rooster crows’ is a turning point for him.[5]And for us.

In the Passion of our Lord, the Cross is the central image and destination. And against the Cross our truth is exposed, and we are caught in the headlights. Our true motivations are squared against the values of the kingdom of God to which Jesus bore witness in his last days and trial.

Normally, I have understood Peter’s denial of Jesus merely as self-preservation. He doesn’t want to expose his vulnerability in that situation. He doesn’t want to be considered a threat, and be arrested himself. He wants to conserve and protect himself. And so he is caught off-guard, and quickly denies his involvement with Jesus.

But what if we saw Peter’s words of denial more as a confession rather than self-seeking, self-preservation? Peter confesses, at the end of the road, that he does not ‘know’ the kingdom of which Jesus speaks. Peter confesses that he is not a true disciple of Jesus.

Even at this end, nevertheless, Jesus knows Peter better than he knows himself. “Today, you will deny me”. Hours later, Peter stares into the flames of the firepit in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and warms his hands by the fire. Finally, Peter comes to himself in all honesty and vulnerability. “No, I don’t know him. No, I don’t know this Jesus. No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He is finally telling the truth, in his ‘denial’. Facing this truth is hard, and that is why he goes out and weeps bitterly at the end. Peter’s ideal image of himself—a heroic disciple of the Lord, a super-hero Jesus freak—has come crashing down. He is not the hero he thought he was. He does not have the courage to follow in the way of Jesus to the cross.

When, in the solitude of our confession, we confront ourselves in all honesty—we find ourselves at ground zero, that turning point, that event-horizon towards transformation and healing. Because further down that path of hero worship we cannot go. And, we wonder, seriously question whether we have what it takes to let go, and follow Jesus to the cross of our lives.

It is unknown territory, on the bottom. We do not know it well, if at all. We shy away from it, understandably. We are uncomfortable, here. “In solitude, we encounter our own poverty, incompleteness and brokenness. We see how petty we can be; how possessive and judgmental; how angry, resentful, and mean-spirited; how self-centered in our thoughts and actions. No wonder we are tempted to flee solitude and to lose ourselves in busyness and distractions. It takes courage to plumb the depths of our soul.”[6]

Peter in the high priest’s courtyard finds his bottom in honest confession, not unlike the Prodigal Son wallowing in the mud of the pig pen when he has his moment of reckoning.

It takes courage to come close to Jesus near the Cross. It takes courage to let go of our heroism and our compulsion to do more, to do better. It takes courage to let go being incessantly active and working harder as a way of avoiding ‘plumbing the depths of our soul’.

Are you willing to give up being a hero for Jesus? Are you still a disciple when Jesus leads you this close to the cross?[7]

Perhaps another story from the Passion narratives of the Gospels usually assigned for Holy Week can be helpful. It’s the Gospel text from last week, actually, when Mary lavishly anoints Jesus’ feet.

How does Mary respond to the reality of human limitation and vulnerability? How does she respond to the ‘ground zero’ reality surrounding her and Jesus? Remember, Mary knows what is going on with Jesus. Anointing was reserved for coronations and burials. Jesus qualifies for both. And his end was nigh. How does she deal with that?

In Luke’s version of the anointing story, Jesus tells Mary: “Your sins are forgiven.”[8]Why were her sins forgiven after anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume?

Not only because of her great sorrow, nor because she remembered all her sins, nor even because of any contrition she might have felt for her human weakness. Why then?

Because she loved, and loved much.[9]So, instead of sorrowing over her sinfulness, she gave abundantly and without reservation of her affection and love for Jesus.

Confronting our truth, as scary as that is, is not license to wallow in passive, self-preoccupation. Rather, this degree of self-honesty and confession leads to extravagant acts of mercy and love towards another. At ground zero, we realize that our lives are not ours, but God’s. At ground zero, we realize that we live for something and someone much greater than our individual problems and shortcomings.

The description of what God does, relating to the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4-9 is important:

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word …

The Lord God has opened my ear …

The Lord God helps me …

The Lord God helps me.[10]

When truth-telling can lead to acts of profound love for the sake of ‘the weary’, the Lord God helps us.

When our actions, tarnished even by our humanity, focus on love for the vulnerable and weak, the Lord God helps us.

When our limitations are offered to God in acts of love for others, the Lord God helps us.

And we are still the Lord’s disciples. Even Peter, beyond his moment not of denial, but acceptance. Jesus pronounced him ‘the rock’ upon which God builds the church.

And, we know what lies beyond this momentary tribulation. We have Jesus to thank for that. This is the promise of our journeys, rough though they may be.

And, through it all, we are still the Lord’s disciples.

 

[1]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End(Toronto: Penguin, 2017), p.220

[2]Matthew 14:28-31; John 21:7-19

[3]Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33

[4]Luke 22:33

[5]Luke 22:24-34,54-62; John 18:15-27

[6]Br. David Vryhof
Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” 8 April 2019

 

[7]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life  (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009),  p.79.

[8]Luke 7:44-48

[9]The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Ira Progoff (Delta Books: 1957), 100-102.

[10]Isaiah 50:4-9 NRSV, reading assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Passion Sunday.

There’s a hole, PART 1: Meant to be

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” Genesis 2:15-17).

“There is a hole inside you. It’s been there a long time. Longer than you even knew. But chances are great these days this hole reappears on almost a daily basis, reminding you that something is missing in your life.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, really, to say that there is lots that’s wrong with the world. We don’t have to look far and wide to notice the brokenness in our lives, the violence in creation and in relationships of all kinds.

Christians have pointed to the creation stories in Genesis — in the Bible — to locate the beginnings of all that has gone wrong in this world. “The Fall” we have called it.

But all the doctrine-making explanations do not take away the problem.

All that’s not right, all this reminds each of us that something is missing in our lives. Like a hole right at the bottom of your heart.

One of the first camp songs I learned was one that’s called: “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea.” Right off the bat, that image suggests permanence, because a hole at the bottom of the sea has likely been there a very long time.

But the song goes on in repetitive fashion: “There’s a log in the hole … there’s a log … there’s a bump … there’s a frog … there’s a wart … there’s a fly … there’s a flea — all in the hole in the bottom of the sea.”

So even though that hole is an integral and permanent part of the landscape, it’s fun to imagine that hole filled! From a young age we learn that having a hole is not good. It’s better to have it filled, somehow. What is the hole in the bottom of your heart? What is missing in your life?

“It may involve a relationship. It may involve a yearning for intimacy in the relationships you have. Maybe it’s an issue related to health, a problem that has become chronic. Maybe it’s a loved one who died and left a huge hole in your heart.

“Maybe the thing that’s missing has to do with being fulfilled in your life’s work, or vocation, or job. Or, maybe the hole has to do with a dream that has been just out of reach.

“If we had time and courage, we would turn to each other and share what is the hole in our lives. And we would have to listen, because all the holes are different; they’re not quite the same.

“The only thing that is the same, is that everybody is missing something.

“As Christians, we would pray about it. So we claim such verses as: ‘Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open unto you’ (Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9). Over the years, there has been plenty asking, seeking and knocking … and still this thing that is missing persists.

“Oh, we learn eventually to cope with it. Our favourite coping mechanism is to rush back to work and get busy enough to not have to think about it. Others prefer to distract themselves through entertainment. Some of us come to church precisely in search of spiritual distraction from the hole that remains in our hearts.

“But at the end of the day, when you are too tired to remain distracted, when you are trying to get to sleep, the pain of this hole returns. Maybe the pain is so great you well up with tears, and you can’t sleep. You think about all the choices you’ve made in your life and you wish you could do it all over again.

“There is nothing that will keep us up at night like fear. We try to talk ourselves out of anxiety with rational reasons why we shouldn’t be afraid. But as soon as we figure out why what we fear wont happen, we find three more ways it will happen. If only I had ….

“Some will say that God does not desire this for us. That God doesn’t desire us to live with any holes in our lives at all. That God wants us to be complete, whole.

“I’m not sure about that, actually.

“The opening of the bible is very important for us. It gives a short glimpse into what God had in mind for us. It’s only two pages in my bible. That’s all we get, in terms of what God had in mind from the very beginning. The entire rest of the bible is … the recovery plan.

“We cherish these first two pages. They’re critical to us. In these brief glimpses into what God had in mind for us we’re told we were created by God — which means we are creatures, not the creator — we were placed into a garden. And we were told that we could freely eat of almost every fruit of this garden. (Genesis 1-3)

“Because it was given to us by God. Even in taking the fruit we are partaking in doxology — we are saying, “Thank you” to God because it was given to us. We didn’t create the fruit, God created the fruit. We receive it. We receive all of this out of the bounty of God’s goodness to us. So, it’s not just thanksgiving for the knowledge of God, it is thanksgiving for being in this spectacular garden, to being able to work in it, be stewards of it and receive its fruit.

Almost all the fruit. But there was one tree whose fruit was forbidden. Fruit that was not given to us by God. And to desire this fruit is to desire it for its own end. Not as a means for saying thanks to God because God chose not to give us this fruit.

“Do you remember where that tree was planted in the garden? Right slap dab in the middle. The exact same place it is planted in your life. Right in the middle of your life. This meant, as the narrative goes, every day Adam and Eve had to walk past this thing that they did not have. A reminder that something was missing in the garden of their lives. Just as there is in ours. That it wasn’t all for the taking. And, that they were not supposed to have it.

“Keep in mind, this is God’s idea of paradise. This is not a result of the ‘Fall’. This is the garden God created for you and called “good”. God said, “It’s all for you except for this one thing right in the middle that you’re never going to have.” Now, this drives us nuts. Just like it did Adam and Eve. We think about this thing we don’t have every day. This hole that just keeps returning. We obsess over it. We want it. Other people have. Why can’t I?

“There can be 999 spectacular trees in our garden. But where do we pitch our tent? Right underneath this one thing we don’t have. We obsess over it. We yearn for it. We think about it constantly. Let the rest of the garden go to weed, but what am I going to do about this one thing I don’t have?

“As the narrative goes, it is in reaching further than we were meant to reach that we then lose the garden. On the way out, we discover that it actually was a pretty good garden. Only now it is paradise lost.

“There is nothing and no one that can do as much damage to your life as you can yourself. When we reach for more than we were created to have.”

The real miracle, however, is that despite all the pain and suffering and confusion, there is good in the world.

Now, hear this: there is good in our lives. There is good within us. There is good within you. And good that can come out of you in word and deed.

But that good only happens, that good is there only when we trust God. When we put our trust in that which is beyond us — in the power, grace and strength that is God and God’s alone. God created everything.

When we put our trust in God …

Not in our abilities to do the good because there is always something missing in our lives.

We put our trust in God. For we can also claim these verses from the bible, the words of Jesus who said, “Pick up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34-35). Jesus, the God we follow, never promised to plug up that hole in our hearts.

We do have a choice. We can choose gratitude over despair. We can be thankful despite all that is wrong in the world. Despite all that is wrong in our lives. We may have pitched our tent underneath that one tree. But we can also build an altar there, an altar of thanksgiving right beside that hole in the bottom of our heart.

“Because the garden, you know, it’s pretty good. It’s not perfect. Something is missing. But we can choose gratitude, because it’s pretty good.”

Thank you, to Craig Barnes whose sermon is given, in quotations, from the Festival of Homiletics in Denver Colorado (Minneapolis: Luther Seminary Peach Media CD, 2015)

Repeat performances

Once again during the Christmas season, I experienced this strange cultural phenomenon:

How many decades has it been that every December, movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Elf”, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “The Bishop’s Wife” get replayed and replayed over and over again, year after year? And only at this time of year? You can probably add several more of your favourites to this list.

That is why I was a tad apprehensive last month when we received tickets to attend the National Art Centre (NAC) Theatre production of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol.” I know the story. I’ve read it several times. I’ve watched television renditions of the story over the years. What could the NAC Theatre do to bring it to life, once again, for me? Same old, same old, right?

On the other hand, I believe there is a good reason why we turn to these stories every year. There’s a reason for our culture’s yearning for their repeat-performances. A higher reason, I might add. Perhaps there’s something in those stories that we need to take to heart, and make positive changes to our lives. Perhaps, we need to see the story-telling as more than a mere syrupy, sentimental “Isn’t that nice” tradition.

So, I was surprised and intrigued by what the NAC Theatre troop did with the story. It was introduced by two actors who came on stage — one was blind and one was deaf. In the introduction they invited the audience to participate in a simple activity with our hands, both to show that the two actors needed each other in accomplishing their jobs; and, what is more, near the end of the story everyone in the audience was needed to give the sign with their hands in order to encourage Scrooge finally to embrace a more compassionate approach to life.

Without taking anything away from the traditional story-line plot, the meaning of Dickens’ famous “A Christmas Carol” was conveyed to me in a fresh way.

We encounter in young Samuel and the elder Eli one such repeat performance story in today’s text from the Hebrew scripture.(1) It is a story many of us know — of the boy Samuel in the temple who is called upon by God. It gets told many times in the life of the church over and over again — every three years at least. It is true: it is a nice, little story, isn’t it?

At first, Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice, believing instead that it is his old mentor, the priest Eli, who is calling him. Finally, with Eli’s help, Samuel responds to God’s call by saying, “Here I am. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”(2)

Well, as I said, many of us are familiar with these very words. We even like to sing a popular hymn (3) reflecting the words of one responding positively to God’s call — a call that changes the life of the recipient. How does this familiar story speak to our lives today? How is it more than just ‘a nice, little story’ from the Bible? How can this story change our lives?

In this story, an old man and a young man collaborated to hear God’s vision for a new Israel. For God was about to do a new thing: Soon to emerge in the life of God’s people was a new lineage of kings, beginning with the inauguration of King Saul.(4) What was passing, was the rule of Judges along with the sinful house of Eli. What was emerging was the likes of King Saul, King David, King Solomon, and so forth.

In God’s message to Samuel, God condemns Eli’s lack of restraining his sons’ immorality. Eli’s sin was his aversion to do something even though he recognized what was happening. Even though Eli knew the ongoing problems in his household, Eli turned a blind eye and ignored it all.

He did not act. And no matter what Eli would do now to try to redeem himself by making various sacrifices to the Lord, God was intent to establish a new order of leadership over God’s people starting with the demise of Eli’s household.

Doing nothing was the problem. For us, today, doing nothing about a problem we know exists is the problem. How do we begin to move out of the prison of this self-inflicted inertia?

We need to recognize that growth and healing is a process. The birth of the new thing God was doing began as a cooperative affair. It took the attentiveness of the young Samuel’s ears and the wisdom of the old priest’s heart and mind to bring about God’s purpose. It took both the authority of the failing, feeble priest and the obedience of his youthful protégé to bring about God’s purpose. In other words, it takes a community to bear such a task.(5)

Responding to God’s actions and call in the world and in our lives today is not a solo effort. Religion is not a solitary practice. Indeed, it takes a village. It takes the various gifts of people in our lives. What one has and the other does not, what the other is good at that the first is not — it takes everyone’s attentiveness and participation.

How do we live into this collaborative way, especially challenged by our society’s emphasis on individualism, privacy and self-reliance? We are, indeed, up against a culture that is at odds with the Christian vision. How do we live the way of God’s reign? Where we value mutuality, diversity, common purpose in the mission of God for the good of all people?

In contrast to the way in which God spoke to the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah and the later prophets of Israel, God does something unique with Samuel. You will notice that God does not enjoin Samuel to deliver God’s message to Eli. God does not charge Samuel to tell Eli what God is telling Samuel with words like: “Thus says the Lord, tell the people Israel”, etc., etc. No.

Rather, God wants simply to confide in Samuel. Basically, God expects Samuel, first, to listen. Just listen. It seems, Samuel first needs to learn how to do this. And it will take some time and some practice, evidently.

Can we have the courage, and the patience, to learn how first to listen to God and the other — without jumping in too soon with the energy of our own bravado, our own opinion, our own self-justifications, our own visions of what must be? The simple act of listening, can change our lives. Because listening first means we believe that the other has something of value to offer that we don’t have.

God works at a slower pace, it seems, compared to the hypersonic rhythms of life in 2018. Not only does God give Samuel and Eli one chance to figure it out, but two and even three opportunities to get on the same wavelength as God.

The story-telling is both appealing and intentionally slow early on. Dialogue is repeated. The action of Samuel getting up from sleep and going to Eli are repeated. We have to slow down with the narration and feel the build-up to the great reveal of God’s message.

Even though both Samuel and Eli are slow in finally getting it, even though they are encumbered by sleep, drowsiness, denial and avoidance, even though their response to God is compromised by vision and hearing impairment, by youthful pretence and the attrition of old age …. God still finds them. God still speaks. God still acts in the way God will act.

Despite human arrogance and self-delusion, despite all our toiling and pride, despite all our ego compulsions, God keeps at it to tell us, guide us, and instruct us.

We may not like the answer. We may not like what God has to say. We may be challenged to the core of our being by what God is telling us. Regardless of our hesitation, denial or self-delusion, God finds a way. God doesn’t give up on us. God gives us people, and stories, and experiences — even the same ones, over and over again — to help us finally get it.

God doesn’t give us just one chance. God is not just a God of second chances, as we often say. God gives us many chances, as many we need. May we, like Eli, finally come to accept what God has to say to us, with his words: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”(6)

 

(1) 1 Samuel 3:1-20, the first reading for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Ordinary time, Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary.

(2) 1 Samuel 3:4-10.

(3) “Here I am, Lord”, Hymn #574, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006); also, for the Christmas cycle, this hymn is also appropriate in singing Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s visit to her, announcing Mary’s role in the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:38).

(4) 1 Samuel 8-10.

(5) Richard Boyce in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.245-247.

(6) 1 Samuel 3:18

Surprise ending

The Arnprior Rapids were destined to lose. If you asked me, midseason, to write the history of the 2017 Fall season of the Lanark-Renfrew Highschool Football League, it would sound completely different than it actually turned out in the end.

After playing five games, the Rapid’s opponent, the Almonte Thunderbolts, was undefeated. What is more, in all their games they did not have one single point scored against them. They were that good. By all counts, they were destined to be the League’s champion.

When a couple of weeks ago Almonte faced its arch rival and 2nd place Arnprior Rapids in the final championship game, many – even the players themselves deep down – felt this was a pointless exercise. Why bother even playing the game? Because the last time these two teams clashed Almonte thrashed Arnprior 40-0. And the time before that, 24-0.

So, you tell me. What will the history books have said about the outcome?

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These kids are learning an important life skill. Because as is often the case throughout life when things happen, it is easy to focus on what is wrong, what seems impossible, what appears a waste of time and energy. And give up.

Over the past several weeks, we have been reading some parables of Jesus recorded in the latter chapters of the Gospel of Matthew.[1]

These apocalyptic[2] parables sound somewhat harsh towards the human project: It seems human beings cannot help but eventually get it all wrong, whether it be the wicked tenants, the foolish bridesmaids or, as in today’s parable, the fearful investor.[3]

What is more, you get the feeling that the line between doing the right thing and the wrong thing is awfully thin. Even those that do get it right in Jesus’ telling are not that much different from those who get it all wrong – those who are doomed to the hell fires “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”[4] In short, there is a heavy, dark pall of negativity hanging over these stories.

It’s hard to remain enthusiastic about a life of faith when presented with these doom-and-gloom scenarios. It’s easier to become more fearful than hopeful.

When reading from this section in Matthew, I think we need to be mindful of the context of Jesus’ storytelling. We need to remember that Jesus told these stories while he was heading right into the middle of his own personal, high-risk venture, which led to arrest, torture, suffering and horrible death.

That is, he had decided to leave the relative safety of rural Galilee and head to Jerusalem, the capital city, where the authorities would regard Jesus as “a threat to the status quo and their own power.” The Romans would regard him as a “disturber of the peace” and condemn him to capital punishment on the Cross.[5]

We have the benefit of hindsight to help us better interpret these challenging parables. That is, because of the new life given to Jesus on Easter morning, we can now believe in resurrection, which is the end game of all of history. The benefit of Christ-faith is the hope and promise we discover on the other side of risk-taking, of losing, of failing and of taking responsibility. All the things that make us human.

Despite what may look impossible, a sure failure, a likely defeat and a waste of time and energy, this parable today encourages us to take heart and simply put our gifts, our talents on the line.

The sin described here is the sin of not risking anything, of not caring, not investing, of playing it safe and being overly cautious with what we have been given.

Whatever we have, “each according to their ability”[6], even if it’s only one, measly, tiny “talent” – when we risk giving it away to the world, allowing it to engage the world with positive intent, only then can good things happen. There are no guarantees good things will happen. But then again, we wouldn’t know unless we try. And take the risk.

But it’s well worth it! Because one talent is neither measly, neither is it tiny. One talent, according to some interpreters, was worth fifteen years wages or $1.25 million in today’s valuation. Just imagine the wealth of the entire property of the master who was placing it all in the care of his stewards.

Let’s take that to be God and us. When we can first appreciate all that wealth and riches that God has given us, and can begin to acknowledge the great faithfulness of God to entrust all that is God’s to us … now that’s something special about the God we worship. What a great joy! What a great responsibility!

In the end, this parable is not about money, essentially. Because even if the first two stewards who invested the little that was given them lost all that they invested on the market, Jesus would still have applauded them for trying. The attitude of risk-taking and putting it all on the line is the important thing, not the results of their monetary investment.

And then, when you try despite the odds stacked against you, you never know. How resurrection happens, and when, in the context of our own lives, will be a surprise.

When the Arnprior Rapids faced off against their arch rivals, the Almonte Thunderbolts in the Lanark-Renfrew Highschool Football League championship game, it was truly a David and Goliath show-down. The end looked bleak for Arnprior.

By all counts, Almonte should have won that game.

But, life is full of surprises. God is full of surprises. We can never know for sure what unexpected things await us when we put ourselves out there and invest our gifts on the playing field of life.

Not only did Arnprior score two touchdowns in the game – thus breaking Almonte’s bid for a clean sheet season – Arnprior did not allow a single point scored against them.

History is being written anew.

[1] Matthew 25:1-13, Matthew 22:1-14, Matthew 21:33-46; a parable is simply a fictional story Jesus tells to reflect some truth

[2] when the ‘end time’ promises of God are fulfilled

[3] Matthew 25:14-30

[4] Matthew 25:30

[5] John M. Buchanan in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 4” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.308

[6] Matthew 25:15

To see beyond, and go deep

“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

We had a problem. In this perfectly finished renovation, something was not right. The microphone jack, on the floor in front of the pulpit here, was not working.

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How could this be? Everything was designed and installed as it should be. And yet, something had gone awry. The prognosis was not good. How could it be fixed, without tearing up the carpet, pulling off the baseboard and cutting into the drywall to find out exactly where the wire was shorting out?

For this problem to present months and years from now would be one thing. But to discover this problem in the first week or so back into our ‘new’ space. Uh-oh.

And yet, as you can see and hopefully hear today, it is working. And, as you can see, the carpet has not been ripped and there are no pieces of drywall cut and patched up. How was this problem solved? How were we saved from doom and destruction?

I will say this: For Brian who discovered the problem, it caused him some serious stress, at first. ‘Despair’ might be a word that comes close to describing his feeling, for someone who had already spent hours and hours of his time and energy and resources in the entire renovation project over the last several months.

All that you can see now is a tiny hole on the baseboard no larger than the size of a dime, just above the carpet line on the other side of the chancel. That’s all. A tiny hole, that doesn’t really reveal the depth and breadth of how the problem was solved.

4_TheCulprit

Apparently, a finishing nail had been shot into the wire from outside during the renovation. Unbeknownst to the worker strapping on the the siding, one of the nails embedded into the wire, thus shorting it out. It was, for Brian, a question of finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.

He employed the material resources at his disposal and years of experience in engineering and computer sciences. He brought in an oscilloscope to measure the current, and his infra-red camera, which he ran along the presumed route of the hidden wire. These instruments disclosed an abnormal, irregular heat signature which spiked at the spot of the short-out. From there, it was merely the task to go in with surgical precision, and remove the offending nail. And voila! The microphone now works!

This is definitely a feel-good story with a good ending. Especially because at first, it didn’t look good. It would have been easy to give up, to remain in despair and not do anything about it. And live with, and remain stuck in, some unhappy, dysfunctional space.

The Gospel story about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-42) has a feel-good ending, at least from the point of view of the woman. She starts by being defensive and confrontational — not seeing nor recognizing Jesus for who this man truly is. She leaves the encounter with Jesus, joyous, liberated, un-inhibited, free.

The story reveals God’s character in Jesus. To emphasize the point the Gospel writer John wishes to make about God’s character, John places this story immediately after Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in the previous chapter. Let’s compare briefly the two encounters:

For one thing, Nicodemus has a name. The woman is nameless. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and as such has status, authority and privilege in the social-religious culture of the day. The woman is a Samaritan with whom the Jewish authorities were in conflict. Nicodemus lived in a male-dominated society. The nameless, Samaritan woman is a nobody.

Jesus takes the initiative to cross the boundaries of geography, culture and prejudice to speak with the woman. And not only that, to draw from her the truth, and then empower her to be a missionary for the kingdom of God. The encounter with Jesus transforms her from a nobody to a somebody.

As the dialogue at the well comes to a close, the woman is filled with joy. She is so energized with passion and hope that she “left her water jar and went back into the city” (v.28). We now can see what is not immediately apparent. We can complete the sentence when the Samaritan woman exclaims: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” … and loved me anyway! She does not say these last four words at the end of verse 29, but they are implicit in her action and in the joy with which she runs.

“Everything she ever did” is a long list of sins. It is always before her, in the judgemental expressions of her neighbours and in her mind for the rest of her life; she has had many husbands, and the one she is living with now is not. For Jesus to have intimate knowledge of that list and for him to know her past, and still love and forgive her — well that’s unbelievably new and fresh as anything she has ever heard. The man who told her everything she ever did … and loved her anyway … is what saves her life. (1)

A caution: Her sin is not the main point in the story. (2) While Jesus’ offer of forgiveness is implied in the dialogue, the text itself says nothing of any sin she has committed (as we see elsewhere in the Gospel, for example, John 8:1-11); nor does Jesus ever actually say words of forgiveness to her.

The focus here is not sin. It is rather in the character of God, and the liberating result of a gracious, truth telling encounter with Jesus. In that moment, the woman sees God. She receives Christ — and leaps up to tell.

Would you? When Paul talks about suffering in his letter to the Romans (cited above) he is encouraging the faithful to see beyond their present, often difficult circumstances to the hope we have in Christ. Indeed our society’s values can make us feel, and keep us trapped in believing, we are nothing:

If we don’t have significant financial resources stored away in investments, bank accounts and property; if we don’t have that ‘perfect’ life, secure in our fortress worlds of private privilege and comfort; if we don’t have the perfect-looking body, the disease-free physiology, the magnetic, people-pleasing personality; if we don’t have the high-paying job, the investment-rich retirement plan; if we don’t measure up … the list goes on. The values of society make us feel like nobody.

And yet, Christ comes to remind us that we have everything we need to get through it, and more! We just need to see beyond what is immediately apparent. Jesus breaks all those boundaries of division and exclusion, casting aside our pretence and our cloudy vision. Jesus doesn’t pay attention to what society says is valuable or not valuable. Jesus comes to each and every one of us and says: “Look deeper. I know everything there is about you, and I love you anyway!”

So, what do you have to lose? Take the risk, and do something to make things better in your life, and those around you. Make the hole in that spot you may not be sure about because it’s not visible on the surface of things. And then trust what God has given to you already — the resources at your disposal, the unique gift of your very life, your talents, treasures and time — is worthy of using! And go for it!

Because God will love you anyway.

 

1 — Anna Carter Florence in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 2 (Lousville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.97

2 — Karoline M. Lewis in ibid., p.95