Love confronts violence

You can feel the tension rising. As we make the slow yet certain journey with Jesus to his eventual arrest, trial, sentencing and violent death on the Cross, the assigned texts for Lent heighten the tension between Jesus and his scrutinizing opponents in the religious institution of Jerusalem. This short Gospel from Luke (13:31-35) reflects the tone.

It starts with a warning from the Pharisees. “Get away from here; Herod wants to kill you!” they say to Jesus. They are alarmed yet perhaps enjoying the drama unfolding around their competitor in the religious marketplace. They don’t care about Jesus. They are just pressing his buttons to see his reaction.

Immanent violence is in the air. It’s the only way we know to resolve conflict. Whether with our words, our manipulative behaviour, our compulsiveness and in some cases our outright physical abuses — violence is the unfortunate reality whenever and wherever human beings mix.

I’ve learned in a course on conflict I have been taking, that violence is not just played out on a battlefield between warring groups. Violence does not only happen in a physical way between people or nations, as sure and as horrific as these examples are.

Violence is also something that occurs in our verbal communication — whether of a bullying, judging, teasing, condemning nature, or intentionally hurtful put down. Violent communication creeps into any competitive or self-defensive motivation. Which is usually fuelled by a deep fear.

Not outside of this escalating situation for Jesus, the obvious underdog in the power struggle, he announces words of love. He describes God’s favour towards precisely those who wish him harm. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings …” (v.34)

This maternal, protective, embracing, comforting image of God’s love for us intervenes into a world of violence and abusive cravings for power and corruption. This passionate love of God for us is not because we don’t sin, but especially because of our sin. This love of God is undeserved, and it is almost impossible to fully explain or justify. Precisely because it is exercised amidst a violent world.

“On April 16, 2007, the Virginia Tech massacre occurred in which a distraught student went on a shooting rampage, coldly killing fellow students. As many as fifteen were saved from death by an instinctively protective and caring English professor. 

“Liviu Librescu pressed his body against the door to his classroom while he urged his students to jump out a window to safety. This professor, a Romanian Jew who survived the Nazis in his homeland years earlier, died in his classroom after the killer shot through the door that Librescu was holding shut.

“Selfless love is real. In spite of the horrors of war and other brutal ways that humans treat one another, love is possible. Unselfish people reside everywhere. They love unconditionally, dedicate themselves to alleviating suffering, are willing to give their all for another, intent on being life-givers and spirit-transformers. 

“These are not do-gooders, holier-than-thou people. No, this kind of love is seared by trials, purified by personal growth, shaped by persistent rededication and self-giving that goes beyond required duty. Each day people on this planet open the door of their hearts and love pours forth. No matter how discouraged we might get about the world’s violence and hatred, let us remember that generous love thrives in kind souls and expresses itself daily.

“Caryll Houselander writes: ‘This is the first and last vocation of every Christian, to love, and all other vocations are only a shell in which this vocation, to love, is protected.’

“Our deeds of love may not be as enormous as Liviu Librescu’s, but they still contain great value. The unselfish giving and support we offer occurs within our homes and workplaces, in local grocery stores and on the highways, in hospitals, restaurants and other common places of personal encounter.

“Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was convinced that each act of love had a far reaching effect: ‘If we all carry a little of the burden, it will be lightened. If we share in the suffering of the world, then some will not have to endure so heavy an affliction … You may think you are alone. But we are all members of one another. We are children of God together.'” (1)

Librescu could have heeded warnings, and jumped out the window to safety himself. He could have heard the killer coming closer to his classroom, and acted in self-preservation. But, love for his students overcame his fear. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). 

The first words God speaks to Abraham, the god-father of three world religions, in this version of God’s Promise to Abram is “Do not be afraid” (Genesis 15:1). You would think the more important words of God at this point in the Scriptural tradition is the great Covenant God establishes with the people of Israel through Abraham and Sarah.

Yet, God knows us humans. We are a fearful lot, when propositioned with promises of greatness but which require letting go of seemingly important things. And Abraham would need to lose a lot — home, familiarity, security — in order to travel to the new place God was calling him. “Do not be afraid.” The most often quoted divine instruction throughout the whole bible! “Do not be afraid/Fear not!”

The journey to the Cross, and beyond the Cross is ultimately a journey of love. We can only carry our own crosses the whole way because of the love of God which sustains us. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” writes Saint Paul (Romans 8:38-39). Nothing. Not even all the violence in this world.

Thanks be to God!

(1) Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door”, Sorin Books, Notre Dame IN, 2008, digital copy Week 6 ‘Beyond the Door’ Day 2 ‘Bringing Love’ p.12-13

The apple of the eye

Guard me as the apple of the eye; Hide me in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 17:8)

Last week’s children’s chat got me thinking even more. I told the story of ‘that mom’ who carried with her everywhere the biggest purse you could imagine. Everywhere she went her two young children trundled behind. And everywhere her kids went, so did she.

Mom was prepared for every contingency. When one of the kids fell in the school yard and scraped his knee, out came the bandaids. When the other ripped her shirt sleeve on the sharp edge of the door at school, out came the needle, thread and scissor set. And even though they left in the morning without a cloud in the sky, if by the end of the day rain showers dumped a deluge, out came the rain poncho. She carried everything you ever needed in that purse.

Or so we thought. I asked the kids what else she should have in her purse. “Some snacks, in case they became hungry.” “A flashlight in case the lights went out wherever they were.” etc. etc. So, she didn’t have everything you could imagine they would need. As prepared as she was, Mom wasn’t prepared for everything. She would also have to go by faith.

“Faith in what?” In Advent, the church has traditionally prepared for Jesus’ coming — in the four weeks leading to Christmas. Our faith, it would seem, leaned heavily on our ability, or lack thereof, to be prepared. Have we done everything we could to be purged of our sin? To be purified? Have we repented enough? Done enough penance? Confessed all our sins? And changed our ways? 

Have we done everything we can to be prepared for Christmas? Bought all the presents? Sent out all the cards? Cleaned and decorated the house? Finalized the invitations, menus and schedules?

Are we ever prepared enough? I’ve talked to more and more people over the years saying they are simply not doing everything any more. It’s too much. And they’re not going to worry about if things aren’t just perfect, anymore. I think they’re onto something. Because the truth is, faith-in-us is only (a small) part of the equation.

Would Jesus still come at Christmas even if we were not totally prepared? Of course. Therefore, a significant part of the Advent message is to emphasize that not only do we do what we can ‘to prepare’, we must also receive everything that we experience in life — the good and the bad — as God’s way of preparing us for the coming of the Lord. In the end, the Lord’s coming is not dependent on how well we prepare. Because Jesus is coming anyway, ready or not!

When we appreciate that everything that happens in our lives is God’s way of preparing us, could we not approach life’s circumstances with a heart of faith and trust rather than resentment and despair? When we appreciate the trials and tribulations of life as the way God is, in the words of the prophet Malachi, “refining” and “purifying” (3:1-4) our lives, would we not then have peace?

How can we ‘see’ the Lord’s hand in all the circumstances of life? I think ‘seeing’ is the key. And I’m not speaking merely of the physical ability of seeing. It’s more of a deepened awareness and perception of reality.

The origin of the phrase “apple of the eye” refers to the reflection of oneself that can be seen in another’s pupil. To hold someone as the ‘apple of the eye’, means that they are close enough to the beholder that they could see their own reflection in the beholder’s pupil. As a metaphor for God’s love, this phrase builds on the idea of humankind having been built in God’s image. We are close enough to God that we can see our own reflection in Him, and He in us. (1)

So, the purpose of ‘preparation’ and ‘purification’ goes beyond merely removing the impurities. Apparently, a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when you can observe your own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal. (2)

If that is the case, the prophet Malachi implies that God’s image in us is restored precisely through the challenges and difficulties of life. Not apart from them. This is the peace we find. The prophet’s message is that we are deemed good and righteous when once again God’s image is reflected in our lives. 

The end point is not the pain or discomfort. We often get stuck there, and give up. The point is God being made manifest in who we are and what we do with our lives. And this takes time. And lots of work. And the gift of faith, to see God always close by. And trust, that whenever I take one step toward God, God takes ten steps toward me.

Questions of purpose, therefore, are important to ask in this season. For many good reasons. Especially when what occupies us in the ‘shopping season’ often distracts us from what is most important in our lives. The prophet is annoyed by the peoples’ wayward practices. How can God’s image be reflected in a selfish, me-first, immediate-gratification motivated people?

Who are we? And who are we called to be? John the Baptist’s cries in the wilderness echo the ancient prophets’ messaging (Luke 3). Stop distracting yourself to death! Return to the source and the ground of your being! Reclaim your true self, your original reflection of God’s goodness in creation.

In a year-end letter from the treasurer of the Eastern Synod to all congregational pastors and treasurers, Keith Myra offers some helpful, universal suggestions around financial issues facing churches today. One of his reminders states: Remember, “The church is not a club — membership does NOT have its privileges.” 

Here, he suggests that especially during this time of year our redemption does not lie in: “What can I get out of life, the church, my family, the economy.” Our redemption does not lie in: “What is in it for me?” And, “It’s up to me!” Rather, the church has always proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ, which is about: “What can I first give to others?” “How does my life reflect God’s image to the world?” “What does the life of Jesus call forth from me?”

We are chosen and loved, yes. Even so, in the end God choosing us is not for privilege, but for a purpose. Belonging to God introduces a great purpose and an important mission.
There is a reason for which we are being purified! And it points beyond the warm fuzzies of this holiday season. It points to actions in the world by Christians that communicate God’s love for all — especially to those without hope, without home, without peace. Then, every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill be made low … the rough ways made smotth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Luke 3:5-6)

Poet Christina Rossetti writes this prayer:
Lord, purge our eyes to see /Within the seed a tree, /Within the glowing egg a bird, /Within the shroud a butterfly, /Till, taught by such we see /Beyond all creatures, Thee /And hearken to Thy tender word /And hear its “Fear not: it is I” (3)

Amen.

(1) Lutherans Connect, “The Trees of Jesse: Day 3” lcadventdevotional2015blogspot.ca
(2) in David L. Bartlett, Barabara Brown Taylor & Kimberly Bracken Long eds. “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.32

(3) Christina Rossetti, from “Judge not according to the appearance”  

Pentecost: A tangled mess

The tangled mess that is this long, electric cord takes me time whenever I cut the grass. I stand there pulling the ends through loops and ties, slowly unravelling the serpent-like wire until it stretches straight. Each time I cut the grass. Sometimes I am impatient and frustrated. But I do it time and time again. How can I resolve this problem of a tangled cord?
Sometimes our lives may feel tangled. In truth, our youth and those teenage years often may feel quite tangled, as you sort out sometimes messy contradictions and conflicts in your life — figuring out your sexuality, clarifying your vocation, discerning what you want to do “when you grow up”, finding your place in this world, and navigating the often bumpy road of relationships and friendships.
Dear confirmands, you are entering a most complicated, challenging and exciting period of your life. And through it all, your life may sometimes feel, frankly, a tangled mess. How to even begin un-tangling it?
Today, the colours in the church are passionate, powerful, fiery red, because it is Pentecost Sunday — the birthday of the church. It is the day we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, in dramatic fashion I might add: Tongues of fire alighting upon peoples’ heads, and a sound like the “rush of a violent wind” crashing around them (Acts 2:2-3). Then, when the disciples address the diverse crowd in their native languages, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel describing what is happening in these “last days” — when God will show “signs on the earth below: blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” (v.19-20). Indeed, we are seeing red!
Living amidst all this drama could feel kinda tangled, messy, chaotic. But, I thought being a Christian was supposed to be all neat and tidy, ordered and predictable, comfortable and nice. The coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives suggests something altogether different! Birthdays are supposed to recall who we are, our identity. How do we even begin un-tangling meaning and purpose of our existence as a church, from this crazy picture?
I purposely did not iron my red chasuble for today’s service to remind myself that following Jesus sometimes feels ‘dis-ordered’. And, I purposely left alone two small holes in this old, Pentecost garment to remind myself of something Saint Paul gets at in the second reading for Pentecost Sunday: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness”; and, that the whole creation, including you and me “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:22-27). 
What I often ‘see’ in my life are a lot of holes — many weaknesses. What I often see in other peoples’ lives are their weaknesses. What I often see is me trying so hard to keep my life untangled, compared to others. What I see is all my toiling and fretting and striving to make things right and straight. But, hope that is seen is not hope. If I pretend how good everything is — or ought to be — all of the time, that’s not hope. That’s just me toiling in vain pretending I will be saved by my own efforts.
You might have heard illustrations of some old cathedrals in Europe especially built with holes in the ceiling. They were built purposely so, in order to provide an ‘imperfect’ entry point for the Spirit of God to descend into the lives of the Body of Christ on earth — the church. The entry point of the Spirit of God is precisely through the imperfections, the tangled messes, of our lives — not through our vainglorious, self-righteous, pull-myself-up-by-the-bootstraps efforts. Remember, the Spirit of God helps us in our weaknesses. At ground zero. When on our knees we fall and confess, “I need help and I cannot do it on my own.”
We don’t find God by doing it right. God finds us by our doing it wrong. That’s not to say we ought to go out and try to sin. It is to say that when we find ourselves — as we all will — in moments of our greatest weakness, that’s when Grace happens, when we provide entry points through the ‘holes’ of our ego, our bravado, our pretences of ‘being right when everyone else is wrong’.
You would think that after fifteen years of home ownership and being the person who cuts the lawn in our household; and after ten years of cutting the lawn with an electric, corded, lawn-mower, I would have already figured this out and just purchased one of those roller-thingies for the cord. The strange thing is, I haven’t and after I am finished cutting, I still just crumple the cord and throw it into the garage on top of the mower.
Maybe that says something about the reality and truth of our lives. No matter how much we may grow, and mature — I would hope — over life, we are still stuck in some ways, and will still get into messes from time to time. Youth is just the beginning!
The scriptures for Pentecost are very clear that the disciples of Jesus did not ‘invoke’ the Spirit or earn God’s coming by saying and doing the right things. The Spirit came to them, freely, surprisingly and despite their weaknesses. And what is more, Saint Paul further specifies how that Spirit comes — when we do not know how to pray as we ought (v.26). Not a very impressive picture of humanity. And yet, God still has faith in us, and comes to us!
On the cross, as Jesus hung dying, he said, “It is accomplished” (John 19:30). The victory is won. In Jesus’ human suffering and death, he says this. Not on Easter Sunday, when we celebrate his resurrection. But the victory is won in the moment of God’s fullest identification with human humility, shame, vulnerability, weaknesses — at the moment of what signifies and is in reality our greatest defeat: death. There, “It is accomplished.”
Jesus, God, identifies with us in our tangled messes. In some ways — although this may not be comforting — being a teenager is the best time of our lives to know God, precisely because it is a time in our lives when we have permission to be most honest about the struggles of our identity and purpose in life. 
Even when you feel most distant from God. Even when you feel your faith is not ‘all there’, and you wonder if you have any faith in God at all. Even when you make a mistake, which you will. Being confirmed today is not a perfect ‘affirmation’ of baptism and faith you are making. And it never will!
These are the ‘holes’ so important that we acknowledge — not deny! — and we see as the entry points of the Spirit of the living God into our hearts. It is exactly at those moments of greatest vulnerability and honest weakness that Jesus walks closest to us: That was the purpose of the Cross, the accomplishment of the Cross. That in human suffering and entanglement, God’s grace and power abound. It is God who saves us. Not our work at being ‘good’ or ‘perfect’.
Traditionally during the liturgy of Pentecost, and specifically right after the reading of the Holy Gospel, the “Paschal” light is extinguished. You will recall that this candle was first lighted at the Great Vigil of Easter fifty days ago. And for each of the subsequent Sundays of Easter it has remained lighted — a sign of Christ’s living, resurrected and eternal presence.
Now it is extinguished. Would anyone suggest, why? Isn’t Jesus still alive? Where is he now? With the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church, and with Jesus ascended into heaven, the presence of God and Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit alights in our own hearts. Through the ‘holes’ of our ego, in the imperfection of our lives, the flame of God’s Spirit washes over us in patience and in gentleness. The Spirit purifies and clarifies our hearts upon which God’s stamp still rests from our baptism. The Spirit encourages and reminds us of who we are and whose we are, forever, and no matter what.

It’s ok to fall (3): Jesus leads us there

The beginning of a story introduces the characters, but it also sets things up for what readers can expect later in the book. The writer of a good story will craft, early on, a good ‘set up’ for the plot development. Here’s an example, and you tell me what you think will happen later in the story:

At the beginning of this story, we read about a couple of children walking home from school, as they always do, along a familiar path. However, their route goes by the town’s cemetery, a place they have never visited. It remains a mystery to them. The cemetery is guarded by spiked, iron-wrought gates and surrounded by tall, thick cedar hedges.

The children are coming of age when their curiosity is piquing, and they ask their parents if they can venture into the cemetery. But they are warned repeatedly from all quarters: “Don’t ever, ever, EVER play in the cemetery! Especially, after dark!”

Now, what do you think will happen as a result of this ‘set up’ in the story line? They’ll likely go there! — into the cemetery, at night, perhaps under scary or tension-filled circumstances. And, we want to read on to find out how, as our own imaginations grow! It’s true, when we are ordered not to do something in some unequivocal, unyielding, non-explanatory way, it’s something we will usually end up doing! The story is a snap-shot of life.

Social history bears witness to this human dynamic: In 1920, law-makers south of the border enacted the 18th Amendment which attempted to curb the evils of liquor. Laws were passed against the sale and trade of alcohol. The result? After Prohibition was finally lifted, historians showed that the consumption of alcohol by the general population actually increased during those ‘prohibitive’ years. (Strayer & Gatzke, “The Mainstream of Civilization since 1500”, Harcourt, Toronto, 1984, p.730)

“Brick-wall” parenting, as some call it, often fails. Because children don’t grow in an environment where the evils of the world can be talked about, reasoned through and struggled with in loving, patient and understanding ways. They just outright rebel.

Perhaps it was employing some reverse-psychology that spurred Martin Luther to say those infamous words: “Sin boldly … !” But I like to emphasize the latter part of that quote: “Sin boldly … and trust the Lord even more.” Luther doesn’t deny or hide away from sin. He just trumps it, with the Lord!

When I assert repeatedly the theme of this sermon series for Lent: “It’s okay to fall”, I am NOT encouraging you to sin. Because you don’t need to purposely go out and find sin and suffering. You don’t need to seek out suffering, as if it’s a choice we can make (eg. “I think I’ll go out and sin today”; or, “I don’t think I’ll sin today!”)

Sin is something that we must learn to live with. It’s a part of our lives. Sin is not something we can ‘will’ away by the force of our self-righteous toil to purge ourselves somehow. If you think yourself a good Christian, you may be good at hiding your sin. But honest, faithful, authentic Christians will struggle monumentally with their sin, and not need to put on masks of perfection when they come to church.

Life happens. Life is ‘done unto us’. Mistakes are made. I can’t explain why God created a world where suffering is so much a part of the journey of life. The better, more meaningful question, I believe, is to consider what the suffering and the sin has to teach us about ourselves in relationship to God, in the journey to redemption.

In other words, it’s okay to fall, because that is where Jesus leads us. In the Gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent, after Jesus is baptized, “The Spirit of God immediately drove him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) where he spent forty days, tempted by Satan. This part of Jesus’ life is for me the image I hold whenever I pray the traditional English translation of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation”.

Because, while Jesus does not cause my sinning, Jesus leads me into the wilderness of my life where I must confront all those temptations, the brokenness, weaknesses, despair, anger, fear, guilt — that cause my sinning. Jesus takes me there, into the barren land of my soul. He leads the way. I must follow.

The formal ‘Invitation to the Lenten discipline’ in most liturgies begins with a call to self-examination — even before repenting, praying, fasting and works of love strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Leader’s Desk Edition, Augsburg Fortress, p.617). Self-examination is an act of profound humility and honesty. And it could very well be the most difficult task in the Lenten journey.

Here is some good news: Jesus is not afraid. Because he has already gone to the darkest place of all — the Cross, and then even descended into hell as we affirm in the Creeds. I can persevere through any turmoil life may offer, because Jesus is there, right beside me, helping me get through it.

What makes the consequences of our sin worse, I suspect, is the kind of thinking that suggests Jesus cannot be present if or whenever we go into those dark places of our lives. Our prejudice may be that Jesus cannot be there in the shameful, anger-ridden, fear-devastated places of our suffering. We thus delude ourselves into believing “I am alone” in my suffering. The Gospel, however, teaches us otherwise.

I was so inspired by the record number of folks we had out on Shrove Tuesday for our pancake party — including almost a dozen folks from the neighbourhood who had never been with us before! We danced, we sang, we ate, we enjoyed music together.

When we are in the desert of our lives confronting our sin and suffering, it is so important to know, again, who your friends are, your family, your community, your church — and simply experience their presence. And by their presence, their loving support — even in the darkest time of our lives. Just being there together, can make a huge difference.

Therefore, I can be encouraged that as Jesus was waited upon by the angels who gave him the things he needed to get through his wilderness suffering, so then Jesus will not abandon me in my desert. He’ll be right there beside me, and give me what I need (and maybe not always what I want).

It’s okay to fall, because Jesus leads me into that place that I would rather avoid. And even that place where I might be tempted to go. Because I don’t go alone. Thanks be to God.

Frozen yet melting in Good

The Gospel text for Thanksgiving Day (Luke 17:11-19) is the familiar one about only one healed leper out of ten that went back to give thanks to Jesus. And so, we may be challenged to think about all the things that may keep us from giving thanks, or being thankful.

But this story from the Gospel of Luke implies being thankful WHEN SOMETHING GOOD HAPPENS. As if that’s more of a challenge. Which kind of turns the tables on us, does it not? We normally think that ungratefulness is a symptom of an unlucky life, a life that suffers, a life that is disadvantaged in whatever way. How can I be thankful, after all, when bad things happen? Or conversely, believing that it is only easy to be thankful when good things happen.

But reality is: it is just as hard, if not more, to be truly thankful when good things happen, as this text suggests. It is directed to those of us who are advantaged in so many ways, but still find it difficult to be thankful.

So what are some Thanksgiving ‘misfires’? What are some of the ways we mis the mark in being truly thankful especially when things go well for us?

It was the Fall time of the year, and a farmer was on the land finishing up a poor harvest. The season had been tough, with all the rain and very few heat days.

And he wondered, “What crop should I plant in this field next year?” The question was a sort of prayer, because he was a bit discouraged and down on his profession. He looked up into the sky …

Suddenly the farmer sees “PC” written as clear as day in the clouds. Certain this was an answer to his prayer, he believed God was calling him to “preach Christ”. So he did, and gave it all he had.

But it didn’t work out for him. Some time later, the farmer went back to the field and asked God, why being a preacher didn’t work out for him so well. He waited a few minutes in the silence with only the wind whistling through the tall pine trees lining his land. And then he heard God’s voice: “I did give you an answer to your prayer …. PC meant ‘plant corn’.”

One Thanksgiving ‘misfire’ is rushing to conclusions based on our exclusive perspective. As if it were the only way. As if there were no other options. We put ourselves in the driver’s seat of this faith journey we are on, as if we are in control of our destiny, as if we have all the answers, as if we are right, and everyone else is wrong. Lack of humility is one consequence of this arrogance with which we live our lives.

I like the story of the woman who was looking forward to the snack of cookies she had in her purse when she sat down on a park bench beside a man dressed in a business suit, clean shaven.

She had always enjoyed the view into the parkland from this bench. Her eyes lingered on the fog resting on the colours on the trees in the valley below. She and the well-dressed stranger sat in silent awe beholding the beauty before them.

When she finally looked down to retrieve the cookies in her purse, she noticed the bag of cookies already opened on the bench between them, and the stranger sitting beside her was helping himself!

“Who does he think he is?” she thought to herself. “The impertinence of some people!”

She was trying to calm herself down and enjoy the beautiful Fall day when she noticed out of the corner of her eye, the man pushed the now half-emptied bad of cookies towards her.

“What nerve!” she thought to herself. She quickly retrieved the last three cookies from the bag before getting up and stomping away. She hadn’t even said, “Have a good day!” or “Goodbye” to the man; she had just shoved the emptied bag back towards him. Jerk!

When she arrived home later that day and emptied her purse, wasn’t she surprised, and humbled, to find her bag of cookies unopened!

Are we quick to judge because we are not open to receiving anything good from someone else? Do we believe, when we are honest, that only we can give anything good to others? Do we presume that it’s up to us alone to make things better, and therefore we block any expectation of a solution coming from outside our preconceived and prejudiced notions?

Only one healed leper came back to give thanks. He understood that engaging a life of Thanksgiving first meant opening his heart to receiving grace from an unexpected source. His thanksgiving to Jesus began when he remembered who had healed him — not from the established norms, and religious leaders of the day. He had curtailed his impulse to get busy with his life, and simply recalled and acknowledged this undeserved, gracious gift.

In light of all our misfires — arrogance, condescension, judgement, prejudice — it’s a wonder there still is any good in the world. We are, after all, broken people caught up in our own compulsive behaviour.

In some churches, this Gospel for Thanksgiving is from Matthew 7:7-12 is read:

Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

How can we receive the good from God? This may be a very difficult challenge for us. To receive what is placed before us. That’s all. Especially for those of us who tend to understand Thanksgiving only as something we do for others. That’s certainly part of it.

But Thanksgiving starts by acknowledging that we are already recipients of a great grace, love and abundance. And so is everyone else.

When you think about it, it’s not the problem of evil that should have us shaking our heads, it’s the problem of good! There is much good in the world DESPITE all the ways we human beings manage to mess it up. That’s the miracle!

We are the richest Christians in the history of Christianity. And I mean, materially. There has never been a time in our history when Christians were so wealthy — had as much money, security, property, resources and material blessing — as we do today in North America.

With all the problems facing the church today, and all the challenges set before people of faith, perhaps the first thing to do and be intentional about, is NOT to jump into any presumption or initial impulse.

But simply to stop, and remember. What is God already up to in the world around you? What are the good things in the world, happening among people? Are you listening for this, watching for the presence of the living God in unexpected places?

I think Thanksgiving begins with a monumental shift in attitude.
It’s about changing our perspective — or be willing to see things differently. With a view to abundance, not scarcity — we can be thankful. With a view to see the good and not only the bad — we can be thankful. With a view to receiving the grace that is there for us already in the people we meet and the work before us — we can be thankful.

Thanks be to God!

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?

Iceberg lessons

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She said she had driven all the way from Seattle. But it would be another four hour drive from where we were staying to the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. And she wondered whether it was worth it.

Her husband had planted the seed of doubt when she talked to him on the phone earlier that day. “All that way to stand on a mound of dirt, shiver in the brisk air, and look out onto a freezing patch of ice bobbing in the cold water?”

We were told that the last time Newfoundland had seen so many icebergs float into its myriad of bays and inlets was in 1912 — the year the Titanic sank after hitting one of these mammoth patches of ice.

Our itinerary on the Rock didn’t include a visit to Twillingsgate where over fifty icebergs, other tourists told us, crowded the bay there in early summer this year. But we were fairly positive, given the ideal conditions, that we might see some icebergs in the north near St Anthony and L’Anse aux Meadows, where we were headed anyway.

So despite the lack of enthusiasm from our travelling friend from Seattle, we set off up the highway. Four hours later we were rewarded with some incredible views of one of natures most extraordinary displays of beauty, power, size and transformation.

I suppose we could have chosen not to go — like the tourist from Seattle. Some folks, it seems, will not even want to consider the possibility of being transformed. But had we believed her justification for not going, we would have missed this golden opportunity for being enriched, yes, changed by seeing something new, something beautiful, in God’s creation.

Saint Paul uses this term only a couple of times in his letters to the early church. “Be transformed”, he urges the church (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 12:2). How are we transformed in Christ Jesus?

Seeing the icebergs taught me some Godly lessons about the journey of our lives, the journey of our transformation. So, what is the transformation that an iceberg undergoes?

First, it’s important to understand how the iceberg gets from point A to point B. The icebergs make their long journey following the North Atlantic Drift circulating the Baffin Basin from Greenland across to Baffin Island, down along the coast of Labrador and finally to Newfoundland. The icebergs we saw this summer were over a year in coming.

So, the first lesson of the iceberg is that whatever the transformation is, the change takes place over a long time. Enduring change in Christ is usually not sudden or immediate. The change addresses the deepest parts of our lives, even those parts wracked by sin — where our anger, our fear, our anxiety reside.

But because of its long-term nature, it’s easy to drop off and abandon the journey. We may feel it’s too hard and pointless a commitment since we see so little change in the short term. We can be discouraged, distracted, dismayed. We may choose, based on what we see in others around us, not to even bother. A.k.a. Seattle tourist.

But while inevitable that the ice will melt eventually and ‘die’ in whatever bay or cove it grounds upon, its purpose will be fulfilled in a unique way. The transformation is part of the bigger plan. In the end, it’s not about our choices; it’s not about us; as individuals we are not at the centre of our lives. It’s about God’s purpose, fulfilled in a unique and beautiful way through our individual selves. Each iceberg completes the journey in a way like no other, presenting unique shapes and sizes, landing on unique shorelines or melting out in the warmer currents of the open water.

The point is, however we change, we are still ourselves. In the transformation we undergo we don’t lose the best parts of ourselves. An iceberg still contains it’s basic elements of H2O. Just because the iceberg eventually dissolves it doesn’t lose the essence of its being. The iceberg’s transformation continues to incorporate its basic composition right to the end.

But — and here’s the rub — the change towards the good doesn’t occur without significant disruption.

One morning we walked down to the local coffee shop right on the rocky shoreline of Hay Cove, near L’Anse Aux Meadows, when we heard a booming ‘crack!’ Our heads turned immediately to the source of the thunderous clap: The iceberg nearest the shore had cracked in half. It had calved — shed part of its bulk and then slowly rolled over. We saw exposed to the air an icy wall that hadn’t likely seen the light of day for thousands if not millions of years. Remember over 80% of an iceberg lies underneath the surface of the water.

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The resurrection happens only because of the cross. There is no easy, short cut on the journey to being transformed in Christ, who modelled for us the pattern — the way — of dying and rising to new life. But this often difficult disruption seeks only to maintain balance and equilibrium; it is a redeemed disruption, so to speak. The iceberg in the water needed to shed part of its bulk so it could find a floating balance once again.

In the Gospel text for today (Matthew 16:13-20), Peter is redeemed. Jesus gives Peter the power and the grace to lead and be the ‘Rock’ upon which the church will be built. What an affirmation of Peter!

And yet, let us not forget the way Jesus had been with Peter over the years. This is the Peter who will deny knowing The Lord during his hour of greatest need (Matthew 26). This is the Peter who pretends to know all the answers when most often he gets it so wrong (Matthew 16).

Not only does Jesus show enduring faith in him, he lets Peter be Peter. Yes, at one point, Jesus even rebukes Peter (Matthew 16:23). But Jesus nevertheless lets him make his mistakes and do what he feels he needs to do, even though Jesus knows that Peter’s compulsion will more often than not get him into trouble.

Remember, it was Peter’s idea to come out of the boat and walk on the stormy water to Jesus (Matthew 14:28). He wanted to do it; this getting out of the boat and walking on the water was not Jesus’ idea. But Jesus let him do it anyway, even though it would get Peter into trouble. In other words, Jesus shows his love to Peter by accepting all of him — including his faults. This is the nature of God’s love — to love us ‘while we are yet sinners’ (Romans 5:8).

There is nothing symmetrically perfect with icebergs, as much as there is nothing morally perfect with anyone of us — despite the fact that we call ourselves Christians and say we follow Christ in the world today. We will, with time, break and crack. Bishop Michael Pryse attended the Canadian Lutheran-Anglican Youth Gathering in British Columbia last weekend, and he quoted the main speaker who said, “The church is like a glow-stick; it can’t shine until you break it!”

There is something true about this: That we can only fulfill our destiny — like icebergs do — when we accept the fact that we are broken, and will break, along the journey of life. When we come to terms with our brokenness, when we bear our suffering as our own, then the beauty of our lives can shine forth.

Denying our faults, pretending they are not there, or hiding them only leads to expecting those around us not to make any mistakes either. Well, that only leads to even more deception and lies. “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought,” Paul reminds us (Romans 12:3), appealing to a sense accepting and understanding our limitations.

Jesus saw the truth about Peter; that despite his brokenness, his pride and compulsion, the church needed someone like him. Jesus sees the truth about us, and values us, despite our faults.

We have to take the good with the bad, in ourselves and in each other. Then, in the honesty of the relationships in this place, the transformation of which Paul speaks takes place. In the sometimes cold and stormy waters of the baptism in which we began our journey, we continue in faith on the currents of God’s love. We can fulfill our mission only because of the faith God has in us.

Gospel morality

It was a cold afternoon in March. The windchill made it feel like -20’C. And I was worried. You see, I like to keep my feet warm. I dislike the feeling of cold feet. And too late I remembered that one of the realities of visiting a Mosque was taking off your shoes.

I would be in the Ottawa Mosque for several hours. And all I had donned on my feet last Sunday morning was a thin pair of black dress socks for morning worship. I tried to rationalize my way into a comfortable scenario: The annual meeting of the Multi-Faith Housing Initiative would likely be held in the basement of the Mosque — so perhaps the tradition of removing footware in a place of worship would not apply downstairs.

But sure enough as soon as I entered the building, the first thing to greet me was racks upon racks of shelving for shoes. No one was to pass that point — going upstairs or down — without taking off their shoes. As the doors came closed, a blast of chilling wind brushed against my pant leg, giving a frigid foretaste of what I was in for this afternoon.

Wearing my black suit with clerical collar and large pectoral cross hanging from my neck I made my way downstairs. Suddenly two young children dashed beside me on their way into the carpeted meeting room. They stopped, turned around and smiled largely.

Obviously familiar with their worship space surroundings, they proceeded to give me a brief, welcoming introduction to their home: Here are the washrooms; There is the kitchen; Those are the chairs for the meeting. I started to relax. And after a couple of hours, my feet were still warm on the deeply cushioned carpet. 

When we read these very long stories from the Gospel of John, it may be worthwhile to consider some details about the literary context. That is to say, let’s receive this text looking at the whole, larger perspective. For example, in the story of the healing of the blind man (John 9:1-41), only the first seven verses describe the actual healing miracle. The remaining thirty-four verses describe the debate that surrounded this man’s healing.

This leads me to wonder about what the Gospel writer, John, really wanted to emphasize. Perhaps the point of the Gospel is not so much on the miraculous and spectacular — which our culture of instant gratification would jump on. Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning here which can be easily overlooked by our obsessions with judgment, fear and need to explain everything.

First, as far as we are concerned, our connection and deepening relationship to God — which is a process of healing in and of itself — is a process. We see this progress in how the blind man grows step-by-step in his relationship to Jesus.

First, early on in the story, he addresses him, “the man called Jesus” (v.11). Then, he calls him, “a prophet” (v.17). And then, “a man of God” (v.33). Finally, at the end, the man healed by Jesus says to him, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him (v.38). If anything, this Gospel story is not about explaining sin as much as it is about growing into a personal confession of God, in Jesus Christ. And this confession is not an immediate, conversion experience; it takes time. Our reconciliation with Jesus is a journey.

But, paradoxically, this journey is Christ-led; it is not our doing. We will notice that Jesus refuses to play the Pharisees’ game. The Pharisees are focused maintaining control over the religious enterprise — where they are the keepers of the law, the righteous. They maintain control by focusing on others’ sin, by issuing blame and judgment. And making it all about human works.

The Pharisees, and Jesus’ disciples who first ask the question, relate the man’s physical blindness to his sins, thus justifying his condition. The sins we commit are here understood as being the bad things we can somehow will ourselves to stop doing if we had a choice. This religious viewpoint basically implies that the quality of our faith depends fundamentally on our willpower.

Jesus has nothing to do with this. You can see why he was such a threat to the Pharisees. Because faith is not about us, in the end. It’s about God. I think that’s the meaning of Jesus’ statement that the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (v.3). Our connection to God is primarily the result of God’s works, not ours. The purpose of our connection to God is to point to God, not ourselves.

The morality of the Gospel is fundamentally a question of how God relates to us, and how we are called to relate to one another. Gospel morality is not about whether or not we sin — because we do anyway no matter how hard we try not to. After all, the man didn’t choose to be blind; he couldn’t even take any personal responsibility for this condition.

Gospel morality is a question of how we respond to life’s challenges and events. Imagine dancing with a partner called, “Life Happens”: Do we ‘lead’ (like the disciple often did, and the Pharisees always did) with fear and/or judgment? Or, do we ‘lead’ with grace and thanksgiving?

How does God lead? The Gospel shows God’s favor towards us. The Gospel shows that “we did not choose Jesus; Jesus first chose us” (John 15:16). Jesus did not come “to condemn the world” but in order to save the world (John 3:17). Jesus, as God the Father, does not look on outward appearances (i.e. our frailty, our weakness, our sin), but on our heart (1 Samuel 16:7). God loved us, Saint Paul articulates, “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:6-8). God leads with grace, forgiveness, and love — despite all to the contrary in our lives.

The reality of our lives — and the truth of our lives — is not defined by what’s on the surface but by the constant presence, power and grace of God.

If there is a morality we speak of as Christians, it is a morality that trusts God above all when we lead with grace and thanksgiving. That is not to say there is no room for addressing cause for fear. But it is to claim that we will lead with grace.

Multi-Faith Housing Initiative is run by a diverse group of very capable, talented individuals from various faith communities. The executive committee led most of the meeting last Sunday — as you can imagine — typically clarifying detailed accounting, audit and administrative material. Women and men wore their business suits and looked officious, efficient and professional. Except for one thing.

What struck me as I watched them with their power-points, laptops and effective communication styles was they were all, to a person, in their stocking feet. That fact alone added a humbling effect to the gathering. It reminded me that despite all our differences — not denying them, but despite those differences — we were all standing on the same ground.

When Moses stood in the presence of God in the burning bush, God told him to take off his shoes, for he was standing on ‘holy ground’ (Exodus 3:5). Indeed we were all of us standing on holy ground united in our common purpose, humble before one another and God.

I was again reminded that although it may be easy to lead with judgment and fear in our diverse communities when uncertainty feels threatening, it is still better to lead with grace and thanksgiving — modelled to me by those young Muslim children who knew I wasn’t ‘one of them’ — but who nevertheless welcomed me with open arms.

“And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

The wrong sign

When a road sign indicates something that you don’t expect is the case, it makes me wonder who is behind the seeming prank. What are they up to? What’s their point?

A couple of summers ago when we drove to Florida, a road sign caught my attention. It was hot when we passed through South Carolina and Georgia on the I-95 where many bridges line the route over various waterways and rivers. I can still remember the heat radiating off the hard-top on the interstate.

So you can understand why I did a double-take coming on to several of these bridges seeing a road sign that depicted a thermometer whose temperature hovered around freezing; above the thermometer was shown a car sliding out of control: “Bridge freezes first,” the sign warned.

Are you kidding me? Seriously? On the one hand, the image is true; as a Canadian surviving and driving on our highways during a rather hard winter, I know that when the temperature is below freezing, the highway can be very slippery. But in the southern U.S.? Perhaps last month that was the case there. But I have to confess a deep reservation that they would experience this danger on a regular basis even at this time of year. In fact, we could use some more of that signage up here in Canada.

One of my favourite Old Testament scholars, Walter Brueggemann, once joked in lecture that a metaphor, or a sign, is only good to a certain point. When you make an argument that is supported well by a metaphor, we say it’s a good metaphor. But when the limits of the metaphor become apparent, the one making the point uses the excuse, “Well, it’s just a metaphor.”

I wonder if that’s not the case with some of the metaphors, or images, we read in the bible. Let’s look at the image that describes Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29-42) in our Gospel text today. There is something about that metaphor, that sign, that rings very true. But there is also something about that sign that just doesn’t make sense.

For example: A lamb in the temple rituals of the ancient Israelites was offered as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people. But if Jesus is now that lamb, why does a wrathful God have to be satisfied by the death of someone, let alone His only begotten son?

After all, God is Almighty. God can do anything. God is fundamentally loving and forgiving (1 John 4:7-21). If God needed to be satisfied by the death of Jesus to atone for our sins, why couldn’t God have simply exercised what Jesus instructed his disciples to forgive “70×7” (Matthew 18:22)? Why couldn’t God forgive, as many times as is necessary (i.e. infinitely), every person on earth in every place and time?

I read this week (pastordawn.wordpress.com) that the actual phrase, “Lamb of God” comes from the Jewish religious rites of Yom Kipper. It was during this festival celebrating the Day of Atonement that two unblemished lambs were brought to the temple to bear the sins of the people. But one was then set free into the wilderness.

The ritual around the Day of Atonement had at its central aim, to be united with God, to be reconciled with God. People were aware of and acknowledged their sin. That is what sin is – when we ‘miss the mark’ in faith. This confession was understood as a way towards that ultimate goal of reconciliation with God, a reconciliation that begins in our life on earth.

What happened to Jesus was an injustice. Jesus dying on the cross was a bad thing. He died wrongfully. Just like so many people today suffer injustice on a large scale – dying in wars, brutalized unjustly. God the Father was first to shed a tear when Jesus died; God is first to shed a tear when one of his followers – that’s us – suffers.

But as is often the case, God makes something out of nothing good. The willingness on the part of Jesus to give his whole self unto a wrongful death carries an important message to us. This is the good news, the Gospel: Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission to live life fully in our humanity. Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission to respond positively to Jesus’ invitation – as he made to Andrew and Simon – to “come and see” what God is all about, to embrace our walk on earth with others in faith. Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission even to embrace our own earthly death.

Because this life on earth matters. We are on the path to reconciliation with God that begins in this time and place. We are together on this faith journey to be united with God. Our lives are being transformed in the waters of baptism and in daily walk in faith. This is good news. As I said, one of the first disciples of Jesus identified in this text is Simon; already, early on in his discipleship, Jesus invites him into the transformed life, symbolized by changing his name from Simon to Cephas – the Rock, Peter.

As the liturgy of Holy Communion articulates it well: Jesus, “who on the Cross, opened to us the way of everlasting life” that is to say, to become fully united with God; to respond to that earthly journey towards union with God, a union that will one day be complete, beyond death.

The word “diabolical” comes from two Greek words meaning “to throw apart.” If something or someone is diabolical, that someone or something is dividing and separating that which could be united and at peace. The evil one tears the fabric of life apart. In contrast, the Spirit of God seeks to make one out of two; the Spirit comes to mend, soften and heal.

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” cries the Baptist. How does Jesus ‘take away’ the sin of the world? The Son of God accomplishes this through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the M.O. of Jesus. Jesus gives his life for us, on the Cross. His sacrifice is an act of forgiveness. And, as such, unyielding love.

Richard Rohr points out that about two-thirds of Jesus’ teachings are about forgiveness; about a third of all the parables of Jesus, directly and indirectly, have to do with forgiveness (p.133-134, Everything Belongs). The growth and positive change that we experience in our lives because of following Jesus come about not because of a fear of punishment from a wrathful, legalistically-bound God who demands sacrifice in order to be satisfied. The growth and positive change in our lives happens through tears of confession and assurances of forgiveness more so than through threats and punishments.

That’s the powerful and most important meaning of the images of Lamb and Cross that we associate with Jesus: Forgiveness is God’s entry into powerlessness, humility. When we encounter the living Jesus in our own lives, we find someone not against us, but someone who is definitely for us!

The goal of faith is not separation, but union – union with God. We may call it getting to heaven, or being saved – however we describe it. But, ultimately discipleship is about bringing together, rather than dividing. True religion is about union. To live in conscious union, relationship, with God is what it means to “be saved”. To be restored, united, in Christ today is to be restored, united within the living Body of Christ, which is the Church. We are the hands and feet and eyes of Christ in the world today.

To exercise a ministry of reconciliation can only be done with great humility and grace. This was the dominant posture of Jesus’ work on earth: that he submitted himself to be baptized by John, that he knelt to wash the feet of his disciples, that he willingly made himself vulnerable in every human way possible, even unto death on a cross (Philippians 2).

Going into the World Junior Hockey Tournament or the Olympics, Canada is always one of the strong favourites. And given the high expectations, and with the entire nation looking on – there is, to say the least, a lot of pressure on the Canadians to win it all. I heard on the news that during the preliminary round of the World Juniors in 2010 in Buffalo, rather than making the mistake of being over-confident and arrogant, the coach then, Dave Cameron, taught his players to be humble in the face of all the attention and competition. Be humble. Interesting – especially in the highly competitive dog-eat-dog culture, we have the Canadian coach teaching his players the value and wisdom of humility.

In the church, and in the faithful living-out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, it’s not some winning and some losing. It’s about doing both, winning and losing – doing both not apart and divided and competitive – but doing both together with grace and humility.

In humility, we can forgive and let go. In humility, we can see the other’s point of view. In humility we can see others as they are, created and loved in God’s image. In humility we can grow in faith in the ministry of reconciliation.

Let us pray that in all that we are and do, we seek to mend, to heal, and to unite that which has been divided in and among, and around us.

The visible signs of unity in the church can be today the most significant. Let’s watch for these signs.

Wisps of Wisdom — on sin & forgiveness

How does our perspective on sin and forgiveness relate to the following ‘wisps of wisdom’ on the sometimes heavy topics of sin, judgment — and forgiveness?

It’s Lent, after all! Aren’t we supposed to dwell on these matters?

At a round table discussion last weekend with several senior, committed, lifelong Christians, I heard these kinds of statements:

“Confessing sin is about becoming aware again of my need for and my dependence on God.”

“God will not act toward us in judgment because of our sins so much as for all the gifts we refused from the gracious hand of God.”

“Forgiveness of sins is not a reprieve from a judge but an embrace from a lover.”

“It is not Jesus’ suffering and death that saved us but Christ’s love.”

What do you think? I, for one, am grateful and encouraged.