A sentimental Christmas?

We say that ‘Christmas is for the children’. Especially, parents and grandparents will focus much of their energies to make sure the children are happy: 

That the presents they receive will excite them, 

That the rituals around the Christmas tree and fireplace will fuel their anticipation and wonder, 

That the events in church and community the family attends will reinforce their understanding of the meaning of it all. 

And that all these efforts will bring delight to those who watch and attend them. And make it all worth the effort.

The accounts of Jesus’ birth – the Christ child born in Bethlehem – in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke especially reinforce our emphasis on children: The story of the Word made flesh in Jesus begins with Jesus the babe. The story of Jesus that ends at the cross of Golgotha and the empty tomb begins in a baby’s cries from a feeding trough in a stable for animals. 

Yes, Christmas is by the children and for the children. It is no wonder many of the annual Christmas pageants today are performed by children.

And yet, the story of faith compiled over decades and centuries into what we have in the bible challenges us. What the early Christians give us disrupts our sentimental bias in how we celebrate the Christmas season.

Let’s go back in time a week ago. First, December 21, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, was traditionally the feast day observed for Saint Thomas, the doubting one, who was martyred in India in the mid first century. Then, December 26 is the feast day for Saint Stephen, whose violent murder at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious we read about in the book of Acts.[1]

And, finally, today, the first Sunday of Christmas, the church commemorates the ‘Holy Innocents’ – the children of Bethlehem – who were murdered at the hands of Herod trying to get at Jesus and eliminate any potential threat to his despotic hold on power.[2]

Not exactly a Christmas observance that brings the warm fuzzies. Why has the tradition included these rather violent and distressing facts about Christian faith so close to Christmas? Wouldn’t we rather put off such disturbing elements until long after the holidays when the kids are back to school and we return to the mundane realities of our lives (when we can ignore the truth of the faith)? Wouldn’t we rather preserve the genteel, Hallmark images cradled in soft-white light where all the children are squealing with delight?

The church, in its wisdom, pierces through our illusions and disrupts our escapism. In compiling the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew, the Gospel writer, chose to express a profound care for the children – especially those who suffered under the violent injustices of corrupt and despotic rulers. Matthew will not ignore what happened around Jesus’ birth, but will bring voice to it. Expose it for what it is.

This Christmas story is a very human, and a very real, story of life and death, sin and grace. None of it can be ignored nor dismissed, and certainly not simply in order to cradle our cocktail-numbed minds. The Gospel pours cold water on us and calls us to ‘wake up’ in the face of our reality:

That following Christ will sometimes be a rocky road, to put it mildly – as the ancient martyrs of the faith exemplified by their faithfulness and service. That following Christ will sometimes shock us onto our knees in lamenting the evil in the world – when children elsewhere and in our own communities suffer incredible injustice and violence.

That following Christ will sometimes call us into risky and urgent action that doesn’t give time for proper goodbyes. That following Christ will sometimes call for unconditional grace and acceptance of the stranger – as Egypt welcomed the fleeing holy family refugees from neighboring Judea. 

We don’t care for the children if we turn a blind eye to injustice, especially at Christmas. We don’t care for the children when we insist on avoiding the chaos and upheaval that our faith implies. Christmas isn’t just about sentimentality. It is more about taking responsibility and learning from the witness of the Gospel message.

One element of the storytelling from the Gospel today catches my eye: It is the rapid plot movement. This story reflects anything but a sedate, static tableau:

One moment, the holy family is in Bethlehem being visited upon by the magi; the next moment they are fleeing to Egypt. Then, Herod reacts, is infuriated by the magi’s deception, and sends his murdering squads to Bethlehem. Even though it would have been some time passing until Herod’s death, the story-telling doesn’t permit but a breath before another angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream to ‘get up’ and return his family to the land of Israel. But not to Bethlehem where potential threat still exists, but to Nazareth. And all of this in ten short verses.

The pace of the story-telling itself evokes responsibility, not sentiment – not even a lingering, inert contemplation. Joseph doesn’t even have time to think, just react. And trust himself and especially trust God. The truth of the story is expressed in behavior and action.

The witness of the story-tellers of old have something to say to us, who very much like to sit-back and put-up-our-feet during the Christmas season. Perhaps this word to us is a reminder not to forget to take up the mantle of faith, to do our part in meaningful action and behavior. And be responsible, as the body of Christ, to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.

“For if the babe does not again take flesh in us today, the Bethlehem star is but an optical illusion leading to nothing. 

“If we are not empowered to offer a gift to the one in need, then there are no wise men searching. 

“If there is no praise or joy within our hearts, then there are no angels singing; no shepherds watching.”[3]

May these days of Christmas bring to us a deepened awareness of the care we have and express for this dark, broken world. And in so doing fulfill our responsibility as bearers of the Christ child.

This responsibility is also a gift God gives us at Christmas. It is a gift that is activated in us by the witness of all the saints of old.


[1]Acts 6:8—7:60

[2]Matthew 2:16-18

[3]Bishop Michael Pryse, Christmas Message from Bishop Pryse (www.easternsynod.org, December 24, 2019)

Prayer as Silence – Advent sermon series 4

In this concluding sermon in a series on prayer this Advent, I invite you to consider prayer as silence. In the first, we acknowledged prayer as growth – that there come times in our lives when God invites us into a deeper communion of prayer; and so, a different way of praying. In the second sermon, we considered that the fundamental work of prayer was to listen – listen to the other and listen to God. Last week, we reflected upon an important type of prayer that often is missed especially during times of the year we are called to be happy; the lament makes our relationship with God real and our ultimate joy authentic.

The eagle changes its flying posture depending on the state of the air around it.  When in flight it encounters noisy, turbulent air, the eagle folds its wings straight down and underneath, riding the agitated, unstable winds in as compact a body mass as possible.

But when the air is calm high above the earth, the eagle will spread its massive wingspan to its farthest limits. It will expand its body mass to its fullest potential as it coasts and glides on the silent, peaceful air.

Silence gets a bad rap in the Protestant church especially. Since the Reformation and Enlightenment, we are suspicious of anything that is interior or to do with experience. When we still our minds, we are afraid that we will let the devil in! 

And, we will straight away point to bad silence – like the violence percolating beneath the surface of giving someone ‘the silent treatment’. Or, we rightly condemn the complacent, fearful silence in face of injustice. In both cases, words must be spoken. And better loudly at that!

Yet, there is a silence that is healing, transformational. We find it in nature. We find it in the stillness of predawn dew resting on flowers and blades of grass. We experience it the first night in the bush after driving all day away from the loud, noisy city. 

We also find silence in the bold action born of convicted hearts, action that happens behind-the-scenes. Not in the spectacular, the sensational. Not in attention-grabbing largess of personality shock-and-awe. But in the quiet, dedicated, barely perceptible giving of those who know themselves and respond to the still, small voice speaking in their hearts.

This is Joseph. He appears, indeed, to be the strong, silent type. But not because he is afraid to say or do anything. But because he has the courage to respond. He begins his risky venture with Mary “after waking from sleep.” Even though he went to bed “considering in his mind” all the problematic aspects of his relationship with Mary, “resolving” to leave her, his course of action changed dramatically after he stopped the busy-ness of his mind, the activity of his consciousness – as good and righteous as it was – and went to sleep. And dreamt.[1]

There is a difference between the absence of noise and silence. Something is already happening in this holy silence. Something we’ve been too busy, too rushed, too loud, too distracted to notice. Where God already is, in between the words, in between the spaces defined by our cerebral, ego-driven impulses and imaginations.

This is good, Lutheran theology! The grace of God already exists in our lives. We don’t have to make it happen. Really, we don’t! God is in the world, already. It is given. God is present. God is waiting for us, in the silence of our hearts. God is waiting, already, in the circumstances and situations of the world. God is always listening to us. 

But are we always listening to God? Are we willing to step into the river of God’s action and Spirit? Will we immerse ourselves into the prayer already flowing in our lives, a prayer flowing into the ocean of God’s presence and love? The late Thomas Keating was known to have said, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”[2]

It is in silence where we can be fully and truly who we are. We don’t have to hide anything. We don’t have to meet anyone’s expectations, put on a good impression or please anyone. We can let go and let all that is there come to the surface in the confidence that all of it is held in God’s love – the good, the bad and the ugly. We can stretch to our fullest without judgement. We may be, in truth, letting the devil out, not in.

May we step into the spaciousness of God’s mercy, peace and joy just waiting for us in the silence of God’s ever-present love. May we learn to pray in the gift of silence, especially when we may so desperately need it.


[1]Matthew 1:18-25

[2]Cited in Theresa Blythe, Fifty Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006) p.32

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.

“¡Presente!”

Each of the four blessings is matched with a corresponding ‘woe’[1] First, Jesus says that blessed are they who are poor, who are hungry, who weep now and whom people hate. But, unlike Matthew’s version of the beatitudes[2], Luke doesn’t stop there. Luke doesn’t let us off easily.

Lest we become too enamoured with spiritualizing virtues or escape into some pie-in-the-sky notion of faith, Luke’s version of Jesus’ sermon only sets us up for being gobsmacked upside the head. In a stunning reversal to each blessing Jesus brings a ‘woe’—to those who are rich, who are full, who laugh now and about whom people speak well.

But wait—a secure financial future, a full stomach, a light heart, and a good reputation – aren’t these all values we want and seek? Aren’t these the things around which we structure our lives to obtain? Don’t these describe to a ‘t’ our five-year, ten-year and twenty-five-year goals?

A surface reading of this scripture can leave us picking sides. Am I on the ‘blessing’ side or the ‘woe’ side of the equation. Either / Or. Will we dare go deeper?

And, at the deeper currents of our awareness — when we are honest with ourselves — don’t we already know? Don’t we already know the truth of it—that, at best, wealth, a full stomach, a light heart and a good reputation are mixed blessings? They come at a great cost to health and relational well-being. They are temporary, fleeting. They can come and they can go.

Contrary to popular belief, rather than being evidence of God’s favour, prosperity can actually endanger our relationship with God, as was the case with the rich fool and Zacchaeus—both characters unique to Luke’s Gospel.[3]

What is common to both characters? Both came to Jesus rich men with full stomachs and their reputations intact. When they came to Jesus, both the rich fool and Zacchaeus were perfectly able to take care of themselves, to say the least.

The common trait they share as prosperous men of first century Palestine, is their self-sufficiency. This state is what separates them from God. And has them trapped. they are self-sufficient.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, we read that those who lay up treasures for themselves are not—and cannot be—rich toward God[4]because when we can take perfectly good care of ourselves, it is altogether too easy for us not to trust God. So, what jeopardizes the wealthy Christian’s relationship with God is the subtle temptation to think that we can go it alone and take care of ourselves.[5]

This underlying belief applies not only to our personal lives—and what we decide to do with our wealth, our investments, our properties our material blessing— but, also to the way we do church.

Will we be a community that lives only unto ourselves, or for the sake of others? Meeting the challenges of church today, how do we move forward? What decisions will we make with the resources we have? Will we abide by the code of self-sufficiency and go it alone? Or, will we seek out effective partners, neighbours and others on the journey of faith? Will we say God is only here inside thesewalls alone? Or, will we seek God’s work out there in the world?

What with all the competing values and programs for success beating down the doors of our hearts and minds, to follow the Christ of the cross is not easy. It’s not a technique or strategy that we can simply employ. In light of the beatitudes from Luke, the way of Christ cannot be an add-on. It cannot work that way, as another activity to add to the schedule of our already busy lives.

It comes to us as a complete package. It’s a call to transformation – a whole-life make-over. I understand the hesitation. Because life in the fast lane has its perks. Maybe we don’t want to give them up. Not easily, anyway. Seeking after self-sufficiency is too much of a lucrative deal for our egos.

Therefore the message of the Gospel can really be a downer! After all, how can we ever live faithfully when immersed in our world and its values?

But, perhaps, the message of All Saints provides an antidote to the despair and the grief. And give us hope for the journey. After all, the Gospel is not just about how to get into heaven after you die, but actually more about how to live in the kingdom of heaven on earth before you die. Not just the saints of heaven. But the saints on earth.

I want to close with a brief reflection on the meaning of a couple of words. First, ‘blessing’. “Blessed” is sometimes translated as “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[6]which incidentally is also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in offering the beatitudes, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor, when you hunger, when you weep, when you let go, when you don’t hold it all to yourself.” I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state. It acknowledges a journey of becoming. And any path of growth and transformation will include honest struggling and striving and letting go.

It is human to struggle with these things. On one hand, we do need to learn early in life how to take care of ourselves. Learning vital skills around self-care are important. Along the journey of maturity and growth, however, we must also learn how to balance this skill towards attention to others.

The second word is ‘presence’. This word doesn’t appear in the biblical texts for today, but it is implied in our ritual of All Saints. In Spanish, you hear the word said aloud: “¡Presente!”—which literally means “here” or “present”. There is a long tradition in Latin American movements for justice of invoking the memory of those who have lost their lives in the struggle.

At political gatherings their names were read out loud, one after another, not unlike we read the names of the saints earlier. After each name the crowd says together: “¡Presente!” as if to say: “You are not gone, you are here with us. You are not forgotten, and we continue the struggle in your name.”

It is human to struggle in the mission of God on earth. But we are not alone. Not only are the saints of heaven among us in spirit and in love, God is with us each step of the way. On the journey of life …

“Blessed are you who are poor – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who hunger – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who weep – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who are despised – because you are not alone!”

“¡Presente!” “¡Presente!” “¡Presente!”

 

[1]Luke 6:20-31

[2]Matthew 5:1-12

[3]Luke 12:16-21; 19:1-10; E. Elizabeth Johnson in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.239-241.

[4]Luke 12:21

[5]E. Elizabeth Johnson, ibid., p.241

[6]Psalm 1:1

God loves us uniquely, not exclusively

Some things Jesus says offend our most sacred held values.

In today’s Gospel Jesus basically turns against family. As one who drove 6000 kilometers this summer in a car with my family and then spent four intense but good days with extended family in Poland, I recoil at these words of Jesus. If we take Jesus’ demand literally, he is telling us outright to ‘hate’ our father, mother, wife and children and give up all our possessions.[1]How’s that for ‘family values’?

We cannot ignore this statement of Jesus, as much as we may want to. When we see the other places Jesus comments on family we begin to notice a theme emerge. Jesus redefines ‘family’ who shares not bloodlines but a common awareness of following Jesus and God’s mission.[2]

How do we pick up our cross and be faithful in following Jesus? How do we deal with this word ‘hate’ which brings up un-gospel-like connotations of division, conflict, anger and even violence?

In a historical fiction by Ken Follet entitled A Column of Fire he describes the early, raw conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Set in 1558, just some forty years after Martin Luther inaugurated the Reformation, Follet portrays through his characters the mindset of religious combatants in England and France.

In small towns where this religious war was waged in families and churches, to be caught with prohibited books from the ‘other side’ meant certain and immediate death. Underground Protestants were indiscriminately persecuted with the full force of the law when outed in Catholic regions. And vice versa. I had forgotten to appreciate the depth of the hatred that existed between coreligionists in the decades following the spread of Protestantism in Europe.

Early in the book we are introduced to Rollo. Rollo hates Protestants who are inflicting his English town. He bemoans the subversive, rule-breaking Protestants who are trying to alter Christian doctrines that had been taught in the old town cathedral unchanged for centuries. “The truth was for eternity,”[3]he pronounces. This truth is like the huge foundation stones of cathedral building which cannot be moved.

Of course, from today’s vantage point five hundred years later, we lay aside these trifling objections. Over the last fifty years especially culminating in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justificationin 1999, Catholics and Protestants together testify to the salvation that is bestowed only in Christ and by grace alone. In that almost incredible agreement, the objections and cause of divisions of the sixteenth century between the Roman Catholic church and reformers were officially removed.

Rollo’s problem was that he equated his interpretation of the truth with the truth itself. He believed his ‘take’ on the truth was the only take to make. And everyone else who didn’t conform to his take was excluded. In other words, his worldview was exclusive. Love of God, grace of God—these were exclusive gifts of God to a select few who conformed.

And damned be the rest.

Today, while the historical differences between Catholics and Protestants melt in the context of a changing cultural reality in the Western world, these troubling tendencies towards conformity, like-mindedness and exclusiveness nevertheless still persist in both Catholic and Lutheran circles worldwide and denominationally.

Think of the eye-glasses we wear. Some, to shield against the sun. Some glasses for short-sightedness, some for far-sightedness. Some glasses are bi-focal. Others are progressive lens. Important questions to ask in any study of scripture or tradition are: What lens do you use—your lens of experience, upbringing, learning, personality, opinion, background—what lens of interpretation do you bring to a reading of holy scripture?

What do you normally see in scripture? What do you first notice? The law? The gospel? Do you regard the bible as a legal book, or a historical book primarily? Or, do you look for promise, hope, forgiveness? Do you presume a punishing God who looks for mistakes and the follies of humanity? Or, do you see a loving God? Why? What are you afraid of? What are you looking for?

These are not easy questions to pose to oneself. But following Jesus is not blind. Obedience in the vision of Jesus is not like flotsam, driftwood, floating hither and yon.

Discipleship is a call to a commitment with focus and intention. Following Jesus calls each of us to a thought-probing, deliberative process in which we grow our ability and confidence to ask of ourselves the tough questions about life and living not only about God but especially of ourselves.

These types of questions are important to get some handle on before you can claim any part of the truth. In short, an honest self-awareness is necessary for healthy relating—whether relating to scripture or to someone else.

In families, relationships and organizations that are healthy, vital and growing, what do you see? I see people who are respected for their unique contribution to the whole. I see people who may be very different from each other and still value their own contribution because they know they are valued by others. Not because they conform. Not because they wear identical eye-glasses of interpretation. Not because someone else tells them what to do. Not because they ‘tow the party line.’ Not because they are like-minded in all things religious.

I know it’s not time to think of snow, yet. But I came across this past week an image of the snowflake. Of all the billions of people on this planet, no two are exactly alike. Even, as I am, an identical twin—I am not exactly like my brother. Of all the snowflakes that fall from the sky, no two are exactly alike.  Not one is a duplicate. Each is unique.

I don’t take the word ‘hate’ in the Gospel reading to mean we have license from God now to say and do violence to those we love most. That would constitute a false interpretation of scripture.

I do take this to mean we cannot, dare not, make any claim on another’s life. We do not own another person. We do not claim ownership and control them emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually. We are not responsible for another person.

Our growth with those we love means we release our claim over their lives, if we’ve ever had one or thought we had. I believe that is what Jesus is getting at here. Parents, even, are advised to remember that their role in raising children is to prepare those children for the world, and then release them to the world. In any relationship, blood-lined or missional—we do not control, own, or claim anything over another person.

And this is not easy with regards to letting go of our emotional attachments. But not claiming anything over another doesn’t mean we cut ourselves off from them, cutting all ties and never seeing them again. Releasing our emotional grip on another doesn’t mean we do not love them anymore. Letting go our claim over their lives doesn’t mean we do not care for them anymore. It just means we are not ultimately in charge of their lives. God is.

This can be a freeing prospect.

In reflecting on the cost of discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The call to discipleship is a gift of grace.”[4]It’s a call to freedom and transformation which is what Jesus nurtures in us: to grow, to move, to change for the better as persons created in the image of God.

And, what is more, when all those unique snowflakes fall to the ground what accumulates is a blanket of snow—that has its recuperative and restorative purpose upon the earth. Unique, yet each contributes to the whole.

God doesn’t love us exclusively. As if we ought to be better than ‘them’. God loves uniquely. Being faithful is not about comparison, competition, being better than someone else. God loves us uniquely not exclusively. That means, our take on the truth is partial. Someone else’s take on the truth is also partial. Each of us in God’s family brings something unique to the whole of the truth.

To follow Jesus is to practice the letting go of the ego’s compulsions, and embrace God’s unconditional love and grace for you. So, following Jesus is not about being perfect, or copying someone else’s ‘saintliness’. It is, quite simply, being authentically you and affirming the stranger, in God’s love for all.

 

[1]Luke 14:25-33

[2]See Luke 12:51-53, 14:12, 18:29-30

[3]Ken Follet, A Column of Fire (New York: Viking Books/Penguin Random House, 2017) p.76.

[4]Cited by Emilie M. Townes in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.48.

Pluck up!

When our daughter received a pouch of seeds last Spring, we didn’t know initially what to do with them. They were Colorado Spruce Tree seeds. And we weren’t exactly planning on seeding a forest.

So we took a medium-sized flower pot and sprinkled the dozen-or-so seeds into the soil packed into the container which we left on the back deck outside. Let’s first see if the seeds in fact sprout, we thought. And go from there.

Three little buds popped through the top layer of soil a couple weeks later. One came up near the edge of the pot. But two of them came up in the centre, side-by-side. At first, I thought the two to be part of one sprig. But they weren’t.

At some point I would have to separate the two, distinct saplings. They were too close together. When to pull them up posed a bit of a challenge. If I waited too long, then the root systems would most certainly entwine and grow into one tree making it impossible to separate. If I plucked up the saplings too soon, I ran the risk of damaging the vulnerable shoots.

The task before me reminded me of the call of God to Jeremiah stated poetically: “to pluck up … and to plant.”[1]While Jeremiah’s plucking up and planting had to do with nations, social practice and religious faith, mine was more literal: As the tiny saplings were finding life and vitality to grow, I would first have to pluck them up from the soil before planting them into separate containers for the next stage of their growth.

And that plucking up would not be easy. It would hurt. It would put stress on the individual seedlings. I could very well be killing them in the transfer. Would they survive the ‘plucking up’?

Sometimes we don’t believe we can survive the ‘plucking up’ events of our lives. We don’t believe we have the strength to endure those difficult transitions in life, especially after experiencing loss, or when confronted with change or great disappointment and failure.

We object, like Jeremiah did—and Moses and Isaiah before him, to God’s call, finding all sorts of justifications: Can’t do that; I’m not qualified, I don’t have the skills, I don’t have the strength, I am too young or too old, I don’t have time. They make sense, common sense we might say. We find all sorts of excuses and even create a religion around all of that to keep us feeling good. Or at least not guilty. And stuck in a rut.

What is more, we make our faith into something that ought to make us comfortable. We ‘go to church’ expecting not the challenge to grow and change but instead to find the salve of warm fuzzies and emotional feel-goodies. We even believe Jesus was all about being ‘nice’. And if anyone is not nice, or challenges us, or doesn’t fit our mould—well, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

And yet, the biblical witness, if not our authentic lives of faith when we pay honest attention to them, suggest something entirely different:

  1. Jesus’ popularity suffers a severe blow after he says to his people in their synagogue that “today the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing”.[2]What he means is that they—his people—would not be the vessels for the unfolding of God’s new narrative; outsiders would be. Stew on that. The audacity. They nearly succeed in throwing him off a cliff, they are so enraged.
  2. In the Jeremiah text, we read that God’s hand “touches” Jeremiah’s mouth. “I have put my words in your mouth,” God says.[3]Perhaps, at first, this sounds rather intimate, soft, gentle, nice.

But we need to be careful not to imagine it was a comforting touch. The same verb used here can also mean “strike” or “harm.” The one other biblical verse that uses this same verb to envision God’s hand touching is found in the prologue to the book of Job, where Satan challenges God to test Job’s faithfulness by taking away everything Job has.[4]There is nothing gentle about the wind that then “touches” the house where Job’s children are feasting, leaving every one of them dead beneath its roof.[5]

“When we picture the hand of God ‘touching’ Jeremiah’s mouth, we might do better to imagine a jolt or a shock. We would be justified in asking whether it hurt, whether it left a wound or scar, whether having God’s words in his mouth changed Jeremiah forever.”[6]

The message of Christ is the message of the cross. And then, resurrection. For our growth and life in Christ, we are called into places of disruption of our comfortable lives before anything new and life-giving happens. There’s no way around it, if we want to follow Jesus in this world.

It starts small, though. And that’s the grace and the hope. God does not call the qualified; God qualifies the called. The point of the Jeremiah story is that Jeremiah cannot depend on his own, developed capabilities and skill-set to justify his participation in God’s work. God called and equipped him even before he was born.

Every worldly role has purpose in Christ. No work is meaningless in God’s light. Martin Luther famously said about parenthood, when understood in Christian vocation: even changing dirty diapers is done for the glory of God! It is God’s invitation to us to invest God’s grace into whatever work God opens to us.[7]

All Jeremiah must do is trust God, and not make his decisions—yay or nay—based on fear. The most often repeated command in the bible—do you know it? “Fear not”. This does not mean we will never be afraid when we listen to and follow God. It means we do not lead our lives with fear in the driver’s seat. Instead, we find in the driver’s seat of our lives: Trust God. And hope in God. Fear can take a back seat, now.

I sat on the front porch with three separate, small pots for each of the seedlings. I did this in early November, believing they would do much better inside during their first winter.

My ‘plucking up’ was done swiftly, using the old adage of taking off a band-aid quickly is better than dragging it out. What surprised me the most in the process of ‘plucking up’ and then ‘planting’ again, was to see the roots.

Each of the tiny saplings had astoundingly long tap roots. One even had extended its main root all the way to the bottom of the original pot, and then some. More than tripling the length of the part of the sapling above ground, there was definitely more to the little sprout than what met the eye on the surface.

And so, there is much more to you and to me than what may first meet the eye—the eye of our self-regard. God calls us to break through the crust of the surface of our self-perception and to mine the depths of who we are, created uniquely each of us in God’s image. There’s so much good, there!

God is just waiting for you to uncover those depths, and then to bless and to empower who you are and what you do, into God’s holy purposes.

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[1]Jeremiah 1:10

[2]Luke 4:21-30

[3]Jeremiah 1:9

[4]Job 1:11, see Anathea Portier-Young in her commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10 in workingpreacher.org

[5]Job 1:19

[6]Portier-Young, ibid.

[7]James Calvin Davis, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009) p.292

Pilgrims rising

Don was a husband and father who one day was commuting home after work in a bad thunder storm, when the car he was driving was struck by lightning. Don was okay, and he managed to get home. Sitting down with his teenaged children, he relayed to them his harrowing experience.

Expecting at least a small degree of sympathy from them, Don was perplexed when his eldest interrupted: “Quick, let’s go buy a lottery ticket because they say the chances of being struck by lightning are like the chances of winning the lottery.”

The disconnect we feel in how Jesus’ disciples often responded to him is not dissimilar. He tells them he must die a horrible death. And they respond by demanding seats of power, authority and glory beside Jesus. His disciples continually seem out of sync with their leader’s meaning.

The Gospel for today[1]must be read in the larger context of Mark’s writing here. In Mark, we see that this is the third time Jesus announces his death, the third time the disciples respond in perplexing ways, and the third time Jesus responds to them by giving them a commentary on true discipleship.[2]

By looking at the what comes immediately before this text, we also discover that the disciples who followed Jesus were afraid.[3]It’s fair to presume, then, their desire and request to secure positions of glory once Jesus took his rightful throne on earth and/or in heaven was born out of fear.

The connection between fear and striving for security is common in all of us, to this day.

We are afraid. We fear the changing realities which make new demands on our time, energy and resources in the church. We fear the outcome of our health concerns. We fear the effects of an uncertain future, in our nation, our world and in our personal lives. In the fear of the unknown, it is a natural knee-jerk to secure anything down. Do something, anything, to give yourself the illusion of control. An insurance policy.

Let’s give the disciples the benefit of the doubt, to suggest perhaps they were aware that Jesus’ path was going to lead to his arrest, torture and death. And they knew that likely they, too, would be caught in the crossfire. They were probably aware that Jesus was causing an uncomfortable stir among the powers that be, religiously and politically, in Jerusalem. They saw the writing-on-the-wall.

And in the midst of this fear, the Sons of Zebedee tried to insure some benefit for all the sacrifices they were already making and would likely continue to make. Perhaps if they didn’t understand something, it was they couldn’t yet grasp the depths of the sacrifices they would make as a community of faith.

What Jesus stands for is a different way altogether from the way of the world. The disciples are caught up in the power plays of the world. They have in mind a hierarchy, a pecking order, of who’s on top. There is this Machiavellian feel to the debate amongst themselves, as if relationships of power must only be a win/lose scenario, a zero-sum game where in order to get ahead some people have to be left behind.

The way of Jesus, in contrast, is the way of the Cross. Jesus exposes the false way of the world by surrendering to it and dying by it. The way of the cross exposes our folly and calls us to a deeper more inclusive way.

Martin Luther first coined the phrase in his Heidelberg Disputation written in 1518. He called it, “A theology of the cross.” It is a way of understanding and imagining God. That is, God was, and is, being revealed to us in all truth most clearly and unequivocally in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed—and continues to reveal—the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world.

Luther thus criticized a “theology of glory” which presumes God validates faith, and is only validated by, success, measures of progress and triumphal conquering over any weakness or adversary. This theology dominates not only in our society, but sadly also in the church.

A theology of glory reflects an unbridled, Pollyanna optimism that avoids and resists places of defeat, failure, vulnerability and weakness as having anything to do with divine identity or purpose. A theology of glory undermines real people and a God who is known in the darkest times and places of life. It despises our common humanity and the losses we all endure.

The way of Jesus is for all people, not just for those who make it to the top. The way of Jesus is for all people, because we all have our crosses to bear. We can share in our common suffering. And grow together. It is therefore in community, the Body of Christ, the body ‘broken for all’ we say in the Communion, where Christ is revealed and where our true purpose is born.

#OttawaRising is the hashtag used, announced and displayed on Ottawa Senators Hockey club promotional material. The vision is of the team rising out of the ashes of disappointment from last season. That was the season from hell, when they finished second-to-last place in the league standings, suffered through a broken, conflicted locker room and as a result had to trade away star players.

But it is only standing in the ashes that you can claim the vision of ‘rising’ again. The Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals wouldn’t declare resurrection as their identity, this season. It only makes sense to proclaim the resurrection in the midst of the defeat of the cross.

The Gospel abounds with a promise. The disciples may not hear it as such. But Jesus has great compassion on them. He does not rebuke them for being out of sync with him. He affirms that they will indeed drink the cup that he must drink and be baptized with the baptism that he must endure.

Jesus will continue to offer this promise and hope to us, that we will not always need to act and respond out of our fear. That what we do as a community does not need to be knee-jerk platitudes that only keep us stuck in cycles of fear, self-preservation and defensiveness. Jesus will continue to call us into deeper expressions of serving others and of paying attention to the needs of others not just our own.

If there was anything the disciples should have known with any amount of certainty, is that Jesus’ promise is secure and very sure. Because by being in last place, and losing it all, those first disciples would one day rise.

And so will we.

[1]Mark 10:35-45

[2]C. Clifton Black in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common LectionaryYear B Volume 4 (Louisville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.189.

[3]Mark 10:32