The God who forgets

The prophet Jeremiah describes a remarkable characteristic of God. He says God will “remember no more”[1]Israel’s sins. In other words, God forgets things. Now, I’m not sure we are accustomed to perceiving God in this way. In fact, I would wager many of us will be unsettled, even disturbed, by this notion.

If God is God Almighty, all-knowing, all-everything – then how is it God will intentionally forget something about us? It’s hard to believe that God is telling the truth, here. In fact, I’m not sure we would get excited by believing in a God who isn’t all-powerful and all-knowing.

The other night was a good sports night for me. On the same night Toronto FC won their do-or-die game against New York to advance to the Eastern Conference Final in Major League Soccer. The same night, the Ottawa Senators won their second hockey game of the year! Winning is not easy for that team these days, so that win was huge. It’s a good feeling to win!

It’s invigorating and stimulating to compete, especially when you win. Indeed, we live in a world of winners and losers. And all the hype on the fields of play mirrors the values with which we live day to day.

To be better than the other. To be more beautiful than the other. To be more skilled, have more luck, be more privileged than the other. And life becomes this rat-race to establish yourself ‘over and against’ the other – to beat out your biggest competition for a position on the team, to nail that audition and get that role in the play instead of someone else.

Often climbing to the top means climbing over someone else. It’s the zero-sum game of life. We say, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, where it’s survival of the fittest. Whether or not we like it, we take it as normative even defensible. We shrug our shoulders and say, “that’s the way it is.”

God, however, does not compete. This is the remarkable thing about the biblical witness of God in light of the Gospel. God does not fight for space in this world. God does not need it. There is this self-withdrawing feel to God’s presence. Here, we would affirm the central paradox in Christianity: In God’s absence we find God’s presence; or, in death there is life.

God will remember their sins no more. Because if God was to remember their sins, God would still be in the game. The game of tit-for-tat, the game of revenge, retribution and punishment for sin. The game of reward for good works. The game of earning and deserving God’s favour.

But no. There is a new game in town. And it’s not really a game anymore – at least not one with winners and losers. It’s a new covenant and a new promise from God. Where everyone and everything in creation is a winner.

God will make us all winners. How? Almighty God will release a grip on the tug-of-war rope. God will let go of the imposing forces of the battle ground. God will forget. God will not compete for space in our lives. God will not compete for space in this world. God will forgive. God will ease our anxiety about all the harsh lines in our world.

The dividing walls between people, nations and teams will no longer carry weight. In God’s giving-up, they become largely irrelevant. The dividing walls in our hearts collapse into the total-immersion love of God. These dividing walls dissolve in the self-giving of a God who ‘emptied himself’ of all pretense to glory. And, taking the form of absolute humility – ‘being born in human likeness’ and ‘obedient’ even to the point of ‘death on a cross’[2]– God gives us abundant life.

In this vision, austerity is not the path because nothing is scarce. Self-denial is no longer needed. We don’t operate in a transactional reality where God is concerned. Because God is in all of life – even in the places we thought God could not be. There is so much to see. There is so much abundance everywhere!

Therefore God is in the glories of physical and mental achievement just as much as God is in the depression and defeat of Alzheimer’s disease. God is in the accomplishment and success of youthful enterprise as much as God is in the tears of failure. God in the beauty of creation as much as in the ugly storms. God is in the cyberworld of Tik Tok and Snap Chat as much as God is in the dusty pages of books long left on a shelf. God is in the nicest neighbourhoods and ivory towers as much as in the ghettos of poverty.

In the world of faith, too! God is among the Roman Catholics as much as God is among the Lutherans. God is among the Muslims and the Hindus as much as God is among Jews and Christians. Lutherans have a prayer schedule where we pray for a different Anglican congregation in the area every Sunday. Did you know that on their prayer list, today – Reformation Sunday—Anglican parishes in Ottawa are praying for Lutherans?

Will we see God everywhere in our lives? Will we rejoice and be glad because God is the God of the Cross and Empty Tomb? Will we seek to work towards a world in which all people can see the face of God in each other?

Today is Reformation Sunday. In the Lutheran tradition a big deal. One of the hallmark sayings of Reformation is that we are a church ‘ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda’ – the church reformed, always reforming. We have seen how, since 1517 when Luther nailed those 95 arguments for reform on the Wittenberg Church door, the church has changed over five hundred years. Always reforming, always growing, always deepening in the love of God for all people.

Let’s continue in that tradition. Let’s continue in God’s word!

 

[1]Jeremiah 31:34

[2]Philippians 2:5-11

Remembrance Day Centennial

One of the reasons I wear my poppy year after year leading up to Remembrance Day, is to remind myself that freedom has a cost.

And that cost is not just ‘a drop in the bucket,’ spare change for which I reach into my deep pockets that doesn’t really make any difference in my life to do without. So, I throw them at some otherwise good cause. And feel smug.

In the Greek language in which the Gospel text from Mark[1]is originally written, we read that what the widow cast in the temple treasury was her bios. Her bios — meaning, literally, her very life. This text “invites us to imagine not two copper coins going into the treasury, but the very body and soul of the widow; her bios falling into the treasury.”[2]Freedom is not cheap. Freedom demands a whole lot of giving. Whatever good we see at the end of it all calls forth our very life.

Then, the punch to the gut. If we read on into the next chapter of Mark, Jesus says that this temple in Jerusalem—to and for which all those people were making donations—will soon be destroyed.[3]Throughout the Gospels, we know the temple and its culture was corrupt. Jesus had criticized, even became angry against, what was going on inside. In a fit of rage he had upturned the money changers’ tables in the temple. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” He cried, outraged.[4] Such behaviour from Jesus incited a condemning response from temple authorities, precipitating plans to have him silenced. The conflict between Jesus and the temple was well documented. And soon, Jesus would have the last word, promising that this building will be “thrown down.”

And Jesus is not just talking spiritually, here, referring merely to his body. His word was actually fulfilled: During the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Roman armies destroyed the temple.

The juxtaposition of these texts is not without purpose, its meaning dare not be ignored. The structure of the narrative strongly suggests that the widow gives all she has to an institution that is going to be utterly destroyed.

According to Jesus, the widow gave more of her life than the rich people because she gave “out of her poverty”.[5]I think this is the key to understanding what Jesus is really getting at by drawing our attention to the widow’s gift.

She gave out of her poverty. I suspect we associate the freedom won on the battlefields with freedom to seek after material prosperity and amass financial wealth. In other words, we attribute freedom with permission in this land to become rich if we can.

The freedom of which the bible speaks, however, is not a freedom to invest, but to divest; where power and privilege divests itself in weakness which the world considers “foolish”. Remember Paul’s words from Corinthians: God made foolish the wisdom of the world.[6]

The widow gives her all, her bios, not for the temple treasury, not for the sake of the institution, not to build and maintain the stones, the bricks, the mortar, the properties, the buildings, the skyscrapers and the material wealth of church and society. Not for building an empire under the guise of ‘freedom.’ The giving of the faithful is not for these things.

Rather, the widow gives her all, her bios, for her neighbour. For the sake of relationship—relationship with the poverty within her own soul, relationship with the poverty in her neighbours, and relationship with the poverty of God: Christ crucified.

The placement of these stories in the Gospel narrative is significant, because even this story—often interpreted solely about stewardship and ironically giving money to upkeep an institution that is dying or will die—ultimately points to Jesus Christ, on the cross.

The widow, like Jesus, gives her life for that which is going down. The widow, like Jesus, gives her life for that which is imperfect and corrupt. The widow, like Jesus, gives her life for what we might regard as foolish, unproductive and a waste, to that which is undeserving.

She gives her life for us, trusting in a resurrection that will rise out of the ashes of her divestment, out of her poverty.

The cost for freedom does not happen when we go to church. We don’t do good by coming to church. The service women and men who risked it all, and as such modelled for us a self-giving that is truly remarkable, didn’t do it in church. But, rather, on the battlefield of life. We do good by going out from the doors of the church into the world, for the sake of the Gospel. And for the love of the God, in Christ, who gave all, for us—corrupted, broken, sinful, weak, sometimes useless people. Can we do in like for others, out there?

This year, 2018, is significant for the Canadian Armed Forces for several reasons, including the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. And, as such, the 100th anniversary of Remembrance Day on November 11th observed every year since.

According to Veterans’ Affairs Canada, since Confederation in 1867, approximately 2.3 million Canadians have served in uniform, and more than 118,000 have given their lives.

As people of faith, not only do we this day thank our brave men and women who have served Canada at home and abroad, we also express our thanks to and support efforts to walk with and help our veterans after they complete their service.

We may not be aware of the plight of many veterans, trying to live, trying to survive, in this very city of Ottawa. In the attached video link, see and hear what Multifaith Housing Initiative Ottawa is doing to provide affordable and safe housing for dozens of homeless veterans. The new project, planned for the grounds on the old Rockcliffe Airforce Base, is called, “Veteran’s House.” The desire, here, is to serve those who have served us.

The task is ours to practise the gift first given to us in Christ, the gift of grace and mercy that is the way of freedom.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=H4DFg9_hhig&feature=share

 

[1]Mark 12:38-44

[2]Professor Allen Jorgenson, Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, writes in his bible study on this text given at the 2018 Eastern Synod Assembly, Mississauga.

[3]Mark 13:1-2

[4]John 2:16

[5]Mark 12:44

[6]1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Easter: what is life-giving

When Sherlock Holmes and John Watson go tent camping for the first time, the two detectives unexpectedly encounter a ‘mystery.’

They hike deep into the woods all day until they find the ideal place to pitch their tent. They start a roaring campfire, roast marshmallows, tell favorite stories, sing some tunes and as the last embers flicker in the fire pit they pack it in for the night.

In the wee hours before dawn, Watson wakes the snoring Sherlock. “Look, Holmes, look at the billions of stars in the sky! What a glorious sight! Praise to the Creator!” Watson’s eyes remain transfixed on the expanse above them. “What would you say about this wonder, my friend?”

“I would like to know,” Sherlock mumbles, looking around their campsite, “who stole our tent.”

Were Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson victims of a prank, an April Fool’s Day practical joke?

Nevertheless, consistent with their personalities, each chose to notice a different aspect of their reality: Watson immediately taken in by the glorious night sky – probably something both sleuths weren’t accustomed to seeing in their busy, urban lives.

Sherlock, on the other hand, ever the deducing genius, notices what is amiss, and automatically goes into ‘fix it’ mode, seeking solutions to the trickiest, mind-stumping riddles of life.

In their shared situation one beholds life, joy and beauty; the other, the problem, and its attendant logical, calculated explanation. One looks up, the other, down.

What do you notice? And dwell on? Are you looking up? Or, still down?

The joyous, life-giving message of Easter does not deny nor avoid the harsh realities of living. The Christian’s journey on the road of life does not float over the potholes, ignore the accidents, nor glibly get a free pass over the traffic jams.

Yet, Easter declares something greater than all the suffering, pain and death has happened, and continues to happen every moment we dare to notice.

Jesus is alive! Amidst the hardships. Despite the necessary suffering. Jesus is alive! Right in the middle of the mess. Even in our complicated, self-contradicting lives. Despite our mistakes and our failures. The life of God in Christ resides within and all around us. Martin Luther famously said, the sun shines even on all the manure piles in our lives. Sherlock Holmes AND John Watson. Both/And.

The question is, do we now, as Easter people, notice the Life? Do we see, as Watson does – the victim of obvious theft – the stars in the glorious sky? Do we pause amidst the hectic, hurly-burly of life to, actually, smell the roses and give thanks? Can we believe that the Light that has come into the world now shines in the darkness? A darkness that can never overcome the Light?(1)

Can we assert that our hurt has become home for our greatest hope?

The good news of resurrection hope is that we don’t see this alone. The life and light of Christ shines in the Body of the living Christ — the church today. We are here for each other and for the world in order to discover and celebrate the presence of God in and around us.

We are not alone in discovering the gift of Life in us. In truth, the life of Christ resides in each and every one of us, despite the imperfection of the church and this community. When one of us falls, the other lifts up. We don’t have to suffer alone in the misery of alienation, feeling useless, or being crushed by failure. As if we must carry this burden alone, and heroically solve all by ourselves.

Easter means that now, “Faith does not occur in isolation. Despite the rugged individualism of our culture, faith is not just something private between God and me. Rather, faith is, by its very definition, communal.”(2)

God gives life. That’s God’s job. Where is God’s in yours? In the world? Where do you see it? Because, it’s there!

A woman asked her local Lutheran pastor for advice. “Pastor”, she says, “I have a boy who is six months old. And I’m curious to know what he will be when he grows up.”

The Lutheran pastor says, “Place before him three things: A bottle of beer, a looney, and a Bible. If he picks the beer, he’ll be a bartender. If he picks the looney, a business man. And if he picks the Bible, a pastor.” So, the mother thanked him and went home.

The next week she returned. “Well,” said the pastor, “which one did he pick: the beer, the looney, or the Bible?”

She said, “He picked all three!”
“Ah,” said the pastor, “a Lutheran!”(3)

Of course, we can substitute any Christian, here, not just Lutherans. The point is, living in the resurrection of Jesus means our lives reflect, resonate and echo the life of the living God. We rejoice and sing Alleluias for the beauty in life, despite the difficulties, through our human desires, and amidst the realities of life.

Now, we can see the life in the world – its beauty and glory – without denying the real. Even though someone may very well have stolen our proverbial tent, this cannot stop or take away the Life that is in us and all around us. Forever.

May our lives reflect a sense of wonder, trust in one another and in ourselves, and hope for God’s glorious future. Good news, indeed!

 

1 — John 1:5

2 — Stephen R. Montgomery in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.166.

3 — Adapted from James Martin , SJ, “The Jesuit Guide To Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), p.317.

Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwing snowballs to get the message across!

We threw snowballs in worship last Sunday. 

Well, they weren’t exactly real snowballs. It’s Ottawa, after all, in December — and there’s still no snow on the ground! Just paper crumpled up into a ball. We’re warming up for the winter still-to-come. 

At the beginning of worship the children threw about a dozen of these ‘snowballs’ into the congregation. And those who caught them were instructed, during the time leading up to the children’s chat later in the service, to get pen to paper.

The Gospel texts these Sundays in Advent focus on John the Baptist (Luke 3). John’s job was to get the message across that the Messiah was coming. In truth, that is generally the job of the prophet: to tell the people what they need to hear in order to prepare for what God is about to do.

In our day and age people everywhere are preoccupied with their smart-phones and social media — to ‘message’ their friends. Messaging is now cornerstone of our culture. What we message — for better or for worse —  is vital to maintaining our relationships. 

So, we were going to practice what we ‘message’ to one another in the church, and to the world. Those who caught the paper snowballs wrote a short message that the children would later hear read out loud. What message would children hear, this Advent as we prepare for the coming of the Lord?

Here is what members of the church wrote on their snowballs:

1. Wishing you peace, hope and love at Christmas

2. Remember Christmas is not about presents but about spending time with those who love us

3. God loves us so much that he sent us Jesus

4. Show your friends love like you show your family because they love you too

5. Stop! Look! Listen! Feel the love!

6. Share with your friends

7. Every day say thank you for something that you are really thankful for. Especially for the little things that made you smile

8. Jesus is coming and is in your heart

9. God gave his only Son for you!

10. Rejoice, for Jesus is coming 🙂

Of course, at the end of children’s chat, those who wrote these messages delighted in throwing the snowballs back at the children. “If you’re going to give it, you also have to take it,” we said.
True prophets in this crowd!

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.

Of fig trees and lottery tickets

Some time towards the end of the nineteenth century, a man named Huxley who was intelligent, quick of mind, and never lost an argument, attended a house party at a grand, country estate on a Saturday night. When Sunday morning rolled around, many of the guests who stayed the night prepared to go to church.

As one who was naturally skeptical, Huxley did not propose to go. In fact, he was somewhat irate at his fellow party-goers at their sudden righteous intent. Given what all had happened the night before, Huxley could not believe they still wanted to go to church.

“Suppose you don’t go to church today,” he challenged his friend who he knew to have a simple yet radiant Christian faith. “Suppose you stay at here with me and tell me what your Christian faith means to you this morning, and why you are a Christian.”

“But,” said the man, “you could demolish my arguments in an instant. I’m not clever enough to argue with you.”

“I don’t want to argue with you,” Huxley said, gently. “I just want you to tell me simply what this Christ means to you.” So, his friend stayed with Huxley at home Sunday morning and told him most simply of his faith. When he had finished there were tears in Huxley’s eyes. “If only I could believe that,” he said. (adapted from William Barclay, “The Gospel of John” Volume 1 – The Daily Study Bible Series – Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1975, p.92)

Huxley’s response speaks to an aspect of our faith that sometimes gets crowded out because of our compulsion to be rational, persuasive and argumentative. And yet, this more heart-felt dimension is what, I believe, ultimately defines, motivates and describes our faith at its core. Because it’s more about a personal experience of Jesus rather than clever argument, persuasive logic and rational explanation.

Prior to Nathanael’s life-changing encounter with Jesus — as described in the Gospel for today (John 1:32-51), Nathanael was skeptical about his friend Philip’s proposition that they had found the Messiah: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v.46) — Jesus’ hometown. A Roman garrison was stationed there, so people living in this small, insignificant hovel of a town were associated with the hated Roman occupation of Palestine. The notion that the one who would save them from the Romans would come from Nazareth — which, moreover, was nowhere mentioned in any biblical prophecy — was unbelievable, un-credible.

Then, when Nathanael goes with Philip to see Jesus, and Jesus says that in Nathanael there is no deceit nor guile (v.47), Nathanael questions Jesus’ integrity: “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael was skeptical that anyone could give a verdict like that on so short an acquaintance. I think we can relate: How can you say anything about me when you even don’t know me! Who do you think you are?!

In short, this encounter with Jesus starts off on rocky ground. It doesn’t look good from the standpoint of trying to start a good relationship with someone. How often do we know of friends or family — even ourselves — who have given up on faith, the church, God, all because we felt put off, even offended, initially by something that is said or done. Or, how often have we given up on a spiritual practice after just trying it once? I think we can sympathize with Nathanael’s initial objections.

But then, something changes. How does he move from cynicism to belief, from questioning and doubt, to praise and confession? What happens?

It’s the fig tree. The turning point happens when Jesus speaks to Nathanael’s heart, not so much his mind: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (v.48), says Jesus. These simple words turned Nathanael’s heart from suspicious questioning to confessing Jesus as the Son of God.

The fig tree in the bible stood for peace (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4). In ancient Israel, this was a place on one’s property where one could go to be undisturbed, to find quiet. Because the fig tree was leafy and shady, it was the custom in the arid, Mediterranean heat of the day to sit and meditate under the roof of its branches. Perhaps this is what Nathanael had been doing on a regular basis — sitting under his fig tree, praying for the day when God’s Chosen One should come, and meditating on the promises of God.

When Jesus speaks those words, “I saw you under the fig tree…” Nathanael must have felt that Jesus had seen into the very depths of his heart, and read the thoughts of his inmost being. Nathanael must have said to himself, “Here is the man who understands my dreams! Here is the man who knows my prayers! Here is the man who has seen into my most intimate and secret longings, longings which I have never even dared put into words! Here is the man who can translate the inarticulate sigh of my soul!” (ibid., p.93)

It’s the fig tree. What can we say about finding our own fig tree? What are the qualities that describe this place where we meet with God? And where God convicts our hearts?

First, you will notice, Nathanael’s fig tree is not “Sunday morning”, so to speak, where the formal liturgies are practised. It is not to say temple worship was unimportant, even vital, as a place of communal gathering where faith was nurtured, sustained and grown.

But what we are talking about here is where personal, daily faith is nurtured, sustained and grown. Jesus said, “Pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). We are not talking here about going to church every Sunday. We are talking about our intentional, discipline of prayer and meditation from Monday through Saturday. This Gospel suggests that a daily practice is critical in preparing the heart to recognize God’s love for you.

Preparation and practice is important in our faith. Philip and Nathanael had studied the scriptures and anticipated in their regular prayer the coming of God’s Chosen One. They were, in a sense, ready to receive Jesus. Those of us brave souls who went to a Yoga for Christians class the other night must have walked away with the strong impression, as I did, that regular practice is so important. Because those of us who don’t, still feel it today!

As with any exercise, spiritual or otherwise, you can’t simply snap your fingers to be an expert. With Christian meditation, for example, you can’t just go once and decide whether it’s for you or not; it’s about a long-term vision of practice and intention and discipline. It’s like tending a garden.

Where is the place you go daily to be under your fig tree? Is it a special chair in your living room? Is it a spot on your front or back deck? Is it in the forest on your back-50? Is it a rock on the river-side? Is it connecting with the expansive outdoors? Is it doing a certain physical exercise? Is it some object that you hold or look at to remind you of something or someone precious? Where is your fig tree?

And if you will look for one — It is a place where hopes and dreams are nurtured in your heart. It is a place where the good promises of God are given shape and sustenance. It is a place where faith then begins to affect your decisions in daily life, with joyful anticipation of God’s presence everywhere.

Canadian radio broadcaster Stuart McLean wonderfully tells the story of the “Lottery Ticket” (a necessarily paraphrased and adapted version follows here). Tommy gets a phone call telling him that his grandfather, Lewis, suddenly died. Shortly after the news of the death circulates among the family, the question of his un-scratched lottery ticket comes up. For over ten-years — longer than that, in some people’s minds — Grandpa Lewis kept his faded, un-dated lottery ticket in a box on the mantle, un-scratched. The prize, one million dollars.

“It’s a winner, it’s a winner!” he had often and regularly announced with deep conviction and belief. “It’d be more than that if you’d just scratch it!” rebutted his brother Lawrence. “Just think of the interest it would have made in all this time!”

“Or, I would have none!” argued Grandpa Lewis. “Know what happened to that lottery winner in Toronto, or that family from New Brunswick who won it big? Besides, I don’t need the money. It’s not about the money!

“But, tell me, what would you do with a million dollars?” he would always ask anyone who mentioned his un-scratched lottery ticket. “What is your heart’s desire?” Then he would listen very carefully, and ask, always: “Is that really what you would do?”

When the family gathered to plan the funeral, they argued about what to do with the lottery ticket since it wasn’t mentioned in the will. There were seven in the family, divided between the ‘scratchers’ and the ‘non-scratchers’, the believers and those who didn’t believe. Tommy counted himself as one who wanted to leave the ticket alone. But the ‘scratchers’ had the edge. “Just be done with it. Then we would know one way or another.”

They decided that after the funeral service, they would gather around the mantle upon which sat the box containing the lottery ticket. Silence shrouded the meeting. What would they do if in fact it was a winning ticket? What would they say, if it wasn’t?

When uncle Tony was delegated to open the box, he lifted it off the mantle, opened it, then slowly looked at everyone in the room. When he tipped open the box for all to see, they were surprised to find Grandpa’s Lewis’ lottery ticket missing. And in its place, seven newly purchased lottery tickets.

A week later, Tommy and his girl-friend, Stephanie, sat around their kitchen table. Stephanie asked, “I wonder what happened to the lottery ticket?”. Tommy confessed, “I buried it with Grandpa Lewis. I put it in his pocket before we closed the casket.”

“Why would you do that?” Stephanie asked, reflectively.

“That’s where it belonged. I wanted to trust him. Because I realized that throughout his life, Grandpa needed hope more than he needed money. To him, dreams were more important than a pile of money. Whenever he took out that lottery ticket and waved it in our faces, he could hang on to hope. And challenge us to think very deeply about our true heart’s desire.”

Both were surprised to learn, later, that everyone still had their lottery ticket, unscratched.

The Cross: Not only for us, but involves us

What Jesus did on the cross involves us.

One great temptation of being a Christian today is to delude ourselves into believing that the cross of Christ must be reserved exclusively to the annals of history. What Jesus did on the cross is a historical curiosity, we may think, which has little if nothing to do with our day-to-day lives. As a result, Christianity is basically a theoretical exchange of ideas, and whose energy and passion revolve around whose ideas are more persuasive.

One thing we need to continually challenge ourselves is in the practice of our faith, so that we are not only saying the right kinds of things but doing them as well. The Gospel text for today (Matthew 16:21-28) reminds us again that what Jesus did on the cross involves us today, in our experience of faith. When Jesus instructed his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” he was displacing the cross for standing merely as an historical idea and fact, and placing the cross directly onto the lives, hearts, and experience of his followers at that time, and for all time to come — including us!

The theme of suffering percolates in the Gospel text. How do we Christians deal with suffering in our lives? In Martin Luther’s German translation of the Beatitudes of Jesus in the New Testament, he conveys the sense of: “Blessed are those who bear their suffering …” It is not a question of whether or not we suffer, or whether or not we can deny or avoid the challenging, difficult work that will come to us all in doing God’s work on earth. After all, Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live …” (John 11:25-26). All of us will die. All of us will suffer. Whether we are Christian or not. Life will bring that to each one of us in a unique way.

So, the question of faith is: HOW will we bear that suffering? How will we appreciate the experience of life’s failures, losses, pain, grief, death?
The second reading for today from Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:9-21) suggests a way forward through our suffering: “Let your love be genuine,” he writes. How we bear our suffering depends on the quality of love in our lives. How is love genuine?

It has something to do, I believe, with letting go of the need to control someone’s else experience of ourselves, our gifts, our hospitality; letting go of our need to impose on another what we think should be for them. This is most difficult to do. But it is true love when we love, unconditionally, with no strings attached.

In my travels over the summer, I’ve met people in Newfoundland on the east coast as well as in the urban jungle of California on the west coast. As I reflect on my encounters with various people on that journey, the most meaningful ones were almost always around a meal time in a B&B or coffee break at a conference. It was listening to our B&B hostess at breakfast near Gros Morne Park, talking with our servers at the Duke of Edinburgh pub in St John’s, chatting with American tourists at breakfast in L’Anse aux Meadows, or with students at the next table in a Thai restaurant in San Francisco — these are memories that come quickly to mind and leave a lasting impression. Around a meal, with others. And never an outcome that I could have planned, expected or managed if I were in control. My experience over a meal with others was totally a gift.

In this Meal we ritually share every week as a people of God, we become vulnerable to one another as equals before God. We bring all our “stuff” to the Communion railing — good and bad. It can be nerve-wracking to be pulled out of our comfortable pew, so to speak, and come forward and lay it bear before God and one another.

But it is here, in all our honesty and true humility, that we are made aware of Jesus’ faithfulness to us. Jesus is truly present around the table. Holy Communion is a regular reminder that Jesus is with us, especially in the disruptive events of our lives. And it is here that we receive the hope and promise that all will be well through the suffering of our lives.

What Jesus did on the cross, after all, does not only involve us, it was for us.

In all that we must bear, we are not alone. When the twin brothers from Quebec were eliminated last week from the Amazing Race Canada Reality TV show, I could relate to something said in the brief interview on the mat after hearing that they were “the last team to arrive.” The twin who had done poorly in one of the challenges and was the reason they had been eliminated said with tears in his eyes, “It’s amazing being a twin because even at the worst of times you are never alone.” Twins or no twins, as Christians we are never alone.

Because of what Jesus did on the cross, God now understands and relates to our suffering in an intimate way. God’s love is shown most powerfully in what Jesus did for us. Whenever we suffer and take up our own cross, Jesus suffers along side of us, bears with us, and endures with us — all for our sake.

Something Peter and the disciples seem to have missed in reacting to the way of the cross, is the promise of resurrection. They stumble at the “undergo great suffering” and being “killed” parts of Jesus’ speech. But did they hear: “…and on the third day be raised”? (Matthew 16:21)

The way with Jesus, that must go through the cross and suffering, leads to new life and fresh, new beginnings. The way with Jesus, that must go through the cross and endure suffering, is a way of great hope of a holy transformation of our lives that starts now and lasts through eternity.