Love got down and dirty

I am not a pet person. In the sense that we don’t own a pet and we don’t have any animals currently living in our home.

However, we do enjoy visiting with the pets of others. And, if we did have a dog at home, I would probably consider a terrier. The word, terrier, is derived from the Latin word terra, meaning, earth.

And, I’ve heard, a terrier will eat dirt. And dig holes in the dirt. It is a solid dog with short legs. It is scruffy and tough. A terrier is, indeed, an ‘earth dog’, living very close to the ground.

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent. This long season of the church year, some forty days’ pilgrimage, leads us somewhere. It is not an aimless wandering. Though it may sometimes feel like it.

The forty days is largely symbolic, let’s be honest. Though the Lenten season is an ancient Christian tradition going back in its variations to at least the fourth century after Christ, our observance of it today is slight, for the most part.

How can we re-discover its meaning?

At the beginning of any journey – I prefer to see the progress of life and faith as a journey – I want to see in my mind’s eye at least, the destination – the finish line so to speak.

Before I set out on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain last Spring – some 800 kilometres long – I needed to know my destination, which was the city of Santiago. Not only did knowing the destination help me navigate the trail, it motivated me on the way.

What is the finish line of the Lenten journey? Easter, of course.

I said the observance of the faith journey is marked by symbol or ritual. These rituals in the church take the form of sacraments, such as baptism and Holy Communion. At Easter – the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection – we not only receive the promise of our ongoing transformation and new life in Christ, we have arrived at the destination of the Lenten journey of our healing, our forgiveness, our change.

Because of Easter, we can do Lent. The disciplines of Lent would be groundless without the Easter promise guiding our way. The joy of Easter is the destination – the very point – of the long Lenten discipline.

That is why baptisms and confirmations happen during Easter. This so-called first sacrament of the church, baptism, involves using water to make the sign of the cross on baptized forehead.  In some churches, the congregation gathers literally by the river to participate in a baptismal celebration.

Diana Butler Bass grew up as an evangelical Christian. She remembers that more often than not, “The water would be murky, seemingly impure rather than sanctified … The pastor would dunk the newcomer anyway, a drenching testimony of sin washed away and new birth in Christ.” But she wondered “how one could be washed of sin when the water itself was not safe to drink.”[1]

It seems, we cannot avoid getting dirty on the road to Easter and new life. In truth, is there not something good about dirt?

Some years ago, Diana Butler Bass spent the forty days of Lent focusing her discipline on priming her vegetable and flower garden in Spring. Obviously, she lived farther south than where we are. During Lent, she readied the garden, worked the soil, coaxed dirt to life. And, she concluded,

“Dirt was not dirty – it was beautiful. God made it. I was tending it. Caring for soil is hard work. The last thing I wanted to imagine was it being washed away. I was fighting for the dirt. I wanted more dirt, better dirt, richer dirt. I was adding stuff to it to make it mealier. I wanted dirtier dirt.”[2]

Yet, I would agree with Butler Bass, the symbols of the church have become sterile over the centuries. We have become germ-a-phobic, averse to dirt. And this, to our spiritual peril.

“In many dictionaries, the definition of ‘soil’ as a noun is typically scientific” – a particular kind of earth, a portion of the earth’s surface, the ground, etc.”

But the second definition, as a verb, turns sinister: ‘to soil: to make unclean, dirty or filthy; to smirch, smudge, or stain; to sully or tarnish, as with disgrace; defile morally. Its synonyms are ‘blacken, taint, debase, pollute.’ The term ‘dirt’ is perhaps even worse than ‘soil’. ‘Dirt’ comes from Middle English … meaning ‘mud, dung, or excrement’; or related ‘smutty or morally unclean.”

It’s easy to understand the theological leap from dirt and soil to sin and evil.[3] This is why we need Ash Wednesday in our faith journey. We need to feel the dirt on our foreheads in the sign of the cross as much as we make the sign of the cross with baptismal water, impure as it sometimes is.

This may seem like “a tempest in a linguistic teapot”[4] except for the fact that the bible points in another direction:

“Biblical creation stories abound with praise for the soil: God creates the ground and calls it good. Then the land brings forth life, and God calls it good. Humankind is made from the dust; God breathes life into the soil and Adam is born, this ‘soil creature’, and God sees that as very good.[5]

Humans beings are, literally, made from the humus, the ground. We are, simply, animated dirt.

In the famous Gospel story of the sower and the seed – where some seed falls on rocky ground, other seed on fertile, deep soil, other seed on the path, and other seed on shallow soil – Jesus explains that the seed is God’s love and the soil is us. The moral of the story?

“We are not soil-y enough! Spiritually, we would be better off more soiled rather than less. Being soiled is actually the point. You could say: ‘God loves dirt more than plants, soil more than what it yields. God is a dirt farmer, not a vegetable gardener.’ Soil is not sin. Soil is sacred, holy, and good. When we care for it, we are doing God’s work. Soil is life. And it is time for us — Ash Wednesday is a good time, symbolically at least — to reclaim the dirt.”[6] Why?

God became humus. God’s love got down and dirty. In the person of Jesus, God’s love was shown – in a human being. God is, according to Paul Tillich, not apart from us “but who is the very core and ground of all that is.”[7]

God is part of us, because of Christ Jesus and the incarnation. I read that every day more than sixty tons of cosmic dust fall to the earth. These are microscopic elements we can’t see, travelling in space from the farthest reaches of the universe. This cosmic dust enters our atmosphere where it mixes with existing soil on earth and enters the food chain.

Imagine, this cosmic dust is a source of ongoing creation. We eat and breathe it. Quite literally, human beings are made and being made of ‘stardust’. As the biblical story reflects: the divine and the soil, the Creator and created, are part of the same, theological ecosystem.

The Easter baptismal celebration is the end goal. We see it now, from the perspective of the starting line: Ash Wednesday. Tonight, we also make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, not with water – pure or murky. But with ash. We start by embracing the soil in and of our own lives.

Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. The traditional words spoken at the start of Lent, and significantly, when our bodies return to the ground. A reminder, viscerally by the imposition of ash on our foreheads, that we are not only mortal, but that we belong to the earth. A reminder of our own need for repentance and new life.

At very least, we have to say it starts with dirt. We are dirt. Really. We therefore have to care for the dirt that is us, and in the earth, on this journey.

“We are not tourists here,” writes philosopher Mary Midgly, “We are at home in the world, because we were made for it,”[8] a world God so loved.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), p.53.

[2] Ibid., p.53-54.

[3] Ibid., p.54.

[4] Ibid., p.54.

[5] Ibid., p.57.

[6] Ibid., p.58.

[7] Cited in ibid., p.31

[8] Cited in ibid., p.64

Re-purpose the building: a sermon for Transfiguration

In the Gospel stories of the Transfiguration of Jesus, it is the disciples’ response to Jesus’ glory that captures my attention and imagination.

In response to seeing the incredible transformation of their friend and master before them, Peter says he wants to build three “dwelling places”, or “tents” from the Greek. The Gospel of Mark suggests that Peter wants to build these shelters because they are “terrified”.[1]

It is a natural reaction when we are afraid for us to go to that which gives us security. For Peter, that means building a house. Or two. Or three. He must have been really scared. Not just a tent for Jesus, but also for Moses and Elijah who have mystically and supernaturally appeared alongside Jesus.

This is a glorious moment. Jesus’ divinity bursts upon their vision. And, we humans naturally want to contain this mountaintop experience. Put God, literally, in the proverbial box. Saint Augustine said in the fourth century, “If you can comprehend it, it is not God.”

The Gospel of Matthew goes further when he writes that it was “while Peter was speaking”[2] this, that a voice from heaven spoke: “This [Jesus] is my beloved Son.” The narrative feels like God interrupted Peter, cut him off.

It’s as if God is saying: “Don’t.” Don’t try to own such divine moments of God’s self-revelation. Don’t try to manage your spirituality. Don’t try to control the experience of gift, of unconditional love. We may want to build something and thus put God in a box. But we can’t. Because, really, there is no box.

In our religiosity, we may instinctively try to capture any glorious, God moments we experience in life. By repeating the experience, invoking certain feelings and the mood. We build buildings and keep them the same.

As with the disciples of old, we would rather escape the humdrum, ordinary realities of living in the valley of our daily, imperfect lives, and just stay on the mountaintop, containing God while we are at it. We don’t want it to change. We don’t want to change. We, like the disciples of old, just want to remain in this state of euphoric ‘mountaintop’ feelings and stay put, there.

Today marks the one-year anniversary that we have worshipped in this transfigured space. A year ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, we returned from an extended absence during which we worshipped every Sunday for eighteen straight weeks with our neighbours at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Coming back to this renewed space was a joy and a blessing. We were back in our own tent, so to speak.

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I say, ‘tent’, intentionally. Because the contractors who modernized this building emphasized the strap-over accenting on the exterior – to make it look like when you put a large fly over your tent. In fact, those of us on the ‘liturgical arts’ committee who consulted with the contract designer heard him say on occasion early on in the project, that the idea behind the contrasting colour choices was to make it look like a tent.

Which was by design. And very appropriate for the church, as a symbol. Not only was the natural element emphasized in the tent-like strappings on the outside, the blue colour on our ceiling inside was meant to image the night sky – looking up, in faith.

Indeed, the structure of our church, and its recent ‘transformation’, is not new. It is to emphasize an original idea when it was first built over fifty years ago: as a temporary house worship space. The tent image for our structure underscores an enduring truth about the church: The church is a movement. It is always on the move. It doesn’t stay put in one place for long.

A church ever changing, a church adapting its form yet reflecting its original mission.

The Jeróminos Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal, is a UNESCO world heritage site. When my wife and I toured the massive complex last summer, including the impressive cloister and the ‘chapel’ – which views more like a colossal cathedral in typical European grandeur, I understood why. These photos don’t do it justice.

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In 1833, over three hundred years after the site and property was inaugurated as a religious Order of Saint Jerome, a state edict transferred the property and all its assets to Real Casa Pia de Lisboa, a philanthropic institution that took in, raised and educated orphan children.

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It was hard for me to imagine that a three-hundred-year-old religious institution of this magnitude would relinquish its assets. And doing this, located on prime waterfront in Portugal’s growing commercial city during the sea-faring Age of Discovery.

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Without delving into the complex history and context of the Secularization Act of 1833, the fact remains: During a robust period of historical expansion, the church made a big change. I would argue, however, the church did not lose. Sure, it no longer could boast financial ownership of the property. But, by handing over its assets and combining them with the resources of the state, it bolstered its core purpose in mission – the care of vulnerable children. The space and property, as of 1833 moving forward, would now serve the needs of needy children.

Jesus says: “Unless you change and become like children …”[3] Without doubt, the religious of 1833 Lisbon were being true to the mission of Jesus.

In our lifetimes, we are witnessing here in North America – indeed in Ottawa – many growing examples of a church re-purposing its properties to build senior’s complexes and other social enterprise. We may believe this is a sign of the times – a negative, unfortunate, disappointing, mournful reality of the church. But, in truth, in many cases, such a re-purposing of a building is consistent with the Christian mission – to care for the weak, the vulnerable and needy in our society.

I can remember driving through rural country in south-western Ontario, and more in Saskatchewan, where you would see, stuck in the middle of a wheat field, a run-down, dilapidated old church building no longer in use, just left abandoned. It is sad to see this. It’s easy to jump to the negative conclusion that the church is dying by simply looking at its physical assets. When it’s not tied to a living purpose, the building will surely die.

But two hundred years after the so-called secularization of the Jeróminos Monastery’s assets, hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site every year continue to pour in and be inspired by the legacy of that bold, courageous move of those 19th century Christians in Lisbon. Good for them.

Re-purposing church property is not just a recent, contemporary phenomenon borne out of the institution’s modern demise. Re-purposing assets is not a sign of Christian defeat in a secular society. First of all, it has evidently been done throughout history when the need and opportunity arose.

Moreover, changing a physical structure doesn’t mean Christians are being decimated by an oppressively secular, contemporary, multi-cultural, diverse society in Canada. The physical transfiguration of Christian property may in truth be a positive sign of healthy, missional spirit, consistent with our Christian identity. A sign that the church and its original purpose in their properties will endure for centuries longer.

The disciples of Jesus accompany him to and from the mountaintop. Moses and Elijah appear with the transfigured Jesus, linking the present moment with the great tradition spanning all times and places. The community, the people, the saints on earth and the saints of heaven, accompany us on this journey.

The journey is a movement, not to remain stuck – even in moments of glory and victory. Rather, we are called to embrace the hardship as well, the challenges, the disappointments and opportunities of the daily grind of living, down in the valley of our lives. Ours is not a denial religion. Ours is not an escapist religion, one that ignores the plight of those who suffer, avoiding the normal difficulties of life, pretending that somehow we can with God only experience the highs without the lows. That is false religion.

Jesus interrupts our striving and tells us, “Don’t”. Don’t build those false expectations of a prosperity gospel. Don’t pretend you can stay on the mountaintop with Jesus forever while you live on earth. Because, Jesus, the divine Son of God, also embraced his humanity, and leads us down into the very human valley of life on earth.

Positive change and transfiguration in this light don’t come by way of escaping the world. The cathedrals of our hearts are meant to house people – all people, in their needs and for the sake of the other.

We are not alone, in this enterprise. As Jesus accompanied the first disciples up and down the mountain, God goes with us, up and down. Jesus leads the way. And, we walk shoulder to shoulder with our co-pilgrims who go with us.

[1] Mark 9:6, NRSV

[2] Matthew 17:5, NRSV

[3] Matthew 18:1-5

Exposing the agenda of hate

A recent song by American singer-songwriter Soufjan Stevens is entitled: “There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross.” Today, on Good Friday, we all stand in the shadow of the Cross of Jesus. But there’s no shade in this shadow.

If you want a comfortable religion that just makes you feel good, then you dare not approach the Cross of Christ, and you dare not pray.

Encountering Jesus on the Cross is not pablum for the soul nor is it expressing mere platitude for an easy life. The cross is not an exercise of remembering something that happened long ago (and therefore doesn’t really mean anything for me today). We are not merely going through the motions, on Good Friday.

The cross, in all its bloody, bear and stark reality, exposes the darkness within each one of us, today. The cross exposes the human problem of hatred. You will not find relief here today. No shade. No comfort. Only sin. Only hate. In the world. And, within you.

The longer we live in this world, we are forced to asked the question: What makes many people so mean? What creates mean-spirited people? “I want to hurt you!” What is behind hate?

Hate – I just called it ‘mean-spiritedness’. Maybe that is what we see more often than overt hatred. Mean-spiritedness is, unfortunately, here to stay.

Hate is, for some reason, helpful. Hate works. In a lot of immediate and seemingly good ways. It unites a group very quickly. Far quicker than love, you must know that. Hate immediately and easily resolves the inner struggle between the little devil on one shoulder persuading you to do something other than what the little angel on the other shoulder is saying. 

Mean-spiritedness is formed by contraction, ‘against-ness’. Love, on the other hand, is formed by expansion. Love doesn’t come easily, because you have to let down your boundaries. And no one wants to do that.

Contraction — whereby you can eliminate another person, write them off, exclude them, torture them, expel them, ‘vote them off the island’, immediately gives one a sense of boundaried definition, boundaried superiority, even.

Hatred — mean-spiritedness — gives a person identity even if it is a negative one (“I am not that, I am not like them, I am against so-and-so, etc.”). And we’d sooner have a negative identity than feel vulnerable, like nothing, empty. Just who we are, in God.

Hatred takes away all doubt, and free-floating anxiety. Even if in a false way. It feels superior. And feels in control. Hate settles the dust, and the ambiguity that none of us likes. Hate is much more common and — I’m sad to have to say this as a pastor — it is much more immediately effective than love. Immediately.

Hate makes the world go round. Just read the front pages of morning paper this week, scroll through the news feeds on your tablet or flip the channels at 6 o’clock every day. It’s largely about who is hating whom.

You could say that Jesus came to resolve the central problem of hate — this problem that has defined humanity since the beginning of history. There’s really no other way: To save us from ourselves. To save us from one another. And to, therefore, save us.

Until and unless we are saved from our need to hate. 

That’s why people even made religion into a cover for their need to be hateful. I’m hating for Allah, and so it’s ok. And yes, I’m hating for Jesus. Christian history, too, is not free from violence (the Crusades, the witch-hunts, Protestant-Catholic European wars, the residential schools — the list goes on). “I’m hating for Christianity — so my hatred is good hatred.” It happens every day. It’s almost the name of the game.

The ultimate disguise, whereby you can remain a hateful, mean-spirited person is to do it to protect the church, or to protect the country. All those good excuses. So, you are relieved of all anxiety: “I am still a holy person.” Even though, underneath, in the deeper stream, you are a hateful person. But you don’t have to see that. That’s what Scott Peck called, years ago, “People of the Lie”.

We have done so much utopian talk about Jesus and love. But Jesus had a very hard time getting to the issue of love. First, he had to expose and destroy the phenomenon of hate. Which I think is the meaning of the Cross.

Once he exposed the lie and the illusion of hatred, love could show itself clearly. But until then, you can’t. The pattern is still the same. As Jesus shockingly put it, “Satan is the real prince of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11).

Hate, it seems, is the daily, ordinary agenda. Love is the totally enlightened, entirely non-sensical way out of the ordinary agenda. The Gospel presents the dilemma in a personal and cathartic Passion narrative that grounds the whole issue in history, and in one man’s enlightened response to that history. 

One man, Jesus — fully divine and fully human, accepts the religious and social judgement of hate. We have both church and state, both Caiaphas and Pilate. Both power systems declaring Jesus unworthy, declaring him a sinner, wrong, the problem. The very one that you and I call the most perfect man who ever lived is judged by power at the highest levels to in fact be the problem. 

Jesus bears the consequences of hatred, publicly. But in an utterly new way that transforms the pattern. And therefore for us, transforms the possibilities. For two thousand years, Jesus has remained the most striking icon of a possible new agenda. His death exposed the lie and the problem like never before.

His risen life told people that life could have a different story line. Jesus did not just give us textbook answers from a distance. But he personally walked through the process of being rejected and then said, ‘follow me’. And there’s something you only know having been in that position.

What is behind hate? I believe fear is almost always behind hate. It’s not easy to get to that deeper river of fear. It’s not easy to recognize the subtle fears: Afraid of not looking good. Afraid of not being in control. Afraid of not having the right word. All those are fears. But they are subtle.

And the only way to see them is to go right into your own poverty of spirit — blessed are they who do so, Jesus said (Matthew 5:3).

Sometimes it looks like it’s control that’s behind hatred. But even control freaks like myself are usually afraid of losing something. Just go deeper, and you’ll see. It is almost always fear that justifies our knee-jerk hateful response. 

Fear is hardly ever recognized as such. As Paul says in Second Corinthians — ‘the angel of darkness must always be disguised as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14). The best and most convincing disguise, of course, is virtue itself, or godliness. Then, it never looks like fear. 

For fear to survive, it has to look like reason, or reasonableness, prudence, common sense, intelligence, the need for social order, responsible stewardship, morality, religion, obedience, or even justice and spirituality. It always works. Just give it the nice cover, and you don’t have to face underneath it, what is craven fear.

What better way to veil vengeance, and a vengeful spirit than to call it justice. You hear it on the news every night, “I just want justice.” One wonders whether the inner need to punish the other, to hurt the other, has ever been recognized. Let’s be honest: It’s in everyone of us in this room. When someone has made you afraid, you want to hurt them back. To be trapped in our need for vengeance, is to always be afraid. It’s necessarily to be afraid. No wonder fear is the name of the game in almost all of the world. 

And that demon is not exorcised easily. Until you name the demon and admit the demon is there, you have no power of exorcising the demon. It’s clear, in Jesus’ exorcisms. You must name the demon correctly. When you pretend the demon isn’t there, you’ll never do any good exorcism. That’s largely what we do. It’s called, denial.

Only people who are honest and vulnerable about their own fear, and confess their need to control all outcomes, only those practiced in letting go, can go beyond the agenda of hate. Jesus himself prayed hanging on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Psalm 31:5). This is about letting go of our opinions, our need for getting back, our need to exclude, circle the wagons, and point the finger.  

Jesus prayed, too, from the cross: “Father, forgive them — they don’t know what they are doing!” (Luke 23:34). Only people practised in letting go will be taking the first step in the new agenda of love and forgiveness. This agenda of love, Jesus made possible for us. “Perfect love casts out fear,” scripture promises us (1 John 4:18).

The Cross, today on Good Friday, calls us to trust Jesus. To not have anyone that you can trust is necessarily to be afraid, to be vengeful. Christianity at its best aims to free individuals from their small, fragile, sinful selves, and points to a larger identity in Christ Jesus — the only true self — “hidden in Christ with God” (Colossians 3:3) .

Jesus is the only trustworthy lover, the only trustworthy self. Healthy Christianity, like Jesus himself, tells you that there IS someone you can trust. You do not have to create all the good. You do not have to fix all of the bad. You do not have to explain all the failures. You know you are simply in the stream we call the mystery of death and resurrection, the paschal mystery. 

What else would be the beginnings of peace? As long as you think you have to fix everything, control everything, explain everything, and understanding everything, I can promise you, you will never be a peaceful, loving person.

In the shadow of the cross, there is no shade. Indeed. But let’s stay awhile, and open our hearts to Jesus whose love makes us worthy and who is with us, even in the darkness.

Adapted and transcribed from Richard Rohr, “The Central Problem of Hate” track 8 on CD ‘Action & Contemplation’, Meditatio Talk Series 2015

Seeing Jesus

Jesus says, “the person who sees me and believes will be raised up” (John 6:40). 

If I polled the assembly gathered here this morning and asked you to raise your hand if you ‘believed in Jesus (or God)’, my guess is I would get a decent showing.

But if I asked you to put up your hand if you recently saw Jesus, I’m not sure I’d get the same kind of response. If you did raise your hand to that question I might look at you with some degree of skepticism. I might not take your statement at face value. I would want to ask you more questions. 

Seeing Jesus sounds like a conversation for the mystics and contemplatives. If our faith is limited merely to a conversation about the historical, biblical Jesus, we will be challenged at this point of acknowledging the living, immanent Jesus who is also always more — an unfolding Presence in the course of all history.

Where do we see Jesus? This is an important question. How can we see the living, resurrected Lord in the world and in our lives today? How can we account for the presence of Jesus?

There is the problem of sight. Here, Jesus obviously is not talking about physical vision. Otherwise why would he even say, “the person who sees me …”? Of course the people to whom he originally spoke these words standing on the sandy, rocky ground in first-century Palestine saw him. Jesus is talking more about a perception of the heart, mind and soul — an internal dynamic.

If you follow any of my social media sites online, you might have noticed there recently some sunset photos over Lake Huron where my family vacationed over the past couple of weeks. Aside from the inspiring sunsets, this is not what I remember the water to look like:

  
Normally, as I recall from my childhood summers spent on these shores, Lake Huron is fairly active. More days than not you would see a lot of wave action, and white caps carving up the horizon and rolling in over the surf. You would feel the constant high winds buffeting the tree-lined shore.

For the fourteen days we lived by the shore last month, however, the Lake was mostly calm. The water was placid, where there would be no more than a ripple on the surface and a splash on the shore line. In fact I would be hard pressed to say there was more than two days of wave action that came close to my childhood recollections. Needless to say, the quiet, peaceful waters made for much stress-free sea-kayaking and swimming along the coast.

  
At sunset most evenings we sat around the fire pit a stone’s throw from the shore, enjoying the very soft breezes and the relatively flat surface of the water.

And, if you watched the water, once in awhile you would see a large white fish breach the surface and flap it’s broad tail. The slapping sound often caught my attention if I wasn’t looking at the exact spot on the water. 

This sudden sound, amidst the relative quiet of the expansive scene of resting water, air and land before us, also caught the attention of the other members of my family (I would add, they were preoccupied by their hand held devices, swatting the bugs, and chatting incessantly with one another!). 

“What was that?” they looked up.

“Oh, a fish, jumping out of the water,” I responded.

“Cool! Where? Where? I wanna see!”

“Well, you need to be watching the water. Keep scanning the water up and down the shore line close to the edge.”

“I don’t see anything!”, one says, scratching another mosquito bite.

“You need to keep watching the water. There,” I point over the water toward the island, “there was another one!”

“Where?”

“Were you watching the water?”

“Uh, no.”

And on and on it went. I had a restful holiday. No, I did. Really!

The problem is not so much an incapacity to see. It is first to confess how distracted we are as a people in a culture that is impatient, anxious, that does not want to slow down, that keeps us from seeing what is already there. Perhaps Jesus is there for us to see. And we, like the Pharisees with whom Jesus often sparred, are “blind” to this truth. Jesus gives us precisely what we need to live, fully (Matthew 23; John 10:10). Do we not see it?

Before the cross became the central symbol of Christianity, the sign of the fish identified the early Christian movement. In fact, the cross was for centuries rejected by Christian who naturally recoiled at the thought of having an instrument of torture and capital punishment the central symbol of the faith. 

The fish was a symbol for Jesus Christ. Food. Like bread, fish gave faithful people ongoing strength, sustenance and nourishment for life. No wonder the miracle of multiplication of bread and fish became a popular Gospel story about Jesus feeding the multitude on a hillside in Galilee (Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6).

The new logo of the Eastern Synod reflects this original, early Christian identification with fish:

  
In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John especially, Jesus compares himself to bread — bread that sustains us and feeds us everything we need. Everything. Not more. Not less. In the Old Testament, it was manna that God provided to the people in their desert wanderings. 

The desert was the place where the people had to learn to give up control, which is mostly what ‘making plans’ is all about. “Like us, the Hebrews weren’t initially too excited about all this vague mystery. The people didn’t just complain that they were out of food, they also began to romanticize about the good old days back in Egypt where they ate their fill of bread …

“God responded to the people’s anxiety about food in a very tangible way. He provided the daily blessing of bread from heaven called manna. It was a fine, flaky substance which appeared every morning. And it came with some instructions (Exodus 16:1-8). Every family had to gather their own. You couldn’t store it up or hoard it, or the worms would eat it. So you had to gather it every day, except on the sixth day of the week when you could gather an extra portion for the Sabbath. It wasn’t much — just enough to keep you going on the journey.

“All of these descriptions [like bread and fish] are wonderful metaphors for how God cares for us along the way in the desert journey: daily, tangibly, personally, and sufficiently, although never enough to remove our anxiety about tomorrow. We have to trust there will be more manna when we need it [emphasis mine].

“This is what Jesus had in mind in teaching us to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. To pray those words is as if to say, ‘No matter how hard I try to secure my life with money, exercise, relationships, or work, I know that only you can give it to me. And you will do it one day at a time.

“The best reason for seeing the manna as a blessing [of Jesus’ presence, I might add] comes from its name. The literal translation of manna is ‘What is it?’ This means that every morning the people would go out and gather the ‘What is it?’ The mothers would prepare it as creatively as they could, which was tough because there was no ‘What is it?’ -helper. The family would sit at the table to eat. The kids would ask, ‘What is it?’ The mother would sigh and say, ‘Yes.’ They’d bow their heads and pray, ‘Thank you God for What is it?'” (Craig Barnes, Insights from the Desert, “Nurtured in Mystery” Shadyside Presbyterian Church, 2010)

What if we lived out of gratitude for what God has already given us? What if we made decisions — even small ones, each and every day — based on trust in Jesus being there for us, just beneath the surface of our lives? There for the watching. There for the catching and gathering. Grace and Gift, available to us. Before we even lift a finger.

The Pilate problem and the gift of God’s perfect action

In Pilate’s actions (Matthew 27:11ff) we witness how we can be so divided, inside ourselves, between what we believe/what we say — and what we end up doing.

Pilate is convinced Jesus is innocent. He tries all manner of techniques — appealing to tradition to free one prisoner, even having Jesus flogged — all in order to keep him from being crucified. Even Pilate’s wife intervenes to try convincing Pilate to release Jesus.

And for this we can sympathize with Pilate. We can appreciate the political struggle. He is caught between a rock and a hard place: He can use his authority to do the ‘right’ thing but incur the wrath of the crowds and incite rebellion; or, he can do the ‘wrong’ thing but keep political stability in the occupied territories, not to mention his job.

Self-preservation seems to be a guiding motivation for Pilate. But, in the end, when all has been said and done, we hang our heads low in confession that Pilate failed. In contrast to the bloodied and tortured man that stood across from him, he was no man of integrity.

When Pilate washes his hands, he does so symbolically making himself innocent from the crucifixion of Jesus. But Pilate deludes himself from taking responsibility as the governor of the region; because, in truth, the authority to condemn someone to death rested on his shoulders. Even though he washes his hands to try to rid his conscience of the truth, he is culpable. Ironic, isn’t it, that in John’s gospel, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

We have heard the saying that not doing anything is doing something. There is no such thing as ‘abstaining from life’. Whether this problem is manifested in pretending not to see something happen on the road or in the mall that would require us to take a risk to help someone in need; whether self-preservation motivates us to hide or run away when what is called upon is our help; when we ignore a text or email from someone because what they say exposes us or asks us to deal with an uncomfortable truth.

These are some examples of the Pilate problem showing up in our lives — when we delude ourselves into believing there can be no significant consequence from our inaction; when we deceive ourselves into not doing anything, as a strategy for dealing with a difficult situation that requires our attention and action; when we fool ourselves to think that by ignoring someone or something we are doing some good.

Not doing anything is doing something. The question then, is: What is ‘doing nothing’ actually doing? Is not doing anything making the problem worse? Is not doing anything keeping people stuck in unhealthy habits and relationships? Is not doing anything enabling evil to accomplish its diabolic purposes?

We compulsively lay judgement on our’s and others’ actions that result in bad things; these are traditionally known as the sins of commission. But how much have we considered bad things that have resulted in not doing anything at all? The sins of omission are failure to do what one can.

This Good Friday is a good time to reflect personally on what our action, and our inaction, actually accomplishes in our families, marriages, our workplaces and church. More than what our words say, what does our behaviour communicate? Because when it’s all been said and done, our lives are a testimony to our actions.

As Dumbledore advised Harry Potter — in J.K. Rowling’s popular children’s books: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Who God truly is, was shown no more clearly and profoundly than in the Passion of Christ. But ‘Passion’ is not passive. God is doing something in the Passion of Christ. And there’s no way Pilate knew what was afoot — what his waffling was actually leading to, in God’s great work. So, in the end, the Passion story is not about the failure of Pilate, Peter, Judas and the deserting disciples. In the end, this is a story whose principle character is God, in Jesus Christ.

What does Jesus do, before Pilate? You will note that Jesus remained predominantly silent throughout his trial (Matthew 27:11-14). It’s not about what he says. Though he admits he could have called upon his disciples to fight to save him (John 18:36), though he confesses he is “the king of the Jews”, he knows what he must do.

When it’s all been said and done, Jesus against certain torture, mutilation and humiliation, had aligned his inner compass on true north. He was “a man despised and dejected” (Isaiah 53:3). But because he never wavered in his actions at the end, God “allotted him a portion with the great” (Isaiah 53:12).

God, in Jesus, showed us that our God is trustworthy, faithful and true to us, no matter how dire the consequence or even how divided in our lives we are. Nothing will stop God from trying to reach out to us in love. God, if anything, is persistent. God in Christ Jesus is, in the famous words of 19th century English poet Francis Thompson, the “hound of heaven”, who wont stop at anything to accomplish what is good, and what is right.

After all, when it’s all been said and done, nothing we can say nor do can even come close to what God accomplished on the Cross.

In this Good Friday liturgy, we have been focusing on the symbols of the Passion of Christ, culminating in the Cross, which is of greatest value in Christianity.

In the German, Lutheran tradition of worship on Good Friday, special effort is made to emphasize and cover as much as possible with the colour black.

In late medieval times, the colour black became the popular fashion choice for royalty in Europe. The more common, least expensive methods of pigmentation resulted in a brighter array of colours. But ‘vine black’ — obtained from burning the twigs of grape vines — was according to the 15th century painter, Cennino Cennini, “the perfect colour.”

Hard, laborious work was employed to extract even a little bit of this perfect colour. In order to yield the perfect result on a canvas or in clothing, a sacrifice of comparable worth was made.

Black was gold. Black signified a valuable and, above all, worthwhile expression of faith on “Good” Friday. While the colour black can signal temperance, penitence, sorrow and a mournful mood, it also points to a greatness beyond any human effort. This colour, as a symbol of faith on Good Friday, points to the greatest, most perfect, sacrifice of love by God that yields the greatest power, even over death itself.

God is not passive. God doesn’t sit around. God is active. That is why we adore the Cross — to symbolize the ultimate triumph of God.

Let us give thanks this day, that Christ’s action made all the difference in, and changed, the world forever.

Doing God Thanks

The birds can teach us a thing or two about life. Especially those ground feeders. Have you noticed chickadees and sparrows feed? As soon as they peck downward to capture the seeds with their beaks, they immediately throw their necks upward.

Quite possibly to aid in consumption, the birds’ movement during feeding suggests to me, symbolically at least, an attitude of gratitude while receiving what is good, what is needed, for life. The bird looks to heaven in between each peck to thank the Creator for the gift of food.

It is born into the fabric of our nature to give thanks. On the one hand, we work and take responsibility to delve deeply into our lives and the world around us for what we and others need. At the same time we pay attention, mindful of the gift of life and what we receive out of the grace of God.

Not to do both would be unnatural, even unhealthy, for the creature. And this is the initial problem for the rich man in the Gospel text for today (Luke 12:13-21). His total lack of concern for any other person mirrors his total disregard for the source of his life and abundant material possessions.

He is pecking at his food, alright. And, making the most of that! But he is not at the same time looking upward. He is not mindfully paying attention, alert, for what is real, what is true, in that moment of living.

But what if we feel we don’t have enough or anything at all for which to look heavenward in thanksgiving?

A fear of scarcity may very well be what motivates the rich man to build bigger barns and plan for increasing profits in the first place. Planning for a rainy day is what it’s all about, isn’t it? And when that rainy day comes, you don’t want to be found wanting.

Whether it’s fear of having nothing, or destitution in the present circumstances of your life — these attitudes may keep us from looking upward in faith, in thanksgiving. Our hearts are cold stone towards others and God, and/or we believe it’s all up to us to make something happen. God has nothing to do with our material concerns, one way or another.

Have you heard the joke — “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” The rich man in the Gospel makes plans. But they don’t turn out exactly the way he had planned, did they? Earthly death is God’s final say. At some point on our journeys of life, we need to acknowledge that at the end of our days it’s not about us, but about God whose promises stand forever.

I don’t think God actually laughs at us when we tell God our best-laid plans. But perhaps we are called upon by this Gospel to turn our hearts and minds outward, and upward, with some humility.

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This is what is left of my mother’s inheritance: One, crumbling brick. When my mother grew up in pre-Second-World-War Poland, she belonged to a large and very wealthy German family in the south-west. She lived in an estate-sized home whose family owned large tracts of land and had servants waiting on them 24-hours a day.

Then, as the Soviet army pushed westward across Europe in the mid-1940s, the Soviets expropriated any properties owned by Germans. My mother’s father was taken to far eastern Ukraine where he later died, and her mother and siblings were put out on the street. For days they lived in corn fields trying to evade marauding soldiers on the hunt. Finally they were able to find shelter with a relative where they were able to live in safety until the end of the War.

Literally, in a matter of days, from riches to rags. The American Dream, in reverse.

Decades later after the iron-curtain (the physical and symbolic wall that divided East and West) fell, my mother traveled to her home town with her brother and sisters. They visited their old property where nothing besides piles of rubble from the old homestead remain.

For my mother, this brick symbolizes why not to place eternal value in material possessions. It points to the need to view life as much more than a selfish grab of as much stuff as possible.

Moreover, it represents the basis for a life of gratitude. For, if it weren’t for the experience of doing without, she may have never come to the realization of and the attention towards a life lived for the sake of others and of God.

You might recall a Hebrew story from Scripture sounding a similar theme to our Gospel for today, when Joseph in a dream is instructed to tell Pharaoh to save food in barns for seven years of plenty in order to prepare for a subsequent seven years of famine (Genesis 41:32-36). This is a wonderful scriptural precedent for gathering in a bountiful harvest and saving it for the future.

The critical difference, of course, is that in the case of Joseph, the purpose of doing so is for the benefit of many people — indeed an entire nation.

Echoes of previous stories from the Gospel of Luke resonate. In the case of Mary and Martha — where Mary has chosen the better way — the point is not that preparing food and being busy is bad. It’s just that Martha was distracted from remaining centered on the whole point of being busy: serving with prayerful attention to the divine guest.

In the same way, there is nothing wrong with acquiring material wealth. It’s more a question of what purpose it serves and to whose benefit. The answer to that question will determine the value of the entire activity.

What is the purpose of this building in which we worship today? What will its purpose be in not only seven years from now, but twenty-five and fifty?

There’s nothing wrong with food. There’s nothing wrong with money. There’s nothing wrong with buildings and properties and abundance of material wealth. It’s being very clear and motivated by the mission, the vision, the purpose that’s at stake. Form follows function, not the other way around.

Someone in the bible study group on this text summarized the message of this text for us today, as being: “Allowing what we have now to be used for God’s purposes.” It may not be much, from our perspective. But it’s what God has given us in this time and place. How are we using it for God’s purposes? And where may the Holy Spirit be leading us?

I entitled this sermon “Doing God Thanks”. I think viewing our mission in light of God’s purposes requires of us discipline around our attitude of gratitude. And it’s not just in the feeling of thankfulness, it’s in responding, in doing, in putting muscle to the task at hand. We look up, and we look out, and actually move our bodies in that direction — and then see what God has in store.

But we start with what we know we have, for which we can offer hearts of thanksgiving.

Listen to what Richard Rohr writes about on the topic of “Day-to-Day-Gratitude” (p.285, “On the Threshold of Transformation”):

Things go right more often than they go wrong. Our legs carry us where we are going, our eyes let us see the road ahead, and our ears let us hear the world around us. Our bodies, and our lives, work pretty much as they should, which is why we become so unsettled when we confront any failure or injustice. This is not so true for people born into intense poverty or social injustice, of course. And we had best never forget that.

Nevertheless, we must stop a moment and look clearly and honestly at our life thus far. For most of us, life has been pretty good.

We shouldn’t be naive about evil, but perhaps the most appropriate attitude on a day-to-day basis should be simple and overwhelming gratitude for what has been given. From that overflowing abundance will come the energy to work for those who have a life of scarcity and sadness.

From what are you grateful, in the midst of your full and complex life?

God is the source of life and all things good. God will give us what we need to work towards God’s ends, God’s kingdom on earth. May we dig deep and never forget to look up — to see how rich God is toward us.

Thanks be to God!

This stuff of earth matters

Popular Canadian author, Louise Penny, in her most recent book, “The Beautiful Mystery”, writes about monks living in a monastery hidden deep in the wilderness of northern Quebec. Their holy order is characterized by a vow of silence. But not when it comes to singing:

Unique to this group of two-dozen cloistered monks is Gregorian chant. Apart from constant silence, they chant their daily, round-the-clock prayers.

A rift develops in this monastic order called “Saint-Gilbert-Entre-Les-Loups” (St Gilbert among the wolves). The conflict between those supporting the Abbot (the leader) and those supporting the Prior (choir director) deepens until one morning the Prior is found murdered in the Abbot’s secret garden. Now, this religious order ‘among the wolves’ suggests that one of monks themselves is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Some years ago, their murdered Prior had led the group in recording a CD of their most enchanted singing. The recording sold millions, and had provided enough funds to restore part of the monastery building. But apparently more had to be done.

When famed chief inspector Armand Gamache and his sidekick Jean-Guy Beauvoir visit the monastery to solve the murder mystery, they hear from one of the monks the crisis facing this ancient monastery built hundreds of years ago: the foundation is cracking, to the extent that if nothing is done soon the beautiful stone building will collapse.

They also learn that the Prior had recently tried to convince the Abbot to agree to making another recording of their popular, sought-after, Gregorian chant. Doing so could raise enough funds to meet the needs of their aging building. But that would also mean suspending their vow of silence and commitment to remain detached from the world.

The Abbot refused the Prior’s plan. He believed that God wanted them to remain true to their holy calling to observe the vow of silence. By growing their own food and doing their own repairs they would thus fulfill their mission and identity as self-sufficient Gilbertines. All they had to do, according to the Abbot, was to pray that God would provide their every need, and continue as had monks throughout their history to do what they had to do without outside contact or help.

Those monks in support of the now dead Prior argue that God indeed had provided them an answer to their prayers. Using their gift of chanting, God was giving them a way through their predicament. God was giving them the financial help, through the sale of a CD recording, to do just that: solve their need.

I haven’t finished reading this story, so I can’t tell you who dun-it! But what strikes me is that their conflict is very similar to an age-old Christian tension between flesh and spirit.

The story of Jesus turning water into wine in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11) during a week-long wedding celebration suggests not either/or but both/and. Both the spiritual realm and the earthly are important. The church, nevertheless, has placed greater emphasis on ‘spiritual’ matters, often downplaying the stuff of earth.

Yet, if I remember anything from my biblical study in seminary — now, many years ago — it is this: The theology of the Gospel of John, where we find this miracle story, is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). And this theology is very much an ‘earthy’ one; that is, concepts like ‘salvation’ and ‘eternity’ are grounded in real life.

Salvation for the Jewish people was in fact experienced in the exodus from Egypt (i.e. being liberated from slavery) and in the return from exile (i.e. coming home to rebuild Jerusalem after years of captivity in far away Babylon). While throughout the Bible these places like Zion and Babylon, for example, take on symbolic weight in the poetry — especially in the Psalms and Revelation — any ‘spiritualizing’ of these places and events cannot be removed from their actual existence in world geography and history. Salvation is grounded in life on earth. It is the starting point.

Salvation, then, is not just after we die. Salvation is not merely a discussion about heaven. Salvation has just as much to do with our earthly condition and circumstance. And the Gospel message of Jesus — the good news of our faith — addresses just as much and as importantly what is going on between people and their reality on earth, as we pray every week: “Thy kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

The expression of our faith, then, is reflected in what we do with what we have. These things matter: bricks and mortar, soup and sandwiches, money and politics. These are not outside the scope of our concern. Nor God’s.

Martin Luther, when he wrote hymns such as ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’ and ‘From Heaven Above’, he used popular bar tunes to develop the music in these, what we now consider, “sacred” hymns.

From a sacramental perspective, he emphasized that Christians ought to celebrate the Holy Communion as often as they assemble. Why? His passion about the Holy Communion — the bread and the wine — mediating the grace of God was unparalleled among the 16th century reformers.

Of course, God is not bound by any particular way of dispensing grace and forgiveness. But Christians have throughout the ages understood the special, intimate, albeit mysterious way in which the presence and love of the living Jesus is mediated through the sharing of a meal. How more common a human activity than eating!

The ordinary world matters. Material reality is spiritual. It is the starting point for people longing for an authentic experience of the divine.

And yet, to be sure, while the ground on which we stand and the flesh and bones of life are the initial places of engagement with God, that encounter then draws us beyond what is measurable, quantifiable and bound by our reality. We don’t remain stuck in tasting, feeling, touching, seeing. The Christian Gospel points us beyond ourselves to God’s reality which is not bound by human limitation.

While our earthly reality is valuable as a meeting point, a starting point, we begin a journey that continues eventually beyond this life. The wedding at Cana was Jesus’ first miracle. The time had come for Jesus to begin his journey to Jerusalem, death on a Cross, and the empty tomb of Easter. Our vision is not turned inward, ultimately. It is directed onward, outward and upward.

And yet, on this earthly journey, we return to that starting point, over and over again. Back to the table, to be renewed and fed. That is where Jesus waits for us. And spurs us on.

So do not lose heart. Jesus cares. And gives more than we could ask, saving the best wine for last. God cares about every part of our lives, even those Monday through Saturday realities that we might normally exclude from considering “holy”. And God is poised to engage and intersect our lives precisely in those moments of greatest material need as well as joyous celebration.

If anything, reading this familiar miracle story of Jesus gives me comfort and assurance that Jesus will exercise care and compassion to me not just when I’m engaging those more serious acts of piety in worship and formal prayer. But Jesus will provide grace, resources and ‘signs’ especially in the ordinary, commonplace aspects of living life on earth and in community.

And what is more, when those ordinary, material, needs of life are dedicated in service of God and for the love of the world — then I can be confident in faith. I am confident that Jesus will demonstrate the glory of God. God will provide around those very mundane, secular and at-first-glance unholy, irreverent and even jovial circumstances of life.

Open the eyes of our heart, Lord, to see your glory in laughter, in joy and in ordinary living with others. May this awareness lead us to offer your joy and love in providing real, material support in your mission to those in need. Amen.