Grace first

Over the past six weeks I’ve transited through nine different airports on two different continents. One of the expectations of travellers is that when you are in an airport waiting for your flight, you can access free Wi-Fi.

But, more often than not, it isn’t really free. When your device locates the airport network, and before you can access the internet, you are directed to a page that requires you to give your email. And, be careful to click that box that says you do not wish to receive promotional material.

Even if you are not an airplane traveller, this marketing strategy infests so many of our common life activities. I had my car at the service department this summer a couple of times, and each time I received a ticket to enter into a draw: first prize, a new car! But first I have to go to a website to register the number on my ticket. And, of course, give my email. And, remember to check that box declining promotional material!

In any case, companies are finding ways of expanding their reach into our lives and pocket books. Restaurants, as well, if you want to use their ‘free’ Wi-Fi. What may on the surface appear ‘free’ is merely a way to hook you in. This culture of doing business so infects our way of thinking.

The internet access is merely a modern day example. And yet, it is built on the way human beings have always tended to relate with one another at a more base level. A way of life and inter-relating that screams loudly: “Nothing in life is free!”

What is alarming, from a Christian point of view, is that we seem to be ok with that, and go about living in this tit-for-tat culture we have largely created.

Yet, I continue believing that it is in giving grace that describes best our journey as (Lutheran) Christians. I place ‘Lutheran’ in parenthesis because I believe all Christians today need to put grace first and foremost in our practice of faith and life.

Stories are a great way of conveying the deepest truths. This story is about a rooster in a chicken farm. And I heard it told at the National Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, in Regina, last month, by the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Martin Junge. Here is my adaptation:

Every morning when it was still dark the rooster went out to crow. He did so with amazing commitment, crowing from the depth of his heart and making use of all available resources and art. Actually, he was convinced that it was because of his crowing that the sun rose every morning. When he had finished his daily job and went back to the farm he used to look around with a sense of paternalistic pride at the hens. “There you go, darlings, I’ve made the sun rise for you”, he even said once. “I am the chosen one.”

One morning the sunrise was really wonderful. The rooster got so enthusiastic that he couldn’t stop crowing. The sun had long risen, but he continued crowing, just wanting to make the whole scenery even more perfect.

When he went back to the chicken farm he noticed that he had crowed too long. His throat was aching. Laryngitis. He was only able to produce a weak croaking noise. The rooster panicked. “What will happen tomorrow, if I can’t crow anymore? What will happen to the chicken farm and to all these chickens and hens, which depend so much on my power to make the sun rise…?” He went to sleep very early, just hoping that next morning he would be in good health again.

But he was not! The pain had worsened overnight, and he could not even croak but make only a ridiculously weak squeak. Yet, he went out, like every morning, just pushed by the awareness of his plight and the panic that otherwise the sun wouldn’t rise, and they would all perish. He tried his best, he tried hard… yet there was nothing resembling real crowing coming out of his throat.

Great was his surprise when he suddenly realized that the sun seemed to be rising anyway! Slowly but surely it came up behind the hills, like every morning. Actually, it was again one of those wonderful mornings. But this time, it came without his doing! He turned slowly and looked back to the chicken farm. He couldn’t believe what he saw there: the chickens and hens had come out like every morning as well!

Terribly depressed he went back to the chicken farm. What could be his place there? Didn’t he lose his role and reason to be? And why should he go out the next morning, if the sun rose anyway, without his help? Oh, and he felt so embarrassed and ashamed. He didn’t even dare to look into the hens’ eyes.

“Hey, don’t worry”, said one of the hens. “You can continue crowing”, she said. “Just go out tomorrow as usual. But don’t crow in order to make the sun rise. Just crow because the sun rises!”

This story explains how we understand grace. Grace is like the rising sun. It is there, just because God wants grace to be there. As nobody can prevent the sun from rising, nobody can stop God from being gracious either. That was – in a nutshell – what Jesus revealed about God. That is in all its powerful simplicity the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Good works are an expression of faith, to be sure. Yet, good works are a response to God’s grace. This is how we understand the relationship between justification by grace and sanctification of our lives. Sanctification arises from hearts overflowing with joy and love because of God’s wonderful gifts. It is out of the gift of freedom, which God has acquired for us that we respond with good works.

God’s relationship to us is not conditional on anything we say or do. We don’t first become Christian in order to go to church. We come to church in order to become Christian—over time, even a life time! God doesn’t love us because we are ‘good’. God loves us because God is good. Do you hear the difference between those statements? I hope you do. A subtle difference, maybe yes. But huge implications for how we live our lives. It doesn’t hinge on us.

Because of the culture in the world that operates NOT according to grace, it is a huge challenge for Christians to live out of grace-first principles—such as forgiveness, mercy, and showing compassion unconditionally. It is a huge challenge for us not to put conditions on others before we deem them worthy. It is a huge challenge not to place any expectations on others and ourselves before we can justify helping them or loving them.

No wonder many young people today are cynical about the message that comes from ‘The Church’. “Your mercy is great,” we Sunday Christians pray to God. “But,” they ask, “Is it, really? What’s the catch? What do you want from me?” This cynicism is rampant. We have been infused with, and grown into, a transactional culture: I do something for you (in order that) you do something for me; I do something for God (in order that) God does something for me.

In this world, so anti-grace, we are called to become more fluent in the language and lifestyle of grace-first. We are challenged to give grace, first. Grace first, not judgement. Grace first, not fear. Grace first, not condemnation:

In our relationships with family members whose behaviour or lifestyle we may not be inclined to approve. In our relationships with others outside our circles who represent politics and opinions we are not inclined towards. In our relationships with those marginalized and the poor, Indigenous people and their plight. In our relationship with the land, water and air. Even, in our relationship with God and religion. Maybe most importantly.

The Gospel stories abound with examples of the way Jesus embodies this grace-first approach of God. In the story today (Luke 13:10-17), it’s not about deserving God’s grace first. It’s not about the woman earning Jesus’ favour first, before she is healed. We really know nothing about her — whether she deserves Jesus’ attention. But, you see, that’s not the point. It’s not even about following the rules of religion, which the Pharisees defend at all costs.

Jesus simply ‘sees’ her, and heals her. Jesus exposes the sin of a culture that places rules before grace, a culture which values conformity over the truth of what the sabbath represents: A holy day when the best of what God offers to us is actually demonstrated and given. No matter the rules. Grace first.

Images of water permeate the scriptures. These verses from Isaiah about water stand out. Water, like the sun, is like grace. Water gives sustenance: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

A last-minute addition to the itinerary of my family’s western Canada road trip this summer was a visit to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia. There, visitors can sink into a natural hot water soaking pool, then slip into a cool water pool. This is hydrotherapy, like the Scandinavian tradition of hot and cold water-immersion cycles. People come here for healing.

We know the stats: 71% of the earth’s surface covered by water. The human body is composed of over 60% water. Water provides a place for renewal, reconnection and rejuvenation. Water is essential for life. We all need it to live.

It is there before we do anything. Whether or not we choose to step into the healing waters of God’s presence and love and mercy—it’s still there for us. Ever present, despite us. The prophet Isaiah in the same text expresses this truth: “You shall cry for help, and God will say: ‘Here I am’” (v.9). I hear in these words the sense that God is saying, “If you want help, I am here. I’ve always been here right beside you! Hello!”

Christians of old have written about life as a journey of becoming more aware of how we block the flow of God’s love and grace. Blockages, such as fear, greed, selfishness. And then, doing what we can to ‘unblock’ and ‘allow’ divine love to flow more freely through us. Of letting go and allowing the current of divine energy, creativity and love to carry us downstream through life.

Whether or not we respond to the sunrise, as the rooster had to learn, whether or not we choose to participate in the action of God’s grace, the ever-flowing stream of God’s love is already there. It has been flowing from the beginning of time, continues to be the most powerful force in the universe, and is an ever-present reality in the world today.

Whether we know it or not, we’re continually immersed and surrounded by Divine Love, by Sacred, Holy Presence. This is our ultimate confidence and security. “Here I am,” God says to us. “Come to me. I am always by your side to show you mercy, forgiveness, and love.”

And that is why we pray and affirm repeatedly this summer in the petitionary prayers: “Your mercy is great!”

Because it is.

The Prodigal story: Three in One

Most of this sermon today is the work of the Rev. Monika Wiesner who first preached it. A lay member of our congregation, Sharon Wirth, then also preached Monika’s sermon at Faith Ottawa last year. A heart-felt ‘thank you’ to both for this contemplative and grace-filled approach to a popular parable of Jesus.

 Many will regard the turning point of the story as the call to repentance[1], when the rebellious, prodigal son comes to his senses in the sloppy mud of a pig pen.[2]And therefore, according to this interpretation, repentance must be preached and communicated to others who have or are falling away.

You will notice with me, however, that it is not because someone in town or the farmer on whose land he was working told him to repent. When the rebellious younger son comes to the end of his rope and realizes his folly, it’s not because someone guilted him, pressured him, preached him into repentance. The message of changing the Prodigal’s moral direction did not come from outside of him. But from within.

Repentance does not precede grace and mercy. Rather, the other way around: First and foremost, compassion and love changes lives. The experience of the younger son at the end of himself was an inner experience. His changed reality resulted from something that happened within himself. The state of his inner life shifted somehow.

Within himself, the younger brother heard the voice of self-love and acceptance. Not once. But twice in the story. First, in the pig pen he came to self-love within himself. Enough love to stop hurting himself. Then, later, from the father, this Love was reinforced.

Since we see the turning point of this story as primarily a movement of the inner life, imagine then, that this family of three actually lives together within each of us, within our souls.

Within our soul we first have a younger son or daughter that is severely wounded. We might call this our “wounded inner child”.  This is the part of our soul that experiences shame. It is the part of us that feels there is something intrinsically wrong with us.

Within our soul, we also have a critical older sibling. We might call this our superego or our “inner critic”. This is the part of us that actually triggers our shame, telling us where we’ve done wrong, wagging their finger at us in judgement whenever we step out of line.

Finally, there is also within our soul a compassionate parent, the compassionate parent that can heal our shame. We might call this our True Self. We Christians, knowing that God lives within each one of us, might call this our God-Self or even our Sacred Self.

It is the message of Jesus’ Priestly Prayer to his “Father” for his disciples: “As you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…”[3]And again, Jesus said to his followers, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit …”[4]

I invite you to imagine that this family lives within your own soul: the wounded child in you, your inner critic and your compassionate divine parent. All live within you.

In the rest of this sermon, heads up, I will intentionally switch to both male and female pronouns, so that each one of us may connect more personally with the experiences of these three different persons in the story.

How do these three persons relate within us?

When we are born, our soul and God are one. As an infant, we smile when we’re happy and we cry when we’re unhappy.

Then something happens to this unity within our souls. We experience events that we interpret as painful or as trauma. Our primary caregivers may be limited in their ability to parent or they may over-worked and overtired. And they hurt us.

Or maybe we simply need to leave the security of mommy and daddy for the first time and we discover that the world does not revolve around us. We experience hurt and rejection and intense anxiety and fear. Have you ever watched a young child who is being taken away from his/her mother? Do you ever wonder what is happening within that child’s psyche? These separation experiences may be necessary. But they are experienced as wounding.

What’s important for us to note is that these first experiences of woundedness follow us a lifetime. They might be called “holes within our souls”. We experience those first feelings of not being lovable or not being safe or not being of worth. Because our souls and God are one, this is where we feel our first disconnect from God.

Over the years, more holes are created. Our intense feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, depression, anger or jealousy or shame all have their roots in these holes. Whenever you feel these feelings, you are in touch with one of these holes in your soul.

So what do we do? We try to fill these holes by looking outside ourselves. As young children, we learned to please people by doing things that would make them happy and then we felt lovable and safe.  As we grew in years, we became the responsible one, the wise one, the funny one, or the caregiver. We became beautiful or educated or rich. We did whatever the outside world said would make us feel valued.

We did whatever was needed to fill those holes in our soul that were wounded and crying out in pain. We believed the outside world held the answers.

That is exactly what the younger brother did in this parable. He took his inheritance and he spent it on everything the world suggested would soothe his wounded soul. But in the end, nothing worked. One day, he simply came to the end of himself … and he was drowning in shame.

So the prodigal child remembers her home and her parents. However, her shame went so deep that she believed all love was gone from her life. Her parents would never take her back, so she decided she would do whatever it took to earn her place in the household. She needed to earn their love.

But to her amazement, the prodigal child found loving parents waiting for her. When they saw her, they were filled with compassion and ran out to her, put their arms around her and hugged and kissed her. The wounded child began to confess what a failure she was, no longer worthy to be called their child. But her parents would hear none of it.

Instead, this prodigal child found herself in a beautiful robe … with the family ring on her finger … and a huge “Welcome home” banner hanging over the dining room table. A celebration was being prepared in her honour.

This is the compassion for oneself … this is where all healing takes place. This is where we experience the compassionate God … because God and our soul are one.

But there is one other character in the story, namely the older critical brother, our inner critic. Our super-ego. This is the inner critic who can’t accept the “easy” homecoming of the wounded child.

This older sibling doesn’t believe in compassion, does not believe in grace. And so she becomes critical and angry and refuses to participate in the homecoming. She’s the one who says to the wounded inner child, “You don’t deserve this!”

This is the inner voice that holds us back from experiencing the compassion of God within and for ourselves. This is the inner voice that uses those feelings of shame to stop the healing of those holes in our soul. This is the older sibling who sits on the doorstep and sulks, refusing to go to the party.

Oftentimes, Christians confuse that critical inner voice as the voice of God. It is not! It is not. If anything, it is the voice of our primary caregivers at their worst.

One thing is for sure – when we decide to return home, to find healing for all those holes in our soul, our inner critic will become very active and tell us we don’t deserve compassion, acceptance or love and we don’t deserve the healing we so desperately want. The inner critic will pull out all the stops to keep us feeling shame. But just remember, if it isn’t the voice of compassion, it isn’t the voice of God.

And so the wounded child no longer needs to listen to the voice of the inner critic because our soul and God are one and God has already embraced us in love. We need only listen to the compassionate, holy and sacred that lives deep within each one of us. And that sacred God-Self is saying, “I’m preparing a banquet in your honour! Come to the party!”

In this parable do you hear the voice of God embracing you in love? Welcoming you home? Herein lies the nugget of truth that is at the root of all emotional or spiritual healing.

So let the party begin! We’ve all been invited!

 

[1]Meaning: metanoia –a change of mind.

[2]Luke 15:1-3,11b-32, the Gospel for the 4thSunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)

[3]John 17:21,23 NRSV

[4]John 15:5

The fig tree calls out

Hear today some wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh:

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet, if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. 

“Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. This is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

When 21-year-old Sharif Said was gunned down near the Trainyards in Ottawa four years ago, his uncle spoke to the media on behalf of the family.[1]What surprised me in his testimony was how he defended not only his nephew, around whom rumours swirled that he was involved in a gang.

But then he defended those arrested for his nephew’s murder. He said that they were also victims. Khalid Mohammad and Abdulaziz Abdullah, both in their twenties and arrested for Said’s murder, were victims themselves of a “senseless violence”, the uncle said. As a result they could not value life as “precious”.

A subtle twist in the tone of the message changes the direction of the conversation about these things. Making sense of any criminal act, to begin with, can leave us confused and hopeless. And we desperately seek to be on the right side of ‘right and wrong’. We do that most effectively by assigning blame.

Then, you throw into the mix a statement coming from ‘the victim’ that offers sympathy to the perpetrators, a word that levels the moral playing field, we don’t know what to do with that.

Are we all, each and every one of us, part of a culture that creates these problems? Do we all participate on both sides—all sides—of the moral equation? Isn’t that too confusing and wishy-washy? Forgiveness, and mercy, wreak havoc on any common-sense pursuit for laying blame. An act of kindness and forbearance in the midst of senseless tragedy takes the wind out of retribution.

Admittedly, we may feel more at home with the way the ancient prophets used the image of a barren fig tree.[2]One way we tend to lean is towards despair. The prophet Micah feels lonely and depressed in the face of scarcity and evil:

‘Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered,      after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.’

Or, we lean towards vengeance. You can hear it in Isaiah’s tone when he speaks of his ‘beloved’ vineyard. Despite all his hard work to create conditions for abundant growth it yielded only wild, undesirable, grapes:

‘And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down …’

Indeed aren’t these the usual go-to’s when bad things happen to good people—we either slip into despair or shake our fists in anger against someone or something we blame?

When an Ethiopian airliner filled with people crashes and all are killed including eighteen Canadians onboard. When Galileans are slaughtered in cold blood by the hand of Pilate and the Tower of Siloam falls and kills innocent pilgrims at the pool of healing.[3]When randomly, bad things happen, and we can’t really make sense of it. Well, we try.

Do you despair? Or do you get angry and try to find who or what to blame? The people in the Gospel text today tried to get Jesus in on their blame-game and despair-mongering ways.

And Jesus comes back to the ancient, scriptural image of the fig tree again. When he first mentions the fig tree, the crowd must have gotten really excited. Because they knew where this story was going, knowing their prophets Micah and Isaiah: Despair. Vengeance. The lead-up sounds good.

But Jesus pulls the rug out from underneath their expectations. The twist Jesus offers to the familiar image of the barren fig tree is his emphasis on forbearance and mercy. Staving off a swift impulse to cut the tree down after three years of neglect and barrenness, the vineyard’s stewards will give the fig tree yet another year’s chance to bear fruit. The fig tree is given yet another second chance. The hope is that the fig tree will be rehabilitated.

It is important to note, moreover, that in the parable it is the gardener who allows for the possibility of fruitfulness. Not the fig tree. It can’t do anything, by itself. It is stuck in a cycle of barrenness (aka poverty, violence). First, the gardener has to plead his case, be the tree’s advocate, to the owner of the field. Then, the gardener has to do the work. By constant care, digging around the roots and applying manure, the gardener employs all the gifts and resources at their disposal to allow for a positive outcome.[4]

The fig tree calls to us. Who or what does the fig tree represent in our lives? Now, parables are not meant to be taken literally, so we can rule out any divine gardening tips here. This parable won’t appear in a google search for ‘how to grow a fig tree’.

Who is the barren fig tree in your life?

When and where do you sense in your life or another’s, a feeling of being at wit’s end? When all resources have been explored and used up. When a group of people or individual cannot to do it on their own any longer. When someone is stuck in cycles of behaviour that they cannot see the way out, by themselves. When a call for help is evident by a lack of fruitfulness in their lives.

You will notice that this parable comes to a rather abrupt end. The narrative is not neatly tied up into a certain, ‘happy’ ending. We just don’t know whether the fig tree will produce after all this advocacy and gardening work is done. You could say, it’s up to us to write the ending to this story. Will it be judgement? Or, salvation?

Every time we worship together, though, we pray not ‘mykingdom come’, not ‘our kingdom come’, but ‘Thy kingdom come’. Jesus tells a parable about a gardener determined to tend a fruitless fig tree because he is open to a future possibility that he does not control.

Our task, as American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry says it best, “is to labor, without having all the answers, to acknowledge the deep mystery of it all. The task of the disciple is to witness and then wait, to take our best step and leave the rest to God. We labor now for a future we are not meant to control.”[5]

When forgiveness and mercy dictate public discourse in the media and in response to horrific, tragic and painful events around the world and in our lives, we may not be able to explain it easily. But maybe that’s not our job.

Maybe our job is to seek understanding in the other, and thereby show our love. Maybe our job in the church and as Christians is to speak and work for God’s values for the sake of others amidst pain and suffering.

And in hope and trust, let God write the end of the story.

 

[1]cbc.ca, posted May 7, 2015

[2]Micah 7:1; Isaiah 5:1-7

[3]Luke 13:1-9, Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]Daniel G. Deffenbaugh in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.96.

[5]Michael B. Curry in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.95-97.

You are blessed

(We can better understand the beatitudes of Jesus[1] alongside the texts from the Hebrew scriptures assigned for today[2]. Read together in light of the imagery we find there, we begin to make sense of Jesus’ challenging words. Both the Psalmist and the Prophet paint the picture of a tree or shrub in a state of dryness, and in a state of blessedness, shall we say?)

6They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places.[3]

Being in a “parched place” suggests the unfortunate state of our lives when misfortune and adversity come our way: when we fail at something, when we lose someone or something, or through circumstances beyond our control life hands us lemons.

But the problem is not so much that we are in the desert. It’s not the condition nor circumstance in which we find ourselves. When we are in a bad way, it’s not where we are.

When we are ‘dried out’, the problem is we don’t see the relief that comes our way. We have a vision problem:

We don’t perceive the grace, the gift, and the solutions that present themselves. We, for whatever reason, do not appreciate what we already have. We are blind to this grace.

The sight of which Jeremiah speaks is not merely physical, but of the heart—an attitude, an inner stance—that leans towards what is good within us and in the world around us. It is the intention of our minds and hearts to search for what is good, what is life-giving. And, we nurture this disposition despite what may appear to the contrary on the surface.

Of course, to search and yearn for something means there is something missing in our lives. It is to admit something is amiss. It is to be honest and open about our needs. The longing of the heart exposes our vulnerabilities. But also our hope.

7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream
.[4]

Our searching for what feels lost in our lives are like the roots of a tree that naturally expand, grow and spread out towards the source of life—in water, in light. It’s the search itself, the persistent, dedicated and committed journey towards the water that keeps the tree alive, even against the odds.

On the Washington State coast along the Pacific Ocean, you will find the famous Kalaloch Tree, otherwise known as the Tree of Life, or the Runaway Tree.Underneath the webbed roots of the Kalaloch Tree is the Tree Root Cave. Inside, a stream falls into the cave and flows out into the ocean.

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(photo from pinterest.ca)

Many question how the tree continues to grow and the leaves continue to stay green. These questions have been asked so many times with no one really knowing how it keeps on going. So it became known to some as the Tree of Life. Because it continues to live by the stream and the ocean, even though where it finds itself is hardly the ideal spot for stability and longevity.

The Sitka Spruce tree, common along the lush, verdant Pacific coast under the constant influence of moist-laden trade winds, has lived a long time balanced precariously over these rocks. Even though it’s immediate circumstance is fragile, its roots are never far from the source of its very life.

There’s the story about a man searching for his keys under a street light. A friend comes by and asks, “What are you doing?” The response: “Looking for my keys.” The friend says, “Where did you drop them?” The man replies, “Around the corner but I’m looking here because the light is better.”[5]

It’s interesting that in order for the man to actually find his keys, he would eventually have to go around the corner into the dark to find them. But he starts under the light. He starts his search where the light is. Where his confidence rests. Where he can see. And he will go from there, on his journey.

Today, it is common for people to say, “I am blessed” when talking about good fortune. When expressing joy and thanksgiving about all the good in life, we say that “we are blessed.” And, on one level, it is true.

But when Jesus gives a list of characteristics describing those who are ‘blessed’, that’s hardly the case. We find it hard to attribute blessedness to the poor, to the downtrodden, to those who experience misfortune, bad luck, who are given life’s worst circumstances imaginable. We can’t easily make that connection when we associate blessedness with material prosperity, or excellent health, or good fortune.

In Jesus’ teaching, ‘blessedness’ is not absence of trouble. Blessedness, here, is not a reflection of good luck and prosperity. Blessedness, in Jesus’ sense, is not a result of peachy circumstances, fortune and material wealth in the way the word is used in common parlance today.

Rather, to be blessed is “to live through such opposition aware that the struggle is temporary”[6]and that in the end, God will stand by the faithful.

In Luke’s version of Jesus’ great sermon, Jesus stands not on the mountain (as is the case in Matthew 5-7), but on “a level place.” In the bible the word “level” often refers to places of disgrace, suffering, misery, hunger and mourning.[7]

Jesus does not ascend to some high place to give his teaching. Instead, he descends not only to where we stand, but he goes deeper. Jesus descends into the dark recesses of the most difficult, challenging corners of our hearts in order to teach, guide and lead us through. He comes down to that ‘level’.

To be blessed is to be that Kalaloch Tree on the precipice of destruction, and still yearn, search and reach for the water. To be blessed is to pursue the good despite all the bad that is evident all around you. To be blessed is to start that search wherever there is light, and go from there. To be blessed is to trust God to be there in the dark with you. To be blessed is to grow into God’s holy purposes despite adversity, setback and misfortune.

In short, to be blessed is to bear the scars of life proudly. It’s not the absence of difficulty, grief, pain, poverty and suffering that mark a Christian. It is following Christ in his way, despite the suffering that path brings. It is depending on God alone for life, because there is nothing else to rely on.

We thus journey on with hope, joy and trust, bearing witness to the goodness of God to sustain, to nourish and to grow us in the light of Christ.

 

[1]Luke 6:17-26

[2]Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17:5-10, according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

[3]Jeremiah 17:6 NRSV

[4]Jeremiah 17:7-8 NRSV

[5]Dr. Earl A. Grollman, “In Search of a Lost Faith”, Frontline (Winter 2019), p.4

[6]Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary on Luke 6:17-26” in http://www.workingpreacher.org

[7]Allen, ibid.

We the Saints

Death will be no more … for the first things have passed away… ‘See, I am making all things new.’ (Revelation 21:1-6a)

Who are the saints? And, who cares?

I recall an image of running the Boston marathon described by a church leader in the context of social justice. She said that congregations and persons of faith are like marathon runners. When tens of thousands of runners line up at the start of the race, only the best runners are at the front of the pack. And when the starter’s pistol signals to begin running, it takes hours by the time everyone crosses the starting line.

The implication, I believe, is that some persons or congregations are better at this job of being the church. They belong at the front. The implication, I believe, is that there is a small group of super-stars that must lead the pack and give witness to the rest of the runners ‘how it’s done’, spurring the rest of us to be better than we are. The implication, is that not everyone is as valuable as those at the front, leading the way. The implication is that there are, to be sure, the saints; and, then, there are the SAINTS. A hierarchy.

I wondered about this. And, on one level, she is correct: The kingdom of the world needs, or wants, superstars. To survive according to the world’s rules, we want to find motivation to be better. The NBA wants the Stephen Currys and Lebron James’. The NHL wants the Conner McDavids’, Austin Matthews’ and Sidney Crosbys’. Business wants the Elon Musks, Oprah Winfreys and Bill Gates’ of the world—for better or for worse. Politics wants the Doug Fords, the Kathleen Wynnes, the Andrew Scheers and the Justin Trudeaus—for better of for worse. They set the bar—high or low, depending on your perspective.

The kingdom of the world wants superstars. The world wants to compete, to compare and to conflict. Even kill. Because, some are better. And some are worse. Some are more valuable, and some … not so much. Some set the bar while others don’t quite measure up. Yes, we like to say on All Saints Sunday that we are all saints. But, there are the saints; and then, there are the SAINTS.

We identify and glorify the heroes of faith, while overlooking the value in the sainthood of the less noticed, the less attractive, the less ‘gifted.’ The kingdom of the world—its culture of comparison and competition—has indeed infected our idea and practice of the Reign of God on earth.

We are all the children of God. We are a community. Some will say, a family, whose purpose and meaning we discover in our lives on earth. “Thy kingdom come on earthas it is in heaven,” we pray. On earth. First, we do need to accept that the church on earth is where it’s at for us. The vision of heaven on earth, of the new Jerusalem descends upon the earth. We don’t find who we are as followers of Christ—as Saints—apart from our community. To be a follower of Christ is to be discovered in community.

Not by ourselves. Not alone on the mountaintops, nor alone in the valleys. Not enlightened in the ivory towers of private illumination. Not sequestered in solitude in the libraries of ancient wisdom. Not by winning individual races. Not in individualistic endeavours that don’t need anyone else, or to which everyone else needs to conform by our powers of persuasion, force or pressures.

We don’t find who we are and what we are to do as followers of Christ—as the Saints on earth—apart from community. Even in the traditional format, the saints and conferred their title by the community. The process is, no doubt, elaborate and needs the validation of the Pope and subjected to all manner of procedure.

In Protestant theology, generally, our sainthood is conferred upon all the baptized. In baptism, we are united and joined into Christ’s death and resurrection. We are enjoined with the church on earth and the saints of heaven on a journey towards full and complete union with God when we will one day see face to face. In baptism and at the communion table, we are all placed on a level playing field.

As such, relationships matter. How we behave with one another on that journey, matters. What we say to one another, matters. How we communicate with one another, matters. The words we say, and the words we don’t say, to each other, matters. How we do church, today—not yesterday, not fifty years ago, not in the last century but today—matters. ‘Thy kingdom come on earth.’ Today.

The vision of God is meant for us to grow, to transform, to change into the likeness of Christ Jesus. The community on earth strives to reflect the divine, eternal vision. The community on earth, the church, grows into what we are meant to be, on earth. The community on earth includes and embraces all of creation, excluding no one and doing violence in word and deed to no one.

It is vital that when violence is done against any group, we stand up for the downtrodden. We stand beside those who are victimized because of their religion. As Lutherans, especially today, a week after the gun-shooting and murder of Jewish people while they prayed in their house of worship in Pittsburgh, we stand up against such hatred. As Lutherans, especially today, we must repudiate again Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. Just because we are Lutheran doesn’t mean we regard Luther as infallible, without sin, as anything more than the term he used to describe us all: simul justus et peccator—we are simultaneously saints and sinners. So was he.

The Dean of the Ottawa Ministry Area of our Lutheran Church underscored the nature of this church on earth of which we are members. She said in her sermon on Reformation Sunday last week: “In Ottawa we are really one church but worship in different locations.” Ottawa Lutherans are one church. This is a change of thinking. We are becoming the new thing God is calling us to.

Together, as one, standing beside all the saints and sinners. Together, as one, standing alongside the downtrodden. Together, as one, standing with the victims of group-identity based violence. Standing against all forms and means of hatred towards ‘others’ who are different from us. The vision of John of Patmos is an inclusive one. The new earth and the new Jerusalem does not exclude anyone. The new community includes all.

Even you.

The one who just got some bad news. Even you.

The one whose marriage is on the rocks. Even you.

The one who lost their job. Even you.

The one whose health continues to fail. Even you.

The one whose anxiety and worry crushes any hope for the future. Even you.

The one whose sexual identity invites judgement from others. Even you.

The one who is new to Canada. Even you.

The one who failed the math test. Even you.

The one who was bullied at school. Even you.

The one who broke the law. Even you.

 

Together we will find our way. Better together.

Thanks be to God! Welcome home, saint and sinner. Welcome home. Amen!

Impossible Questions: a sermon for Thanksgiving and Confirmation

In observing Jesus’ teaching style in this text (Matthew 6:24-34), indeed throughout the gospels, notice all the questions he asks.

Normally, you would think the student is the only one who asks questions of the teacher, not the other way around. Jesus, the Rabbi, or Teacher, asks questions to reinforce his point. In fact, Jesus is employing a technique he learned from the sages of Israel who came before him.

There are at least two kinds of questions employed by the wisdom writers of the Hebrew scriptures: The first, is the rhetorical type, the one with the obvious answer. The obvious answer is leading to either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

For example, “Can one walk on hot coals without scorching one’s feet?” (Proverbs 6:28); “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” (Proverbs 8:1)? To answer these questions, you don’t need to study the night before.

Now, Jesus’ teachings include some rhetorical questions, such as: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Matthew 7:9); “Is there anyone among you, who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” (Luke 11:11; Matthew 7:10); “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44). No brainer, right? Either yes or no.

We have a large three-panelled window at the front of our house. Recently we placed my reading chair beside it so I can enjoy the natural lighting and look outside. Periodically a bird would hit one of the side panels with a loud ‘thump’ and we would jump each time a bird slammed into it, offering a prayer for the poor bird’s well-being.

One day we noticed a good-sized crack making its way from the top corner of the centre panel. And we called in the window-guy. As he was removing the large centre panel window, he asked for my help. It wasn’t easy getting it out of the frame. Even with the vinyl strips removed we needed to do a lot of jimmying to get that frame out.

“This panel was installed too tightly,” he mused. “That may be the cause of the problem. Windows need to have some give, some space to move. Otherwise when something hits it, it’ll break.”

Rhetorical questions are like that window that have no give. Today, rhetorical questions don’t get much traction in meaningful conversation let alone as an effective teaching method. Like the window too tightly installed, there’s no wiggle room. Laced with presumption, rhetorical questions are often used as cheap shots in a fight: “Do you think I was going to say anything in response to that stupid thing you did?” “Duh! Isn’t it obvious you should not have done that?”

Rhetorical questions are also not very helpful in dealing with crises. When someone struggles, asking them rhetorical questions presumes ‘they should know better.’ I remember sitting in a church assembly years ago when the bishop forbade the use of rhetorical questions in the debate we were having.

Given the trouble associated with this style of asking questions, you can breathe a sigh of relief because–maybe you’ve already noticed– rhetorical questioning isn’t the type of question used in today’s text. But, don’t breathe too easily just yet. Because Jesus’ distinctive voice comes through more clearly in his “impossible questions.”[1]

His impossible questions made him a subversive teacher who often undercut the comfortable assumptions of his audience. His teaching and use of questions were more in the style of Ecclesiastes and Job, rather than the sunnier outlook of Proverbs. Some examples of impossible questions we see in Ecclesiastes and Job:

“How can the wise die just like the fools?” (Eccl 2:16); “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (Eccl 2:22); “Where is the way of the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (Job 38:19-20). Not so easy, these questions are, to answer. Even impossible, in light of reality for many people. Nothing neat and tidy about answers to these kinds of questions.

Impossible questions annoy and even anger people. Why? Because they make us scramble for answers and doubt our most basic assumptions. Who likes to do that? It’s easier to be fixed and unyielding with clear-cut proofs and rules. It’s easier to repel the questions with sure-fire answers. If we don’t yield or bend, however, we will crack under the pressure of our own doing and the challenges of life that come to us all.

  • “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27; Luke 9:25).
  • “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25).
  • “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34).
  • “If you love those who love you what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32)

Indeed, Jesus uses sayings that conform to traditional wisdom like the beatitudes and proverbs. But he uses them not to resolve conflicts of life but to heighten them. He uses them not to preserve the status quo, but to push the hearer to questions one’s own values and assumptions.

Not a very popular technique. No wonder the authorities got nervous and eventually did away with Jesus.

Questions are indeed indicators that learning can happen. Of course, just because we ask questions, or questions are asked of us, doesn’t mean we will respond positively to them. Just because we ask questions to which are provided answers, rhetorical or otherwise, doesn’t mean we will take the next step forward, ourselves, with our growth, healing and transformation.

We will likely stumble out of the gate. And continue to stumble on the path of life. And sometimes get stuck in the mud. But just because we can’t fathom how to emerge from the shackles of our own humanity, our own failings, our own weaknesses, doesn’t mean all is lost. Doesn’t mean the journey is not worth taking.

Jesus stirs the pot. And continues to do so. But because he believes in us. Because Jesus believes in our growth, in our transformation. Because Jesus is anchored in his divine self, Jesus is free “to dive into a fully incarnate and diverse world—as it is. He can love this ordinary and broken world … and critique all false absolutes and idolatries at the same time.”[2]

Jesus nudges us and beckons us forward on the journey, refusing to abandon us when we get stuck. He goes ahead on the muddy path. In shine and shower, wind storm and in the calm stretches. And, on the way, can we learn to let go of the false absolutes and idolatries in our lives? Can we release our preoccupation with worry, for example, to hang on too tightly to the emotional securities of material wealth, which seems to be the message of the passage today? But I would extend this to worries about what awaits after  we let go of anything that we have held on too tightly in our lives?

Every time we worship and every time we say the Creed together, we are being confirmed in faith. We have a confirmation every Sunday! And the one being confirmed is YOU!

Yet, as I’ve tried to make clear to the confirmation classes year after year, just because you are saying ‘yes’ today, just because you are saying the words of affirmation of baptism printed on the sheet in your hands, just because you are standing up at the front of the church doesn’t mean:

  • You’ve got it all figured out
  • You have all the answers to all the questions of faith
  • You are finished on this journey of learning
  • You have nothing more to learn
  • You will now never again make any mistakes nor experience any hardship

You keep on keeping on, as they say, not because the church is perfect. Listen, if you haven’t figured that out yet let me emphasize again: the church is not perfect. The church will continue to be full of people who are far from perfect. You stay on the journey NOT because the church or its leaders are perfect and never make mistakes. Your faith and your participation in a life and journey of faith is not validated by the church to which you belong, but by the God who loves you and us despite all our failings.

If anything, what you are doing today is bearing witness to the need to keep on the journey. You are standing with the rest of us, calling for us to stay the course alongside you. By your witness today you are calling the rest of us not to stop asking questions. Not to stop doubting from time to time. Not to stop saying once in while, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not sure I believe that. What’s that all about?” Not to stop looking up and asking for help from time to time. Not to give up, on the journey.

Your window of faith will last intact a lot longer when there continues to be ‘give’ around the frame of your beliefs.

Jesus suggests to us that knowing all the answers and not making mistakes is not the point of the faithful life. Rather, it is the imperfect yet faithful following on the journey that makes all the difference.

Despite all that is wrong, God is still there.

We stay on the path not because it is easy. But for those moments of grace. We do this for those moments of joy where we notice the pinpricks of light across the dark canvas of our world.

Where forgiveness melts cold hearts.

Where mercy triumphs over condemnation.

Where love embraces the weary traveller.

Thank you, God.

 

[1]Alyce Mckenzie, No Easy Answers: Reflections on Matthew 6:24-34 (patheos.com, February 21, 2011)

[2]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation,3 October 2018 (www.cac.org/Meditations@cac.org)

Traveling stones: a pilgrimage lesson in letting go

In the sixth century Saint Benedict said, “A monk should have death always before his eyes.”[1] ‘Death’ doesn’t need to refer only to our physical demise at the end of life but to any loss experienced in life. There are many deaths we experience in life: the death of a cherished pet, the loss of friendship, the loss of a job, divorce, death of a loved one, moving into another home. Any significant change, even positive ones, involve something lost.

In the second reading for today written in the first century, Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthians to live in this world “as though not.”[2] He is advocating a certain disengagement from the attachments and claims of our lives, including some of our most cherished relationships. The likes of Paul and Benedict reflect, as well, the wisdom of the prophets and poets of ancient Israel: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God stands forever.”[3]

Our earth-bound attachments come under scrutiny here, no doubt. The question remains for each of us on our own journeys of faith and life – what are those things of which we need to let go in order to move on? After all, in the Lord’s Prayer the words, “Thy Kingdom come”, mean little unless we can also say: “My kingdom go.”[4]

Following Jesus means leaving things behind — as the first disciples did, in our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:14:20).

You heard about the man who was hiking in the mountains when he slipped, and started to slide over the edge. Just as he was about to fall into the abyss, he grabbed a tree branch growing out of the rock ledge. He hung on perilously dangling in the air.

He didn’t know what to do. It was impossible to pull himself up since the branch stem was slippery and wet. He swung in the silence of the breeze contemplating his fate with growing terror. Finally he looked up to the sky and prayed: “If there is a God anywhere up there, I could do with some help, please.”

To his surprise and shock, he heard God’s voice respond instantly: “I will help you. But you first have to let go.”

The man was silent for a minute. He dared not look down. It was a long way to the jagged rocks of the canyon below. Again he looked up to the sky, and said: “Is there anyone else up there?”

A long-standing tradition in doing a pilgrimage is to bring a stone from home and lay it somewhere along the path. This home-stone represents a part of myself that I lose, and leave behind, where I have walked.

Last Spring when I walked a part of the Camino de Santiago, I wanted to leave my stone in the waters off the western coast of Spain, either in Fisterra or Muxia – both coastal towns are some one hundred kilometres west of Santiago.

I imagined this place a fitting resting place for my stone since I love walking by water and coastlines. Once, long ago, people believed the coastal town of Fisterra (French, for ‘the end of the earth’) was the physical limit of land – the farthest one could go. In my imagination, I saw myself facing the setting sun, having completed the 800-kilometer, two-month trek, looking west to the horizon line beyond which lies the land of my home in North America.

I imagined feeling satisfied at the end of a long journey, having reached my goal, grateful for the challenge and all the things the Camino taught me. In that moment of gratitude and joy, I would toss my stone as far as I could into the spume and depths of the Atlantic Ocean. That was the vision, anyway.

I found the perfect sized stone while wandering around my house one afternoon a week before leaving for Spain. Because I was running about making the last-minute preparations for the journey, I placed it temporarily on the landing railing in the garage, certain I would soon tuck it away in my backpack.

Two weeks later I was scrambling up a steep incline outside the town of Irun on the first day of my pilgrimage. As I expected that first day was incredibly tough going. The temperatures soared to above 25 degrees C and the sun shone brightly. Sweat pouring down my neck and back I struggled up that cliff wondering why on earth I chose to do this on my sabbatical. I dug my walking poles into the hard-caked sandy ground to make the next ledge and wondered sarcastically if I should have rather taken rappelling lessons in preparation for coming to Spain.

In that moment of physical and growing mental exhaustion, I realized I had forgotten to pack my stone. It was still sitting on the railing in the garage back home! I stopped in my tracks and exhaled deeply.

“What’s the matter?” my Dutch pilgrim friend asked me, huffing and puffing as I was.

“I forgot to bring my stone,” I confessed my failure.

“Don’t despair,” my co-pilgrim wanted to advise. “The Camino will give you an answer.”

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Several days later two significant things happened. The first was while I was walking down a slope towards the northern Basque town of Guernica, I thought I should take with me a couple stones from this path, as a keepsake from walking the Camino. So, I selected two small pebbles from under my feet where I stood beholding the town and valley below.

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That same day, my knee seized up, and I walked the remainder of my Camino in pain. Three days later, coughing and feeling very sick, I was on a plane homebound. Diagnosed with pneumonia back in Ottawa, I had to come to terms with my failure of not having reached my goal.

Not only had I not reached Santiago and Fisterra, I had done nothing with my stone which I had forgotten anyway. By forgetting the stone, had I already destined myself not to finish the pilgrimage? These dark thoughts swirled in my mind.

After having recovered a few weeks later, my wife and I flew to Lisbon for a week of vacation to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Originally, the plan had been for her to join me at the end of my pilgrimage, where I would meet her in Lisbon. Nevertheless, this time, I did bring my stone from home, renamed my ‘glory’ stone.

My glory stone represented all my aspirations, desires, longings which I knew deep down the Camino had taught me to let go of. I had to surrender even my human yearning and goals to God.

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And so, at Cabo Da Roca near Lisbon, Portugal – the farthest most western point of land on continental Europe – I threw my glory stone into the Atlantic Ocean facing the setting sun. I had to practice letting glory go.

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It seems I was still bound to finish some kind of pilgrimage during my sabbatical. I didn’t have enough time to go back to Spain and finish the Camino de Santiago. But I did have enough time to walk the entire length of the longest contiguous sand beach in North America – fifty kilometres on Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. There, my journey of letting go continued.

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There, on “Cape Disappointment” – fittingly named – I brought the two pebbles that I picked up in Spain on the last day I walked on the Camino. One glorious afternoon, I scrambled down into Dead Man’s Cove – also fittingly named – on Cape Disappointment. After reflecting on my disappointments of late, I realized on my journey of life not only did I need to yield all my dreams but also all my regrets and suffering. And so, I threw those stones of disappointment into the Pacific Ocean. I let these go.

 

I realized life is not lived well when we obsessively hold on to all those things that cause us grief. I had to offer these to God as well. Later, while I sat on a park bench near the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment looking over the Pacific, I met a couple of Americans visiting from Portland. In our conversation, we were able to affirm that “all great spirituality is about learning to let go.”[5]

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But I didn’t leave my pilgrimage empty handed. When I climbed out of Dead Man’s Cove that day, I picked up from the sand a smooth, round stone. Now, any rocks on the Peninsula are rare. Most of the fifty-kilometre stretch is sand, land created from the outflow of the mighty Columbia River as it spills into the Pacific Ocean. Most rocks you see on the Peninsula have been trucked in. So, I was delighted to take with me back home, a rare thing.

And hope is a rare commodity in this world of pessimism, denial, and despair. This is my “stone of hope”, that I hold forever, amidst all the human aspirations swirling in my life and all the disappointments and failures which I regularly need to practice letting go of.

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We hold not only that which we need to let go of, but we also hold hope throughout our lives. “We do not simply resign ourselves to the give-ness of the world, for we have planted within us a great hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven. This means we are a people who look to the future with trust and hope, confident that God is working God’s purposes out and that God’s realm is even now breaking into our world.”[6]

At this point in your journey of life, which stones are you holding — of dreams, of disappointments, of hope? Which ones do you need to let go of? Which do you need to hold on to? I suspect it is true when the likes of Saint Paul, and all the wise teachers over the ages, writes: “Hope does not disappoint us.” [7]

[1] cited in Ruthanna B. Hooke in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 1” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.280

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

[3] Isaiah 40:8

[4] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Thursday, January 18, 2018.

[5] Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, cac.org

[6] Ruthanna B. Hooke, ibid.

7 – Romans 5:5