The house built by fear

Reading from the bible can be scary. Sometimes a faithful reading of the bible will not bring calm and assurance. Just the opposite!

Today’s scripture can evoke fear.[1]When Jesus talks about Herod’s glorious temple crumbling to the ground and being betrayed by family members, our eyes widen in apprehension and we shift uncomfortably in our seats. Fearful of the future. What will it bring? Is God’s future good or something to fear. We do know, the way there won’t be easy.

From the Gospel, Jesus exposes two false ways in which people of faith try to deal with our fear. By that, I mean, strategies that we have employed for thousands of years in order to combat our fear. While these methods may be effective in allaying our fear, they also serve to block the way we connect with God.

The first such strategy Jesus exposes is our attachment to, and almost exclusive dependence on, what we build. Even, as we say, to the glory of God. These buildings. Glorious, adorned with carvings, intricate stained glass, spires making confident bids to the sky, and arches perfectly rounded and balanced. Architectural master pieces. To say the least.

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The pulpit alone, in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, is a wonder to behold. It is a sermon in itself – its spiraling, narrow staircase winding itself up into a small yet regally appointed platform high above the nave.

King Herod, for Christians reading the bible, was a paranoid despot. He killed innocent children was ruthless in defending and protecting his hold on power. Because he was afraid, afraid of losing it.

For historians and archeologists, however, he was a builder par excellence.

King Herod started building his temple in Jerusalem two decades before Jesus was born. During the time of the build he more than doubled the size of the temple mount. The temple proper was completed in eighteen months. But work on the outer courts and decorations continued throughout Jesus’ lifetime and still some thirty years after his death and resurrection. During this impressive season of building the temple, people gathered under the large colonnades and porches to hear speeches and witness healings.[2]

It was a gathering place, a central focal point for people’s identity in faith and source of authority and guidance for life. It was where you went to listen to and engage religious debate. It was where you went to deliberate truth. It was where you made animals sacrifices. Here, you found the rules and regulations and laws for a good life.

Less than a decade after everything was completed on the Herodian temple, it was pretty much destroyed by the Romans in the late first century. Jesus’ words in the Gospel text for today, calling for a day “when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”, speak to events that were happening in the lives of Jesus’ followers during this time of the destruction of Jerusalem and its glorious, magnificent temple.

In reading this text carefully, however, I realized this is not just about buildings. Jesus isn’t just criticizing those who put all their religious stock in bricks and mortar. Jesus is exposing yet another related strategy for dealing with our fear. Not just in the glory of the buildings, but in the way we speak to one another and relate to one another. Not just in glory. But also in power.

It was, after all, the authorities who made the rules, sold the animals for sacrifice and mediated the people’s connection with God.

At root, the religious authorities persuaded the people that their relationship with God could only be mediated by the authority’s permission. If you didn’t follow the rules and authorities, you were not justified or in right relationship with God. The whole culture, the spiritual climate, surrounding the temple served to choke out freedom of a personal and direct intimacy with God.[4]

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote the dismaying story with the title, “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. The old cardinal of the church hears that the real Jesus has come suddenly to his town. The cardinal is alarmed that Jesus healed a blind man who had been coming to his church. Then, he hears that the real Jesus who has come to his town raised a young girl from the dead.

When the cardinal confronts Jesus he asks him: “Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?” He wants to rid the town of Jesus, because in his mind what Jesus did long ago is done far better by the church today. In other words, the cardinal has to admit to himself, the church does not need Jesus.[3]The cardinal really couldn’t give up the power he had. Not give it up for anyone. Even Jesus. The cardinal was afraid of losing his job — what it would mean for him and the church …

Seeking glory and defending power seem to be effective ways of dealing with our fear.  We attach ourselves to symbols and expressions of glory in our culture – the tallest buildings, the fastest cars, celebrities, newsworthy leaders and victories on the battle fields of life. This brings comfort, though momentary and fleeting. Because we can never be satisfied operating in this consumer and acquisition-fueled culture. There’s never enough, or it’s not good enough. Ever.

Jesus suggests we must learn a new language. A new way of being, with God and with one another. A way, marked not by successes in the eyes of the world—there were lots of tourists in those houses of worship we visited in Montreal. The world approves. But will we walk a different way – a way marked by love, faithfulness in suffering, and generous giving in the face of poverty, suffering and our fear?

Throughout the Gospels, the religious authorities asked Jesus for a sign of his authority. And, he never satisfied them with his answer. His answers usually appear to disturb their sense of right and wrong.

The truth, when it comes, seems to turn upside down our initial ways of thinking and doing. Here, Jesus says, “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[5]

These opponents were neither stupid nor un-educated. In fact they were the most articulate and brilliant of the age. So, there is something altogether different going on here. A different way of being with God. A way not encumbered by discursive thought and debate. A way not intimidated by rules and regulations and conditional statements of belonging. A way not defined by glory-seeking persuasion nor forceful coercion.

The confirmation class the other night reflected on the meaning of the Trinity—God the Father who creates all, God the Son who is with us, God the Spirit who gives us strength. On this poster they cut out images from magazines to place in one of three designated areas on the poster. These images evoked for them the meaning and feeling of what God is up to in the world today, through the various persons of the Trinity.

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In reflecting on the experience of doing this exercise afterwards, we pastors admitted this was rather an abstract exercise. We weren’t just memorizing definitions of the Trinity from the Catechism, difficult enough as that is! But in engaging the confirmands on another level, we began to see more than we thought possible.

We discover that we don’t find God by building glory or defending power — ways we use to avoid confronting our fears of the future. Rather, the good news is that God has already found us. In this world. In our lives. And in a multitude of ways.

Making this link, this connection, is much simpler than all the methods we have devised to combat our fear. We don’t need the tallest and most beautiful buildings to assert God in this world. We don’t need to merit, or qualify for, our relationship with God by building skyscrapers or getting straight A’s in school.  We don’t need degrees and a long pedigree to justify ourselves in faith. We don’t need to arm ourselves with book knowledge in order to defend against some opponent whether a family member or stranger.

All we need is an open heart and a desire to love and trust. Following Jesus is about going directly to intimacy with God in our deepest selves. And God is there, right there, all along.

We can respond, then, not out of fear. But out of the love of Christ for all and in all. Forever.

 

[1]Luke 21:5-19

[2]Acts 3:11; 5:12

[3]Cited in Eberhard Busch, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.310-312

[4]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.93-96

[5]Luke 21:15

Alone no more

Mary and Joseph mess up. Their only child, and they lose him. (read Luke 2:41-52) Aren’t parents supposed to know where their kids are, at all times?

Now, of course, this stuff happens all the time to the best of us—in large crowds, at amusement parks, sports stadiums, Disney World, the mall. Unintentionally we make mistakes. Each of us can likely relate to a time when we got lost and felt abandoned by our parents, and how that felt. Or, how as parents we lost track of our child. And how that felt. The fright. The embarrassment. The shame.

Maybe it’s a comfort to know that even Mary and Joseph parents of the Christ child didn’t get the parenting thing right, on occasion. Today, we would communicate that in social media as #parentingfail.

I’m reminded of the popular Christmas movie, Home Alone, when a family plans a European vacation for Christmas. The relatives all arrive for the big event. But in all the commotion the youngest son feels slighted. Expressing his frustration inappropriately, he is punished and sent to a room in the attic.

There, in a fit of anger, he wishes that his family would go away so he could be all alone. The next morning, in their rush to get ready and leave for the airport, the family overlooks the little boy in the attic. They get to the airport and board the plane, all the while believing he is with them. The boy gets his wish when the next morning he finds himself home alone.

The twelve-year-old boy Jesus experienced the feeling of abandonment by his parents. Perhaps this was a foretaste of the abandonment of the cross he would experience at the end of his life. It appears Jesus knew already from a young age what it felt like to be a human being. It appears he learned to accept the follies and misgivings of the human condition. For, he experienced it himself. At the end of the story, he felt the joy of being found and of not being alone anymore.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the temple was a sign of God’s eternal presence. And so we have a clue as to why this story from Luke is read on the First Sunday of Christmas. Because, without the temple, how else would this story fit? After all, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. And this story is about Jesus on the verge of adulthood, his ‘coming of age’ story from the bible.

Jesus was found in the temple, engaged with the learned in conversation about God. In his childhood experience of abandonment—in the midst of it—he was still in God’s presence. He was found in God’s presence.

Christmas is about the promise of God to be with us. It is about the grace and gift of God-with-Us, Immanuel. Immanuel is the name given to Jesus by the angel in the Christmas story. It is a name to give us hope.

God is with us, even in the darkness of grief. God is with us, even when we feel abandoned. God is with us, even when we are lost and forsaken. God is with us, even when we are confused and don’t know what to do. God is with us, in all our losses, pain and especially in our suffering. That is why this story, I believe, is included in the Christmas repertoire year after year: To remind us of this holy promise of hope at the darkest time of year: God is with us.

It feels like once we celebrate those first few days of Christmas, time seems to thrust forward in leaps and bounds. At one moment, we are cooing with the barn animals at the baby in the manger and singing hallelujahs with the angel chorus over the fields of Bethlehem.

And the next, we actually fast forward over a decade in the story of Jesus to this temple scene when he is almost a teenager. The Christmas message catapults us from the past, into the present and towards the future in a kaleidoscope of events that unite in the meaning of God-with-us.

A gift-giving tradition in our family is the exchange of books. I just finished reading a fiction which told its story by shifting forward and backward in time. In reading through the book from beginning to end, there were times when it felt a bit dis-jointed, where I asked myself especially early on: What does this detail or this person have anything to do with the story? Why is the author spending so much time and several pages describing this particular scene or detail? How does it all fit together?

This technique, of course, kept me hooked. I was committed to the journey. I had to trust that in the perplexing ‘set-up’ the author was providing, there would eventually be a satisfying ‘pay-off’. And I wanted to know, and feel, the resolution to the mystifying issues, sub-plot lines and character developments. I had to trust and hope that the longer I stayed with it, at some point, there would be some satisfaction to the bemusing chronology of the storytelling.

People will often say, there is a reason for everything. Even when bad things happen, they will say there was a divine purpose. I would sooner say, in everything that happens—good and bad—God is present, and there is reason to hope. Because we don’t know the mind of God.

As soon as we say ‘everything has a reason’ we presume our suffering is a consequence of our not knowing. But knowing ‘why’ is not our business. We cannot comprehend the fullness of the divine mystery and purpose. We can’t really pronounce on what God is up to in the evolution of reality and history. We can only make the next step. Our task is to become aware of God’s presence in all our circumstances.

In hope.

If we are not a people of hope, we are not human—just animals scavenging for survival and reacting to impulse. If we are not a people of hope, we are not the people of God who are called to see beyond the circumstances of the desert and darkness of this world with all its suffering.

In hope, time is really irrelevant. In hope, the past and future collapse into the present moment. That’s where we live, anyway. This time of year is not well-behaved, neat, and orderly. To be faithful in this time-tumbling season is to stick with it despite the disorderliness of our past, present and future, and not just give up.

We can appreciate the good in the past and can anticipate the good that is promised in the future. We can hope that no matter what lies before us or what happened behind us, there is good that still awaits. There is good that is here.

God is here. God is present. God is involved, now. That’s the meaning of Christmas—God is now with us, Immanuel. For now, and forevermore, God sheds tears and rejoices alongside us. God walks with us on this journey and will never abandon us in God’s love.

Hope is what keeps time. Hope is what connects the past and the future into the marvel of the moment. A moment in time infused with grace.

Where does hope reside in your life? In what activity? In which thoughts? What feelings are associated with hope, for you? How do your thoughts, your actions and your feelings reflect hope today?

May you be open to the blessing of God’s presence, in the New Year.

Game of Thrones and the Throne of Grace

As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne .. (Daniel 7:9)

There appears to be something different about the throne of the Ancient One. Among all the thrones, when the Ancient One sits down we are to take notice. What is it about God’s throne that stands out?

At this time of the year, we still ought to be saying: “Winter is coming.” Although it is obvious now that we can, with all “Game of Thrones” fans, be asserting those ominous words that indeed, “Winter has arrived”!

Fans of the epic TV series “Game of Thrones” need still to wait until the final season airs next year. In the symbolic centre of this miasma of twisting plot lines and characters constantly fighting for supremacy sits the imposing throne at the front of the grand hall of the capital city in George RR Martin’s fantasy world of ‘Westeros’.

Who will finally succeed in claiming the throne? Who IS the rightful heir? And how will each of the so-called ‘pretenders’ manage to usurp ultimate power in the Seven Kingdoms? These are the questions swirling around this throne, highlighted by spiked swords and jagged edges—a dark, cold symbol reflecting the heart, it seems, of what it takes to succeed in this place.

… and an Ancient One took his throne …

When Jesus stands before Pilate hours before Jesus dies a criminal of the state on a bloodied cross, he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world.[1]The cross stands as a counterpoint to the world’s thrones. The cross stands as a symbol, not of cold-hearted power-plays and world domination where the end justifies any, bloodied means. No, the cross is a sign of the God who failed according to the world’s rules, who found defeat at the hands of the worldly mighty.

The throne that Jesus sits on is indeed very different from all the others. When Jesus said ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ he meant its values are at odds with how power is exercised among humans, in all its brutish ways. We may be alarmed, and despair; yet, we accept that the ‘Game of Thrones’ world is quite similar to our reality on earth, more so than the kingdom of God.

I find at least two ways we fail to see and realize God’s ways on earth:

First, I suspect, for Christians, the temptation is to go the other way: to deny God’s kingdom on earth. The problem is that, without even consciously, we may delegate God’s values to some fantasy world. To practice genuine humility, forgiveness, grace, mercy and unconditional love not just to family and friends but to people we don’t know—well, we say, that’s reserved for ‘heaven’ someday; it has no place in the ‘real world’, we way.

But God’s throne is not in a different world than ours. God’s throne is not ‘up there’ or ‘over there’ or in some fantasy world far removed from our own.

The truth, and our hope, is that God’s way can be realized on earth. Not only has Jesus enabled people of all time and place to face the truth about ourselves, our relationships, our faith, and the world in which we live, Jesus is saying that his kingdom is also present — in part — upon the earth, in all our relationships.[2] Wherever grace is given and received, wherever forgiveness is practiced, wherever mercy and love are shown. There, is God.

I’m finishing up this week teaching a course on Martin Luther, prayer and the legacy of the Reformation (at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality). In teaching this course, the students and I have returned time and time again to the notion of movement. Semper Reformanda–the Latin phrase popularized by Karl Barth in the last century: Always reforming. The legacy of the Reformation is that we are a church that is continually changing, and moving, and becoming. And, in what ways?

Here, I want to bring in the Rev. Riitta Hepomaki, assistant to Bishop Pryse (Eastern Synod–Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada). She said at the workshop the council attended last weekend that what we lack, today, as a church of the Reformation is this sense of movement. Our western church, and especially our generation, has adopted a “we have arrived” mindset.

This is the second way in which we fail to realize God’s ways, God’s reign on earth.

If we have arrived, we don’t need to move. If we don’t move, we are stuck. The feeling of being stuck often leads to hopelessness. And, we are not talking here about physical movement from one street address to another, per se. We can make little moves: from the church hall to the streets, from our own kitchen or garden to a community kitchen or garden—wherever God is sending you.

Giving up the ‘we have arrived’ mindset means also that we are willing to move from my little world to other people’s worlds. It is challenging. But we can do it because we have faith, even faith the size of a miniscule mustard seed. And we have each other. We have fellowship. We have a new way of life. And because we are confident that our God will guide and provide.

So, let’s try to change our mindset from ‘having arrived’ to ‘being sent’, and ‘being in movement’. After all, if we don’t move, we cannot follow. Aren’t we called “followers of Jesus?”[3]And, today, we proclaim, that Jesus is the Lord of our lives. And that we are followers not of the ways of the world, but of the Reign of Christ.

In another vision of God, this time from a major prophet[4]in the Hebrew scriptures, God sits on his throne, yet the primary image is of the hem of God’s robe filling the temple. God’s presence permeates and fills all.

The world will indeed separate and set a boundary between the most powerful ‘at the front on the throne’, and the rest of us on the floor down below. Not so with God. In Christ, that boundary has been severed. Moments after Jesus died on that symbol of death and defeat—the cross—the curtain in the temple was torn.[5]The dividing line between where God is and where the rest of us are was opened.

No longer are we divided, violent, fighting, them-and-us. No longer need we compare, compete and kill. These are the actions and behavior of those who bow to the world’s thrones.

Rather, we are all enfolded in the robes of God’s grace forever. There are no boundaries, no limits, to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And, as the writer to the Hebrews expresses, we can therefore approach the “throne of grace” will confidence.[6]No longer afraid that God will rebuke, punish and condemn us. No longer condemned by our faults, sins and weaknesses.

We can approach this throne with boldness, assured that God will embrace us in mercy, forgiveness, and love.

 

[1]John 18:33-37, Gospel for the Reign of Christ Sunday, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[2]Robert A. Bryant in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol.4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.337.

[3]Riitta Hepomaki, The Eastern Synod Lutheran Volume 44, Sept 25, 2015 (Kitchener: Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada), p.1

[4]Isaiah 6:1-8

[5]Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45

[6]Hebrews 4:16

Geometric power: The circle church

The architecture of church buildings, despite Christianity’s institutional decline in the Western world today, continues to draw our attention. For the most part, these are beautiful buildings, appealing to the eye whose symbols etched in paint, glass and images conveyed through colour and the play of light and shadow serve as magnets to the curious and searching among us all.

In one reading assigned for this Sunday from the prophet Amos, God’s judgement on Israel is measured by a plumb line.[1]Construction workers measured the stone blocks to make sure they were squared so the walls of the temple could be built straight up. It was used to make sure the construction of buildings was done properly. The plumb line image conveys the proverbial ‘standard’ to determine how righteous God’s people are. Needless to say, Israel fails miserably, time and time again.

It seems, for folks in the bible, there is always good and bad in the mix. God’s people will never, no matter how hard they try, be pure and perfect in their doing and being. From ancient days to this day, people of faith always miss the mark. Just read Paul.[2]Our vision is often clouded, and we cannot help but make mistakes on the journey.

The stories from the bible assigned for this day reveal characters mired in the shackles of their humanity, good and bad. David rejoices in bringing the ark of the covenant into the holy place of the temple in Jerusalem while others look on with hatred, despising him.[3]Of course, King David was no angel himself, committing murder and adultery while he was king.[4]

Herod Antipas, in the Gospel reading, respected the rogue John the Baptist and liked to hear him speak yet condemned him to a gruesome death in order to protect his own reputation.[5]Wherever you read in the bible, you cannot avoid the sinfulness of even the so-called heroes of the faith.

What we build to the glory of God, the fruits of our labours and expressions of our faith, will also reflect this good/bad reality. The Dean of the now re-named Martin Luther University College [formerly Waterloo Lutheran Seminary], Rev. Dr. Mark Harris, once told me, when he visited me at my former parish at Zion Lutheran Church in Pembroke, that no matter all the changes that happen in the church today — good and bad — architecture always wins out.

What does the architecture of a place of prayer, therefore, communicate? What truths do they reveal about what we value, what is important to the church? How does the architecture ‘win out’?

Recently, I’ve visited other congregations that are housed in beautiful, old church buildings. The first is Merrickville United Church where last month I did a pulpit exchange, you might remember. The second was two months ago when I visited Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington D.C., which hosted some seminars at the Festival of Homiletics.

What is similar about the floors in these churches, keeping in mind [hint!] our discussion of the plumb line? What would Amos say about their construction using his plumb line?

Why did the original construction include a sloped floor? Perhaps its architects wanted to create an easier sight-line for the person in the pew to see clearly the primary furniture of worship located in the chancel — the font, altar and pulpit. The font, where the first sacrament of baptism — of entering the family of God; the altar, where the sacrament of the meal invites us regularly for nourishment on the journey of faith; the pulpit from where we hear God’s word in scripture and voice.

That’s the good from the construction, that we are drawn and can see clearly what is central to our faith: Word and Sacrament. That we can come easily; we don’t have to work hard to earn our way to God. I don’t know how many times in worships services and lectures during my time in and visits to these spaces, we had to stop whatever was going on to wait for a rolling water bottle to make its easy yet loud, clattering roll down to the front.

So, the good: We can pool down into the arms of God’s grace. We are drawn to the love of God’s welcome and forgiveness. And we really don’t need to work hard to be there. We just need to ride the current flowing to God. It is gift. It is grace. It is free. Neither ought we place any barriers to God’s grace being accessible to all, to come forward. To let all, including ourselves, come to God. Amen? All are welcome!

You may have noticed, however, that King David brings the ark of the covenant “up” into the city. Indeed, this is the geography and architecture of the city of David built upon a hill.[6]And the holy of holies is not down below in the valley, but up high by the altar.

The people have to exert some physical energy to get to the place of God’s presence. Even David, in all his rejoicing in bringing the ark to Jerusalem, “danced before the Lord with all his might.”[7]He was working hard! He was putting his all – heart, soul and body – into the effort.

At the unplanned end to my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage last year, I sat in the large nave of the cathedral in Bilbao, Spain, reflecting on the disappointing turn of events. It is a spectacular fifteenth century build.

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As I looked around me in the silent, cavernous space, for a split second I experienced vertigo, not unlike you would in the old slanted room in the Ottawa Science Centre. Something was off.

Then I realized, I’d never before been in a church building whose floor was not sloped downward toward the altar, but upward!

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And what goes up must come down. The floor was slanting outward and downward toward the front doors and down into the city!

The story of David’s extravagant, energy-filled entrance up into the holy city didn’t finish at the holy of holies. Going up was completed by turning around at the apex to come back down. The story ends by David distributing food and gifts to not only his family and friends in the city, but “the whole multitude of Israel.”[8]Everyone is fed!

Worship and centering in God is followed by a necessary, gracious giving and going out into the world. I quote again the prophet Amos, where we started: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[9]

We don’t have slanted floors here. It’s more or less flat. Amos with his plumb line might be satisfied with the level of the floors. But what else could the architecture of our place of worship tell us about ourselves, our identity and God’s call for us?

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Could it be, sitting in room that is basically round that the obvious measure and geometric symbol is not the straight line, but the circle? And now, with larger windows surrounding us, windows which let more light in, also improve our imagination and connection with the world out there? Could it be, given the architecture of our faith here at Faith, we are now called not only to be drawn into the centre, the hub, of the circle who is Christ, but also be sent out in the centrifugal force of God’s Spirit?

In the last pages of the bible, the Book of Revelation, we read a vision of God’s magnificent future:

God’s future comes as an experience of God’s love, “flowing like a river from God’s throne, nourishing trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.”[10]This vision “pictures a world made whole, with people living in a beloved community, where no one is despised or forgotten, peace reigns, and the goodness of God’s creation is treasured and protected as a gift. Our faith is not a privatized expression of belief which keeps faith in Jesus contained in an individualized bubble and protects us from the world.

“Rather, we are on a spiritual journey in which we remain connected to the centre of the presence of God but whose love yearns to save and transform the world. We are called to be ‘in Christ’, which means we share – always imperfectly, and always in community with others – the call to be the embodiment of God’s love in the world.”[11]

In loving others by including them in the circle, we discover how much we are loved by God. We are the circle church. A porous, ever-expanding circle.

 

[1]Amos 7:7-9

[2]Romans 3:23; Romans 7:15-21

[3]2 Samuel 6:16

[4]2 Samuel 11

[5]Mark 6:14-29

[6]2 Samuel 6:12b

[7]2 Samuel 6:14

[8]2 Samuel 6:18-19

[9]Amos 5:24

[10]Revelation 22:1-2

[11]Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Friday, July 13, 2018 (www.cac.org)

The glory: Worth the sacrifice?

I commend to you the reflection entitled “Storied Stones” (Nov 2015) written by Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, found at workingpreacher.org. What follows here is basically her wording with some addition and adaptation —

“What large stones and what large buildings?” If you have ever been to the Holy Land, you know just how big those stones really are. If you haven’t been, you can find online a picture of the western wall — the Wailing Wall — a remnant of Herod’s temple; these blocks of stone are far taller than most people.
Massive. Impressive. No wonder the disciples were agog and amazed. I certainly was. And suddenly, this Gospel story (Mark 13:1-8) made sense. Suddenly, I completely understood the astonishment of the disciples. The impetus for awe is typically justified — and on many levels.
“What large stones?” We love bold. We love big. We love better. That’s the human motto, in every form, it seems. The bigger, the better. The disciples are no different than we are and we are no different than the disciples back then. While we tend to trust in our two-thousand-plus-years insightfulness or insist that the disciples are less than insightful, Jesus calls out the truth of our humanity — both for his past and for present disciples: 
It is true: Like the first disciples we are attracted to splendour and grandeur. We are drawn to the biggest and the best. The most influential. The most powerful. The most anything. We love superlatives. Lest we think we are any more knowledgeable than Jesus’ first disciples, we are not. We only know different attractions, manifestations, and incarnations of magnificence, especially when it comes to what it means to be a Christian today.
Membership numbers, programs, innovation. Stewardship campaigns, “transformative” preaching, Christmas pageants. Christian education, moving worship, building projects — there is no end to what large stones we seek to erect. Our large stones are meant to draw the attention and wonder of onlookers. Our large stones are put in place to attract potential members. Our large stones are even constructed so as to secure the dedication and continued wonder of our own flock. Our faith, our religious life, our churches are not free from the want for prestige, for desire of greatness and grandness, for a yearning for a majesty beyond comparison. 
Why is that? Is it fear? Is it insecurity? Is it a belief that church is really just one big competition?
On the brink of his own arrest and death, Jesus’ lesson to his disciples — to us — is critical. As Jesus’ ministry comes to a close in Mark, it will be all too easy to fall back into a kind of mode of expectation that seeks to compare Jesus’ kingdom with those of this world. As we look toward to the end of the church year and Reign of Christ Sunday, it is easy to be convinced that bigger and better are marks of God’s church. As we get settled into Sunday morning routines, it is easy to disregard that God’s criteria for success is not bigger and better, but faithfulness. That what God cares about is not the “blank-est,” but our best — and there’s a difference between those two.
“What large stones?” is something we are quick to notice but we are not as quick to ask what stands behind the perceived greatness. There is always a backstory of which we are not privy. We cannot tell from the outside the story the lies on the inside. We cannot see in first impressions what has made possible the result or the efforts to get there. We cannot know what it took to make our amazement possible.
In part, Jesus is asking us to ask what’s been overlooked in the past for the sake of what is viewed in the present. And, usually such large stones do not come without a significant price. That those whom we prop up, admire, wish to be, or envy, have particular reasons and rationales for being what and who they are. 
How would we feel if we knew the truth about how the large stones came to be? Well, we may not like what we hear. We may start to realize that such greatness is not worth the overhead. And we may begin to understand that another’s striving for greatness has come at the expense of others, and perhaps the cost of one’s very self.
“What large stones” is a phrase never without sacrifice, either the sacrifice of others or the sacrifice of who you intended to be, wanted to be, and thought you could be. Sometimes this sacrifice is positive. But we can never think that the greatness of another is achievable on our terms. Our tendency is to see this greatness and think we could have done better, rather than inquire about how the greatness came to be. Sometimes this sacrifice is negative, because the allure of grandeur then throws all others under the proverbial bus or the grandeur itself takes over the soul.
In the end, “what larges stones” is itself a statement of faith. And it’s a statement of faith that Jesus asks us to reconsider.
What large stones in your life reveal sacrifices you have made, or are making, that are positive and/or negative? Is it time to reconsider your striving for the ‘large stones’ in your life? Is it time to reconsider your yearning and desires for grandeur and splendour and glory? is it time to reconsider the purpose of your life, and address those decisions you are making to maintain a false, unhealthy striving based on the world’s values? Is it time to meet Jesus, again, at the foot of the cross? Will you bring your concerns to God, and lay them at the altar today? And start anew?
I love the NRSV translation of the closing verse in this text: The trials Jesus describes that will characterize difficult times of transition are “but the beginning of the birth pangs” (v.8). Birth pangs. Jesus uses imagery from the natural course of life, which begins in considerable pain. Birth pangs normally announce the start of something wondrously new, unimaginably joyous and indescribably loving — the birth of a new relationship, the gift of new life.
The large stones will not last. Life, love and hope will endure forever. Have heart. Never give up.

Not a passive remembrance

I catch myself whenever I pin my poppy on my lapel wondering: How is it that I am living out this symbol of remembrance? In my own life, and in the community of faith, how are we demonstrating the values of freedom and protecting the dignity of all people? For example, it is estimated that some 140 war veterans are homeless on the streets of Ottawa. Men and women who gave their lives to service of this great country are now destitute. What are we doing about that?
Because in the Gospel text today (Mark 12:38-44) Jesus condemns those whose mere formal, ritual observance characterizes their faith. When ‘saying prayers’ is the only thing we do as Christians. There may be times in our lives when that is all we can do. Yet if the practice of faith is enacted solely as a “pro forma ceremony”, it only reveals a questionable faith and a “fallow, craven piety” (1).
What problem does Jesus identify here? Well, the religious leaders “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say their prayers” (v.40). Their heart is not in their religion, we may say. They typify the delusion of sacrifice — believing they give more than they should but less than they can. In the end, whatever they perform to impress others does not really change their lives. Their worship does not call forth from them any measure of risk and trust. It does not involve their whole being.
Are you, like me, feeling increasingly uncomfortable? As is the case with difficult Gospel texts, we may perform an impressive, interpretive slalom course around the issue. We may focus on the money, for example: “Shouldn’t the temple treasury be happy for the large amounts of money given by the rich? What is Jesus doing offending the rich? Not very smart!” 
Or, our self-justification may target the poor. We idealize the sacrifice they make. But to what extent? To justifying a social-economic system that maintains benefits to the rich and demands even greater sacrifice from the poor? But, in the end, Jesus’ words suggest that what is important here is not the amount of money, per se. Why? Yes, both the rich and the poor give varying amounts. 
But both give to the temple treasury that will soon be utterly destroyed. This gospel story in Mark is positioned right at the end of Jesus’ public ministry, and right before his temple speech and passion story — Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross. In the verses that immediately follow this text, Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple — “not one stone will be left upon the other” (13:1ff). 
When you compare the amount of pages that the passion stories in all of the gospels occupy, that material is proportionally greater than everything else in the gospels including Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry. The story of the “widow’s mite” abuts right up against the beginning of Mark’s telling of Jesus’ journey to the Cross. This literary structure must therefore influence our reading of it. 
Jesus not only condemns the heartless, faithless pretence of giving, he shows that unjust, self-serving religious enterprise won’t last. You could say anyone giving anything to the temple was ‘throwing their money away’ to a worthless cause. At best, we could say that the widow gives everything she has to an institution that does not deserve it. 
The only true mark of religion is how the institutional community engages the poor. Our Sunday morning worship services mean absolutely nothing if what we do here does not translate into practical life-giving, grace-abounding giving of who we are and what we have to the world out there.
This passage gives us the opportunity to explore what it means to put in everything we have on the line, and all that we are to live on as people of faith. The giving of ourselves will have power when we put our heart, and our full trust, in God who will not abandon us in this giving.
An apple tree never tastes its own fruit. The fruit is meant to be tasted by others. Martin Luther would plant an apple tree even if he knew the world would end tomorrow. The point is the gift of grace is meant to be given. Our responsibility is not the preoccupation with the final result. The temple was going to be destroyed anyway. But did that mean no one should bother giving to it?
It is worth it! We are that apple tree, producing fruit to be enjoyed by all. If we stop producing fruit, then we stop being who we are as Christians. It is the free act of giving where value and meaning is experienced.
The test of a Christian community is this: If we asked the poor for a letter of reference, would they give it to us? How welcome do all people feel here? Do all people, regardless of their station in life, feel safe to be themselves in this place? Someone once said that a church without the poor is a place God has obviously left.
Who is our neighbour? As we look to our neighbours who are vulnerable, marginal and even despised — the homeless, Aboriginals, the physically disabled, newcomers to Canada, refugees, seniors, Muslims, gays and lesbians, rich and poor: these are our neighbours. They live among us, beside us, even in the church. If we say we are welcoming, does our congregation have a letter of reference from these people?
We shall not despair! Regardless of how we interpret the widow’s offering, this bible story ultimately is not about how much we should give.
It’s about how much Jesus will soon give for a people who do not deserve it.
The story of the widow’s mite, in the end, points towards the greater sacrifice Jesus will make — Jesus, who will give his life and his all for us, a people not deserving of God’s grace yet recipients of it nonetheless.
Where does that leave us?
To be changed, to change. We read in the Bible about people who are changed in Jesus’ presence: Peter, John, Paul, just to name a few. On the road to Damascus, on the beaches of Lake Galilee, in the synagogue and temple — When people encountered Jesus, their lives changed. How can we presume, then, that we ought not be changed ourselves in the presence of a God who pays attention to every detail of our life.
As we shift our gaze outward and reach outward to pay attention to who is around us, we discover that Jesus is paying attention to us. As he sat in the temple, across from the treasury watching people come to make their offerings, so Jesus notices us — not in a ‘ready-to-pounce’ judging way. Jesus is not the cosmic policeman watching to catch us in the act. But only to bring loving light to the truth of our lives.
In the end, Jesus pays attention to the details of our lives and beckons us to journey with him to the Cross. Because no matter how good we are, or how bad, Jesus gives himself for us out of love and grace. Though we may be unworthy of God’s love, Jesus still makes the ultimate sacrifice. We, and everyone else, are still worth it — still worth God’s incredible sacrifice and love.
(1) Emilie M. Townes in Bartlett & Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 4” WJK Press, 2009, p.286

It’s ok to fall (5): God knows everything about us anyway

I don’t like being in the spotlight. Literally, too. I don’t mind being the centre of attention from time to time. But I must confess a high degree of self-consciousness, especially when I am supposed to be the sage on the stage.

I suspect many of you share my knee-jerk away from standing on a stage by myself feeling the heat of the light on my face, not being able to see anyone in the auditorium, and just knowing in the back of my brain that every little wrinkle, every little blemish, every little imperfection is exposed — fully. Are your hands sweating? Mine are, just thinking about it.

And that is why the Psalm for Lent — and often read on Ash Wednesday — is Psalm 51. “Create a clean heart in me O God and create a right spirit within me” (v.10) — we sing in our weekly offertory.  Before this petition, there is a quiet yet poignant confession, in verse 4: “Against you, you alone [O God], have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”

This, at first, may sound threatening and alarming. Yikes! God almighty has been offended by my sin! I. Am. Doomed! And there’s no hiding from God. Wow! We’re in for it, aren’t we? Never mind the friends, co-workers, family, spouse, people around me that I  have offended and hurt. They may not always easily forgive — but they’re not God! After all, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand!?” (Psalm 103:3)

Perhaps that is why we read in the Gospel for today (John 2:13-22) about Jesus snapping his whip and overturning tables in a righteous anger and prophetic impulse. This image of Jesus may leave us feeling a bit queasy. We may not like this image of Jesus. We may feel threatened by it. Uncomfortable, at very least. 

Why is Jesus angry? Jesus is angry for the injustice of the temple moneychangers taking up valuable room where the Gentiles are allowed to come and pray to God. And he is losing it, in the temple of all places! Entering the temple, Jesus discovers how deceiving appearances can be. While the place appears to fulfill its function, closer inspection reveals that the temple has forgotten its purpose.

I read this story at our mid-week bible study a couple of weeks ago, when we discussed the text of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. It is a re-telling of Dostoyevsky’s classic poem about the conversation between the Grand Inquisitor and Jesus:

“During the 16th century in Spain, at the very height of the Inquisition, Christ appeared unannounced in the streets of the city of Seville. As he went about caring for and healing the poor, the sick and the lame, the people began to recognize him and flock to him. An old Cardinal also recognized him …. and had him arrested!

That night in prison, Jesus had a visitor. The Grand Inquisitor entered his darkened cell and reprimanded Christ for appearing again and getting in the way of the Church’s work. ‘You are offered three tools to bring in your kingdom and rule the world. You were told to change stones into bread. Imagine the possibilities … bread for the hungry … people would have followed someone who fed them. But you refused! It was suggested that you throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple and let God’s angels sweep you up before you came to harm. People would have been amazed. Everyone would have followed you. But you refused! And you were offered authority and power over all the kingdoms of the world. But you refused! In all this you wanted people to follow you out of love or not at all. And look where it got you.

‘Well, we have corrected your mistakes and we’re doing well. We cannot let you hinder what we are trying to do. And so, tomorrow, you will die.’

Jesus said nothing in reply. Rather, he looked into the eyes of the Grand Inquisitor for a long time and then walked over and kissed him. Oh how that kiss burned. The Grand Inquisitor stepped aside and let Christ escape into the night, saying to his back as he left, ‘Do not come back again.'”

We may squirm in our seats, now. 

This Gospel, I believe, pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and driving us out in the name of God. What kinds of ways of doing things have gotten us stuck in a rut — in our individual lives, and in the life of the church? It’s an important question to ask. Just because Jesus is ‘our’ saviour, doesn’t means “he is perpetually well-pleased with us knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, but also to us and even, on occasion, against us.” (Paul C. Shupe, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 2 David Bartlett/Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.96)

Well, there’s one thing we do I don’t believe Jesus could get upset about — at least, one activity of the church, one way of doing things. Know what that is? The potluck meal, of course! Everyone likes a potluck! Right?

You come, bringing your own dish to add to the table. But you come, also willing to try a little bit of everything, right? That’s what makes it fun! Doing this, doesn’t mean you will necessarily like each and every dish. Tasting a bit of other people’s gifts doesn’t mean you will run home and try to make what everybody else made. And, you certainly wouldn’t be rude to the people who brought dishes you weren’t too crazy about. At the potluck we practice being generous, adventurous, compromising, and kind to the other.

The potluck is an important symbol in the history and practice of being the church; I would say a guiding image on congregational life and how to work together. Because in the potluck experience, we practice being ‘other-centred’ rather than ‘self-centred’.

This practise reflects the ‘outward’ movement of church-orientation. It may start with a potlluck. It ought to end serving those who are hungry. The ancient word for church in Greek, ‘ekklesia’, literally means: ‘a people called out’. Called out to see what God is doing ‘out there’ in the world. Called out to act.

The movement is centrifugal. It certainly isn’t ‘convenient’. Sometimes we need to be ‘thrown out’ of our self-centred preoccupations with maintaining the institution of the church and the comfort of our lives, and out into the world where God is doing something. Where there are people in need.

The cleansing of the temple — though hard it feels sometimes to be judged, to be convicted of our sin, to be honest about our true motivations — this scene ends with the sinners being thrown ‘out’. Out, into the world, in order to get a fix on what God is doing. Out in the world, in order to find God, again. Out in the world, to get back on track with what Christian faith is really all about.

The story of the cleansing of the temple as John tells it points toward replacing the material ‘bricks-and-mortar’ temple with the temple of Jesus’ body. This is a theme that is picked up later again in the fourth chapter, when he tells the woman at the well that she will no longer worship God in any particular, physical location (John 4:20-23) but in “spirit and truth.” John is painting, here, a narrative foreshadowing Christ’s death and resurrection, and its embodiment in the Holy Communion which we celebrate every week.

Maybe it’s better that it is only against God that we have sinned. Because only God can fully restore us, heal us and love us despite knowing all the dirt in our lives. I think we know that human beings don’t have a good track record of forgiveness of others. Only God, in Christ, will continually offer to us his mercy and forgiveness, knowing full well how off-the-mark we are. And, for us to know that we can always return to the Lord our God, return to the table of the Lord time and time again — in all honesty, truth and humility, to a God who will not spurn us for our faithlessness and weaknesses.

We can fall on our knees, because nothing is hidden from God, and everything we need, God gives us — and then some. Thanks be to God!

The Falling and the Rising

It is the first Sunday after Christmas. How do you navigate this ‘hangover’ time? Are you wandering now into the proverbial ‘deep valley’ after having experienced the ‘mountaintop’ of festive frivolity?

For some, the reality of the cost of gift giving has begun to sink in. Perhaps for you, your expectations were high coming into the season, only now to discover it was not what you thought it would be. For others still, the toys unwrapped on Christmas morn are already a tiresome bore, left on the shelf somewhere.

There is good reason to suggest that choristers ought to visit the nursing home with joyous carols, not before Christmas Day, but in the dog-days of late December and early January. It is this time that many of us may need a pick-me-up, more than ever. I am grateful some of you thought to organize a congregation meal together for Epiphany rather than when things are crazy in mid-December, when we are at the height of all expectation and activity.

We read in the Gospel text today, “Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many …” (Luke 2:34)

Notice the backward order of the words in the scripture — “falling and rising”. In the world, as it may be how we feel at this time of year, it’s ‘rise and fall’: The rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise and fall of the Third Reich, the rise and fall of a business tycoon, the rise and fall of a celebrity.

In Macleans magazine, they evaluate 2014 newsmakers in terms of “winners and losers” — and include the likes of famous Canadian radio host, Jian Ghomeshi, who “fell from grace”, we say, whose stardom rapidly disintegrated this Fall (Dec 8/15, Vol.127, Nos.48/49). This is the way we see the rhythm of history and what the world notices. First, one rises; then, once on top, the only way is the way down.

But with Jesus it’s the other way around. With Jesus, it’s fall and rise. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Anna fasts “night and day”, not ‘day and night’. Jesus did not fly directly up into heaven once danger flared. He suffered and died, and then was raised to glory. The movement is down, then up (Philippians 2:5-11). We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise.

You may just fall. But if you rise, it is because you have first fallen. Rising doesn’t come without falling.

If you have arisen, you would have done so rising from the ashes of defeat, failure, having come through some of the worst time of your life. If you have arisen, you would know what it means to be at ground zero. There is spiritual power and great wisdom in embracing your own vulnerability, your own limitation, your own shame, anger and fear.

There is inherent value in being open and honest about your pain — not denying it, not pretending it away, not hiding it, nor distracting ourselves from it. Because it is in facing our own ‘stuff’, even our own mortality, that we will experience the turn.

Simeon, the elder, can now be hospitable to his impending death after encountering the vulnerable, infant Jesus (Luke 2:22-40). There is no rising without first falling. Ironically, this is also the message of Easter. And this is how Christmas and Easter are indivisible: We can see it from the perspective of Mary …

Mary must have shuddered at Simeon’s words. Mysteriously he speaks of a “sword piercing her soul” (v.35). It is moving to think of Mary, feeling Jesus kick in her womb, hearing his first cry, nursing him, watching his first steps. After all, she will witness thirty years, which is telescoped into a single verse: “The child grew and became strong” (v.40). Jesus leaves home and marshals a following.

But wicked men turn against her son — who is pure, good, all love. Mary has to watch as Simeon’s prophecy is fulfilled. Her heart breaks as she sees the lifeblood she had given him drain out of his beautiful body on the Cross. The fall.

But then the rise, on Easter morn. Who, among all who witnessed Jesus risen from the dead, was more joyful to see him alive than his own mother? (thanks to James C. Howell, “Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.168, for his words and thoughts on ‘falling and rising’).

So, when we are at the bottom, how do we cope when “in the Fall”, and when we still await “the Rise”?

As I reflect about looking back over unhappy times in my own life, as I reflect on dashed expectations, disappointments and unfulfilled ‘wants’ — I wonder. I wonder if crying out for the Lord is a cry of despair, or a cry of hope? (thanks, Rev. Doug Reble, for this insight). For me, I have to confess: I would not give up on hope.

Because of Jesus. Mary and Joseph, in this part of the Christmas story, take Jesus to the temple in order to fulfill the letter of the Jewish law (Luke 2:22-24). Their diligence may raise questions for Christians who feel no obligation to the Old Testament’s laws. What is the purpose of the ‘sacrifice’ for their purification?

From a Christian faith perspective, we would say this child was in no need of any such purification. Jesus did not need to be purified. Karl Barth wonderfully wrote about Jesus’ baptism — which we shall read in a couple of weeks — that Jesus needed to be washed of sin; but not his sin, but our sin: “No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He” (cited in ibid., p.164).

No one ever came to the temple for purification as laden with sin — not his, but our sin. Jesus took it all on him. Jesus was purified, for our sake. Jesus takes it all on him — whatever burden we carry — so that we can have a new start, a fresh beginning. Therefore, we can hope.

In this coming new year, 2015, may you be blessed with hope. A hope which carries you through the weeks, months, or even years of “lonely exile” and into the peace, love, and joy promised in Jesus Christ. May your falling turn into a glorious rising, “soon and very soon”.

Because it all matters to God

Last weekend, my family visited the Biodome in Montreal. Situated right beside the Olympic Stadium, it used to house the cycling competitions during the 1976 Summer Olympics. But in recent years it was converted into four distinct and self-contained eco-systems from diverse regions in North and South America.

My favourite was the eco-system from South America, for its lush, tropical environment: humid, warm, pungent air; broad leaf palm trees; and, a host of diverse animals – crocodiles, capybaras and scarlet ibis birds.

Our nine-year-old daughter’s favourite animal is the turtle. She spent a lot of time gazing down onto the mossy ground of the rainforest where the yellow-spotted turtle made its home.

When the guide asked us if we had any questions, my daughter wondered where the baby turtles were. The guide said that it was getting more and more difficult for them to obtain babies since they were very vulnerable in that stage of life; indeed it seems that natural selection is making the turtle an extinct species.

Without their fully developed shell in which the adult turtle could retreat to hide and keep safe from predators, the infant turtles are getting far too susceptible to a premature death and more difficult to protect. Who knows? Maybe the turtle with its shelled existence is going the way of the dodo bird.

The religious people in Jesus’ day felt they were up against a formidable predator in the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Gospel of Matthew was written about the time when the Roman legions were laying siege to eventually destroy the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and fetter out any Zealots who violently opposed the occupation.

With their temple under attack, the anxious people of God were asking questions of identity and purpose: Who are we and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s holy city and temple are occupied territory? What does this say about God’s relationship with us? How does God want us to respond to this dark and murky reality of life?

This is the social and political context to which Jesus spoke, on the hillside near Capernaum overlooking the Sea of Galilee. This Gospel text (Matthew 5:13-20) forms part of the famous Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus outlined the values and purpose of the kingdom of God “that is near” (4:17).

It is a situation not completely unlike our own. When you consider the history of Christianity over the past two millennia, we find ourselves today in a similar, challenging circumstance: the institution of the church is diminished to the point of demise in many quarters. Christendom, once mighty, powerful and dominant in the western world, is relegated now in our society to the point of obscurity and irrelevance.

Many are asking those same questions: Who are we, and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s nation is “occupied” territory? How does God want us to respond to this dark and uncertain reality of life?

It is a natural instinct for many who, when under stress and pressure and the burden of fear, retreat under the shell – as a turtle does. One response to the perceived threat is to strengthen the walls between sacred and secular. Against the wiles of the crazy, dangerous world ‘out there’ we escape into our private and safe domains of home, property and religious purity. And build a fortress. But is this the right strategy? Or, does it spell, like the turtle, possible extinction?

Amidst the threats against the practice of faith in first century Palestine and twenty-first century Canada, Jesus preaches another way.

Amidst these threats, Jesus challenged Israel to be Israel, just as he challenges us to be ourselves in faith today. Jesus did not say, “You must become salt of the earth by pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Jesus did not say, “You must one day down the road when everything is perfect in the world again, or when you can somehow make yourself worthy of it, become the light.”

Jesus announced, to remind them and us: “You ARE the salt of the earth.” “You ARE the light of the world, right now, right here, in the world as it is, in your life as it is now with all its uncertainty, and in all its darkness.” We don’t have to hide nor retreat behind fortress walls. The solution is in somehow activating saltiness and brightness within us.

So, how do we do that? If there were to be only one way of doing God’s will; if there were only one way of being a Christian – then I’m not sure Jesus would talk in parables and present metaphors and images like salt and light – images open to a multitude of functions and capabilities. Jesus would just spell it out in the letter of the law.

But no. Salt and Light. It’s as if he is saying: Given all the uses of salt, and the various applications of light – how do you fit in?

When Jesus uses the image of light, he makes the point not to hide it under a bushel, but make sure everyone can see it (Matthew 5:14-16). But if others are to see the light, in what conditions do we let it shine? At the noontime of a bright, sunny day?

We will have to shine it in the darkness. After all, people don’t notice a light – whether a flashlight or candle – in the brightness of day. But at night. When all is dark. When you can’t see everything clearly. When the way is uncertain. Where shadows lengthen.

That’s where we are to go. Into places of darkness, in the world and in our own lives: Where people suffer hunger, homelessness and rejection; Where we harbor unhealthy secrets within our souls. This may not seem very religious. This activity may not be easy or make us feel good. But it is where Jesus calls us “to follow him”.

Annie Dillard writes, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.” (p.43, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, New York: Harper, 1992)

Why do we go into the darkness of the world? Why should we take these risks, and expose even our own weaknesses and vulnerability?

Because this world matters to God. All of it. Not some utopic fantasy of what it could be without all the stains of human sin splattered all over the place. But this world in all its complexities, challenges, difficulties, problems.

Just like the weeds and the wheat – what did Jesus instruct his disciples in telling that parable? (Matthew 13:24-30) – To leave the wheat and weeds together, and God will take care of separating out the two when the time comes.

This world matters to God. Our human condition matters to God. Otherwise, Jesus would not have come the way he did:

  1. Jesus appeared in the dust of first century Palestine. Often throughout the Gospels, the writers take pains to indicate the time and place of the event they are recording. For example, the Gospel of Matthew opens with a detailed account, name for name, of the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1ff). The Word became flesh. God entered humanity, in a specific time and place in history. Jesus fully embodied both human and divine. The incarnation was, and is, not some abstract notion removed from life on earth. Jesus was born into this world.
  2. When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple ripped in half (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38), symbolically abolishing the distinction between sacred and secular for all time. No longer would religious life be divided into neat categories that separated the faithful from real life, from engagement with the world as it is.
  3. In the ancient (Apostles’) creed of the church we say we believe in the “resurrection of the body”; by placing value on our own bodies in following Jesus we claim continuity between this world and the next. That means that laughing, grieving, crying, caring, walking, working, making love – doing all those things that are part of regular living in our own skin – these are all sacramental activities. These activities, Jesus preaches, are the building blocks of the kingdom of God.

The stuff of earth matters to God. And that’s why we reflect the light of Christ in the darkness of it.

By going the way of Jesus to reflect his light in a dark world, we discover a great grace: that we already have and are all that we need and God needs, to fulfill God’s purposes for us and for the world, in this time and in this place.

A public journey

In the opening scenes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on the big screen, Bilbo Baggins is faced with a momentous choice: Will he respond to the wizard Gandalf’s invitation to join the company of dwarves on an adventure? Or, will he remain safe and sound in the Shire and the comforts of his burrow?

We meet Bilbo as someone who cherishes his home. And we sympathize. We see how much he values the simple and predictable routines that give him security and peace: his regular meal times, his books, and pleasant sits on his front patio smoking a pipe looking upon the passersby. This is when Gandalf first encounters Bilbo with the invitation to join him on an important mission. Nothing comes of it, and Gandalf leaves.

Leading a rather solitary life, Bilbo is disturbed out of his comfort zone one evening soon thereafter when a company of dwarves invades his home, his cupboards and his routines in a boisterous celebration. Initially unawares of the purpose of this offensive invasion of privacy, Bilbo resents the dwarves and all their carousing, indulgence, eating and singing.

Then Gandalf appears again to put to Bilbo their need for a ‘thief’ to join their troupe in an attempt to recover the treasures of the dwarves’ lost kingdom. To comply, Bilbo must sign a contract, promising no guarantee of success or safety on this journey.

Bilbo resists this offer, turning it down flatly.  Too much risk. No guarantees of success. Too much to lose. Early in the morning, Bilbo wakes from his ‘nightmare’ to an empty house. The party is over. The lively group has just left on their journey, without him. All has returned to peace and quiet.

We watch Bilbo as he pauses amidst his seeming peace. We can only guess at the churning of his mind over the experience and invitation of the previous evening. Then, without warning, he erupts with speed and diligence, gathering only a few belongings in a bag. And runs out the door.

What finally convinced Bilbo to join in on this unexpected journey? How did Bilbo embark on this journey that would transform him from a unassuming, small hobbit into the hero of the story? What tipped the scales?

Was it Gandalf’s gentle yet persistent invitations and promptings? Was it meeting people who were real, genuine, authentic, people who would be forming his community on this journey, friends that would stand by him through thick and thin? Did he realize that in all his comfort and isolation and privacy in the Shire, he was missing something essential in life?

The Gospel from Matthew (4:12-23) reads like a grand opening of the start of Jesus’ journey, his ministry. The reading makes a broad sweep across time and scriptures to land at the disciples feet with invitation, and locate Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue at Capernaum. And there, in the synagogue the crowds came to listen to Jesus’ announce the coming kingdom of God.

Last week, from the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first question to his disciples was: “What do you seek? What are you looking for?” (John 1:38) In the Psalm for today (27:4), we read that the Psalmist seeks the Lord in his temple. Indeed, the people come to a public place for worship, to encounter truth, find peace and hear the message of love from God.

If the image of the temple, or synagogue, or church means anything to us today, it is the public gathering place for worship. Our deepest desires are met, not in isolation, but in community. Our deepest longing are satisfied not in the privacy of our individual lives, but in the public realm. It’s a bit counter-intuitive for some personalities — like it was for Bilbo who thought that his life would be complete in the safety, security and solitude of his home and hearth.

But deep down, he must have realized that there was something missing in his self-serving program for life. That his true self, his true calling and his growth as a person lay not in being by himself, but with his friends, in community, together on the ‘unexpected’ adventure of life.

I think this is part of the reason how those first disciples of Jesus were able to drop their fishing nets and follow Jesus, immediately. They knew that following Jesus would enrich their lives in ways no other self-seeking, self-centred, individualistic approach to life could do. Growth in faith is not a private enterprise, but a public expression. Faith is done together, not apart. In this way, we are assured of the eternal support and love from God through all the difficulties of life. And we grow and mature.

In the Psalm, God’s protection and support also includes being placed high upon a rock (27:5) — a vulnerable place to be, where the whole world can see you. Being a Christian and following Jesus is not just about seeking comfort nor is it about keeping things the same. Following God assumes some personal risk, no guarantees, and losing things. But the growth and transformation come about by this journey with others may very well be what we need to get through the dark times.

I was moved reading the story of “a beloved, longtime church member who was wracked with worry about his son. Sunday after Sunday the man returned to the sanctuary. When the congregation sang its hymns, he stood without a hymnal. He listened to the familiar tunes, but he had lost his voice for singing. The congregation’s alleluias felt far off.

“One Sunday he rose during the time of congregational prayer. He offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the people in those pews. He thanked his fellow churchgoers for keeping the faith when he could not, for singing hymns when he could not, for seeing the goodness of God when his eyes were too cloudy to see it.

“To be sure, his concern for his son continued. But he had begun to recognize again the source of his strength. His words were his own, but they echoed an ancient faith: God is my light and my salvation. God is the stronghold of my life. I will sing to the Lord.” (Andrew Nagy-Benson, Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 1, p.277)