God-talk

Last week in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Ottawa RedBlacks receiver Diontae Spencer set a CFL record in a game against the Hamilton Ticats for most overall yardage gained — just under 500 — in one game. His incredible feat was truly remarkable in a game where his team didn’t score any points in the first quarter.

When asked afterwards about his record-setting accomplishment, Spencer mentioned God several times. He emphasized that the praise was ultimately for God. He couldn’t have succeeded along with his team in that game without God. God was the reason and source of his victory.

Such a witness gets a lot of mileage, especially on national TV covering a professional sports league in Canada. It is true: the public, general impression of Christians is their often-exuberant witness to an all-powerful, almighty God who authors and reflects anything and everything that is glorious, successful, impressive and spectacular. This is the dominant belief and main flavour of the kind of God-talk in the public arena when it comes to Christian witness.

Years ago, a parishioner in a former parish declined my invitation to her to give a testimony of faith during a mid-week Lenten program. I knew she was struggling with some personal challenges at the time. When I asked her why she said no, especially as I recognized in her the strong gift of faith, she said she wanted to wait until things were going better in her life before sharing her faith.

While I understood her reasoning, and was mindful of the delicate situation in her life, I wondered to myself if her attitude didn’t reflect a more general disposition among Christians today. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could talk about how good your life was. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could point to external circumstances that were favourable, impressive, even enviable.

After all, how could you get up in front of people and talk about God when all was not well in your life? How could you talk about God if you had nothing impressive to show for it? More to the point, would you be giving faithful testimony to God if everything in your life was broken, damaged, failed?

Is God only mentioned when humans achieve something great? Is God only a God who wins contests on the football field and battlefield of life? Can God be talked about only among folks who have succeeded and are healthy and rich? Only when things are going super well?

Or, could God also be present and real to us when we fail, when we are down, when we lose our earthly battles? It seems to me Christians call themselves Christian because we follow the way of Christ. And so, don’t we believe in the God of the Cross? God, by all human standards, failed — being branded public enemy number one and condemned to death. Jesus’ broken body is the iconic symbol for Christians. It is precisely in the suffering of life where God finds us.

On this All Saints Sunday, we understandably focus on what human beings have accomplished: the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. Blessed are those who demonstrate the qualities we read in the Beatitudes[1] — the Gospel text for this festival in the church calendar.

“Blessed” is not the word we might associate with being poor, persecuted peacemakers especially if we use the often-translated English word, “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[2] also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in providing the first beatitude, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit.”[3] I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state.

Should we take these beatitudes as moral rules for living, as with the Law, we can never fulfill it perfectly. And therefore, we can easily despair and give up. Being on the way, however, gives the long view and big picture. It implies the need for trusting that we are headed in the right direction even if the present circumstances in our lives suggest otherwise.

What is more, as much as we want to make the Beatitudes into the Ten (or rather, Nine) Commandments of the New Testament, this speech from Jesus — given at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel — is not primarily about ‘rules for moral behaviour’ as it is facts about God. These Beatitudes really and fundamentally describe God.

Matthew’s narrative builds towards this awareness, if you can appreciate the classic reversal that Matthew sets up in the first five chapters of his Gospel:

In the first chapter, Matthew’ genealogy firmly plants Jesus “the Messiah” in the lineage of the great Israelite King David. In the second chapter, exotic magi from the East come to pay homage to the newborn king. In the third chapter, King Herod takes seriously this threat to his power and tries to eliminate a contestant to his throne by killing innocent, Hebrew two-year-old boys in Bethlehem. Then, John the Baptist comes on the scene, announcing that he was making way for one who was greater than he. Finally, Matthew has Jesus ascend a mountain where he, like his predecessor Moses, would dispense the Word of God and give his inaugural address.[4]

You can see the build-up, I hope, of an expectation that Jesus would come to bring justice to the wicked and set things right. He, the Messiah, would turn back Roman oppression and occupation of Palestine. But, these words from Jesus’ mouth announcing who is “blessed” pull the rug from under our expectations of who God is. “The one who was supposed to lead revolutionary armies or bring down heavenly fire shows up in Galilee building hospitals and telling people not to hit back.”[5]

Can you imagine the surprise and shock among his disciples! Even the imprisoned John the Baptist does a double-take on his faith and later questions Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we keep looking?”[6] It is no wonder, then, that Peter later rebukes Jesus when he talks of his impending death: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”[7]

These beatitudes must have seriously disappointed his listeners and most ardent followers who had such ‘high’ expectations of their would-be Messiah King. How could they now continue following this man?

Is the reason why we may have trouble conforming our lives to the way described in the beatitudes is that we really don’t believe in these words as giving an accurate and trustworthy understanding of God? This is, after all, Jesus, who we know was persecuted and reviled as the prophets were before him.[8]

Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed in human flesh, born a vulnerable baby to a teenage couple? Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed dying a grotesque and brutal death on a cross showing the world a bruised, beaten, broken and bloody body?

If we did, perhaps we would hear more from the losers in our society. Perhaps TSN would hear the faithful witness of locker room players talking of a God who knows how it is to lose a big game and still keep faith. Perhaps we would hear more from street people, addicts and the impoverished, vulnerable people talk of their simple yet honest faith in a God who walks with them. Perhaps we would hear more from children declare their love of a playful God who carries our burdens for us, freeing us to be who and how we are without judgement and punishment.

Perhaps we would listen more to the murmurs of our own hearts whisper the love of God for us especially when we suffer the turmoil of life. Then, I gather, the world will open its eyes to the God of grace and love.

Because they will see people who live in hope. They will see people who know they have found the right road where they find God most present in helping people who suffer loss and pain, a road on which Jesus has walked himself, a road upon which God will always first find us.

 

[1] Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV

[2] Psalm 1:1, NRSV

[3] Earl F. Palmer in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.238

[4] Allen Hilton in ibid., p.239

[5] ibid., p.239

[6] Matthew 11:3

[7] Matthew 16:22

[8] Matthew 5:11-12

The trouble tree

I borrow much of the first part of this sermon from Nancy Lynne Westfield’s thoughtful reflection — please refer to note (1) below …

Thomas Dorsey, born in 1889 in rural Georgia, was a prolific songwriter and an excellent gospel and blues musician. While a young man, Dorsey moved to Chicago and found work as a piano player in the churches as well as in clubs and playing in theatres. Struggling to support his family, Dorsey divided his time between playing in the clubs and playing in the church. After some time of turbulence, Dorsey devoted his artistry exclusively to the church.

In August of 1932, Dorsey left his pregnant wife in Chicago and traveled to be the feature soloist at a large revival meeting in St Louis. After the first night of the revival, Dorsey received a telegram that simply said, “Your wife just died.” Dorsey raced home and learned that his wife had given birth to a son before dying in childbirth.

The next day his son died as well. Dorsey buried his wife and son in the same caske. He then withdrew in sorrow and agony from his family and friends. He refused to compose or play any music for quite some time.

While still in the midst of despair, Dorsey said that as he sat in front of a piano, a feeling of peace washed through him. He heard a melody in his head that he had never heard before and began to play it on the piano. That night, Dorsey recorded this testimony while in the midst of suffering:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;

Through the storm, through the night,

Lead me on to the light;

Take my hand, precious Lord,

Lead me home.

Testimony is usually reserved for the stories that declare how God brought the faithful out of slavery into freedom, how God made a way when there was no way; how God acted to save a distressed people. We are accustomed, I think, to hearing a testimony from someone whose ‘bad times are over now’.

The peculiar words of Jesus in the Gospel text today (Luke 21:9-36), however, tell us that when we experience destruction, betrayal, and loss, we are to see these times as opportunities to testify (v.13). What kind of testimony does one give in the face of great suffering and great hatred? Not after it’s passed, but in the midst of it?

The opportunity to testify during times of destruction is, in part, the daring to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering. Great suffering changes some people and defeats others. What distinguishes a Christian from others is not the difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances we must all face in this life. It is the nature of how we respond to that suffering. For those who endure with hope and not despair — their very souls are gained.

Suffering provides an opportunity for those who have been changed to tell of their hope. Howard Thurman, brilliant African American theologian, has seen suffering change people. He writes, “Into their faces come a subtle radiance and a settled serenity; into their relationships a vital generosity that opens the sealed down doors of the heart in all who are encountered along the way.” (1)

The tragic events in Thomas Dorsey’s life put him down, for sure. But not out. How one responds to adversity is what marks a person’s character and resilience. I read recently that employers today are not interested in whether or not a candidate has experienced failure in a particular line of work. But how that candidate responded to that failure. (2)

Hope is not born out of some escape or distraction into flights of fancy. Hope is not something we feel after good things happen in life or after we get more and more stuff. Rather, hope is expressed amidst personal loss and failure and suffering. In Jesus’ vision of the ‘end time’ in Luke, dramatic and tragic events in life are simply a required stage-setting for the great drama of speaking God’s truth.

How do we “speak” God’s truth? How do express that hope and faith? “Testifying” is not only a verbal act. Bearing witness and testifying to hope and truth is also something we do. When Martin Luther was confronted with the prospect of the final judgement and the end of time, how did he respond? With an action — that he would still go out and plant a tree. In our hope-filled actions, we live into the reality of God’s kingdom, which God promises.

In the 21st chapter, Luke makes clear that war is not the way the world will end. Fear and uncertainty are not the end either. The world will not end with truth’s impersonators. Yes, peace will be disrupted and we will feel like our security has been shaken. But these ‘signs’ are not the end. (3) These are just means to an end, so to speak.

What is at the ‘end’ is our testimony, our witness in the world, our lives of action in faith, hope and love in relationships with others. Our testimony will come out of turbulence, destruction and suffering. God’s kingdom is born from the testimony of the faithful. What we do and what we say out there in our daily lives matter. Especially in the midst of difficult times.

I received an email this week about our need for trees. Yes, trees. You may receive this as a plug for one of the 2017/500th anniversary Reformation challenges to plant 500,000 trees. This story does, nevertheless, point to the desperate need, I think we all share, for doing things for the sake of faith, hope and love into a better future in the Kingdom of God:

A plumber was helping restore an old farmhouse for a friend. He had just finished a rough first day on the job: a flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric drill quit and his ancient one tonne truck refused to start.

While his friend drove him home, he sat in stony silence. On arriving, the plumber invited his friend in to meet his family. As they walked toward the front door, the plumber paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands.

 When opening the door he underwent an amazing transformation. His face was wreathed in smiles and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss.

 Afterward he walked his friend to the car. They passed the tree and the friend’s curiosity got the better of him. And so he asked the plumber about what he had seen him do earlier.

 ‘Oh, that’s my trouble tree,’ he replied ‘I know I can’t help having troubles on the job. But one thing’s for sure: those troubles don’t belong in the house with my wife and the children. So I just hang them up on the tree every night when I come home and ask God to take care of them. Then in the morning I pick them up again.

‘Funny thing is,’ he smiled,’ when I come out in the morning to pick ’em up, there aren’t nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.’

It starts in our lives and in our closest relationships — with ourselves, with God, and with others. Hope then moves outwards in acts of creativity, acts of kindness, generosity and forgiveness. May this Advent season lead us to a hope-filled celebration for all, at the coming of our Lord.

(1) in Nancy Lynne Westfield in David Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor & Kimberly Bracken Long, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, 2014, p.17-19

(2)  Barbara Moses, “What Next” 2nd edition, DK Canada, 2009, p.241

(3) Patrick J. Wilson, “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion”, ibid., p.22-24