Easter: Jesus on the loose, now!

A mother was putting her young, eight-year-old girl to bed one night. The girl, accustomed to saying her prayers as part of her bedtime ritual, said to her Mom:

“I want to die so I can see Jesus.”

Taken aback, the mother realized in that moment that everything her daughter had heard to that point about Jesus was about eternal life — how Jesus came to earth to save us from our sins so that after we die we will go to heaven. 

No wonder the girl, who had faith, thought that the only way to see Jesus was to die first.

Quick thinking, the mother put her hand in her child’s, looked her in the eye and said, “Jesus is alive. Jesus lives in you and in me. If you want to see Jesus, look for him in the people you meet in the church, in your school and wherever we go. If you want to see Jesus, sweet child, just open your eyes. And live your life!”

Jesus is alive, today. Right now. That is the message of Easter. And the foundation of our faith as Christians.
A few weeks ago the Jewish Rabbi who met with our confirmation class answered a question about who he thought Jesus was. His answer made me think. He said, “Jesus was and is a very important and significant person for Christians.”

I wondered if someone asked me, “Who is Jesus?”, what would I say? I think my first response would be: “Jesus is alive.” Not dead. Not just a great teacher who walked the earth over two thousand years ago and died a criminal on a cross outside Jerusalem. Not just a healer of the sick and prophet who spoke God’s good news to the people of his time. All those things, yes. But more. So much more.

You notice the traditional Easter acclamation is NOT: “Alleluia! Christ was risen! He was risen indeed! Allelulia!” He IS risen!

When we come to worship God, we are not just praising a man from the past, studying an important historical figure, or reading a great story from history. We are not just about being a bunch of ‘talking heads’ who like to debate religion, theology and doctrine, but go on living as if nothing really needs to change in our lives in this world, today. 

We cannot turn this great story of Jesus’ death and resurrection into a platitude that just makes us feel good on a holiday long weekend in Spring. There’s too much at stake. The Easter proclamation means something for our lives today. Our job is no different from the first disciples who met the risen Jesus.

Jesus, outside the garden tomb, had to shift Mary’s focus away from the past to the future. After calling Mary’s name, Jesus rebuffs Mary’s attempt to ‘hold on’ to Jesus as if he were the same as before he died (John 20:17). In that encounter with Jesus, Mary learns from her Teacher that she is being caught up into a larger drama that includes not only Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also his ascension — and beyond!

In other words, Mary learns that this is not merely a story about the re-union of friends with tears and hugs all around, case solved. It is about ultimate destinies: (1) Jesus’ and Mary’s — and the disciples’ destinies too. The story has not concluded; it is still unfolding. She must relate that to the rest of the disciples. Her story, and Jesus’ story, his experience and hers, cannot be anchored in the past. The story of Jesus, then and now, must move on.

That’s where our sights are focused on Easter morning. Where are we going? Where are you going, in your faith? The promise of new life in Christ Jesus means something special for you, now. It means something very special for the church, today. To live out of the Easter message, we must look forward, to where the risen Jesus awaits our following.

It seems so many people these days are reading Rumi, the great 13th century Sufi poet. Sufi described an image of a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into billions of pieces of glass strewn all across the face of the earth. Everybody took a piece of it, and thought at first they had the Truth — the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.

Let’s imagine that each shard represents a unique reflection of God’s being, God’s will, God’s presence. Let’s imagine that each piece of glass represents one who has faith. Each piece of glass reflects the beauty and light of God’s creation, manifest in the individual person or congregation — however you want to look at it.

God is, over time, restoring all the pieces back into wholeness, into the original mirror. God also seeks our cooperation in mending what has been divided. 

We are like that little girl who wants to see the face of Jesus. And is learning that we don’t have to wait until we die, to experience a fullness of the Lord’s presence. Using the words of the Apostle Paul, We may see as in a mirror dimly while we live on earth (1 Cor 13:12), for sure. But slowly, surely, God is also already at work reflecting the love, the light and presence of the living Christ in each and everyone one of us. Who in gospels was not changed after encountering the Lord?

We are, as Paul also describes, the “Body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27), on earth. The tradition of Christianity since the Resurrection of the Lord has claimed that the church together is the Body of the Living Jesus. We are the living representation of Jesus on earth. As Martin Luther stated, in our baptism we are “little Christs”. 

Jesus is on the loose! Jesus can show up as a cashier in the grocery store, the young man who changes the oil in our car, a coworker in the office, our doctor, a good friend or even our spouse, child or grandchild. You may even find him looking back at you in your bathroom mirror! (2)

Paul concludes, “All of us … are being transformed” (2 Cor 3:18). God is already at work, in the power of the resurrection, healing what has been broken, bringing together what has been divided, restoring to completion a glorious transformation of our very lives. This is our hope. This is our Easter joy.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!


(1) Gregory A. Robbins & Nancy Claire Pittman in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2009, p.377

(2) Sr Bernadette Gautreau, “Jesus is Loose!” in Holy Week Reflections 2016 published by On Eagle’s Wings, p.9

Questioning for the truth

Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (John 18:34)

Well over a hundred times in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) Jesus asks a question. Jesus, the Teacher, does not give answers as much as he asks the right question.

And the question aims to reveal the truth. Good teachers will ask questions. And those who learn, who follow, will appreciate the importance of understanding the question.

Laurence Freeman tells of a time in his youth when he struggled with math in school. Finally he and some of his friends went to a bookstore in London, England, and found a copy of the math textbook they were using in class. The teacher’s edition had all the answers in the back.

Overnight, his marks shot up. Succeeding in math was no longer a problem. But the problem was that even though he had all the right answers, he still didn’t understand the questions. He was no better off in learning anything.

As people of faith living in this time of history, are we not so preoccupied with finding the right answers? We want answers to questions about ordinary life as much as the biggies — life after death, the nature of God, the final judgement, the end times, who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. We want answers. And, we will be satisfied only with right answers.

And yet, the point of the Christian life is to understand what is behind the question. Jesus uncovers the truth by helping others understand what the questions mean. We ought to appreciate this, since Jesus often “answered” a question by asking another question, as is the case in this trail scene with Pilate.

What is Jesus getting at with Pilate? In truth, as many have indicated, this scene might better be called “Pilate on trial”. Pilate, though supposedly in control, is completely trapped in fear. Pilate’s line of questioning betrays his his true goals. And his captivity.

These days it is common to speak of defining one’s values and clarifying one’s goals in life. Othersie we drift, rudderless. Without setting goals we become guilty of living LBWA (Life By Wandering Around). Or, without taking the effort and time to articulate values and goals, we become subject to “the tyranny of the immediate” and react to events rather than doing that which is most meaningful to us. Being honest and open with our values and deepest desires is not an easy task. Yet honestly living out of our deepest held values makes us more authentic and real. (1)

Pilate’s true goals? Being honest could not be the true goal of Pilate. Rather, staying in power had to be his aim. Authenticity would have to be thrown out the window. He questioned Jesus to find a technicality on which to condemn Jesus — in order to appease the crowd and religious leaders. “So, you are a king?” is a question designed to catch Jesus in a capital offense.

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus asks. Is Pilate not bound in his effort to stay in control? Is that not Pilate’s real goal, regardless of the cost — to stay in control of his life ‘as is’? Pilate is trapped. I have the feeling Pilate has to hide his true convictions, his honest questions, and his haunting fears. Jesus sees right through the smoke and mirrors.

There, before Pilate, Jesus seeks to encounter the real Pilate, the one who in truth is utterly trapped in his desperate effort to stay in control. There, Jesus gives himself to be with the true person who is Pilate. There, Jesus invites Pilate to be vulnerable, transparent, to share how it is with him, to utter the truth of his own life. (2)

My uncle living in Poland tells of a time at the end of the Second World War when the Soviets established control over Eastern Europe. My uncle, a German by origin, felt trapped. Caring for his wife and two young girls in an economically depressed part of Europe, he faced a significant decision to ‘prove’ himself: He could either reject the offer to become a card-holding member of the Communist party — which would be consistent with his beliefs — but face the potentially dire consequences. Or, as it turned out to be, he ‘paid his dues’ and became officially a Communist.

I remember he spoke to me years ago about how difficult that was. On Sundays he would sneak in and out of church through a back door to avoid scrutiny by the authorities. He and his family enjoyed the security and material benefits of his decision. Yet, on a deeper level he never felt entirely at ease with his decision, living a double life.

I share this not to condemn my uncle. In the same breath I sympathize with Pilate. I would struggle with and probably make similar decisions if I were in their shoes. My point is that living the truth is not an easy, simplistic reality in our world.

In our encounter with the living Lord and King, Jesus Christ, we are invited nevertheless to strive for the truth. We are invited to be authentic, transparent, vulnerable. We are invited to share the utter truth of our lives with one another in the church — the Body of Christ. We are called to face the truth about our lives, the truth Jesus holds up before us. We must look at what is right and what is wrong in our actions and attitudes towards others and within ourselves. As Emilie Townes puts it, we must “look deeply into who we are and what we have become, to try to live into what we can and should be.” (3)

I agree with those who say that people are leaving the church today not because they reject the teaching of Jesus. They are leaving the church because of the actions of those in the church. The problem is not what we say we believe. Truth is not simply born out of an intellectual discourse and debate. The problem is the actions — or lack thereof — that are supposed to flow from what we say we believe, into every dark corner of our lives.

Is not the truth Jesus wants us to see, what we are doing with our lives? Our behaviour? What we say to others? Our decisions? Is it possible to speak of truth as something that is done, rather than something that is merely believed or thought of?

We therefore challenge ourselves to look beyond what we think, to the truth found in God, as represented by Jesus. Jesus encounters us daily to help uncover the deeper truth of our lives, and invites us to speak and act authentically out of that truth which is larger than any of us individually. Our encounter with Jesus pulls us out of our self-centredness into that expansive, eternal realm that is the kingdom of God. And we act, beginning in our lives on earth according to the values of the Reign of Christ.

“Everyone who belongs to truth listens to my voice,” says Jesus to Pilate. Even to Pilate Jesus offers to be the good shepherd – the good shepherding king – who, when his sheep listen to his voice, are led into abundant life. (John 10)

God the creator is love and grace. The truth of God comes from beyond our hypocrisy and failures. The truth of God comes from outside of our sordid and mis-guided attempts to act accordingly. The truth of God comes from a divine heart that is willing to put Jesus’ life on the line, for us. Jesus giving of his whole life for our sake speaks of an ultimate action, despite ours, that is all love, forgiveness and grace.

This truth can help us sort through all that competes in life for our attention and energy. We may encounter truth as a challenge from God. But it is also a gift God gives to us through infinite love and grace.

(1) Paul R. Trimm, “Successful Self-Management; Increasing Your Personal Effectiveness” Revised Edition, Logical Operations, 2015, p.14-19

(2) Pete Peery in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 4, WJK Press, 2009, p.333-337

(3) ibid., p.336

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The virus of perfectionism & the healing acme of God’s love

I remember at the conclusion of my qualifying exam as a seminarian seeking a call to serve as a pastor of a church, the lead examiner made only one suggestion.

Sitting before the bishop and an examining committee for over an hour –  hearing me answer questions about church doctrine, dealing with conflict, upholding the Gospel in a pluralistic society, defining God’s mission, etc. – I remember being taken aback with their summarizing statements at the end of it all:

They said, essentially: “From the sounds of it, Martin, you will have to work on one thing. And this may cause you problems down the road if you don’t navigate this issue well. So this is what you will have to practice, right from the start …

“The first time you lead worship one Sunday morning as a pastor of that congregation, when you notice the paraments on the altar are crooked, or not hanging in a symmetrically-perfect fashion, resist at all costs the urge to correct it.”

Here I was all concerned about issues of theological integrity, confessional adherence, denominational survival and biblical interpretation of controversial proportions – and what the leadership of the church was most concerned about was not what I believed so much, but how I, a future pastor, would exercise my leadership among the people of God.

At first, I was convinced they were missing the point. But the more I reflected on this and the more mileage I clocked over the years in pastoral leadership, I came to appreciate very much their advice. Perfectionism is like a virus, and can lead to many bad things not only in leadership but in the practice of faith:

Perfectionism is why I give up too quickly on many a handy-man project at home whenever it doesn’t work out the way I expect it to. Applied to a life of faith, perfectionism, I have discovered, leads only to discouragement, depression and a low self-esteem. Perfectionism, closely related to the need to please others, places undue pressure and unhealthy stress on our lives. Perfectionism makes religion out of following a bunch of rules. Perfectionism keeps us stuck in negative, self-depreciating cycles of thinking.

Have you, too, caught the perfectionism bug? Laurence Freeman, recipient of the Order of Canada a couple of years ago, said that his greatest success in life was to learn that his failures were more important than his successes (audio, “The Virus of Perfectionism”, http://www.meditatio.ca). I am certain his comments reflect the testimonies of many successful business people and those who are at the top of their fields who confess that the most important ingredient in achieving success is the long list of the failures that preceded it.

And then we confront a text like we read today (Matthew 5:48) when Jesus says: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What are we to make of that? Does God want us to be perfect, and avoid all possibility of failure, at all costs?

I think we have to be very careful in our understanding of this word, as we practice our faith, day to day. As I have struggled with perfectionism I have come to appreciate the flip-side of this coin:

It is born deep within the human soul to want things to be right, proper, good. We are, after all, created in God’s image. And part of this reflection manifested in each other is to seek God’s glory – which is beautiful, holy, perfect, right – full of dignity and yes, perfection.

So, we ought not repress nor deny this natural yearning within our very being. But what is the difference between acknowledging and celebrating this longing deep within us, and falling into the trap of perfectionism?

“Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I suspect we get hung up on the first part of that sentence all too often; but maybe it would do us well to start with the second half of that sentence.

How is God ‘perfect’? We know from the Gospel that should we want to understand God the Father, we need first to look at Jesus (John 14:7). So, what kind of perfectionism – if we can call it that – did Jesus demonstrate?

When folks ask me: “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” I approach the question of the atonement in this way: Is there a better way for God to demonstrate God’s absolute and steadfast love for us than by laying down his life for us (John 10:11) – by letting go and giving up that which is most precious to us all? If anything, Jesus’ death proves to us God’s unyielding, uncompromising and unconditional love for each one of us, in a way to which we could humanly relate.

And second, is there a better way for God to demonstrate absolute power over death and Satan for all time, than by God becoming completely vulnerable through Jesus to the consequences of that evil on earth – which was the unjust condemning of an innocent person to death?

Yes, Jesus could have walked away from Jerusalem. Yes, Jesus could have called down the forces of heaven to save him from the Cross and pound the devil to pulp before our very eyes. That might be a more satisfying approach. But that would have been playing the earthly game; that would have been playing by the rules of the forces of evil: force for force, might for might. Who comes out on top?

But Jesus chose to pull the rug out from under Satan’s legs. Jesus chose to limit his divine self (Philippians 2:5-11) in human form, and to suffer and die as a human completely vulnerable to an unjust evil. If anything, Jesus’ resurrection proves to us God’s absolute power for all time over death and the devil.

My favourite part of Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”, is the last ten seconds of what feels like a very long movie: When Satan realizes, in agony, for the first time how he has been defeated. Now, that’s a perfect ending to a really graphic presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death.

That’s why Jesus died on the cross. To show us how perfect God is, in God’s love for us. We can’t do it perfectly; we will always miss the mark to some extent. But God is “perfect” love (1 John 4).

God’s love (hesed in Hebrew) is steadfast and unbounding, even to the point of complete vulnerability, letting go – for our sake and for all people. Jesus showed us the way of everlasting life for every human being of every time and every place. He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

The way of Jesus is the way to wholeness, completeness, in God’s eternal love, regardless of any and all human divisions within us and out there.

It’s not an easy way, to follow this perfect love. This way of Jesus doesn’t follow earthly rules of power plays, obsessive self-preservation and competitive perfectionism. Saint Paul prayed that God take away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Presumably Paul asked for this so that he could be better at his job preaching the Gospel of Jesus. But God’s answer would nip Paul’s perfectionism in the bud. God’s answer was, ‘no.’

In fact, Paul’s weakness would be a far more effective way of showing God’s power. What would appear as ‘foolishness’ in the eyes of the world, would in truth be an effective witness to God’s power and God’s love, through Paul’s weakness.

God does not want us to be perfect. Because God does not want us to give up. God does not want us to give up on the journey of faith, no matter how difficult or how unpopular it may become at times. God just wants us to be faithful – to stay on the path, to doing what we can – not out of perfectionistic motivations but out of the heart of God’s love and power working through our imperfection.

And I think God wants us to be vulnerable to one another; that we are not afraid of showing and confessing our weaknesses, our shortcomings and our failures to one another. In the church, we don’t have to wear masks of perfectionism. We are, after all, broken people. That is the truth. But Jesus’ body, too, was broken, for the love of the world. And what is the church, but the Body of Christ?

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can find wholeness, healing, on our journey that begins now on earth and finds completion, perfection, in the world to come.

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can share the truth of God’s love to all people, effectively, genuinely and authentically.

Thank you, Jesus, for accepting us in your perfect love. Amen.

On the path of hardship tempered with grace

I suspect that some of you really like John the Baptist, while others would feel intimidated and back off from his forceful energy. Similar to the way two very different recruits into the Canadian Armed Forces reacted during the first days of regular duty.

A friend from Petawawa who is a sergeant and has put many years in the Forces told me last week how very differently some personalities react to his dissing of discipline. When boots aren’t polished, collars not ironed, and back-packs not kitted properly, he would lean in on the rookies and set them straight.

The one young recruit began to well up in tears when my friend started criticizing him for not being prepared. The other, being disciplined for the same problem, smiled, and was energized by the confrontation: “Wow, this is just like the movies, when the sergeant major yells at the recruits, spitting inches from the other’s face, turning the air blue!” Just loving it! The first recruit didn’t last long in the army. The other, was spurred on and challenged through his mistakes, to have a successful career.

John the Baptist is the ultimate reality check for Christianity. In the best of the prophetic tradition, he epitomizes the no-nonsense, truth-telling, going-for-the-jugular style not often associated with a more sanitized approach to religion.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you want religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Is this how you feel about belonging to the church today? Many stand in the line of John the Baptist tradition. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon — influential theologians of the last century wrote: “There is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring, and offensive people into ministry” (p.45 Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 1). What do you think about that? Would you like that?

John the Baptist’s hard words to the religious leaders of the day call them to repentance. Judgment underscores the tenor of this text assigned for Advent. And that’s why some of us would rather read scriptures and sing songs about sheep softly grazing in fields during these weeks leading to Christmas. Because you may know people in your life who have been hurt by the judgment of others — many of those doing the judging from the church. Even as we in the church have been warned NOT to judge others (Romans 14).

God calls ALL of us to fall on our knees, confess and repent — especially those of in the church.

The original Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally means — “moving beyond the mind.” We need to have a change of mind as much as a change of our heart. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” argues Saint Paul (Romans 12:2). He goes on to say that this change of our mind would happen, “so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable …” Our changed minds, our renewed way of thinking about things, will then affect how we behave.

“Moving beyond the mind” means that we need, at first, to have our fundamental assumptions questioned. Fundamental assumptions about God and the ways of God in the world. Is it true that we don’t have to do anything more in the church because we were baptized and confirmed here and our grandparents and great-grandparents were Lutheran? Is it true that God hates us and is only out there to catch us breaking a rule in order to punish us?

John the Baptist might have a field day in the Christian church today. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that only makes sense when embraced in the desert, in the wilderness of our lives. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we have learned to weep at our faults and let go. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we are called out of our complacency, selfishness, and self-righteousness to a greater cause, a greater good.

Barbara Marshall wrote this prayer poem cited in an Advent devotional for the season (Lutherans Connect); in it she describes the times of her life when she was truly invigorated, motivated and inspired in faith:

“… It was never the turbulent waters that raged and tore through my life that left me floundering, helpless adrift in the surging tide. But rather the lulling beauty and lure of familiar shores that fashioned my days with indifferent thought and compelled me to stay where I was. So, Father, give me a yearning for the valleys shadowed and steep, for deserts that breathe their fire and dust, for waves that crash at my feet. And surely then I’ll accomplish much …when inspiration is fueled on the path of hardship tempered with grace.”

So you can see why I suggest that nostalgia may be a great enemy of Christianity. For it keeps us stuck in apathy and inaction. But, ironically, looking to the past is an essential ingredient in faithful living. John the Baptist himself quotes directly from Isaiah when preaching his sermon: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight …” (40:3). In writing about John the Baptist, the Gospel writer Matthew uses descriptive words right out of the Hebrew Scriptures originally describing the prophet Elijah who was “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8). John the Baptist may breathe fire into a soppy nostalgic faith — but he certainly doesn’t dismiss the past.

Remembering the past is important. But there’s a difference between nostalgia and remembering. Biblical commentator David Bartlett writes that “nostalgia is memory filtered through disproportionate emotion. Faith is memory filtered through appropriate gratitude” (p.48, Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 1). In Advent we re-member, we reconnect. The word “religion” literally means to re-unite, re-align, ourselves out of isolation and into a holy union. In Advent when we remember, we embrace the good God has been and done for us in our past. In Advent we remember, together, as a family, as a church, as a community — what God has done for us in Jesus. We do this remembering at the Table — we remember that in the night in which he was betrayed …. We do this remembering singing out loud together our seasonal songs so precious to us.

We pray. We sing. We remember. Doing this, NOT to a disproportionate emotional longing for a time gone by. No. But rather, to embrace an occasion for re-affirming the good God has done for you in the history of your life, and to affirm our on-going hope and belief that God does care about us and our behavior this season, and beyond.

This Advent, know that we are cherished by God not only for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do. This is good news, because if God does not care about what I do, I may begin to question whether God actually cares about me. If God loves me enough to welcome me into the family, then God loves me enough to expect something of me.

“One December afternoon … a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the ‘surprise’, the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The ‘surprise’ flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash. The child … began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, ‘Now, that’s all right, son. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.’ But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, swept the boy into her arms and said, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal.’ And she wept with her son.”

It does matter to God. God is that mother who embraces us when we weep after making a big mistake and mess up. God doesn’t punish us, but rather holds us, and cries with us.

Perhaps the church can give up on judgment, but we cannot give up on responsibility. We can continue remembering and being faithful to our calling in Christ, especially in the desert, because we know God does care for each of us.

So, let’s sing on and re-member!

Your Word is true, on letting go

When I spent a year in Germany during my seminary days, I struggled in the first half of that year with feelings of being lost, without guidance, and without my usual supports in place. I was lonely: For the first time in my life, I wasn’t able to rely on my parents, and I didn’t have my twin brother close by to share a life experience. I felt depressed, rudderless, cut off, a ship floating aimlessly in the stormy ocean.

I was reminded of this turbulent time in my life after reading the Gospel text (Luke 21:5-19) for today. Jesus points to those external ‘structures’ in the lives of his disciples, structures that they have come to depend on for guidance, for a sense of purpose and identity – and tells them basically that they will crumble, that they will have to learn to do without the usual dependencies, that they will have to ‘lose’ these. They will be no more.

First, it’s the massive and impressive temple that Herod was building, adorned with decorations; the temple presented a glorious architectural masterpiece to the world. At the end of the text, Jesus mentions family – even those closest to us will be cut off from the path we are on. There is a profound losing that imbues this scripture today, not unlike what the Israelites had to experience when they were exiled from their land, their homes, their precious Jerusalem temple, some five hundred years before Christ. It is a pattern that is repeating again.

The first part in the path of faith – of true spirituality – is one of letting go, of releasing, of surrendering. If anyone has experienced even a margin of what that means, it’s never easy. It’s hard, especially when for most of your life you’ve placed so much energy and invested your emotions and stability in a building, a place, a person, a family – and then you have lose it.

Luke wrote this story in the Gospel some forty years after the life of Jesus. Remember, all of what we read in the Bible was for the longest time first shared by word of mouth – stories told to the community and from generation to generation. In the latter half of the first century A.D. these told stories about Jesus began to be written down in the form we see them today.

It’s important for me to mention this because Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed actually happened. In about 70 A.D. the Roman armies laid siege to Jerusalem to try to subdue the radical Jewish insurrection who were rebelling against Roman occupation of their land. The victorious Romans eventually toppled the impressive stone walls of the temple, leaving only what we see today – the famous western wall, or the “Wailing Wall”.

All this is to say, that Luke wrote these words of Jesus at a time when the rebellion was reaching its peak: “… the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” These written words carried extra emotional weight, it would seem to me, to those who first received them in the late first century. Because it was actually happening.

Early Christians were encouraged to trust Jesus, because what Jesus says is true! What Jesus promises will come to pass. This truth is consistent with the tradition of earlier scriptures, first echoed in the poetry emerging from the exile – “The grass withers, the flower fades – but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:7-8).

Though the path is full of suffering, one thing remains: the presence and purpose of God. This may give us a clue as to the meaning of Jesus’ closing words in the text: “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Some translations have it, “by your patience”.

Since I opened with a personal story from my seminary days, I’ll bring here another story I heard from a seminary class studying ‘the end times’. For you to get this story, I need to remind you of how a liturgical church, such as ours, organizes our reading of the Bible. We follow a lectionary, which means that there are assigned readings not only for every Sunday of the year but for every day, even. You can find these assigned readings at the front of our worship books. The point is, after a three year cycle of following this ‘lectionary’, we will have basically read through the whole Bible.

So, these seminary students were engaged in a discussion of what Bible text they would choose if they had reason to believe that this was the Final Day. Some suggested John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Others suggested Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want, even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil …” Still others suggested the very last verses of the Bible from Revelation 22:20-21 – “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus (Maranatha). The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the Saints. Amen!’”

But, the winning suggestion was – “I would preach on whatever Bible lesson was appointed as the Gospel for the day.”

A homeowner hired a gardener to plant a certain kind of tree. “But that kind of tree takes many years to mature,” the gardener protested. “Then get started with the planting,” the homeowner replied. “You do not have a moment to lose.”

If the first difficult part of the path of faith is surrendering, letting go, not identifying any longer with those structures on which we have come to depend heavily, the second part is the motivation to endure in the regular, daily task. It is full of promise, and new life.

Because those endings and beginnings in Christ are not our doing. We do not control our destiny, contrary to what so much of our culture preaches. We are called only to be faithful in our daily service, doing that which is set before us this day. We don’t know exactly how things will turn out. But we can take the risk and take the first step because we have the true promise of God:

Being aware of God’s faithfulness to us, being assured in the Word that what Jesus promises is true, we can be buoyed by a vibrant hope on the stormy ocean of life. We live every day as if it were the last, doing all that we can, doing the right thing, in the moment. And we cling to the assurance that God will not only do the rest, but much, much more!

In the last few months of my year abroad in Germany, I finally found my stride. Maybe it was because I knew ‘the end’ was coming; my time in Germany was coming to an end, and soon and very soon I would be returning home. Being aware of and confident in my returning home coming closer with each passing day, I was able to enjoy and fully enter each moment: I travelled with my friends, visited my families in Poland and Germany, breathed the air deeply, and went about finishing the tasks set before me.

In engaging my life fully, doing what I was called to do there – even though it wasn’t always easy – I now remember that time as one of those crucial, pivotal and cherished learning moments of my life. For, a true letting go yielded a wondrous new beginning.

Playing in Marriage

Philippians 4:4-9 / Isaiah 43:1-5a, 18-19

Whether it is soccer, or ballroom dancing, or dragon boating, or whitewater rafting –  is your marriage characterized with ‘play’?

I would say, this is a good thing. For each of you. And for the health of your marriage.

Given the way the institution of marriage has suffered some in recent decades, for me to stand here today to suggest we need to be more playful in our marriages may seem, at first, counterintuitive.

After all, this is serious business. Relationships are not something to be taken lightly. Marriage, in some religious traditions, is a sacrament. It is holy, godly, and to be held in the highest esteem.

We may be driven to feel guilty, then, when nothing short of perfection describes any partnership – especially one tagged by ‘marriage’.

Is it any doubt, then, why marriage is not looked upon anymore with the beauty and joy it deserves — for those who consider following its adventurous path?

So, it lands on us who are married, and getting married, to bear witness to its joy. And you have already done that for us.

But sometimes playing can be dangerous. Especially for those of us passing middle age. My sister-in-law warned me last year not to play soccer. Why? She claimed that she didn’t know anyone in their forties who played soccer who hadn’t seriously hurt themselves – a sprained knee, twisted ankle, even worse – broken bones. And, come to think of it, she’s right. Yup, she scared me out of it.

I suppose that’s one way of responding to any opportunity. We may dwell on the risks, fearing the rough and tumble realities associated with anything potentially good in life. And avoid it, pretending we can somehow go through life unscathed.

But is that even possible? And, will that way of responding to life bring joy and a deep, meaningful satisfaction to our lives?

I read recently about mountain goats who bound playfully along rock faces thousands of feet high. It is very clear that they, especially the younger ones, are playing. But the truth is, sometimes they fall. Mama mountain goat must be saying: “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”

You’d think that over time, these mountain goats would learn their lesson and stop dancing on cliff edges centimeters from their doom. Stop it, already! But they don’t. It is in their nature to play.

Scientists have speculated and studied this paradoxical characteristic of animals. And they have concluded that even though playing is potentially dangerous, it is still necessary. It is necessary because, for one thing, playing is practice for skills needed in the future (Stuart Brown, Play, 2009). An attitude of playfulness is necessary not only for our survival, but our health, our creativity, and building up a resiliency for later in life when challenges and difficulties escalate.

A healthy marriage is not supposed to be always sugar-sweet. There are times when difficulties, challenges and disappointments will arise in the relationship. Playing is dangerous, sometimes. But it also provides a way for learning how to deal with what may come down the road.

The most beneficial play, they say, is playing with another. It is with another person that we discover our true self. It is caring for another, seeing to their needs, forgiving another and being forgiven in which find our stride, personally and spiritually.

God knew this about us. That is why we are created the way we are: To be together; to cry together; to laugh together; to play together. It won’t always be easy; sometimes we get hurt. But that’s reality. And it’s worth the effort!

I suspect you two have already experienced how that feels, because you play together. And you give space for each other to enjoy each other’s company and explore further goals and aspirations.

May God bless you this day, and in the time to come. Play on!