Mistaken identity

This morning I preach at Merrickville (Ontario) United Church, as part of a pulpit exchange. Today Merrickville United Church celebrates its annual Anniversary Sunday.

Thank you for welcoming me to speak at your anniversary Sunday celebration. Anniversaries are about celebrating who we are. These are occasions for affirming our identity. So, let me introduce myself to you so that you may have some idea and experience of who I am.

Questions of identity are important to me. I have an identical twin brother who is also a Lutheran pastor. What is more, my brother and I are twin sons of parents who are both also (retired) Lutheran pastors in the same Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Challenges around mistaken identity have followed me all my life! Which Malina are we talking about?! That is why who I am and how different I am from my rather homogenous nuclear family is an important part of my personal journey.

Another level of mistaken identity in my life revolves around the church to which I belong. Your pastor told you, I suspect, that you were going to have a preacher from the “Evangelical Lutheran Church” visit you today. I wonder how many of you thought you would be getting a shellacking from a hard-core conservative, fundamentalist preacher. The word that likely derailed you was ‘evangelical’.

Over a month ago after Billy Graham Sr. died, the local Ottawa CBC morning radio host called me to say they wanted to have an ‘evangelical’ represent the views of Billy Graham in a live discussion panel the next day. The reason she called me was that the name of the parish I am pastor of is called “Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church.” She assumed that the same word meant the same thing. I had to steer her in another direction.

Because for Lutherans, we use the word evangelical from its German roots, ‘evangelische’. The meaning here, is ‘Good News!’. Unfortunately, in North America the word evangelical has been coopted by conservative fundamentalism. You can breathe more easily now!

Indeed, it is the focus of the word Good News (Gospel) that can summarize the purpose of Lutheran preaching, in a nutshell. We are all about proclaiming what is good news to the world today. Lutherans traditionally use the concept of ‘law’ as a counterpoint to understand better where we fall short, and why we yearn and seek God’s grace, forgiveness and love.

In the Gospel reading for today, from Mark, Jesus breaks the law in order to eat (Mark 2:23-3:6). He and his disciples are poor wanderers. They pick grain from the field on the sabbath. Two things Jesus says in this text worth noting: First, “the sabbath was made for humankind” — and not the other way around. In other words, the sabbath law and all law serves us. “Is it lawful to do good or do harm on the sabbath?” Jesus asks. He says that even the law is subject to God’s grace and the common good.

We do our thing as Christians not primarily to serve the tradition and keep all the laws and conform to precepts and rules. No. We do our thing as Christians primarily to follow in the way of Christ which is a way of love, grace, and doing the right thing — despite what the law says.

I love the name of your church: United. And I love that you are undergoing a renovation of your gathering space in your building here. It may be disruptive and stressful — all meaningful transformation is. But it tells me a lot about who you are. Let me attempt an affirmation of sorts.

You are a church ‘on the move’. You are transforming your space in order to make it a more inclusive, accessible building. Moreover, you are making this transformation and renewal to make it a more flexible, multi-purpose space. So different groups, musical, theatrical, social, community groups can use it. You are creating a welcoming and affirming space. This is wonderful! By increasing the possibility of diverse interaction you are, paradoxically, building unity among people!

German reformed theologian Juergen Moltmann wrote that “Christian fellowship — which means liberating fellowship — no longer means just sitting down beside the people I agree with. It means sitting beside the people I don’t agree with — and staying there.” (@moltmannjuergen)

As the inclusive, expansive vision of God’s unity shines before us, we become not a community of like-minded, conformists. Rather, precisely in celebrating and affirming our diversity, we deepen our unity. That is what the church on the move is all about!

Early twentieth century French philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, expressed how people grow in unity by becoming more ourselves. By embracing our uniqueness as individuals and communities, by differentiating, we discover our unity. Contrary to what may be our initial impulse — that unity is experienced only if we become what someone else wants us to be, or others become like us — the opposite is true. Not by becoming the same — that is not loving — but in the freedom of our being different, we find unity in love.

The word religion from Latin, ‘religio’, literally means, re-binding together. “Bind us together, Lord,” is a favourite song in the Lutheran church. Unity is found by recognizing our differences, appreciating them, and choosing to love anyway, which is the form of love most often used in the New Testament (agape).

The church moving forward is the beacon of Christ’s light. “Let light shine out of darkness” (2 Corinthians 4:6), Paul writes in the Epistle reading for today (Pentecost 2B, RCL). The church is not the brake lights on a car, but the headlights. Shining a vision forward, an ever-expanding, inclusive, affirming vision for all people. Because light pays little heed to the lines we draw in the sand. Divine light and love recognize in each person and each relationship a unique reflection of Creator God.

In Christ, then, there is no need for mistaken identity no matter how similar or how different we may be.

The Cross: Not only for us, but involves us

What Jesus did on the cross involves us.

One great temptation of being a Christian today is to delude ourselves into believing that the cross of Christ must be reserved exclusively to the annals of history. What Jesus did on the cross is a historical curiosity, we may think, which has little if nothing to do with our day-to-day lives. As a result, Christianity is basically a theoretical exchange of ideas, and whose energy and passion revolve around whose ideas are more persuasive.

One thing we need to continually challenge ourselves is in the practice of our faith, so that we are not only saying the right kinds of things but doing them as well. The Gospel text for today (Matthew 16:21-28) reminds us again that what Jesus did on the cross involves us today, in our experience of faith. When Jesus instructed his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” he was displacing the cross for standing merely as an historical idea and fact, and placing the cross directly onto the lives, hearts, and experience of his followers at that time, and for all time to come — including us!

The theme of suffering percolates in the Gospel text. How do we Christians deal with suffering in our lives? In Martin Luther’s German translation of the Beatitudes of Jesus in the New Testament, he conveys the sense of: “Blessed are those who bear their suffering …” It is not a question of whether or not we suffer, or whether or not we can deny or avoid the challenging, difficult work that will come to us all in doing God’s work on earth. After all, Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live …” (John 11:25-26). All of us will die. All of us will suffer. Whether we are Christian or not. Life will bring that to each one of us in a unique way.

So, the question of faith is: HOW will we bear that suffering? How will we appreciate the experience of life’s failures, losses, pain, grief, death?
The second reading for today from Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:9-21) suggests a way forward through our suffering: “Let your love be genuine,” he writes. How we bear our suffering depends on the quality of love in our lives. How is love genuine?

It has something to do, I believe, with letting go of the need to control someone’s else experience of ourselves, our gifts, our hospitality; letting go of our need to impose on another what we think should be for them. This is most difficult to do. But it is true love when we love, unconditionally, with no strings attached.

In my travels over the summer, I’ve met people in Newfoundland on the east coast as well as in the urban jungle of California on the west coast. As I reflect on my encounters with various people on that journey, the most meaningful ones were almost always around a meal time in a B&B or coffee break at a conference. It was listening to our B&B hostess at breakfast near Gros Morne Park, talking with our servers at the Duke of Edinburgh pub in St John’s, chatting with American tourists at breakfast in L’Anse aux Meadows, or with students at the next table in a Thai restaurant in San Francisco — these are memories that come quickly to mind and leave a lasting impression. Around a meal, with others. And never an outcome that I could have planned, expected or managed if I were in control. My experience over a meal with others was totally a gift.

In this Meal we ritually share every week as a people of God, we become vulnerable to one another as equals before God. We bring all our “stuff” to the Communion railing — good and bad. It can be nerve-wracking to be pulled out of our comfortable pew, so to speak, and come forward and lay it bear before God and one another.

But it is here, in all our honesty and true humility, that we are made aware of Jesus’ faithfulness to us. Jesus is truly present around the table. Holy Communion is a regular reminder that Jesus is with us, especially in the disruptive events of our lives. And it is here that we receive the hope and promise that all will be well through the suffering of our lives.

What Jesus did on the cross, after all, does not only involve us, it was for us.

In all that we must bear, we are not alone. When the twin brothers from Quebec were eliminated last week from the Amazing Race Canada Reality TV show, I could relate to something said in the brief interview on the mat after hearing that they were “the last team to arrive.” The twin who had done poorly in one of the challenges and was the reason they had been eliminated said with tears in his eyes, “It’s amazing being a twin because even at the worst of times you are never alone.” Twins or no twins, as Christians we are never alone.

Because of what Jesus did on the cross, God now understands and relates to our suffering in an intimate way. God’s love is shown most powerfully in what Jesus did for us. Whenever we suffer and take up our own cross, Jesus suffers along side of us, bears with us, and endures with us — all for our sake.

Something Peter and the disciples seem to have missed in reacting to the way of the cross, is the promise of resurrection. They stumble at the “undergo great suffering” and being “killed” parts of Jesus’ speech. But did they hear: “…and on the third day be raised”? (Matthew 16:21)

The way with Jesus, that must go through the cross and suffering, leads to new life and fresh, new beginnings. The way with Jesus, that must go through the cross and endure suffering, is a way of great hope of a holy transformation of our lives that starts now and lasts through eternity.

Twins in the womb story

Once upon a time, twin boys were conceived. Weeks passed and the twins developed. As their awareness grew, they laughed for joy: “Isn’t it great that we were conceived? Isn’t it great to be alive?”

Together the twins explored their world. When they found their mother’s cord that gave them life, they sang for joy! “How great our mother’s love is, that she shares her own life with us!”

As the weeks stretched into months, the twins noticed how much each was changing. “What does this mean?” one asked.

“It means our stay in this world is drawing to an end,” said the other.

“But I don’t want to go,” said one. “I want to stay here always.”

“We have no choice,” said the other. “But maybe there is life after birth.”

“But how can that be?” responded one. “We will shed our life cord and how can life be possible without it? Besides, we have see evidence that others were here before us, and none of them has returned to tell us there is life after birth. No, this is the end. Maybe there is no mother after all.”

“But there has to be,” protested the other. “How else did we get here? How do we remain alive?”

“Have you seen our mother?” said one. “Maybe she only lives in our minds. Maybe we made her up because the idea made us feel good.”

So the last days in the womb were filled with deep questioning and fear.

Finally, the moment of birth arrived. When the twins had passed from their world, they opened their eyes and cried for joy — for what they saw exceeded their fondest dreams. That is brith … and that is death.

(Anonymous, cited in Kim Nataraja, “Dancing with your Shadow”, Medio-Media 2010, p.163-164).

Dare to be you

In my life as an identical twin, unrealistic expectations of my twin-hood abounded. On the one hand, people presumed my brother and I are identical — I mean perfectly duplicate copies of each other. On the other hand, people loved to compare and contrast, presuming — as I always have — that there are inherent differences.

The ‘identical twin’ designation is nevertheless a misnomer. Being an identical twin doesn’t mean I am a copy-cutter, mirror-image of my twin brother David. We are actually different!

And yet, my twin identity has contributed — I think — to some attitudes with which I’ve lived most of my life, attitudes that may not have been entirely helpful to my growth and maturity and development, spiritual and otherwise.

Particularly, I remember how important it was for me to recognize my own path, my own unique identity — apart from David’s. Until I was able to claim a unique place within the fabric of my family, my community of friends and church I often felt compelled to incessantly compare myself to David, which was exhausting and emotionally draining.

Until I could say to myself that “I am who I am” on my own two feet, I would too easily slip into negativity and self-rejection. Either because I was not good enough compared to David, or I had to be someone that I wasn’t, or better than I was. Or, relish in the victory that I beat out David in some way — for the moment, anyway!

From this kind of thinking emerges a work ethic, which is not unlike what many of us have likely heard or told ourselves growing up: “Try harder!” “You’re no good the way you are; you have to try to be something and someone that you aren’t now.” The striving and activity characterizing religion today has as its starting point: self-negation, self-rejection. “I’m no good the way I am; I have to get better.” Or, “we’re not good the way we are; we have to get better.”

In and of itself, this motivation is not bad. A yearning for completion, for healing and growth, for communion with God and one another is good and healthy. Denying our brokenness and sin is dangerous and ultimately destructive.

But when this desire becomes ego-centric in expressions of false humility or justifications for staying stuck — mired in a pious negativity (“I/we can’t do that; I’m/we’re no good” — we can so easily miss recognizing the whole point of our journeys of faith (“Yes I/we can, because of God’s grace and love!”).

Christians believe we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27); we all have the imprint of God on our lives. But everyone doesn’t manifest the same divine qualities. Even identical twins!

Each of us reflects a unique aspect of God’s character. And this truth results in different gifts, different energies. Different ways of dealing with a similar situation, even. All good. All part of the beautiful diversity of creation.

Sometimes I wonder whether we haven’t confused the voice of brokenness and sin in each of us with our diversity. That just because you do something differently from me, just because you react in a different way to a situation we both face, just because you are different from me — that somehow either I have the right way and you have the wrong way, either you are sinful and I am righteous or vice versa, or we’re better than them.

What if by digging a bit deeper we recognize a shared truth about ourselves and our Lord? What if by inquiring a bit further we discover that it’s not that we’re better than them, but that they have simply gone about it in a different way — a way with which we’re merely unfamiliar. What if it’s not either/or? What if it’s both/and? And this awareness starts, I believe, not by insisting on conformity in the church, but by acknowledging, recognizing and celebrating our diversity.

Our diversity and variety make us whole and complete, as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). All parts are needed for the health of the Body, as Paul famously writes in his letter to the Corinthian Church. We can’t all be eyes, or we wouldn’t have a body. We can’t all be legs; that would look like a very funny body! We can’t all be hair, or we would be Tribbles on an old Star Trek episode — the Trouble with Tribbles! We are not like-minded people even though we belong to the same church — but we never were!

And that’s good! The way it ought to be!

During our weekly lectionary study, some of you noticed that John seemed particularly interested in mentioning that the disciples caught precisely 153 fish after following the instruction from Jesus to throw the net on the right side of the boat (John 21:1-19). Why mention an exact number: 153? Why not simply write: “They caught a whole mother-lode of fish!”?

Initially I just thought John throws a number out there simply to indicate that the disciples counted all the fish that would potentially be sold on the market, as professional fishers would do. This is not some made-up story, after all. This post-resurrection account is grounded in the economic reality of the day. These fishermen have to make a living off the fish they catch, right?

An early thinker, writer and leader in the church, Jerome, wrote in the fifth century that at the time it was assumed that there was a grand total of 153 species of fish. He went on to interpret that the 153 was a reference to the “completeness” of the church, which embraces all people (p.11, Richard Rohr, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective). Suffice it to say, the citing of a number here is not arbitrary, but has a symbolic value and is therefore intentionally written such.

In the Gospel story, we witness two very different responses to Jesus in Peter and John: Peter, consistent with his impulsive character, jumps in the water and swims to Jesus. He’s all about action.

John, on the other hand, is the first to recognize that it is the Lord (v.7). His gift is recognition. What gift is this, you might ask? A very important one, evidently: It wasn’t just Mary who couldn’t at first recognize the risen Lord standing right in front of her in the garden the morning of the resurrection (20:11-18). In the locked, upper room the text suggests the frightened disciples don’t immediately recognize it is Jesus who comes and says, “Peace be with you”; it isn’t until they see his wounds that they can confess who he is (20:19-29). In Luke’s account of the post-resurrection appearances, the twins walked about ten kilometers from Jerusalem to Emmaus talking to a stranger they didn’t recognize was Jesus himself! (Luke 24:13-35). Being able to recognize the living Jesus in our midst, in the course of our daily lives — this is a gift. And John has it.

Peter is about action. John is about understanding. John doesn’t jump in the water and swim to shore. Peter doesn’t reflect, contemplate and perceive. Each does their part. Both have their unique gifts to bring to the disciples’ collective experience of the risen Lord. One without the other is inadequate. One is not better than the other. Both are equally valuable, even though they represent such diverse expressions of faith.

The church today needs a variety of gifts in order to respond fully to Christ’s presence in the world today, and in our lives. The church today — we — need to set aside our claims of priority and work together in patience, forgiveness and devotion to Jesus Christ who is alive! That goes not only for us in our congregation, but in terms of how we relate to other congregations, our Synod, our national church, other Lutheran and non-Lutheran denominations.

What are our unique gifts? What do we bring to the table? What are the gifts in those we meet who are very different from us?

Let’s dare to be who we are! Let’s embrace our individuality!

A funeral at Christmas

To be grieving at this time of year brings a bag of mixed feelings, to say the least.

While everyone else is celebrating and enjoying the festivities of the season, you are also working through the loss of a dear [mother, wife, grandmother, sister, great-grandmother, aunt] and friend. Well-meaning friends may try to cheer you up because they do not want you to be a damper on the holiday spirit.

You may not know whether to stay at home and grieve, or go out to those get-togethers you’ve been invited to and try to be cheerful. Christmas is a challenging time to do the work of remembering, crying, grieving, and feeling sad.

But I would encourage you to do it anyway — to embrace the ambivalence of, on the one hand, expressing your grief when you need to; and, on the other, continuing to observe the season of holy birth. And it’s not all that inconsistent with a deeper meaning of the Christmas story:

After all, I can’t help but to think how that first Christmas must have felt for God the Father in heaven. The Gospel John tells us that in the beginning, the Word — Jesus, God’s Son — was with God. But because of the age-old, human rebellion against God, God nevertheless loved us so much God sent Jesus to be born into the world.

Think about what this cost God: That first Christmas was for God and Jesus a separation of sorts — a breaking of the intimate communion that they had shared from before the beginning of time. That’s a long time of being together! God, I am sure, can feel for the loss of someone with whom you have lived day-in and day-out for most of your life.

And worse yet, the way that God the Father and Son were going to be re-united was by Jesus’ death as a human being, on the Cross of Calvary. Christmas, thus, made Easter possible. The joy and priceless gifts of Christmas and Easter were wrought from the divine sacrifice of separation, loss and death.

In other words, birth and death are connected. In every birth, there is a death; in every death, there is a birth. So it is not inappropriate that we gather for a funeral service in the very season in which we celebrate a holy birth. It was the birth of God in our world that eventually gave the world the promise of new life and resurrection. It was the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem two thousand years ago that made it possible for us today to claim the promise of new life, eternal life, for your dearly beloved.

You spoke of your loved one as a “mother hen” of not only your immediate family, but of the neighborhood. She taught not only you but many of the kids living on this street how to swim. She demanded obedience to her rules — around the pool and around the table after school. An Opera music fan, she demonstrated motherly love by listening to Billy Idol and the Beatles only so she could relate to her teenage children. Her strong, motherly, supportive, family-oriented qualities will remain enduring memories and qualities in your own lives, even though she is now separated from you by death.

A separation in birth is similar to a separation in death. But both yield the gift of new life. I have an identical twin brother; and we have been very close all our lives long. So, this wonderful story about two twin babies, in their mother’s womb, rings true for me: Safe and secure, warm and fed, these twin babies slowly and quietly grew.

But when it came close to the time of birth, they began to fear what was about to happen. They didn’t want to leave the womb which had been their warm and comfortable home for so long, the place where they had everything they needed given to them. The prospect of leaving this warm and familiar place, and venturing into the unknown outside the womb, just terrified them.

But they also had this inkling that there must be something outside this womb, and someone, a mother, outside this womb caring for and loving them. They sometimes even heard loving voices coming from outside the womb.

And so they were ambivalent at best, fearful at worse, but couldn’t do anything about it. The time came for them to be born, and they just had to do it.

They cried as they were born into the new air and light. They coughed out fluid and gasped the dry air. And when they were sure they were born, they opened their eyes — seeing life after birth for the very first time.

What they saw, were the beautiful eyes of their mother, lovingly gazing upon them, as they were cradled in her arms. They knew they were home.

Your beloved has come home, and is seeing the loving eyes of God gazing upon her this day. And we all, whether on earth, or in heaven, are held in the safe and secure arms of God who loves us for eternity.