Relationships over Resources

A member of this congregation sent me an email including a list of short phrases called paraprosdokians.

A paraprosdokian, according to my online dictionary, is a derivative of a Greek word which means, ‘beyond expectation’. It is a wordplay, a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence is unexpected. Here’s a smattering:

 · A neighbour knocked on my door and asked for a small donation towards the local swimming pool, so I gave him a glass of water.

 · Take my advice — I’m not using it.

 · Ever stop to think, and forget to start again?

 · He who laughs last, thinks slowest.

 · I was going to give him a nasty look, but he already had one.

 · Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

 · I was going to wear my camouflage shirt today, but I couldn’t find it.

 · If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.

 · No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.

 · Money is the root of all … wealth.

Indeed, the Gospel today (Luke 16:1-13) has at least one major, unexpected twist. And unlike most of these paraprosdokians, this twist is not humorous. 

A manager has been wasteful of his boss’ riches, and consequently will lose his job. So, the manager figures on a scheme to look out for his own interests in his impending unemployment. The ‘dishonest manager’ — as some bibles entitle this parable — puts himself first at the seeming expense of his boss: he will go to his boss’ debtors and demand only half of what they owe. He shrewdly seeks to curry favour with them, and anticipates to be in their good books, once he is unemployed.

Smart move, you might say, eh? But what will Jesus say? Especially keeping in mind that this passage comes to us on the heels of the ‘golden’ chapter of the bible, Luke 15. Therein we read the familiar and heart-warming stories of the lost being found, of celebration and belonging, of unimaginable grace and mercy shown to the poor, the wayward, those who are not easily counted in the economy of the day. 

In Luke 15, we get the strong impression that the values of God’s kingdom — mercy, inclusion of others, unconditional love — stand in sharp contrast to the values of the world — competition, self-centredness, individualism. And, now, in Luke 16, the set up leads me to anticipate Jesus will come down hard on the ‘dishonest’ manager. I expect Jesus to say how unjust, unethical, and selfish the manager was. Don’t be as self-centred as he is!

In verse eight, the rug is pulled out from underneath me: “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” What ?!! Commended?

And yet, I should expect that the bible does that to us from time to time. The bible does not present a tightly knit, unequivocally clear and coherent storyline. You can justify anything from the bible, if you want — even murder. But that is not what we are about, when we approach the bible. 

After all, there is an important reason why the New Testament includes four, different, renditions of the life and times of Jesus. If uniformity was the goal in the inspiration behind putting together the bible, then we would have only had one Gospel, not four. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — the first four books of the New Testament — basically follow a similar plot line about Jesus’ birth, baptism, calling, choosing disciples, healing, teaching, passion, death and resurrection stories.

And yet, each presents variations, slightly different orders, and yes, sometimes even these unexpected twists and turns in what needs to be emphasized. There are, after all, different people listening in — the religious leaders of the day, his disciples — people like you and me who live different lives and face different challenges. Each of us needs to hear something unique to what our needs are, apart from our neighbour. And each faith community needs to hear a unique word spoken to them.

So, while the story of the dishonest manager twists and puts our expectations on their head, perhaps there is something here worth paying attention to. “You cannot serve God and wealth” concludes the passage. And yet, the manager was looking out for his own material well-being in his shrewd and commendable actions.

Well, what is the wealth that is talked about here? For what treasure do we Christians — called the “children of the light” in this text (v.8) — search? What is the golden nugget that we seek, above all else? Again, perhaps the broader context can help us, again.

As I said, the previous stories of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost sons suggest that what is valuable in the economy of God, stands in sharp contrast to what is valuable in the economy of the world. These are treasures that are worth uprooting what is hidden, putting in the light what is shrouded in darkness, lifting up what is normally considered not worth the effort, forgiving what is unforgivable.

What does the shrewd manager value, even more than making money? He values relationships. He values keeping connected with others even though he loses what the world values — jobs, financial security and material wealth:

He reduces the amount of debt owed by the amount of his commission — as some biblical commentators suggest. He reduces the amount of interest owed, according to the Torah Law in Deuteronomy 23:19-20 — as other commentators suggest. Regardless of how we interpret the manager’s actions, we can see how much the manager values being in relationship, above all else.

The wealth described here is the treasure of being inter-related in a season of loss and disruptive change. Relationships over Resources, you could say (1).

And this truth hits us unexpectedly in the telling of the Gospel. Another classic reversal. I started this sermon with a Greek word to describe a form of speech that ends unexpectedly. Of course, the New Testament was written in Greek and influenced by Greek culture.

Greek culture often reflects this image of having a feast in the midst of famine. Another contrast of expectations, when during a famine you would not expect people to throw a large feast, and celebrate. Remember, after finding the lost sheep, the lost coin and when the Prodigal returns home, there is much rejoicing. And a feast is prepared for the whole community.

This does not make sense. To have a feast in the midst of famine. And yet, this is what we are called to do. To be children of the light, in the midst of darkness. Not to be a slave to our circumstances and meagre resources, as we may see them to be. But to release them, distribute them, relinquish our seeming control over them, all for the purpose of maintaining and strengthening our relationships.

Celebrating the gift of each other and those we meet. Relationships first, then resources. The horse before the cart, not the other way around.

We may by lying in the gutter of our lives, but we keep our gazed fixed upon the stars. We may be wallowing in an ocean of despair, regret, fear or pain — but we begin with a spoonful of water. In other words, there is always hope. There is always room to grow, to change, to something — anything — in order to make things better. This is the quality of faith.

We are never lost, abandoned and left for dead in the economy of God’s grace. After all, the rich man gives his irresponsible manager a second chance. Normally when charges are brought against an employee, charges that incriminate and prove wrong-doing to the degree of ‘squandering’ the owner’s property, the person in question is fired immediately, without question.

But something odd happens here: The rich man allows his soon-to-be-fired worker to continue doing his job for a while. The rich man gives his delinquent employee some ground, some space, to do something — anything — in order to make things better. The rich man demonstrates some grace in a relationship that has gone awry. 

Not only are the relationships in life our priority over everything else including our material resources, the quality of those relationships — according to the New Testament — are defined by grace, compassion, and love. 

An unexpected twist of the stories of our lives in the world, perhaps. Yet, these are the hallmarks of the children of light following Christ in the world.

Thanks be to God!

(1) David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 4, WJK Press; Louisville Kentucky, 2010, p.92-97

Grace precedes

Everyone was excited, but not sure what it was all about. In the centre of the room was a big box of balloons that had not been blown up yet.

The team leader asked each person to pick a balloon, blow it up and write their name on it. About 30 team members were able to get their name on a balloon without it popping. Those 30 were asked to leave their balloons and exit the room. They were told they had qualified for the second round.

Five minutes later the leader brought the team back into the room and announced that their next challenge was to find the balloon they had left behind with their name on it, among the hundreds of other balloons scattered in the large cafeteria. She warned them however to be very careful and not to pop any of the balloons. If they did, they would be disqualified.

While being very careful, but also trying to go as quickly as they could, each team member looked for the balloon with their name. After 15 minutes not one single person was able to find their balloon. 

They were not able to do it, because they were stuck looking only after their own interests as individuals. They couldn’t think collectively. They presumed they needed to do it all on their own, according to their interpretation of the rules of ‘the game’.

To me, the first two rounds of this game can be seen as a snap shot of the values of our culture and society. After all, there are ‘rules’ in our society. There are accepted ways of behaviour. There are the social norms and laws that bring at least a sense of order to our lives. One such norm, is the belief that we have to make it all on our own in this world.

We tell ourselves that competition and individualism are healthy and good, especially in the youth of our lives.

I grew up competing with my twin brother, David. Throughout our lives whether we were playing games, musical instruments and sports, doing our homework, achieving success at school, writing exams, making life choices — underlying our relationship was this competition. Always comparing and contrasting. While motivating and stimulating, ultimately it has become not always helpful, even a burden — as a foundation for our relationship.

When considering the doctrine of grace, based in the biblical witness of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we often skim over and even neglect the original social context of Paul’s writing. We get excited debating the doctrine of Justification by Grace posited here — especially as Lutherans. Yet to do so without first examining what was going on in the early Christian community, we can miss its original meaning:

At the time of writing Galatians (2:15-21), Paul and Peter were in a bit of a conflict. They represented two, competing views of how the mission of Jesus should be carried out.

For Peter, the disciple chosen by Jesus to be “the rock” upon which the church would be built (Matthew 16:18), he was influenced by some Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem who insisted that true converts to Christianity should first follow all the rules of the Jewish tradition — since the first disciples and Jesus himself were Jews.

When Paul and Peter met in a town called Antioch in those early decades of the first century, they confronted each other on this point. Because, for Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was on the line. He argued that Gentiles, who weren’t Jews, didn’t have first to be Jewish before becoming a follower of Jesus. If Christianity followed Peter’s bent, Gentiles could barely attain the status of second class citizens.

Later, Paul won the argument. Paul was a multi-culturalist far ahead of his time. Paul saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the long arc of God’s love and God’s inclusion, an arc bent toward making Gentiles full members of the family without preconditions. (1) Inclusion. Unconditional love. These words are signposts for the theology of grace, in Paul’s view, reflecting the way Jesus related to others.

If we begin with faith and grace, we can inhabit our traditions and rules more lightly. But it starts with God’s grace, for all people.

When I was in Clinical Pastoral Training at the Ottawa Hospital as part of my preparation for ordained ministry back in my seminary days, I was reminded of the truth of Christ’s presence and grace, which precedes mine.

I was advised, before entering the room of a patient, to stop for a moment. And bring to mind and heart this truth: Jesus is already in the room before I enter it. Jesus is already there, waiting for me. I do not bring Jesus with my charisma, eloquent words, magnetic personality, comforting presence. All these things may help, and may be true to some extent! 

But I don’t create Jesus. Jesus creates me. The patient I visit, along with me, are already in the presence of Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes in his letter (2:20). Grace precedes everything I am and do.

When Jesus accepts the woman’s extravagant and outrageous offering of foot-washing with the gifts she has been given (her hair, her love, her touch, her tears), he is being inclusive and loving unconditionally. 

Jesus is not making the woman first follow a bunch of religious rules or follow accepted social norms before letting her come near and even touch him. (Luke 7:36 -8:3) Jesus is not requiring her to provide a government-issued I.D., proof of baptism certificate or a list of all the good deeds she accomplished and the churches she has attended.

The only requirement Jesus seems to accept is that she is honest, vulnerable and open about her sinfulness. Because only honest sinners can appreciate the gift of grace, it seems. The one who is forgiven the greater debt, shows the greater love (Luke 7:47).

What will we do when we see a homeless person, notice the addict, rub shoulders against a divorced person, or sense the struggling and pain in another? Will we ignore the other, suggesting “it’s none of my business”? (that statment reflects a major social norm in today’s society, you know!). 

Or, will we approach the person, confident that Jesus is already there? Will we approach the person, take a risk, and ask a question motivated by love and trust in God? Will we approach the person, aware and honest of our own sinfulness? Aware of the forgiveness we have been given?

We are not alone. We all stand on the same, level playing field in God’s kingdom. That is why we have the church. That is why we gather each week to feed at the Lord’s Table of grace and Divine Presence. We are not alone. We have each other, in the Body of Christ.

After the team who couldn’t find their balloons in the cafeteria was told that the second round of the game was over, they moved on to the third and final round:

In this last round the leader told the team members to find any balloon in the room with a name on it and give it to the person whose name was on it. Within a couple of minutes every member of the team had their balloon with their own name on it.

The team leader made the following point: “We are much more effective when we are willing to share with each other. And we are better problem solvers when we work together, helping each other.” We are able to do what we are called to do in Christ, when we work together for the sake of each other, in God’s mission on earth.

Because Jesus’ love, grace and presence await us in the room, at the table, in the world, beckoning us to come.
Amen.

(1) – Gregory H. Ledbetter, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010, p.137

Believe in God’s possibilities

Somewhat striking to me in Gospel text is the sense of urgency surrounding these miraculous, healing stories from Jesus’ ministry (Mark 5:21-43). At least three times in this text, we hear the word ‘immediately’. A frenetic pace describes Jesus’ work here. It’s important, and it happens right away. There’s no time to lose. No sitting back. It’s time for action. It’s finally time to do something.
I suspect the reason this jumped out at me, is that summer can be a tempting, dangerous time for people like me who depend on routines and regular disciplines to keep our lives balanced. Because the temptation may be to skip the healthy practice — whether it be prayer, physical exercise, healthy eating, or attending to friends and family.
This text comes to us at the beginning of the traditionally long summer slow-down in our country. It may be wise to guard against what the Christian desert fathers and mothers called the sin of acedia, sloth, laziness, or my favourite word to describe the problem — inertia. The challenge during seasons of comfort and repose is to keep the important disciplines of exercising mind, body and spirit — to hold the sense of urgency around those important things in life.
Because to have faith is to hold fast, to trust in God’s possibilities. And the time to do that is now. Not some ideal day in the future, and not some day in the golden years of our past. But now. To have faith. To believe in God’s possibilities in your life. In our life, together.
While both Jairus’ dying 12-year-old daughter and the woman haemorrhaging for 12 long suffering years come from very different socio-economic and social circles, what they have in common is that their faith had made them well. (In the case of Jairus’ daughter, it wasn’t her faith, but that of her father). 
It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter whether you can even express your faith in words. It doesn’t matter whether you are poor and marginalized in society — like the woman in the text. It doesn’t matter if you are wealthy, comfortable and have status in society — like Jairus, the leader of the Jewish synagogue.
What is the healing in your life that you seek? Where can God touch the deepest need in your life? What is the discontent rocking your life now? Have you named it? Have you asked God for healing? God, we know, doesn’t cure every disease just because we ask for it. And yet, do you believe that God can do anything God wants, even bring healing? 
Last week after our two-day intensive training in Toronto, the Lutheran Ottawa Ministry Area Leadership Team was rushing to the airport to catch our flight back to Ottawa. We knew this usually half-full flight across the Province — a short 50 minute plane ride — is, these days, packed. The Women’s FIFA knock-out stage had games in Ottawa; and, the Pan-Am Games are soon beginning in Toronto. Our flight to Toronto the day before was also sold-out. 
And, with airlines normally over-booking, we heard of folks being delayed because they waited to get to the airport before getting their boarding passes. So, we were a little anxious, especially since someone on our Team had to get to work on returning to Ottawa.
I was fortunately able to get a seat, along with everyone else on the Team. As was the case with the flight to Toronto, I was assigned the middle of a three-seat row. Okay. I can put up with that for an hour. What I didn’t know was that the row I was in was the first one behind Business/First Class, which on each side of the centre isle has only two, larger seats across.
One thing on a short flight that I will enjoy doing is watching the real-time map on the screen in front of me — showing the variables of outside temperature, miles travelled, distance to destination, altitude and speed. On the screen you can watch the little icon of the plane travel slowly towards your destination. I enjoy watching that. Call me a nerd.
Because I don’t fly very often, I forgot that I probably had one of those video screens folded up and tucked away in my arm rest. But I didn’t think of that. I only reacted by feeling I got the short end of the stick. Ba-humbug! 
Both my row partners had screens on the back of the seats directly in front of thhem, but not me. 

Both of them fell asleep immediately upon take off. I concluded quickly they probably were not interested in using their screens. So I watched out of the corner of my eye until the guy on my right had his jaw hanging open and breathing heavily before I snuck my arm across to his screen to turn it on. But just as I was about to tap on “Map”, he twitched in his sleep and came half awake. I quickly withdrew, and waited until he again fell asleep before finally getting it turned on.

It dawned on me why I didn’t just ask him whether I could use his screen. I’m fairly confident he would probably have been okay with that, or at least reminded me of the screen I had in my arm rest. But I didn’t. I was bent on trying to sneak in my intention, or put off the actual engagement.
One aspect of the faith of Jairus and the woman, is that both in words and actions, they took the risk, made themselves vulnerable and even interrupted Jesus. They came out. They asked. Granted, they were desperate and at the end of their rope. Are you? Are we?
There are seasons in our lives when it may be difficult to believe in God’s possibilities for us. We get trapped in our heads. I know I do. We get stuck in our pain, and circle back over and over again trying to rationalize and self-justify not doing anything differently. We think too much about the hard realities facing us that we end up either rejecting our faith outright; or, we sit back in the lounge chair of summertime-like complacency. 
We may give up too quickly. We get discouraged so easily. We may even delude ourselves into thinking that “time will heal”. 
I suspect the biggest reason we hold back when opportunity for healing comes our way is because, as I did in the plane afraid to ask, I knew deep down in stepping out in faith to ask for something, my nicely constructed world however imperfect would have to change: Who knows? Maybe the fellow next to me would have wanted to talk with me, inquire what I did for a living and we would end up talking about God and faith and all his problems. It would require some work, then, right?
Asking for help and healing in prayer to God means things might get a bit messy, disruptive. Energy-draining. It’s a risk. Our asking for healing may very well shake us out of our comfortable way of doing things. God may very well be calling us into a sense of urgency as we go about ‘being Christian’. Do we even want that?
Do we believe in God’s possibilities? Do we hold the vision of God to heal, to restore and give new life, new beginnings to us, despite our present circumstances? Because opportunities will come our way. Will we seize the moment, as the woman did to interrupt Jesus? Carpe Diem! Will we want to acknowledge our dire, desperate circumstances giving rise to the courage to ask?
In the next year, our church will face an opportunity to begin a 5-, 10- or 15- year-long journey. An opportunity, I believe, will come across our bow to begin this journey in the next year. I mention this today, because it is the last time I’m preaching before my summer break. And I want to leave you with something to contemplate. I have a feeling we will, I hope over the next year, want to talk about this more.
When you go home today, I invite you to drive to the intersection of Woodroffe and Baseline. There is an open field there now, a strip of land between the transitway and Woodroffe, across the street from College Square. And as I speak, imagine the opportunity for Christian mission and ministry in this prime piece of land, the gateway to Nepean and very close to significant institutions of business, education, health care and culture at Centrepointe.
Then, imagine, what maintaining the status quo here will result in, some ten to fifteen years from now. If we just carry on business-as-usual and try to continue doing it on our own. We just need to tally the percentage of people in this room today over a certain age to answer that question rather decidedly. The trajectory is clear if we just ‘maintain’.
Then, again, imagine the possibility of healing that can come to the local Christian community overburdened and exhausted by a complacency and resignation to reality-as-is. Imagine the restoration, the new life, new beginning, and vigour of church ministry and mission in Jesus’ name that can happen when we share this work, as Lutherans, with other willing and effective partners in faith — other congregations — who are primed to do the same. Imagine what exciting work can be done together when we can combine our assets and resources — not ‘do it alone’ — and be a powerful, significant Christian voice and presence in West Ottawa. Imagine God’s possibilities! We’re not down and out; there’s a bright future! Together.
Jesus doesn’t ask Jairus, a Jewish synagogue leader, for proof of right belief. Faith is not saying the right doctrine or articulating a ‘correct’ denominational theology. Jesus doesn’t question the woman’s rather superstitious character of her faith before healing her. In fact the healing is virtually done before Jesus talks to her! Jesus doesn’t demand any rationally expressed pre-condition for granting his grace and healing power. To us, too.
In all truth, it’s his heart, his compassion, his unconditional love first and foremost that drives him to heal those who just have the courage to express an urgent, desperate desire for a new beginning, for health and wholeness. And take that first, small step in Jesus’ direction.

Imagine God’s possibilities!

Step off the gas

It was -20c and the roadways were covered with snow and ice. And yet, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Coming into the west-end near Stittsville, the Queensway/417 (the main expressway through the city of Ottawa) was empty. And it was mid-morning on a weekday!

I was powering it through! A little snowfall wasn’t going to impede me. I was going at my regular speed in the passing lane and was wondering why very few were venturing onto the highway. And then I saw a car had spun out, resting perpendicular to me at the side of the 417 in front of the Canadian Tire Centre. It had struck the guardrail. And a little further on I witnessed another car spinning out of control.

I decided to slow down, and tapped the brake. Surely my four-wheel drive will keep me in control. And then I felt the wheels begin to float underneath me. I stepped on the gas to try to get grip. But the fish-tailing was starting to feel like a swan dive! I was losing it!

You drivers out there, what would you do? Thankfully in that moment, I remembered what my drivers-ed teacher taught me thirty years ago: Step off the gas! I think we instinctively associate stepping on the gas with more control — in all circumstances; the more I give, the more I expend, the more I put myself out there — the better it’ll be.

But in this case, the solution was to let go and just keep the steering wheel pointed forward. And as soon as I let off the accelerator, the four wheels found purchase, and I was able to recover. It is a little bit counter-intuitive for us in our get’er done culture to divest ourselves of the belief that doing more about something will save us from whatever predicament we find ourselves in. Sometimes, in tough situations, we just have to let off the gas, a bit.

Isaiah writes to a people in exile. Some six hundred years before Jesus, the people of God were taken to a far away land, in Babylon, where for some generations they made it their home. They had to let go of things precious, people beloved, and a way of life they believed to be sacrosanct.

But Babylon was not home. Jerusalem was. And now, gone was their temple worship. Gone were the symbols, rituals and constant reminders of who they were and who the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was. Gone was their culture, their social structures, their familiar communities.

And, in its place were foreign languages, foreign gods and strange customs. The Psalmist recalls the tragic sense of their exiled life, where they lamented, and mourned their loss: (Psalm 137:1-6)

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

To address this despair, Isaiah (40:21-31) offers some strategies for coping. First he holds in beautiful tension a paradox about God — two aspects of God over which theologians over the centuries have sparred: God is BOTH transcendent AND immanent. Not only is God up there “sitting above the circle of the earth (v.22), God also calls each part of creation “by name” (v.26).

Not only is God some far-away all powerful being, God is also personal, and calls to you by your name. God values what happens ‘on the ground’ in our ordinary lives. God’s love for us is revealed not only in the extraordinary, but especially in the ordinary lives of you and me. God cares.

Second, the prophet Isaiah encourages the people in exile not to forget their story, not to forget their history, not to forget what God had done for them in the past. Twice in this text the prophet asks the rhetorical questions: “Have you not heard? Have you not known? Has it not been told … ?” (v. 21&28). Of course they’ve heard! Of course they have been told! The problem is, they have forgotten.

A re-membering of their story — of God’s story with them — could strengthen their sense of identity, and bring forward to the present circumstances a hope that would see them through their loss. In other words, remembering for the future is an integral part of having faith in God.

Part of what it means to believe in God, is to believe in your story — and remember it! Remember what brought you to be where you are, today. Recall the most difficult times in your lives, and how God brought you through. Picture in your mind the people who where there, helping you cope and manage — friends, doctors, family, spouses, neighbours — people who came into your life at that lowest point and were like God’s angels to you.

Claim this story as your story of faith in a God who still makes good on God’s promises. The very fact that you are sitting in this room today is testimony enough to say: You survived! And not only did you survive — in many ways you thrived! And will so, again!

Not only do we remember who we are, we must remember who God is. God is in charge and whose thoughts and actions are way beyond our own capabilities (Isaiah 55:8-9). Therefore, our first job, especially when we are down-and-out, is to be patient. “Wait” is the direction from the prophet Isaiah. Just let off the gas a little bit. Saint Augustine wrote that ‘patience is the companion of wisdom’.

You might not need to do anything right now. What you really might need to do is nurture an inner life, an attitude, of watchful presence. Wait upon the Lord! — echoes throughout the poetry of the Hebrew scriptures (eg. from the Psalmist 27:16; 37) to a people yearning to renew their courage and trust. God is God; and we are not.

Waiting pays off for the people. King Cyrus of Persia (Isaiah 45) frees the exiles from Babylonian captivity — and the remnant of Israel finally returns to Jerusalem. Some 70 years they spent in captivity. Not all the people who left Jerusalem at the start of it saw the end of it. Many died in Babylon. But salvation is not individualistic. It is given to a people.

So, finally, Isaiah reminds us that just as it was for the Israelites in exile, our identity is in the larger collective. The narrative of our faith spans centuries. Our identity is corporate. As Christians, we call it “The Body of Christ” of which each of us is a member.

That means, even when we do not, individually, have a faith to stand up to the worst of the worst in life, even when our individual faith wanes from time to time, even when individually “I” have a hard time believing in God, “I” am not lost. There’s still a chance.

One of the downsides of an individualistic spiritual culture in which we live today, is to place unwarranted onus on ‘MY faith’ and ‘YOUR faith’ as the critical condition for ‘MY salvation’ or ‘YOUR salvation’. As if we are independent, autonomous beings. Many a death-bed confession — and this is common — involves anxiety about whether or not ‘my’ faith is strong enough, good enough. In those situations, especially, we need to be reminded that it is not ‘my’ faith or ‘your’ faith alone that will get you through this trial. It is the faith we share.

It is our faith together that helps us through the tough times. It’s not dependent on how good I am, or how strong my faith is. There is a people of God — “a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1-2) — around me and you. There is a church, a community of faith — whose collective faith gets us through. This is the faith of our fathers and mothers, our predecessors, our forebears, the current saints in light, and the faith of those who will come after we are gone. I don’t think anyone would question that kind of faith. It is the collective, communion of saints in heaven and on earth praying for you, upholding you, during your personal exiles.

And, ultimately, it is the faithfulness of God that gets us through. Throughout the scriptures, salvation is described in this way: It is not we that have loved God, but that God has loved us (1 John 4:7-11). This is an integral, vital, part our story together. Let’s believe in it. And believe that God starts it all, and ends it all, for us.

For those who can’t stand doing nothing, who are frustrated by the notion of being patient and waiting, there may be something for you, in fact, to do: Practice. In all that you do, be mindful, aware and intentional in your prayer life. Because prayer is about letting go in time and space, and listening to God. Prayer is not about me, it’s about God.

I realize that part of what saved me on the highway this past week, was that I had practiced. I recall all those times that whenever I’m in an empty parking lot — even coming during the week into the church parking lot — I’ll have a little fun with it: I’ll spin around a bit — not recklessly doing donuts all over the place. But I’ll just get the car going enough to do a bit of fishtailing. I get the feel of it. So I know what I can do in a crisis.

Stepping off the gas in a spin out, works. And it takes a bit of practice.

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.

Forgive = Love

To forgive someone, is to love them. We cannot forgive someone who has hurt us, without first being able to love them. So, the question of how we can forgive is deeply connected to the question of the quality of, and our capacity to, love.

In the Gospel chosen for this Pentecost Sunday (John 20:19-23) Jesus meets the disciples to give them the holy breath — the Holy Spirit. His breathing on them gives them the authority to pronounce the forgiveness of sin.

But before he does this, he first says to them, “Peace be with you” — not once, but twice, in this short passage. The repetition of his greeting ought to make us pause, and reflect on what Jesus is doing here by repeating his opening statement to the disciples.

Let’s recall the story leading up to this passage: It is one of the first post-resurrection accounts of Jesus appearing to his disciples. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors, fearing arrest by the same people who had just executed their Lord on the cross. They had just heard an unbelievable account of an empty tomb, and were not sure what to make of it. Judas was gone from the group, and Peter was still reeling from guilt in having denied knowing Jesus.

Many of the twelve must have felt incredible guilt from having abandoned Jesus during his torture and death. And suddenly, now, Jesus comes into their midst through a locked door. Quite probably, their initial reaction would have been of fear — perhaps Jesus was coming back to exact retribution and punishment on his unfaithful, denying and fickle followers. “Where were you when I needed you?” “Shame on you!” you could imagine what the disciples may have expected Jesus to say.

Is this not how we often feel? Our first reaction to any notion of relationship with God is riddled with guilt and fear. Because we are so unfaithful, so weak. We make mistakes, over and over. We fail in our discipleship, and in our relationships. We are not committed and we often do all the wrong sorts of things. No wonder the church is in such a mess! So, if Jesus would appear walking through these very doors this morning, I suspect many of us might start shaking in our boots.

I had to giggle at something someone posted in their Facebook page: It was a picture of a gigantic jelly fish. And we see this jelly fish from underneath the water, looking sideways at this rather ugly, translucent being with long entrails dangling downward from its broad bobble top.

The caption underneath reads: “The fact that jellyfish have survived since the beginning of time, despite not having brains, is great news for stupid people.” Indeed, especially when it comes to following Jesus, we are all sometimes stupid!

Jesus demonstrates God’s true nature by what he has to repeat over and over to try to get through our thick heads. “Peace be with you!” “No, didn’t you hear me? “Peace be with you!” “I come not to condemn you for your sins, but to love you as my precious children.” Jesus demonstrates the love of God. He forgives his numb-skulled disciples because underlying Jesus’ whole approach to them, and us, is an unconditional and expansive love that is not shaken by our messing up all of the time.

That is why God forgives us our sins. And that is why and how we will forgive others as God has forgiven us. Love. Unconditional. When we can retract all our expectations and claims on another person, then we can truly love them. When we stop projecting our expectations and desires upon another person, especially if they have done something to hurt us, then we are able to love them, and therefore forgive them.

I read about a reporter who was covering the conflict in Sarajevo some twenty years ago. The reporter saw a little girl shot by a sniper. He rushed to a man who was holding the child, and helped them both into his car.

As the reporter raced to the hospital the man in the back seat said: “Hurry, my friend, my child is still alive.” A little later he said, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still breathing.” Still, later, he said, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still warm.” Finally, he said, “Hurry, hurry. Oh, God, my child is getting cold.”

When they got to the hospital, the little girl was dead. The man who had been holding the child then said to the reporter, “There lies a terrible task before me now. I must now go and tell her father that his child is dead. He will be heartbroken.”

The reporter was puzzled and responded, “I thought she was your child.” The man looked at him and said, “No. But aren’t they all our children?”

They are all our children. They are all God’s children. Christ sends us forth with the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to love them all. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Our capacity to love others — especially those different from us — will often determine our capacity to forgive. The people of the world are God’s loving creation, too. Our practice of showing compassion and care to all people reflects our capacity to love.

Can we do this? Can we bear faithful witness to God’s love and presence in our lives? Maybe not, if left to our own devices. But try we must. Fail, we often will. But don’t give up. Because Jesus will still come into our lives with an unconditional embrace of God’s love for you and for me. We have nothing to lose — certainly not God’s love.

And because of this great gift we have, Jesus will continue to say to us, “As the Father has sent me, so now, I send you.”

Come, Holy Spirit, come
Breathe into us the breath of new life,
Come with a mighty wind or on a soft breeze, and
Kindle our hearts on fire to go forth and fulfill your mission on earth.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.

Joy -erism

Last week an online article cited a new study that suggests “religious” people are more depressed than atheists. The study was published in the October issue of Psychological Medicine.  The researchers surveyed thousands of rural and urban people from seven countries over the course of a year to arrive at their conclusions.

Apparently those who claim to be religious tend to respond to life’s challenges, disappointments, failures and tragedies no differently than atheists — those who claim no belief in a God. Apparently, if we take this study for what it’s worth, Christians are just as prone to depression — if not more so — than those who have no faith.

Does this surprise you? After all, aren’t we believers supposed to live the ‘better’ life? Didn’t Jesus come to save us from sin so that we can live life “abundantly” (John 10:10)? Isn’t a life of prayer supposed to bring peace to our life? When we confess our sin, and receive the assurance of forgiveness — aren’t we supposed to be happy for that?

What is more, we often hear from those popular preachers on TV and in our local mega-churches a prosperity-gospel; basically promising the sweet, successful and affluent life if you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.

The prosperity preachers line their sermons with conditional promises — a self-help type of message — if you confess your sins, if you turn your life around, if you make better choices — then Jesus will come into your heart and make everything better. In other words, it’s all about us. Our salvation really hinges on our action, first.

But what happens if we do accept Jesus, and life still seems hard for us? What happens if we do confess our sin — day in and day out — but we still feel burdened by
temptation? What happens if we do express faith in a loving God, but we continue to fail — fail in our relationships, fail in our work, fail in our health? What if we do not prosper, even though we say we believe?

Have we done something wrong? Is our faith not strong enough? Are we not trying hard enough? Now, will we feel guilty? No wonder Christians are depressed!

I do not mean to make light of the clinical depression with which so many good people suffer. But I wonder why it should come as shocking that Christians, among those of other faiths, should be denied their humanity by implying that if religion was to be so good for us, religious people shouldn’t suffer like the rest of the world?

In the Gospel for today (Luke 10:17-20 St Michael and All Angels), Jesus draws a distinction between what can distract us from the most important thing. Jesus, while not denying the abilities of the missionaries to perform great acts “in his name”, cautions them not to lose focus and clarity in their faith.

We could interpret that news article from Psychological Medicine as yet another attack by secular society on the Church. But in our self-righteous defensiveness do we continue to look away? Is there not some truth here? I take an article like that more as an opportunity to do a reality check. If society is holding up a mirror in front of us, what do we see?

A joy -erism that is kinda fake? An artifice joy-mask that we put on just on Sunday mornings when we go to church, saying everything is hunky-dory when deep down we are feeling deep pain? A set-up-for-failure message that pretends I’m okay-you’re okay because it’s all up to us to make things right, if only we tried harder?

What is the ‘joy’ our faith speaks of? Haven’t we lost our focus?

A fourteen year-old told me this past week about her family’s annual summer trip to the property they own overseas. It is a beautiful spot to which she looks forward going every year.

This year, however, the trip had extra special meaning: her ninety-year-old grandma was coming with them, likely making the long trip for the last time. As this girl described to me the joy of seeing her grandma walk in the places where she was born, grew up and lived most of her life — a tear welled in her eyes.

True joy is not far removed from the painful realities of life.

Julian of Norwich, living during the so-called “dark” ages in Europe, gave people who came to her cloister window these simple words: All will be well. And this ‘wellness’ of which she spoke, I believe, was not based on being lucky or shrewd in avoiding the mishaps and dangers of life. “All is well with my soul” is a confidence that we are not alone amidst the mishaps and dangers of life.

The truth is, we are already saved. In the Gospel text, Jesus tells the seventy missionaries to “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v.20).

The truth is, I’m-okay-you’re-okay not because we are good at pretense. The truth is, I’m-okay-you’re-okay not because we have somehow conquered the demons in our lives, once and for all. The truth is, I’m-okay-you’re -okay not because we are super-Christians with an incredible faith to overcome everything bad in our lives. The truth is, I’m okay-you’re-okay not because everything is perfect in our lives and therefore we can always be happy and never sad.

The truth is, Jesus did all those things we delude ourselves into thinking we must do in order to be saved. Jesus saved us “while we are sinners” (Romans 5:8). Jesus loves us and saves us not in spite of our sin, but because we are sinners.

This is good news: We have an eternal relationship with the God of all creation because of who God is, and not because of anything we have done. This is cause not only for meaning, inspiration and motivation in a life of faithful service “in his name”, but of unspeakable joy.

Jesus was clear in his admonition: Don’t rejoice in what you have done — defeating demons, stepping on snakes and scorpions without getting hurt. This will only lead to a self-centered disappointment and depression. Because while our successes may give us a temporary high, what we do is ultimately not the point of Christian Faith.

The joy I have discovered in a life of faith is this: I’m not alone on this journey called life. My life is connected to something much larger than me and beyond what I can do. My life belongs — to the community of faith with whom I share opportunities to grow, to learn, to serve, to shed tears, to have fun, to find meaning in life; and, to God who holds all of creation ultimately with loving intention and purpose. I’m an important part of that whole; but it’s not just about ‘random’ me and what I make of it.

There’s this integrity to all of life that gives me profound joy, a confidence that our names are already written in heaven.

I thank you, God, for the gift of faith.