The fig tree calls out

Hear today some wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh:

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet, if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. 

“Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. This is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

When 21-year-old Sharif Said was gunned down near the Trainyards in Ottawa four years ago, his uncle spoke to the media on behalf of the family.[1]What surprised me in his testimony was how he defended not only his nephew, around whom rumours swirled that he was involved in a gang.

But then he defended those arrested for his nephew’s murder. He said that they were also victims. Khalid Mohammad and Abdulaziz Abdullah, both in their twenties and arrested for Said’s murder, were victims themselves of a “senseless violence”, the uncle said. As a result they could not value life as “precious”.

A subtle twist in the tone of the message changes the direction of the conversation about these things. Making sense of any criminal act, to begin with, can leave us confused and hopeless. And we desperately seek to be on the right side of ‘right and wrong’. We do that most effectively by assigning blame.

Then, you throw into the mix a statement coming from ‘the victim’ that offers sympathy to the perpetrators, a word that levels the moral playing field, we don’t know what to do with that.

Are we all, each and every one of us, part of a culture that creates these problems? Do we all participate on both sides—all sides—of the moral equation? Isn’t that too confusing and wishy-washy? Forgiveness, and mercy, wreak havoc on any common-sense pursuit for laying blame. An act of kindness and forbearance in the midst of senseless tragedy takes the wind out of retribution.

Admittedly, we may feel more at home with the way the ancient prophets used the image of a barren fig tree.[2]One way we tend to lean is towards despair. The prophet Micah feels lonely and depressed in the face of scarcity and evil:

‘Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered,      after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.’

Or, we lean towards vengeance. You can hear it in Isaiah’s tone when he speaks of his ‘beloved’ vineyard. Despite all his hard work to create conditions for abundant growth it yielded only wild, undesirable, grapes:

‘And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down …’

Indeed aren’t these the usual go-to’s when bad things happen to good people—we either slip into despair or shake our fists in anger against someone or something we blame?

When an Ethiopian airliner filled with people crashes and all are killed including eighteen Canadians onboard. When Galileans are slaughtered in cold blood by the hand of Pilate and the Tower of Siloam falls and kills innocent pilgrims at the pool of healing.[3]When randomly, bad things happen, and we can’t really make sense of it. Well, we try.

Do you despair? Or do you get angry and try to find who or what to blame? The people in the Gospel text today tried to get Jesus in on their blame-game and despair-mongering ways.

And Jesus comes back to the ancient, scriptural image of the fig tree again. When he first mentions the fig tree, the crowd must have gotten really excited. Because they knew where this story was going, knowing their prophets Micah and Isaiah: Despair. Vengeance. The lead-up sounds good.

But Jesus pulls the rug out from underneath their expectations. The twist Jesus offers to the familiar image of the barren fig tree is his emphasis on forbearance and mercy. Staving off a swift impulse to cut the tree down after three years of neglect and barrenness, the vineyard’s stewards will give the fig tree yet another year’s chance to bear fruit. The fig tree is given yet another second chance. The hope is that the fig tree will be rehabilitated.

It is important to note, moreover, that in the parable it is the gardener who allows for the possibility of fruitfulness. Not the fig tree. It can’t do anything, by itself. It is stuck in a cycle of barrenness (aka poverty, violence). First, the gardener has to plead his case, be the tree’s advocate, to the owner of the field. Then, the gardener has to do the work. By constant care, digging around the roots and applying manure, the gardener employs all the gifts and resources at their disposal to allow for a positive outcome.[4]

The fig tree calls to us. Who or what does the fig tree represent in our lives? Now, parables are not meant to be taken literally, so we can rule out any divine gardening tips here. This parable won’t appear in a google search for ‘how to grow a fig tree’.

Who is the barren fig tree in your life?

When and where do you sense in your life or another’s, a feeling of being at wit’s end? When all resources have been explored and used up. When a group of people or individual cannot to do it on their own any longer. When someone is stuck in cycles of behaviour that they cannot see the way out, by themselves. When a call for help is evident by a lack of fruitfulness in their lives.

You will notice that this parable comes to a rather abrupt end. The narrative is not neatly tied up into a certain, ‘happy’ ending. We just don’t know whether the fig tree will produce after all this advocacy and gardening work is done. You could say, it’s up to us to write the ending to this story. Will it be judgement? Or, salvation?

Every time we worship together, though, we pray not ‘mykingdom come’, not ‘our kingdom come’, but ‘Thy kingdom come’. Jesus tells a parable about a gardener determined to tend a fruitless fig tree because he is open to a future possibility that he does not control.

Our task, as American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry says it best, “is to labor, without having all the answers, to acknowledge the deep mystery of it all. The task of the disciple is to witness and then wait, to take our best step and leave the rest to God. We labor now for a future we are not meant to control.”[5]

When forgiveness and mercy dictate public discourse in the media and in response to horrific, tragic and painful events around the world and in our lives, we may not be able to explain it easily. But maybe that’s not our job.

Maybe our job is to seek understanding in the other, and thereby show our love. Maybe our job in the church and as Christians is to speak and work for God’s values for the sake of others amidst pain and suffering.

And in hope and trust, let God write the end of the story.

 

[1]cbc.ca, posted May 7, 2015

[2]Micah 7:1; Isaiah 5:1-7

[3]Luke 13:1-9, Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]Daniel G. Deffenbaugh in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.96.

[5]Michael B. Curry in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.95-97.

Here we (and God) go again

The horrible evil unleashed in Christchurch, New Zealand, this past weekend exposes so much that is wrong in our world. And in our relationship with those who are different from us. And in our relationship with God. When worshippers are gunned down in their house of prayer, to do anything now but grieve alongside and stand in solidarity with the sufferers exposes in us a serious God-image problem.

Our God-image problem, as Christians, starts with our understanding of God’s holy word. And specifically, our over-simplistic judgement of Jesus’ opponents. Typically, in the New Testament, these are the Pharisees. And we succumb to what I call the ‘black helmet syndrome’.

The ‘black helmet syndrome’ comes from how the bad guys are usually portrayed in popular culture—in old tv shows and movies like Star Wars. For example, the bad guys all wear the same uniform, usually the same colour, and we normally don’t see their faces because they are hidden behind some helmet or mask. They march to the same tune and move the same, predictable ways. They behave, essentially, like robots.

We know nothing of their unique personalities (unless a story evolves and develops, like Star Wars eventually does) and never gain insight into their unique personalities. They are trapped in their badness because individuals yield to the pressure to conform.

When we read the bible like that, it’s easy to lump all the Pharisees together under one over-arching label: bad guy. But that’s not the case, if we read the narrative more closely and contemplatively.

Portrayed in several Gospel stories as the antagonists, the Pharisees do scrutinize and criticize Jesus. Yes. But there are layers to that antagonism, even to the point of sympathy for Jesus. That is what first caught my attention in the Gospel text assigned for today, the Second Sunday in Lent.[1]

It was the Pharisees who warned Jesus he should get out of town because Herod wanted to kill him.[2]Jesus, after all, has become a useful target and a convenient scapegoat for the powerful elite. Let the restless crowds project their anxiety, their anger and fear onto the troublemaker Jesus rather than those holding tentatively to power.

Do you sense the growing tension? Jesus’ enemies have throughout his ministry flocked to him, hung on his every word and literally breathed down his neck. There is a power struggle strangling Jerusalem, and everyone, especially Herod Antipas, is looking over their shoulders.

The fact that Jesus had sympathizers and supporters  in the halls of power shouldn’t come to us as a surprise. After all, Joseph of Arimathea, on whose land Jesus was buried, exercised power in Jerusalem and had Pilate’s ear.[3]Joseph of Arimathea, we sense, was partial to Jesus and what he was all about. Nicodemus, who often questioned Jesus[4], in the end helped the Arimathean bury Jesus with respect and according to tradition. Who Jesus is and what he says somehow touches the hearts of those like Nicodemus.

These sympathizers, however, are caught between two worlds, two kingdoms. They have benefited from their privileged status, to be sure. They wouldn’t easily give that up, nor would they necessarily want to. And yet, this preacher from Nazareth who gives hope and the promise of God’s love to the downtrodden stirs something irresistible deep within them.

“Tell that fox, Herod …,” Jesus snipes.[5]“Tell him what’s really going to happen sooner than later. Tell him the truth about God and God’s intention.” Jesus gives a warning, and gives it to these ‘sitters-on-the-fence’ Pharisees to convey his cutting words.

At the first, we witness Jesus throwing his allies the proverbial ticking time bomb. For when they bring Jesus’ message to Herod, they would be bringing upon themselves unwelcome attention and even scrutiny. A shadow would pass over them, the seed of suspicion planted. “What were they doing so close to Jesus in the first place?” “Whose side are they really on?” And the political machine might start turning against them. The balance shifts ever so subtly, and the irreversible track to their eventual demise begins.

Indeed, Jesus’ words for these sympathizers lead them to a place of discomfort, to say the least. And Jesus knows what he is doing. These ‘good’ Pharisees must now face their own demons and answer to themselves. They must choose.

It’s as if Jesus is forcing their hands to come clean: Whose kingdom will you serve, now? Will you follow the values of Herod and the political self-serving machine of Jerusalem? Or, will you follow in the realm of God? Whose kingdom will you seek? The kingdom of hate? Or, the kingdom of love? And, are you prepared to let go of your privileged status, for my sake? And the sake of the Gospel?

We also live between two worlds. Being a follower of Christ creates tension before release and peace.

What about you? Where are you feeling the pinch in your life today? Where is your journey taking you? Where in your life is Jesus pushing you to decide in your heart whom you will follow—the voice of ambition and accumulation, the voice of privilege and protecting it at all costs, the voice of acquisition and preservation?

Or, will you follow the values represented by Jesus and the kingdom of God—the voice of compassion and forgiveness, the voice of reason and discernment, the voice of restorative justice and peace, of personal responsibility and collective wisdom?

We’ve seen this narrative repeat throughout the bible. Jesus even implies the repetitive nature of this story when in his lament, Jesus says, “How many times / How often have I desired  you….”[6]

Not only was this one of several, actual visits Jesus made to Jerusalem in Luke’s writing, the cycle has been going on since ancient times. God’s relationship with Israel reflects a similar pattern: At one point, they are not God’s people; at the next, they are God’s people, again.

The prophets preached God’s word to the people like a broken record: Judgement; Forgiveness. Destruction; Restitution. Rejection; Restoration. “How often have we been down this road before,” it’s as if Jesus were lamenting. Here we go again.

And yet, herein lies the grace, the Gospel, the good news: In confessing that we have an image problem with Jesus’ enemies—that we far too often succumb to the ‘black helmet syndrome’— we also must confess our image problem with God.

Because God is not some cosmic police officer ready to pounce on us should we be caught speeding. God is not some old man sitting on a throne pointing a finger of judgement and accusation. God is not about retributive, punitive justice. A tit-for-tat God who stokes the fire of revenge and escalating violence. God is not an exclusive God for only the rich, the famous, the perfect.

We learn three things that I can tell about God’s love from this passage. First, God’s love is true. God loves us, not to control us, but to free us. God’s love gives us the freedom to choose our way. God’s love allows us to figure it out for ourselves. God’s love lets us own it for ourselves, so our action is authentic and true. And then God’s grace follows.

We are not robots, mindlessly marching to some pre-determined rhythm of God’s master plan. We are not mindless creatures who can’t make own decisions. We are not co-dependent in some unhealthy, enmeshed relationship with a controlling God. As God’s love increases, so does our freedom. Union is not a breakdown of personal initiative and unique expression. Rather, God’s love is about ‘letting go’. This is true sacrifice.

Second, and consequently, God lets us fail if fail we will. If there is anything we learn about God’s love from Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem is that  Jesus’ sadness is the sadness of God. God grieves with us when we live the unfortunate consequences of our poor decisions. God understands and is ever near, especially when we fall to the bottom of our lives. That’s what they say about tears—they bear witness to how deep one’s love is for the other.

Finally, God never gives up on us. God is faithful. God will keep giving us second chances to grow and deepen our relationship with God, with one another, with ourselves and with this world we inhabit. God will always be there to give us those opportunities to make it better, to choose better. God will never abandon us on this journey.

As we follow Jesus on his path with ours this Lenten season, may we hold on, if anything, to this wonderful promise of God’s never-ending love for all people.

 

[1]Luke 13:31-35; the Gospel reading according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[2]Luke 13:31

[3]John 19:38-42

[4]John 3 & 7

[5]Luke 13:32

[6]Luke 13:34

Surrender, to be free indeed: a sermon for Reformation Sunday

I am grateful that by some coincidence the choir sang today a piece whose title was, “I surrender to Jesus”. And, indeed, the thread that runs through the whole song is the act of of surrendering. This theme might, on the surface, appear incongruent and disconnected with Reformation Sunday.

As a child, I remember Reformation Sundays in the Lutheran Church were indeed ‘celebrations.’ As if we were remembering and celebrating a victory on the battlefield of religious truth. Against our opponents in the religious marketplace.

When we retold the stories of Martin Luther who five hundred years ago stood up to communicate his theological emphasis — that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to scripture alone — the upshot was that those who didn’t believe this were lost, even despised. Worthy of our judgement. Illumination translated into pressure to conform, need to compete and become embroiled in violent conflict.

Indeed the history of the Reformation in the decades and centuries following Martin Luther’s assertions reflects violence. Wars, based more on political and economical divisions, were fought in the name of Protestant or Catholic truth. Blood was shed. Common folk lost their livelihoods even their lives in the upheavals of the so-called religious wars across Europe. Marching into battle to defend truth became the vision and basis for ‘celebrating’ the Reformation.

Martin Luther’s unfortunate anti-semitism whose words the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada repudiated became grounds for hatred against Jewish people to this day, such as in Pittsburgh yesterday. Indeed hatred and violence are as much a legacy of the Reformation as anything else.

Surrendering is indeed counterpoint to the flavour of victory. The cross always stands in contrast to the wiles of glory-seeking fanatics. It is not an easy path: Waving a white flag in the wind may feel like we are ‘giving up’ on who we are, or not caring anymore, or losing our identity. And, here, it doesn’t matter whether we surrender spiritually to Jesus or surrender to anyone on earth. It is the act of surrender that offends our sense of being. And scares us.

That is why, perhaps, we react to this notion that surrender is a good thing. And so, we keep fighting, defending, being all self-righteous. And violent against others, in word and deed. When all along, the truth of it and the real problem is: We find it difficult to admit that in some things we were, and are, wrong.

Martin Luther didn’t want to create a new church. If he knew today that his actions resulted not only in the proliferation of some 30,000 Christian denominations and a plethora of Protestant churches across the globe, but that there was even a church named after him—he would be rolling around in his grave. And yet we trust that despite Luther’s good intentions to merely reform the Roman Catholic Church of which he wanted to remain a member, what has happened is part of something much larger than Luther himself.

The truth is, when we take the risk to do what we are called to do, we fall into a larger reality, a larger good, that is beyond our control. Do we do good, or even pray, in order to control the outcome? Do we do good, and pray, so that what we want to happen will turn out? And if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with the prayer, or God? Is the religious life about an escape plan from this world into heaven? Because following Jesus is not management-by-objective. We don’t pray and do good to get an insurance policy for heaven.

Rather, we do what we must do because we are stepping into the flow of a greater good in which we participate. We move into active response to God’s love and grace because whatever we do is not for our sake alone. When we do good and pray, for example, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Following Jesus is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water.

The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. It enlivens us with refreshment and purpose. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is the ocean of complete, loving union with God.

We can also learn from the example of Jesus. In the Gospel text for Reformation Day (John 8:31-36) , those who oppose Jesus try to draw him into an argument. Jesus suggests they are not free. They are slaves to sin. His opponents reply by saying they are descendants of Abraham and therefore have never been slaves to anyone.

They are blind to their own inner captivity. They can’t see how enslaved they actually are. Indeed they are not free to grow, in Christ. Because they are right. And everyone else is wrong. They are their own worst enemy.

When Jesus hangs on the cross, and prays to God, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” (Luke 23:46) he expresses a profound and deep surrender, a letting go, into the immeasurable vastness that is God. From his moment of ‘forsakenness’ (Mark 15:34) that we all must one day experience we learn that faith is not about belief at all. It is about trust and love.

This is a surrendering that does not compromise in any way who we are. Letting go is not ‘giving up’, as if we don’t care anymore about whatever it is we’ve been so inclined to manage and control.

Surrendering to God is releasing our managerial faculties. It is like forgiveness, when we let go of the resentment that keeps us trapped in wanting revenge and retribution. Surrendering to God is an expression of complete trust in that which is wonderfully greater than anything we can imagine let alone accomplish on our own.

Over twenty years ago, Carl Sagan’s book, Contact, was made into a movie. This is basically a story of aliens who send the makings of an interstellar vehicle to earth. Engineers and scientists figure out how to complete this egg-shaped pod that would transport one person through gateways and wormholes to other worlds in the universe.

It is during the inaugural flight that the character played by Jodie Foster discovers a solution to a serious problem. She discovers that what humans think is a sensible, reasonable thing to do actually is the problem.

You see, in this orb that would be Jodie Foster’s mode of travel, there was at first no chair, or anything to keep her in place. And how could someone travel at untold speeds to unimaginable, unknown places without some way to secure her body? Otherwise she could seriously hurt herself tumbling about inside.

So the engineers and scientists construct an elaborate chair which they fasten to the inside of the capsule.

As expected, during the initial flight, Jodie Foster’s character experiences an excruciating degree of turbulence and vibration, to the point where she might expire from the stress of it.

At the height of the extreme shaking, a pendant that had been around her neck comes loose. And floats in front of her eyes. Surprisingly it isn’t subjected to the violent turbulence. It isn’t moving at all. Just floating, suspended in space. It is still. Peaceful.

An idea comes to her in a flash. Without hesitating she unbuckles her chest strap, and releases her body from the chair. From that moment on, her body is finally free from being confined to the chair. She could then fully appreciate, enjoy and embrace the wonder of her interstellar experience.

She understands now that the aliens knew what they were doing in sending a chair-less vessel to earth. They had indeed done their homework before coming to make contact with humans. In unbinding herself, she discovers she can trust them, the experience, and the greater good of what was happening to her.

Had she fixated on remaining bound in the chair, she would not have been able to discover the wonders of the universe to its fullest. Worse, she could have died.

She had to let go. She had to surrender any notion of security to survive. She had to take the risk to unbind herself. She had to trust, and have faith, that in the letting go, she would find peace. And be free.

We don’t have to be right. Only faithful. That when we surrender to Jesus we express in our praying and in our work a trust that we, and the whole universe, are held in the loving embrace of God.

From the scrap heap of metal, we find two pieces. These pieces are ready to be disposed of. The bare bones. The raw material. Broken pieces. These pieces represent our broken, common humanity.

We can do something with these pieces, to be sure. These scraps of metal can be used to brace structures of our own doing—reinforce supporting walls, strengthen sides in a piece of furniture, cover holes and be painted over in appealing colours.

But when these scraps are left alone, God makes something out of nothing. From the ‘scrap’ consciousness. You see, it is no good when these pieces are already made into something by our own hands. But in our dissembled lives, when either the world only sees just scraps and/or we only see the broken dissembled pieces of our lives.

It is only when we let go and let be ‘just as we are’ that God does something with us through the cross. We then become part of the greater flow of love running forever towards God.

Cornered?

Have you ever wondered why this building was designed to be more-or-less round? Well, don’t you know, “The devil can’t corner you in here!” we say.

Like in the boxing ring, the combatants in the corner are at either end of the victory-defeat spectrum: In the corner they either have the upper hand, literally. Or, they are on the verge of collapsing in a heap.

Being in the corner is an undesired position. Cornering someone is to put them at a disadvantage. The one being cornered is vulnerable. Being cornered is to admit there are no options left.

We also use the phrase to mock contractors and builders worried only about the bottom line when they ‘cut corners’. Cutting corners may serve the bottom line, but in the long run cutting corners is a prescription for guaranteed repair and reconstruction work sooner than later.

At the same time, the latest fashion in contemporary urban design values right angles and sharp lines. The new buildings are rather square and boxy, aren’t they? Meaning, lots of straight lines. But a straight line can’t go on forever. Therefore, lots of corners.

People in many non-Western cultures don’t build as many corners as we do. The Zulus in southern Africa, for example, live in a less-carpentered world. They live in a history and culture where straight lines and right angles are scarce, if not entirely absent. (1)

What would it be like to live in a non-linear world? Where our material culture presents more rounded, softer, curved constructions such as our building!

And yet, there is a gift in the message of a corner. Not only can corners get us stuck. But they also are an indisputable sign that there’s always a corner to be turned. In truth, this is what we say, don’t we, when things are just starting to get better: “We’ve turned the corner on this.” When things are not yet better, we wonder: “When will I turn the corner on my illness, my fear, my problem, my troubled feelings, my strained relationships?”

Turning the corner means, nevertheless, there’s no turning back. Once you’ve crossed the line, there’s no going back to the way it used to be. That could be good. It can also be scary. Corners are necessary to find a way through a predicament, such as in a maze. Corners define clearly where one eventually needs to go, like it or not.

The story of Jesus’ resurrection is a huge corner turned in the cosmos of all that was, and is, and is to come. History is forever changed by the empty tomb. The ether of our very existence is transformed into the triumph of good that can be, for all time, for all people, and in every place. All the evil forces that led to Jesus’s crucifixion no longer need to triumph in the world today.

They say any lead in playoff hockey is a dangerous lead, as the first few games of the NHL playoffs have shown. More often than not the lead does not stand. If a team does have the lead however small, they are coached to employ the killer instinct:

Don’t let up. Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t sit back. Finish off your opponent with indiscriminating, ruthless power. Once they’re down, make sure they stay down. Hate your opponent. Don’t give them a chance to come back. Don’t be merciful, kind, generous, compassionate. Above all, don’t feel sorry for your opponent’s misgivings.

This is the philosophy of competitive play in professional sports. Why professional athletes and teams are so popular and generate billions of dollars in our economy is precisely because we humans are really good at believing this philosophy if not doing it from time to time.

Easter is God’s come-from-behind victory. The way of non-violence, of loving self-giving, and of trust in God is a victory against all the odds. It is, frankly, an unbelievable, unexpected move from our human perspective. Jesus’ demonstration of non-violence, of loving self-giving, and of trust in God is validated and redeemed by his resurrection. The surprising, brilliant victory of Easter morning is a poignant witness to what God is really all about.

The way of violence of our will/my will over yours, of greedy acquisition for more, of cynical mistrust of others — this is the way of the world that crashes in a heap of defeat in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. Now, the way of God is before us.

Resurrection says a lot about the nature of God’s purposes. Because Jesus lives. And Jesus is Lord. We therefore gather today to affirm that God’s purposes are good. And, in the end, it is not all doom and gloom. In the end, God comes through.

One thing I like about the re-modelled communion rail around the chancel, is that we have those corners at both sides. Some have said they don’t like it at the corner, because they feel squeezed out. Well, we can help each other with that. What the corners force us to do is pay more attention to who is standing beside us; and make room for them. And that’s not a bad thing!

What these corners force us to do, is to face and look at each other when we are standing or kneeling at the altar. We are not just individuals coming to face the Lord God one-on-one in a straight line, not seeing nor even respective of who comes along beside us. Now, it’s no longer just about ‘me and sweet Jesus’.

It’s about ‘us’ and sweet Jesus. And Jesus is not always sweet. We are a community gathered around one table, a people who embody the living Body of Christ in the world today. We are also the broken body of Jesus, whose power is shown through human weakness (1 Corinthians 1:18-29). What better place than to see our sisters and brothers in Christ, eye-to-eye, and practice right here what it means to pray for others, to encourage them, to recognize our unity in the living God.

And then take in word and deed that awareness and message from this place, into the world out there: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

1 — Wayne Weiten & Doug McCann, “Psychology: Themes and Variations” 3rd Edition (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2013), p.168

Why? To melt hearts of stone

In a typical Canadian winter at this time of year, salt and light (Matthew 5:13-20), of course, serve a particular purpose.

It doesn’t matter how cold it can still get in February, if the sun is shining then the snow and ice will melt under the strengthening, radiant beams of warm light. And, with the occasional freezing rain still in the offing, that bag of salt sitting on the porch or in the garage can come in handy, to sprinkle on the walkways and driveways — to melt the ice.

Salt and light, in any given context, serves a specific purpose. I can remember when the kids were younger, one of ours had the habit of picking anything and everything up off the ground and putting it in her mouth.

I can remember needing to intervene when she was in her exploratory mode, walking down the sidewalk in the middle of winter. “Don’t eat it! That is road salt, dear. Not table salt.”

We are called to be like salt and light in the world. But that gift will serve a specific purpose, according to the context and circumstance of our lives.

How can we know what that gift is, and for what purpose it serves? It can be challenging to claim that gift for our lives, and then have the courage to use it. This can be difficult because the world and the dominant powers of culture may not support it. The gift and purpose may seem small in comparison to the dominant climate of coldness, hatred and violence so prevalent in the culture today.

Julian of Norwich in her first of Divine Revelations writes about the small hazelnut. She writes, that God “showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand …. I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.”

It may seem pallid at first, even pointless. But there is power in small. Ezekiel writes, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you …” (Ezekiel 11:19;36:26-27).

In words that may make better sense in our Canadian winter, God is promising us that God will melt our hearts of stone-cold bitterness, resentment, fear and hatred. And put the warmth of God’s light in Christ and the loving power of the Spirit to change our lives, and the world around us.

Salt and light are gifts that are subtle and small, yes, similar to the smallness of the hazelnut. And yet, these are gifts you cannot easily hide. Nor will they go away. They are public gifts, not private, in scope. They affect the whole experience of living.

You cannot add salt to soup, and not notice a difference. You cannot throw ice-melter on the driveway, and not notice some change on the ground. You cannot stop the sun from shining, and not stop the smile that comes on a sunny day after weeks of dark, grey, cloudy existence.

Faith Lutheran has a renovated gift, the gift of a safe and modernized building — a gift, yes. But why will it be used? How will our (Faith Lutheran’s) soon return to that site on 43 Meadowlands Drive restore something that was missing in the neighbourhood while we were here (at Julian)? Or, does it? What difference does that gift make to the world around us?

Our gift has a purpose. And that purpose is meant to catch the attention of a world that is shrouded in cloudy days and numbed to the slippery vices of distraction, delusion and fear.

Why is this important? How is it worthwhile? In an age when the church in North America is facing challenge and change, perhaps it is time again to focus on the WHY. It has been argued that people don’t buy-in to the WHAT we do but the WHY we do it. (1)

We need to be clear about that. The only way we can know WHAT do do with our faith, the church and our buildings is first to claim, embrace and communicate clearly the WHY of our faith. The WHY.

In the aftermath of the tragic violence in Quebec last weekend, the premier challenged his province, indeed our whole society, to reflect and consider again how we treat one another in a culturally diverse community. How we treat one another through the changes and stresses of life that can be disruptive. How we treat one another who are different and come from different walks of life, religious experience and ethnic diversity.

Observing how we do what we do may also give us a clue to the WHY. I believe the church has a lot to offer this world of ours, as salt and light. St. Paul encourages the fledgling, conflict-ridden Corinthian church to claim their identity they already have, in Jesus: “We have the mind of Christ,” he concludes (1 Corinthians 2:16). And Jesus, in short, came to show the love and grace of God to a world so hung up on achieving, earning, competing, judging, proving themselves, excluding others and fighting.

I believe the church has a lot to offer this world. To reflect Christ, the light of the world: to receive the love of God, to accept the love of God, and then demonstrate that compassion and love to the world. It is behind everything we do in the church. Everything. Let’s not forget that.

To melt hearts of stone.
(1) Simon Sinek, “Start With Why” (New York: Penguin, 2009), p.58

Exposing the agenda of hate

A recent song by American singer-songwriter Soufjan Stevens is entitled: “There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross.” Today, on Good Friday, we all stand in the shadow of the Cross of Jesus. But there’s no shade in this shadow.

If you want a comfortable religion that just makes you feel good, then you dare not approach the Cross of Christ, and you dare not pray.

Encountering Jesus on the Cross is not pablum for the soul nor is it expressing mere platitude for an easy life. The cross is not an exercise of remembering something that happened long ago (and therefore doesn’t really mean anything for me today). We are not merely going through the motions, on Good Friday.

The cross, in all its bloody, bear and stark reality, exposes the darkness within each one of us, today. The cross exposes the human problem of hatred. You will not find relief here today. No shade. No comfort. Only sin. Only hate. In the world. And, within you.

The longer we live in this world, we are forced to asked the question: What makes many people so mean? What creates mean-spirited people? “I want to hurt you!” What is behind hate?

Hate – I just called it ‘mean-spiritedness’. Maybe that is what we see more often than overt hatred. Mean-spiritedness is, unfortunately, here to stay.

Hate is, for some reason, helpful. Hate works. In a lot of immediate and seemingly good ways. It unites a group very quickly. Far quicker than love, you must know that. Hate immediately and easily resolves the inner struggle between the little devil on one shoulder persuading you to do something other than what the little angel on the other shoulder is saying. 

Mean-spiritedness is formed by contraction, ‘against-ness’. Love, on the other hand, is formed by expansion. Love doesn’t come easily, because you have to let down your boundaries. And no one wants to do that.

Contraction — whereby you can eliminate another person, write them off, exclude them, torture them, expel them, ‘vote them off the island’, immediately gives one a sense of boundaried definition, boundaried superiority, even.

Hatred — mean-spiritedness — gives a person identity even if it is a negative one (“I am not that, I am not like them, I am against so-and-so, etc.”). And we’d sooner have a negative identity than feel vulnerable, like nothing, empty. Just who we are, in God.

Hatred takes away all doubt, and free-floating anxiety. Even if in a false way. It feels superior. And feels in control. Hate settles the dust, and the ambiguity that none of us likes. Hate is much more common and — I’m sad to have to say this as a pastor — it is much more immediately effective than love. Immediately.

Hate makes the world go round. Just read the front pages of morning paper this week, scroll through the news feeds on your tablet or flip the channels at 6 o’clock every day. It’s largely about who is hating whom.

You could say that Jesus came to resolve the central problem of hate — this problem that has defined humanity since the beginning of history. There’s really no other way: To save us from ourselves. To save us from one another. And to, therefore, save us.

Until and unless we are saved from our need to hate. 

That’s why people even made religion into a cover for their need to be hateful. I’m hating for Allah, and so it’s ok. And yes, I’m hating for Jesus. Christian history, too, is not free from violence (the Crusades, the witch-hunts, Protestant-Catholic European wars, the residential schools — the list goes on). “I’m hating for Christianity — so my hatred is good hatred.” It happens every day. It’s almost the name of the game.

The ultimate disguise, whereby you can remain a hateful, mean-spirited person is to do it to protect the church, or to protect the country. All those good excuses. So, you are relieved of all anxiety: “I am still a holy person.” Even though, underneath, in the deeper stream, you are a hateful person. But you don’t have to see that. That’s what Scott Peck called, years ago, “People of the Lie”.

We have done so much utopian talk about Jesus and love. But Jesus had a very hard time getting to the issue of love. First, he had to expose and destroy the phenomenon of hate. Which I think is the meaning of the Cross.

Once he exposed the lie and the illusion of hatred, love could show itself clearly. But until then, you can’t. The pattern is still the same. As Jesus shockingly put it, “Satan is the real prince of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11).

Hate, it seems, is the daily, ordinary agenda. Love is the totally enlightened, entirely non-sensical way out of the ordinary agenda. The Gospel presents the dilemma in a personal and cathartic Passion narrative that grounds the whole issue in history, and in one man’s enlightened response to that history. 

One man, Jesus — fully divine and fully human, accepts the religious and social judgement of hate. We have both church and state, both Caiaphas and Pilate. Both power systems declaring Jesus unworthy, declaring him a sinner, wrong, the problem. The very one that you and I call the most perfect man who ever lived is judged by power at the highest levels to in fact be the problem. 

Jesus bears the consequences of hatred, publicly. But in an utterly new way that transforms the pattern. And therefore for us, transforms the possibilities. For two thousand years, Jesus has remained the most striking icon of a possible new agenda. His death exposed the lie and the problem like never before.

His risen life told people that life could have a different story line. Jesus did not just give us textbook answers from a distance. But he personally walked through the process of being rejected and then said, ‘follow me’. And there’s something you only know having been in that position.

What is behind hate? I believe fear is almost always behind hate. It’s not easy to get to that deeper river of fear. It’s not easy to recognize the subtle fears: Afraid of not looking good. Afraid of not being in control. Afraid of not having the right word. All those are fears. But they are subtle.

And the only way to see them is to go right into your own poverty of spirit — blessed are they who do so, Jesus said (Matthew 5:3).

Sometimes it looks like it’s control that’s behind hatred. But even control freaks like myself are usually afraid of losing something. Just go deeper, and you’ll see. It is almost always fear that justifies our knee-jerk hateful response. 

Fear is hardly ever recognized as such. As Paul says in Second Corinthians — ‘the angel of darkness must always be disguised as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14). The best and most convincing disguise, of course, is virtue itself, or godliness. Then, it never looks like fear. 

For fear to survive, it has to look like reason, or reasonableness, prudence, common sense, intelligence, the need for social order, responsible stewardship, morality, religion, obedience, or even justice and spirituality. It always works. Just give it the nice cover, and you don’t have to face underneath it, what is craven fear.

What better way to veil vengeance, and a vengeful spirit than to call it justice. You hear it on the news every night, “I just want justice.” One wonders whether the inner need to punish the other, to hurt the other, has ever been recognized. Let’s be honest: It’s in everyone of us in this room. When someone has made you afraid, you want to hurt them back. To be trapped in our need for vengeance, is to always be afraid. It’s necessarily to be afraid. No wonder fear is the name of the game in almost all of the world. 

And that demon is not exorcised easily. Until you name the demon and admit the demon is there, you have no power of exorcising the demon. It’s clear, in Jesus’ exorcisms. You must name the demon correctly. When you pretend the demon isn’t there, you’ll never do any good exorcism. That’s largely what we do. It’s called, denial.

Only people who are honest and vulnerable about their own fear, and confess their need to control all outcomes, only those practiced in letting go, can go beyond the agenda of hate. Jesus himself prayed hanging on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Psalm 31:5). This is about letting go of our opinions, our need for getting back, our need to exclude, circle the wagons, and point the finger.  

Jesus prayed, too, from the cross: “Father, forgive them — they don’t know what they are doing!” (Luke 23:34). Only people practised in letting go will be taking the first step in the new agenda of love and forgiveness. This agenda of love, Jesus made possible for us. “Perfect love casts out fear,” scripture promises us (1 John 4:18).

The Cross, today on Good Friday, calls us to trust Jesus. To not have anyone that you can trust is necessarily to be afraid, to be vengeful. Christianity at its best aims to free individuals from their small, fragile, sinful selves, and points to a larger identity in Christ Jesus — the only true self — “hidden in Christ with God” (Colossians 3:3) .

Jesus is the only trustworthy lover, the only trustworthy self. Healthy Christianity, like Jesus himself, tells you that there IS someone you can trust. You do not have to create all the good. You do not have to fix all of the bad. You do not have to explain all the failures. You know you are simply in the stream we call the mystery of death and resurrection, the paschal mystery. 

What else would be the beginnings of peace? As long as you think you have to fix everything, control everything, explain everything, and understanding everything, I can promise you, you will never be a peaceful, loving person.

In the shadow of the cross, there is no shade. Indeed. But let’s stay awhile, and open our hearts to Jesus whose love makes us worthy and who is with us, even in the darkness.

Adapted and transcribed from Richard Rohr, “The Central Problem of Hate” track 8 on CD ‘Action & Contemplation’, Meditatio Talk Series 2015

Love confronts violence

You can feel the tension rising. As we make the slow yet certain journey with Jesus to his eventual arrest, trial, sentencing and violent death on the Cross, the assigned texts for Lent heighten the tension between Jesus and his scrutinizing opponents in the religious institution of Jerusalem. This short Gospel from Luke (13:31-35) reflects the tone.

It starts with a warning from the Pharisees. “Get away from here; Herod wants to kill you!” they say to Jesus. They are alarmed yet perhaps enjoying the drama unfolding around their competitor in the religious marketplace. They don’t care about Jesus. They are just pressing his buttons to see his reaction.

Immanent violence is in the air. It’s the only way we know to resolve conflict. Whether with our words, our manipulative behaviour, our compulsiveness and in some cases our outright physical abuses — violence is the unfortunate reality whenever and wherever human beings mix.

I’ve learned in a course on conflict I have been taking, that violence is not just played out on a battlefield between warring groups. Violence does not only happen in a physical way between people or nations, as sure and as horrific as these examples are.

Violence is also something that occurs in our verbal communication — whether of a bullying, judging, teasing, condemning nature, or intentionally hurtful put down. Violent communication creeps into any competitive or self-defensive motivation. Which is usually fuelled by a deep fear.

Not outside of this escalating situation for Jesus, the obvious underdog in the power struggle, he announces words of love. He describes God’s favour towards precisely those who wish him harm. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings …” (v.34)

This maternal, protective, embracing, comforting image of God’s love for us intervenes into a world of violence and abusive cravings for power and corruption. This passionate love of God for us is not because we don’t sin, but especially because of our sin. This love of God is undeserved, and it is almost impossible to fully explain or justify. Precisely because it is exercised amidst a violent world.

“On April 16, 2007, the Virginia Tech massacre occurred in which a distraught student went on a shooting rampage, coldly killing fellow students. As many as fifteen were saved from death by an instinctively protective and caring English professor. 

“Liviu Librescu pressed his body against the door to his classroom while he urged his students to jump out a window to safety. This professor, a Romanian Jew who survived the Nazis in his homeland years earlier, died in his classroom after the killer shot through the door that Librescu was holding shut.

“Selfless love is real. In spite of the horrors of war and other brutal ways that humans treat one another, love is possible. Unselfish people reside everywhere. They love unconditionally, dedicate themselves to alleviating suffering, are willing to give their all for another, intent on being life-givers and spirit-transformers. 

“These are not do-gooders, holier-than-thou people. No, this kind of love is seared by trials, purified by personal growth, shaped by persistent rededication and self-giving that goes beyond required duty. Each day people on this planet open the door of their hearts and love pours forth. No matter how discouraged we might get about the world’s violence and hatred, let us remember that generous love thrives in kind souls and expresses itself daily.

“Caryll Houselander writes: ‘This is the first and last vocation of every Christian, to love, and all other vocations are only a shell in which this vocation, to love, is protected.’

“Our deeds of love may not be as enormous as Liviu Librescu’s, but they still contain great value. The unselfish giving and support we offer occurs within our homes and workplaces, in local grocery stores and on the highways, in hospitals, restaurants and other common places of personal encounter.

“Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was convinced that each act of love had a far reaching effect: ‘If we all carry a little of the burden, it will be lightened. If we share in the suffering of the world, then some will not have to endure so heavy an affliction … You may think you are alone. But we are all members of one another. We are children of God together.'” (1)

Librescu could have heeded warnings, and jumped out the window to safety himself. He could have heard the killer coming closer to his classroom, and acted in self-preservation. But, love for his students overcame his fear. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). 

The first words God speaks to Abraham, the god-father of three world religions, in this version of God’s Promise to Abram is “Do not be afraid” (Genesis 15:1). You would think the more important words of God at this point in the Scriptural tradition is the great Covenant God establishes with the people of Israel through Abraham and Sarah.

Yet, God knows us humans. We are a fearful lot, when propositioned with promises of greatness but which require letting go of seemingly important things. And Abraham would need to lose a lot — home, familiarity, security — in order to travel to the new place God was calling him. “Do not be afraid.” The most often quoted divine instruction throughout the whole bible! “Do not be afraid/Fear not!”

The journey to the Cross, and beyond the Cross is ultimately a journey of love. We can only carry our own crosses the whole way because of the love of God which sustains us. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” writes Saint Paul (Romans 8:38-39). Nothing. Not even all the violence in this world.

Thanks be to God!

(1) Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door”, Sorin Books, Notre Dame IN, 2008, digital copy Week 6 ‘Beyond the Door’ Day 2 ‘Bringing Love’ p.12-13