Fresh air

I am glad to be back to breathe the air in the Ottawa Valley. That is why I live here, truth be told. Even before the plane landed at Ottawa airport last evening, I could feel it in the air.

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There’s nothing in the world like catching the sweet breeze blowing down over James Bay, through the budding pine and spruce trees of the Laurentian’s and over the pristine waters of the Ottawa River.

Not only was the hotel room where my brother and I stayed sealed off to the outside, the air in Washington DC was heavy, stale and full of particle contaminants that caused us some coughing, wheezing and rubbing our itching eyes. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to know the Potomac River basin is ….well, not the Ottawa River and Valley.

Ottawa and Washington DC are both the capital cities of their respective nations. Each reflects by its monuments, memorials and geography the character of the nation it represents. One of the purposes of nationalism, like the rivers that surround the two capital cities, is to separate one from the other. Indeed, the work of creating divisions continues in earnest to this day.

In fact, walls are being built not only in the United States, but all over the world as the USA Today front page reported a couple of days ago.[1]Protectionism and isolationism fueled by fear are on the rise.

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So, the voices of a different vision need to be heard, once again.

One of the most recently constructed memorials in Washington is on the shores of the Potomac River — the Martin Luther King Memorial.

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“No one is free,” said Martin Luther King, “until we are all free.” In other words:

What I want for myself can’t happen, until it can be so for everyone. If there is anyone who suffers in whatever way,

If there is anyone who is not free, in whatever way,

If there are people who are bound, captive to whatever vice, to whatever imprisonment of the soul or in prison because something they have done…

I am going to be healed of whatever ails me, only when I seek the healing of the other, the freeing of the other, the liberation of the other. The church holds up a different vision from that of the divisive, individualistic and exclusive nature of white nationalism in the world today.

You can see, I hope, why the consciousness of the church not only at Faith Lutheran, not only in Ottawa, or in the Eastern Synod or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, but in the United States of America and worldwide is moving to see not a division between things, not building walls between two perceived opposites, but building unity between them.

Not a division between politics and pastoral care,

Not a division between care for the soul and social justice,

Not a division between reaching out and reaching in,

Not a division between speaking out against injustice of whatever kind and speaking to the choir,

Not a division between contemplation and action.

Not an either-or, but a both-and.

Last week when Ken stood here and told you about the different ways we can support the financial health of the congregation, he introduced his well-delivered announcement by saying — “you’ve heard we in the church were never to talk about money, politics and sex (well, he didn’t actually say the last word, but I know you all were thinking it!).

And then a couple weeks before that, Mark stood here and told you about his upcoming trip to Ecuador to build homes in a community destroyed by an earthquake some years ago. And in his well-worded speech he said (I paraphrase): “In this mission trip the group he was going with was not doing mere charity, dollars sent to a far-off location, but directly helping them on the ground and making a real difference in the lives of those who suffer.” Check it out. He said it. I believe he has it all on a piece of paper.

I alone am not telling you all this. Your own members are. Your own church family is slowly but surely breaking down the walls that have divided, distanced and incubated our conversations in the church.

Limited our conversation. Limited our imagination. Limited the ways of God. NOT talking about these things, well, how has that worked out for the church in recent times?

NOT talking about the things that really matter in our daily life, NOT being open and honest, sharing the deepest secrets and burdens of our lives, NOT feeling safe in a community of faith to be who we humanly are, warts and all, imperfect, suffering, in need of God’s love. NOT being like that — how has that worked for the church? How has that worked for you?

It is not easy in the church (although everyone else in our real lives are talking about them!) to talk about money, politics and sex. It is not easy to talk about the real things that matter in this life. And so, the church for many decades has avoided having these conversations. Why? Because we were afraid? Because talking about sex, politics and money would put a mirror in front of us, exposing areas of our life that needed even a bit of God’s light shining upon it?

It’s not easy to talk about these things. I know. I feel it too. But I always thought that that’s what faith was supposed to be about — to confess, be honest, be real, and just do the work of God. How can we do the work of God when we can’t even be honest, and real, and confess ourselves to one another?

We can echo the prophet Isaiah’s complaint to the Lord: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips …”[2]

But he doesn’t stop there. His confession is not just about himself. Faithfulness is not merely individualistic. We don’t come to church to make an individual contract with the Lord.

Isaiah continues in his confession: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Faithfulness drives towards the communal, the community, the well-being of the world. “No one is free, until we are all free.” Not just me, but we!

When we don’t include, welcome and affirm people who are different from us, we are a people of unclean lips.

When we refuse to include conversations about sexuality, money and political action, we are a people of unclean lips.

When we remain quiet in the face of injustice, we are a people of unclean lips.

In other words, this confession of Isaiah implies that he feels he should just ‘shut up and sit down.’ Not say anything. Because he is bad. And Israel is bad.

Maybe you feel this too. Not unlike Isaiah when confronted with a vision of God, you feel, deep down, the church is bad, and has nothing worthwhile to say in the public sphere. Millennials believe that. Just ask your children or your friend’s children. In the past, we church-going Canadians have conveniently said, “That sort of stuff is the government’s job.” We effectively, therefore, excuse ourselves from any social action in the name of Jesus. And continue the dividing.

Martin Luther King also said that in the church it’s alright to talk about the New Jerusalem (pointing to heaven, the afterlife), yes, but one day we also have to talk about the New York or the new Ottawa, the new community in the here and now.

What did Isaiah see in his vision?

Two details in this vision I want to focus on:

First, “the house was filled with smoke.”[3]

Here’s Isaiah who sees God in all God’s glory. How can I understand this vision by analyzing: Why the six wings folded over on various parts of the seraphim? What’s with that?

But the smoke fills the space. Usually, the image of smoke — like the cloud — in the bible is codeword for, “Can’t get this.” I can’t explain what’s going on in the presence of God. I can’t bring all the statistics, analysis, data and information the world can offer, to explain this rationally. But that’s ok. Because that’s not the point.

In 2018, in the wake of the internet revolution, did you know that more than 7 billion humans use the internet; and, that’s 7 and a half percent more, over 2016. Google now processes more than 40 thousand searches EVERY second. And remember, that’s only Google. Include all the other search engines out there, worldwide there are 5 billion searches EVERY day.[4]

We don’t need any more information! The church’s solutions are not found in accruing more data to solve our problems!

Because things happen in life that we can’t understand. The truth about God cannot be conveyed in data streams and pie charts and three point sermons.

Smoke in the house. Mystery. Might it be, that Isaiah and the bible is trying to say: We don’t need to understand everything. We don’t need to know how it makes sense for people of different races, colour, ethnic background, different social economic status, expressing a different sexuality, different ages, different abilities can form one, unified community. We don’t need to know how that can be.

Today is Trinity Sunday. I am not going to stand here and try to explain to you how three different persons can constitute one God. Because I don’t know. All I know is that those different persons are in a unified relationship. Relationship.

The third person, especially, confounds our Lutheran sensibilities. We’ve figured God the Creator. We’ve figured out God the Son, well, as much as we can. But the Holy Spirit throws a wrench into any rationalizations. A mystery, to be sure!

How does it all fit together? How can we analyze this even more? Shouldn’t we first have a detailed plan? Shouldn’t we try to draw a diagram?

We don’t need to know! All we have are the visions. The dreams. The imagination that describes in poetry and colourful words flashes and fragments of God’s kingdom and truth. We don’t need to know. We don’t need to reconcile all the contradictions. We don’t need to make sense of it. We don’t need to provide all the answers. We don’t need to put God in a box, nor explain God to anyone. God doesn’t need that from us.

Why?

Because even though Isaiah is a man of unclean lips (God doesn’t deny it!), even though God’s people have unclean lips, even though we are imperfect individuals in an imperfect church, that isn’t going to stop God. In Section Five of a recent Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis called “Reclaiming Jesus” church leaders from across the United States wrote: “We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not.”[5]

The realm of politics is imperfect. Who would think? Yet, our imperfection is the very reason politics happens. It is not something to avoid, it is something to embrace.

What does God do? Despite Isaiah’s complaints and resistance (just like all the rest of the people in the bible!) …

Despite us!

God reaches down from God’s throne and touches Isaiah’s lips with God’s holiness. God doesn’t steer uncomfortably away from the place of Isaiah’s greatest embarrassment, sin, weakness, brokenness, uncleanliness. God doesn’t avoid the uncomfortable places of our lives. God doesn’t even say anything to that uncleanliness.

God touches it. In the place of our greatest fear, shame, guilt, when we present ourselves in God’s almighty, mysterious presence, honestly and openly — not denying nor avoiding — we place ourselves in a position to be touched by God in the very place of our greatest weakness, to be healed, to be transformed, to be made new.

Even in the vision, the temple and the seraphim cannot contain the ‘bigness of God’. “The train of God’s robe filled the temple.”[6]The image is not meant to convey facts, figures, numbers, measurements, information.. Only our post-enlightenment, rational minds want to go there. But we can’t explain the vision of God. God’s kingdom doesn’t sit comfortably in our rationally justified common-sense policies.

God’s presence enfolds and goes to the edges and bunches up in the corner feeling like it needs to be stretched even beyond the walls of temple.

Whom shall I send? God asks.

Isaiah, transformed by God’s touch, can then say, “Here I am, send me.”[7]

Will we?

The Holy Spirit blows where it will. The wind does not stop at the border. The wind does not end at any walls we build to divide. The Holy Spirit brings fresh air into the stagnant, recycled, stuffy air of our temples. The Holy Spirit blows, fresh air at last, sending us into the world with God’s love, grace and power to change.

I don’t know how the fresh air of the Ottawa Valley is cleaner and sweeter than the air I breathed south of the border, really. But I don’t need to know how. I just know.

And give thanks.

[1]USA Today, May 24, 2018

[2]Isaiah 6:5

[3]Isaiah 6:4

[4]Bernard Marr, Forbes.com, May 21, 2018

[5]ReclaimingJesus.org

[6]Isaiah 6:1

[7]Isaiah 6:8

Mirage gates

When we stayed at our friends’ house in Lago Patria — a suburb of Naples — we felt safe in the gated community in which they lived. Nearly a dozen homes lined the little neighbourly and upscale street where mostly stationed officers and NATO personnel lived during their posting to the base there. We called it, ‘the parco’ — the Italian for ‘park’. An oasis it truly was.


Lining the perimeter of the parco was a tall wall. A large sliding metal door would guard entrance to this haven, and then release us again to the urban jungle that is Naples, where stray dogs roamed and garbage lined the roadways. You get the picture.


In Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall”, he wrestles with our desire to have clearly defined boundaries of what is my place and what is yours; and, why we divide ourselves so. He concludes his poem with a challenge: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out” (1). Good advice.

Indeed, fences and walls serve to keep us from seeing ‘what’s out there’ — and perhaps we want it that way. We don’t want to see what might disturb our comfort. We don’t want to see who might be out there, lurking on the perimeter of our safely constructed lives. We don’t want to see because we are afraid of what truly seeing them might do to change, disrupt and unravel us.

The Gospel text today (Luke 16:19-31) can unravel us, for sure! A poor man named Lazarus makes his temporary home at the gate of a rich man’s house, eating crumbs off the rich man’s table.

The story suggests that the rich man never even sees Lazarus is there, begging, at his gate. Even in the afterlife, as the rich man burns in hell, he doesn’t talk directly to Lazarus, referring to him only in the third person (v.23-24). Even serving his due in hell, the rich man still hasn’t learned his lesson!

Indeed, as Jesus says later in Luke, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (18:25). How can the rich and the poor bridge the gap? How can we break down the barriers that separate us? How can we ‘see’ better — by this I mean: develop the eye of the heart and mind?

My brother tells the story of what happened at the beginning of the CLAY gathering this past August (Canadian Lutheran-Anglican Youth gathering). All nine-hundred participants did a certain exercise in the large group gathering that unnerved him:

They were asked to find someone they did not know; and then, to go over to that person, sit next to them; and then turn to look directly into their eyes…. and keep looking into their eyes for as long as possible, without turning away.  It’s hard enough to do this sort of thing with someone you know well… let alone a complete stranger!!


So, my brother David found a young person he didn’t know. And the two of them – complete strangers – began to look into each other’s eyes. It was unnerving! He felt vulnerable. Exposed.

While this was happening, the leader at the front said something like: “The person before you has a story, and has experienced happiness, as well as sadness, perhaps even deep hurt and pain. Who knows? Life may’ve been very hard on the person in front of you.”

As these words were being said, David noticed the slightest hint of tears welling up in his partner’s eyes. And he wondered…. He wondered …. What’s my partner’s story?

It’s said that the eyes are the ‘window into the soul.’In a sense, they were peering into ‘each other’s souls’.

A natural connection is formed. Two people, connecting on a human level, affirming the fact that we’re all united in our common humanity and life’s experiences – of sadness and laughter and humour – which we all go through at some point in our lives … no matter our differences in age, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation or religion.

I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind to everyone you meet — you don’t know the battle they are fighting.”

Author and theologian Diana Butler Bass tells the touching story of what happened in an airport when she was flying from Albany, New York, to Washington D.C.

As you know, typically airports can be cold, heartless places, where everyone seems absorbed in their own rushing around, wrapped up in their private worries, nerves or plans, ignoring others around them.

This time, as passengers milled around in the gate area before boarding the plane, there sat alone at the far end of the row of seats, a middle-aged man.

He looked distraught, perhaps ill. Maybe, he needed help.

His whole demeanor was one of sorrow, and he was bent over, slumped in his chair as if falling toward the ground.

Diana walked over to him, and sat down beside him. She gently began asking him questions and listening to him.

With deep, heavy sobs, he told her how he buried his wife that morning, and now he was going home. To nothing.

For the next half hour, he told Diana about his wife, her illness and untimely death.

The man and his wife had no children.

She had been his best friend since high school.

Their parents had all passed away.

He had taken her to be buried where they had grown up in New York State, a place they both loved.

Most of their childhood friends had moved away.

There had been no funeral, just him and a priest at a graveside to say a few prayers and good-bye.

Now, he was going home, back to work. Other than a few friends, he was alone.

Diana listened, and then went to get him some water.

On the way back, she found a flight attendant, and told her about the man and his wife, how he had buried her that day. The flight attendant thanked her for sharing, and said ‘they’d take care of him.’

There were only about fifteen people on the flight that day on that small plane.

Somehow word got around, and soon everyone knew about their fellow passenger in mourning.

By the time everyone was boarding the plane, people were going out of their way to be kind to the man.

A crewmember escorted him aboard.

With courtesy and attention, they seated him at the back of the plane to be alone with this thoughts and whatever tears might come.

When they landed, some silent agreement formed between the passengers to let him exit first.

Instead of the usual rush and urgent calls on cell phones, everyone stood silently, forming two lines of respect, as he walked down the aisle toward the cabin door…

Some nodded respectfully as he passed.

One woman reached out and touched his shoulder.

When he reached the front of the plane, he turned back, and looked at everyone, to acknowledge the sympathy offered.

The pilot came out of the cockpit, and took the man’s hand, and together they descended the steps to the tarmac.

All the passengers followed in silence.

A private car, dispatched by the airline, waited there beside the plane, to deliver him home. (2)


The irony is that no amount of gates, fences, walls or clearly defined dividing lines however constructed will keep us separated from each other. When there is love. When we can ‘see.’

Boundaries are important. But they don’t guarantee the self-serving security we seek. Shortly after they were posted to Naples a couple of years ago, our friends’ house was broken into despite the impressive protection their gated community seemed to provide. 

These kinds of gates are really only illusions — like the proverbial mirage in the desert. Gates and fences that separate the rich from the poor, the privileged from the underprivileged, the employed from the the unemployed, the bum on the street and the senior executive in the top floor corner office are at best a mediocre interpretation of reality. Because they are constructed out of fear.

Jesus is about breaking down those barriers. And we are called to bridge the apparent chasm separating us from each other. Better now in this world while we can still do so, then whine about it like the rich man does in hell after it is too late.

We are called to look into each other’s eyes, and see the connection we share with all humanity, in the love of God. We are called to work together, like the community of care that formed on that short plane trip. We do not do this work individually, by ourselves. Not separately, but we work together at this task of reaching out and mending what has been broken. 

We do this in the mission of God who broke down the greatest divide between God and human: when Jesus was born a human child. When God became human the ultimate gap was bridged. And now, we live in that flow of God’s love, continually binding us together, and all people.

(1) Robert Frost cited in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word” Year C, Volume 4; Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 118-120

(2) Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution”, HarperOne, 2015, p.256