funeral sermon – living with a Gospel bias

The last church activity in which Tony participated was the weekly bible study group. At that time I was asking the group to choose next week’s text for study. And the selection was one from either the Old Testament or the Psalms or from Paul’s letters in the New Testament or from a Gospel reading in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John—the first four books of the New Testament.

Tony always, always, always voted for the Gospel reading. The Gospel describes the story of Jesus—his life, death and resurrection. You could say Tony had a bias towards the Gospel. And especially the Gospel of John, for some reason.

The word, Gospel, means: Good News. Good news. Not bad news. Not about how we always fall short. Not about human folly. Not readings about our sinfulness, about what we should do to make it better. But about the grace of God. God’s forgiveness, mercy, love.

The example in today’s Gospel is typical: Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.[1]The Gospel, to recognize it, is always about what God does, as a gift to us. So, here’s the thing about the good news of God:

It’s about receiving more than it is about achieving. The grace of God must be received, not achieved. Normally at a funeral service we talk about what our loved one has achieved in life, as if somehow the more one has achieved the better.

And without second glance, Tony, on that measure, has achieved so much: publishing books in his retirement, building half a dozen houses, acquiring degrees in mathematics and engineering, qualifying himself in brick-laying and construction, even playing soccer into his 80thyear. He achieved a lot, if that’s how you want to look at it.

And certainly in our culture, it seems that’s what it’s all about.

But what a tribute to one who has learned to see, that in all that life has given him—good and bad—all that he received in life, there is grace. A gift of God’s love. To appreciate life as gift. This is right brain stuff. This is entering into the mystery that is God and life.

When he was young, he contracted Diphtheria which kept him isolated for some time, sequestered with the nuns in their abbey. Late in his life, Tony was able to confess that even having a disease was a gift, since it kept him from entering the war, a war that claimed the lives of his two brothers.

These traumatic events of life could have left him bitter. But, despite it all, he remained his true self—kind, loving and gracious.

The author bio on the back cover of both books he published in his retirement says the following about Tony: “Tony was always very interested in literature, history, religion, and cosmology.”

At the end of Act One in his book entitled About God, the World and People, the scene is set at an evening dinner party. Around the table sit different characters – a priest and a scientist among others. After covering such cerebral topics as ‘what is dark matter’, the origin of the universe and various forms of energy, the priest, Father Stengel, concludes with what I suspect is the author’s personal belief:

Father Stengel says, “I personally have no problem with what our diligent scientists discover. I clearly see in the development of our universe the guiding and loving spirit of our Father in heaven.”[2]

While working with numbers all his life and valuing their clarity and succinctness, Tony was also able to say, “They’re just numbers”, in light of God’s truth.

From the perspective of faith, analytics and left-brain thinking can obviously help with some things in life. But when it comes to the great mysteries of life, when we encounter great suffering or great love, when we experience death, or yearn for God, we need to access another ‘operating system’.

You can’t explain these realities adequately using the scientific method alone. It’s remarkable, for the mathematician and engineer that Tony was—that he was able to appreciate, discern and plumb those more intuitive and subtler depths of knowing as well.

It doesn’t make sense how grief works, really. I’ve told this to many grieving families over the years after a loved one died: That in a grieving process, it’s not just the pain of loss of that particular person that comes to the surface at that time. The death of a loved one triggers all the emotional baggage—if you will—of all previous losses you have experienced as well, all those unresolved issues in a family, everything. It can be quite overwhelming. I’ve recently experienced this truth myself. It’s not rational. But it’s very real.

And in those moments that can’t be explained, in the end, the only course of action is love. It’s the only way that does make sense in the turmoil of loss and pain. I think Tony knew that. Gospel bias towards love.

Tony’s teammates on the soccer team were well represented at the funeral home last evening. One of his teammates told me that Tony was the reason they kept playing together. He said that during a game teammates and the competition sometimes came to blows, emotionally if not physically. But Tony was always there trying to mend ways, trying to keep the group together, inspiring them to play on. Tony knew that. Gospel bias towards love.

Death changes some things. Death is final, in a way. And it hurts. Yes. But human death doesn’t mean the relationship is ended. Death merely changed the nature of our relationship with Tony.

Now, Tony is no longer physically present with us. But he lives on—in our hearts, in our minds, in our spirit, in our conscience, in our actions. He is still with us, albeit in a different way. Tony’s death leaves us a gift, an invitation to make what was important to him, important to us. Life as gift, a grace to do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. Gospel bias towards love.

“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”[3]Let what we do for others, be love.

 

[1]John 13:12-15,34-35

[2]Tony Bickle, About God, the World and People (Xlibris Corporation, 2008) p.48

[3]Most likely from Albert Pike, 19thcentury American attorney, soldier, writer, and Freemason. Sometimes this quote is attributed to 20thcentury American writer and biographer, Albert Paine.

 

The unknown journal of Ebenezer Scrooge

After attending the National Arts Centre (Ottawa) theatre performance of Charles Dickens’ classic tale “A Christmas Carol” last week, I wondered: What if Scrooge kept a daily journal? So, in my journal this week, I wrote this imaginative piece entitled, The Unknown Journal of Ebenezer Scrooge:

“It started out as a good idea. Keeping a daily journal was easy for a man who kept meticulous financial records. His ledgers were perfectly lined, his pen craft impeccable.

“Ebenezer Scrooge was on a mission to clean up all of life’s messiness. He wanted to resolve all his problems. He wanted to tie up all the loose ends and complete any unfinished business:

“The brackets on his library shelves downstairs needed reinforcing. The kitchen silverware needed polishing. The large knocker on his apartment door needed sanding and some fresh paint.

The door’s deteriorating condition had recently created spectral images on his imagination in the fading light of day. Like on this Christmas Eve when coming home from work, he saw the face of his long-deceased partner, Mr. Morley, embedded in the decorative door knocker.

“Then, there was the unresolved issue of his assistant Bob Cratchit’s pay in the New Year. Scrooge waffled between giving him a decrease, or keeping it at the same level. The money was tight. And, Scrooge was still beset by disturbing dreams about Tiny Tim – Cratchit’s youngest boy. He wanted to understand what to do with the feelings of despair swirling about these nocturnal predations of the mind.

“All these he would diligently record. These matters, after all, needed his scrupulous and perfectionist ministrations once he would have the time, or by unsuspecting fortune he was granted insight and resource to solve.

“Scrooge lifted his journal onto his lap, feeling the rough leather-bound book. He was surprised by how heavy it felt. Curious about the turn of his thoughts, he flipped to previous days in the month. Then quickly he turned to the first half of his nearly-finished tome, recording events in the last year. Finally, he opened to the first few pages when he started the journal several years ago now.

“Back then, the door knob still needed fixing, the shelf brackets still needed reinforcing. The silverware was never polished enough. And worry about money figured into most of his notations throughout. Nothing changed.

“What is more, a persistent, dark pessimism shrouded his lists of unfinished, unresolved, ‘problems.’ His writing reflected a clear, negative tendency. Something was always missing, incomplete, imperfect. There was never enough. Scarcity, he realized with startling awareness, was a constant undercurrent in his approach to life. And had been, for a long, long time.

“Scrooge pulled on his night shirt and climbed onto his giant canopy bed. As he pulled the covers tight around his chin, he wondered if he should bother keeping a journal at all. The lights dimmed. And he thought he heard the rattle of chains ….”

Charles Dicken’s epic story survives the ages and continues to inspire people at Christmastime because there is something in all of us that can relate to it. The light of Christ coming into the world exposes the darker contours of our souls. In the weeks, and now days, leading to the Christmas celebration, we may feel and struggle with the tensions in our own hearts: Between generosity and self-preservation, between a joyous liberation of spirit and the confining constriction of fear.

Into these tensions, the Lord’s message is clear. The Gospel pushes us into the realm of light – under the spotlight of God’s vision. All is revealed.  We have nothing to hide, and nothing for which we have to strive and toil and protect. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”[1]

During Advent, we hear again the story of Elizabeth’s meeting with her cousin Mary. Both are pregnant, expecting the birth of babies. Even the babies feel the excitement of their mothers, “leaping with joy” in the womb.[2] The Magnificat, which we read responsively this morning, is Mary’s song of joy in response to the message of the Lord’s promise to her. Joy is a central theme both in the four weeks of preparation leading to Christmas, and also an important characteristic of faith.

It is God’s will for us to enjoy the good things in life. Without denying nor avoiding the hard, challenging and often disappointing events of life, we are called to see the good, and rest in the joy of living. Jesus came, after all, that we might have life “abundantly”.[3] The dominant disposition of faith is joy.

Paul writes in our second lesson some of the earliest script in the New Testament.[4] Written around 50 C.E. the Christians in Thessalonica are merely a generation removed from Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. They are waiting for the immanent return of Jesus. And this letter is written to a people with a growing anxiety. The proverbial elephant in the room is growing larger with each passing year: Why hasn’t Jesus yet returned in glory?

So, in essence, Paul is addressing a relevant question of faith – even to us some two thousand years later: What do we do in the tension of living between the promise of Jesus’ coming again, and the harsh reality of ‘not yet’?

Paul’s answer revolves around the inner attitudes of thanksgiving and joy. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” he admonishes the faithful.[5] Even when things don’t seem just right. Even when there doesn’t seem to be enough. Even when there are still things to be done, problems to solve, imperfections to address.

The true message of Christmas does a frontal attack on our inherent pessimism. This wake-up call can be disarming. The inaugural Prayer of the Day for Advent calls us to be pure and blameless at the coming of the Lord.[6] Even our liturgies can make us feel worse. For, how can we give thanks in all circumstances when we are hurting so much, are so fearful or angry?

By the end of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge has a conversion of heart. He becomes generous, joyful, free, helping others. How does it happen? A man steeped in his own negativity makes an almost incredible U-turn by the end because of the intervention of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. An intervention of divine proportions breaks into and breaks apart the shroud of pessimism encasing his heart.

Even when we find ourselves stuck in the mire of circumstance, we can begin by appreciating that all of life, especially the good things, are a pure gift of God. Even amidst the direst of circumstances, are there not pinpricks of light, nuggets of grace, whispers of love that pierce our field of vision?

We can, in this appreciation, learn to let go, and release our claim on our lives which are not our own. They are gift. With open hearts, we learn to walk lightly in faith, trusting that God will indeed complete the good work begun in each of our hearts “by the day of Jesus Christ.”[7] All our days are God’s. Our very breath is a gift of life from the Creator.

And what is more, Paul’s earliest message to the Christian church, a message that will endure until the day of Jesus Christ, is one of grace. “The one who calls you is faithful,” Paul tells us, “and God will do this.”[8] On our own strength, and by our own will, we may very well not be able to engineer our own perfection, or the perfection of our lives.

By ourselves, we cannot make the world a better place. By ourselves, we cannot solve all the world’s problems.

But together, God can through us. God did; God does; And God will.

[1] John 1:9

[2] Luke 1:41

[3] John 10:10

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:18

[6] First Sunday of Advent, Year B in “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p.18

[7] Philippians 1:6

[8] 1 Thessalonians 5:24

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

Talking about toast

“I want butter on my toast, but not too much.””You’ve spread it on too thinly. I want a whole wad of it.”

“You’re being wasteful. You’ll use up the tub in a couple of days.”

“If you didn’t burn the toast to a crisp all the time …”

“I don’t like my toast slightly warm.”

” … the butter would melt into the bread.”

“Toast is toast. A slice of bread is a slice of bread. There’s a difference.”

“Lighten up. Just slather it on.”

Of course, the words alone in this dialogue do not tell the whole story. There are other ways that we communicate, that animate the message. They say seventy percent of communication is non-verbal. What does the tone of our voice communicate? What are our eyes looking at when we speak? And, most significantly, what are our bodies doing? What is our body language?

I was attuned more to this truth in Italy during our family vacation. Every culture presents uniquely in the manner of body language during a conversation, to the point of caricature and over-generalization. Of course, not every English person speaks with a stiff upper lip; not every Italian gestures wildly with their hands; not every Canadian looks downward and apologizes. The exercise, nevertheless, of paying attention to a cultural tendency is helpful in bringing awareness to the way we communicate.

We played a little humorous game, somewhat irreverent, whenever we drove by or saw in a distance a couple of Italians speaking to each other — their bodies close, hands waving on either side of their partner’s ears as if guiding a plane on the tarmac to its docking at the gate, eyes piercing the other with intensity, even spittle flying from their mouths. We couldn’t hear what they were talking about. But we made up a dialogue about something the opposite in nature to their serious, even combative, style. We would try to convince ourselves that they were talking about toast.

Communication is essential to any relationship. And it’s not just the words we speak. It’s our behaviour. What we do. How we act. What our bodies are telling ourselves, and the other who is in our presence.

In other words, communication is real. It is not just reserved to the realm of ideas and theory and abstraction. Communication involves our whole lives, our whole selves. We are not by ourselves in the ideas we express and the words we use. 

When we speak about God, and our relationship with God, we dare not relegate our relationship with God to the realm of words alone — whether those words are printed on a page, or spoken during worship in a detached manner as if those words hold power on their own without context or embodiment.

Our God is real. Our God wants relationship with us. And, in the Isaiah text today, we read that invitation: “Come, let us argue it out!” says the Lord (1:18). God is having an argument with the people of Judah and Jerusalem during the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.

It is not a dialogue that is calm and reserved. It is not a cool, collected, disassociated manual of instruction. It is not a legal text. It is throwing down the gauntlet! Come on! You are messing up! But I make an offer. Let’s have it out! says the Lord! You have something to say? Then say it! The Lord can take it. Let’s negotiate. Let’s hear each other out. Let’s be real.

I wonder about our image of God when we shy away from such boldness. Is it because we imagine a God who is passive? Who only does our bidding, or should? Or a God whose job it is only to direct us, judge us and basically order us around?

But what about a God who is more vulnerable than that? There is no more direct and clear message of this vulnerable God than Jesus hanging crucified and dying on the Cross. So, what about a God who seeks our attention by being vulnerable? Who wants us to engage with God in an honest, self-disclosing way? Because the message of Scripture suggests time and time again: 

Not only is God’s company available and deeply important to us, but our company might very well be important to God. Could it be that God seeks our companionship? Could it be that God desires to have us as friends, and that the God who so patiently works with us in every moment rejoices upon occasion to have our undivided attention — even when our attentions are directed to the many particular concerns of our lives? (1) 

God is, indeed, the “great companion” (2). God is present with us, interested in us, and trustworthy. God’s love is receptive and responsive. In other words, we do not pray to an impassive, unmoved mover.

God is in relationship with us. God invites us, when we have a bone to pick about life, about whatever is happening in the world, to “Come, let us argue it out.”

It’s not that God always wants a fight. I will define a “fight” in this context as a bold yet non-combative, mutually-respecting exchange of unique perspectives. What this kind of arguing or fighting reveals is passion, real feelings, and the truth about ourselves. 

And this is a sign of any healthy relationship whether we talk about relationships in marriage, or work, church, community or play. Honesty. Truth. And in the exchange of honest discourse, we bring all that we are, not just our words. Our hearts. Our minds. Our bodies. 

We may not change God’s mind about whatever. But that is not the point. God wants to hear what we have to say. God wants to feel our passion, hear our cries, sense the beating of our strained hearts. God wants to understand us. This is what Jesus was all about. 

God sent Jesus in our flesh so that God could begin to truly understand what it means to be human. And in that humanity, in seeking us, God can bring an outpouring of love, grace and mercy — time and time again.

So, any subject is on the table. Thanks be to God! Anything is on the table, in all honesty. Including talking about toast.
Amen.

1 – Nancy Campbell & Marti Steussy, “Process Theology and Contemplative Prayer: Seeking the Presence of God”, p.87

2 – Clark Williamson, “Learning How to Pray,” in Adventures of the Spirit: A Guide to Worship from the Perspective of Process Theology with Ronald Allen (Lanham: University Press of America, 1997), p.162

It’s ok to fall (3): Jesus leads us there

The beginning of a story introduces the characters, but it also sets things up for what readers can expect later in the book. The writer of a good story will craft, early on, a good ‘set up’ for the plot development. Here’s an example, and you tell me what you think will happen later in the story:

At the beginning of this story, we read about a couple of children walking home from school, as they always do, along a familiar path. However, their route goes by the town’s cemetery, a place they have never visited. It remains a mystery to them. The cemetery is guarded by spiked, iron-wrought gates and surrounded by tall, thick cedar hedges.

The children are coming of age when their curiosity is piquing, and they ask their parents if they can venture into the cemetery. But they are warned repeatedly from all quarters: “Don’t ever, ever, EVER play in the cemetery! Especially, after dark!”

Now, what do you think will happen as a result of this ‘set up’ in the story line? They’ll likely go there! — into the cemetery, at night, perhaps under scary or tension-filled circumstances. And, we want to read on to find out how, as our own imaginations grow! It’s true, when we are ordered not to do something in some unequivocal, unyielding, non-explanatory way, it’s something we will usually end up doing! The story is a snap-shot of life.

Social history bears witness to this human dynamic: In 1920, law-makers south of the border enacted the 18th Amendment which attempted to curb the evils of liquor. Laws were passed against the sale and trade of alcohol. The result? After Prohibition was finally lifted, historians showed that the consumption of alcohol by the general population actually increased during those ‘prohibitive’ years. (Strayer & Gatzke, “The Mainstream of Civilization since 1500”, Harcourt, Toronto, 1984, p.730)

“Brick-wall” parenting, as some call it, often fails. Because children don’t grow in an environment where the evils of the world can be talked about, reasoned through and struggled with in loving, patient and understanding ways. They just outright rebel.

Perhaps it was employing some reverse-psychology that spurred Martin Luther to say those infamous words: “Sin boldly … !” But I like to emphasize the latter part of that quote: “Sin boldly … and trust the Lord even more.” Luther doesn’t deny or hide away from sin. He just trumps it, with the Lord!

When I assert repeatedly the theme of this sermon series for Lent: “It’s okay to fall”, I am NOT encouraging you to sin. Because you don’t need to purposely go out and find sin and suffering. You don’t need to seek out suffering, as if it’s a choice we can make (eg. “I think I’ll go out and sin today”; or, “I don’t think I’ll sin today!”)

Sin is something that we must learn to live with. It’s a part of our lives. Sin is not something we can ‘will’ away by the force of our self-righteous toil to purge ourselves somehow. If you think yourself a good Christian, you may be good at hiding your sin. But honest, faithful, authentic Christians will struggle monumentally with their sin, and not need to put on masks of perfection when they come to church.

Life happens. Life is ‘done unto us’. Mistakes are made. I can’t explain why God created a world where suffering is so much a part of the journey of life. The better, more meaningful question, I believe, is to consider what the suffering and the sin has to teach us about ourselves in relationship to God, in the journey to redemption.

In other words, it’s okay to fall, because that is where Jesus leads us. In the Gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent, after Jesus is baptized, “The Spirit of God immediately drove him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) where he spent forty days, tempted by Satan. This part of Jesus’ life is for me the image I hold whenever I pray the traditional English translation of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation”.

Because, while Jesus does not cause my sinning, Jesus leads me into the wilderness of my life where I must confront all those temptations, the brokenness, weaknesses, despair, anger, fear, guilt — that cause my sinning. Jesus takes me there, into the barren land of my soul. He leads the way. I must follow.

The formal ‘Invitation to the Lenten discipline’ in most liturgies begins with a call to self-examination — even before repenting, praying, fasting and works of love strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Leader’s Desk Edition, Augsburg Fortress, p.617). Self-examination is an act of profound humility and honesty. And it could very well be the most difficult task in the Lenten journey.

Here is some good news: Jesus is not afraid. Because he has already gone to the darkest place of all — the Cross, and then even descended into hell as we affirm in the Creeds. I can persevere through any turmoil life may offer, because Jesus is there, right beside me, helping me get through it.

What makes the consequences of our sin worse, I suspect, is the kind of thinking that suggests Jesus cannot be present if or whenever we go into those dark places of our lives. Our prejudice may be that Jesus cannot be there in the shameful, anger-ridden, fear-devastated places of our suffering. We thus delude ourselves into believing “I am alone” in my suffering. The Gospel, however, teaches us otherwise.

I was so inspired by the record number of folks we had out on Shrove Tuesday for our pancake party — including almost a dozen folks from the neighbourhood who had never been with us before! We danced, we sang, we ate, we enjoyed music together.

When we are in the desert of our lives confronting our sin and suffering, it is so important to know, again, who your friends are, your family, your community, your church — and simply experience their presence. And by their presence, their loving support — even in the darkest time of our lives. Just being there together, can make a huge difference.

Therefore, I can be encouraged that as Jesus was waited upon by the angels who gave him the things he needed to get through his wilderness suffering, so then Jesus will not abandon me in my desert. He’ll be right there beside me, and give me what I need (and maybe not always what I want).

It’s okay to fall, because Jesus leads me into that place that I would rather avoid. And even that place where I might be tempted to go. Because I don’t go alone. Thanks be to God.