Day of Pentecost B – Catching Fire

I heard of a fire that destroyed a century-old home. Thankfully no one was physically injured. Firefighters and inspectors had a difficult time finding the cause of the fire. Until they discovered the south side of the house had beveled stained glass windows, and that on the day of the fire the sun had shone brilliantly.

By reconstructing the scene they were able to determine that the angle of the sun’s rays had shone through a part of the glass that had concentrated the light in such a way as to start a fire on some papers in the house. The sun’s rays were concentrated through the glass with increased and incredible energy and power to start a fire.

Who would have known that the sun’s rays could release such power, properly channeled?

On this Day of Pentecost we recall how God came to the disciples as a flame as fire upon their heads. Pentecost calls us to catch fire with God’s power, God’s love.

How do we do that? Try harder? It seems to me when families, marriages, organizations and churches start spinning their wheels with all the effort of trying this, trying that, as if the solution is only trying harder ….

What about starting with just being ourselves, which can be a far greater challenge.

“Catching Fire” the title of the 2nd in the series of “Hunger Games” books by Suzanne Collins. “Fire” is the symbol for the main character, Katnis Everdeen, as she survives all the threats to her safety and the safety of those whom she loves. She accomplishes incredible feats of victory in the deathly Games not by trying to be someone she is not and just “playing it safe”. Yes she takes risks and sacrifices herself for the well-being of those she loves. But she does not succumb to what the evil “Capital” wants her to be. She is herself. And her best friends are those who encourage her to be herself.

The symbol of fire conveys truth. Getting at the truth of something or someone. Burning something down to what is essential. Truth-telling, in love. We often associate fire with love, passion, a healthy marriage, right? But healthy couples have the ability to tell the truth about each other, to each other, about each other – in love. And this is not always easy:

Being honest about who we are. Those who work with youth in the wider church and community state time and time again that young people are not looking for a perfect church, but an honest church. We need to be honest with ourselves, individually and collectively. Even when it comes to our weaknesses, our faults. We don’t need to be perfect. Just faithful. Let’s start by just being honest with ourselves.

On your way into the building this morning did you notice the logo on our church sign? A flame. That is great! Faith is faith when it’s the only thing you’re hanging onto in life. Faith is faith when we are forward moving with conviction and grace in the rough and tumble of it all, even at the prospect of our death.

Indeed, death we must all face. And tens of thousands of years ago archeology shows humans associated fire with funerals. There is evidence of torches at the grave sites. The word, funeral, derives from the Latin “funus” or “funeralis” which means torch or torchlight procession. The passion of life – the fire of living – is never snuffed out for people of faith. Not even death can extinguish us. So what do we have to lose?

In an article written to the “Canada Lutheran” magazine last summer (Vol.26,No.6,p.31), Bishop Michael Pryse of the Eastern Synod – Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada relates what someone once suggested to him: “Life is not just a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow, what a ride!’ That’s the kind of spirit,” concludes Bishop Pryse, “I’d like to see more of in our churches.”

We heard in the Psalm for today: “Yonder is the great and wide sea … there move the ships” (Psalm 104). A wise person (anon.) once wrote: “The safest place for ships is in the harbour. But that’s not why they were built.” Imagine the church as a boat, a ship. Where’s our boat? Is it continuously in the safety of the harbour? Or are we willing to venture out on the open seas where storms and unknown peril may await?

Usually when we think of expressions of power in relational systems – marriages, churches, organizations, teams – we think of inequality, distances, un-involvement by those who have power. Sometimes those who hold power seem somewhat removed from our reality.

But the good news is that God’s Spirit goes with us. In Romans 8 Saint Paul describes the Spirit of Truth of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel (John 15), a Spirit who travails with us. The Spirit that comes, though a tempest and a whirlwind, does not remain removed, distant, disinterested and disembodied from our risk-taking, our suffering and pain. The Spirit co-groans with us. God feels with us and suffers alongside us. Our honesty signals openness in our hearts. And that openness is always an invitation for that Spirit of love and grace to wash over us and be with us in our struggles.

I read a comforting word from author and Jesuit priest, James Martin, who tweeted this week, “If you are despairing, remember – Christ conquered death. All will be well in the end. And if it’s not well yet, it’s not the end.” Expectant waiting. Hope. A gift of the Spirit is patience. Not to give up.

Sarah Hughes, the only athlete ever to win medals in both Summer and Winter Olympics, was interviewed on CBC last week. She confessed that her many failures and defeats were more instrumental in her growth and development than her medal wins. For example, she mentioned her staggering losses at the Sydney Olympics several years ago when she didn’t win anything. These experiences taught her the value of not giving up and set the stage for her subsequent successes.

We can persevere because God has gone before us.

God bless us on our journey. May the fire of God’s love and Spirit empower us to ventures yet unknown.


Easter 7B – Christian Unity, in the End


When they were younger my children used to watch a children’s cartoon entitled “Busytown Mysteries” aired on CBC TV. It’s about these animal cartoon characters – among them a giraffe, a mouse, a pig – who are friends, and are called upon to solve mysteries in their town.

In one episode the bunch of sleuths were called upon to solve a rather peculiar mystery: A pair of ski-tracks in the snow followed an inexplicable course down the mountain – the pair of tracks circumvented a giant boulder, but one track on either side of the rock! Then, the pair of tracks travelled together, side-by-side through a hollowed-out, low-lying log. Who, or what, could have made those tracks? And how?

A tall-legged giraffe could have gone over the boulder easily enough, but how then could it have gone through the log? A mouse could have gotten through the log, but what about the tall boulder? The evidence didn’t add up. Not until the sleuths changed their assumptions – saw the problem through a different perspective altogether, was the mystery solved.

You see, they had assumed the skier was by themselves – one person. Everything made sense when they discovered that in fact there were two mice who were not skiing, but snow-boarding beside each other down the hill. The truth was revealed after they assumed the maker of those tracks was not alone.

Jesus, before he went to his suffering and death, prayed to his God, the Father. And he prayed that his followers on earth “might be one.” In other words, he didn’t want them to be alone – isolated, competing, independent individuals. He prayed for their unity. He prayed that harmony, cooperation, mutuality and collaboration would characterize the Church on earth.

But sometimes the evidence just does not add up. What we see on the surface is the opposite: We see division. And we can’t always and easily explain the “mystical”, invisible, spiritual union we claim we have whenever we celebrate the sacrament of unity during Holy Communion.

At the same time I suspect we would have a hard time making Christian unity a central aspect of our witness to the world, a world that dwells only it seems, on the schisms, controversies and in-fighting in Christianity.

How is this unity experienced in reality? Are we willing to change some of our pre-conceived assumptions about how the world works and how the church works? Like the Busytown buddies, would we be willing to solve the mystery by realizing unity means we are not alone in this world? How can we celebrate our unity “on the ground in our daily lives when the world wants to tell us we are on our own, competing, survival-of-the-fittest?

Or, do we even care? Are we satisfied and comfortable to remain entrenched and cocooned in our defensive posture?

Paul MacLean, highly esteemed and successful rookie head coach of the Ottawa Senators said after the Sens were eliminated from the playoffs a few weeks ago, “You win a Stanley Cup not by defending; you win a Stanley Cup by scoring goals.” How can our “offence” become our best “defence”? In other words, how being united in Christ become our best “offence” in the world bent on rugged individualism?

We advance Christian unity when the world sees that we care for one another in our weaknesses. In verse 11 of John 17 Jesus prays, “Holy Father, protect them … so that they may be one as we are one.” Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers is linked to God’s protection and provision.

Now, the translation from Greek to the word, “protect”, may make us feel like God needs to protect us from all that is bad and evil and scary in the world – as is the case, literally, at the end of the passage (v.15) when Jesus in fact does pray for this.

But in verse 11 when unity is at stake, the Greek word for “protect” – tereo – carries overtones of “pay attention” to one another, or “attend to carefully”, or “take care of”, in the same way parents care for their children.

The truth is, we can’t do mission in the world effectively if we’re always fighting each other. But when the world sees how Christians care for one another in their needs – how a community of faith supports each other in the work of the Gospel – this leads to enhanced Christian unity.

Continuing the hockey analogy, this is called “puck support”; it’s not about only the star player going in to score, it’s about everyone “supporting” one another in moving the puck forward. It was only when Alex Ovechkin had less ice-time in the latter part of this season that the Washington Capitals experienced greater success as a team. When the level of play increases for all the players can the team be at its best.

God cares for us and will provide for our every need, no matter the circumstances of our lives. No matter how dire or conflicted or heavy the burdens of our lives and the challenges we face, listen to the promise of God, here: God will care for us. God will give us what we need to endure, to live, to prosper.

How did God the Father care for Jesus? How did God the Father care for Jesus? Even though Jesus endured suffering and brutal death on the cross, the Father held Christ through that terrible experience of death and brought him to new life and resurrection.

Resurrection is the end-game, the destination of all we experience. Not death. The power of death has no strangle-hold on our life, in Christ. Because baptized into the Body of Christ we know that nothing will separate us from the care, the love of God.

And God continues to care and protect us. We can therefore live confidently, caring for one another. We can live confidently and compassionately for others through it all, showing the world that in Christ we are united as we care for one another and the world that God so loved.

On one level our unity is a mystery, like the experience of Christ’s real and true presence in the Sacrament. But on another level, Christian unity is not a mystery. It is rock-solid, visible truth. We are not alone. We are not by ourselves on the journey. Just look around you. What unites us is greater than whatever may divide us.

Whenever we notice in another their unique gift and presence in the community – and tell them! – with a kind, generous and encouraging word, we affirm that what unites us is greater than whatever may divide us.

Whenever we work shoulder to shoulder in any outreach to the community as, for example, we will next week in the book sale & community BBQ for supporting LAMP,  we affirm that what unites us is greater than whatever may divide us.

Whenever we pray together, reflect on scripture together, and celebrate the Holy Meal together, we affirm that what unites us is greater than whatever may divide us.

Whenever we visit with one another and care for one another in the love and light of Christ Jesus within us, we affirm that what unites us is greater than whatever may divide us.

The living Lord Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.



Beyond Words? Who, then, Shall Lead Them?

“No one was able to give Jesus an answer” (Matthew 22:46a).

The Pharisees are stumped again! The conversation with Jesus ends in silence. No one will dare ask him any more questions. When it comes to the big question of faith, words are not enough.

A prayer I often offer during worship at funerals is, “that we do not try to minimize our loss or seek refuge from it in words alone.” Indeed, words cannot do justice to our life and death. Have we stood with someone in grief and did not know what to say? I think we are often too hard on ourselves. Is the problem that we do not have the right words? Or, rather are we not aware of the value of being with another in silent love?

When called by God both Jeremiah and Moses protest, claiming that they “cannot speak”. Some have interpreted this as evidence that these famous prophets toiled under some kind of speech defect. I was surprised to find that in the development of early Christianity in Russia, stuttering was considered a sign of a true prophet. Then again, Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that the priority of God’s witness is found in human weakness (Eberhard Bethge, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer”, New York: Harper & Row, 1985, p.374).

“Preach the Gospel always,” goes the proverb, “use words if necessary.”

Over time I am learning the value of non-verbal communication in getting a message across — my body-language, behavior, touch, presence and attitude.

Because faith is simply beyond words.

Have a little faith!

The first thing is not to give up, and keep moving forward, even though it’s tough. When W.H. Murray led the famous Scottish Expedition to climb Mount Everest in the 1950s, he reflected afterward with his oft quoted piece of wisdom: “In the moment a commitment is made, then Providence moves too.” In other words, when you commit to doing something aware of all that is good in you and the world – even if it’s risky, scary – God goes with you and necessary resources are provided.

We don’t do reckless things and twist God’s arm into action; rather, when we are bold it’s like dropping a pebble into the sea of God’s grace: The ripples move outward creating more space for God’s grace to envelope, enfold and hold.

Take the risk. Make the commitment to a discipline of prayer, of study, of holy reading, of loving service – in a way that pushes you a bit out of your comfort zone, your routines, your familiar ways of being and doing: push the envelope. And don’t give up. You may be surprised by what God is doing for you!