Wisps of Wisdom — on sin & forgiveness

How does our perspective on sin and forgiveness relate to the following ‘wisps of wisdom’ on the sometimes heavy topics of sin, judgment — and forgiveness?

It’s Lent, after all! Aren’t we supposed to dwell on these matters?

At a round table discussion last weekend with several senior, committed, lifelong Christians, I heard these kinds of statements:

“Confessing sin is about becoming aware again of my need for and my dependence on God.”

“God will not act toward us in judgment because of our sins so much as for all the gifts we refused from the gracious hand of God.”

“Forgiveness of sins is not a reprieve from a judge but an embrace from a lover.”

“It is not Jesus’ suffering and death that saved us but Christ’s love.”

What do you think? I, for one, am grateful and encouraged.







Unworthy (and worthy!)

Remember the “tech bubble” that collapsed thirteen years ago? What about the “housing bubble” of 2007 in the United States, and a second “tech bubble” some see looming now; not to mention housing prices in Canada? Is the bubble going to burst? Again?

But what about another bubble that we may be even more apprehensive to talk about – the decline of “establishment Christianity” North America? One congregation at a time, one closed school, one left-behind building, and even many mega-churches that are shattering like the walls of a bubble.

You may react – that I am being overly negative and it’s really not all that bad so long as we can continue to spin our wheels, try to turn the clock back to 1950 and do things the way they used to be done in the past.

Do we consider the institutional church in 2013 a tree that will stand forever, a house built on solid rock, the very apple of God’s eye?

Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” (Luke 13.6)

In our individual, personal lives, bubbles burst all the time. Are you one of the very people whose bubbles are now bursting? Broken relationships. Ill-health. Financial ruin. Underemployment. Shattered dreams. Tragedy.

Indeed, the human condition is broken. Ever since the Fall, sin has steeped into the very fabric of our earthly existence.

According the Lutheran belief, even our good intentions and actions are tainted and ineffectual. In our weekly liturgy, we confess “that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves” (“Evangelical Lutheran Worship”, p.95, emphasis mine). There’s nothing we – by ourselves – can do to make things better. Older liturgies are even more hard-hitting: the “Book of Common Prayer” in the Anglican Church has it: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” (p.83). I am sure Lutherans can point to old prayer and liturgy books that basically suggest we are no better than worms crawling in the mud.

Let’s be careful in how we respond to the question of sin. For one thing, in the Gospel text today (Luke 13:1-9), Jesus rejects the kind of thinking that is easy: focusing on the sins of others as explanation, justification, for the bad things that happen. In response to the Pharisees, Jesus turns the question to them. You must repent for your sins.

In the baptismal liturgy of our church, we renounce the devil and all his empty promises – three times. When we declare together that we “renounce” the devil, we are also renouncing “all the forces that defy God” and “the powers of this world that rebel against God” (EvLW, p.229).

Not only is sin active in our individual lives – but in the world around us: in economic, political, social, religious institutions. Sin is not only individual; it is corporate. Sin is something we can do together in an organization, collectively. Admittedly it’s easier to point to a random, individual act. It’s convenient and easier to explain individual behavior gone bad. It’s much more ambiguous, complex and difficult to see sin as something shared in a group.

What do we, as a church, need to confess?

Are we counting on bubbles? Are we riding on the coat tails of previous generations of the faithful? Are we trying to draw closer to God without allowing God closer to us? Do we try to save ourselves through work and possessions? Do we ration our affections, pulling back from a deeply troubled world, staying inside where it is safe, praying when we feel like it, listening as little as possible, singing our songs and not God’s songs, treasuring our kind and not God’s people? (Thank you to Tom Ehrich for this insight and these words – from his blog, “On a Journey – Meditations on God in Daily Life”, Feb 27/2013).

Amidst the doom and gloom there is hope. The passage ends with hope. In the confession there is the realization of God’s mercy. Amidst the urgency to get things done, to do the right thing, to toil in all our striving, we are invited to pause. To stop, for a moment. Why?

Because we are that fig tree. Barren. Failed. Unworthy – or so it would seem (from the world’s perspective). Jesus is the gardener, who sees in us something worthy of grace. Jesus advocates on our behalf, to give us another chance. A holy, second chance. Jesus continues to work at the root of our lives, applying grace upon grace, getting his hands dirty – for us. Jesus will not give up on us.

In this dependence on God for all good things, we have to realize one, very important truth: It is not we who accomplish our growth, our life. All we need to do, is open our hearts, the ground of our being – as roots – to receive the nourishment of God’s grace. All we need to do, is look up to the sunshine, warming our being, inviting us to reach outward.

It is Jesus’ love for us that accomplishes whatever good that may come from our efforts. It is God’s work of love that accomplished our salvation in Jesus. I heard recently a wonderful quote from a teacher of Christian prayer: that God will not judge us according to our sins and failings, but for all the gifts we refused from the gracious hand of God. Our judgment is not based on our sinning – since we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) – but because we have refused, rejected and turned from the grace and love that God offers us anew, every day. Because God is giving us a second chance. What are we doing about that?

We yearn for more. Polls and studies reveal that people are hungry for God. Maybe it will take a cascade of bursting bubbles for us to see how little fruit we have yielded, how much God desires of us, and how lovingly God will work on our behalf for real life and love for all, not for bubbles.

The Fox and the Hen: Who’s running scared?

Richard Rohr claims that “If you or the group to which you belong cannot laugh at yourself, then you are in trouble” (p.197, “On the Threshold of Transformation”). No better time to laugh a little than during Lent and especially on Annual General Meeting Day in the church, don’t you think?

So here’s one that will hopefully introduce us suitably to the animal imagery in the Gospel text today. It’s a chicken joke, but it’s not crossing the road!

Q: Why is it that chickens can’t talk? A: Because God doesn’t like fowl language!

The power of the imagery is indeed not in what is said, but what the mother hen in the Gospel text today (Luke 13:31-35) will do – even in the face of fear and adversity. Actions, in the life of faith, always speak louder than words.

The image of Jesus as a mother hen gathering her chicks reminds me of a common experience I see on the water described very well in the words of Canadian writer, humorist and preacher, Ralph Milton; he writes (in ‘Rumors: Sermon Helps for Preachers with a Sense of Humor’):

“I remember the image in Luke 13:34 every spring as I walk with my wife Bev along our creek, and delight in the clutches of fuzzy ducklings feeding along the edge of the water under the steady eye of the mama duck.

Sometimes at dusk we’d see mama duck tucking her babies under her wings where they will be as warm and safe as it is possible for wild ducks to be.

It is heartbreaking sometimes when a single duckling becomes separated from the clutch and goes whistling frantically for mama who is nowhere in sight. And when it spies Bev and me on the pathway, it goes skimming along the water in a desperate attempt to escape.

We always want to re-unite it with its mother. But mostly that’s impossible because we don’t know where mother duck is either. When we’ve been successful, it is by scaring the little bird to run away from us in the direction of the mother.”

Indeed, sometimes fear will motivate us – like the duckling – to run straight into the arms of a loving God.

But not Jesus. Jesus does not run in fear from Herod – the fox. Personified as a predatory fox, Herod is after Jesus. The Pharisees warn Jesus, tell him to “get away”. When you think about it, of all the artwork and creative depictions of Jesus over the centuries, have you ever seen Jesus “running away”? I certainly haven’t.

In the words of blogger Nancy Rockwell: “In Scripture and in art there are images of Jesus doing so many things – praying, walking, knocking on doors, gathering crowds, climbing hills, calling disciples, writing in the sand with his finger, sharing bread, preaching, weeping – but never running.” (in ‘Bite in the Apple’ 2013)

Because that is not what a mother hen does. Even under duress. Even when threatened by a fox. Rockwell continues: “The homely hen, who has lived in the backyards of humans for thousands of years, is selfless in her devotion to her little ones, even more defenseless than she. She has no defenses against the arts and wiles of foxes except her courage and commitment. She will rush to their sharp teeth and long claws, their looming shadow, their fierce bloodlust, throwing herself upon the bodies of her chicks, extending her wings over them, letting herself be devoured in the hope that they may be spared. She does not run from her fears.”

This is the God we worship today, on the day we review the ‘business’ of the church. We worship a God who is fearless, on account of a great, sacrificial love. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). God’s love in Jesus, Christ’s protective grace and fierce loyalty, these are unmatched in all of creation. Incredible, especially when Jesus rebukes Jerusalem for its misguided ways – and then still (and again!) offers his unconditional love.

Above all, let us remember who is the God of this church. Not a fox, out to get us, out to scare us. But a God who wraps loving arms to hold us up, and be our strength, no matter what.

Game, set and match to Jesus!

I’ve come to realize that Lent is good for me. And do you know why? Lent is a season for confession. So here’s one of mine: Lent is not exactly my favorite season of the church year.

But that’s precisely why it’s good for me. Because I initially react negatively to it, perhaps there’s something there to which I need to pay attention. It’s the same as saying, the only way for you to overcome some fear, is not to avoid it but to face it. And go there.

I suppose there is some consolation in believing that if we’re never challenged in our faith, if it never means we struggle with it, if it’s always supposed to be sugar-sweet and easy, if the real bad stuff happens out there with other evil people and never within me – well, in all honesty and truth – red flags should be going up all over the place.

Indeed, the kind of sins and temptations are very personal to you and to me. And subtle. And easily missed.

How is Jesus tempted? You’ll notice the temptations are not bad in and of themselves, really (Luke 4:1-13). The devil doesn’t tempt Jesus to commit murder or genocide, or destroy the lives of good people by duping them into some ponzi scheme, or sell drugs, or do some awful, despicable, unconscionable thing we see continually in our media. At the same time, they are not of the trite, superficial variety we hear about in our so-called Lenten disciplines: the devil is not tempting Jesus with chocolate.

The man has been fasting for forty days. Surely a loaf of bread is okay? Even the most rigid of diets and fasts include some basic, regular consumption.

Then, the world. We know the corruption and evil surrounding the rule of Herod in Jesus’ day and age. A change in government would be a good thing, especially one ruled by Jesus, eh? You would think.

And finally, the temple. What with the priests, Pharisees, Levites and religious leaders of the day missing God’s point so often and corrupting the spiritual and worship life of people by their control and manipulative designs – Jesus taking over by displaying the power of God in the temple would go a long way in cleansing the place, turning it around. Wouldn’t you say? Jesus in charge! Yeah! Good idea!

The temptations address the person. And Jesus is the Son of God, not something contested by the devil, you’ll notice. The temptations are meant merely to distract Jesus, throw him off course.

The temptations are essentially given to undermine Jesus’ trust in God the Father. The temptations don’t deal with who Jesus is so much as what kind of Jesus will emerge from the desert: one that acts on his own timeline, or one that waits and obeys the timing and guidance of God the Father.

Because remember, Jesus does make bread to feed the hungry; Jesus does engage the political realm preaching the coming of God’s kingdom on earth; Jesus does let go and hang on the cross trusting the angels and presence of God the Father right to the end. In the end, Jesus does in essence what the devil tempted him in the desert. But with one huge difference: not according to anyone else’s strength and timeline other than God’s.

Game, set and match to Jesus!

I think we can say the same for ourselves: What is truly dangerous temptation for us has more to do with whatever may distract us from God’s purpose for our lives. Careful discernment is required here. It may not be obvious. In fact, it may first present itself as a good thing in and of itself: Some common sense notions we live by day to day. But are they part of God’s purposes? Is it the right time? Humility is also required in this journey.

We are not Jesus. So much in the popular Christian culture today suggests that we should be like Jesus. “What Would Jesus Do? WWJD” – do you wear the bracelet? Yes, Martin Luther said we are “little christs”. But emphasis on little, please.

Because Luther was very clear to say: We cannot presume to be like Jesus in his moral perfection. Because we aren’t! When we try to be like Jesus we lean on our own strength. When we try to be like Jesus we may easily end up believing we must earn God’s favor by our good works. This is not the Gospel. We are missing the point.

Being faithful Christians we will fail in our efforts, in our striving. Then, when we do fail – what do we do, what happens, what do we believe?

Are we unworthy of God’s love and favor? Will be burn in hell for our mistakes? Will God punish us? Will we give up? Will we say, “This is not for me?” and turn our back on church? Will we despair and continue knocking ourselves down in self-rejection? I think we are familiar with this line of reasoning – and where that spirit of obsessive, fatalistic guilt takes us. And that’s not a good place. Because I don’t think that reasoning leads to a vital, energetic and committed ministry to feed the poor and proclaim the Lord’s favor shouting from the rooftops – “Christ is Lord!”

It is simply in trusting Jesus amidst our weakness and imperfection where the Gospel has powerful witness to the world. All we need to do is to accept Jesus is with us, to help us, to guide us. All we need to do, is trust. And not give up on the path.

An ancient proverb is told of a servant whose duty was to draw water from the river at dawn when it was still mostly dark, and carry a bucket-full up a winding, rocky path to the mansion where his master lived. Alas! His bucket had a crack in it. And each time he brought water up the path he lost most of it.

Curiously, the servant noticed his master standing at the door of the mansion watching him every day carry this water up the path, spilling most of it. And yet, the servant was able to see a broad, loving smile on his master’s face. Daily, the servant would drop to his knees when he reached the top.

At his master’s feet the servant would express his remorse at failing to do his job, bringing only half a bucket-full of water each time he climbed the path. The master listened lovingly, invited him inside for breakfast, and encouraged him to try again the next day. Which the servant did, faithfully, for the entire season.

When the river froze over, and the last half-bucket full was brought up the path, and once again the servant expressed his shame, sorrow and regret, the master invited him inside to share in a special feast to mark the end of the season and beginning of a new one. On the table spread with the finest breads, vegetables, cheeses and meats, he found bouquets of flowers of the most wondrous varieties and colors.

The servant gasped at the heavenly sight and asked his master, “From where did you find these beautiful flowers?” “Come, follow me,” the master said, “and see for yourself.” The master led the servant back to the front door just as the sun was rising, illuminating the pathway down to the river. And on both sides of the path the flowers were growing, able to do so because of the water that had daily leaked out from the servant’s cracked bucket.

As we follow the path of our Lenten discipline let’s keep our eyes fixed on our master Jesus. Jesus knows our limitations, our failures, our sins because he walked that path to the Cross and bore all our sins. He knows intimately this rocky, dark path that we tread.

He also sees that nothing is wasted. No effort too small or too great is missed by God’s gracious gaze. Whatever we do, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has eternal implications. And won’t we be surprised when we enter that glorious heavenly feast and see it all!

We made the sign of the cross on our foreheads with ash this past week. Some may think as I once did, “how morbid and negative!”

But the path we tread is not about achieving perfection, but about not giving up. So, continue on the path returning to the Lord day after day this Lenten season, doing what we may. But keeping our vision, our focus, on Jesus even when we fail. And then see what happens.

Hope springs eternal. Surprise!

Crossing Yourself in the Pantry

One of the rooms that stands out in my memory from childhood was the kitchen pantry. It was a small room that was accessed from the kitchen — like a very big walk-in closet you see in newer homes off the master bedroom. When you walked in the pantry in my childhood home, shelving lined the side walls from floor to nine-foot ceiling.

It wasn’t a room that I often went into. It was rather cool and dark inside, for one thing. The flooring was old and the tiles were curled at the edges. The light switch was a string tied to the a ceiling light bulb, giving off a dingy feel. Once I hid there playing hide-and-seek with my brother; and scared myself sitting in the dark corner on the floor when I leaned into a spider web.

It certainly wasn’t a room whose purpose was to show off to company, even friends. This room was not designed for entertaining. In showing this house for sale, this would be the last place you’d consider “staging” for viewings.

And yet, I considered this room a treasure trove. Because lining the shelves were cans and packages and bags of all kinds of food. And lots of this good stuff that my Mother would convert to very tasty home-made cooking. I revered this room because it had a sole purpose — to store and keep this precious food. And food was something so closely related to the health and well-being of our family. Not a very attractive place. But in many vital ways the heart and soul of our home.

So it is with our hearts — a place often considered as the center of our being. We get to the “heart of the matter” when we arrive at the truth, the essential, what is most important in our lives, who we really are.

Getting at the essential element of our faith is a task that didn’t seem urgent some decades ago when Christianity was pretty well assumed in our culture and “everyone went to church”.

But today, Christians are struggling more and more to discover- re-discover, maybe – what their faith is about and what is really important. To get to the heart of it. To understand who we are as a Christian community and as individuals of faith.

And we do so on Ash Wednesday by first getting to heart of being human. We experience a visceral reminder of our humanity when we feel ashes smudged on our foreheads. Because basically, essentially, our bodies are made up of carbon molecules, and “to dust we shall return”. Nothing like facing our mortality to focus our attention on what is most important in life.

But it’s not only about the ashes. The ashes are imposed in the sign of the cross. We learn to cross ourselves from a young age, in the church. We see professional football and baseball players cross themselves before making a play. We may do it, or at least think it, before going under for surgery, or before doing something scary. Tonight we ritualize the act of crossing ourselves with ashes. This is a good practice.

So, why do we cross ourselves with ashes?

Perhaps we do so in a false humility, which is really a sign of self-rejection. We may make the sign of the cross, or receive it on our foreheads as we do tonight, more out of self-demeaning inferiority.

As I said, “Remember you are dust…” slams home the reality of our definite and eventual mortality. While important to accept and not deny, does our mortality bind and trap us in patterns of unhealthy self-hate? Or can it point to new possibilities for life? Does this reminder of our mortality cement our negative self-regard that we are good for nothing? Or does it keep us grounded in the reality of God’s never-ending love for us? Do we literally cross ourselves into oblivion or into the freedom of God’s grace?

In the traditional Gospel text for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6,16-21), Jesus instructs his disciples to pray in their inner room, or closet. This holy place has been likened to our heart — the deep, inner self where God meets us ‘in secret’.

A more accurate description of this place, according to Laurence Freeman, is a root cellar; I imagine that pantry (because folks in Jesus’ day did not have private rooms in which they could close a door).

It may not be a place we normally spend much time in. And so Lent invites us at least to consider going there — to go to this place where we’re not always comfortable going: whether that means starting a new discipline of prayer, or intentionally taking on a new project, an exercise program, giving something up, spending time getting help, counsel. It’s a place that can scare us, make us feel vulnerable. That challenges us to face our greatest fear and confront our imperfections.

What is that ‘room’ in your life? Is it a place of shame, regret, pain, fear, in-healed memory? How often have you gone there? Can you?

And yet, paradoxically, therein lies our greatest treasure, that which sustains and heals us in life despite our imperfections. Saint Paul spoke of a thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), and this was his perceived weakness. And yet, he used that ‘thorn’ to communicate the power and strength of God’s grace.

So much so that he wrote at length in his letter to the Corinthian church of the first century about the power of God being shown in human weakness, human limitation.

Normally we see our weakness and imperfection as reason for self rejection and denial. An embarrassment. A shame.

But the road to healing and wholeness is turning it around: by accepting those limitations and imperfections as precisely where Christ is present to us. Not denying that which causes us pain and suffering; not hiding from the “root cellar” in our hearts, but going there boldly as the place where Christ meets us, cobwebs and all, with his love and forgiveness.

This is the very definition of prayer, is it not? Not something we do self-consciously in front of others to show off and display our righteousness before the world. But a communion with God in precisely that place that shows our greatest weakness to the world. Therein lies the power of God.

Indeed, God’s grace is sufficient. The essential element of our faith, for Lutherans especially but for all Christians witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus, is God’s grace, God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s gift of Christ in us.

Learning to be Real: A Children’s Sermon

Invite the children to sit on the steps of the chancel. Bring a stuffed, toy rabbit and your old teddy bear to place facing each other on a railing or chair, for all to see.

Adapted from an extract from the ‘Velveteen Rabbit’, by Margery Williams (1881-1944) ….

Good morning. Let’s listen in on a conversation between the rabbit and bear. It sounds to me like the rabbit has come to the bear for some advice.

Have you ever gone to someone when something bad has happened between you and a friend? Or, you didn’t understand something about growing up? And you want some help in figuring out what to do?

Let’s listen ….

“What is Real?” asked the Rabbit one day. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and always make you happy?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Bear. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When someone loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Because your hair looks worn out, and there are patches missing.”

“Sometimes,” said the Bear, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you know that you’ll sometimes get hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Bear. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Bear only smiled. “Someone made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

When I was born, my parents gave me this teddy bear. And all the while I was growing up, this bear stayed close to me. I’ve hugged it lots over the years! I know to be loved by me wasn’t always easy for my bear: he lost hair, once one of his ears fell off, and his eyes popped out — and had to be re-attached; his blue ribbon faded. But he sure was loved!

God loves you for always. But that doesn’t mean life will always be easy. The important thing to remember is that God will forever hold you close to his heart, no matter what. And in the meantime, you will become Real — a real strong and loveable person!


In here and out there

When I started opening my fortune cookie this past week I realized how eager I was to find out what treasure lay within. What positive words would jump out at my life this time? Not that I take those words all too seriously. But what often piques my interest, especially in sharing with another person, was a yearning for the positive word to me. Positive + Personal + with others = more fun!

I, for one, yearn for a positive, spiritual experience. I count myself among those who seek an encounter with a living and loving God. And that could come in prayer, a holy reading of Scripture, an uplifting experience of worship.

But I know that only to be the half of it. Because when I look beyond myself and my own longings, I see something bigger, something more than my agendas for self-gratification and my self-absorbed navel-gazing.

And, for me, that starts with an honest encounter with Scripture.

When I first read the Gospel story for Transfiguration Sunday (Luke 9:28-43), I found what seemed to me an unnatural disconnect between the first part when the disciples see a vision of Jesus’ glory on the mountaintop, and second part when Jesus heals a boy from a demonic illness.

On the one hand Jesus’ mountaintop experience conveys a sense of privy religion: an ecstasy reserved for an elite few, a holy albeit exclusive event, a private affair that occurs in an ivory tower place not easily accessed — to which anyone who has climbed mountains can likely attest. Me and sweet Jesus!

On the other hand rebuking an unclean spirit sends Jesus into the dirty streets and crossroads of the harsh realities of common life. There’s an obvious rapid descent that occurs in this passage — a drastic scene change: from a select few disciples in Peter, John and James, and biblical greats in Moses and Elijah … to a great crowd that meets Jesus at the foot of the mountain; from mystical communion, wispy clouds and translucent streams of bursting heavenly light … to the putrid smells of decay and disease in the streets, mauling little boys in uncontrollable seizures and epileptic fits. It’s dramatic!

What is going on here? What are we to understand about the glory of God? What constitutes a ‘holy’ experience? I see at least three clues in the text to help us.

First, both the Gospel writers Luke and Matthew follow up the mountaintop experiences by Jesus healing someone. All three — Matthew (17:14), Mark (9:14) and Luke have Jesus encountering the “crowd” right after the transfiguration. So basically, the Gospels clearly attempt to fuse together the contemplative, mystic, holy with the ordinary, embodied and missional elements of our faith. Again — not either/or, but more both/and.

In her memoir, “Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx” (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003, p.269), Heidi Neumark reflects on this passage to tell a powerful story of transfiguration. She describes the transformation of the church she served as pastor for almost twenty years. Aptly named Transfiguration Lutheran Church, the community was struggling, barely surviving, for most of that time. Standing amid poverty and the myriad problems that can accompany such a demon — crime, drug abuse, lack of education and opportunity, lack of hope — Transfiguration Church mostly kept its doors shut tight to the world around it.

The work of Jesus rebuking the unclean spirit was example enough for Neumark. “When Peter and the others came down from the mountain,” she writes, “they found a father and a child gasping for life. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And they found transfiguration.

And so it is. When the disciples of this Bronx church unlocked the doors of their private shelter and stepped out into the neighbourhood, they did meet the distress of the community convulsed and mauled by poverty, to be sure. But they also discovered transfiguration as a congregation in connection with others.

As much as I long for those holy, exclusive encounters with God, I have to agree with commentators who suggest that the story of the transfiguration of Jesus loses its power if it does not include that moment when Jesus and the disciples come down from the mountain (Lori Brandt Hale, “Feasting on the Word” Year C Volume 1, p.456).

On Meadowlands Drive in Ottawa, we are not situated in the Bronx. Poverty may not readily stare us in the face quite like for the people of Transfiguration Church. And yet, the question may still need to be asked: Who lives outside these doors? Who are we in relationship with this community in West Ottawa? What is the role and function of our space here? Is it only for our own personal edification, our own private encounter with God in some mystical, religious experience?

Or, can those beautiful encounters with God and with one another in this holy place lead us, as a valid and necessary extension of our faith, somewhere else?

Perhaps places reserved for personal intimate communion with God are meant more as a stopping place, a rest station on the interstate of life, where we recharge our batteries. But that the real deal happens out there in the world. The holy, glorious places, serve as turnabouts in our walk on earth — leading us in, but turning us back around after re-fueling to face what we must face out there.

The second clue in our readings today, is the predominant image of “face”; let me explain: In the first reading from Exodus, Moses did not know that after his encounter with God, “the skin of his face shone” (34:29); and the Gospel writer indicates that while Jesus was praying on the mountain, “the appearance of his face changed” (9:29). Then, after Jesus heals the boy with the demon, Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51) to complete his mission on earth.

What our face communicates is powerful and influential beyond measure. What do our faces convey to the world out there about the treasure we hold in our hearts? What impression do we give to the public – as Christians, as Lutherans, as members of Faith Church in West Ottawa?

A couple of weeks ago I remember in the middle of my sermon I saw a whole bunch of you burst out in radiant smiles. Your faces were shining! And yet, I hadn’t said anything particularly funny — at least I didn’t think I did. But something else, something I hadn’t noticed, was happening. And it was a holy moment.

A child had been smiling at you. And no words were spoken, even necessary. It was as if you conveyed a sense of the presence of God in your midst with an emotional response to a child’s face. The smiles and glow on all your faces were part of the meaning of God’s felt presence in the worshiping community that day. And it was a gracious, patient, forgiving presence.

It may not often be mentioned by preachers of the Gospel, but did you notice that Jesus at first reacts, rather negatively, to their request for healing the boy. Jesus kind of complains to the people about their lack of faith, insulting them: “You perverse generation!”

I think Jesus realizes that so often people are not getting the reason for his coming to earth. He sees that people really just want something for themselves. They want Jesus to help them, one of their own. Quite understandable. And yet, their self-centered egos get the better of them and is what truly motivates them to come to Jesus. Jesus just shakes his head.

Nevertheless, he still shows them compassion, shows the boy compassion, and heals him. His love and grace trump the people’s misguided motivations and selfish ambitions. Even though they don’t understand that their purpose in life – God’s purpose for them – is for the sake of others, Jesus still exercises divine patience.

How do we face the world outside these doors on a Sunday morning? Do we walk in the way of Jesus? Do people see forgiveness and patience, a radiance that conveys loving acceptance?

Dark coloured hard-wood flooring seems to be the latest thing in model homes. I’ve toured a few of these new homes in Arnprior over the last year. Indeed, the duplex we now rent – a new construction – has this dark hardwood flooring throughout. And yet, as nice and pretty as it looks, it is so unforgiving: every speckle of dust, every bread crumb, stands out. It is unforgiving, unyielding. Other, lighter woods can put up with more dirt, so to speak.

I hope we are not like this hardwood flooring to the world out there. I hope our “face” to the world radiates a patient, compassionate and forgiving stance, one that invites a loving response from those we meet.

Jesus’ face may have been determined as he began his journey to Jerusalem after the transfiguration. But it was not a hard set, impatient, unforgiving, angry face. But one that invited an open heart to respond in faith.

The glory of God is realized in the mission, boots-to-the-ground, exercise of compassion to those in need. Then, others out there will see us as we are and whose we are. The glory of God cannot be fully experienced without reflecting the treasure of love we hold in our hearts, for the world to see outside these doors.

Better than anything we can find in a fortune cookie.

Revealing glory: a funeral sermon

Your keeping vigil with your mother over the past month occurred, primarily, during the season of Epiphany. The season of Epiphany in the church calendar is all about the revelation of Jesus. And the stories that we hear during this season — the baptism of Jesus, the miracle of water to wine, and the magi bringing priceless gifts to the baby Jesus — emphasize the glory of God in the coming of Jesus into the world.

Christians have responded to the revelation of God’s glory by affirming Jesus as the divine Son of God. The season finds its climax in the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop alongside other biblical greats in Moses and Elijah. Here we witness as a foretaste of the coming glory of Easter the epitome of God’s shining glory in the blazing light of Jesus’ holy presence.

It may at first seem incongruous to talk about God’s glory on a day when we grieve the death of one beloved among us. It may at first even appear nonsense to focus on the brilliance, beauty, and blazing light of God’s presence in and around us during the darkest, coldest part of the year. As does wintertime, death may come to us as an example of God’s defeat, not God’s victory.

And yet, I do not hesitate in beginning this funeral sermon by mentioning God’s glory in Jesus. And not only because we still find ourselves in the season after Epiphany. It’s more because of whom we remember this day.

Because, for me, her life with us — even to the end — truly reflected God’s glory. In the sense that her presence conveyed dignity, respect, elegance. You told me how often she upheld values of proper etiquette and dress — especially in church! She wanted to look beautiful. God forbid you wore jeans to church!

Around New Year’s when she was very low I remember coming to the hospital to visit her. I had to wait outside in the hallway for a few minutes as a nurse attended to her. When I was finally called in to her room, I came in just as she was getting help from one of you putting her lipstick on! Even in her severely weakened, vulnerable, state, she still wanted to do what she could, to look beautiful. Glorious!

Epiphany is faith’s response to the dark, cold days of winter. Epiphany is faith’s response to the dark, difficult, painful times of our lives. Not that we deny, brush over, or try to hide that reality.

Only that we affirm, despite the loss and amidst the grief, the small nugget of hope — of beauty — within us all, as she did for herself. Your loved one was especially gifted at pointing out, recognizing and affirming that nugget in us — even when we couldn’t see it ourselves!

She truly had the gift of encouragement. And she used it! Several of you have recalled for me times when after leading a bible study or presenting music or words in worship, she would take the time to make a phone call or write a card to you afterwards. In those simple acts, she thanked you and pointed out the positive — even though you may have felt the opposite about the experience!

Earlier in her life, she exercised her gift of hospitality and invitation to newcomers to the community — inviting them over for supper or tea. Such grace goes a long way to affirm that gift of hope and faith in us so often and easily shrouded by life’s difficulties.

In doing so, your loved one was herself being transformed. Through the course of her life, in exercising her gifts of encouragement, hospitality, generosity and care, she was being transformed into the likeness of Christ’s glory. Indeed, I believe she once described to me her own life as a journey towards God.

There’s an old story (as told by Barbara Schmitz, p.35, “Changed From Glory Into Glory” in The Life of Christ and the Death of a Loved One, CSS Publishing, 1995) about a fellow who fell in love with a young woman. But he was sure that she would not be interested in him because he didn’t think he looked handsome. So with the help of a surgeon he had a special mask designed, a handsome mask that was then placed over his face. With this handsome new look, he easily won over the woman he loved and they were married.

But many years later, she discovered the trick and asked him to remove it. When he peeled off the mask, what was underneath, but a handsome face! For, after all those years, his natural face had slowly taken on the handsome contours of the mask. His face had been transformed into the likeness of the mask.

The Christian life, from baptism to death, is indeed a journey of being changed, transformed, into the likeness of Jesus Christ. And periodically, on this journey, in good times and even through difficult times, we pause to give thanks and celebrate the good, the blessing, the gift, that is there whether we always see it or not.

At this funeral service, we give thanks for the life of our loved one who now celebrates at the banquet feast of heaven. At this funeral service, we also share in a holy meal often called the Eucharist. Eucharist means “thanksgiving”. And in our thanksgiving to God for Jesus, we take one more step on that journey of being healed, being changed, being transformed, for the good.

May our lives, as did the one whom we remember today, reflect the glory of God.

In Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior.