Faith, for reward?

That word, ‘reward’, shows up all too often in this short Gospel for my liking. Because, in our world, a reward is something we get in return for our hard work. Right? Relationships are thus formed in transaction. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

We, therefore, get what we deserve. If we’ve been good, if we’ve followed all the rules, if we have tried so hard in whatever we endeavour, then there is a pay-off. Or, should be. 

And, if we’ve been bad, not only do our sins have natural consequences we must deal with, we try to understand it so that we are punished because of our sins. After all, bad things happen to those who don’t measure up in some way.

It is no wonder, then, that we frame our lives of faith in this language. And this transactional thinking saturates all our relationships, including our understanding of God and our relationship with God.

I like the children’s story about a couple of frogs who are best friends – Roger and Fergie. Roger meets someone else, however, who really impresses: This new friend is Bull, the frog. 

Roger and Bull spend all their time together hanging out. Roger says that he and Bull are now bestfriends. Until one day Roger’s Mom tells him that Fergie showed up earlier looking for Roger.

“Fergie’s not my friend anymore,” Roger states, ignoring his old friend. And runs out to play with Bull again.

One day, Bull meets someone else and falls in love with them. Bull starts spending all hours of the day and night with this new interest, leaving Roger all alone. “I guess Bull isn’t my friend anymore.”

Mom suggests Roger ask Fergie to come over for supper and a sleep over, which Roger does. Roger gulps, “I hope Fergie will want to be my friend.” To Roger’s surprise, Fergie does not hesitate and is so glad to spend time with Roger again.

The two old friends play hide-and-seek until the moon rises. Then, as the two frogs snuggle into the mud, Roger says, “Thanks for coming over tonight. Sorry I was so dumb to waste my time with Bull Frog lately. Still friends?”

“Sure,” says Fergie. “I always knew you were dumb, Roger. That’s why you’re my best friend. Same old Roger.”

“Same old Fergie!” Roger says.[1]

Jesus is like Fergie. The reward is that Jesus will always take us back, no matter what we have done. And we might have done terrible things that cause us shame and guilt. That’s the kind of friend Jesus is, one who takes us back even after we’ve let him down.

God is a friend who comes to share our joys, our pains, and our tears without expecting anything in return. God does not expect anything from us.

This is a difficult thing for us to accept, especially as we are bombarded by messages that say we must prove ourselves. We are bombarded by messages that say God wants us to perform to a certain level. Meet certain expectations.

But we’ve got that mixed up.

It’s not God wanting us to perform and achieve and accomplish in order to deserve something in return. It’s we who make that stuff up.

What would it be like once we free ourselves from this image of God who expects something from us? What would it be like, once we accept and receive the free gift of God’s love for us and for the world?

It is in the freedom of God’s unconditional, unmerited mercy that paves the way for genuine welcome of others. It is receiving God’s grace that we become authentically in touch with ‘these little ones’ of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel[2]– the little one within ourselves, the little one in church and in our circles of family and friends, and with those who are stranger to us. 

May we swim in the waters of that grace, and at the end of the day snuggle into God’s warm embrace.

[1]Adapted from Nancy Cocks, “Friends of the Lord” in Wild Goose Big Book of Liturgies (Iona Community UK, 2018), p.203-205

[2]Matthew 10:40-42

A funeral outdoors

Psalm 100

1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.

3 Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.

5 For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

Jesus said, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26).

We remember today our beloved ‘Des’. He was a man who hummed with the vibrancy of life. He had a good ear for singing and playing music. His smile was infectious. He spoke with passion. He was constantly supplying me with jokes, unfortunately not many were church-appropriate. 🙂

Last March when Des celebrated his 85thbirthday he said he didn’t want anything big. “Wait till my 90th” he said, “then let’s pull all the stops.” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added in typical Des fashion: “And, if I’m not around, you go ahead without me.”

Well, we must now go ahead without him. Our paths diverge. We go our way, and Des enters the fullness of God’s presence. The Psalmist invites us to enter God’s city “with songs of thanksgiving.” I can imagine Des doing just that. 

Today we gather outside, at the place of his final resting. It’s appropriate that we do so, here during the first week of the summer season. Because Des was most at home in nature. I’m glad we can hear the birds chirping, the choir singing Des home to his creator.

Naturalists call it ‘animal altruism’: when a creature places another’s needs before its own. If you are walking through a forest during the day and without knowing it come too close to a nesting whip-poor-will baby bird, its mother will abandon its lone nestling and fly around you in circles and land on a branch away from the nest. It might even drag one wing, trying to make you think it had been injured so that if you happened to be a hungry predator, you would go after the ‘easy prey’ that was the parent rather than the newly hatched, more vulnerable child.

It is imbedded in nature, to love and go way beyond one’s own needs for the sake of the other.

You described to me one stand-out aspect of Des’ personality and giftedness to us: his willingness, his readiness to help out. At the drop of the hat, even if it inconvenienced him, he would offer whatever help he could. He put others’ needs before his own, often. He was all heart. And never stopped loving you.

Like the birds whose love and sacrifice for their children never end, God gives us examples from nature to show us how God is. That God will remain faithful to us, will offer help in times of grief and sorrow. God will provide for our needs in times of trouble. God will go the distance and will never stop loving us even in the face of death. As the Psalmist sings, “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”

Our hearts can rest forever in the care of God. Today, Des is with his creator, in the full and loving presence of a God who never stopped loving him. For his life, we are grateful. For God’s love for us all, our hearts sing.


A life of dying and rising

Now that we are officially into the summer season, the outdoors beckon with near perfect conditions these days. Indeed, we often experience our connection with God most profoundly in creation – 

With our feet on the earth, breathing the air, hearing the chirping birds and sounds of the forest and feeling the warm sunshine and breeze on our skin. In the peace and surrounded by beauty beyond words, we have a felt sense of God’s presence.

We embrace these moments because we also know this does not last forever.

I offered prayers for the church sitting by the Ottawa River as the season changed to summer. But I have been on those same shores in winter – when the winds howl and freezing temperatures and biting snow burn my skin, chasing me indoors.

The Gospel reading today reminds us that the death Jesus experiences, we too must endure. It doesn’t sound like good news. How can we live our faith, be aware of our life in Christ and follow Jesus according to his will, when we suffer, when we don’t feel well, when the circumstances of our life are far from perfect?

It isn’t easy to confront the truth of what we believe under the surface. It isn’t easy to come to terms with our real motivation for going to church, for associating with others. Is it only when the conditions, the circumstances of our lives are ideal? Is it only when we feel good that we can consider ourselves Christian and meet with others who say they are or aren’t?

In our home, the cleaning normally gets done according to the schedule of house guests. Pre-COVID, we would have friends or family over once every few weeks. And this reality would motivate me to vacuum and wash the floors. We wanted a clean house to entertain our guests.

When no guests at all were coming over the past few months, you can imagine what happened to the condition of our floors. I needed to make a shift within myself to realize that I was no longer going to wash the kitchen floors because we were hosting visitors to our place. But for different, more basic reasons. I needed to find a new motivation, a refreshed understanding from which to do things.

Maybe what some are calling this time of history as “The Great Pause” has given us all a little more time and space to address some deeper motivations around our faith practice. Are we Christian only because we are trying to get ourselves into heaven? Have we strived to impress others in the church, out-do others in our good works, or perform to some high level to prove something? 

All of these motivations may have been operating in our subconscious before we had to isolate. Before we had to pause everything. We may not have been aware of our true intentions until now. And, in all honesty, we might be alarmed and ashamed at what we confront within our hearts. 

The message of the New Testament is that new life can only sprout from death. The death of old patterns of thinking. The death of underlying beliefs and assumptions which may have been helpful at one point in life but don’t really work now anymore. 

Life with God in Christ makes that kind of shift. Life is a great teacher. Old ways will die. Things we have done in the past will never be the same in the future. When we receive and accept this, it is a kind of dying. We have been baptized into the death of Christ. A life in Christ will be a life of dying and rising.[1]

We need to find a new starting point within us. We need to embrace the new life of Christ emerging from within us, just waiting to be born.

A cartoon circulated on social media recently showing several executives of a large corporation huddled around the board room table. Their CEO stands before them giving a rather sobering analysis of recent sales amid the economic slowdown during COVID-19.

He says, “I’m afraid the news isn’t good. Word has it, the consumers are starting to find out what actually matters.”

What actually matters is that God values us beyond measure. We are more valuable to God than the smallest most insignificant things we see and have. Jesus uses the examples of the smallest sparrows and each, individual strand of hair on our heads to make this point.[2]We are infinitely more valuable than anything we can produce, more valuable than anything we may taste, touch, feel, smell, and see in this world. That is what actually matters!

The end result of all that Christ Jesus has done, is so that “we too might walk in newness of life.”[3]Notice, Paul says ‘walk’, not ‘think’ nor ‘believe’. But walk in newness of life. Here we arrive at the crux of it: The necessity of connecting faith with action. They will know we are Christians by our love.

If you feel you are losing your connection to faith these days, maybe God is calling to you examine yourself. Maybe God is calling you to a deeper understanding. Maybe God is calling you to be a blessing for others as you have been blessed in the past by God. Maybe God is calling you to do something.

When we consider ourselves as valuable, beloved creatures of God, when we consider ourselves as people motivated by God’s love for all, when we consider our faults and our dying in light of God’s unconditional loving regard for us, what do we have to lose? But “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.”[4]

[1]Romans 6:3

[2]Matthew 10:29-31

[3]Romans 6:4

[4]Micah 6:8

To confess and affirm

The government of Ontario announced this week some lifting of restrictions for certain parts of the province, with implications for churches.

While this announcement gives hope especially to those of us yearning to meet again in person and in the building, the announcement can give a false hope that we are now all safe.

We are definitely not. We are not out of the woods yet. Just a couple of days ago the World Health Organization reported the highest number of infections in a single day worldwide since the pandemic broke earlier this year. There are signs and worries even in North America that a second wave or spike can strike this summer. Of course we don’t know for certain and when. 

But we do know that Toronto remains locked down. In the southern States new cases have been alarmingly rising over the past couple of weeks. These are sobering facts we cannot deny.

How do we respond, as a people of God, in faith?

We were treated by a special guest to our house this past week. A baby robin lingered on the back deck after being fed by her mother who kept watch nearby.

We like these images of protective wings. They remind us of the nurturing and comforting presence of God. We may feel privileged with God under the shadow of the Almighty. Chosen and held by a loving God. The image of God bearing us, as God bore the Israelites up out of slavery in Egypt, has found its way into hymns, songs and prayers that have sustained the people of God over the centuries.

We are chosen by God. But we are chosen to take responsibility in our privilege. Being called “a priestly kingdom and holy nation”[1]is not license to think exclusively of ourselves. We are not God’s pets, singled out for special favors and exempt from suffering and consequences of bad behavior. Being chosen and called by God is not permission to protect a life of comfort, luxury and privilege for ourselves without regard for others.

God does not love just me, and those like me. “Indeed, the whole earth is mine,” says the Lord.[2]God is always choosing all people on their very different journeys of faith and life. If there is anything we pray we have in common, it is that we can all share in an experience of being loved by  God. And we must care for others so they can too.

This text from Exodus precedes the giving of the Ten Commandments. The second half of the Commandments – the last five or six have to do with loving our neighbor. God’s promise of protection must extend through us and our responsibility to protect others.

The Israelites are parked at the base of Mount Sinai, ready now to receive instruction from God. They say all the right words: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do!”[3]

At least, good on them for that. But it’s not enough to say the right words. Because we know how the story goes for the ancient Israelites. They don’t always take care of the “alien, the orphan and the widow”[4]History shows the failure of God’s people “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”[5]

The Bible doesn’t end with that bold and righteous intention to do everything God has told us. Rather, the Bible ends up being a very long story of humanity’s failure, over and over again, to do God’s will.

That is why when the mother robin kept perch on the fence in our backyard, when she maintained distant yet vigilant watch over her chick, I thanked God. 

Sometimes God may seem distant, and literally in the case of the baby robin, physically distant. In these turbulent times of increased confinement and social upheaval, God may feel to us physically distant.

Yet God’s people will not rest from our responsibilities. In the decisions we make, in how we relate to one another, our behavior, our lifestyles we hold a great responsibility for the other.

And despite our failures to get it right, to do it perfectly, despite the words declared from podiums and over backyard fences, God is never too far away. Never too far away to watch over us and be faithful to us in the wideness of God’s mercy. Because if there is anything that endures throughout the bible’s story besides human brokenness and sin, it is more the never-ending story and promise of God’s grace and love for all the people.

The Psalmist takes God at God’s word. The Psalmist proclaims God’s faithfulness even at the farthest reaches of what is possible, and prays: “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea” – if I go beyond my comfort zone and let go of private privilege for the sake of the other, if I embrace my limitations – “even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.”[6]

So, what shall we do as a church? If you are rostered in the community of Faith Lutheran Church, you will receive a communication in the next couple of weeks outlining our plan. In the meantime, I would ask you to consider the following affirmations we can make as a church together:

  1. We affirm that during this time of pandemic lockdown the church has not been closed. Even though the building has been closed, the work of pastoral care, worship, prayer and other ways supporting the ministry of this congregation and the wider community has continued.
  2. We affirm that though this work uses imperfect and limited means, the grace of God sustains it as much as it did pre-COVID and will for all time to come.
  3. We affirm that that members of the church experience anxiety, fear, loss and anger during the pandemic. There is a longing for the way things were. This yearning speaks to our humanity held in God’s love; and, speaks to our need to grieve and express our losses.
  4. We affirm that as we move forward into an uncertain future, we want to love each other by upholding safe, social practices – even if it entails maintaining physical distancing and sheltering-in-place. In so doing, we consider everyone’s safety not just our own. We protect all people, especially those most vulnerable among us and in the wider community.
  5. We affirm our intention and hope that slowly but surely we will come to worship again together in person. Whether this begins in a couple of months and extends over a couple of years, we affirm that all our times are in God’s hands. Re-entering the building will be a process that will at first feel awkward and slow and sometimes rigid, especially at the beginning when we put into practice safe, physical distancing measures.

In closing I would like to pray one of my favourites from the old green book – the Lutheran Book of Worship:

“Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”[7]

[1]Exodus 19:6

[2]Exodus 19:5

[3]Exodus 19:8a

[4]Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:19; 24:20; 24:21; 25:7; 27:19

[5]Micah 6:8

[6]Psalm 139:9

[7]Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1978), p.137

Let others breathe

My neighbor sat glumly on his front porch looking out over the grass in his front yard, and the patch of municipal green area across the street from our homes.

He loves to play golf. In the nearly twenty years of his retirement he has made golf his passion.  A couple days before the government lifted restrictions on golf courses he called out to me from his melancholic perch on his front porch, “Hey, you can work a little harder, eh?” He flicked his eyes to the sky. “Sure would be nice to get out on the greens when the weather is like this.”

Presuming my neighbor meant “God” when he looked up, and presuming he believed my prayers had extra pull with God when it came to affecting government decisions, I just smiled. “I’ll get on that right away.” I paused, then added. “But let me know how you make out getting ready for that day when it comes, ok?” He winked, and smiled back giving me the thumbs up.

He obviously responded to my encouragement to get ready. The next day, he trimmed a spot in the grass across the street. Throughout the whole morning – he is an early riser—my neighbor was across the street chipping golf balls with a pitching wedge over the street and onto the front yard of his house.

In the scripture today,[1]Jesus empowers his disciples to “teach” to the “nations” everything he had taught them. This Great Commission, as we have come to know this text from Matthew’s Gospel, is meant for all Jesus’ disciples including all who follow Jesus today. 

“Teach the nations.”

The only distinguishing mark of Jesus’ ministry on earth was teaching. Only Jesus taught and his disciples did not. Long before this scene on the mountainside of Jesus’ final words to his disciples, and even long before the events surrounding Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus had already given his disciples the power to cast out demons, heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God has come near.[2]

For the longest time while Jesus was with his disciples, he had been doing the same kinds of things alongside them. Except teach. Now, as Jesus commissions the disciples at the end, he adds teaching to their mission.[3]

Today we know that people are different in how they learn something. Some learn best by doing it and being active about it. Some learn best first by reading about it in a book or on screen by themselves. Others learn best in a group or with others to help motivate them, like in a classroom. Others learn best by observing and watching others doing it. Others will learn best by associating certain smells and sounds to activate and reinforce the memory. Still others learn best visually using images and pictures. Etc. etc.

Beware of presuming one way or style of teaching will accommodate each and every human being. To say the least, teaching and learning is complex. One size does not fit all. Maybe that’s why Jesus left this specific commission to the end.

As if this was not hard enough to grasp, Jesus ups the ante by instructing his disciples to go to the “nations”. Nations here is not our modern understanding of nation-states. But rather, more like ‘foreigners’ and people who are not like us.[4]

Matthew was writing primarily to a first-century Jewish community. And he was echoing the Gospel message of extending the mission of God to the Gentiles. The nations, for us, represents anyone who is different from us, who doesn’t share our lifestyle choices, ethnic background, traditions, and race.

The Holy Spirit is blowing to and among all people.

At this time in history, especially, we are called to let others breathe. And, especially, others not like us. When George Floyd lost his life in Minnesota a couple of weeks ago, it was at the hands of someone who violently took away his ability, his freedom, to breathe. All because the colour of Floyd’s skin was not the same as the police officer’s.

When we build relationships with those who are different from us – because that is the call of Jesus – we can ‘teach the nations’ starting in our backyards, in our neighbourhoods and around our homes by simply letting those with whom we differ in some way breathe. Let them be who they are. Let them express what is important to them. Let them claim the space around them. Let them feel validated by your presence. Let them breathe.

I am not a golfer. Even though I tried on a few occasions, I never took to it for various reasons. Nevertheless I appreciated that even though my neighbor knows that golf is not important to me, he still reached out about his yearning to play golf after a long winter. He was still willing to be vulnerable with me.

A few days following our brief exchange about prayer and God and golf, the government announced that golf courses were to open the second last weekend of May. I have hardly seen him around the neighborhood since. I suppose he has been spending a lot of time at the local golf course several kilometres away.

But a couple of days ago I bumped into him in front of our houses. “How’s the golf going?” I asked. He wanted to let me know that golf was a game that you never perfected, that you always have to work at, that no matter how many years you’ve played it, it’s a process that never ends. 

“Some days you score a 76 when you could have scored a 68,” he said. “Other days you surprise yourself by doing better than you should have. There are so many factors and variables that go into each and every shot.” And the journey continues for him.

I think my neighbor taught me a thing or two about prayer, God and … well, golf. Jesus gives us a challenge. Being a disciple of Jesus feels overwhelming. We may resist its conferring upon us, as a result. The mission will disturb and take us out of our comfort zones. Life in Christ will continue to challenge us. And yes, we will at times doubt – as the disciples did even with Jesus standing right in front of them.[5]

Along the journey, however, let’s not succumb to the despair of assuming that being a faithful Christian, and teaching others about God, is a one-off, run-and-done deal. It’s not something we check-off a list. And let’s not assume it is our power that achieves God’s work. That strategy is sure to fail. 

I was going to tell my neighbor, even in a joking manner, that it was my hard work at praying for the golf courses to open early that made it so. But I didn’t. Because our life does not rest in our power and strength to preserve it, protect it, control the outcomes, or to make something happen. 

Being disciples is about relationship, the quality of each, unique relationship. Being disciples is a life-long journey of building relationships, of listening and watching, of risking and doing – a learning and a practice of letting others breathe and grow that never ends.

I didn’t do anything about my neighbour’s golf game except be present with him, to listen and affirm. Maybe our loving presence with another who is different from us can be an opening for the Spirit of God to enter and breathe into our relationships.

Because our life rests in God’s willingness and God’s power to be present with us, to sustain our lives and grow them with others who are different from us yet breathing alongside us. This, we can trust. Even to the end of this age.

[1]Matthew 28:16-20

[2]Matthew 10:7

[3]Stephen B. Boyd, “Matthew 28:16-20” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 3(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.44

[4]Thomas G. Long, ibid., p.47

[5]Matthew 28:17