I am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, serving a parish in Ottawa Ontario. I am a husband, father, and admirer of the Ottawa Valley. I enjoy beaches, sunsets and waterways. I like to write, reflect theologically and meditate in the Christian tradition.
I’m going to ask you to do something that may seem a bit odd, a little unusual. I hope you’ll bear with me for a moment because I think as we continue, you’ll understand why I am asking you to do this.
I want you to take a moment and just sit in the silence. Be present and open to the silence, and just listen. But before you do that, I want to tell you something.
Many believe that silence is the opposite of sound and that there is nothing to hear. Inge knew otherwise. As a singer and one who loved to participate in the church choir at Faith Lutheran and the Community choir in Nepean, Inge knew that’s just not true. Every good singer knows that silence is the necessary space between the notes.
That space, what most of us might call or experience as emptiness, absence, or a void, is the birthplace of the music. That space of silence is as much a part of the music as is each note. That space sets a rhythm, holds energy, and gives music its life, power, and beauty. Silence is never just emptiness, an absence, or a void; not in music, not in life, not in death, and not on this day.
So take a moment now and listen to the silence. (pause) What did you hear?
My guess is that we hear the music of Inge’s life; we hear her song of love, her song of friendship, her song of serving, her song of presence in your life.
And I wonder what song she gave you. How did she touch your life and invite you to join your voice to hers in the great song of life? How did she conduct you into the original music of your own life? Hang on to those songs, Inge’s, and yours. Let them fill you and carry you. They are holy hymns.
I’m also guessing that you heard your song of grief and sorrow, your song of loss, and your song of love for or friendship with Inge. It probably had a verse or two about loneliness, sadness, and wondering how you can know the way. That’s the space between the notes. That’s the opening to a new song for Inge, for you, and for all those you love but no longer see.
I want you to know this. The music of Inge’s life did not end at her death. Today we stand in that space between the notes, a space that makes room for presence in a new way, a space from which God is making all things new. “Sing to the Lord a new song” the Psalmist sings.
The music of Inge’s life now plays in a different key.
Isn’t that what we mean when we say at these times, “Life has changed, not ended?” Isn’t that what Jesus is telling Thomas in today’s gospel when he says, “That where I am, there you may be also?” Death is not the coda, the conclusion, to the song of life.
Though we might be able to name the day and maybe even the hour of Inge’s death, she never knew that moment. She simply moved from this life to a new life. The music hasn’t ended, the key has changed. And that means we must learn to listen in a new way. We must listen with the ears of our hearts.
So when we get to the parts of life that call us to slow down, pay attention and listen with the ears of your heart. Listen for the voice of Inge. Listen for the voices of all those you love but no longer see. Feel her and their presence. The music is always playing.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” for we are singing the never-ending song of life. That’s why we’ve gathered here today. And that’s why on this day, even as we soon go to the graveside, we make our song, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.”
 Largely borrowed and adapted from Fr Michael Marsh, “The Music Hasn’t Ended, The Key Has Changed—A Funeral Sermon” in Interrupting the Silence (https://www.interruptingthesilence.com). Thank you Fr Michael!
Well here we are, finally, at the end of June. It’s strawberry season in these parts. So I want to start with a strawberry story. But it starts out pretty bad:
A holy man is being chased by a tiger. He runs as fast as he can, but the tiger is hot on his heels. Ahead of him is a cliff, with a vine hanging down over the edge. He grasps the vine and begins to clamber down the face of the mountain, when down below …
He spots another tiger prowling on a ledge beneath him. A tiger above and a tiger below, he hangs there, clinging to the vine. Then, he notices …
Two little mice have scampered up and begun gnawing at the vine that is supporting him. He can’t seem to catch a break! It’s just getting worse! The writing is on the wall.
At that desperate moment, he sees right before him …
A ripe, red, wild strawberry, growing on the side of the mountain. He plucks and sinks his teeth into it—how sweet it tastes! (1)
In times of loss and grief, it often feels like all is lost. It feels like the disappointments only mount, and despair hounds relentlessly at the edges of our existence. It’s not just one tiger chasing you, there’s another one waiting for you ahead. And then the one thing you are hanging on to begins to disintegrate before your very eyes!
Planning for this funeral service has felt a little like this story, too. Shortly after Bill died several months ago now, we planned to have his celebration of life just after Easter, appropriately, when we hoped the pandemic wouldn’t be a factor keeping us from gathering. But it was! So, we postponed it to this day, months later, hoping this time of year would give others the opportunity to join us.
There are nuggets of wisdom and truth embedded in the strawberry story. And in the story of the raising of Lazarus, which you chose to accompany our reflection on this day when we celebrate the gift of life in your beloved Bill.
The story of Lazarus starts out pretty badly. It is a story mired in death and grief and failed expectations. Did you notice the extent to which the Gospel writer includes details about death and grief: Lazarus’ dear friend Jesus being “deeply disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” to the point of weeping. The smell of death, the “stench because [Lazarus] had been dead four days.” And Martha’s disappointment that it took so long for Jesus to get there. And, finally, the dead man coming out of the tomb, “his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth.” (2)
Death, and loss, and its sordid details feature prominently in a story about new life. Will someone notice the sweet, ripe, red, wild strawberry hanging on the side of a cliff? We don’t know what happened to the holy man eating that strawberry. We can guess, very likely he met his end. Just like with Lazarus. Even though Jesus raised him to live a few more years on earth, he still eventually died. Death comes to all of us.
What is more the question, especially for people of faith, is how we live and how we respond to the gifts of life given to us, however small, however unexpected and contrary to anyone’s expectations.
Indeed, we go where we are looking. We go in our hearts and minds and souls, where we set our sights. We veer in the direction of where we choose, intentionally, to look.
We can focus on the death part incessantly and all that’s disappointing and wrong in the world, and live the emotional consequences of that strategy for life. Or, without denying the challenges—the holy man still tried to get away from the tigers chasing him; he didn’t just give up—we can choose to see the life, the good, the gift, amidst all the turmoil. And that strategy will set us free from all that binds us.
One of Bill’s occupations was as a surveyor for the Ministry of Transportation in Ontario. Bill laid out most of the main highways on Manitoulin Island and also major highways in Timmins and Sudbury.
Now, to do this job especially on major highways you have to develop a certain kind of vision so that the turns can be navigated safely by drivers and the bends are not too sharp.
When I drive on major highways I need to keep my eyes far down the road in order to make the turns smoothly and stay in my lane. But I will sometimes get distracted. Something will catch my eye on the side of the road, or in the fields by the highway. And I will catch myself, thankfully, in time to avoid an accident. I will have noticed with alarm how the car started veering perilously in the direction of my gaze. I have to work at keeping my attention on the road.
It takes work, intention and yes discipline to see with the heart what is often right in front of us—a grace and gift from God that is good. And maybe that is what we are all called to practice in these challenging days.(3)
Jesus orders those attending by Lazarus’ grave side to “unbind him, and let him go.” In life as in death, we are called to “unbind, and let go.” This takes work and sometimes we catch ourselves running in every direction.
I sense, nevertheless, without having known Bill personally before his stroke, that he was one who didn’t give up when obstacles arose. In raising a family, in choosing his career, he saw the sweet, ripe, red, wild strawberry right before him. In choosing you […] to be his wife for over fifty years of marriage, he chose life and love.
And today God has chosen for Bill, life. Life eternal. God is the source of life, and all things good. We call this funeral service a celebration of life!
For us who as yet walk by faith, let us notice the moments of life right here and now: The beautiful weather that greeted us this day, the music and the singing, and the food which we will enjoy together following the service.
Let us acknowledge the joy and gratitude of those who are present with us to support you, dear family. These relationships are precious.
Even though obstacles creep up all the time, and it feels like all may be lost, there is always the surprise of finding a sweet, ripe, red, wild strawberry growing on the edge of the cliff. Would we see it? And enjoy the gift?
(1) Adapted from Ram Dass, “Conscious Living, Conscious Dying” in Polishing the Mirror: How to Live From your Spiritual Heart (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Inc., 2014), p.91
During the early months of the COVID pandemic the confirmation class was meeting weekly online. In our tradition, confirmation is a two-year program for 13 to 14 year-olds—in that age range. By the time I started meeting the confirmands again in person it had been about two years of connecting online.
I remember the time a young confirmand walked through the doors of the church to attend the first in person class in over two years. My eyes were level at a certain height on the door frame, as I expected him to be as tall as I had remembered him two years ago. Was I shocked when he came through the door, I had to elevate my sight a good foot-and-a-half, it seemed. He had grown so much like a weed in the time I hadn’t seen him!
I marvelled once again at how much people change. But not just physically. And not just youth. There are various dimensions of our lives—mental, social, emotional, psychological, spiritual—that also change over time.
Hasidic Jews tell the story of a rabbi’s son who began leaving the synagogue during morning prayers to wander in the woods. The boy loved being alone in the forest. His father was concerned—not simply because the boy neglected his prayers, but because the woods were wild and dangerous in the mountains where they lived. One day he asked his son, “Why do you go out there alone in the forest? I notice you’ve been doing it a lot lately.”
The boy replied, “I go into the woods to find God.”
“Ah, that’s wonderful,” replied his dad. “I’m glad you are searching for God. But you know you don’t have to go anywhere special to find the Holy One, Blessed Be His Name. God is the same everywhere!”
“Yes,” answered the boy, “but I’m not.”
God might be the same everywhere, but the boy knew there was something different about him out in the wilds. Perhaps, stripped of things familiar, he was more vulnerable, more open and receptive?
We receive two texts again this day—again from 1 Kings and from the Gospel of Luke. And we meet various characters, who are challenged in a similar way, I find.
The challenge that Elisha—in the 1 Kings text—and the nameless people on the road with Jesus—in the Gospel text—the challenge they faced was to acknowledge the change happening within them. Indeed, from the Gospel text they were called to follow Jesus in a new direction or to listen to Jesus in a new way. Their hearts were pulling them to grow and mature and try something new.
In this Gospel text, we often first react to Jesus’ saying that “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” We often get stuck in the past. The nameless person wants to go back and say goodbye to their family. They offer their obedience, but only on that condition. The question we are left with at the end is, ‘Will they follow?’
At the same time I don’t believe Jesus means that we should ignore our history, deny our attachments, shrug off our relationships, reject the past. There’s enough throughout scripture to suggest otherwise: The fourth commandment to love and honour your parents, the Wisdom writings that admonish the people to care for their elderly, and the Epistles of St Paul who preaches love for parents.
No, this isn’t about the past. But neither is it about the future. “No one who puts their hand to the plow …” Jesus says. He doesn’t talk about looking forward. He doesn’t talk about how to make straight rows. Just put your hand to the plow, what is right before you now. What grounds you in the present moment, right here.
Neither the past nor the future are the central issues in this Gospel. The problem is right now. What Jesus and Elijah both address to the nameless person and Elisha respectively is their unawareness that they are, and have been, changing. That they have changed, themselves.
Sometimes when we take a break from our spiritual disciplines, when we’ve been away from habits and practices that have in the past fed us and enriched us, it’s hard to go back. But the reason it is hard to go back—back to church, back to a prayer discipline, back to any kind of exercise that some part of us says is good—the reason it is difficult is because we resist, refuse or deny that we have changed in the meantime. Who you are when you come back to it is different.
And perhaps it is time for a different direction or more importantly a new way of responding, of being, in relationship with ourselves, with others, in creation and with God:
A different place and a different time of day to pray.
A different way of relating with others in the church and serving others—listening more, accepting more, risking more.
A different way of understanding scripture and a new image to hold of God so we can trust more deeply.
We only have to look around us, in nature, as the boy did going into the forest to find God. We only have to look around us in the wild, and especially at this time of year, to see the life growing all around us. It is a law of nature to change. Nothing remains static; nothing in creation stays the same, if it has life. The same is true for us, living in this reality, this world that God created and God so loved.
God is. God was. And God will be forevermore. And everywhere. Despite where we go to find God, God is already there. Despite how we are changed by the invitation of divine love and life to follow, God is already with us. Jesus goes before us into an uncertain and unknown future. God’s ever-presence can hold us and accompanies us into the changes of our lives. Always has.
 Cited in Beldon C. Lane. The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p.2
One of the joys I find in reading the bible is noticing the common, connecting points or themes in two or more texts. For today, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, according to the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel is from Luke 8; and, an alternate option for the Hebrew scripture is from 1 Kings 19.
What is similar in these seemingly disparate readings? In both, the primary character experiences a divine encounter. From 1 Kings, Elijah the prophet experiences God in the sound of sheer silence. In the Gospel, the man from the region of the Gerasenes is healed by Jesus. And, both Elijah and the healed man are called to go back to the place they had earlier—and for different and justifiable reasons—left.
In the Gospel text the man inflicted with demons had been shunned by his community. Because of his illness, he remained locked in chains, living in the caves on the outskirts of town. He was not only an outsider, he was despised, rejected and feared.
After his healing, I can understand why he wants to travel on with Jesus. A better option, for sure. I can understand why he wants to get out of dodge and begin life over far away from the place associated with his rejection and hate on him. I can understand his desire to stay away from the source of conflict, uncertainty, risk, even danger for him.
It would be hard to imagine going back. Going back to a community and family that had disowned him, and treated him like a second class citizen, banishing him to the fringes. Even though after Jesus cures him he is better as an individual, his relationship with others in his home country remains at best uncertain. At worst, poisoned beyond repair.
But Jesus throws him a knuckle ball: No. “’Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went …”
The healed man was going back to a different situation for him. It wasn’t going to be like it used to be. He was a changed man, for one thing. And his relationships with family and friends were going to be very different.
The same with Elijah. He was called to go back to the “wilderness around Damascus”, where he would be exposed, and continue to live under the threat of assassination. This was the place where Elijah would have to continue doing God’s work—in the wilderness, a place of danger, and personal risk. God was calling him to go back to appoint a new leader for the people. He was going back to an entirely different situation than before.
Coming back to church will be different. Not like it used to be. Anyone who has come back will testify to this. Yet, the most important and rewarding thing is renewing our relationships. Somehow, we feel it, that we enter a deeper stage in our relationship. It’s not that we can’t grow in our relationships online. It’s not that Zoom meetings don’t have a purpose.
But once in a while, and at some point, God may be calling us—not to escape risks, potential danger; not to avoid contact at all costs, retreat into our comfort and safety zones, for all time. God may be calling us to come back to reconnect with and grow current relationships, and make new ones.
What can we do to affirm our bond in Christ and deepen our relationships with one another, even in averse conditions and when things are different?
As part of my continuing education leave over the past week I attended and took leadership in a conference of the World Community for Christian Meditation. I am the Canadian national coordinator of this worldwide community.
The national coordinators of Ukraine and Russia have been for some years meeting online to meditate, during which participants pray in silence together. No words. No speeches. Just a heartfelt recognition of Christ’s living presence among them, unifying them in the silence.
Nevertheless, as with any social group meeting online or in person, when you gather people ask, normally, how everyone is doing – just a little chit-chat – before the prayer time. It’s an important part of any group including meditation groups.
However, the Ukrainian coordinators expressed disappointment and concern that in the last couple of months when the Eastern European groups met online to meditate, the Russian meditators didn’t even ask how the Ukrainians were doing. Perhaps, they thought, they shouldn’t or couldn’t say anything that might be construed to the authorities as sympathy for Ukraine. So maybe they were afraid.
Something was lost. The dialogue had failed. Those relationships were on the brink. The Ukrainians felt hurt that their meditation cohorts wouldn’t even ask how they were doing.
If their communion was based solely on what was said, or the words that needed to be said, or grandiose ideological speeches about right and wrong, it would very well feel like a great chasm, a great divide separated them, their relationships irreconcilable.
When the dialogue fails, what is left? Where is God? Is it worth it? is there any point to go on? The way the story is told, Elijah expected God to be found in the noise. But God was found in the sound of sheer silence. In the silence, God is found. A holy silence. And that is where the healing begins, the breach can be restored. And unity is reestablished in Christ.
And I wonder how that would be accomplished. Words might need to be part of the conversation at some point, obviously. But the conversation might also need a whole lot of silence in between.
So how would silence accomplish this, practically? Paul Tillich, the great Lutheran theologian of the 20th century wrote that “The first duty of love is to listen.”
What does Elijah’s obedience teach us about how we have conversations? When the dialogue fails, the conversation can still continue. By listening. Even in a momentary pause, we communicate by listening. Listening is not the easy first-option in relating with others. We would rather speak first, make sure we are heard, and our opinions shouted from the roof tops. But this is not the only, and certainly not the most effective, way of maintaining and growing relationships.
In the silence God is. In the silence, God listens to us. But sometimes we have to stop talking. We have to quiet our busy minds. We have to nurture the gifts of stillness and simplicity in our lives. And listen.
The Ukrainian and Russian meditators are on two opposite sides of a huge divide. It appears all hope is lost. The war goes on. More people die. The chasm grows deeper and wider with each passing day.
And yet, despite the failure of words and actions, to say the least, the Ukrainian and Russian meditators continue to pray together in unity, in the silence. In the meditation room, virtually, they will still gather to pray. In their faithfulness to return regularly to be with one another they acknowledge in the silence the living Christ who continues to pray for them. They practice love by listening to God and each other in the silence.
And in the silence, God listens to their hearts. In the silence the presence of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit unifies them. And gives them all hope, for the future.
In case you haven’t heard yet, the doors to the church are unlocked. The doors are open. A few of us gather on Sunday mornings in this lovely sanctuary, to pray, to sing, and celebrate Christ’s presence. And you are welcomed to join us in person. Come. Come back, to reconnect. And maybe we can all start over, first by just listening to each other.
When confronted with obstacles, challenges and frustrations, what is our natural impulse? What do you do? I, for one, react by trying to do it all by myself. Go it alone. Problem is, as challenges mount and obstacles grow larger and there doesn’t seem any end in sight to all that is wrong in the world today, that strategy – going it alone – is less and less effective to say the least.
It takes a river, and some massive Falls to suggest another way.
Last week I began what is turning out to be, for me, a season of long-distance trips over the next few weeks and months. It started with a church meeting in Niagara Falls – the farthest distance from home that I have been in over three years.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God …” The vision of God presented to us from John’s revelation in the last book of the bible is not always consistent with our human tendency to react against the obstacles we face. While God’s vision is of wholeness and union, we tend to go the opposite direction. We would rather divide and conquer.
We are motivated by so many conflicting and competing impulses and desires. Left alone to our own devices, we don’t get very far. And, usually, we will make a mess of things. And yet, if we seek and are honest about our desire to be healed from whatever ails us, we must come to terms with our natural impulse to go-it-alone.
The man lying by the pool called Beth-zatha had been ill for thirty-eight years. He had tried everything, it seems, to find healing for himself. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me,” he complains to Jesus. Left to his own devices, relying on his own resources, he had gotten nowhere.
Why Jesus had chosen him, and none other, of the many invalids that populated the pool side, is another question that confounds our fierce independence. Perhaps there was a reason, a mission, a purpose for the man whom Jesus heals in this Gospel text.
“Let your way be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations.” In the Psalm for today, the phrases “all the nations” and “the peoples” and “all the ends of the earth” appear no less than nine times in seven short verses.
Health and healing are for the nations, for the purpose of the well-being of all people. As I stood at Niagara Falls, in the corner of the pedestrian mall close to the ledge overlooking the thundering waters, I saw down the gorge dividing Canada and the United States. And the text from Revelation popped into my mind: “On either side of the river is the tree of life … for the healing of the nations.”
The tree of life “on either side of the river”. What do you make of that? The tree of life shows up in the garden of Eden, mentioned very early in the first book of the bible. But by the end of the bible, in the last book and the last chapter for that matter, there are now at least two, it appears.
On either side. Not one side or the other. Not we’re right, they’re wrong. Not someone wins and someone loses. Not just for me and my kin. Not God is on our side, never yours. Not me-first, then you.
The vision of God is: On either side. On both sides of the question. On both sides of the dividing line. It seems that it takes a whole bible and a whole lot of stories about the topsy-turvy relationship between God and God’s people for it to finally get worked out. God is on all sides, by the end of it all. Good news!
So, what did the healed man do? What was his purpose? After Jesus told him to “stand up, take your mat and walk”, where did he go? Did God have a purpose for him, besides inciting a growing conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders because he healed on the sabbath?
A few verses later, we read that afterwards “Jesus found him in the temple.” We may wonder why, after thirty-eight years of illness would someone to go to the temple after being made well. There could be many possible reasons. But a good guess is that his heart was bursting with thanksgiving. And he wanted, first and foremost, to praise God for the gift of grace.
Another clue may be why Jesus himself came up to Jerusalem in the first place, just before going to the pool. There was a “festival of the Jews”. Some suggest that this festival was Tabernacles, or Booths.
This festival was Israel’s Thanksgiving. The Feast of Tabernacles was a reminder of when God delivered Israel, through Moses, out of slavery in Egypt and their time in the desert. The Israelites lived in tabernacles or booths on their 40-year journey to the Promised Land. To celebrate this festival was to give thanks to God for all the blessings the people have received throughout their history.
The people. All the nations. To the ends of the earth. Thanksgiving opens our hearts. Thanksgiving expands our hearts.
Wherever this Gospel text leads us in our contemplation of new life in Christ during this Easter season, one thing, I think, is clear: The man who was healed couldn’t go it alone. He couldn’t do it by himself. He needed someone else to help him.
Whatever we would say about this time in our lives—the confusion, the uncertainties, and ambiguity of post-pandemic reset, the longing for healing and wholeness so many of us seek at different levels—individually, socially, mentally, physically, spiritually, financially—one thing is sure: We can’t do it on our own. We can’t pretend that we don’t need any help.
Wherever Jesus is found in his post-resurrection appearances, it is always with others, healing others, inspiring others, helping others, challenging others, comforting others. Where two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus is there with them.
May the waters of our baptism lead us down the river, embracing both sides of the divide, to the healing of all. And it all starts by reaching out to, and receiving help from, another, who comes to us.
 1 Kings 8:2; Nehemiah 8:14. Tabernacles is the only Jewish festival that is commonly called simply “the festival”. Other holidays in the Gospel of John are always referred to by their particular names – “the festival of Dedication” (John 10:22) and “the festival of the Passover” (John 13:1)
The story is told of the words that were exchanged when the Spanish Priest, Saint John of the Cross, died in the 14th century. At his death, the monastery that he went to, he deliberately chose one of the superiors who didn’t like him. On his deathbed, he said to the superior, “So whatever I did to contribute to the conflict between us, I want to apologize.” That’s how he died. And it was said that the superior came out crying. It changed his life.
Sometimes what stays with us about a loved one who died is their last word spoken to us. Sometimes those words are instructions (“Take care of so-and-so”). Sometimes those words are a simple expression of love (“I love you”). Sometimes they are spoken to give assurance (“I am at peace”). Sometimes those parting words give us clarity and direction for the rest of our earthly lives.
Jesus gave his disciples parting words just before he died. These words echo through the canyon of time to us hearing them read today. “I give you one commandment … that you love one another”.
Now, on the surface this commandment sounds kind of soft. It doesn’t come cut and dry like all those “shoulds” and especially “should nots” in the over 600 laws and commandments we find in the bible.
The commandment to love is often used as a summary statement for the two tables of the Ten Commandments. But it’s so hard to respond to this command stated so simply. We may receive it like a slider in baseball: The pitch appears first to be coming fast, straight across the plate–a simple pitch to hit hard, maybe a homerun! But at the last minute breaks down and away from the plate–a most difficult pitch to hit. Which often results in a strikeout! We really need to practice and work hard at it.
In the Easter season we reflect on what it means to be alive in the new life of Jesus. And this Gospel text gives focused expression to that life. In other words, being alive in Christ is realized in a loving relationship. After all, Jesus is love, as God is love.
And the Gospel is full of images and descriptions of Jesus’ love in action. To illustrate this, another Gospel text echoes down the canyon of time from just before the Lenten season began, just before Jesus’ journey to the Cross.
Jesus describes himself as a hen: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” Jesus says as he laments over Jerusalem.
Sometimes I think we would rather Jesus be the fox, as he described Herod, in that same text from Luke. Herod was the supreme ruler of the first century Roman Empire. “Go, tell that fox Herod”, Jesus instructs the Pharisees. Herod, the fox, was the one with all the cards to play, the one aggressive, defensive and wily. But, no, in contrast to Herod, Jesus is mother hen.
First and foremost, being a follower of Christ means being gathered under wing, nurtured and held in a loving embrace. The fox may still have his way. The fox may still be a predator upon the mother hen and her chicks.
But in acts of violence and aggression the fox will never know love the way the mother hen will give it. In this image it is clear: Being with Jesus in times of danger is not about removing the danger. Being with Jesus in times of danger is about giving and receiving love in a relationship.
Love is an action word. Love is concrete behaviour in every moment we are given that communicates mercy, grace, forgiveness, faithfulness. And Jesus did love. He went to the public places, the city streets and gates. He healed the sick, brought sight to the blind, raised the dead. Jesus spent time with those who were overlooked and despised. He loved those who were marginalized in a culture dominated by violence, aggression and retribution.
Many of those around Jesus wanted a Messiah to liberate them from the Romans and restore a religious kingdom. The religious leaders who scrutinized, criticized and argued with Jesus yearned for a Messiah who would give them what they wanted. Many, indeed, wanted Jesus to be the fox. No, Jesus said to Pilate just before he was crucified. That’s not what Jesus’ kingdom is like, at all!
Do the echoes of Jesus’ parting words fall into silence? Will his parting instructions actually make a difference in a world today just as violent as in the first century? Do the echoes down the canyon of time translate to something more than mere platitude?
An image from the prophet Isaiah describes that day when justice is restored. This is the day when indeed the fox and hen will not be predator and prey. Rather, God’s vision is one in which “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them …”
They say people who have difficulty loving others are those who can’t, don’t or won’t receive love themselves. Receiving love is part of our relationship with God. A fundamental part.
Receiving gifts. Receiving care and grace. Receiving support when it is offered. Without making conditions on the gift or somehow making it into an “I owe you” kind of transaction. Receiving love can be the most difficult act of faith. In truth, we will often reject a gift when it is offered. This is probably our greatest downfall. We strike out.
And so in this Easter season may we lean towards, receive and depend upon the life and love of Jesus. The commandment to love may sound childish. We won’t find this ‘law’ anywhere written in public discourse, debated in our legislative assemblies, printed in constitutions or legalized.
Yet when we practice it, we participate in the coming kingdom of God. When little acts of grace, or big acts of grace, are given and received freely, in our lives, we are letting “a child lead us”–the babe born in Bethlehem and the One who refuses to stop loving us. Thanks be to God!
 James Finley in Richard Rohr, “Transformed by the Dark Night; Week 19 Luminous Darkness, Deepening Love” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 13 May 2022).
There are several images of Jesus we find in the Gospel of John. These are metaphors, or mental images, we have to describe Jesus. Examples are: the good shepherd, the gate or door, the vine, the way, truth and the life. Jesus is all of these, and more.
The purpose of all these images we find is to invite us to encounter Jesus in a new light. These metaphors are not just given to us to satisfy our intellectual curiosity about God, to consider in some detached, theoretical manner. But to invite us into a new way of experiencing Jesus, to live in Christ.
Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus. Easter is about life. In the Gospel text today, Jesus tells those who scrutinize him, that he has come to give people eternal life. Earlier in this same chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus says he has come to give us life “abundantly”.
Having life in Christ is not just about “heaven lightyears away”. More to the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection on earth, being alive in Christ springs from our life here and now. It springs from “making something of what we experience and receiving what experience makes of us.”
It’s an onging, divine, conversation. It’s full engagement with, not denial of, what is alive in us and the world around us. In such a space we take what is given us in each moment and respond to it, in love. And in our response, we allow ourselves to depend on something greater than ourselves.
Where does the light shine, today? Where the shadows lengthen under the ongoing war in Ukraine, where our health falters and our losses mount, where we find our vision clouded in the ambiguous, post-pandemic reset, when we can’t see very well, literally and figuratively ….
Where does the light shine? When we don’t know the way, when the lights go out and our lives feel like we are groping around on the floor to get our bearings, does the light shine somewhere at all? Will it ever again?
Jesus goes to the temple during the Festival of Dedication. The Gospel writer John mentions this detail not without intention, I believe.
The Festival of Dedication refers to the Festival of Hannukah. It is the festival of lights. It is an annual Jewish rededication of the temple in memory of the miracle of lights. The miracle happened when the eternal flame in the temple burned for eight days on one day’s amount of oil. This miracle occurred in the 2nd century B.C.E. during the Maccabbean revolt against the Greek desecration of the temple. The Festival of lights.
Christians believe Jesus is the light of the world. In this Easter season, the gift of greater light, longer in the day, is making a positive impact on my mind and my mood.
The man who invented the light bulb, Thomas Edison, comes to mind. And when you think about what his invention gave to us, it is astounding. His gift of light means that when in places where the natural light from the sun cannot illuminate, we can still shine a light.
When Thomas Edison was a boy, one day he came home from school and gave his mom a letter.
Quietly he said to his mother: “My teacher gave me this letter to give only to you, and for your eyes only.”
She scanned down the letter and her eyes filled with tears. Then she began from the beginning, reading the words, boldly, outloud: “Your son is a genius. This school is too small for him. Please teach him yourself.”
Many years later, after the death of his mother, Edison was sorting some family documents and came across a folded piece of paper. It was the letter from his old teacher that his Mom had kept. But when Edison read it, he was shocked. It had actually read:
“Your son is mentally challenged. We cannot accommodate him anymore in our school.” Edison wept, and then wrote in his journal: “Thomas A. Edison was a mentally disabled child. But through one, courageous, heroic mother he became the greatest genius of the century.”
This story is about a mother’s faith in her child. When someone has faith in us, look what’s possible. We are all children of the same God. And Christ, in his love for us, is faithful no matter what.
When the shadows lengthen it’s hard to believe in anything let alone Jesus. The good news despite it all is that Jesus believes in us. And will remain faithful to us in love, forever. Let Jesus be our guide, over these coming days, and beyond. Let Jesus be our guide, so we can rise again, and again, in the new light of Christ. Amen.
In the hymn of the day we will sing shortly, the last verse pops out for me: “Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away – here in this place the new light is shining, now is the kingdom, and now is the day.”
If ever there was an Easter message of hope for me, it is in those words of a hymn, entitled, “Gather Us In”, that we have known and sung for years. “Not in the dark of buildings confining …”
One thing many of us did, in our families, at home and as the church during the pandemic, was spend more time outside. It was a safe place to be with others.
Camping sites were booked months in advance. Algonquin Park became a suburb of the big cities for two summers in a row. It was impossible to find a free site anywhere if you were planning last minute. Our backdecks and front yards, church yards and local parklands became popular places.
I appreciated and enjoyed very much our Good Friday pilgrimage around these church grounds. It is definitely an asset we have—this beautiful, large, treed lot in this location where our congregation gathers every week. I have renewed my appreciation for this place by walking on the grounds outside lately. The garden project on the west side, as it continues to develop and grow with each passing year, is a wonderful stewardship we offer to others of the gifts we have been given.
Being outside revives the soul, grounds us literally and renews our purpose in faith. It’s a visceral reminder of our bodily connection with a reality much larger than us. Being in nature pulls us out of our self preoccupations.
I suspect we’ve always known the outdoors was a good place for spiritual connection, health and growth. But like so much with the pandemic, this awareness of things taken for granted, of pre-existing realities exposed, was forced upon us unbidden. As grace will often come.
Watching Canadian commercials on TV advertising everything from airlines to beer, to cars—so much of our identity as Canadians is formed outside. So much of how we see ourselves is about engaging the wilderness, even against the harsh realities it poses for us. It’s part of our DNA to go there anyway, despite the wind, the rain and the snow.
We cannot deny our deep connection with the outdoors. At some level we are drawn, if we are able, to go outside—to garden, to ski, to play, to swim, to paddle, to hike, to walk, to rest, to breathe, to listen, to observe.
In the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, the prominent locations of these encounters are outside: In the garden outside the tomb with Mary, on the road to Emmaus, on the mountain in Galilee just before Jesus’ ascension, and in today’s Gospel by the water:
Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. The living Lord met his disciples not in buildings confining, but outside in the wilderness.
The word wilderness is mentioned some 300 times in the bible.
The Hebrew word, midbar, usually translated as ‘wilderness’, means “speaking”. Ba-midbar, translated as ‘the wilderness’ means “the organ which speaks.” And, in the Hebrew and English lexicon, the definition of midbar is: 1. Mouth, the organ of speech; 2. Wilderness.
Rather than simply a harsh backdrop for the biblical story, the wilderness is the place that speaks. When we often portray the setting for many of scripture’s greatest stories as merely a background to the unfolding human drama—such as the site of forty years of Israel’s wandering, or Jesus temptation in the desert, or at his baptism in Jordan River, or on the mount of transfiguration—we miss the point that the wilderness itself is the place that speaks. Wilderness is the place from which and through which God speaks to us.
Not just the location themselves, but the relationships that happen in those settings. Another repeating feature of the post-resurrection narrative is that at first, when being outside, the disciples don’t recognize Jesus: By the water— Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. In the garden outside the empty tomb, Mary first mistook Jesus to be the gardener: She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.And travelling along the road to Emmaus: While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
Maybe Jesus’ changed appearance in his post-resurrection body fooled these disciples. But I wonder if they simply didn’t expect to see Jesus there.
The way I remember faces and names is to make the connection with the place—the setting, the location—we had a meaningful encounter. And I will often ask about or mention that, when reuniting with someone I hadn’t seen in a long time. “Remember when were attending that event in such-and-such-a-place and talked about that issue …” Or, “Did we meet at Lutherlyn that one summer during children’s camp?” Etc.
And if I’m not expecting to meet someone somewhere specific, if I’m not expecting them to be there, then I will likely not recognize them if they, in fact, are there. I would be surprised. I wonder if the disciples really didn’t expect to meet up with Jesus in these outdoor locations. Therefore, they were surprised when they did.
“Not in the dark of buildings confining.”
The potent meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is that no more is God confined to the physical or mental boxes we devise, into which we conveniently put God. The potency of the resurrection, the revolutionary upshot, is that Jesus is everywhere, especially outside! “Look on the other side!” Jesus advises the forlorn disciples who have caught nothing all night long from their fishing boat. “Put your nets on the other side of the boat!”
In Christian traditions, the church has often been described as a boat. So, “look on the other side!” Look on the other side of these walls to find what you are looking for. Because, now, there is no place on earth, that God won’t be present. And from where God will be calling us to go! Will we recognize Jesus there?
This is good news. Because we can be freed from our expectations, the veils clouding our vision that keep us stuck in our thinking that God can only be found in one place, under certain conditions, and only inside. Good news, that God still has something new to say to us.
And the gift of the pandemic, if I can say that, is that it forced us outside, to reconsider God amongst all that lives. The fish. The animals. The birds. The trees. The water ways. The snow. The sky. And beyond. Because the wilderness has something divine to say to us. Notice how your senses come alive when you go outside next time. What do your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin each reveal to you about how God is alive in the world around you?
Let’s be surprised at where Jesus shows up. And rejoice!
Thomas will not believe, cannot believe, even the words of his friends. Thomas will not believe, cannot believe, even with Jesus standing right in front of him. Not until conditions he has laid down are met.
I suspect we like Thomas. He’s becoming a favourite biblical character. I think we can relate, especially these days, to Thomas’ state of mind. From a place of profound grief at his loss he becomes skeptical, and not sure to trust everything that he is told especially if it sounds ‘too good to be true’.
How are we, like Thomas, strengthened in our faith, especially in difficult times, to trust and believe in the presence of the living Jesus with us?
It’s as if Jesus is saying that “Even when you can’t see me, I am with you always. Even if you are not certain in any given moment, doesn’t mean I am not there. You don’t need to clearly see me in order to have faith.” Because, as he tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen me, and yet have come to believe.”
So, the problem is our perception. Jesus is hidden from us only by our perception.
For example: When was the last time you looked at or considered the eyes of a bird? Did you know that the colour of the eyes of the cormorant bird is emerald? And the eye of the eagle is amber. The eye of the grebe is ruby. The eye of the ibis is saphire. Four gemstones mirror the minds of birds, birds who mediate between heaven and earth. In these beautiful birds, have you ever even thought about looking at their eyes?
We miss the eyes of the birds, focusing only on the feathers, their eye-catching plumage. What are we looking for? And where have we failed to look?
Well, for one thing, we look for facts. The Easter celebration often gets clouded by debates about about the facts: Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? Was it factually a bodily resurrection? Beyond the shadow of any doubt? Underlying this line of questioning is a strong desire for certainty. Many Christians will demand certainty in declaring positive and unequivical answers to questions about facts, in order to validate any kind of faith in the resurrection of Jesus.
What this line of thinking fails to see is that it’s not only about what we see. More importantly, it is how we see it. Where we look.
The way our brain processes what and how we see leads medical scientists today to conclude that certainty is related to narrowness of vision; that is, the more certain we become of something, the less we see. What we clearly see, where the narrow focused beam of our attention is concentrated, also means in that moment of clarity and concentration, our vision is narrowed.
If we want to see more—the broad perspective, to scan the horizon for example—and hold everything in our line of sight, we need to use our brain differently. We use our brain not just for what we focus on. But also in order to hold-it-all-together, which means accepting the mystery, accepting our complicated lives that in truth are filled with contradiction, inconsistency and uncertainty. Life 101. This is a gift and a function we need more of in this ambiguous, post pandemic time.
The debate really should be between Certainty versus Compassion. Because in any given moment in time, we cannot do both, fully. We cannot be at the same time absolutely certain, and fully compassionate. We are not wired in our bodies to do both at the same time.
Because our striving for certainty is often driven by fear, fear of the unknown. This function comes from our survival instinct—either flight, fight or freeze. So, we either demand certainty born out of our fear response to life. Or, we can function out of a calm, compassionate, trusting and loving center within ourselves.
Saint Paul writes in that famous text from his letter to the Corinthians that if we fail in love, we fail in all other things. In this Easter season, we celebrate God’s triumph over death. We affirm that death has not the final word on our lives. And in that famous book of the bible about love—the Song of Songs—we read that “Love is stronger than death”.
The fear function of our brains will lead to death if not tempered by the love function of our brains, which leads to life.
We are like Thomas in so many ways. Thomas needed to be certain. He was afraid of being wrong. And in response to that natural, human tendency, Jesus chooses compassion. When Jesus meets Thomas, in person, in the flesh, Thomas doesn’t need to actually touch Jesus wounded hands and side, now. He doesn’t need to. Paradoxically, Thomas so confidently then expresses his faith in that felt sense of Jesus’ love in his presence. Because Jesus starts with compassion.
God does not hold back and wait until we get things right. Until we are certain before doing anything. Jesus did not first demand Thomas to improve his frame of mind before coming to him, in love and acceptance.
Rather, God loves us where we are and as we are. Divine love finds us. Divine love has handed itself over to us to do what we please.
The scripture doesn’t say too much if anything at all about what happened to Thomas after this encounter. We know more about Thomas’ mission and death from other historical sources and tradition. But the Gospel itself is quiet in the mention of Thomas after this encounter with Jesus, I believe for a purpose.
We are left to finish this story, in our own lives, in our own ‘seeing’, in what and how we see Jesus in the world today, and in the faithful confession of what it is we seek. May God’s love inspire us to join the ongoing conversation with the living Lord in our midst today.
Choose to start with compassion. This is good. Very good. And true.
 Terry Tempest Williams, cited in Daily Prayer for All Seasons (New York: Church Publishing, 2014), p.44
 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (London: Yale University Press, 2019), p.83
 “Physiologically it is impossible to be rooted in both drives at once.” Alane Daugherty, From Mindfulness to Heartfulness: A Journey of Transformation Through the Science of Embodiment (Illinois: Balboa Press, 2014), p.13.
Easter is about life. It is about new life. The resurrection of Jesus is celebrating the gift of life, again.
This Easter, we find ourselves still in the shadow of the pandemic and dealing with the many unresolved and ongoing losses of our lives. Therefore, I will add to the list of words describing Easter: Not only is Easter about life, and new life, and the gift of life. Life in the risen Christ is about being resilient. Resilience.
Resilience is being flexible, having the capacity to bend against incredible forces, and not break. The testimony of your presence with us in person today to celebrate Easter bears witness to your resilience to hanging in there. The last time we had people in the church building on Easter Sunday was three years ago. You’ve waited a long time.
And to those of you who are watching online, you show the resilience of finding new ways, being flexible, in order to remain connected and be part of the community of faith. You’ve all shown resilience.
In New York City, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, only one tree was left standing near the site. After near devastation, it is now flourishing and is called the Survivor Tree.
In Washington DC’s National Arboretum, there is a mushroom-shaped tree, 390 years old, that was donated by Japan to the arboretum in 1976. The surprise of resilience is that this ancient bonsai tree survived the atomic bomb-blast in Hiroshima during World War Two. It stands as a symbol of resilience.
In Fukishima, Japan, after the tsunami of March 10, 2011, a lone tree remains on the beach. Because it withstood the force of the waters, the people consider it a symbol of resilience. These trees that survived against all odds, against monumental forces, have become symbols of resilience for people. The trees that survive give us hope.
The cross, in Christian song and literature over the centuries, has often been referred to as the tree: “The tree of the cross”. I like this connection because it evokes for me a natural image or symbol for the meaning behind Jesus’ death and resurrrection. Even though Jesus died on the tree, it wasn’t the end of the story. The living tree would still hold Jesus in his tortured pain and dying through to something new, something resilient.
And when the heavy stone of Jesus’ tomb rolled to the side three days later, the opened tomb made room and space for sunlight, air and rain to enter in, to re-animate, re-invigorate the earth inside, and renew the elements of life just waiting to burst forth.
Notice the incredible energy of the disciples after they discover the empty tomb. They “outrun” each other to the tomb when they hear the news from Mary, who first “ran” to them after discovering the empty tomb. And after Jesus reveals himself to Mary in the garden, you can feel her conviction in declaring: “I have seen the Lord!”. The energy of life is palpable. Like nothing can stop this now.
The empty tomb of Easter morning is a profound statement for resilient life, a life that will not give up against the greatest odds, a life that will find a way and surprise even those of us weighed down by heavy burdens.
The message of new life at Easter this year calls us to continue being resilient. And believe and trust that our lives in Christ have more growth in store. Yes! Our lives in Christ have more living to do, no matter our age.
Joe Biden, in his first term as president of the United States will be eighty years old this year. Author Pauline Boss just published this year, at age eighty-seven, a relevant, meaningful and challenging perspective on Ambiguous Loss in the Pandemic. Warren Buffet, considered the oldest head of a U.S.-listed company, currently CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the most successful investors in the world; he will be ninety-two this year. Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church will be eighty-six this year. And the list goes on. There are countless other examples. Perhaps you know of more.
People will underestimate how long they will live. This is a fact I learned when attending an online retirement planning session earlier this year. We all had to answer a question about how long we think we will live. The results surprised me.
The facilitators of the workshop said this happens everytime they ask this question at retirement workshops. Statistically, what we anticipate our age of death is often much lower than the actual age of our death. We tend to bank more on death than on life. We are biased toward not living longer than we actually will!
Will we undervalue the vitality of our living? Will we underestimate what we can contribute positively to the world, even into our senior years?
So, why not plan to live, to be alive, beyond age eighty … or longer! Easter is meant to generate that hope, to rewire our brains for life, renewal, fresh beginnings and hope. Life extends far beyond what we can imagine. Christ leads the way forward into realms of light, love and life. Not even death can stop this momentum. Not even death can thwart the innate gift of budding life in all that is. There’s no stopping it! Thanks be to God!
Imagine something new for your future. Those trees that bore the heaviness of devastation and all that the cross represents, those trees that showed resilience in continuing to live are powerful symbols. These symbols can motivate us and give us hope, not for recovering what was lost, but for recovering ourselves in the loss, for recovering our lives in this time. May the gift of Easter this year bring you resilience in living.
 Pauline Boss, The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2022), p.39-40.