The other side

In a Brazilian folk tale called, “The Little Cow”, a master of Wisdom was walking through the countryside with his apprentice. They came to a small disheveled hovel on a meagre piece of farmland. “See this poor family,” said the Master. “Go see if they will share with us their food.”

“But we have plenty,” said the apprentice.

“Do as I say.”

The obedient apprentice went to the home. The good farmer and his wife, surrounded by their seven children, came to the door. Their clothes were dirty and in tatters.
“Fair greetings,” said the apprentice. “My Master and I are sojourners and want for food. I’ve come to see if you have any to share.”
The farmer said, “We have little, but what we have we will share.” He walked away, then returned with a small piece of cheese and a crust of bread. “I am sorry, but we don’t have much.”

The apprentice did not want to take their food but did as he had been instructed. “Thank you. Your sacrifice is great.”
“Life is difficult,” the farmer said, “but we get by. And in spite of our poverty, we do have one great blessing.”

“What blessing is that?” asked the apprentice.

“We have a little cow. She provides us milk and cheese, which we eat or sell in the marketplace. It is not much but she provides enough for us to live on.”

The apprentice went back to the Master with the meagre rations and reported what he had learned about the farmer’s plight. The Master of Wisdom said, “I am pleased to hear of their generosity, but I am greatly sorrowed by their circumstance. Before we leave this place, I have one more task for you.”
“Speak, Master.”

“Return to the hovel and bring back their cow.”

The apprentice did not know why, but he knew his Master to be merciful and wise and so he did as he was told. When he returned with the cow, he said to his Master, “I have done as you commanded. Now what is it that you would do with this cow?”
“See yonder cliffs? Take the cow to the highest crest and push her over.”
The apprentice was stunned. “But, Master …”

“Do as I say.”

The apprentice sorrowfully obeyed. When he had completed his task, the Master and his apprentice went on their way.

Over the next years, the apprentice grew in mercy and wisdom. But every time he thought back on the visit to the poor farmer’s family, he felt a pang of guilt. One day he decided to go back to the farmer and apologize for what he had done. But when he arrived at the farm, the small hovel was gone. Instead there was a large, fenced villa.

“Oh, no,” he cried. “The poor family who was here was driven out by my evil deed.” Determined to learn what had become of the family, he went to the villa and pounded on its great door. The door was answered by a servant. “I would like to speak to the master of the house,” he said.

“As you wish,” said the servant. A moment later the apprentice was greeted by a smiling, well-dressed man.
“How may I serve you?” the wealthy man asked.

“Pardon me, sir, but could you tell me what has become of the family who once lived on this land but is no more?”

“I do not know what you speak of,” the man replied. “My family has lived on this land for three generations.”

The apprentice looked at him quizzically. “Many years ago I walked through this valley, where I met a farmer and his seven children. But they were very poor and lived in a small hovel.”
“Oh,” the man said smiling, “that was my family. But my children have all grown now and have their own estates.”

The apprentice was astonished. “But you are no longer poor. What happened?”

“God works in mysterious ways,” the man said, smiling. “We had this little cow who provided us with the slimmest of necessities, enough to survive but little more. We suffered but expected no more from life. Then, one day, our little cow wandered off and fell over a cliff. We knew that we would be ruined without her, so we did everything we could to survive. Only then did we discover that we had greater power and abilities than we possibly imagined and never would have found as long as we relied on that cow. What a blessing from Heaven to have lost our little cow.” (1)

This story is not a prescription for how the church or society should treat economically disadvantaged, underprivileged people — by ignoring their plight and expecting them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. 

Instead, I offer this story as an allegory, a parable, of whatever it is in our lives that keeps us bound, that keeps us stuck. 

The cow, in the story, represents that which the farmer believed would help them survive in the big, bad world. And without it, they would be lost.

What is ‘the cow’ in your life? Whatever you believe you cannot live without. What keeps you bound, shackled in a sense? It may not appear or even be a bad thing. It can be the ‘best’ thing in your life, you will say! And that’s point of the fable.

The cow was the only thing, the best thing, the poor family had going. In our lives, it can be the relationship we have with our work. It can be a person. It can be some activity of our lives that we think we want and need. What is the ‘cow’ in your life — things to “let go ” of, either in church life or your personal lives, that would enable the freedom of God to operate?

Letting go of over-attachment to building? Property? Material riches? Some significant aspect of your financial portfolio?Clutching on to church programs and processes that have had their day, making room for something new?

It could even be your reputation, your status, or social position. Whatever it is …

If we should lose that, why would God want that for us? And when we do lose it, we may be angry at God for taking it away from us. We may shake our fists at God, walk away in disgust and anger, never to darken the door of a church again. We may be blind to the possibilities on the other side.

In the Gospel text today (Luke 8:26-39), Jesus travels to opposite side of Lake Galilee. He goes to what I will call ‘the other side’, where the people in the Gentile territory there respond to the miracle of exorcism with fear. The man they knew to be living on the outskirts of town, out of his mind, full of demons — now sat at the feet of Jesus “in his right mind” (v.35).             

Odd as it may sound, we often prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not. We can take a false sense of security from the patterns of our lives we learned to cope with over the years. 

And we may fear what change — even change for health — may bring. Because that would mean losing that which we have grown accustomed, even cherished, for a long time. We keep ourselves from seeing the possibilities on the other side.

The truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ reverses the fortunes of those in low estate. The “good news to the poor” which Jesus announces in his inaugural speech (4:18) becomes a reality in the healings and exorcisms that follow in Luke’s Gospel.

But this freedom and health does not come without major disruption in people’s lives. This is the part we like to dismiss in our “feel good”, “prosperity-gospel” driven culture of church in North America. 

Because to the people whose living depended on the pigs — those pigs who ran off the edge of a cliff to their deaths — their loss is catastrophic. The swineherds in the Gospel story are understandably afraid, too, even angry at Jesus. And despite the healing, they want Jesus to leave them (v.37).

The story demonstrates that the the Gospel brings upheaval and sets in motion powerful forces that will disrupt our lives. 

At first, the good news of Jesus will not seem good to everyone. At first, our economic and social lives are put on their heads. At first, we will experience pain and suffering. We will need to surrender that which has given us a sense of security in life. 

We cannot have Easter without “Good” Friday. The cross precedes the empty tomb. The way of salvation goes through suffering, not around it. We cannot avoid pain in our journey towards liberation, healing and salvation.

The good news is the promise that there is no darkness, no loss, no pit too deep that God will not go into, in order to carry us through to the other side.

(1) cited in Richard Paul Evans, “The Walk” Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2010, p.285-288

Better is not what you think

What happens when doors close and we don’t see other doors open? Life is full of closed doors: unemployment, failure to graduate, illness, tragedy, lost friendships, divorce — the list goes on. What happens when you are stuck in the middle of that transition and can’t see a way through? For whatever reason, doors close. The fact we sometimes don’t know why may make it harder to take.

Paul wanted and “attempted” to go to Asia. The lectionary doesn’t include the verses (6-9) immediately prior to the first text today (Acts 16:9-15). For some inexplicable reason, the Holy Spirit “did not allow” Paul and his cohort to travel there. A door is closed. 

But you’ve heard the cliche: When God closes a door, another one opens. Which is, presumably, a better deal.

After the door to Asia, and Paul’s ‘wants’, closes, he then goes to Macedonia after a convincing vision and on to Philippi where he meets Lydia. The result of their encounter is that “she and her household were baptized”. Good things happen. This open door was a successful mission. Even though, originally, this mission-field was not for-seen, planned, even desired.

The church finds itself in an uncomfortable situation these days. The glory days of ethnically-defined church planting and building are long gone. We still yearn for those good-old-days, the hey day of the kind of church we still try to maintain when Lutherans from Germany were streaming off the boats, church budgets were growing and pews were filled. For the institutional reality, it feels like a door is closing. And we don’t see a clear picture of what it is changing into.

It’s not a comfortable place to be, when doors close. Where’s the open door?

Earlier this year a couple members of a Lutheran church in Southern Ontario, decided to partner with a neighbouring church to organize a refugee sponsorship initiative. They complied with all the regulations, began a fundraising appeal, and the word got out.

Before long they had attracted fourteen people from the community to work alongside them. They found unprecedented success at mobilizing resources and motivating people to help. Tens of thousands of dollars was raised in no time. An apartment was secured and furnished without problem. A Syrian family was on the way.

The Lutherans on the committee made sure their own congregation was brought up to speed with regular reports, appeals for help and updates. To their surprise, and dismay, all but a couple on that growing committee were members of their church.

The gentleman who had initiated this refugee work lamented to one of the Synod staff who was close to the community, “What’s the point of doing all this work, when the people working on the committee don’t come to church on Sundays and put offerings in the plate?”

“Are others aware you are a Christian from a local congregation?”

“Are people being helped?”

“Is good coming out of all your efforts?”

“Are you doing this from your conscience as a Christian?”

“Do you feel God is calling you to do this work?”

All these questions were answered in the affirmative. So, what’s the problem? Maybe a door is closing, and maybe another has opened? It just isn’t what we may expect or think we want. The Holy Spirit is active in the world and among people. The question is, are we willing to walk through that open door? Congratulations to that Lutheran who took the initiative to do something when there was a need.

When a door closes, it can feel like you are unprepared for whatever may be. In life transitions, especially, the in-between ‘close door / open door’ time can be unnerving. When a baby is born, for example, no manual comes out with the baby. Being a parent is feeling your way to make decisions with each passing moment. Preparation — you can throw that out the door!

Of the top three major festivals of the church year, the Day of Pentecost comes up almost unexpectedly. Did you know it’s two weeks from today? Unlike Christmas and Easter which have long weeks of preparation (Advent and Lent, respectively) leading up to these high, holy days, Pentecost does not.

We only have Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John (14:23-29) to his disciples, these days, preparing them for his departure. And giving the promise of the Holy Spirit.

Occasions like this should be sad, unnerving, disquieting, too sudden. And, on some level, it is. It cannot be denied. After all, the disciples will no longer have Jesus physically present with them any more. In a way, they are losing something precious and dear to them: their leader, their confidant, their friend. The common reaction to a loved one’s leaving is sorrow and despair. We can understand. Sympathize.

And yet, Jesus tells them to “rejoice” that Jesus is going back to the Father. Be glad, that Jesus is leaving them? It doesn’t make sense. Be glad, that you are going? – You can probably hear the disciples murmur under their breath, trying to figure it out.

In coping with his absence, Jesus nevertheless gives them something even better. The door of his physical presence is closing. But another, better door, is opening. This is unexpected, never-before-seen, and unplanned (from the disciples’ point of view):

After he leaves, Jesus’ presence will be within them: Earlier in this chapter (v.20), Jesus says: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, they will have the power and the grace to do great things in the name of Jesus. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12).

In order for the new door to open, the old door must close. The only way the disciples of Jesus can receive the Holy Spirit and do and be all that they are meant to be and do, is only after Jesus leaves them and returns to his Father in heaven.

The promises of God are rich. We may not see the outcome or how it will all turn out, in the end. Yet, it is true: Once a door closes, another will open. And it will not be what we think. It will be better!

The glory: Worth the sacrifice?

I commend to you the reflection entitled “Storied Stones” (Nov 2015) written by Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, found at workingpreacher.org. What follows here is basically her wording with some addition and adaptation —

“What large stones and what large buildings?” If you have ever been to the Holy Land, you know just how big those stones really are. If you haven’t been, you can find online a picture of the western wall — the Wailing Wall — a remnant of Herod’s temple; these blocks of stone are far taller than most people.
Massive. Impressive. No wonder the disciples were agog and amazed. I certainly was. And suddenly, this Gospel story (Mark 13:1-8) made sense. Suddenly, I completely understood the astonishment of the disciples. The impetus for awe is typically justified — and on many levels.
“What large stones?” We love bold. We love big. We love better. That’s the human motto, in every form, it seems. The bigger, the better. The disciples are no different than we are and we are no different than the disciples back then. While we tend to trust in our two-thousand-plus-years insightfulness or insist that the disciples are less than insightful, Jesus calls out the truth of our humanity — both for his past and for present disciples: 
It is true: Like the first disciples we are attracted to splendour and grandeur. We are drawn to the biggest and the best. The most influential. The most powerful. The most anything. We love superlatives. Lest we think we are any more knowledgeable than Jesus’ first disciples, we are not. We only know different attractions, manifestations, and incarnations of magnificence, especially when it comes to what it means to be a Christian today.
Membership numbers, programs, innovation. Stewardship campaigns, “transformative” preaching, Christmas pageants. Christian education, moving worship, building projects — there is no end to what large stones we seek to erect. Our large stones are meant to draw the attention and wonder of onlookers. Our large stones are put in place to attract potential members. Our large stones are even constructed so as to secure the dedication and continued wonder of our own flock. Our faith, our religious life, our churches are not free from the want for prestige, for desire of greatness and grandness, for a yearning for a majesty beyond comparison. 
Why is that? Is it fear? Is it insecurity? Is it a belief that church is really just one big competition?
On the brink of his own arrest and death, Jesus’ lesson to his disciples — to us — is critical. As Jesus’ ministry comes to a close in Mark, it will be all too easy to fall back into a kind of mode of expectation that seeks to compare Jesus’ kingdom with those of this world. As we look toward to the end of the church year and Reign of Christ Sunday, it is easy to be convinced that bigger and better are marks of God’s church. As we get settled into Sunday morning routines, it is easy to disregard that God’s criteria for success is not bigger and better, but faithfulness. That what God cares about is not the “blank-est,” but our best — and there’s a difference between those two.
“What large stones?” is something we are quick to notice but we are not as quick to ask what stands behind the perceived greatness. There is always a backstory of which we are not privy. We cannot tell from the outside the story the lies on the inside. We cannot see in first impressions what has made possible the result or the efforts to get there. We cannot know what it took to make our amazement possible.
In part, Jesus is asking us to ask what’s been overlooked in the past for the sake of what is viewed in the present. And, usually such large stones do not come without a significant price. That those whom we prop up, admire, wish to be, or envy, have particular reasons and rationales for being what and who they are. 
How would we feel if we knew the truth about how the large stones came to be? Well, we may not like what we hear. We may start to realize that such greatness is not worth the overhead. And we may begin to understand that another’s striving for greatness has come at the expense of others, and perhaps the cost of one’s very self.
“What large stones” is a phrase never without sacrifice, either the sacrifice of others or the sacrifice of who you intended to be, wanted to be, and thought you could be. Sometimes this sacrifice is positive. But we can never think that the greatness of another is achievable on our terms. Our tendency is to see this greatness and think we could have done better, rather than inquire about how the greatness came to be. Sometimes this sacrifice is negative, because the allure of grandeur then throws all others under the proverbial bus or the grandeur itself takes over the soul.
In the end, “what larges stones” is itself a statement of faith. And it’s a statement of faith that Jesus asks us to reconsider.
What large stones in your life reveal sacrifices you have made, or are making, that are positive and/or negative? Is it time to reconsider your striving for the ‘large stones’ in your life? Is it time to reconsider your yearning and desires for grandeur and splendour and glory? is it time to reconsider the purpose of your life, and address those decisions you are making to maintain a false, unhealthy striving based on the world’s values? Is it time to meet Jesus, again, at the foot of the cross? Will you bring your concerns to God, and lay them at the altar today? And start anew?
I love the NRSV translation of the closing verse in this text: The trials Jesus describes that will characterize difficult times of transition are “but the beginning of the birth pangs” (v.8). Birth pangs. Jesus uses imagery from the natural course of life, which begins in considerable pain. Birth pangs normally announce the start of something wondrously new, unimaginably joyous and indescribably loving — the birth of a new relationship, the gift of new life.
The large stones will not last. Life, love and hope will endure forever. Have heart. Never give up.

Believe in God’s possibilities

Somewhat striking to me in Gospel text is the sense of urgency surrounding these miraculous, healing stories from Jesus’ ministry (Mark 5:21-43). At least three times in this text, we hear the word ‘immediately’. A frenetic pace describes Jesus’ work here. It’s important, and it happens right away. There’s no time to lose. No sitting back. It’s time for action. It’s finally time to do something.
I suspect the reason this jumped out at me, is that summer can be a tempting, dangerous time for people like me who depend on routines and regular disciplines to keep our lives balanced. Because the temptation may be to skip the healthy practice — whether it be prayer, physical exercise, healthy eating, or attending to friends and family.
This text comes to us at the beginning of the traditionally long summer slow-down in our country. It may be wise to guard against what the Christian desert fathers and mothers called the sin of acedia, sloth, laziness, or my favourite word to describe the problem — inertia. The challenge during seasons of comfort and repose is to keep the important disciplines of exercising mind, body and spirit — to hold the sense of urgency around those important things in life.
Because to have faith is to hold fast, to trust in God’s possibilities. And the time to do that is now. Not some ideal day in the future, and not some day in the golden years of our past. But now. To have faith. To believe in God’s possibilities in your life. In our life, together.
While both Jairus’ dying 12-year-old daughter and the woman haemorrhaging for 12 long suffering years come from very different socio-economic and social circles, what they have in common is that their faith had made them well. (In the case of Jairus’ daughter, it wasn’t her faith, but that of her father). 
It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter whether you can even express your faith in words. It doesn’t matter whether you are poor and marginalized in society — like the woman in the text. It doesn’t matter if you are wealthy, comfortable and have status in society — like Jairus, the leader of the Jewish synagogue.
What is the healing in your life that you seek? Where can God touch the deepest need in your life? What is the discontent rocking your life now? Have you named it? Have you asked God for healing? God, we know, doesn’t cure every disease just because we ask for it. And yet, do you believe that God can do anything God wants, even bring healing? 
Last week after our two-day intensive training in Toronto, the Lutheran Ottawa Ministry Area Leadership Team was rushing to the airport to catch our flight back to Ottawa. We knew this usually half-full flight across the Province — a short 50 minute plane ride — is, these days, packed. The Women’s FIFA knock-out stage had games in Ottawa; and, the Pan-Am Games are soon beginning in Toronto. Our flight to Toronto the day before was also sold-out. 
And, with airlines normally over-booking, we heard of folks being delayed because they waited to get to the airport before getting their boarding passes. So, we were a little anxious, especially since someone on our Team had to get to work on returning to Ottawa.
I was fortunately able to get a seat, along with everyone else on the Team. As was the case with the flight to Toronto, I was assigned the middle of a three-seat row. Okay. I can put up with that for an hour. What I didn’t know was that the row I was in was the first one behind Business/First Class, which on each side of the centre isle has only two, larger seats across.
One thing on a short flight that I will enjoy doing is watching the real-time map on the screen in front of me — showing the variables of outside temperature, miles travelled, distance to destination, altitude and speed. On the screen you can watch the little icon of the plane travel slowly towards your destination. I enjoy watching that. Call me a nerd.
Because I don’t fly very often, I forgot that I probably had one of those video screens folded up and tucked away in my arm rest. But I didn’t think of that. I only reacted by feeling I got the short end of the stick. Ba-humbug! 
Both my row partners had screens on the back of the seats directly in front of thhem, but not me. 

Both of them fell asleep immediately upon take off. I concluded quickly they probably were not interested in using their screens. So I watched out of the corner of my eye until the guy on my right had his jaw hanging open and breathing heavily before I snuck my arm across to his screen to turn it on. But just as I was about to tap on “Map”, he twitched in his sleep and came half awake. I quickly withdrew, and waited until he again fell asleep before finally getting it turned on.

It dawned on me why I didn’t just ask him whether I could use his screen. I’m fairly confident he would probably have been okay with that, or at least reminded me of the screen I had in my arm rest. But I didn’t. I was bent on trying to sneak in my intention, or put off the actual engagement.
One aspect of the faith of Jairus and the woman, is that both in words and actions, they took the risk, made themselves vulnerable and even interrupted Jesus. They came out. They asked. Granted, they were desperate and at the end of their rope. Are you? Are we?
There are seasons in our lives when it may be difficult to believe in God’s possibilities for us. We get trapped in our heads. I know I do. We get stuck in our pain, and circle back over and over again trying to rationalize and self-justify not doing anything differently. We think too much about the hard realities facing us that we end up either rejecting our faith outright; or, we sit back in the lounge chair of summertime-like complacency. 
We may give up too quickly. We get discouraged so easily. We may even delude ourselves into thinking that “time will heal”. 
I suspect the biggest reason we hold back when opportunity for healing comes our way is because, as I did in the plane afraid to ask, I knew deep down in stepping out in faith to ask for something, my nicely constructed world however imperfect would have to change: Who knows? Maybe the fellow next to me would have wanted to talk with me, inquire what I did for a living and we would end up talking about God and faith and all his problems. It would require some work, then, right?
Asking for help and healing in prayer to God means things might get a bit messy, disruptive. Energy-draining. It’s a risk. Our asking for healing may very well shake us out of our comfortable way of doing things. God may very well be calling us into a sense of urgency as we go about ‘being Christian’. Do we even want that?
Do we believe in God’s possibilities? Do we hold the vision of God to heal, to restore and give new life, new beginnings to us, despite our present circumstances? Because opportunities will come our way. Will we seize the moment, as the woman did to interrupt Jesus? Carpe Diem! Will we want to acknowledge our dire, desperate circumstances giving rise to the courage to ask?
In the next year, our church will face an opportunity to begin a 5-, 10- or 15- year-long journey. An opportunity, I believe, will come across our bow to begin this journey in the next year. I mention this today, because it is the last time I’m preaching before my summer break. And I want to leave you with something to contemplate. I have a feeling we will, I hope over the next year, want to talk about this more.
When you go home today, I invite you to drive to the intersection of Woodroffe and Baseline. There is an open field there now, a strip of land between the transitway and Woodroffe, across the street from College Square. And as I speak, imagine the opportunity for Christian mission and ministry in this prime piece of land, the gateway to Nepean and very close to significant institutions of business, education, health care and culture at Centrepointe.
Then, imagine, what maintaining the status quo here will result in, some ten to fifteen years from now. If we just carry on business-as-usual and try to continue doing it on our own. We just need to tally the percentage of people in this room today over a certain age to answer that question rather decidedly. The trajectory is clear if we just ‘maintain’.
Then, again, imagine the possibility of healing that can come to the local Christian community overburdened and exhausted by a complacency and resignation to reality-as-is. Imagine the restoration, the new life, new beginning, and vigour of church ministry and mission in Jesus’ name that can happen when we share this work, as Lutherans, with other willing and effective partners in faith — other congregations — who are primed to do the same. Imagine what exciting work can be done together when we can combine our assets and resources — not ‘do it alone’ — and be a powerful, significant Christian voice and presence in West Ottawa. Imagine God’s possibilities! We’re not down and out; there’s a bright future! Together.
Jesus doesn’t ask Jairus, a Jewish synagogue leader, for proof of right belief. Faith is not saying the right doctrine or articulating a ‘correct’ denominational theology. Jesus doesn’t question the woman’s rather superstitious character of her faith before healing her. In fact the healing is virtually done before Jesus talks to her! Jesus doesn’t demand any rationally expressed pre-condition for granting his grace and healing power. To us, too.
In all truth, it’s his heart, his compassion, his unconditional love first and foremost that drives him to heal those who just have the courage to express an urgent, desperate desire for a new beginning, for health and wholeness. And take that first, small step in Jesus’ direction.

Imagine God’s possibilities!

The Cross: Not only for us, but involves us

What Jesus did on the cross involves us.

One great temptation of being a Christian today is to delude ourselves into believing that the cross of Christ must be reserved exclusively to the annals of history. What Jesus did on the cross is a historical curiosity, we may think, which has little if nothing to do with our day-to-day lives. As a result, Christianity is basically a theoretical exchange of ideas, and whose energy and passion revolve around whose ideas are more persuasive.

One thing we need to continually challenge ourselves is in the practice of our faith, so that we are not only saying the right kinds of things but doing them as well. The Gospel text for today (Matthew 16:21-28) reminds us again that what Jesus did on the cross involves us today, in our experience of faith. When Jesus instructed his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” he was displacing the cross for standing merely as an historical idea and fact, and placing the cross directly onto the lives, hearts, and experience of his followers at that time, and for all time to come — including us!

The theme of suffering percolates in the Gospel text. How do we Christians deal with suffering in our lives? In Martin Luther’s German translation of the Beatitudes of Jesus in the New Testament, he conveys the sense of: “Blessed are those who bear their suffering …” It is not a question of whether or not we suffer, or whether or not we can deny or avoid the challenging, difficult work that will come to us all in doing God’s work on earth. After all, Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live …” (John 11:25-26). All of us will die. All of us will suffer. Whether we are Christian or not. Life will bring that to each one of us in a unique way.

So, the question of faith is: HOW will we bear that suffering? How will we appreciate the experience of life’s failures, losses, pain, grief, death?
The second reading for today from Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:9-21) suggests a way forward through our suffering: “Let your love be genuine,” he writes. How we bear our suffering depends on the quality of love in our lives. How is love genuine?

It has something to do, I believe, with letting go of the need to control someone’s else experience of ourselves, our gifts, our hospitality; letting go of our need to impose on another what we think should be for them. This is most difficult to do. But it is true love when we love, unconditionally, with no strings attached.

In my travels over the summer, I’ve met people in Newfoundland on the east coast as well as in the urban jungle of California on the west coast. As I reflect on my encounters with various people on that journey, the most meaningful ones were almost always around a meal time in a B&B or coffee break at a conference. It was listening to our B&B hostess at breakfast near Gros Morne Park, talking with our servers at the Duke of Edinburgh pub in St John’s, chatting with American tourists at breakfast in L’Anse aux Meadows, or with students at the next table in a Thai restaurant in San Francisco — these are memories that come quickly to mind and leave a lasting impression. Around a meal, with others. And never an outcome that I could have planned, expected or managed if I were in control. My experience over a meal with others was totally a gift.

In this Meal we ritually share every week as a people of God, we become vulnerable to one another as equals before God. We bring all our “stuff” to the Communion railing — good and bad. It can be nerve-wracking to be pulled out of our comfortable pew, so to speak, and come forward and lay it bear before God and one another.

But it is here, in all our honesty and true humility, that we are made aware of Jesus’ faithfulness to us. Jesus is truly present around the table. Holy Communion is a regular reminder that Jesus is with us, especially in the disruptive events of our lives. And it is here that we receive the hope and promise that all will be well through the suffering of our lives.

What Jesus did on the cross, after all, does not only involve us, it was for us.

In all that we must bear, we are not alone. When the twin brothers from Quebec were eliminated last week from the Amazing Race Canada Reality TV show, I could relate to something said in the brief interview on the mat after hearing that they were “the last team to arrive.” The twin who had done poorly in one of the challenges and was the reason they had been eliminated said with tears in his eyes, “It’s amazing being a twin because even at the worst of times you are never alone.” Twins or no twins, as Christians we are never alone.

Because of what Jesus did on the cross, God now understands and relates to our suffering in an intimate way. God’s love is shown most powerfully in what Jesus did for us. Whenever we suffer and take up our own cross, Jesus suffers along side of us, bears with us, and endures with us — all for our sake.

Something Peter and the disciples seem to have missed in reacting to the way of the cross, is the promise of resurrection. They stumble at the “undergo great suffering” and being “killed” parts of Jesus’ speech. But did they hear: “…and on the third day be raised”? (Matthew 16:21)

The way with Jesus, that must go through the cross and suffering, leads to new life and fresh, new beginnings. The way with Jesus, that must go through the cross and endure suffering, is a way of great hope of a holy transformation of our lives that starts now and lasts through eternity.

Twins in the womb story

Once upon a time, twin boys were conceived. Weeks passed and the twins developed. As their awareness grew, they laughed for joy: “Isn’t it great that we were conceived? Isn’t it great to be alive?”

Together the twins explored their world. When they found their mother’s cord that gave them life, they sang for joy! “How great our mother’s love is, that she shares her own life with us!”

As the weeks stretched into months, the twins noticed how much each was changing. “What does this mean?” one asked.

“It means our stay in this world is drawing to an end,” said the other.

“But I don’t want to go,” said one. “I want to stay here always.”

“We have no choice,” said the other. “But maybe there is life after birth.”

“But how can that be?” responded one. “We will shed our life cord and how can life be possible without it? Besides, we have see evidence that others were here before us, and none of them has returned to tell us there is life after birth. No, this is the end. Maybe there is no mother after all.”

“But there has to be,” protested the other. “How else did we get here? How do we remain alive?”

“Have you seen our mother?” said one. “Maybe she only lives in our minds. Maybe we made her up because the idea made us feel good.”

So the last days in the womb were filled with deep questioning and fear.

Finally, the moment of birth arrived. When the twins had passed from their world, they opened their eyes and cried for joy — for what they saw exceeded their fondest dreams. That is brith … and that is death.

(Anonymous, cited in Kim Nataraja, “Dancing with your Shadow”, Medio-Media 2010, p.163-164).

Funeral sermon – A special grace given

Just this last week in the news you might have heard that a 74-year-old nun from Quebec was released from captivity after being abducted two months ago by armed rebels in northern Cameroon.

And just around that time we heard that an American soldier was released after nearly five years of captivity in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban.

When hearing this news, I wondered how those held hostage were able to hold it together. Not knowing for sure when and if they would be released, somehow the nun and the soldier endured their captivity. They persevered, with no guarantee that they would be saved. For all they knew, those prisons could have been the last thing they ever saw.

When I met recently with Brenda, I noticed this quality of perseverance in her. She never gave up hope. She didn’t waver in what she presented to others. She gave determined witness to the faith that she would not be defeated by her illness.

After meeting with her, I wondered in a similar way I did after hearing about the nun and the soldier held hostage for significant periods of time. How could she endure? How was this possible? How did she do this? Without knowing for sure how things would turn out?

Brenda’s from the Upper Ottawa Valley. I want to welcome members of Brenda’s family who made the trip at least a couple of times down to Ottawa. Perhaps some of you know a retired pastor who has for many years made the circuit among Lutheran churches in Valley. He once told me something I have not forgotten.

He said that God gives a special grace to people at two events in life: First, God gives a special grace to people in their dying; that is, when someone dies God gives them a special strength and ability to do so. And this is not something always and easily perceptible by those witnessing the death, and is known fully, only by the person who is dying — this special grace.

The other event in life when God gives a special grace is to birthing mothers; when the time comes, finally, to give birth, God gives a special grace to endure this trying yet hope-filled event. At these profound moments of life and death, God gives to those who must endure them, a special grace.

And that is the only explanation I can give for understanding the incredible gift of perseverance and final peace with which Brenda endured this last chapter of her life on earth.

The story of Job from the bible is a testimony as well to this incredible ability to proclaim a steadfast faith in the midst of suffering. He lost everything — his family, his property. He suffered disease and ridicule. You would think that his profession of faith would come only after all his fortunes were restored, which they were right at the end of the book of Job, chapter 42. But Job doesn’t wait until chapter 42; already at chapter 19 he can proclaim a great faith even in the middle of suffering greatly.

We are Christian not because somehow now we have the secret to cheating death. We are Christian not because we can avoid suffering in this life. We Christian not because we can prove miracles sometimes happen. We are Christian, because we discover and receive the gift of grace to embrace our faith whenever we do have to suffer in life.

There is a beautiful image in the Gospel of a giant tree where birds of the air find refuge and make nests in its branches. Jesus tells the story of the mustard seed — small, seemingly insignificant, hardly noticed. It’s the smallest of seeds, barely perceptible.

“It is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32). We could interpret those words “so that” merely as a descriptive consequence of the mustard seed growing into the largest of trees — that, among other things, birds would find safety in its branches.

But we could also interpret “so that” as the reason why a mustard seed is great. Because it provides shelter, care and compassion for the creatures of this world. There is an important purpose and mandate for that ‘greatness’.

The faith that can move mountains is a faith not easily noticed, perceived or appreciated by the world. Because it is the gift of compassion and care. It is the gift of grace and love which embraces others and provides shelter to those in need.

That is the greatness of faith. It is a faith that recognizes the compassion of our Lord. It is a faith that recognizes God’s steadfast love no matter what happens. “Neither death nor life nor anything in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8).

Brenda showed that grace to others in her life. But she endured these last days because of the compassion and grace given to her. Those around Brenda, closest to Brenda, you showed abundant grace, care and compassion — to put Brenda’s needs before your own, at times of joy in life but also, and especially, in the most dire of circumstances. And that’s the greatness of faith.

The special grace of God is given to Brenda. The prize is hers today. She has endured. She is released from her captivity. And this special grace is ours, also, forever. No matter what may come.

Joy -erism

Last week an online article cited a new study that suggests “religious” people are more depressed than atheists. The study was published in the October issue of Psychological Medicine.  The researchers surveyed thousands of rural and urban people from seven countries over the course of a year to arrive at their conclusions.

Apparently those who claim to be religious tend to respond to life’s challenges, disappointments, failures and tragedies no differently than atheists — those who claim no belief in a God. Apparently, if we take this study for what it’s worth, Christians are just as prone to depression — if not more so — than those who have no faith.

Does this surprise you? After all, aren’t we believers supposed to live the ‘better’ life? Didn’t Jesus come to save us from sin so that we can live life “abundantly” (John 10:10)? Isn’t a life of prayer supposed to bring peace to our life? When we confess our sin, and receive the assurance of forgiveness — aren’t we supposed to be happy for that?

What is more, we often hear from those popular preachers on TV and in our local mega-churches a prosperity-gospel; basically promising the sweet, successful and affluent life if you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.

The prosperity preachers line their sermons with conditional promises — a self-help type of message — if you confess your sins, if you turn your life around, if you make better choices — then Jesus will come into your heart and make everything better. In other words, it’s all about us. Our salvation really hinges on our action, first.

But what happens if we do accept Jesus, and life still seems hard for us? What happens if we do confess our sin — day in and day out — but we still feel burdened by
temptation? What happens if we do express faith in a loving God, but we continue to fail — fail in our relationships, fail in our work, fail in our health? What if we do not prosper, even though we say we believe?

Have we done something wrong? Is our faith not strong enough? Are we not trying hard enough? Now, will we feel guilty? No wonder Christians are depressed!

I do not mean to make light of the clinical depression with which so many good people suffer. But I wonder why it should come as shocking that Christians, among those of other faiths, should be denied their humanity by implying that if religion was to be so good for us, religious people shouldn’t suffer like the rest of the world?

In the Gospel for today (Luke 10:17-20 St Michael and All Angels), Jesus draws a distinction between what can distract us from the most important thing. Jesus, while not denying the abilities of the missionaries to perform great acts “in his name”, cautions them not to lose focus and clarity in their faith.

We could interpret that news article from Psychological Medicine as yet another attack by secular society on the Church. But in our self-righteous defensiveness do we continue to look away? Is there not some truth here? I take an article like that more as an opportunity to do a reality check. If society is holding up a mirror in front of us, what do we see?

A joy -erism that is kinda fake? An artifice joy-mask that we put on just on Sunday mornings when we go to church, saying everything is hunky-dory when deep down we are feeling deep pain? A set-up-for-failure message that pretends I’m okay-you’re okay because it’s all up to us to make things right, if only we tried harder?

What is the ‘joy’ our faith speaks of? Haven’t we lost our focus?

A fourteen year-old told me this past week about her family’s annual summer trip to the property they own overseas. It is a beautiful spot to which she looks forward going every year.

This year, however, the trip had extra special meaning: her ninety-year-old grandma was coming with them, likely making the long trip for the last time. As this girl described to me the joy of seeing her grandma walk in the places where she was born, grew up and lived most of her life — a tear welled in her eyes.

True joy is not far removed from the painful realities of life.

Julian of Norwich, living during the so-called “dark” ages in Europe, gave people who came to her cloister window these simple words: All will be well. And this ‘wellness’ of which she spoke, I believe, was not based on being lucky or shrewd in avoiding the mishaps and dangers of life. “All is well with my soul” is a confidence that we are not alone amidst the mishaps and dangers of life.

The truth is, we are already saved. In the Gospel text, Jesus tells the seventy missionaries to “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v.20).

The truth is, I’m-okay-you’re-okay not because we are good at pretense. The truth is, I’m-okay-you’re-okay not because we have somehow conquered the demons in our lives, once and for all. The truth is, I’m-okay-you’re -okay not because we are super-Christians with an incredible faith to overcome everything bad in our lives. The truth is, I’m okay-you’re-okay not because everything is perfect in our lives and therefore we can always be happy and never sad.

The truth is, Jesus did all those things we delude ourselves into thinking we must do in order to be saved. Jesus saved us “while we are sinners” (Romans 5:8). Jesus loves us and saves us not in spite of our sin, but because we are sinners.

This is good news: We have an eternal relationship with the God of all creation because of who God is, and not because of anything we have done. This is cause not only for meaning, inspiration and motivation in a life of faithful service “in his name”, but of unspeakable joy.

Jesus was clear in his admonition: Don’t rejoice in what you have done — defeating demons, stepping on snakes and scorpions without getting hurt. This will only lead to a self-centered disappointment and depression. Because while our successes may give us a temporary high, what we do is ultimately not the point of Christian Faith.

The joy I have discovered in a life of faith is this: I’m not alone on this journey called life. My life is connected to something much larger than me and beyond what I can do. My life belongs — to the community of faith with whom I share opportunities to grow, to learn, to serve, to shed tears, to have fun, to find meaning in life; and, to God who holds all of creation ultimately with loving intention and purpose. I’m an important part of that whole; but it’s not just about ‘random’ me and what I make of it.

There’s this integrity to all of life that gives me profound joy, a confidence that our names are already written in heaven.

I thank you, God, for the gift of faith.

 

A funeral at Christmas

To be grieving at this time of year brings a bag of mixed feelings, to say the least.

While everyone else is celebrating and enjoying the festivities of the season, you are also working through the loss of a dear [mother, wife, grandmother, sister, great-grandmother, aunt] and friend. Well-meaning friends may try to cheer you up because they do not want you to be a damper on the holiday spirit.

You may not know whether to stay at home and grieve, or go out to those get-togethers you’ve been invited to and try to be cheerful. Christmas is a challenging time to do the work of remembering, crying, grieving, and feeling sad.

But I would encourage you to do it anyway — to embrace the ambivalence of, on the one hand, expressing your grief when you need to; and, on the other, continuing to observe the season of holy birth. And it’s not all that inconsistent with a deeper meaning of the Christmas story:

After all, I can’t help but to think how that first Christmas must have felt for God the Father in heaven. The Gospel John tells us that in the beginning, the Word — Jesus, God’s Son — was with God. But because of the age-old, human rebellion against God, God nevertheless loved us so much God sent Jesus to be born into the world.

Think about what this cost God: That first Christmas was for God and Jesus a separation of sorts — a breaking of the intimate communion that they had shared from before the beginning of time. That’s a long time of being together! God, I am sure, can feel for the loss of someone with whom you have lived day-in and day-out for most of your life.

And worse yet, the way that God the Father and Son were going to be re-united was by Jesus’ death as a human being, on the Cross of Calvary. Christmas, thus, made Easter possible. The joy and priceless gifts of Christmas and Easter were wrought from the divine sacrifice of separation, loss and death.

In other words, birth and death are connected. In every birth, there is a death; in every death, there is a birth. So it is not inappropriate that we gather for a funeral service in the very season in which we celebrate a holy birth. It was the birth of God in our world that eventually gave the world the promise of new life and resurrection. It was the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem two thousand years ago that made it possible for us today to claim the promise of new life, eternal life, for your dearly beloved.

You spoke of your loved one as a “mother hen” of not only your immediate family, but of the neighborhood. She taught not only you but many of the kids living on this street how to swim. She demanded obedience to her rules — around the pool and around the table after school. An Opera music fan, she demonstrated motherly love by listening to Billy Idol and the Beatles only so she could relate to her teenage children. Her strong, motherly, supportive, family-oriented qualities will remain enduring memories and qualities in your own lives, even though she is now separated from you by death.

A separation in birth is similar to a separation in death. But both yield the gift of new life. I have an identical twin brother; and we have been very close all our lives long. So, this wonderful story about two twin babies, in their mother’s womb, rings true for me: Safe and secure, warm and fed, these twin babies slowly and quietly grew.

But when it came close to the time of birth, they began to fear what was about to happen. They didn’t want to leave the womb which had been their warm and comfortable home for so long, the place where they had everything they needed given to them. The prospect of leaving this warm and familiar place, and venturing into the unknown outside the womb, just terrified them.

But they also had this inkling that there must be something outside this womb, and someone, a mother, outside this womb caring for and loving them. They sometimes even heard loving voices coming from outside the womb.

And so they were ambivalent at best, fearful at worse, but couldn’t do anything about it. The time came for them to be born, and they just had to do it.

They cried as they were born into the new air and light. They coughed out fluid and gasped the dry air. And when they were sure they were born, they opened their eyes — seeing life after birth for the very first time.

What they saw, were the beautiful eyes of their mother, lovingly gazing upon them, as they were cradled in her arms. They knew they were home.

Your beloved has come home, and is seeing the loving eyes of God gazing upon her this day. And we all, whether on earth, or in heaven, are held in the safe and secure arms of God who loves us for eternity.