Lessons from The Shack

So, if we take today’s Gospel conversation with Jesus and fast-forward it to the tragic events of our day, it might sounds a bit like this: so Jesus, tell us … did those who got killed in the mosques in New Zealand … sin more than us? And what about all those who were on that plane in Ethiopia? Oh, and the countless victims of mass flooding in Africa and the US? Were they … worse sinners … than us? Absolutely not!, replies Jesus, but unless you repent … What does he mean?

We spend so much time and energy on buying our way into freedom and happiness, exhaustingly so. But Isaiah portrays God as One who calls us to free drinks: Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come! Isaiah speaks of the things no money can buy. The free life-giving water is God’s everlasting love and mercy  for saint and sinner alike, no matter who—when—where—how. Because all God cares about is our freedom, remember? We heard about that a few Sundays ago also.

God cared about the freedom of his people Israel, who lived in exile in the time of Isaiah. God cares so much about our freedom that God slipped … into … human skin … and gave us Jesus Christ as our redeemer and pattern for our living. God cares so much about our freedom that in Christ he decided that we are … to die for. Unacknowledged and unconfessed sin, failings and weakness can keep us in bondage or in an exile of our own making. God knows that we can only flourish and come to full bloom in the freedom of his love and mercy. God reminds us in Isaiah’s words that my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my way. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Whew, what a relief that is! This is a good thing. The fact that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts are deeper than ours, is a really, really good thing. It’s a very good thing that our God is bigger and deeper and more mysterious than our little minds can comprehend.

Several years ago I participated in a lively book club discussion on W. Paul Young’s book The Shack. This engaging novel turned into a successful movie, and touched millions of lives both in and outside the church. The story weaves fascinating aspects of God right into the arduous healing process of its main character, Mack. Several of these divine aspects are highlighted in today’s Scripture readings. Comparing The Shack with the Scriptures may seem far-fetched and a bit daring perhaps. But I’m always up for a challenge, so let’s see what we get and have some fun with this. Spoiler-alert here … just a little …

So in The Shack, when Mack asks why God keeps on loving a screw-up like himself, Papa/God replies with dry humour: “Because my love is a lot bigger than your stupidity.” God hears every cry for help, from the victims of hate crimes to the silent screams in our bedrooms, from the agony in war zones and flood plains, to the tears of despair in affluent suburbs, from the shreds in a plane accident to the screaming in a mosque: “I hear your cry,” says God, “and I want to come and deliver you.”

God’s deliverance comes in the form of an invitation, come, all you who thirst, drink the water of love and mercy. Loving, forgiving, setting free – all are of the essence in God. Because ultimately God is … a verb, not a noun; Mack in The Shack discovers this. The ever-moving circle of love in God the Father—Son—Spirit is a hard one for Mack to get his head around. The Trinity spirals love and mercy ’round and ’round while beckoning us to enter that never-ending holy circle. But just like the Israelites in exile, to whom Isaiah’s words were addressed, Mack … has a hard time getting this – as do we most of the time.

If our hearts remain under a cloud, that is unclean and closed, broken and fickle, even though we are all baptized, even though we all eat the same spiritual food and even though we all drink the same spiritual drink, we will likely not … taste … salvation. That’s another way of saying: unless you repent, you will all perish. Paul reminds us in his words to the Corinthians: Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. But if you think you’re standing, watch out that you do not fall.

In the same  way, spending energy on trying to figure out why we “deserve” suffering and death, is a futile exercise: Do we think that because refugees suffer so much more than others that they are worse sinners than all others? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those 50 Muslims killed in the mosques in New Zealand do we think that they were worse offenders than all the others? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. And the countless victims of mass floodings in Africa and the US, was it their time to go, or were they worse people than us? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Unless we repent, we will all die in chains of unconfessed sin. Jesus rebukes any effort to lay blame for suffering. Jesus rebukes any effort to compare and feel superior to others. If we don’t redirect this energy toward examining our own hearts and surrendering to God in repentance, we too will perish without tasting God.

As “Papa” tells Mack, “People cling to their independence (and pain). They hoard and hold their sickness with a firm grip. They find their identity and worth in their brokenness and guard it with every ounce of strength they have. No wonder grace has such little attraction. You all lock the door of your hearts … from the inside.” Mack is convinced in the depths of his being that he is responsible for his daughter’s death. When this conviction is reinforced by deep hurts that go way back to Mack’s childhood, and then get laced with generous doses of guilt, shame and rage, Mack has mixed a lethal cocktail for ultimate alienation from God.

If we really have the power to bring about our own destruction, and that of others, then Jesus has nothing to say. If we are really responsible for misfortunes and calamities that befall us, like the Israelites blaming themselves for living like slaves in Egypt, then God does not need to bother, does not need to meet us in the Shack, does not need to offer living water free of charge, or needs not send his own Son to open the way to redemption and mercy.

In God’s economy, analyzing who’s the greater sinner by measuring degrees of misfortune has no meaning. That’s why Mack got caught in a net of self-delusion. In one of Mack’s many attempts to justify his position, “Papa” retorts with familiar directness: “Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means that I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colours.”

And so instead, Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” Our life is like the fig tree yearning to bear fruit. But our capacity to bear God’s fruit is inhibited by unresolved pain, nursing harsh judgments (of ourselves or others), cherishing impure motives and distorted attitudes in our hearts – all forming a cloud, all wrapping chains around our spirit. Jesus pleads with his Father on our behalf: Please, let me dig around her/him, prune her/him and put manure – manure! – on him/her. Give her/him time, attention, loving care and s/he will bear fruit.

Give God a chance this Lenten season. Let God prune and heal whatever obstructs our bearing Godly fruit. Give us another day, another week, another year, God. And God relents, saying, okay then, I will. As the popular novel and movie The Shack illustrates, God will use whatever it takes to get through to us, because pain can indeed spell judgment and death, and can lead us to perish. But despair kissed by hope, sin humbly confessed, pain courageously surrendered in love, becomes fertilizer for our spirit. Mack’s journey and today’s Scriptures ring loud and clear: despite everything that might happen, our own life is still God’s favourite hangout, our own pain is still the place of God’s liberating work. That God, the Lover par excellence who doesn’t force himself upon anyone, is eagerly waiting in all the shadows of life to be invited in and to deliver us: Come and drink, it’s free; come and eat, it’s free. Our eating and drinking Christ in the Eucharist is a foretaste and sign, indeed God’s free gift of mercy, setting us free. Like the fig tree, lovingly but firmly pruned and tended by the Master Gardener, we can then bear fruit in abundance, at last … AMEN

Homily preaching on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 24, 2019
Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9 (RC Lectionary had Exodus 3:1-15)

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Appearance and Reality

In the minds of most people Lent has two meanings— a time to give up things, a summons to simplify and de-clutter in material, mental and spiritual ways; and a time to take on something, to add something, often a spiritual practice or a work of mercy (community service). Both the giving up and the taking on are intended to be means of self-examination and to drawing us closer to God. Today this Lenten trek of giving up and taking on has us join Jesus on his way to Jerusalem.

By the time we join him in this 13th chapter of Luke’s Gospel Jesus has already been on his way to Jerusalem for four chapters and he will continue for another six chapters. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is long, ten chapters long. Intentionally long, literally and symbolically, for Jerusalem is the seat of Jewish power and prestige, the place still referred to today as the Holy City.

Today’s stop on this journey reveals that things are not always what they seem. Or even, things are never what they seem. There’s often a contradiction between appearance and reality, isn’t there? Each of today’s readings includes that contradiction, especially the first lesson and the Gospel.

Abraham hears God’s assurance of protection: Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great. Abraham seizes this opportunity to remind God of the contradiction between appearance and reality: he and Sarah are childless. You may be our shield of protection, God, says Abraham, but we see little evidence of having any off-spring. Once again, God promises: Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be. Hearing God’s promise again, Abraham believed,
despite all the evidence to the contrary.

In today’s brief Gospel passage a similar contradiction comes through between appearance and reality. Jesus sounds both confident and grief-stricken. When he’s warned that “Herod wants to kill you,” he’s saying: ”Hey! I’m workin’ here, busy doing God’s work. Today. Tomorrow. The next day. Leave me alone.” We got a Jesus in control here.

But … it is Lent for Jesus too, and even he can’t keep the brave face and the confident tone. No sooner has he said these brave and confident words, and he veers swiftly and deeply into lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!

There’s a lot of pain in these words. That same pain return six chapters later (in Luke’s Gospel) when Jesus weeps bitterly over the city. Jesus moves swiftly from the self-assured, effective healer to the man in despair over this holy but lost city and his inability to protect it from harm.

Jerusalem, the city in the Middle East, is indeed holy. I never quite understood why and how, until my visit there last year. Until then, I thought the title Holy City was an arbitrary choice. I had naively thought that it could be any other place on earth. But I learned, and now understand, how Jerusalem acquired the status of holiness over time: one, remnants of ancient civilizations are everywhere, spanning several millennia. Two, Jerusalem is the sacred site for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each one claims origins in that place, adding to the city’s holiness by its countless temples, churches and mosques, and by its praise, worship and prayers rising in that place to the one God.

Abraham’s understanding of God was unique in his time: he was the first human to take hold of the notion there is One God. That is why Abraham, who believed despite the evidence to the contrary, is considered the father of our faith in one God. That one God made good on the promise to give Abraham many descendants in faith, as many as the stars in the heavens: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Finally, geographically, Jerusalem is located where three major continents converge: in a narrow and dense strip of land: Europe, Asia and Africa. So yes, Jerusalem is holy like no other place on earth. The collective memory of human existence is alive there. The worship and ritual life of three major religions brings a force of prayer and goodwill like nowhere else. Finally, the convergence of three major cultural and ethnic legacies contribute to the holiness of this awe-inspiring place. Never did I understand and appreciate this more than when I visited Jerusalem last year.

But Jerusalem’s holiness has also been costly. Jerusalem is the one tortured city in the world that has seen the most blood spilled on its ancient stones, the most destruction and reconstruction of its temples and churches, synagogues and mosques. Jerusalem has been the site of the worst persecutions, most of it inflicted by members of the same three religions that claim to preach peace and justice, compassion and mercy: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three of these religions value God’s commandments to love our neighbour, to show mercy to strangers, widows and orphans, and to love and pray for our enemies. Yet in the course of the past 2,000 years, members of all three faiths have thrown these commands conveniently under the bus when imposing its own exclusive religious practice on Jerusalem, taking possession of holy sites at the expense of the religious freedom of others and respect for their practices. That this city of God’s dwelling place became the seat of such violent opposition to God in its treatment of others is part of the ironic tragedy of Israel’s own story, including Jesus’ story and by extension, our story.

And lest we think we were holier than the other two religions, remember that we Christians have spent most of the past 2,000 years fighting a “holy war” against Judaism because it had rejected Jesus. Antisemitism and pogroms originated in the ancient competitions over Jerusalem, with devastating effects to this day. This is a dark legacy to own up to for us, along with all the other times in history when we have blatantly destroyed peoples and cultures in the name of Jesus.

While much of this holy and torturous legacy of Jerusalem was yet to come, enough of it had already taken place for Jesus to lament: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.While Jesus as our Lord and Saviour eventually came to be seen as the New Jerusalem, nevertheless Jesus himself grasped the holy nature and destiny of the Holy City. While Herod indeed wanted to kill Jesus, Herod was not destined to be Christ’s assassin. It is because of that holy nature and destiny of the city that Jerusalem became the site of Christ’s own death and resurrection.

It’s not hard to understand Jesus’ grief, actually. All we have to do is look at our own Jerusalem, the holy places in our own lives where we meet God. Violence in places of prayer, killing people at prayer, as we witnessed again on Friday in Christchurch, NZ, is profoundly horrifying and desecrating. How do we reconcile the contradictions in the holy places: on the one hand we claim our appearance, promise and destiny in the God of Abraham, the God of love and mercy, the God of grace and of beauty; and on the other hand, we live with the human reality of sin and bloodshed and violence, literally and figuratively, much of it even inflicted in the name of God.

We know how hard it is to truly and fully surrender to God and to trust in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. Abraham felt it, Jesus felt it, and we too feel it. We know something about our resistance and willful blindness to examine our ways, to heed warnings and to curb sinful habits. We know how hard it is to trade in worldly success to live first for God alone in simplicity and gratitude. Abraham felt it, Jesus felt, we too feel it.

But in the footsteps of Abraham, our father in faith, in the footsteps of Jesus, our Saviour and Redeemer, we hold onto each other and we hold fast to Christ. We hold each other to account and we renew our trust. Not for our own sake, but for the sake of the world, a world crying out for healing and reconciliation, for justice and peace. Lofty words, reinforcing that age-old contradiction between appearance, promise and destiny on the one hand, and the reality of sin and hatred, of discrimination and of bloodshed on the other.

Jesus lamented, he sweated blood in the holy city, and yet he went about God’s business – healing the sick, casting out demons and bringing God’s mercy to those who didn’t deserve it. We too lament the state of the world, esp. in the aftermath of bloodbaths such as the one from last Friday. We too sweat blood when God asks the impossible. But, like Jesus, we too will go about God’s business, here in our little prairie town and in the larger world.

The Lenten season invites us into giving up and taking on. In this self-examination we contemplate the ministry, the teaching, and the passion of Jesus. Let us not get caught in rejecting Christ’s ministry and his summons to turn our lives around, lest we resemble the Holy City that rejected him along with the prophets. Jesus’ longing for us is for compassion and deliverance and healing. But his longing must be matched by our own longing for salvation, deliverance, and healing.

Despite the contradiction between appearance and reality, God/Jesus still believes in small efforts. God blesses small efforts and makes them bear fruit. Like our Lord and Master, despite the shadow of sin and death, despite the violence and hatred towards innocent people of God, and despite our own sin and resistance and blindness, we must go about our business to bring healing and understanding, to cast out demons of prejudice and judgment, and to work for reconciliation in our own lives and in the lives of those who need it most right now. AMEN

Homily preached on the Second Sunday of Lent March 17, 2019
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 13:31-35
(Note: The RC Lectionary featured the Gospel of the Transfiguration on this Sunday; the Anglican lectionary features that Gospel on the last Sunday before Lent)