Tucked in Our Hearts

There are two things we all have in common: we are born and we die. In between these two non-negotiables lie a number of years, or sometimes only months, weeks, days, hours. But if we get lucky and we get eight or more decades, like Doris did, we have to make something of this life, something that gives meaning and purpose, something that helps us to grow in love, in joy, and in fulfillment. That’s no small task, especially when life begins in a ditch, as Doris’ did. When circumstances and hardships conspire to knock us down, to crush our spirit, and to rob us of all chance of succeeding, how in the world do we grow a moral compass, and a free spirit?

I did not know Doris directly. But when meeting with her children and loved ones, I learnt a lot about Doris, and I got drawn into her life and her inspiring example. What we shared about Doris around that table guided the choices of the Scripture readings for today. If anyone had rough beginnings on this earth, it was certainly Doris. Her son William shared about some of those many rough spots. And we all know that too many knocks in life can turn us into a very angry or bitter, violent or depressed person, making life miserable for ourselves and everyone around us. And we would feel completely justified in doing so.

But what is remarkable about Doris is … becoming a victim of life’s hardships is not the road she chose. From childhood on, Doris chose another way. There was something in Doris’ spirit that refused to be a victim of circumstance, something in her spirit that stubbornly stared down any attempt to destroy her fierce and boundless spirit. What is remarkable about Doris is that somehow, somewhere, despite all the obstacles and setbacks in life, Doris tapped into a moral compass deep inside herself. It was almost as if God knew life might get tough for Doris, so he made sure to equip her properly. The unshakable gift of God’s belonging and love was tucked safely in Doris’ heart as she took her first breaths in that ditch, together with her twin sister Rose, the one whose life lasted only some minutes.

When I first heard about Doris’ humble beginnings in that ditch, I immediately thought of one whose humble beginnings we just celebrated at Christmas time – Jesus himself. When I learnt about Doris’ generous heart towards friend and foe alike, Jesus’ words sprung to mind: do not judge, so that you may not be judged, for the measure you give will be the measure you get. When I heard about Doris’ tenacity and courage, Jesus’ words sprung to mind: Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. When I heard about Doris’ staunch refusal to seek revenge on those who hurt her, once again Jesus’ words sprung to mind:love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. And on the cross: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. In all these things, Jesus Christ has shown us the way, and by some miracle Doris followed that way, allowing Jesus’ example to shape her character, even without attending church and without consciously knowing it.

Without anyone telling or teaching her, Doris grew a moral compass strong as steel and stubborn as deep prairie roots surviving in a hot, dry summer. She was committed to living the highest calling: to love and to forgive no matter what, and to help others to do the same. Oh of course, she failed and messed up, many times. Don’t we all? And of course she wasn’t perfect, and had her failings. But she never allowed those failings, weaknesses and shortcomings to define her as a person or to stop her zest for living. However hard it was, her spirit was determined to rise above all the negative and destructive forces tugging on her heart. Doris yearned to love better and deeper and bigger. And it is this yearning, this desire of Doris, this capacity to love, that makes her right with God, and right with all who knew her.

If ever we thought that humble beginnings determine a not-good-for-anything life, think again. What good can come from being born in a ditch or a stable? Our beginnings do not determine the outcome, quite the contrary. We can choose life and joy and goodness and love no matter who we are, where we come from, or what blows life delivers to our mind, body and spirit. And as far as God’s concerned, it’s never too late to turn from being a victim of hardships to being a lover of life,  living in freedom, in mercy and in joy. The choice is ours; Doris showed us that by her steel courage, her generous and joyful disposition in all things, and in her unwavering respect for family, friend and foe alike.

God is love, and all who live in love live in God. All the love we share with each other, comes from God and returns to God. At the end of each of our lives, everything will fall away but one thing: how have we loved? The love given and received is the only thing that we get to take with us in death, the only thing that matters in heaven. The love we have shared on earth is also the most precious gift we can leave behind with our loved ones.

And so I have no doubt that Doris is now with God. I have no doubt that Doris’ soul, like the Psalm’s words express, is now resting in that same God who tucked divine gifts in her heart on the day of her birth in that ditch over 86 years ago. Those divine gifts Doris used well in her lifetime. God tucks these gifts in each of our hearts, as guides and tools and blessings, and as sources of love and consolation when we need them. Having used these divine gifts well is now securing Doris’ salvation, her peace and her joy.

For Doris leaned on God as her rock and her stronghold. In God Doris found her safety and her honour, and no one or nothing ever took that away from her. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians which we heard today, Doris’ outer nature has indeed wasted away, and her earthly tent is no longer. But what she enjoys now is so much better: God’s presence face to face forever in heaven.

Doris’ example leaves us all with a challenge: how will we use the gifts God has tucked into our hearts at birth? What will we choose: living life as a victim of circumstance, letting the pain of life define who we are, or rising above the knocks and hardships and come out a better person? How will we love and forgive and help others to do the same in the years we are given on this earth between our birth and our death? As for Doris: she showed us all that it can be done. Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done, Doris, reckless lover of life. Until we meet again, rest in peace and in God’s glory. AMEN

This homily was preached at a funeral (names are changed) in the Christmas season with the following Scriptures: Psalm 62, 2 Corinthians 4:14-18, 5:1, Matthew 5:43—47, 7:1—2, 7—10, 12

Advertisements

The Uncomfortable Reversal

There are some prophets whose words we only hear on the Sundays in Advent. Those are Malachi, Zephaniah and now Micah. The Lectionary choices of these “smaller/minor” prophets for Advent is really significant. A prophet who raged against social injustice, Micah points to God’s promise of the great reversal – from Bethlehem, one of the littlest clans and the most insignificant villages, will come the great Saviour.  God will be born of a woman, another sign of lowliness and insignificance. This Saviour will be born in poverty instead of pomp and circumstance.

This Saviour, poor, insignificant in the eyes of the world, will feed his flock and be the divine shepherd. Contrary to human default to favour the rich and famous, Micah reminds us that God favours the poor, the weak and the insignificant. This is an essential piece to grasp if we are to appreciate the unique and revolutionary gift of the Incarnation. No other major religion lifts up the poor and the lowly as radically as does Christianity.

The Letter to the Hebrews goes to great length to argue that the old religion is finished; no more sacrifices, not more burnt offerings, no more empty legalism. From now on, what counts is openness of heart and the willingness to do God’s will in action, to make God’s covenant of love with all creation visible and tangible in our very bodies and in a daily lived witness of love and of mercy. Mary’s yes is the first and most significant illustration of this new covenant. The words “See, I have come to do your will,” first find expression in Mary’s fiat, then are completed in Jesus’ life and witness, and ultimately are uttered on the cross: “It is finished.” 

Mary and Elizabeth meet because of Christ. Even though they are cousins and thus blood-relatives, their encounter takes on a much richer dimension because of Jesus. Two poor, insignificant women are God’s collaborators in the great divine plan of redemption in and through Jesus. At major points in biblical history, God has teamed up with women to bring about salvation to God’s holy people: opening barren wombs like Sarah’s, Rebekkah’s and Hannah’s, rescuing the chosen people through Queen Esther, using the prostitute Rahab to secure the capture of Jericho, preparing Jesus’ genealogical lineage through Ruth etc. In Mary’s yes God’s partnership with women for the salvation of the world reaches its peak.

God’s election of Elizabeth and Mary points to several characteristics of the church to become. First, Christ, even before his birth, brought out the deeper, richer, dimension of human encounter (Luke 2:39—45), drawing together people who would not normally seek one another out. Second, what bonds Mary and Elizabeth, and subsequently all followers of Christ, is singing God’s praises in what God is doing in Jesus (Luke 2:46—56). Third, inherent to God’s plan of redemption is the overthrowing of the dominant social order (Luke 2:51—54); this was predicted and is to be welcomed in every historical time and place.

Mary is blessed not only for her status as the mother of the Lord, but also for her trust in God’s promise. Mary is blessed because, despite all cultural and social expectations, she is honoured rather than shamed for bearing this child. But she has also been blessed with divine joy – with beatitude – because she believed that God is able to do more than what she could ask or imagine. By greeting Mary with honour, Elizabeth overturns social expectations.

Elizabeth’s response to her miraculous pregnancy emphasizes that God’s grace has reversed her social status: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25). Elizabeth continues the pattern of God’s great reversal by opening her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbours would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honourable than herself. Thus the pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings joy and honour instead. When Elizabeth welcomes Mary, she practices the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus will show to prostitutes and sinners. She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes.

On this eve before Christmas Eve, we stand at the threshold of recalling the divine fulfillment in the Christ-child. On four consecutive Sundays we heard God’s promise and the call to repentance, transformation and great joy. God’s great reversal comes through powerfully in today’s readings: an insignificant clan, an insignificant little place, and two poor, insignificant women – these set the stage and these are the main actors God recruits to bring about the great plan of humanity’s redemption. Contradicting traditional ideas and making obsolete traditional practices, two poor women gave their bodies and blood in the priestly act of preparing the way and giving life to God-in-the-flesh – one to the forerunner and herald John, the other to God’s own Son Jesus. The blood and water from their wombs formed the sanctuary in which God took on human form, eventually leading to the ultimate sacrifice on the cross where blood and water poured forth once again, this time from the Saviour’s side.

Mary and Elizabeth reveal that, as bodily and spiritual vessels of God’s incarnation, women are primary sacramental instruments of God’s grace in Christ. In bearing the child Jesus in her womb, Mary’s body was the first to give Christ’s flesh and blood to the world in the Eucharistic offering of giving birth, an offering completed in Jesus’ gift of body and blood at the Last Supper: This is my body given for you, my blood shed for you, once and for all.

Jesus came to replace comfortable religion with uncomfortable redemption. What he offers is far better than any old system of sacrificial religion. But the change required in our perception and understanding, in our attitudes and motives, and in our living is downright scary. This was true 2,000 years ago and it is still true today. It is so scary that, for most of these 2,000 years, we have caged this uncomfortable news by creating other institutions with sacrificial practices, rules and regulations. But the ones keeping the message of uncomfortable but real redemption in Christ alive are the same as 2,000 years ago: the women, the poor, the weak, the marginalized, little ones without power. Let us remember this uncomfortable dimension of Christmas as we sing our carols, dig into the turkey, and share our gifts of love and friendship and joy.

Homily preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018
Micah 5:2-5; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-56

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”


Ready for Christmas?

It doesn’t matter where – in the checkout line-up, at the pool, at the post office, even in church. Everyone asks the big question, often in a hurried tone of voice: so,  ready for Christmas yet? I’m supposed to answer: no I’m not, too many gifts to buy and wrap, cards to write and to send, goodies to bake and decorations to hang up. I’m not ready!

Odd isn’t it? I mean this type of reply. I’m ready for Christmas, because I take the question to mean something quite different. Quiet daily prayer is enriched with the Advent wreath – lighting one more candle each week, keeping me anchored in essentials without drowning in waves of excessive consumerism. Dreams and yearnings are allowed to rise up in my heart, as God’s gifts growing in the womb of my spirit. Christmas baking gets done by loving hands way more competent than my own from annual Christmas bake-sales, filling the freezer (and eventually our tummies) while supporting a good cause.  We strive for quality time with our adult children and their families even with the challenge of irregular work hours; looks like a chess tournament is on the radar this year. Yearly donation checks are off to various charities, however small. Sharing is good for the soul and a blessing to others. Ready for Christmas? Yep.

Because our family Christmas takes place when everyone can make it, Jim and I have become regulars at the annual Community Christmas Dinner on December 25, organized by our friends from the local Soup Kitchen. A weekly meal free of charge is hosted throughout the year for anyone who needs food and company. You can find us there most Tuesdays, hanging out with a motley crew. We go not because we are “hard-up” but because we eat with friends who’ve expanded our notion of family. Helping out at the Christmas Dinner therefore is not only a great way to spend the holy day of Christ’s birth, but it is truly a day with family.

We do appreciate receiving Christmas letters from beloved family and friends; letters full of the latest travel adventures and the year’s achievements of children and grandchildren, and sometimes including the latest health challenges. Such letters are a great read. It’s the yearly catching up on news in the lives of loved ones.

But we don’t travel a whole lot anymore, and don’t even miss it. There’s hardly anything left on our bucket lists. We are most content and comfortable in our own bed, our own home, our own routines, our own garden and backyard (not fancy, just … lush). Do we sound like old folks set in our ways?? Or is it the quiet contentment and joy that comes from truly living a simple, modest life we both love and have no need to get away from? We do regret not seeing our granddaughters as often as we would like due to distance and work commitments. They are each growing way too fast into three lovely individuals, each with their unique personality. But we are grateful for photos on Facebook and video-calls. And we’ve been relatively healthy (not counting the hearing aids I’ve had to acquire this year), rarely accessing the health insurance we’ve been paying into for so many years — touch wood! So there isn’t much news to share.

Or maybe there is …

We learnt new things this past year, found new questions, gained new insights into relationships and into living a full life. We enjoy many blessings, right in our own home and community, even in the hardships. Once again we learnt that it’s not what happens to us that brings blessing or curse, but how we live what happens to us:

  • Ordinary days in our prairie towns (Humboldt and Watrous) burst with extraordinary little rays of light and joy, of love and of mercy. The abiding faithfulness of friends is nourishing food for the soul. New friends keep sprouting from the stubble of prairie fields, each one bearing gifts of vision and compassion, of invitations into new discoveries and into exploring different worlds.
  • On the other hand, our quiet community was rocked to the core last April by the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. Shock and grief have never been so close to home, never been so deep and so widespread, galvanizing the attention of the world. But even in the darkness of that tragedy, blessings were hiding: see Grieving in Community and April in Labour. For the first time I preached on empty, only to nd discover that tears in the pulpit sometimes preach more effectively than words.
  • We learnt that discord with loved ones, whether friends or family, is best lived as an invitation to look inside — how have we contributed to the breakdown? The resulting honesty, vulnerability and humility can then turn into a healing blessing. Own up, fess up, repair it — these virtues are keepers. Or when unjustly accused or treated, draw the boundaries firmer and forgive; don’t let anger poison your heart.
  • Just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it moral, ethical or desirable. We’re keeping our fingers crossed about legal pot, and other questionable practices. The best (and healthiest) highs come through healing hurts, cultivating a curious and open mind, and from seeking meaning and purpose in all things every day, good and bad, ugly and beautiful.
  • In our age of fake news and the crumbling of old certainties Pilate’s ancient question, “what is truth?” is ever so relevant again. Even the Church is not spared this piercing question as it grapples with massive loss of members, credibility, and revelations of abuse. What if truth resides in the quality of relationship — to life, to this planet, to one another? I’m trying this out for awhile.
  • Electing our new Indigenous bishop Chris was a great experience; his arrival as a messenger of reconciliation and a bridge-builder bodes very promising for our Anglican diocese and beyond.
  • Living below one’s means creates a freedom the world truly cannot give. It’s oddly easy to stay clear of the traps of over-spending and consuming when it’s an attitude/perspective fostered over a life-time, not to mention the light ecological footprint and the effect on the wallet. It does lead to an odd problem, though: we don’t create enough garbage or recycling materials to fill the bins we pay the city for! But we admit, it takes all kinds: the economy would be in even worse shape if it depended on frugal spenders such as us!
  • Being a country priest with a dedicated band of Anglicans and Lutherans is all and more than I had imagined, and Catholics are coming along for the ride. Weekly Eucharist and preaching, ecumenical studies and worship, baptisms and funerals (no weddings yet), hosting weekly (free!) summer BBQ suppers for the town, pastoral care and counseling — a rich spiritual harvest. Good energy among parishioners, renovating the church hall, planning for great things in the new year.
  • Not everything was roses. The murder of our cousin Kim’s husband shook us all to the core. No amount of tears can hold the sorrow and loss.
  • Our God-daughter Josephine married Brody this past summer, inviting me to preach holy words at their celebration. Blessings of joy galore and a great wedding party on the farm.
  • Jim is still helping Rachelle with the seed business, but managing a slower pace while mentoring his young, energetic and passionate successor. Some of our kids have discovered a new role for their night-owl Dad: they phone him on late nights, sometimes  to be accompanied on long drives.
  • I saw signs of limits to inclusiveness; some call them boundaries, others call them barriers. Why does including some often seem to happen at the exclusion of others? There’s got to be a better way.
  • Year-round exercise of choice: lane swimming. I’m the slowest swimmer in the pool, so every 20 lapse feels victorious, rewarded with time in the hot tub!
  • Two weeks in Israel with my bishop and clergy colleagues was a true gift — walking where Jesus walked, getting to know my colleagues better (a glass of wine in a warm climate does wonders!), and growing a disturbing realization of the plight of our Christian sisters and brothers: The Not-So-Holy Land.
  • Even with my Sunday church duties, Jim and I enjoyed a record number of four Christmas concerts in one weekend, each one outstanding. What a talent on the prairies!
  • My first meeting with the national Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada (ARC Canada) in Ottawa was substantial, inspiring and so much fun, including a surprising renewal of old friendships. Working for Christian Unity continues to be my passion, integral to my ministry and my vision of church.
  • The best bread in town is still the one kneaded with my own hands, with flour milled from Jim’s home-grown grains, and coming out of my own oven — oh, that smell … it’s the one foolproof baking I can muster.
  • Praying for others is powerful and rich, esp. when writing down the daily intentions and mentioning others by name. Pray for people far and near, for victims of disasters and violence of all kind, and for friends and family struggling with too much, helps keep helplessness and despair at bay. Praying for others grows our heart softer, bigger and more compassionate, fostering real-time connections, collapsing all distance.

We are painfully aware that life delivers too many blows to too many people, stretching to the breaking point one’s capacity to see and savour blessings. In this year’s season of Advent waiting in hope, we have learnt of a suicide, a stripping of job and reputation, legal challenges in a custody case with devastating effects on the children, a tumbling back into alcohol and drug abuse after a 10+ year sobriety, betrayal by church leaders, painful diminishment in aging, terminal diagnoses, all within our own circle of love. Not to speak of the horrors millions face daily across the globe. Life is fragile, vulnerable as we all are to unexpected and unmerited chaos and disaster. And yet, as I wrote in my previous blog post, we need a vision to inspire us, to motivate going on living. The birth of Jesus still gives us this vision.

As we celebrate Christmas this year, we hold in our hearts and minds both the pain of the world and the vision of God in Jesus. In the birth of Jesus God became one of us – that is the most radical and most beautiful gift the world has ever received, no matter how much the Church has tainted this message with its own sinfulness. Divinity came among us as a tiny, helpless baby for whom there was no room anywhere. Born to a young teenage virgin and a dedicated foster father forced to take his little family to Egypt to protect the child from brutal murder — not unlike millions of refugees on the run today. A teenage mother, an outcast from birth, a refugee in infancy – that is our God, throwing in his lot with all the scrawny and needy ones among us.

This is the vision going with us into 2019. This vision is our prayer and our wish for us all. Ready for Christmas? You betcha!

Marie-Louise and Jim

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

Kick the darkness

Th’is the season of darkness, at least in the northern hemisphere. And here on the prairies t’is the season of winter cold, despite our current “balmy” temperatures of -5 degrees Celsius (it’s all relative, right?) But many people’s lives are covered in darkness no matter where they live, no matter what season it is, no matter what is considered cold or hot:
* Desperate families trekking 1000+ miles on foot in dangerous darkness, driven by a wild hope for a better future. 
* Dear friends in their senior years raising a young granddaughter with courage and loving dedication, only to see their best efforts sabotaged by the darkness of her origins.
* Indigenous youth turning to suicide before the icy darkness of addiction and no-future kills them.
* Even in the best of families, discord is spreading darkness through animosity, distrust and betrayal.
* Loved ones grieving deep, deep losses – children, parents, opportunity, spouses, homes, jobs, dreams, a voice, dignity, health, friends – fearing to be buried alive in the cave of brutal and merciless darkness.

For too many among us, darkness is the norm, so much so that we stop screaming in protest. There is nothing more lethal than the loss of hope and love, of peace and joy.

Yet Advent comes each year, inviting correction of the course of events, inviting to level the ground of our heart, to straighten paths of life. Advent, with its honed tradition of lighting candles on a wreath, one more each week, stubbornly insists on piercing the darkness, trying hard to rekindle life-giving dreams and visions. But for too many Advent remains elusive, a vision unrealized, a dream unfulfilled, an illusion only the silly ones buy into. Yet our spirit needs a vision — without a vision of what life can be, ought to be, meant to be, we perish. 

For the Jewish people, Hannukah comes each year, with the ritual of lighting candles, mirroring the Christian Advent practice. This Jewish Festival of Lights recalls the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem. If any city has seen darkness, it is Jerusalem. If any people have lived darkness, pitch darkness, it’s our Jewish sisters and brothers. Hannukah stubbornly comes, bringing light into darkness, hope into despairing hearts. This light is desperately needed for all people, including our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters who are deprived of the very light their Jewish fellow citizens are cherishing.

Sometimes, maybe often even, we ourselves cause another’s darkness. Hurting one another seems to come more easily than loving. It is part of being human, but that does not make it right or excusable. That is why Advent also invites introspection: how have I contributed to the suffering of my sister, my brother?  I had to do this recently in a situation of discord that had resulted in a six-month shunning by loved ones. Swallowing all pride and self-righteousness, I tapped courage and my faith in Jesus to confess and own up to the transgression. It never gets easier, it always makes my insides tremble, and makes me feel vulnerable and exposed. But every time I risk honest contrition and confession and reach out in reconciliation, Advent light shines through, straightening my path, leveling the ground of my heart, and growing me into fullness of love and mercy, preparing my heart to receive the Christ-child. Each time we risk overcoming the darkness in our own heart, the world sees one more candle of hope lit.

The persistence of vision, of seeking light, of crazy dreams of beauty and love, are the surest evidence of the existence of God. Why else would stubborn forces unrelentingly kick at the darkness of the world, if not for their origin in a Divine source stronger and bigger than today’s despair and pain? Can we long for something we have never known? Can we dream and hope for things we have not at one time seen and tasted? 

We have been kicking the darkness forever, because God keeps seeking cracks for the light to break through.

My friend Scott shared the following thoughts at the start of Advent. Scott articulates a vision of light and hope, not by denying or ignoring the darkness, but by squarely confronting it, in a bold attempt to stare down its demoralizing power. His words have bored their way into my heart, fueling vision and dreams against all odds: Christians light candles at the start of Advent, and Jews light candles to mark the beginning of Hanukkah. This is no small thing. We both light our lights to kick at the darkness. Sometimes it is the darkness in our own hearts, and this is always where the push back must start. Sometimes it is the past and present darkness in our communities, including religious ones. Sometimes it is the darkness that seems to loom over so much that goes on in our world. Our candles are not the same; yet the light to which they point most certainly is. May this season of bold resistance and active hopefulness draw Christians, and Jews, and all people together to heal our hearts, reconcile our communities, and mend our world. Amen.

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. WordPress switched to a new editor and I can’t figure out how to add the Private Comment form. My apologies, you’ll have to email me if you wish to share your thoughts privately: marlise_14@sasktel.net 

Not of This World

What is truth? … Truth and power are on trial these days. Each seem to get more corrupted by the minute. Kings and presidents, religious and secular leaders,  have their truth and power scrutinized and tested, judged and betrayed, condemned even. Fake news and cover-ups are swirling around us like uncontrollable tempests and hurricanes, messing with our head. Nothing seems certain anymore, nothing seems truly true, even on the religious front. Nothing seems spared this dizzying unravelling of securities, of stability, and of clarity.

In the midst of this confusing ethical, cultural and moral tsunami comes today’s account of Jesus before Pilate. Two kings, two rulers, in a showdown of power and truth. Jesus’ truth and power was completely other. And deep down Pilate sensed it. Pilate so sensed how completely different Jesus’ power and truth were, that his nerves … trembled … Even Pilate’s arrogance couldn’t hide his inner shaking. “Are you the King of the Jews?” “My kingdom is not of this world …”

In the wake of fake news, in the wake of never-ending revelations of failures and sins by leaders in all spheres of life – politicians, teachers, principals, religious leaders, business giants – we celebrate today’s Feast of Christ the King. We, foolish followers of a King, dare to claim that in this King lies salvation, in this King lies the way to fullness of life even in death. What a ludicrous claim in the face of today’s world!

How do we respond as followers of Christ, this new King? Our response truly sounds ludicrous. Our response is a king hung on a cross. A king on a cross … not a popular answer right now. Yet that’s our answer, the only answer … A king – himself a victim of the atrocities we inflict on one another, no matter whether committed in secret behind closed doors in family homes and workplaces or on a world stage in government offices and churches.

Pilate agonized, pacing back and forth as he questioned Jesus. He agonized, because here before him was a man who puzzled, scared and intrigued Pilate. Pilate is aware on a subconscious level that his power and authority is really just an illusion. That illusion gets challenged by this weird prisoner. And that makes Pilate very nervous. And so he should be. Because the power and authority of Christ the King, what makes Christ King is indeed a power “not of this world” meaning, completely counter-intuitive for us humans.

What makes it so? Because unlike the increased show of force called for by world powers today, and the cacaphony of voices claiming truth, for the very first time in human history, and so far the only time in human history, someone DARED to refuse to project and pass on the violence and pain inflicted on him. Someone, with a power not of this world said: the buck stops here. In this determined non-violent response, Jesus released a power far greater than the kind we humans normally employ. That’s …. what gives Jesus the crown of glory.

Richard Rohr describes it as follows:
God is to be found in all things, even and most especially in the painful, tragic, and sinful things—exactly where we do not want to look for God. The crucifixion is at the same moment the worst and best thing in human history. The cross reveals a cruciform pattern to reality. Reality is not meaningless and absurd, but neither is it perfect and consistent. Reality, life, is filled with contradictions. Jesus was killed in the collision of opposites, conflicting interests, and half-truths. This King of Glory hung between a good thief and a bad thief, between heaven and earth, inside of both humanity and divinity, a male body with a feminine soul, utterly whole and yet utterly disfigured.

The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that Jesus broke down the barriers of hostility by creating one humanity where formerly there had been two – and he did it this “by reconciling both [sides] in one body through his cross, which put that enmity to death.” (Ephesians 2, 16)

How? How does the cross of Christ kill death itself? Ron Rolheiser, theologian and author, replies as follows:
Jesus on the cross took in hatred, held it inside himself, transformed it, and gave back love. He took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back … graciousness. He took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back … blessing. He took in paranoia, held it, transformed it, and gave back … big-heartedness. He took in murder, held it, transformed it, and gave back … forgiveness.

Jesus revealed the deep secret, the key to salvation. And that is to absorb and hold within ourselves all that divides, all that brings strife, all that sows hatred, to hold it long enough so that it gets transformed. Like a water purifier which holds within itself the toxins and the poisons and gives back only pure water, we must hold within ourselves the toxins that poison relationships, that destroy communion, both in the human family and in the natural world, and give back only graciousness and openness, give back only compassion and care, to everyone and everything. It’s the only key to overcoming division.

We live in bitterly divisive times, paralyzing every sphere of life with half-truths and fake power, polarized on virtually every sensitive issue of politics, economics, morality, and religion. That stalemate will remain until one by one, we each transform rather than fuel and re-transmit the hatred that divides us.

We see in the person of Jesus a strange power at work, a power clearly not of this world … the power of God’s unmerited and merciful love. We claim Jesus as King of Glory, and that he is. But besides claiming this and adoring him, we are also called to imitate him. While fear can choke our compassion and generous loving, our world is famished, starved, for peace and reconciliation, for inclusion and equality, for love and grace and mercy.

So how serious are we about embracing this kingdom of Jesus not of this world? Living by Kingdom ways still comes at great risk, just as Jesus learnt from his experience on the cross. Can we, will we, like Jesus, become signs of dangerous hope for God’s world, possessed by a power not of this world? I think it would surprise and scare and intrigue the world, just as it did Pilate, when he faced that unusual character. We can only profess Christ as our King if we allow God to change us, from the inside out, so that we become the water filter sifting out human impurities, toxins and poisons. As God’s water filter we are transformed into beacons of hope and grace, of love and mercy – all those things for which our world is starving.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He is our peace; in his flesh he made us into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us … He created in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, reconciling us to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death hostility, division, strife, jealousy, and enmity. (Ephesians 2:13—16)

Homily preached on the Feast of Christ the King, November 25, 2018
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Ephesians 2:11—22; John 18:33-38
* I am not real happy with this sermon. Not that anyone criticized it, but as I preached I felt it — it was too wordy, too repetitive and lacked story. Just goes to show I can’t always be at my best.

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

Paralysis Analysis I

I am not happy with my writing self. I wonder if I am suffering from a bout of social, cultural and ecclesial paralysis. It’s a heart thing, like most things that matter are I suppose. I share sermon texts because I am told others appreciate my musings and insights into the Biblical texts. Thank you for reminding me of this.

But I want to post on other, more current, stuff too – I used to in previous years. You know what I mean: a world leader’s latest tirade, or the latest mass shooting, or the latest war zone in an urban neighbourhood, or the latest church scandal, or the latest news about migrants approaching the border,  or the latest climate change calamity, or the latest celebrity caught in a sex scandal, or the latest drug bust, or the latest stats about the mass exodus from our churches, or the latest natural disaster claiming innocent lives, or the latest vulgar outburst by prominent politicians. And then that bus crash, now six months ago, that swept 16 young lives off the face of the earth and left 13 others forever scarred in body and spirit, not to mention all those connected in love with these 29 victims. Why did it happen? It didn’t need to happen, it was just a country highway, in the middle of nowhere, literally … Why does any of this crap happen? Why?

Each of these stories makes my blood boil and my head spin. So I lunge into a verbal assault over a world going awry. But after the first sprint of words a strange paralysis sets in. What’s the point? Do I have anything to add to the big voices out there? And why do I feel so out of place? Why do I feel like it’s time for me to take leave, for I no longer recognize the world of love and grace, of beauty and mercy I was so committed to building?

A car bomb explodes on another continent and I look over my shoulder with suspicion at an approaching car in my little prairie town; what is happening? An ordinary-looking man bursts into a synagogue with an automatic rifle, killing ordinary people at prayer – at prayer! – and I weep when looking out over my own prairie congregation on a Sunday morning; what is happening? My seven-year old granddaughter sternly chides the US president for his rudeness, adding she’d never trust him with her jewels, and I become terrified for the future of our children’s children; what is happening?!

Call it helplessness and powerlessness, grief and sorrow over a world lost, a world failing millions of good people deserving of dignity and belonging, deserving of hope and a safe future. Is it really getting harder to keep faith and hope alive? Or has it always been thus, just that this is the age I live and cry in, the age I laugh and work in. Nothing is spared the melancholic plague; even my faith in Jesus is shaking loose from its spiritual anchor some days. The urge to crawl under a rock and wait for this chaos to sort itself out, is too big to resist at times.

Yes,  global communication, Facebook and other social media have made it possible to grant the world with all its sorrows and pains a permanent place in our living rooms and kitchens, the office and even our bedrooms. That same digital world also brings love, joy and beauty of course, but somehow that trio sits shyly in a corner while the tsunami of misery rolls through the house.

So I fall silent, even when I could speak. I fall silent even in morning prayer time, filled with an eerie emptiness before God. And I wonder if God is even awake, if God even cares. Or should I apologize to the great Almighty for the mess, for the atrocious ways we are plundering and desecrating the world (nature, animals, habitat, people, oceans), that tiny planet earth, our common home, created out of nothing but divine love, that incredible, intricate world created for … goodness? Nothing seems sacred and beautiful anymore… Defend me, O God, and plead my cause … from the deceitful and the unjust, rescue me (Psalm 43).

Eventually I snap out of the melancholy, mostly through small stuff. I see a herd of deer in the stubble on my way to work, and my heart leaps ever so slightly, daring a smile. The smell of fresh bread from my oven never fails to fill my nostrils with the aroma of God’s provision and tender care. The tasty garden carrots, fresh corn and parsley generously feed both body and soul, bending my stomach into a thank you. Crisp sunny fall days, combines humming in the fields, remind me that the earth feeds us; clearly we eat by the grace of nature, not industry. Dried up fields and forests, frosted plants and shriveled up shrubs play hide ‘n seek; they are not dead, merely falling asleep for winter’s rest. Weekly supper at the Soup Kitchen startles me into holy communion almost every time – forming an unlikely bunch of people into one family. An intense conversation with someone in need was clearly not accidental – God’s still on the job and the divine time-table still operates despite everything. The loving commitment of adult children to their ailing 90-some year old mother, one of my parishioners, speaks to God’s own steadfast and faithful promise, trustworthy and sturdy enough to lean on when my time comes.

I fear counting too many blessings, lest I become smug and callous, forgetting the multitudes  who barely have any to count. And yet counting them I must, braiding tiny fragile threads into a divine rescue rope to hold onto while absorbing the mess and the sorrow, the pain and the agony. And it dawns on me … that somebody else … long ago … did exactly that: hanging on to God’s rescue rope of love sweating and shaking, emptying himself while absorbing all pain and darkness, all sin and evil, thus opening the path of salvation for all … Despite everything: Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise …

We have to be candles,
burning between hope and despair,
faith and doubt, life and death,
all the opposites.
That is the disquieting place
where people must always find us.

And if our life means anything, if what we are
goes beyond the monastery walls and does some good,
it is that somehow, by being here, at peace,
we help the world cope
with what it cannot understand. ~ William Brodrick

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

Always Reforming

Here we are, on Reformation Sunday in the Anglican church with an Anglo-Catholic-Lutheran pastor/priest! That’s quite a combination, don’t you think? Not sure if I’m the right person to preach today, so I’m going to enlist the help of all the Lutherans here. What does Reformation Sunday mean to you? Why do we celebrate it? How has your church marked this day in the past? And what about Anglicans? Was there an Anglican Reformation in the 16th century? (Yes)

In the past month we watched the movie Luther with our Confirmation students and interested parishioners. The movie gave a fairly good account of the turmoil in the 16th century and the religious and social, cultural and political forces that lead to Martin Luther’s rise and his bold stance against Rome. Luther sparked a heated debate with his questions, some of which we don’t seem to get so worked up about today. But in the 16th century, when the church had absolute power and control over people’s lives, Luther’s questions and analyses caused a firestorm: were people to seek salvation for their souls through blindly obeying the Church  or by freely to reading the Scriptures for themselves and to find their salvation through faith in Christ Jesus? Did their hope for heaven come simply from being a card-carrying Catholic or through a direct relationship with their risen Lord? Sadly polemics and politics fostered a growing animosity between Rome and the Reformers.

Many of Luther’s concerns voiced in his 95 Theses in 1517 remained unaddressed for a good 400 years. Finally, in the mid-20th century the RC Church conceded that Luther was right on quite a few points. The Second Vatican Council (1960’s) implemented changes that Martin Luther would have wholeheartedly approved of today. Luther is rightly credited for being the father of religious freedom, from which now stems our ability to see God at work even in other faith traditions.

One important dictum that Rome embraced at Vatican II is: Ecclesia semper reformanda est which is Latin for “the church must always be reformed.” It refers to the conviction that the church must continually re-examine itself in order to remain faithful to the Gospel in doctrine, worship and practice, so as to speak Good News into every time and place.

Thankfully, much has happened in the past 100 years to recover and renew the bonds between church traditions. We can see this locally, regionally and globally. The Lutheran-Anglican Full Communion Covenant, which makes our local partnership possible, the various bi-lateral ecumenical dialogues, the meaningful celebrations last year of the 500th Anniversary. We’re finally burying our ecclesial hatchets. and recognize Christ’s presence and witness in one another – finally.

But remember the Latin phrase I just used: Ecclesia semper reformanda est “the church must always be reformed.” The church must continually re-examine itself in order to remain faithful to the Gospel in doctrine, worship and practice, so as to be able to speak into human dilemmas in every time and space. And so while Martin Luther’s hotly debated questions have finally found some common answers, new questions and challenges have emerged, both inside and outside the church, some of them with a vengeance similar to Luther’s time.

This was evident in Rome – again – in the past month, where an extensive Synod on Youth and Vocations took place. For three solid weeks bishops, priests and religious, young delegates male and female, spoke boldly and loudly about today’s salient questions: the massive migrations of peoples leading to poverty and exploitation, the brutal forms of global violence and animosity which seem to have no end, increasingly hurting and killing innocent people; the challenging realities of LGBTQ people and the churches’ response; the role of women and visible minorities in church and society; secularization, religious pluralism and the church; the fallout from the global clerical sexual abuse crisis, resulting in massive breakdown of trust in and credibility of organized religion; the need for accountability of bishops and all spiritual leaders, and the questionable value of enforced celibacy; racism and colonialism, climate change and eco-injustice hurting Indigenous peoples everywhere the most; the revolution of global communications and social media (akin to the invention of the printing press in Luther’s time), the economic, social and cultural pressures on our youth who feel unequipped and in serious need of solid guidance; the exodus from organized religion by the young (and some old too), the pressing need for the church to listen more than to teach … and on and on and on …

The young delegates minced no words and left no stone unturned – their voices, with the thunder reminiscent of Martin Luther himself, spelled urgency on all fronts. Their list of grievances and challenges, both internal and external to the church, are different than in the 16th century. Yet their list almost sounds like a new version of Luther’s 95 theses.

The youth in Rome pressed the need for substantial reform inside the church in order to meet the challenges of the new world order, in order to make the Gospel sound anew, fresh and inviting, capable to speak to the human heart today once again. Many of these challenges are shared among all Christian traditions. Some observers have already called this moment in history as ripe for another Reformation – hopefully one that will not lead to further fracturing of the Body of Christ.

How would Martin Luther speak into the challenges and crises of our day, and how the Church needs to respond? In two ways. First, Luther would go to the Scriptures as his primary tool for assessing life and seeking God’s guidance. How does the Holy Word of God summon us to address our modern-day challenges and questions? Second, Luther would be unafraid to speak boldly about sin. Addressing the prevalence of sin in each of our hearts remains an essential part of Lutheran witness – that’s why Lutheran worship begins with Confession.

But speaking of sin is kind of a hard sell these days. We hear often that it is no longer fashionable or relevant to speak of sin, that the word/concept is outdated. Naming things sinful today is considered offensive and off-putting (and so it should, right? Was it ever otherwise?). But without an honest reckoning with the reality of sin (what it is, what it isn’t, what to do about it), we become, subtly but surely, less honest with the truth. Without the courage to name and own sin, especially as defined by God’s Holy Word and Christ’s witness, as we hear again in today’s words from Paul’s letter to the Romans and from John’s Gospel, we risk making a mockery of the Gospel. Without the humility and honesty to name sin, we cannot be set free by God’s saving action in Christ Jesus.

Luther argued that sin was a pervasive condition expressed in our daily failure to love God and neighbour rightly, to which we add today a failure to love and treasure creation. Sin cuts through every quality of our being. But Luther also knew that the all-pervasive, subtle yet cruel selfishness that drives every one of us cannot be quantified into a grocery list of wrongful actions.

Sin is much deeper than a grocery list, and we can do nothing to make it better; only God can in Christ Jesus. God does not parcel out mercy to the qualified; because none of us qualify, none of us. God pours out forgiveness on the needy – and that’s all of us. For Luther, there was no compromising this good news.

We receive Christ’s mercy freely, but not cheaply. Being called to account is never easy but it is worth the struggle, so that we may know the power of Christ’s cross and the fullness of His love. There is forgiveness and new life for the taking 24/7. This assurance is what Lutherans, faithful to Luther’s discovery in his personal struggle, can still offer to the church and the world today. And this is why, on this 501st Reformation Sunday, the prayer we prayed earlier in our service today is so important, so relevant and so necessary. The words apply to each of us personally and to our beloved church family in the whole world. In light of today’s massive challenges and crises in both church and world, let us pray this prayer together:

Gracious God,
we pray for your holy catholic church
which includes all of us.
Fill us with all truth and peace.
Where we are corrupt, purify us;
where we are in error, correct us;
where we are amiss, reform us:
where we are right, strengthen us;
where we are in need, provide for us;
where we are divided, reunite …
AMEN

Homily preached on October 28, 2018 — Reformation Sunday.
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”