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)

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Promises Believed, Broken and … Restored?

As a seasoned preacher I know well the temptation to “bend” the Holy Word to suit our personal pet-themes. When preparing a homily I do my best to discipline my efforts in responsible ways. But sometimes present painful realities scream for attention from that Holy Word. And so it was yesterday when I preached in a United Church congregation on Genesis 15:1–18, Psalm 27 and Luke 13:31-35. If I took some liberties in the sermon text below,  I ask forgiveness. Small and imperfect, it was motivated by my deep desire to contribute to the healing of our beautiful nation, Turtle Island:

In each of today’s Scripture lessons we hear words of covenant, words of trusting God and words of God’s faithfulness against all odds. We hear words of bold witness and words of lament, both from Jesus’ lips. God’s promises are the foundation of faith, even when everything seems to be going in the opposite direction. Living in hope of God’s promise of peace and justice, of love and grace, offers hope for the future, even in painful and trying times.

The Quakers have a saying “a way will be made.” Out of apparent scarcity, abundance can emerge. Where there appears to be a dead end, a path appears. When we hit bottom, we discover God is with us and we can, with God’s companionship and inspiration, climb out of the mess in which we find ourselves. When we think we are unlovable or will never find a loving friendship, a chance encounter can change everything. We discover a highway in the desert, a path in the wilderness, a guiding star in the darkest night. A way will be made.

This was the experience of Abraham and Sarah. They had followed God, leaving their familiar home for the promise of a new land. They had dreamed of children to populate the land and be their companions in old age. But, still they had no children. They were desperate and wondered if God’s promises could be trusted. In the midst of his despair about the future, Abram (Abraham) had a vision in which God showed him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. It is an improbable promise to an old couple. A way will be made!

Psalm 27 promises the same thing – a sense of security and well-being – despite conflict and threat.“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” Fear is epidemic in our time and some may be justified, but being paralyzed by fear won’t get us to the next step.

Abundant living and trust connect, scarcity thinking isolates and diminishes.A way is made when we choose to push toward a heavenly goal. We experience a deeper realism than the “earthly minded.” We see a great plant in a mustard seed and a multitude fed by five loaves and two fish. We see resurrection beyond tragedy and promise in unexpected people.The world’s realism dictates that we recognize a bottom line, but God’s realism imagines a great plant coming from the smallest seed and the gift of a small child multiplying to feed a crowd. Who knows how? Indeed, there are realities beyond what the eye can see that lure us toward the future.

A way is made indeed – for God is faithful – but we need to “will” that way and we need to choose to trust that a way will be made. Jerusalem didn’t will that way and didn’t trust. So Jesus mourns that Jerusalem has closed itself off to the future, turning away from the provocative alternative vision he presents to them.

There are people who have lived with unfulfilled promises for generations, and I’m not just referring to God’s chosen people from the Hebrew Scriptures. Most unfulfilled promises  are not caused by God’s unfaithfulness, but by human sin. I am referring here to the plight of our indigenous sisters and brothers in our great land called Canada, Turtle Island. Echoeing God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, God gave this vast land – from sea to sea to sea – first … not to us, descendants of immigrants, but to our aboriginal ancestors: “Look towards the heavens and count the stars,” God said to them, “So shall your descendants be.”

All across our land, our aboriginal sisters and brothers are hurting, weeping and grieving because of generations of systemic policies that have robbed them of family life, cultural customs and spiritual practices. And we still wonder why they “can’t get over it.” The Truth and Reconciliation Report minces no words – you can’t just “get over” a few centuries of internalized oppression and exploitation. Jesus is weeping with them, wondering if we will, like Jerusalem, close ourselves off from the liberating message of sharing the burden of pain, of pleading forgiveness and of owning up to our complicity in this intergenerational cycle of poverty and addiction, crime and abuse.

Opening ourselves to God’s transforming power in relationships with our aboriginal sisters and brothers comes with the need for painful confessions, for owning up to our collective guilt. Opening ourselves to God’s healing power comes with the need to eat stores of humble pie. When we muster the courage to do this, as a church community who claims to follow the ways of Jesus, and as a country, we will find God’s way to reconciliation, and recognize that God is indeed present and active in this enormous collective historical, cultural and spiritual challenge.

As Canadians we have experienced the work of the Truth and Reconciliation  Commission. We have heard the stories of residential school survivors, and the role of our churches, in the Canadian policy of assimilation. This policy has led to a loss of culture and the death of many in the Indigenous community for generations. We have contributed to the pain and loss of Canadian Indigenous people through The Doctrine of Discovery. The church used this doctrine to give the government moral justification to claim lands as their own which were uninhabited by Christians. We have contributed to the pain and loss of Canadian Indigenous people whose children attended residential schools. The vast majority of well over these 150,000 children suffered neglect, abuse and discrimination. We recognize that we have not learned nor taught this painful chapter in our country’s history in our schools and churches. We have contributed to the pain and loss of Canadian Indigenous people through poor record keeping of the death of many children at residential schools, too often without a proper burial. We have contributed to the pain and loss of Canadian Indigenous people in our history. We have denied their right to choose and express their spiritual identity by prohibiting them from practicing and teaching their faith and culture. These accusations come straight from the TRC Report.

Our aboriginal sisters and brothers have hit bottom, and they yearn to have faith, respect and dignity restored  – in themselves, in the Creator, in one another, in us. We need their healing as much for ourselves as for them. We need God’s healing TOGETHER.

Echoeing Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, we lament the despair, pain, and loss that these actions have resulted in, for the Canadian Indigenous community as well as on all of us. We claim to emulate God’s faithfulness in the face of all odds, as today’s Scriptures encourage and challenge us to. We can do no less than commit ourselves to a full restoration of personal and cultural relationships with our aboriginal sisters and brothers, to walk with them the painful and challenging road to personal and cultural wholeness, to allow their collective pain a place in our hearts, so as to carry one another through the bonds of our shared humanity.

There is much to reflect on in the TRC Report and many concrete suggestions for actions given. Read sections of the Report this Lent, make it part of your prayer for healing. The TRC Report reminds us that we are all Treaty People, we are all part of this covenant with one another. Will we honour the calls to action to advance the process toward Canadian reconciliation?

As people of faith, God calls us to wholeness and healing. In this Lenten season, may we – God’s people on Turtle Island – confess and repent, and turn away from the sin of cultural genocide once and for all.

God promised Abraham and Sarah offspring as numerous as the stars. Abraham and Sarah put their trust in that promise against all the evidence to the contrary. God gave to a great people this vast country called Turtle Island, a people of dignity and beauty. This people, our First Nations’ brothers and sisters, put their trust in our Treaties and we betrayed that trust.  They are waiting for the fulfillment of our promise to them by way of the Treaties agreed upon with our ancestors.

Jesus uses the image of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings to explain God’s protection and love. This strength is at the heart of his message to all who follow him: God’s compassionate love gathers everyone together. Jesus understands the challenges that are before him, but holds strong to God’s promise as he faces what lies ahead. He stays firm in his faith.

Jesus will fulfill his mission in Jerusalem. His example is a challenge to us. Like Abraham and Sarah, God calls us to a deeper and bigger purpose. With regard to our aboriginal brothers and sisters, Jesus challenges us to commit to ready our ears for listening, deep listening, to ready our minds for honouring – deep honouring of the painful stories of intergenerational cultural genocide, abuse and neglect, and to open our hearts to the long and slow process of confession, healing and reconciliation for the greater good of future generations of all Canadians, in order to restore to fullness the covenant God made with us all.

How will we respond? Will we respond in faith and trust, with courage and boldness, forging a way where there does not seem to be one? Or will Jesus lament over our willful turning away from him, him who lives in our hurting sisters and brothers? AMEN

 

Prayers of the people

One: O God, often we have trouble understanding your promises.
We do not always know how to be strong.
You promise to be our stronghold, our shelter, and our rock.
All: We desire to be God’s covenant people.
One: God, you promised descendants to Abraham and Sarah,
that his family would inherit the land.
What promises and treaties in today’s world have been betrayed
and that need our prayers today?
All: We desire to be God’s covenant people.
One: Help us remember the covenant moments in our own lives –
graduations, marriages, baptisms, exchanging gifts.
May we draw on the grace of these moments,
especially when we forget your covenant with us.
All: We desire to be God’s covenant people.
One: God, you call us to serve and love one another.
You call us in a particular way to walk humbly
with our aboriginal sisters and brothers who are in pain
over promises and treaties broken and betrayed:
generations suffering cultural, social, and spiritual neglect.
All: We desire to be God’s covenant people.
Help us to be instruments of healing and reconciliation,
to confess the sins of the past and to open our hearts to one another.
Show us where our gifts can be used
and where our compassion is needed the most.
All: We lament the despair, pain and loss
that our past actions have resulted in,
for the Canadian Indigenous community
as well as the effect and impact
these same actions have had on us.
We desire to be God’s covenant people.
One: May we trust like Abraham and Sarah,
serve as Christ served others,
holding on to and restoring God’s promises in good times and  in bad.
All: Covenant God, may we find ourselves trusting you
when the evidence tells us otherwise.
May we find ourselves following you
even as the world says not to.
May we find ourselves living with the impossible
when everything else says we can’t.
May we hear the promise in our souls,
and live it in our world. Amen.

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