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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On my Knees … Not

Bad knees in Jerusalem are bad news. The holy city, built on legendary hills, with a million stairs and steep slopes, is a daunting challenge for the able-bodied, let alone for anyone coming with aches and pains. But I wasn’t going to be left behind; this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. So I grit my teeth and went.

Every day we followed Jesus to original sites (as much as can be verified), up and down slopes and stairs, pondering the Scriptures, navigating rough terrain, learning from tradition and archaeology. The Gospel stories took on new life. I gained deeper understanding why, for example, Jesus performed the miracle of feeding the multitudes in two different places. The places were symbolic for his coming for the Jews and for the Gentiles. I began to see more clearly how everything he said and did was meant to fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures. Distances between places became concrete. It took two hours of travel time by bus heading north from Jerusalem to Nazareth. Bethlehem is south of Jerusalem. Imagine traveling this distance on foot as Mary and Joseph did from Nazareth, through Jerusalem, to Bethlehem.

I understand a bit more why this land is considered Holy. All land, of course, is holy as it reflects the Creator. But the Holy Land is a unique geographical convergence of three continents, each with its own civilizations and cultures. It is no surprise then that this geographical location became the birthplace of the world’s three monotheistic religions. There, in deserts and cities, in mountain ranges and fertile valleys, ancient stones tell stories, bestowing identity and purpose on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In those caves and valleys, in the wilderness and desolation, God grabbed hold of the human spirit. One God and Father of all. No wonder the Word became flesh in this cultural and spiritual epicenter.

I learnt about the relationship between Scripture, tradition and archaeology. I admit my skepticism at the onset: how can anyone establish what really happened 2000 years ago and where the exact spot is? But in this land of the Holy One, layers and layers of remains reveal worlds and societies from centuries past, explaining us to ourselves today. The older a church or site of significance, the greater its probable connection with original events. Once I understood this connection, and the rigorous archaeological research that goes into the verification process, it truly did take my breath away – oh my …

Back to the knees. Entering church after church, sanctuary after holy site, excavated caves and ruins, my body and spirit yearned to kneel in prayer and adoration. I shivered in so many places where Jesus walked and talked, where our faith tradition was born. Alas, my knees would have screamed if I had followed my spirit’s desires. I shivered not only because it was overwhelming to be in those spots, but I shivered at the sight of every steep slope, every set of stairs, every alley of uneven ground, especially the ones with no railings or other holds.

Confronted with these humbling limitations, how to respond? I could allow the knees to spoil the entire experience and be totally justified in soliciting lots of pity. I could grit my teeth even harder and pretend I was all right, in no need of support or help, only to suffer in my room at night. I could remove myself from the physical challenges, and play it safe, most likely resulting in missing most of the important sites and group experiences. I could allow my physical need to feed anger and resentment towards my body, and frustration at getting on in age (hmm … yes …). Or, I could communicate my need in the group — really?!

Slowly, frustration turned a page. Slowly, surrendering to the reality of weak knees revealed deeper invitations, unearthing a spirit-type archaeology. Noting my cautious steps, an elbow would appear, unbidden, saying: lean on me. Leaning into vulnerability and dependence with grace opened others to the call to make sure I would not cast my foot against a stone (Psalm 91).

Walking the Way of the Cross (Via Dolorosa) through the small alleys and countless steps in the Old City was especially challenging. At first I thought well, that’s what it was like for Jesus, I can suffer through this. But then a faithful strong elbow accompanied me all the way, patiently matching my pace of movement — my own Simon of Cyrene. Upon completing the Way of the Cross a big grin thanked me for the blessing experienced in the task of supporting me.

My physical need for support called forth compassion and concrete action, including in some who I knew less well or with whom differences of opinions would make a friendship a prickly undertaking. Walking arm in arm allowed for some unique grace-filled sharing first with one, then another and another. Separation lines began to blur in the common task of shouldering the burden of my bad knees. Whereas relational tension might keep us apart in other settings, my knees gave rise to communion and reconciliation, softening hearts and adorning them with a smile.

The ancient stones tell stories, bestow an identity and explain us to ourselves today. Living this truth in my knees became the window of learning to be vulnerable, to lean into trust and to grow the grace to accept help. Then God indeed produces miracles in the hearts of us all.

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Sackcloth and Ashes

So I’m told that I’m very fortunate to go on a two-week pilgrimage to Jerusalem with my bishop and about 17 clergy colleagues. I have never been to the Holy Land. I wasn’t particularly keen to sign up; I’ve become a really content homebody. Even though I am deeply committed to my Christian faith and my priestly ministry, going to the Holy Land was really not on my bucket list (there’s in fact very little on that list). But the offer was too good to pass up, so here I am on the eve of our departure.

In order to increase my appreciation for this unique opportunity I decided to read two books: Jesus — A Pilgrimage by James Martin SJ and Jerusalem — One City, Three Faiths by Karen Armstrong. Martin’s book is an eloquent account of his pilgrimage to the Holy Sites in Israel, woven together with the relevant Scripture passages, mostly from the New Testament, and vignettes from his own spiritual journey. It is the type of book that makes me long for a similar experience, showing me how to experience this upcoming trip as a real retreat that could feed my soul long after returning home. Martin spoke my language and appealed to my spirit. My heart was engaged and my mind told my body in no uncertain terms to get in shape to walk the cobble-stone streets of the Holy City and the dusty roads of the ancient country-side.

After reading Martin’s idyllic prose, Karen Armstrong’s book delivered a serious jolt. Now Armstrong is no debutante when it comes to religious history; in fact, this outstanding scholar is widely respected and in great demand across the world. Delving into her book Jerusalem opened up the centuries-old history of the sacred land and its Holy City, causing spiritual and emotional heart tremors. I am wondering now if 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, churches, homes, synagogues and mosques, and the worst persecutions by adherents of the three monotheistic religions that claim to preach peace and justice, compassion and mercy: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In her now famously meticulous, subversively dispassionate yet passionate style, Armstrong lets the historical facts speak for themselves. Beginning with King David in 1000 BCE, the three religions of a loving and compassionate God which lay claim to Jerusalem certainly knew fleeting times of truly reflecting that divine love, mercy and respect with each other. However, more often than not their adherents slaughtered with glee all who stood in the way of claiming the Holy City for themselves (maybe with the exception of the first groups of Muslims who arrived there in 637 CE, showing much greater respect and restraint). The command to love one’s neighbour, to show mercy to strangers, widows and orphans, and to love one’s enemy, all of that conveniently went out the window when it came to imposing one’s exclusive religious practice on Jerusalem.

Time and again the Jews ousted the original inhabitants — still today. In turn we Christians persecuted the Jews, then the Muslims, then the Jews again, through social and legal oppression. When that failed, we killed them by the hundreds of thousands in the name of the Prince of Peace: the blood ran knee-deep through the streets, writes Armstrong. Knee-deep, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ summons about loving our enemies and showing mercy to offenders: If respect for the sacred rights of their predecessors is a test of integrity of any monotheistic conqueror of Jerusalem, the Crusaders must come at the bottom of anybody’s list. (page 275) The more subtly Armstrong inserted the tried and true dictum that tests the authenticity of all religious paths, the more it pierced my heart: its capacity for respect and peace, justice and compassion.  Sad to say that in Jerusalem, we have failed the test, countless times — miserably.

We did all that in order to safeguard the Holy City for our own devotional practices. Armstrong notes that this was a most peculiar development. The Christians of the first three centuries focused on worshiping God “in spirit and in truth,” (John 4:24) manifested primarily in their ethical and relational righteousness instead of through devotional practices in a particular geographical location. But ever since the “miraculous” discovery of the Tomb of Christ (around 325 CE), where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands, Christians began to develop their own sacred geography. Yet, by the late 1800’s, writes Armstrong, many Europeans had become repelled by the Holy Sepulchre Church, finding this musty building filled with angry, rebarbative monks and clerics impossible to associate with the limpid mysteries of their faith. (p. 365)

I read on in shock. This book too gripped my heart, albeit in a radically different way. Despair, shame, and embarrassment pushed the peaceful longing for an enjoyable and inspiring pilgrimage out the door. In Armstrong’s graphic historic account, something very insidious emerged with embarrassing clarity:

By the 1800’s, The city of peace was seething with frustration and resentment, and the old ideal of integration seemed a vanished dream. (p. 347) Almost every new development in Jerusalem seemed doomed to increase the sectarianism and (religious) rivalry that now seemed endemic. (p. 351)

When a religion makes exclusive truth claims (Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life), it can easily breed suspicion, contempt and hatred towards those with different beliefs and devotional practices. According to Armstrong’s historical accounts, Christians fought a “holy war” against Judaism because it had rejected Jesus. Antisemitism and pogroms had their genesis in these ancient competitions over Jerusalem with devastating effects to this day. This is a dark legacy  to own and confess, along with all the other times in history when we have blatantly destroyed peoples and cultures in the name of Jesus (e.g. residential school policies in Canada).

I was now feeling that the only posture to don upon my arrival in the Holy City would need to be one of atonement and repentance, humility and silence. I get it now. I get the ancient practice of donning sackcloth and ashes. I also get the disdain with which countless people turn away from organized religion; we haven’t exactly showcased our best selves, either in the past or even today, and done our founder Jesus, the Prince of Peace, proper homage. I feel the need to live the upcoming pilgrimage as an intense and extended Ash Wednesday.

As I pack my bags, preparing to board the flight to Tel Aviv, these unsettling thoughts and feelings mix with the genuine spiritual longing to grow more deeply my bond with God through Jesus, my Lord and Saviour. This is not the type of preparation I expected — blame it on the Holy Spirit? What will the result be? Stay tuned …

Lord, have mercy on us all. Help us to bring peace to all your holy people in the Holy City of Jerusalem … forgive us and heal us. AMEN

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