Alone No More

Fourteen of us women gathered for our monthly lunch, each of us active in (or retired from) professional church ministry, some ordained, some religious sisters and others in a lay-capacity; Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Community of Christ, Pentecostal/Evangelical, United, Lutheran. Some of our sharing centered around human pain and suffering far and near; the tsunami of refugees flooding Europe and now arriving steadily on Canadian soil, the couple with two young children killed in a tragic car accident in Saskatoon earlier this week, our First Nations missing and murdered sisters, beloved friends–family–co-workers facing sudden death and illness. How do we, ministers of the Gospel of Jesus, respond to such a perfect storm of human pain, a lot of it unsolicited, unnecessary and almost always undeserved?

Our conversation reminded me of the destruction brought on by tsunamis. In the two tsunamis the world has witnessed in this century (2004 & 2011)  contact with water ended life abruptly, within minutes, for multitudes of good, innocent people while leaving millions without the basic necessities of life. The elements of nature – water, fire, air – have a power beyond our understanding and beyond our control. Worse than this is happening in Syria at the moment, where calculated evil by human design is using food, water and medicine as weapons of war, systematically starving ordinary beautiful women, men and children.

Today, Sunday January 10 2016, the Church celebrates the baptism of Jesus. Does this event have any message for the millions of desperate people in every corner of our broken world? Jesus comes to John to be baptized in death-dealing waters. But why? Why does Jesus need to immerse himself in these waters if he is the Holy One, the one without sin, the Son of God?

John the Baptist knew of death and destruction, knew of sin and decay that is as real as the current moaning and groaning breaking the sound barrier all around the globe. Everywhere good people are perishing because of war and violence, illness and sudden death, natural disasters or starvation. Sin and decay are real, says John, and he called out for people to repent, and to “die to sin” in the waters of the Jordan, and be baptized.

For just as water can destroy, so water also gives life. Water is what the survivors of the tsunamis needed most and right away. And from all over the world water purification systems were flown in at amazing speed. Just as water kills, water also saves. Clean, safe drinking water means LIFE! Clean, safe drinking water and shelter, food and medicine is what refugees need right now. Clean and safe support and comfort is what loved ones need to dry tear-stained faces and mend broken hearts.

And just as we can kill others in so many subtle and blatant ways, we can rise to the radiance of compassion and mercy. Baptism holds in tension both the destructive and the life-giving qualities of the human spirit, of human existence. Baptism enacts ritually a dying to the destructive forces of life (within and without), so as to rise from the waters a new creation. Every time we baptize a new member of God’s family, every time we bless ourselves with holy water, we recall both these destructive and life-giving powers of life symbolized in water.

At the start of his public ministry, Jesus insists on being immersed in waters that can destroy and re-create, waters filthy with decay and capable of cleansing, waters that hold the key to salvation. The Jordan River was not exactly filled with clean, calm and warm water like the fonts in our churches. People and animals “lived” in the river; the forces of nature controlled the river, and both food and poison swirled between its banks.

It is this identification which reveals the central message of incarnation and redemption. Jesus entered into complete solidarity with all women and men everywhere and in every time. Jesus’ baptism reinforces the incarnation – God entering into radical solidarity with all humanity, indeed with all creation.

In the waters of the Jordan Jesus takes upon himself sin and destruction, grief and suffering, even though he himself was without sin, was the Holy One. The “one more powerful” assumes the position of weakness. It is precisely in this radical act of solidarity that Jesus is the Beloved of God. And it is from this baptism that he is sent, to love and forgive and heal — a way of life that lead right onto the cross where he experienced the pain of utter abandonment. The powerful message in Jesus’ witness is that, from then on, no one ever has to bear pain alone and abandoned, for Jesus has been there, done that, and he will hold us close.

In much the same way, we are sent forth from our baptism – to continue, to complete, to bring about that which Jesus inaugurated and revealed as God’s way, God’s truth and God’s life: God’s reign of peace and justice, mercy and love for all – no exception.

The great opera composer Giacomo Puccini, while composing Turandot, was told in 1922 that he had terminal cancer. Rather than quit his beloved project, however, he told his friends “I am going to work on my masterwork as hard as I can and as long as I can. If I don’t make it, the finishing will be up to you.”

Puccini died in 1924, and the opera premiered in Milan, Italy, under the direction of one of the composer’s best students, Arturo Toscanini. The performance continued up to the point at which Puccini’s work had abruptly ended. Toscanini paused, turned to the audience with tears in his eyes and said: ‘This is where the master left off ….’ Then Toscanini turned back to the orchestra, picked up the baton and shouted over his shoulder to the audience, ‘And this is where his friends begin.’ And the orchestra completed a remarkable performance.

And this is where our lunch conversation ended up: we all face our share of suffering in life. Worse than the suffering itself, however, is to feel abandoned and alone in bearing it. Like Puccini’s friends, we are called to carry on where Jesus left off. Allowing Jesus to mold our very identity and purpose, our task is to pull one another from destructive waters – of sin and death – into life-giving waters by our compassionate and merciful presence in one another’s pain –avoiding fear, resisting indifference, staying clear of pat answers or saccharine pity. Through simple and great acts of mercy and communion we bring, in time, God’s peace and justice to all people everywhere. Knowing that we are not alone to face the world’s demons, big and small, feeds hope and courage and resiliency. Whether in Europe, South East Asia, in the Middle East or right in our own cities and towns, we have Good News to share: to demonstrate with our own lives that contact with God’s waters of life does not destroy, but gives life.

While Jesus fulfilled God’s will, and showed us the pathway to everlasting life he did not leave a finished product. Rather, he showed us the way, the truth and the life or, as some of our churches are fond of saying, opened the gates of heaven. He left us an unfinished symphony, a symphony that needs our very lives in order to be completed. Baptism officially commissions us to help complete Jesus’ masterpiece in progress called the reign of God. It’s a matter of life and death for the many who are crying out in pain, who are burdened with suffering.

The Christmas season ends today, at the banks of the Jordan River. But the Messiah remains. The adult Jesus begins his precarious journey to Jerusalem. The good news as spoken by the angels is not to be forgotten, but needs to continue in our lives. On the cross, Jesus’ mission was completed. Now it’s up to us, who are part of the world’s two billion baptized people, an entity some have called a sleeping giant. We are commissioned to bring healing and mercy, to bring God’s divine touch of love each day and everywhere. Jesus has no other plan but us.

Getting up from our lunch table, each of us returned to our respective churches and ministries, strengthened and nourished in body and spirit by one another’s clean and safe love, courage and faithfulness, equipped anew to mend our broken world.

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Mincing no Words

Amazing how the Scriptures in these September Sundays speak bluntly into today’s massive refugee crisis, making all comfortable pews suddenly grow painful prickles — the prickles of God’s judgement on us for our inaction and complacency. Here below are a few thoughts on James 2:14–18 & Mark 8:27–35, the Scriptures for this coming Sunday September 13, 2015. I preached these words several years ago, and they are still as relevant today as they were then:

“Here we sit, week after week, singing, ‘Weave, weave, weave the sunshine out of the falling rain,’ or ‘Day by day, day by day, oh dear Lord, three things I pray.’ Each Sunday we walk out of here feeling soooo good, soooo holy, and you know what that adds up to? That adds up to nothing! Nothing, zero, nothing! There’s a poor lady rotting up on Seventh Avenue a couple blocks from our little comfort zone. ‘Oh, Jesus, sweet Jesus, meek and mild.’ Crap, total crap! We’re going to hug and kiss at the sign of peace, and who’s going to climb those stairs to hug and kiss that woman with shit running down her legs?!” (p. 83/84) In Due Season – A Catholic Life, by Paul Wilkes, Jossey-Bass, 2009)

Mark’s Gospel and James’ letter are known for their brevity and bluntness, much like this excerpt from a homily Paul Wilkes heard during a folk mass in the 1970’s in downtown Brooklyn, NY. In fact, those blunt sermon words capture well what we need to take home from the Scripture readings this day.

Faith without works is dead, says James. “Who do people say that I am?” asks Jesus his disciples in Mark’s Gospel. “Who do you say that I am? You … Who exactly am I to you?”” asks Jesus, looking right into each and every heart that professes him as Lord.

Peter, this impulsive, hot-headed first pope, is quick to answer: “You are the Christ.” Well done, Peter. But then, in the blink of an eye, that rock called Peter turned into a stumbling block in the service of Satan. How can the rock of Christ change into a major obstacle at such lightning speed?

Peter is impulsive; the Gospels all agree on that. He’s on fire for God quickly and will do anything for his Lord. With great sincerity and enthusiasm Peter declared that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. But when Jesus alludes to the least bit of pain on the road ahead, Peter backs away, as if stung. He wants nothing to hurt his Lord, or himself. When Jesus talks of God’s reign, Peter hears earthly victory, political and painless triumph. A Messiah who speaks of suffering and being killed doesn’t compute in Peter’s mind. After Jesus is arrested, and it becomes risky to be associated with this carpenter, Peter covers his tracks and suits himself. He denies that he even knows this man, the very one whom he proclaimed as Messiah.

Two-faced? Yep, just like the rest of us.

Exactly who is this man Jesus anyways? The disciples wondered, the ordinary folk wondered, and the authorities wondered, with some feeling quite on edge: just who in the world is this?? We love Jesus when our prayers are answered. We love Jesus, meek and mild, as we experience his comfort and mercy in times of need. We love Jesus, sweet Jesus, because he gave his life for us – so we don’t have to lose ours. When Peter heard Jesus’ harsh words in Mark’s Gospel today – undergoing great suffering and be rejected – he simply couldn’t grasp that. Jesus the Christ, yes, but no pain. So Peter rebuked Jesus.

But this two-faced first pope gets rebuked in turn by none other than his Lord. Because what Peter suggests – life without pain, salvation without suffering – is in fact for Jesus a real temptation to avoid human pain and suffering, to avoid the humiliation of the cross.

And Jesus rejects it forcefully. And Mark says that Jesus calls the crowd with his disciples, because what he is telling them next is not just for saints and priests and preachers, but for everyone. Choosing to shoulder the cross and deny one’s self, says Jesus, is the vocation of anyone claiming to believe in and follow him. For how can you have faith without works, without its concrete expression? A couple of examples may help:

Emilie had every reason to be angry with the world, to lock herself up in misery, and to bury herself in material comforts. Her mother had died when Emilie was still a child, and she was raised by an aunt. Emilie eventually married and had three sons. Finally, she got to enjoy the family she felt she never had. But over the course of a few years, Emilie lost husband and all three sons to disease.

One by one, the most treasured people in her life were taken from her by untimely, tragic deaths. Her sorrow was immense. Had Emilie lashed out in bitter rebellion, had she curled up in a ball in a dark closet, never to come out, or had she committed suicide, we would have all understood. It would have been very easy for Emilie to be outraged at the injustice of it all, and to turn away from a God who had seemingly abandoned her.

Yet, Emilie’s heart did not shut down and close up with pain. Those who lose their life will find it. As if stoked by the fire of her own intense suffering – like a burning bush in her soul – Emilie’s well of compassion and love just grew and grew. It was the early 1800’s in Montreal: the needs of the people were huge.

Emilie befriended a mentally ill woman, and had her move into her affluent home. Then she cared for those left orphaned by the cholera epidemic in 1832. She cared for elderly people whose families ignored them. She tended to those imprisoned during the Montreal riots of 1837. Emilie’s dedication and compassion never seemed to dry up. Over time, more women joined her, eventually leading Emilie to found the Sisters of Providence.

More recently, Carol Kent‘s life changed forever when her twenty-five year old and only son –   model child, honours graduate, lieutenant in the navy, with an impeccable military record – shot  and killed his wife’s ex-husband. This devastating set of events taught Carol about God’s transforming power. With her only child now serving a life-sentence in jail, Carol embarked on a ministry of healing with families of inmates. She now shares her story in her book entitled When I Lay My Isaac Down and has become an international speaker.

Even though they lived nearly two centuries apart, these two women’s common thread is their steadfast willingness to embrace the suffering of the cross with love and grace. In thus losing their lives, these women found life in greater abundance. Neither of them bought into the illusion that God’s reign is about physical comforts, political victory, easy prizes, prosperity and privilege. Rather, both took up the cross of the One who saved us by his death – Jesus Christ.

Pope Francis says much the same thing. In a homily on the rich man and Lazarus he pointed out that just going to church does not make you a good person if you remain blind to the plight of sisters and brothers in need. Walking out of church just feeling real good and holy is not the point, as the priest in Paul Wilkes’ book ranted in his homily.

With the swelling refugee crisis at everyone’s doorstep, we have another chance to show that our faith in Jesus does lead to action. As a recent article in The Guardian said, we claim to follow one who himself was a child refugee.

Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith – echoed in Emilie’s and Carol’s witness, echoed in the countless men and women opening their homes and hearts to today’s destitute peoples. Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. So … who do you say that I am?

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