“Getting our Attention”
May 5, 2019 – Easter 3 – Year C
Are you able to hear Jesus asking each of us, “Do you love me?”
Rabbi Moshe-Leib tells the following story. “What is love? I feel I ought to tell the truth and confess that I learned its meaning from 2 drunkards. Yes, drunkards. I saw them sitting in an inn, drinking – silently. But from time to time they would stop for a brief exchange. ‘Are you my friend, Alexei? Asked the younger one. “Do you love me?” “Yes, Ivan, I do. I am your friend.” They emptied another glass and dreamed their separate dreams in silence. Again, the younger peasant turned to his companion: “Alexei, Alexei, are you really my friend? Do you truly love me?” “Yes, I am your friend,” said the older peasant. They emptied another glass and another moment went by in silence. Again, the younger peasant spoke up: “Tell me, Alexei, tell me the truth; are we friends? Do you love me as a friend?” Finally, Alexei got angry. “How many times must I tell you, Ivan, that I do!? Don’t you believe me? Are you drunk? You are my friend and I am yours; and my heart is full of brotherly love for you. Must I go on repeating it all night?” At that point, Ivan looked at Alexi and shook his head sadly. “Alexei, Alexei,” he said, “If you are my friend, if you do love me, then how come you don’t know what is hurting me?”
I don’t know about you folk, but I can’t imagine the depth of the disciples’ loss. These friends of Jesus shared their lives with him and experienced so much together. And now it was over, from the ordinary daily routines to the extraordinary miracles and lessons. They didn’t just want to see the risen Christ, the desperately needed to see him.
I must admit to a strange, subtle envy of the disciples. At times, I feel as desperate as they must have been to have Jesus that near, and real. How I would love to see him just once, and reach out to touch his face, not so much to squelch doubt but in some fumbling, inadequate way to simply thank him.
But I wasn’t the one who lived his earthly life with him. I never laid down beside him after a long day, looked up at the starry night and said, “Good Night rabbi” before drifting off to sleep. Still, every now and then, in my prayers I ask Jesus to come and reveal the truth of his presence in our absurd human condition. By God’s grace and by the Spirit’s whisper, Jesus responds, “I did that. Now it is your turn.”
Are you able to hear Jesus asking each of us, “Do you love me?”
Oh, so comfortably we respond with a “yes.” And yet, we live in a world starved for love. We see around us folk hanging out in our church’s stairwells, stoned and lonely. We see the long lineup at the Soupateria every noon hour. Do we donate food or money? We experience the long list of people requesting prayer. Do we keep them in our daily prayers? But, with all this said, we hear Jesus asking, “Do you love me?”
When God extends a hand and says, “Will you dance with me? We have the opportunity to transform our world by saying “Yes”. It is a dance of liberation for our tired spirits. It is a dance of comfort for our grieving spirits. It is a dance of jubilation for our buoyed spirits.
All we have to do is look to the story of Saul’s conversion and we find ourselves also transformed. Saul probably thought he had a pretty good job. Bounty hunting has certain advantages, after all. Being the hunter is a good way to ensure that you won’t be mistaken for the hunted. So, Saul sets out on the Damascus road to hunt down some followers of the Way – and in the twinkling of an eye his life is turned upside down.
He is an interesting person, is he not? One day a bounty hunter and the next an evangelist. One day he is a person determined to destroy the lives of followers of Christ Jesus. The next he is a zealous proclaimer of the Good News of the risen Christ. Sure, Saul – now named Paul – had his struggles. He was a stubborn, impatient, ill, follower of Christ. He had his baggage. But that is part of the reason we so love him. He was so very human. He responded faithfully to Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?”
It was out of that deep love that Paul responded with a determination that we can’t help but admire. He is that same person who penned, “love is patient and kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
So, are we open enough to receive the gracious love poured out in the very life of Christ? Are we vulnerable enough to break open our hearts to the transformative way of love? Will we follow Paul along the path of vulnerability? You see, serving Jesus means we may have to go to places we would rather not go to. Sometimes it is to the bedside at the hospital. Occasionally it is to coffee shop to listen to a troubled soul. Frequently it is right here in our day by day lives that we are called to venture faithfully.
Perhaps a story best illustrates what I am trying to say. “An old pencil maker took his newest pencil aside, just before he was about to pack it into a box, Imagining the little fellow as a person he recalled a few things about the pencil.
“There are 5 things you need to know,” he said to his pencil, before I send you out into the world. “Always remember these 5 things – never forget them – and you will become the best pencil you can be!
The 1st thing is to remember that you will be able to do many great things, but only if you put yourself in someone else’s hands.
From time to time you will experience a painful sharpening, but, remember that this will make you a better pencil.
Also, keep in mind that you will be able to correct any mistakes you might make along the way.
And the most important part of you is what’s on the inside.
And remember this, as well, upon every surface that you are used, you must leave your mark. No matter what else happens, you must continue to write.”
It seemed the pencil listened to him and promised he would remember these 5 things so that he could live his life with heart and purpose.”
So, we come back to Jesus’ question: Are you able to hear Jesus asking each of us, “Do you love me?” Amen.
“The Funeral that Wouldn’t Be”
April 21, 2019 – Easter Sunday – Year C
On Good Friday many of us stood at the foot of the cross and tearfully watched Jesus be crucified. It was a time of pain and sorrow. We felt helpless. There, on a plain wooden cross hung our Redeemer. And there was nothing we could do. The day was dark. So were our spirits.
Here we are. It is Sunday. Join with me and let’s walk to the tomb where Jesus was laid.
We need to walk carefully for the ground is rocky. We follow Mary Magdalene. She is carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ body. She reaches the tomb first. She is taken aback. The air is sucked out of her. She is ready to faint. The tomb stone has been removed from the cave. Not even stopping to get her breath, Mary runs to Simon Peter and the other disciple – the one whom Jesus loved. They too run to the tomb. All the stuff associated with death is there – but no Jesus.
You would think that at such a scene these followers of Jesus would understand what is going on. Surely, they have an idea of what has happened to their friend and leader. But, instead, they reach into the darkness and believe.
Mary stands outside the tomb and weeps. Me too. In all her grief and hurt she is mystified and uncertain what is happening around her. It seems too much to take in. What is she to say to all the questions that we ask? With blurry eyes clouded with tears Mary doesn’t recognize the man with whom he is speaking. Even with all the tenderness shown to her, she fails to recognize the Great Teacher.
A few minutes pass. Jesus whispers to her. “Woman, why are you weeping?” She thinks that it is the gardener who is speaking to her. More time passes. “Mary,” the voice whispers. Mary recognizes the Beloved. Do we?
The light of dawn caresses our face. Along with Mary, we too have seen the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Christ is Risen. He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!
All of us have experienced the death of someone close to us. We know the pain and sadness that goes along with death. We so wish that we too could hear our name spoken, one more time. Oh, how we wish that our loved one could utter our name. Our hearts would turn cartwheels! I am sure that Mary’s heart did. “Mary” the risen Christ utters. “Laura” the risen Christ whispers.
Maggie was in the darkened hallway of the hospital, bending over in pain. She waited there for the 5 minutes each hour she was allowed to go in to be with her husband.
They had never been apart. In the 55 years they had been married, they had never spent a night apart. Through all the years on the farm, the births and raising of their children, through illnesses they had both suffered, they had never been apart.
Now he was dying. The nurse tells her that Harold could not last the night. “Why don’t you go home,” I suggested. “I’ll sit here for a while.”
“I can’t go,” she said.
The nurse told us that we could have our 5 minutes. “Don’t forget the gowns and masks,” she commanded. “We don’t want the infection to spread.”
Harold didn’t seem to recognize the 2 green-shrouded figures that came to his bed. At least, not until Maggie took his hand, moved her mask and touched her lips to his cheek. I said a prayer out loud, but all the time she was whispering to him. She kept her head right alongside his on the pillow. She talked to him like she belonged there.
Later, in the hallway, she was weeping. “What did you say to Harold?” I asked – more to cover the silence than to get information.
“I told him that I loved him and that I would stay with him.
“You know he’s very ill. He may not be with us in the morning.”
She stared at the floor for a long time. “I know,” she said. “He knows he’s dying too. He’s afraid a little. I can tell by the way he holds my hand. But it’s all right. I know he’s all right now. I told him that it will be Easter in the morning.”
I didn’t know what to say. It was November. Had she forgotten?
“Um. It’s not really Easter,” I offered. “I know, Reverend,” she said patiently. “But it is for us. We’ve practiced celebrating Eater together for all of our years. Now for Harold and me, tomorrow is our Easter.”
On Easter morning the church door opens and Sharon walks in. She’s 20 years old and hasn’t seen her family for a year. They are standing in the front row. The usher knows this is a big moment. He grabs her and holds her and pulls her all the way to the front row. Her father sees her, peering around the edge of the pew. It is such an incredible moment. The whole family, all 5 of them, just collapse on each other.
Danielle is 12 and her mother died this year. It was the first time she had been back in church. We sang “Amazing Grace”. When I saw her, I thought, this is going to be hard for her. During the service, people kept reaching out to touch her.
I’m in complete awe of the courage these people come with.
Such are the Easter experiences in your life and in mine. Together we witness the Risen Christ. It is a holy mystery, to be sure. But, with faith we are assured that Christ’s Spirit dwells within us. May we too be open to the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Amen.
“I Will Adore Christ’s Sacred Name”
Good Friday – April 19, 2019 – Year C
Will you adore Christ’s sacred name?
George Macleod writes, “I simply argue that the cross should be raised at the centre of the market-place as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between 2 candles, but on a cross between 2 thieves – on the town’s garbage heap – at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek. At the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where Jesus died. And that is what he died for. And that is what the cross is about. And that is where church people ought to be and what church people ought to be about.”
Will you adore Christ’s sacred name?
Father Thomas Keating writes, “The cross of Jesus represents the ultimate death of God experience. The crucifixion is much more than the physical death of Jesus and the emotional and mental anguish that accompanied it. It was the death of his relationship with God.”
Will you adore Christ’s sacred name?
We stand at the foot of the cross and quietly weep with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Rudyard Kipling writes:
“If I were hanged on the highest hill,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
I know whose love would follow me still,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
If I were drowned in the deepest sea,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
I know whose tears would come down to me,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
If I were damned of body and soul,
I know whose prayers would make me whole.
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
Will you adore Christ’s sacred name?
Studdert Kennedy writes:
“And, sitting down, they watched him there,
The soldiers did:
There, while they played at dice,
He made his sacrifice,
And died upon his Cross to rid
God’s world of sin.
He was a gambler too, my Christ.
He took his life and threw
It for a world redeemed.
And ere the agony was done,
Before the westering sun went down,
Crowning that day with its crimson crown,
He knew that he had won.
Will you adore Christ’s sacred name?
We live in a world that is all to comfortable with senseless death. Whether it be a shooting in Vancouver, a suicide in Summerland, a fentanyl death here in Penticton – we seem immune to the horror. Jesus’ death seems, on the surface, to be senseless. However, because we are Easter people, we know that God had great designs in revealing a resurrected Christ. We are adored in Christ’s sacred name. Thanks be to God! Amen.
“Hail! O King!”
April 14, 2019 – Palm Sunday – Year C
The quintessential Palm Sunday word, as far as I am concerned, is Hosanna, and a palm branch is an absolutely necessary symbol. Yet, alone among the 4 evangelists, Luke says nothing about Hosannas or branches, palm or otherwise, on this fateful day when Jesus, mounted upon a colt, sets his sights for Jerusalem.
Their absence shocks us. But even more shocking is the absence in Luke of another all-too familiar part of this story – the crowds who wave the branches and shout the Hosannas. For Luke has different points to make as he remembers the events of that day, a point about the relationship between a man and his followers, a point about their faith in him as he steadfastly moves toward his destiny. To hear these points, we need to set aside our preconceptions about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that have been shaped by the other versions of the story.
When Jesus came near to Bethphage and Bethany, to the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent 2 disciples to obtain a colt. He tells them exactly where it is to be found and what its owners will say when the disciples untie it. So far, the story is moving exactly as expected, following the familiar contours of Matthew and Mark.
Yet after reporting the return of the disciples with the colt, Luke’s account begins to take a different direction. Though the other 3 evangelists tell us that Jesus sat himself upon the colt, Luke tells it rather differently. It is the disciples who set Jesus upon the colt after covering it with their garments. And it is the disciples who spread their clothes upon the road for this lowly beast to walk upon. And then it is the disciples, a multitude to be sure, but a multitude specifically comprised of disciples, who announce the coming of this blessed one and shout about the peace that has now come. Throughout this whole scene it is the disciples alone who make things happen. And there is neither palm branch to be seen nor hosanna to be heard. Hence, in this year’s worship service there is no palm parade.
In his book “The Hungering Dark”, Frederick Buechner tells of a visit he made to Rome as a young man. He went to St. Peter’s to see the Pope celebrate the Mass. The church was packed and when the Pope arrived, he was carried in on the shoulders of the Swiss Guard and placed on a golden throne. Buechner writes, “What I remember most clearly …is the Pope himself, Pius XII as he was then. In all the Renaissance of splendour with the Swiss Guard in their scarlet and gold, the Pope himself was vested in plainest white, with only a white skull-cap on his head…..As he passed by me ……he peered into my face and into all the faces around me and behind me with a look so keen and so charged that I could not escape the feeling that he must be looking for someone in particular. He was not a potentate nodding and smiling to acknowledge the multitudes. He was a man whose face seemed gray with waiting, whose eyes seemed huge and exhausted with searching, for someone, for some one who he thought might be there that night or any night, anywhere, but whom he had never found.”
Buechner goes on to say that the one the old Pope was looking for was visible in the faces of all gathered there that night, because they all were looking for the same One he was looking for.
In the first century, kings and conquering generals entered Jerusalem with crowds, hymns and acclamations to show their authority over the city. Although Luke’s telling is more subdued than other gospels, elements of this are in the passage that _____ read. The cries of the crowd of disciples surround Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. Their cloaks (not palm branches) pave his way. Their acclamation, “Blessed is the King, who comes in the name of the Lord,” is drawn from one of the Hallel psalms sung during the Passover meal and still used today. Thus, Jesus enters Jerusalem acclaimed by his followers as a king whose reign will bring peace on earth and glory to God. Yet even at the gate, the Pharisees voice their opposition – a signal of what is to come.
We too join the crowds to take a glimpse of the One who comes in the name of God. It is a spiritual pilgrimage we are on. We yearn to be part of the celebration and enactment of Lord’s Supper. And in a few minutes, we will remember Jesus being seated with his closest companions, the specially chosen disciples. We will participate in the greatest pilgrimage of our lives.
Perhaps you have made a pilgrimage to your ancestral homeland. Some of us have made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, so that we too might walk the roads that Jesus walked. There are folk who make the famous Spanish pilgrimage – the Camino de Santiago. For 780 km. one walks through portions of France, Portugal and Spain. I know that many of you go back to the prairies for homecomings and other significant times. That too can be a pilgrimage.
Jesus, his family and the disciples made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem so that they could celebrate the Passover. The hoards of crowds were unbelievable. Just imagine the jostling and pushing that must have happened as folk strained their necks to see who was entering the gates. Coming from 3 directions the throng merged in the bustling city. Where was this “king who comes in the name of the Lord?” Expecting to see Jesus riding on a mighty steed we can imagine the shock of seeing Jesus on the back of a donkey!
All this excitement and passion is too much for the religious leaders of the day. Perhaps fearing repercussions from the Roman rulers, they tell Jesus to silence his followers. Jesus tells them that even if the disciples were silent, the stones beneath their feet would shout out. This reference to stones recalls a passage in the Book of Habakkuk in which stones cry out and judge those who oppress the poor. The implication is that Jesus’ way is the way of justice, and that it will be given voice no matter who tries to silence it.
Many of you will come to the Good Friday worship service knowing that the Holy Week story begins with Jesus and the disciples entering Jerusalem. You will come on worship on Friday, aware that story of Jesus continues with the re-telling of the passion narrative. You know that to come and celebrate next Sunday, without going through the agony of Good Friday is minimizing the power and glory of Easter. But here we are today, catching glimpses of what is ahead for Jesus. So, we will make our own journey into Jerusalem and gather at Jesus’ table. We will make our pilgrimage to the communion table and we will feast. For today is a day for faithfully remembering Jesus.
As it turns out Luke got it right after all and we need not be so surprised about the way he tells the story. Palm Sunday has no need of palm branches or Hosannas. It only calls for faith – the faith of a handful of followers who believe that Jesus can change the world. It calls for the faith of all of us who have learned just how much he has changed the world. So, as we walk through Holy Week and through the seasons of achievement and heartache in our own lives, may we hold fast to the faith the disciples first enacted. May we give the highest place to our Redeemer, may we offer everything we have in Christ’s service. May we shout the greeting again and again – “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” May it be so. Amen.
“At Jesus’ Feet”
April 7, 2019 – Lent 5 – Year C
As you listen to this message, I invite you to breath deeply and imagine the sanctuary filled with the smell of expensive perfume. With each breath you take, smell the perfume and feel Mary’s hair draped over your feet. Feel the touch of Mary’s hands on your feet, massaging in the costly oil. This is the scene in which Jesus, along with Mary, Lazarus, and Judas and presumably the remaining disciples find themselves. Join this tableau for the next 10 or so minutes.
Think of some of the homes that you walk into and are moved by the wonderful scents. Perhaps it is the smell of freshly baked bread. Or the lingering perfume from a bubble bath. The Gospel writer of John tells us that the smell of perfume filled the house. The unselfish gift Mary offered affected all who were there. Those who witnessed the exchange as well as Mary and Jesus, were deeply touched. And isn’t Jesus presence like that fragrance or aroma that fills the air. You know that Jesus had been there because his presence lingers on.
From the song in the play “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Mary sings, “I don’t know how to love him,” but she expressed her loving through the perfume. Love expressed in a gift – love revealed through the wonderful scent that pervaded the room. The sweet smell of the perfume which filled the whole house, was a sensual experience.
When Mary gave the extravagant gift of the perfumed oil to Jesus, she hadn’t necessarily thought it all through. If she had, she probably would have been more reserved, followed Judas’ advice and given the money to the poor. It is easy to be analytical and careful like Judas. Mary’s gift was impulsive – the kind of thing that would seldom get through the board of a charitable organization, or an institution, or a corporate board, or, for that matter a local church budget committee. But love is not love if it is carefully calculated.
I wonder if I have ever been that extravagant in my gift sharing. Have I ever been that extravagant when I discern my PAR contribution to the church? Have I ever been that extravagant in pouring out my love? What extravagances does this scene bring to mind for you?
The Good News Bible states, “She has done a fine and beautiful thing for me.” Jesus’ disciples probably expected him to praise them, when they protested that the ointment would have been better sold and the money given to the poor. He didn’t. Many people give generously to support used clothing stores and soup kitchens. But they wouldn’t dream of getting to know a transient personally. Many give generously to causes such as “Grandmothers for Africa”, “The David Suzuki Foundation” or any number of tremendous organizations. But we fail to engage with the grassroots of the group. We don’t attend information sessions believing we have done our part, or we know the story well. It is too easy to make compassion a principle – Jesus always made it a person.
Patrick Willson, a Presbyterian minister describes one of the most memorable grocery shopping excursions. He says, “I waited in a long check out line. Directly in front of me was an elderly gentleman refinely dressed. While we waited, we struck up a conversation. I was fascinated by the assortment of vegetables in his basket. Yes, he explained, since the death of his wife 15 years before, he had become quite a cook, though it was dreary cooking for one, most of the time.
In the line ahead of him was a young woman with a son clinging to her jeans and a infant daughter asleep in the cart. The checker rang up her shopping and pointed to the bouquet of flowers she held. The checker rang a total. The young woman looked at the total, then examined her wallet. She shook her head and handed the flowers across to the checker who laid them behind on a counter to be replaced in the market. Children in tow, the mother wheeled toward the exit.
The older gentleman moved with a swiftness that certainty betrayed his age. He motioned to the checker for the flowers, indicated that they went on his bill, and quickly caught up with the young mother. With a gesture that would have shamed Lancelot, he laid the bouquet of blossoms in her arms, bowed elegantly and returned to line with a big smile. “I hope she doesn’t think I’m a dirty old man,” he giggled, “but I so seldom have an opportunity to give anything to anyone.”
As we delve into the Gospel text, we are reminded that giving and receiving are deeply connected. Love is never one-sided, and compassion requires us to show our love in the way we act. Mary anointing Jesus feet may have been done for a lot of different reasons, but it is an act of love. Perhaps it was thanks for raising Lazarus on his last visit, perhaps she somehow knew what was coming, but she was not afraid to act because of what other’s might think. We too are called to care for one another, unconditionally, – to care for the vulnerable in our midst with compassion and love. We too need to find ways to celebrate God’s love in our lives.
Here we are, drawing close to Easter – that season of butterflies, lilies, and joy. But to get there we first have to encounter Jesus on the way to Golgatha. Jesus has just had the encounter of raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. Mary was a witness to that event. Now, she is pouring expensive oil over the feet of her friend, leader and guide. By anointing Jesus, Mary actively signals that she recognizes Jesus’ special role and relationship to God. What a moment that must have been! Just like in ancient times, Mary realized that anointing was to make a person sacred. Kings such as Solomon were anointed when they ascended the throne, indicating God’s approval. So, here we have Mary anointing Jesus just before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
By pouring oil on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair, Mary was foreshadowing the Last Supper, in which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus uses this foot washing to symbolize true discipleship, in which all were called to serve one another as equals. Jesus’ friend Mary recognizes and lives out this servant model of discipleship. She pours out expensive perfume on the feet of the one who makes himself servant of all, including the poor and outcasts. Since ointments and spices and oils were usually poured on the bodies of the dead, Mary’s action hints at the crucifixion – when Jesus’ own life would be poured out on the cross.
According to theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Mary is portrayed as a true disciple in contrast to Judas, the unfaithful disciple. We heard how Judas is presented as a hypocrite who claims to be concerned with the poor, but, is more concerned with lining hi own pockets with money. Jesus responds pointing out what true discipleship is all about. Although “The poor you will always have with you,” has traditionally been seen as a justification for callous behaviour, it is actually a quote from Deuteronomy 15:11, which reads: “There will always be some Israelites who are poor and in need, and so I command you to be generous to them.” Jesus is not saying “don’t worry about the poor, there is always a lot of them around.” Instead he is saying “There are so many in need, so pour out your blessings upon them.”
As our Lenten journey moves us toward the final walk of Jesus into Jerusalem, we remember the incredible gift that Mary of Bethany poured on Jesus. It was an extravagant expression of love. It was costly, not simply in terms of financially but also because to love someone that much involves risk. But Mary’s gift reminds us that love graciously given – and love graciously received is to be our anointing.
May we once again take a moment to smell the perfumed oil. May we feel the tears that accompany the anointing. Feel Mary’s hair touching your legs and feet. Feel Mary’s hands caressing your feet. Be wrapped in this most sensuous experience. Extravagant love is poured out for you. Amen.
“It’s Not Fair – Or is It?”
March 31, 2019 – Lent 4 – Year C
Gloria Gonzalez tells about the best party she ever went to. “You grow up fast in Spanish Harlem, especially if your parents are the superintendents of the building. You see a lot…
There are also the good times, the open-house parties every Friday night after cashing the paycheck. One long awaited celebration was the night that Jose was due home after 3 years as a United States Marine.
Every family had contributed a home cooked dish and a dollar for the beer and soda. Neighbours began decorating the apartment with crepe paper and balloons the night before, and someone was dispatched to the local funeral parlour to borrow folding chairs.
The day of the party, relatives arrived from the Bronx and from as far away as San Juan. Papo, Jose’s cousin, and I were posted on the stoop as lookouts.
A taxi arrived and deposited its passenger. Papo and I paid scant attention to the tall brunette in the off-the-shoulder blouse and billowing skirt.
It wasn’t till she screamed out names and swept us off the ground in a crushing hug that we realized the perfumed woman was Jose! …
With the music of Tito Puente in the background, Jose threw open the door and announced, “I am home.”
The needle was pulled on Tito Puene.
“Me, Jose, the person has not changed. Only the outside. You are my family and I love every one of you. If you want me to go I will go and not be angry. But if you find it in your heart to love Josefina, I would love to stay.”
No one spoke. Everyone stared. Those who didn’t speak English waited for the whispered translation. Even the outside city noises seemed to halt abruptly. I stood in the open doorway, still holding the suitcase, not daring to enter.
After what seemed hours – but could only have been moments – his mother stumbled forward and said to her, “
“Are your hungry?”
I was 11. It was the best party I ever went to.
In the 1980’s a book was published entitled “The Greatest Storyteller Ever”, referring to Jesus. Much of Jesus ministry took the form of stories. Today’s tale is probably the best known one. In fact it is so well know that many people forget it is a story and believe it was a true incident. And in many respects, it is a re-telling of accounts that have happened in your lives and in mine. For instance: There is an account of a lunch that Nelson Mandela had with Percy Yutar who had been the chief prosecutor in the mid 1960’s trial that had sentenced Mandela to prison. That the President would entertain such a luncheon guest was in itself remarkable. But during their time together the former prosecutor apologized for having been part of a legal process he now regarded as having been unjust. Mandela’s response was to tell him to leave all that in the past, to let it go. His guest said that he was amazed by this act of generosity and it showed Mandela as a man of deep humility and faith.
Or there is this account: “He tells me he is leaving on Monday. Today is Wednesday. Not enough time to prepare my heart, to even let this sink in. The reality that my son, who is barely 16, is leaving home for parts unknown. We no, not totally unknown. I know the kid is heading off with a street-corner drug dealer. I know the town they say they are going to is a place where youth go – a place where there are flop-houses, drug parties, and lost children. I picture him there, getting high, crashing on someone’s couch, scrounging for bread in the morning.
We hold a family dinner, a farewell of sorts. We gather in the kitchen – his sister, his father, me and a family friend. His 7 year old sister makes a farewell card. There is a picture of her, knelling with her head in her hands, black pencil tears streaming from her eyes. I feel a rush of anger,. We baste the turkey, make mashed potatoes – his favorite – and set out the best china. He shows up stoned. We try to concentrate on saying what needs to be said in this present moment. There may not be another time, so what is to be said must be said now. We love you. We will miss you. The door will always be open. We will be waiting for you to come home. We will be praying, always praying.
I try to imagine what the next few months will be like. I cannot say goodbye forever, since I know my heart will not let me do that . Whatever I tell myself about getting on with life, I know I will be waiting. Holding my breath every time the phone rings. Listening for his steps upon the porch.” As told by a United Church mother.
The story of the prodigal has been described as the perfect story. Some scholars call it the parable of the waiting father. Perhaps as you heard it again you realized that you could identify with all 3 characters. Within each of us are the younger son. We are the rebel, sometimes lost and sometimes careless, and yes, also humble. We also are the older son. We are hard working, self righteous, and easily hurt. And we are the parent. We try to do the best by all our children. We are equally welcoming of all whom we love. Our hearts are full of joy.
The great party thrown to celebrate the younger son’s return would have included the entire village in a feast of reconciliation. Not everyone was willing to be reconciled, though the parable speaks to the heart of human relationships. The reconciliation described in the story is fragile – newly rebuilt relationships are fragile. Does the younger son really accept, long term, the reconciliation the father offers? Or is it rather fickle? Does the heart of the older son melt the rigidity of hurt and anger in the long-term? Does he too reconcile with the gathered community? What does your re-telling of the parable sound like?
One of my favourite movies is “Fiddler on the Roof”. In it Tevya says to his wife, Golda, “Do you love me?” She is too busy for such frivolities. All the housework to do and he’s getting mushy. “Go lie down” she says. “You’ll feel better after awhile.”
But he persists. “The fist time I met you was on our wedding day”. Tevya tells Golda how frightened he was, but his own mother and father had said to him that over the years they would grow to love each other. “So now I ask you. Do you love me?”
Golda begins to think out loud. “For 25 years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. If that isn’t love, what is?
Tevya brightens. “Then you love me?”
“I suppose I do” she acknowledges.
Together they sing “It doesn’t change a thing. But after 25 years, it’s nice to know.
Fiddler on the Roof is about Tevya and Golda, who are the older brothers in the prodigal parable, and about their daughters who are all “younger sons” in one way or another. All of them move outside the norms and conventions, and during a period of history when everything was in flux, keep pushing at the edges of the tradition Tevya and Golda value so deeply, a tradition that “Tells us who we are and what God expects us to do.”
But Tevya and Golda are also God in the parable. Because in the end, against their own instincts, against the conventions of the community and the power of the tradition, they finally act on their love.
Let us keep telling our stories of love that knows no limits. Amen.
“Second and Third Chances”
March 24, 2019 – Lent 3 – Year C
Have you ever noticed basketball enthusiasts who practice their ball handling skills by bouncing the ball? But it isn’t just any ordinary kind of dribbling. They’d walk a ways, bouncing, and then they’d quickly pivot. Then they’d run in the other direction, bouncing the ball, pivot, and pose as if shooting a basket. I assume the person is practicing “turns”. But – it holds an image of repentance. Practicing our turns. Getting better and better in our orientation to God and God’s people.
The Gospel lection begins with a theological ethical puzzle for Jesus to solve. Did the Galileans who suffered a particularly bloody fate under Pilate, deserve what happened to them? Jesus answers that these Galileans were no worse than other people, and then Jesus shifts the focus back to his audience’s own lives. Those who think that suffering is the direct result of some sinful act on the part of the sufferer miss the point. Unless you repent, you too will perish. Jesus reiterates his point with the example of the tower of Siloam that fell and killed 18 men.
It has been speculated that the 18 were working on Pilates aqueduct when part of it fell on them. Pilate took money from the temple treasury to build his aqueduct, much to the horror of the Jews. And so, if some masonry had fallen on Jews who were paid to build the aqueduct, the countryside would conclude that it was the judgement of God on those who compromised themselves with the enemy.
Jesus disputes the theological assumption that these men died because they were more sinful than other people living in Jerusalem. Jesus then repeats the central message of his ministry. Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
Repentance! Repentance is an act – a seeking, a forsaking, a returning – a responding to God who is near and “may be found.” This God is merciful and forgiving. In fact, this God is abundantly pardoning, beyond anything that human beings can imagine or enact.
To repent is to become productive, just like the fig tree! True gardeners know the saying “first year sleep, 2nd year creep, 3rd year leap.” Perhaps it was this saying coming to reality in the case of the fig tree in Jesus illustration.
In the story of the fig tree, God is portrayed as a gardener who is patient way beyond the patience of the landowner. God looks beyond the present moment to the potential within the fig tree. God will actively nurture and fertilize the tree so that it will yet bear fruit. We celebrate God’s patience and trust in our potential and seek spiritual nurture during this season, that we may also bear good fruit.
Almost all movements that struggle against unrighteousness end up adopting the position that “we are the angels and they are the devils.” However, blessed is the movement that is willing to listen to a courageous voice quietly insisting, “there are devils among us and angels among us.”
Judgment and mercy are held together. Both can be seen as parts of a simultaneous act. We stand before God’s judgment and admit the reality of our waywardness – that is, our distrust, our false pride, our worship of false God’s. At the same time, we cling to God’s forgiving message of radical love.
At the heart of Christianity is the reality of human suffering. Jesus is at his most human, at one with us most fully, when he experiences suffering. In the Easter story God suffers with us and promises that suffering is not the final word. This is the cost of love.
When tragedy strikes, people still ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” Perhaps Jesus’ audience posed the wrong question. They asked “Why did this horrible thing happen?” A better question might be, “When I encounter suffering, how shall I interpret it? How shall I handle it?
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a fabulous book in the 1980’s entitled, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” In it he explores his Jewish roots in trying to understand his son’s death. He concludes that God is not the cause of pain, trouble, or evil. Instead, Kushner understands that sometimes awful stuff happens that is out of God’s power and control. Hurricanes happen and sometimes deaths occur. Cancer happens and sometimes death occurs. Accidents happen and sometimes death occurs. In all of this and more, we know that God does not cause it. All tragedies are out of God’s power. However, with equal certainty, we are assured that God offers love, compassion and consolation in the midst of trauma – revealed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
So, how shall we handle tragedy? With prayer, confident that God is grieving along with us. With honesty, trusting that God loves our vulnerability. The Russian film “Repentance” has a scene with people lined up at the prison gate to get letters from relatives, and often on many of these letters are scribbled the words, “Left No Forwarding Address.” The theatre-goers would look knowingly at each other. For they all knew what that meant, and they wept.
In another scene, the women are shown in a muddy timber yard, desperately pickling up logs one by one and examining the ends of them. One woman finds her husband’s name carved in the log, and weeps as she caresses it – almost as if she’s caressing her husband’s face.
The reviewer said that he commented to a Russian friend, “I suppose this was some kind of surrealistic statement. But the friend replied, “no, it isn’t. It isn’t a statement. It isn’t a dream. It was reality. For, (during the Stalinist era) it was common for people to search for names on the end of logs because the prisoners who worked in the forests would carve their names and the last date as a sign that until at least that date, they were still alive.”
So, in the film, a woman’s unrelenting search for her husband in a muddy timber yard, is a powerful parable of a Russian’s search for God in a muddy society. In the middle of a devasting and unrelenting horror, torture, and death they continued to look for God – and found God – even though their search was officially forbidden.
Our Lenten journey is in week 3. Repentance is not something to be done yearly at Lent, nor weekly during our worship time. Rather, it is a way of life brought about by a constant awareness of our human frailty and fallibility. May the remaining 3 weeks of Lent and the week we call Holy Week be a time of great reflection. May we use our Lenten Meditation booklets well, drawing ever close to our God.
Let us look and find God in every person we encounter. Let us live as God’s beloved people. Amen.
March 17, 2019 – Lent 2 – Year C
As those of you who have come from the prairies so well know, the early fall is often a time when farmers burn stubble off the fields. One fall day, a famer walked through a field just burned and noticed some movement under what he first thought to be a blackened stump.
Upon closer inspection, the farmer discovered the movement to be tiny, fuzzy chicks stirring from under their charred covering. What had appeared to be a stump was in fact the burned carcass of their mother.
Although the mother hen could have flown to safety, she had stayed on her nest to protect her brood from the fire’s flames. She had sacrificed her own life for that of her young.
I did a bit of checking in my handy dandy commentary and found that the use of the hen simile is fairly common in the Hebrew Scriptures, being found in both Ruth 2:12 and Psalm 36:7. This metaphor also echoes a passage in the apocryphal Book of 2 Esdras 1:30 where God is compared to a protective mother hen. So, Jesus picks up on an image that would be familiar to the people of 2000 years ago.
Now, as you and I know, there is nothing as ferociously protective as a hen with baby chicks. She will dart around the yard, attacking anything that comes near her young. She will lure the foe away from her precious chicks with persistent pecking and squawking. At all cost her little ones are to be cared for.
But, too often we are like the young chicks, who do not obediently stay under momma hen. Instead, we scatter around the yard, going willy nilly to the tune of our own drummer. I picture a plump mother hen literally darting about the yard, trying desperately to gather her chicks under her wings. Unaware that danger may be lurking around the bushes, the chicks disperse into wild abandon or curious investigation. Doesn’t that image describe us. Don’t we too often resist the protection that God offers?
As we examine the scripture from Luke, we encounter some Pharisees who warn Jesus to leave and not go on to Jerusalem because Herod wants to kill him. Jesus responds with a lament. He recalls with violent treatment that rulers of Jerusalem have given to prophets sent by God to guide the people back into faithful observance of God’s laws. Jesus expresses his yearning to protect God’s children – likening his love to that of a mother hen who wants to gather her brood under her wings. This metaphor echoes a passage found in the apocrypha, in which God is described as a defending mother hen.
The Pharisees had strong reasons to warn Jesus. As scholars and teachers of the Law, they were widely respected by their own people. They were also well acquainted with Herod’s ruthless reaction to those who challenged him. According to biblical scholar, Richard Horsley, some of the Pharisees themselves had been executed for opposing the king. In warning Jesus, they were trying to protect him from being another victim of Herod’s wrath.
Despite the well-intentioned warnings, Jesus stands firm. He is known for casting out demons and healing the sick, but he will “finish his work.” This is Jesus’ way of saying: “I already have a reputation for doing things that threaten the established order – but I’m not going to stop my ministry, even if Herod – the fox- threatens my life.
It was 18 years ago and I was visiting a friend and ministry colleague. At 3:13 in the morning the door bell was incessantly being rung warning us that a fire had broken out in the garage. We quickly got out of the manse and got her 2 dogs safely into the milk delivery person’s truck. So, we knew they were safe and out of the way. Within minutes the volunteer fire fighters were fighting the blaze. Unfortunately, the fire soon engulfed the entire house and it could not be saved. Both our vehicles were incinerated along with all of my friend’s possessions. It was a devastating scene to see the 125 year old manse destroyed in a matter of a couple of hours. But my friend saw herself as richly blessed. The generosity of complete strangers was amazing. Prayers were offered from around the world. People cared in compassionate ways. We experienced God’s presence in the face of disaster.
I share this incident for it reminds me that God protects, just like a mother hen. We find the comfort and support from our Creator who gathers us together as baby chicks. We are people who encounter God in amazing ways. And we hear Jesus crying out to those who would listen, reminding them that he desires to oversee and nurture.
In this busy, complex world we seek the assurance that God’s protective care is for each one of us. On those days when nothing seems to go right, we turn to God in prayer, confident that we are heard and protected. Those are the times to take that deep breath, ground oneself and allow God’s healing presence to envelop us. When words fail us, the Lord’s prayer gives us the sustenance we need. Turn to the meditation booklet that we have prepared and take some quiet time to reflect and meditate. Go for a walk and soak in God’s beautiful nature and experience anew the wonder of God’s great caring.
When I go to read to the Al Mahommed children each Friday afternoon, I am always struck by seeing the prayer mat sitting on the back of the chesterfield and the Koran sitting on the coffee table. They faithfully say their prayers as a family. They know that God has been their comfort and guide as they fled Aleppo, and continues to be their protector and strength.
May we trust in God, who like a mother hen, protects and directs. Amen.
“A Primers Guide”
February 24, 2019 – Epiphany 7 – Year C
Rev. Sang Chul Lee, Past Moderator of the United Church of Canada in the 1980’s, was a Korean who in the 1940’s was a high school student in Manchuria living under Japanese occupation. He was forbidden by the Japanese to learn the Korean language in school and so private language classes were held in a church basement. Someone reported this activity and one Sunday morning he and some others were arrested by the police and put into a cell at the police station. He spent 2 weeks in jail where he was subjected to daily torture and questioning concerning the Korean independence movement (which he in fact had no connection). A few years later, shortly after WW 2, he was travelling along a road and encountered a group of people resting by the side of the road under a tree. One man was sitting apart from the group and facing away, but even from behind Sang Chul Lee recognized him as the one who had beaten him. He was momentarily seized with anger and was sorely tempted to grab a stone, hit him, and kill him with angry shouts of revenge. But it was only a momentary thought because he quickly realized that he couldn’t strike back at this man. Sang Chul Lee related that “as I approached him, he recognized me and was obviously frightened. I told him I was tempted to strike him but couldn’t because this is the time we have become free of colonialism, so it is a time for celebration.” At this, the man fell on his knees and begged forgiveness.
The account in Genesis is the climactic moment in the long story of Joseph and his brothers. It is a moment when Joseph resists he temptation to return the evil that his brothers did to him. Instead, he reaches out to forgive them. He assures them that although their intentions were evil, the results were beneficial because of God’s mercy, and he was now in a position to save their whole family from starvation.
He is no longer burdened with the need for revenge. With God’s help, the miserable deeds of the past have worked out for the good. They all experience the embrace of forgiveness.
Family reunions aren’t always fun. Sometimes they don’t live up to (or down to) expectations. The one in today’s story about Joseph and his brothers did not live down to expectations, once the brothers knew they were dealing with the brother they had betrayed. They had every reason to expect that vengeance would be wreaked upon them. What saved the day for them was that Joseph was able to credit God with turning into good all the evil that had befallen him. That, and the ability of the family to talk to each other, turned a disaster into a celebration.
In a little town in central Europe, “Jacob the tailor” felt that he had been mistreated in the synagogue. And so, he withdrew from the community and isolated himself from his friends and neighbours. Weeks went by until, finally, the rabbi called on him. After a polite greeting, there was a heavy silence. Then the rabbi said, “Let’s sit in front of the fire.” So, the 2 men sat in complete silence. An hour or so later the rabbi picked up the fireplace tongs, pulled out a coal and placed it on the hearth, away from the fire. Still no word was spoken. The 2 men just sat and watched the glowing, burning piece of coal become darker and darker, until finally it was black and cold and dusty with ashes. A few moments later, Jacob the tailor spoke. “I understand,” he said. “I’ll come back to the synagogue.” Not a word had been spoken, but the point had been made: We withdraw from the community, we isolate ourselves from our neighbor, and we die. We need one another.
In Jesus’ time the rich and poor were separated by privilege and opportunity and, like now, often pitted against one another. After assuring the poor and hungry of God’s blessings and warning, the rich and satisfied of God’s judgement, Jesus does not exploit the existing tension between the 2 groups. Rather, he begins to teach his disciples about the dangers of judgment and the treatment of enemies.
Conventional wisdom of the day saw the best course as doing harm to one’s enemies and good to one’s friends. Conventional wisdom of our days says little different. But Jesus’ words to his disciples asks them to resist the way of retaliation and vengeance and walk a path of love. Love involves acting in a way that resembles God’s character – merciful, forgiving, and generous to all. It is about acting in the integrity of what one believes.
There is a story about Gandhi. A Hindu soldier came to him, utterly distraught and guilt ridden because he had smashed in the head of a Muslim child during one of the riots.
And Gandhi said to him. “I know a way out of hell. You must adopt a Muslim child and raise him as your own. And as a Muslim.”
God’s love and mercy will be revealed in the end. There will always be injustice. There will always be tough or “desert” times. There will often be deep wounds and ugly scars. But through all the rivalries and jealousies, hatreds and cruelties, hurts, sorrows and disappointments that can seem to overwhelm human life, the scripture texts of today tell us that forgiveness is possible and mercy can be experienced. God’s way is the way of mercy – to love in the face of hate, and thereby overcome and transform hatred’s infectious destructive power.
Resisting evil without using evil means has always been a dilemma for Christians. God’s way of mercy is one that we find very difficult to understand and trust. We live in a world where raw hatred and brutal violence are practiced and preached by many as easy antidotes to the pain and confusion of our times. Learning to love those whom we perceive to be our enemies has never been more important than it is in our world today. May we, in our families and in this congregation, dedicate ourselves to practising this way of mercy and forgiveness – this way of love for the enemy. There is no telling how powerful the results could be
Nelson Mandela, the great leader of the people of South Africa tells the powerful account of his country. “It was repugnant in 1993 to think we could sit down and talk with those people (the Africaners), but we had to subject the plan to our brains and to say, “Without these enemies of ours, we can never bring about a peaceful transformation of this country.” And that is what we did. The reason why the world has opened its arms to South Africa is because we were able to sit down with our enemies and say, let us stop slaughtering one another. Let’s talk peace.
It is hard for us to imagine that the world could be transformed simply by sitting down and talking with one another. This account of the people of South Africa give us hope and serves as an example for all the world. Living with sensitivity and understanding of others is in part what Jesus instructed.
Try to imagine the newspaper headlines if each of us committed ourselves to this kind of radical love. The Penticton Herald might well proclaim, “Subversives attend Penticton United Church”. I for one would be proud if that label fit me. You see, it would mean that I really was risking in my lifestyle as a follower of Jesus Christ.
I want to bge more like the young girl who one day went to her mother to show some fruit that had been given her. “Your friend,” said the mother, “has been very kind.”
“Yes,” said the child. “She gave me more than these; but I have given some away.”
The mother inquired to whom she had given them.
She answered, “I gave them to a girl who pushes me off the path, and makes faces at me.”
When asked why she gave them to her, she replied, “Because I thought it would make her know that I wish to be kind to her, and she will not, perhaps, be so rude and unkind to me again.”
Such action is the beginning of the kind of life changing behaviour that Jesus describes. That is what is needed in Venezuela and Haiti. It is what is needed in the Middle East. And it is what is needed in your home and mine. May it be so. Amen.