Living our faith in community

This side of Easter there are many stories of communities of faith in our scriptures and beyond. This one that we hear about in Acts is one that regularly inspires me and more often challenges me. This very new community of faith numbered about 5000, were led by the apostles, and faced no small amount of harassment and persecution from the same folks who had killed Jesus. Still, they gathered and as our reading today tells us, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Whether it sounds like a perfect community, or a perfect example of communism, I can’t decide. It sounds like a fairy tale anyway, and if we read a little further, we hear of those like Barnabas who sees a need, and truly sells his property, giving it to the apostles to be distributed as any needed. Then we hear of Ananias and Sapphira who did similarly, except… they kept some money back just for themselves. This ideal community had its own problems, just like all faith communities do. Still, it didn’t stop them from trying.

One of the great joys of being on maternity leave was the ability to worship elsewhere, and to experience other forms of Christian community. One such church has discerned that they were called to build a city where nobody journeys alone. As such, the church folk work hard within their city to accompany the most vulnerable. They regularly volunteer at the soup kitchen, do some work with the homeless, with folks who have mental health needs, sing at the local care homes, you get the idea. While I’ve heard their minister describe the congregation as a porch-light within the community: a place of welcome and acceptance, they don’t necessarily expect that the folks to whom they minister will come sit in the pews. It’s a church that struggles, like many churches these days, with finances, and buildings, and dwindling resources. It’s not stopping them.

As an elected commissioner to the General Council, I, along with the other commissioners in our Conference have been learning about the many changes that are being proposed by this new church model. We hear how the future is bleak, we need to cut million dollars from the Church’s budget by 2018. We wrestle with changes, with challenges, with what the lived reality might look like, and we pray. Still, it’s not stopping us, we will continue to be the church.

Here’s the commonality with communities of faith: there are always problems that have the potential to stop us from gathering, from believing, from living out our faith. It could be persecution, apathy, lack of resources, too much wealth, what have you. As an Easter people, we know the Good Fridays of this world; we know the forces of death and destruction, as they threaten to overwhelm us all in different ways.

The miracle of Easter is that even in the midst of death, destruction, and neglect, we can find signs of new life, of hope, of love. The Good Fridays of the world would have us all feeling like we need to go it alone, like we are the only ones facing whatever problems we are facing. This side of Easter, we know the powers of love and community are stronger.

Let me tell you a story…

Story: Stone soup

Once there was a young woman who was traveling around the country, seeing what she could see. She sometimes did odd jobs to help pay for her trip. But there came a day when she ran out of money and food at the same time.

On that same day that she ran out of both money and food, she happened upon a small village. She thought that in this village she was sure to find someone who would give her a bit of food.

She knocked at the door of a friendly looking house. The woman of the house opened the door slightly. The young woman asked if the woman had a bit of food to spare for a weary traveler. Sadly, the woman answered that she did not have any food in the house at all.

The same thing happened at all the other houses the young woman visited. Not a single person in the whole village had so much as a crumb of bread in the house. The young woman did not get discouraged, however. Instead she came up with a plan.

The young woman went up to what appeared to be a wealthy house in the centre of the village and asked the old man who answered the door if he had a large kettle of water he could spare. The old man asked the young woman why she wanted the kettle of water. She told him that she was so sad about the lack of food in the village that she was going to make the entire village a big pot of soup from the special stone she had found on her travels.

Very curious, the old man got the kettle of water and a large stirring spoon and helped the young woman build a good fire in the barbecue pit he had along the side of his house. The young woman took a smooth stone out of her pocket and put it in the pot of water.

As she stirred the water in the kettle the young woman mentioned to the old man that the stone soup is always very good, but it would be even better with a little onion and cabbage to add some extra flavour. The old man thought he just might have a little bit of onion and cabbage that could be added to the soup. He went inside his house and returned with a handful of onions and a large head of cabbage and added these things to the water in the kettle.

A neighbour nearby stepped out of her house to put some laundry on her line. She smelled the onions and cabbage cooking and became curious about the good smell. She went next door to the old man’s house where she was told about the special soup made from a stone.

The young woman stirred the pot some more and mentioned to the neighbour that the soup is always very good, but it would be even better with a little bit of meat to add some extra flavour. The neighbour thought she must might have a bit of meat at home. She went to get it and returned shortly with a large chunk of meat and added this to the kettle of soup.

A young man came down the road walking his dog. He smelled the onions and cabbage and meat cooking and became curious about the good smell. He came to the old man’s house and was told about the special soup made from a stone.

The young woman stirred the pot some more and mentioned to the young man that the stone soup is always very good, but it would be even better with a little bit of carrot and potato to add some flavour. The young man hurried home and returned with a bunch of carrots and a handful of potatoes and added these to the kettle of soup.

A little girl down the street came outside to play and smelled the onions, cabbage, meat, carrots and potatoes, and became curious about the smell. She went over to the old man’s house and was told about the special soup made from a stone.

The young woman stirred the pot some more and mentioned to the little girl that the stone soup is always very good, but it would be even better with a few beans and a pinch of salt and pepper to add some flavour. The little girl hurried home and returned with her mother and a bowl of beans and some salt and pepper, and added these to the kettle of soup.

The woman from the very first house where the young woman had asked for some food came outside with her basket to collect some herbs and mushrooms from her garden, and smelled the onions, cabbage, meat, carrots, potatoes, beans, and salt and pepper, and became curious about the smell. She walked down the lane to the old man’s house and was told about the special soup made from a stone. The young woman stirred the pot some more and mentioned that the soup is always very good, but it would be even better with a few mushrooms and some of the sage the woman had in her basket to add some flavour. The woman from the first house took another look at the soup and gladly added her mushrooms and sage to the kettle of soup.

In a little while the soup was done and everyone had a big bowl of the delicious soup. Everyone marveled at how such a wonderful soup could be made from only a stone. The young woman spooned a second helping of the stone soup into her bowl and smiled to herself. **

We live in a world that would have us believe that we are better on our own, that we are safer if we hang onto everything we own with a closed fist, that we should make sure we’re only putting in as much as we get out – or maybe even less. This is a reality that keeps us looking hopelessly at the reality of Good Fridays.

This side of Easter, our focus is on the resurrected Christ: the one who does not let the powers of death and destruction have the final say. The resurrected Christ meets us in places of fear and doubt, and offers us what we need to move beyond them, so that we can both proclaim and embody the Good News of life abundant. The truth is when we all come together, when we all bring a little something, we can create something amazing. Christ is the one who sees our needs and our gifts, our challenges and our joys. Christ is the one who knows all that we have to offer, and who calls us to offer those things so that we might embody our hope, and find God’s great grace in our life. May we be a community of faith who seeks to live our faith boldly, offering God’s great grace to all whom we meet. May it be so.

**story taken from : http://www.bry-backmanor.org/actpag70.html

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Walking in the darkness

She rose on the first day of the week and went to the tomb when it was yet dark.

Barbara Brown Taylor talks about walking in the dark – how it’s a practice we, as Christians, have lost. Speaking about her new book based entirely on this concept, she discusses how our vocabulary often paints darkness as a bad thing, but she says, if we look at the stories in the Bible, and not just the words, darkness is a place of mystery, of wonder and of God’s presence.

When asked what her working definition of darkness was, she answered, “Darkness is everything I do not know, cannot control, and am often afraid of. But that’s just the beginner’s definition. If I am a believer in God, then darkness is also where God dwells. God may also be frightening and uncontrollable and largely unknown to me, yet I decide to trust God anyway.”

Mary walked in the darkness that first Easter morning. Very possibly it was one of those mornings where the fact that the sun would rise felt traitorous – one of those mornings when she thought how could the sun continue to rise, even after such a dear friend was put to death, after everything they had worked towards had come to a complete and grinding halt. How could life continue after something like that?

Still, she chose to go to the tomb, to that dark, mysterious, unknowable place, alone, and I’m reminded of a quote from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, where Dumbledore tells Harry: “There is nothing to be feared from a body, Harry, any more than there is anything to be feared from the darkness. Lord Voldemort, who of course secretly fears both, disagrees. But once again he reveals his own lack of wisdom. It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.”

Death is an unknowable, uncontrollable, mysterious place, and Mary was still walking in its shadow that first Easter morning when she visited Jesus’ tomb.

Having lived beside a graveyard, it’s something I’ve seen a lot of people do – visit the place where their loved one is buried. Most often shortly after the person is buried, and then less, and less gradually. I imagine there are any number of reasons for this – coming to terms with the death, still wanting a connection with the deceased, but I think also, looking for hope.

Some might say a graveyard is a strange place to look for hope, but resurrection begins in the dark.  It’s only when we come to terms with death that we can truly find hope. It’s in those dark places that God finds us, and surprises us with grace. Whether we’re there because we’ve gone willingly or were forced, God’s grace dwells in those dark places. God’s grace surprises us in those dark places. We are not alone, and the unexpected can happen.  The requirement of us? To be present with our minds, bodies and souls.

Mary was willing to be present, and alone – at least until she realized something was different: the stone of the tomb had been removed. No one person could have done that by themselves, it was too heavy. So she went to find Peter and the beloved disciple, they all ran back to try to ascertain what was going on. Could someone really have stooped so low as to remove Jesus’ body? And over Passover? They’d make themselves ritually unclean. The men stooped and walked in, only to find the body really and truly missing, and the grave clothes set aside. John’s gospel tells us that they believed, but didn’t understand that Jesus had risen. They believed then that God was still at work in the darkness of the tomb, and in the mystery of life and death, but they had no clue what that might look like. With that knowledge, and the early dawn, they went back to their homes.

Mary however, stayed. The only possibility she could fathom was that someone took Jesus’ body. She stayed by the tomb and sobbed, but as she grieved in that early dawn, she was greeted by two strangers in brilliant clothing, mysteriously sitting where Jesus’ body had been – two who had not been present a moment before, asking her why she was weeping. Then a voice from behind, someone calling her name. A gardener? It had to be, no one else would be present, but no – not a gardener, Jesus. She was the first to see him alive. In a world where women were undervalued, this woman was the first to see and know that Jesus had risen from the dead, not a ghost, not a zombie, but a real person. She was the first to share the news with her fellow disciples. And this, because she was willing to walk in the darkness, to tend to it as it stayed within her, to question and persevere in her understanding of events. And there, in the darkness, she saw encountered grace and the message of Easter.

 Resurrection living means refusing to remain bound by the grave clothes – those things that would keep us in death; it means refusing to let the tombstone seal our fate, and it means refusing the idea that death has the last word.

 Resurrection living is trusting that God dwells in the darkness, and there, is willing to meet us in our vulnerability, our uncertainty and our vulnerability, so that death does not have the last word.

Resurrection living starts in the darkness, it requires the darkness and cannot be separated from it. Like a seed, it requires the darkness to germinate, and to grow into something more. It needs the mystery and unknown of the darkness in which to root itself so that it can grow into something strong.

Resurrection living happens slowly – just as the disciples were scared, still filled with grief, didn’t believe, couldn’t recognize, mistook Jesus for a gardener, a stranger, a ghost, it takes us a while to find Christ in our midst. Just as seeds don’t germinate the instant they are put in the ground, and caterpillars don’t turn into butterflies the moment they create a cocoon, it may take us more than one trip to the tomb, more than one good cry in the dark, more than one glance at the people in our lives to recognize that Christ is indeed risen.

 So whether we shout alleluia with our hearts, minds, souls and voices; say it with uncertainty; or whisper it with hope, may we be assured that Easter is within us, working in the mysterious darkness to bring about hope, grace and new life. Alleluia, Christ is risen.

 **with grateful nods to Barbara Brown Taylor and sicutlocutusest on

http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/04/14/barbara-brown-taylor-encourages-christians-embrace-darkness/

http://revgalblogpals.org/2014/04/18/11th-hour-preacher-party-jesus-is-back-edition/

Palm/Passion Sunday Prayer

Palm Cross

Jesus,

We give you thanks for the hope your grand entry into Jerusalem inspired. With joy and thanks we remember all who inspire our mundane lives with hope and joy. God remind us of those who need inspiration in their own lives, may we be blessed to be a blessing.

We remember how after the parade, you went into the temple, and in your righteous anger, drove out all who sought to exploit the poor, the vulnerable and the sick. May we all be reminded that we have such a protector in you, and may we follow your example in protecting the vulnerable around us.

We remember how at that same time, you welcomed the blind and lame into the temple, offering them healing and wholeness. We give you great thanks for those times and places where we find ourselves welcomed, where once we were forbidden. More, we give you thanks and praise for those times when we have found healing and wholeness in you. May your healing Spirit continue to work in, through and amongst us, bringing us healing from hurt, grief, and illness. May you help us to mend the divides we have created, and bring reconciliation into our midst so that we may all live fully.

The parade has ended, and the shouts of joy and triumph have died away. We hold in our hands crosses made of the palms that waved so joyously not long ago, and we take time to think about the days that led up to your time on a cross.

We remember Judas, tempted by 30 silver coins who betrayed you, and helped turned you over to the authorities. Help us to discover those things which tempt beyond living in right relationship with you and with our neighbours around the world. Keep us from temptation, O God. Surround those who have suffered betrayal of friendship and betrayal of justice with your love and your grace. Bind up their wounds, and help them to find your peace that passes all understanding.

We remember you making yourself vulnerable to your friends and washing their feet, before sitting down to share your last meal with them. We give you thanks for the friendship you offer us, and for those moments of grace in our lives where vulnerability and honesty lead to a more trusting relationship. We pray for those who never know such love and grace, for those who live in constant fear, and for those who are constantly exploited.

We also give you thanks for the nourishment we receive: whether it is nourishment for our bodies, food for thought or soul food, we cannot live without any of it. Bless those sources of nourishment in our lives, that we may not abuse them, or take more than our share, but always have enough. We pray for those who hunger: hunger for food, hunger for justice, hunger for a life worth living. Enable them to reach the sources of nourishment they so badly need.

We remember you praying in Gethsemane, with heart wrenching emotion, and friends who couldn’t stay awake to bear witness to your pain. We pray alongside all who are experiencing those dark nights of the soul, and those for whom terror doesn’t end with the sunrise, but continues as a constant in their lives. May we not fall asleep and neglect their pain or their need.

Finally, we remember your arrest and trial. We pray for all who are involved in the justice system: for those who make the laws, those who embody them, those who carry out justice, and those who find themselves on the opposite side of justice. May the laws we make enable us to live in right relationship with each other. May we seek change when they oppress rather than liberate, and may the consequences that are given help all to live more fully.

In times of trial and fear, may you always guide us with your wisdom and hope, and may we always pray with you saying: Our Father…

Working from the inside out – can these bones live?

A little girl was visiting her grandmother one beautiful spring morning. They walked out into grandmother’s flower garden.  As grandmother was inspecting the progress of her flowers the little girl decided to try to open a rosebud with her own two hands.  But no luck! As she would pull the petals open, they would tear or bruise or wilt or break off completely. Finally, in frustration, she said, “Gramma, I just don’t understand it at all. When God opens a flower, it looks so beautiful but when I try, it just comes apart.”  “Well, honey,” Grandmother answered, “There’s a good reason for that.  God is able to do it because God works from the inside out!”

God works from the inside out. In a valley of dry bones, God works from the inside out, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Imagine you are Ezekiel, look to the right and to the left, there are bones everywhere.

Bones ahead of you, bones behind you.

Bare white bones gleaming in the sun, the life baked out of them.  

Not one drop of moisture remains.  These desiccated bones are a grim reminder of life that was.

Ezekiel stands there in the middle of this valley of dry bones, waiting expectantly for the Lord.

The children of Israel in exile know all about dry bones. 

Israel is stripped to the bones, scattered in exile. The Babylonian Empire had taken over the land of Judah, the king of Babylon took the leaders of the nation away and replaced them with folks from a different place. The ones who were left were the poorest of the poor. They felt as if they are living in this valley – where life had been ripped away, where hope had vanished, where God felt absent. 

They cried out, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

They were these dry bones, waiting…

I don’t know about you, but I’ve stood at the edge of a number of valleys of dry bones. 

In Colombia, it’s not quite a valley of dry bones – they’ve not been dead that long – but it’s definitely a pit of bones, bones that were once part of the bodies of people who lived, loved and laughed, people who were killed for being on the wrong side of politics, or maybe for being in the way, or just because; but people who died by violence because of the powers that be.

In communities racked by grief due to a rash of suicides by their young people. Communities who questioned, raged, and prayed about what they could have done so that these young bones would not have lost hope in the first place. 

Amongst mainline churches and small towns alike as young people move away or become disinterested, farms get bigger, so there are just less people in the same amount of space, and the bare bones of our society has changed so much over the years.

Those times in our own lives, when it felt like the life had been sucked right out of us. Hopefully it’s not all the time – and if it is all the time, there is help that is accessible – but beyond that those times when grief settles on us like a dense fog, things aren’t turning out the way we’d imagined, or we simply can’t figure out the meaning of our lives. 

These valleys of dry bones are more common than maybe we’d like to admit to, and they appear in a number of ways, shapes and forms. 

As Ezekiel was standing there, looking at this mass grave, looking at this massive loss of life, and at the lost hopes of a people; something happens. God spoke to him and said:

“Human, can these bones live?”  

The obvious answer is no. Can dried bones live? Can bones without flesh or muscle, or blood, or oxygen, live? Can these bones that were killed by violence ever possibly find the will to live again? Of course the answer is no… right?

Ezekiel’s answer is something of a surprise. Maybe he knew God’s ways enough to know that no wasn’t an appropriate answer. Maybe this is why he was designated as a prophet. There should be no good reason for these bones to live again, but instead of despair, he answers with openness. Instead of saying “no” he says: “O Lord God, you know.” Oh Living One – you know.

God tells Ezekiel to prophesy – and he does. He prophesies that God will cause these bones to once again become human, living beings. As he was prophesying, there came a loud noise, and a rattling as the bones came together, broken bones knit together, and became bound by sinews and flesh and skin… but there was no breath. Now instead of bones, Ezekiel sees a valley of bodies. It must have been an awful experience, in both senses of the term full of awe, but terrifying.

So God asks Ezekiel to prophesy that breath will come into these bones from the four winds, and they will be alive. The winds blow, they come together to bring breath to those lifeless bodies, and all of a sudden, they are living again. 

Now let me introduce you to one of my favourite words in the Hebrew language: ruach. Simply translated it means breath – but it also means spirit. It’s God’s ruach that hovered over the waters at the beginning of Creation. It’s God’s ruach that was breathed into the first human being. It’s God’s breath and spirit that are given to these dried bones to bring them life. 

It’s God’s ruach that gives us life and spirit. It’s God’s ruach that breathes new life into situations of hopelessness. It’s God’s ruach that works from the inside out. 

As often as I’ve witnessed valleys of dry bones, I’ve also experienced God’s ruach that breathes new life. In communities that have seen violence and grief, I have seen brave and talented people working to bring these communities together to find some form of healing. I’ve witnessed children laugh and smile when these were once foreign emotions to them. I’ve seen folks from very different, often conflicting faith backgrounds, praying together for hope and new life. The ruach of God breathes into situations of hopelessness.

In small towns and churches, I’ve seen groups celebrating what is with whoever joins in. Whether it’s three, five, seven, 10, 20, 50, or 100 or more – I’ve seen folks gather. Sometimes it’s with a meal, other times not, but gathering to work together, to sing together, to build each other up and/or share the happenings in their own lives. The ruach of God breathes into all who are present and willing. 

In our own lives, experiencing those moments that we can only name as grace-filled and answers to prayers. A call out of the blue that lifts our spirits. Those times when things seem to mysteriously fall into place. The moments we have to glance back to times of hardship, and even if those places are still tender, we can see how the events placed us firmly on the path that we’re on, and yet, we’re glad we’re here. Release from bonds of addiction, abuse, or mental illness. Sometimes they’re the small things and sometimes they’re big, but the ruach of God inspires us to keep going. 

God’s ruach surrounds us totally and completely. The Spirit brings us the promise that we are not alone and that things can get better. The Spirit breathes new life and hope into us no matter how dry our bones are.

In the Christian tradition – we talk about breath prayers – something you say quickly and to yourself as you breath in and out. It could be as simple as “God, come” or “God, help” each word said as you inhale, or exhale. It’s a prayer, but more than that – we’re breathing in God’s spirit. We’re breathing in hope and the promise of new life. God works in us from the inside out.

 

Seeing with understanding

We often call him the blind man, or the man born blind, because, well, what’s so remarkable about a name like “the man who can see,”? That could designate just about anyone, couldn’t it? And still, we persist in naming this man as “the blind man” or “the man born blind” even though we are talking about a man, who can now see. We don’t want to leave him alone because he can see now – there’s something special about him, we don’t want to forget about the miracle that Jesus worked in him, and so we give him a name to remind us of how he was once blind but now can see.

I struggle a little bit with the magnitude of this event. I learned more about sight in psychology class than I ever did in biology, because seeing has to do with the brain as much as it does the eyes. Babies can’t focus their eyes for a while after birth, because it takes that time for the brain to develop, and to process the information that the eyes are sending to it. We do have stories of adults who have been gifted with sight when they’ve been born blind, and who haven’t been able to cope with the process, and begging to be made blind again, so that they can live within a world that makes sense to them. Similarly, there’s been a video going around the Internet, and even if you don’t watch videos online, it’s also been on the news. There’s a woman who was given the gift of hearing through the work of doctors, and this video shows those first few moments when she hears. She bursts into tears. Like seeing, hearing has to do with a physical response from sensors: the inner ear, and connections in the brain to bring about meaning. So it’s always with wonder that I hear this story, knowing that this man’s brain, as well as his eyes needed to be made well so that this man could see with any sense of understanding rather than chaos.

Seeing with understanding doesn’t happen all at once, as this story tells us.

Jesus uses mud – the same creative stuff that the book of Genesis tells us God used to generate human beings, and spreads it over the man’s eyes. What was its purpose? Did it regenerate nerve endings? How it works is a mystery. Jesus disappears after telling the man to go to the pool of the Sent One, the pool of Siloam to go wash out the mud. He doesn’t wait around to see if the healing took place. He doesn’t escort the man to the pool. He just disappears. The man washes out the mud, and his eyes are opened, but then comes the daunting task of reconciling what he knew before, with the information he’s getting now. We don’t hear much about this process. In fact it seems like he takes it fairly well, but what a task it might have been. Imagine trying to reconcile what you know to be a bird – through sound and description, and maybe touch, to the actual sight of a bird. Or a leaf on a tree – I know when some folks get glasses for the first time as a child, they describe the wonder they experience at looking at trees and seeing leaves clearly, when what they saw before were blobs. For this man, just imagine how he’s supposed to get home, having never seen the world in front of him, although I’d put odds on the fact that if he closed his eyes, he’d be able to get there a whole lot easier. With this gift of sight, two worlds collide and we only get a hint of it in the story: when the crowd asks “where is he” this one who gave you sight? And he answers “I don’t know.” And then again later when Jesus hunts him down and talks again with him, and this man does not know him by sight, but then comes the understanding, as he realizes THIS is the one who gave him sight.

It must have taken him a while to see with understanding, to understand what it was he was seeing. Here’s where I wonder if we get ourselves into a little bit of trouble. So often we pray for healing, when I wonder if what we really want is restoration. We pray for healing and expect things to go back to normal, whatever normal might be. If this story illustrates anything for me, it’s that healing isn’t about normal or the ordinary. Healing is extraordinary. Healing generates something new, and it requires no little work in reconciling what was with what is. As our own blindnesses are healed, as we learn to see with understanding, the world how we once knew it, collides with the world that we now see before us. It’s no small feat to see with understanding. It’s even more work helping others to understand what has changed.

We see that too in this story. The Pharisees don’t see with understanding, as we hear them asking at the end, “are we also blind?” While they weren’t completely blind, their sight was limited. They were stuck in the boxes of tradition and power – understandably, as tradition and power exercise a strong hold over so many of us, and institutions do not change traditions, or give up power quickly. Tradition dictated that this man who was given sight, was born blind because someone sinned. We hear this from the mouths of both the disciples and the Pharisees. While we never hear the reaction of the disciples, we do hear the reaction of the Pharisees – they are not willing to let go of the tradition they have. Nor are they willing to let anyone outside of themselves wield any power. In this case tradition and power go hand in hand, and so anything that might imply that something from God can happen from outside of them, was difficult. They were so stuck in this that they asked the man given sight twice about what happened, and his parents once – three times they asked, and then, still being unwilling to acknowledge that such a thing could happen, they cast the man out, effectively cutting him off from his faith and family.

Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression in saying that tradition is wrong or bad – because it can continue to be incredibly life giving. Power also, can be helpful – we talk about empowering people to do something. Power can work for the good. Tradition and power, like anything, is problematic when it holds us back from experiencing Creator, Christ and Spirit at work.

In a reflection on the TRC, Maggie McLoed, the United Church’s Executive Minister of the Aboriginal Ministries Circle said that we need to learn how to work on creating space for everyone to take part, we need to learn that to make room for others by being willing and able to step back. While she was talking about making room for folks to take part in the healing and reconciliation process particular to the legacy of residential schools, I think this can be applied to our story here.

Whether we’re speaking of systemic healing, like the residential school legacy, personal healing, or maybe not even healing at all, but an acknowledgement that from this moment forward things will never be the same, we need to learn when and how to let go of our own power, to let go of our want to control, and to get out of our own way, so that we can let God into the situation, and allow something new to happen.

We talk about this story as something that happened a long time ago – or maybe even might have happened, as it really does seem a bit incredulous. Still, I’m reminded that Creator, Christ and Spirit are still at work in the world. They continuing to open our eyes so that we can see more clearly, so that we can see with understanding. They continue to use the creative stuff of our world to create new pathways and help us to reconcile our former ways of knowing with a new reality. May we be open to these new ways of being. May we find healing and reconciliation. May God work in, among, and through us. May it be so.

Born anothen

We talk about being born again and it has some strong associations to it. It’s often code for one of two things: are you like us? Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart and is he your personal Lord and Saviour? Or, are you crazy like them? – that last is perhaps not the kindest way of putting it, but it is often what’s meant. Because the divide between these two sides is so strong, I’m not sure if there is any way of reclaiming the language of being reborn, or born form above, but my hope is that we can create some space in between them, and explore another option.

 At the clergy lectionary study this week, we were talking about this very thing. The pastor for the 7th Day Adventist church mentioned how sometimes his activities with the lectionary group comes up amongst his colleagues, and one in particular, was worried about the state of our souls. This person asked him, ‘are they born again?’ and he considered it for a little bit before answering that he believed we were. He turned to us on Tuesday then, and said how he knew that we wouldn’t necessarily use this term, because it is so loaded, so he asked us what we would say.

 We had a variety of responses: believers, followers of Christ, redeemed by grace, baptized. More importantly though, it opened up the conversation: some of us could remember quite clearly a date when we asked Christ to be a part of our lives. Others of us replied that Christ had always been there, a part of our lives, but we had discovered new ways of relating to Christ through the years. Others still replied that while there was no exact date remembered, there was a period of time over which a knowledge of, and relationship with Christ developed. This last comment was likened to a sunrise: you can’t pinpoint the exact time, but it got me thinking that it’s not unlike the birth Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel lesson.

 You see, being pregnant has completely reframed the idea of being born again, or a spiritual rebirth, for me. It has helped me to realize that these things don’t just happen overnight. Rather, there are quite a lot of things that need to happen in order for a birth to actually take place.

 Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Some scholars say he was being sneaky; others maintain he needed enlightenment; and others yet point out that this was the accepted time of day for deep philosophical discussions. Whatever the case may be, that night, through their conversation, Jesus offers some of the mysteries of faith to Nicodemus; reminding him that for a person to be in touch with Godly activities, for them to be able to name where God is at work in the world, they need to be born anothen, a word that means both again and from above, a word that has both earthly and spiritual significance.

 Nicodemus doesn’t quite get it, and asks the crazy question: you mean I need to find a way of crawling back into my mother’s womb? He’s stuck on the things that happen in the physical world.

 Jesus reconnects him with that word anothen: It’s about earthly and spiritual birth. In other words, Jesus is saying that for someone to be able to experience God at work in the world, they need to have a spiritual awakening or rebirth. Something needs to happen to connect us with the Spirit/wind/breath of life. Something needs to open us up to the surprising and sometimes sneaky currents of the Spirit, helping us to realize that these can’t be controlled, and helping us to be open to their prodding. THIS is part of the spiritual rebirth.

 There is irony in these two men talking about birth: through their discussion Jesus planted some ideas in Nicodemus’ mind, which, given the right conditions would change and grow, and be born by Nicodemus in time. 

 There is no given gestation period for these things. Even though we humans take about 9 months to form our young, while mice take about 19 days to form their young, and elephants up to two years. Add to that, the time it takes us to grow and develop the skills we need to be able to live on our own. When it comes to spiritual matters, there is no set time for development: ideas and matters of the heart and soul can generate quickly or it can take years for something to develop fully. Even then, not unlike human pregnancies, things can inexplicably happen that cut that burgeoning new life short, and we experience that sense of loss. Or maybe that new life doesn’t come into the world exactly as we’d hoped. Our plans and expectations for this new thing happening in our lives might lead us into unexpected places – not unlike the other story we heard this morning of Abram and Sarai, feeling the call of God and leaving their homeland. Spiritual rebirth can completely change our way of being in the world. What is normal for one of us, isn’t for another.

 More than that, sometimes that burgeoning new life can take a toll on us body, mind and soul. Spiritual rebirth is often exciting and full of hope, but it requires a certain amount of energy, and a willingness to let the Spirit quicken in unexpected ways. Plus, joy and excitement are not always the emotions that everyone feels. It can also be sad, frightening, unwanted, unexpected, and even dangerous in certain conditions. There are all kinds of emotions that go along with the development of something new, and none of these emotions are bad.

 One thing is certain though: when the birthing time comes: being born from above is a messy, and often painful business. It’s something that very few of us can do on our own, we need the grace of God and the help of those who bear us. Spiritual rebirth is a major transition that doesn’t affect just the one person, but everyone who is in community with that person. Whether that new life thrive can depend on the response of the community: just ask anyone who has tried to break an addiction, who has come out, or who has changed their lifestyle in a big way. It can be difficult to understand the changes that have come about in the person, but it is the community’s role to offer support.

 Here is where the metaphor falls apart. Unlike the birth of a child, spiritual rebirth doesn’t bring about a new person outside of ourselves. We are the ones being reborn, being transformed, and it is no small thing. The transformation leaves us forever changed

 For some of us, these changes are such a major turning point in our lives that we can put a date to them. For others of us, the changes are no less important, but the entire journey – the gestation time, the birthing time, and the growing time – is what we name.

 Nicodemus disappears from the scene in today’s reading, but he appears twice more: sticking up for Jesus several chapters later when the authorities are trying to decide whether or not to arrest him and kill him, ultimately buying him more time; and then again at the crucifixion, helping to prepare the body. We don’t really know what happens to those ideas that Jesus planted in his mind, whether they ultimately came to birth or not, but obviously he continued to feel some connection to Jesus, even a few years later; but he was sainted by both the Eastern and Roman Catholic churches. At some point he transformed from being a respected Pharisee and leader in the Jewish community, to someone who was a follower of Christ. His life was transformed.

 However spiritual rebirth has occurred in our lives, I think we can say that a faithful reading of this gospel lesson opens us up to the possibility of transformation and the movement of the Spirit who moves in sneaky and surprising ways. Being born from above is the Spirit bringing us new life and opening us up to a new way of being in and relating to the world. It is the Spirit nurturing that new life and sustaining us through our journey of faith.

 May God’s Spirit blow through our lives, bringing us transformation and rebirth.

A reflection from Zacchaeus’ wife

Change had been coming for a long time for my husband Zacchaeus. He’d been talking about the teachings of Moses, and wrestling with how to live justly, and in accordance with Jewish law while he still making a living for us. You see – my husband was the chief tax collector in Jericho. Jericho’s a big city – King Herod even has one of his palaces here. It’s a good place to be a tax collector, especially the chief tax collector, because a LOT of the taxes go through there on their way to Rome. So we collect taxes from the tax collectors all over this region… and there are a LOT of taxes that these Romans have. Zacchaeus is a good businessman too – I might be biased in saying that – but even if he was born into the business, you can’t get far if you don’t know how to work with people, or if you can’t tell good quality coins from the lesser quality forged coins. His wealth testified to his success. I can’t complain; he’s always provided well for his family. He gets along well with his associates and underlings.

[sigh] It can be a lonely life though, being the chief tax collector’s wife. You see, the people ‘round Jericho didn’t like us much. They thought we were corrupt, and that we stole from them. We know what the other tax collectors do, how they rob their customers blind. We never could do much about them, but we tried to live in a good way. We gave alms and didn’t steal. But it doesn’t matter, they hated us anyway, since we worked for the Romans. They saw our family as having turned away from the faith. For them, we were no better than prostitutes. They kept us out of their circles – there were no friendly smiles, or nods, or handshakes. No one invited us over. Granted, there were some of THOSE PEOPLE I wouldn’t want to be associated with anyway. How I wished they’d stop gossiping about us though! I thought I knew how THEY were; they wouldn’t ever change. I just did what I could and tried to live in a good way – as best as I could anyway, since even going to the synagogue was difficult with all their hostile stares and shouts of “sinner”.

Anyway, I’m getting away with my feelings, and you wanted to hear about my husband’s meeting with Jesus. I remember it like it was yesterday. There was a big crowd lining the roadway – everyone wanted to see this famous teacher. Zacchaeus included. He wanted to see Jesus; he wanted to get to know this man. He felt that Jesus could change something in his life… but he was a little nervous. Jesus doesn’t always play nicely with the rich ones… what was it he said? It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to get to heaven? Oh well, Zacchaeus knew that Jesus has been known to spend time with tax collectors too. So what do you think happened? The crowd wouldn’t let my Zacchaeus in! He’s a short man, my husband is, and the crowd wouldn’t make room for him to see this man of God.

Well Zacchaeus wasn’t about to leave it at that. His interest was so much that he ran on ahead; just to be sure he wouldn’t miss him, and climbed a tree so that he’d be able to see. Can’t you just see it?! MY husband, a wealthy businessman in a tree, JUST so he could get a glimpse of this Jesus person.

Didn’t Jesus see him though – even stopped right there in front of him. Can you believe it? Jesus even knew his name! “Zacchaeus!” he called, “hurry up and come down from that tree. I must stay with you today.”

OHO! Didn’t the crowd start grumbling about that! JESUS?! Who could have stayed with ANYONE, decided to stay with ZACCHAEUS?! The tax collector? The sinner?

It was too much for Zacchaeus – he felt the need to defend himself, so he told Jesus, “Look, I AM a wealthy man, but I give half of my wealth to the poor – I give alms, and I’m an honest businessman, if I cheat anyone of money, then I pay it back fourfold – according to the teachings of Moses.

And you know what? Jesus heard him. Jesus said to my husband… and to those standing around jeering at him, that salvation came to our house that day, because Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham. Because the son of man came to seek out and save the lost.

I can’t begin to tell you how those words, how that recognition has changed our lives. So often we felt like nobodies, it didn’t matter that we were rich, but you know, when Zacchaeus came home, it was like a load had been lifted from his shoulders. What Jesus did – he made the community recognize that we too are descendants of Abraham, and that, we too live in a covenant relationship with God. He was asking them to recognize us as fellow members of the community, saying that we try to live just lives and in God’s way.

After Jesus left, Zacchaeus and I talked about how we would live our lives in response to that salvation that Jesus offered. Salvation can be a tricky word, but I tell you for us, it came from the act of including us as part of the community; it came from no longer being an outcast. Our lives changed forever because Jesus came to seek out and save the outcasts – the ones with diseases, the blind beggars, and the rich tax collectors. We decided we had to try to get to know our neighbours as a result.

I tell you – it’s not been easy. Prejudice and distrust runs deep on both sides. It’s not an easy path to learn how to forgive and trust those who have spoken ill about you, and excluded you in the past. To be honest, it’s darned near impossible. Change comes though, even if it is gradual. Just as an infant doesn’t start by walking, neither can we be fully accepted by the community, or fully accept the community instantaneously. We start small – baby steps. Offering a tentative smile here, a handshake there, a chat with someone else. We’ve given up listening to gossip, or passing it on. It’s just plain hurtful. Like I said, it’s not easy. Old habits die hard, but Jesus’ words have marked our lives forever. We will always know that it is God’s will for us to live with respect for those around us, and we will always know that God wants to be in relationship with us, and that God recognizes us as God’s own. That knowledge keeps us going. It helps us in those tough times when we feel like giving up.

What’s more, my Zacchaeus decided actually to follow along with Jesus. They called him Matthias for a while, and he was appointed an apostle, becoming one of the twelve in Judas’ place. Now that the church is growing, they’re putting his talents to good use and have appointed him as bishop of Caesarea. Did Jesus have any idea what he started that day when he called Zacchaeus down from the tree? We sure didn’t.

That day, Jesus truly did seek out and bring back the lost one.