Holding space for grief

Text: Mark 14 and 15 (the trials and crucifixion of Jesus)

“We are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world” – or so say the Eeyore’s among us. Every week in church, we proclaim love and new life even as wars rage around us, scoundrels rule the nations, and poverty blights the world.

But then come moments like last Saturday, ones that can amaze even the most jaded, give hope even to the most despairing, and bring the light of Easter even to the darkest Good Friday.

Last Saturday, about one million young people gathered in Washington DC to protest gun violence. Hundreds of thousands more gathered in 800 other cities around the world, including here in Edmonton. The “March for Our Lives” was organized by high school students who had survived a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February, one in which 17 people were murdered.

This mass shooting, like so many others, was a Good Friday moment. Innocent young people were killed just because they live in a country filled with 350 million guns, deep social divisions, and broken communities.

The story of this mass shooting is all too familiar. But what feels new to me is the reaction to it. Under the leadership of students at the school, a movement has arisen to protest the laws that allow gun violence to spread, and this movement seems more inclusive and effective than ones that preceded it.

I appreciated watching the marchers on TV last Saturday and hearing some of the children and youth who spoke in Washington . The speaker that most inspired me was 18-year old Emma Gonzalez; and it is because of her that I mention the March this Good Friday.

Gonzalez’ speech was unlike any I have ever witnessed. She began by giving the time — “six minutes and 20 seconds” — that it took the shooter to kill 17 people and injure more in her school. With tears in her eyes, she recounted the names of victims and articulated some of the terror, incomprehension, and rage that overwhelmed those in the school. And then at the two minute mark, she stopped talking and stared ahead in silence.

For four minutes and 20 seconds, she blinked and cried, as random people in the huge audience shouted encouragement or chanted slogans. For four minutes and 20 seconds she held space for the grief of the hundreds of thousands of people in attendance. When a timer went off, she said that it had been six minutes and 20 seconds since she took the podium, the length of time it took the shooter to cause so much death and pain. She then offered a few more words of encouragement and walked off the stage to thunderous applause.

Emma Gonzalez was doing what we try to do every Good Friday and Holy Saturday – she was holding space in which to feel grief and which might then allow us to change our hearts and the world.

On Good Friday, we remember the agony of Jesus on the cross and the loss felt by his friends. We remember the suffering of others who are violated by oppression or killed by unjust systems. We remember the pain of our own losses and our fears of mortality and fragility.

Every Good Friday, we come to the foot of the cross to stare at things we would rather ignore and then wait in hope for Easter morning. We come to hold space in which we can feel our grief and so clear our minds before we enter an empty tomb on Sunday morning.

Some people prefer to skip Good Friday and Holy Saturday and rush forward to Easter. But Emma Gonzalez knows that we need space in which to grieve loss; we need silence before Hallelujahs; and we need emptiness before resurrection.

As a person who presides at spiritual gatherings for a living, I am astonished that Gonzalez could stand in silence for more than four minutes in front of one million people. Never before have I experienced such a powerful example of holding space for tough feelings. I pray that she and other students continue to speak truth to power and to organize for change.

Today we have heard the stories of Good Friday. They may have brought grief or fear to our hearts and minds. They may have reminded us of some of the pain and difficulties of our own lives.

And now we wait. We wait in prayerful silence. We wait in expectant hope. We wait, watch, and pray knowing that doing so prepares us to enter an even larger space – the empty tomb of Easter morning.

We may live in a Good Friday world. But it is a world in which children and young people are finding ways to feel their feelings, to express their desires, and to organize for justice. It is a world filled with violence but it is a world with an even greater abundance of Grace and Love.

It is a world in which we are invited to follow the Christ on the Way of the Cross, and that is all that we need.


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“March for Our Lives”

The following are the preliminary words to a Palm/Passion Sunday service on March 25, 2018. In them, I make connections between the March 24 “March for Our Lives” in Washington D.C. and elsewhere and the entrance of Jesus and his friends into Jerusalem — Ian

Today is Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. During its seven days, the church reflects on Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. We remember his entry into the capital city on Palm Sunday, his Last Supper on Thursday, and his crucifixion and burial on Friday. It is a week of joy and pain; of hope and anguish; and of glory and loss. During Holy Week, we end the Season of Lent with flares of light. It is a week of surprising grace that leads us to Easter, one week from today.

Today, the entire service is devoted to communion as we sing through the communion prayers. Communion always begins with Palm Sunday as we remember youthful crowds who sang “Hosanna!” as Jesus entered Jerusalem. Re-enacting the Last Supper forms the heart of communion. And communion ends with the Risen Christ in a garden outside an empty tomb.

Today, by listening to Mark’s account of Jesus’ last week and by singing through each section of our communion prayers, I hope we will gain a deeper appreciation of the beauty and power of the journey this sacrament traces.

Palm Sunday is a day for children and youth. Jesus and his friends were young rebels, and tradition has it that it was children who spread palm branches on the ground to welcome them into the capital city.

Yesterday, millions of children and youth rallied against gun violence. This included a rally at the Legislature here in Edmonton, which, of course, is a capital city.

The largest rally was in the U.S. Capital, Washington D.C. I feel heartened and moved by the eloquence of the youth from Parkland Florida who built a movement after 17 people were killed in a high school there in February; by the huge numbers of young people who gathered in Florida, Washington, and hundreds of other places yesterday; and by their determination to shake the foundations of political corruption and violence.

For this reason, when we sing “Hosanna” this morning, I will think not only of Jesus and the youthful rebels he led, but also of the youth of Edmonton, Washington, and the rest of the world. Like the children and youth who rose up on the first Palm Sunday long ago, today’s young people are filled with a Spirit of change born of anger, hope, and solidarity.

Recalling the story of Holy Week might leave us chastened since it ends in arrest and execution. But communion reminds us that death doesn’t have the last word; as surely as Good Friday comes each spring, so does Easter Sunday.

Like the friends of Jesus long ago, the youth of today may be surprised where their enthusiasm and activism leads. But I am confident that whatever strange resurrections they experience will bring them closer to the God who is Love; because when you rise up in a spirit of solidarity and love, you can’t go wrong.

Today is the first day of Holy Week — the most sacred week on the church’s calendar. So, let us now worship God — in song and silence, in prayer and sacrament, and in awe and wonder. Let us worship for our sake, for the sake of the world, and for the sake of Love.

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Life saving tips

Text: Mark 14: 43-53; 66-72 (Peter denies Jesus)

Four weeks ago on the first Sunday in Lent, we heard Jesus describe a path to healing. Before he began his journey to Jerusalem, he said that those who tried to save their lives would lose them, but that those who gave their lives up for the sake of the Good News would gain new life.

Self-preservation is a natural instinct. But natural or not, Jesus says that following it is a sure way to lose one’s soul; and that when we ignore this instinct and throw our life away, we can be saved. Jesus then models this path for his friends by walking with them to his fate in the capital city of Jerusalem.

Today on the fifth Sunday in Lent, we hear a story that shows the disciples unable or unwilling to follow this path. When thugs associated with the religious elite arrest Jesus, his friends flee in fear.

Alone among them, Peter follows the mob to the courtyard of the High Priest, where Jesus will be tried. But when Peter is accused of being a friend of Jesus, he denies it. When Peter realizes that he has fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy that he would deny Jesus three times before dawn, he breaks down in tears, This is the last we hear of Peter in the Gospel of Mark.

Do Jesus’ words about giving one’s life away suggest that Peter should have been arrested in the Garden? Do they mean that he should have acknowledged his friendship with Jesus in the courtyard even if it led to his execution alongside Jesus?

I don’t believe so. The spiritual truth that healing comes from giving our lives away does not mean we have to be reckless in the face of mob violence and state oppression.

Instead, I see Peter’s fears, misunderstandings and denials as a reminder of how difficult it can be to follow the path of Jesus.

Lent is a church season in which we focus on following Jesus. This is not the only time of the year in which we do so. But the 40 days and six Sundays in Lent offer us many chances to remember the costs and joys of the Way of the Cross.

Various practices reinforce the focus. During Lent, we are asked to symbolically pray with Jesus during the 40 days and nights he spent in the wilderness following his baptism. We are called to walk with him on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. On Good Friday, we sometimes mark the stations of the cross as though we were stumbling along the Via Dolorosa with Jesus on the way to his crucifixion.

The most common spiritual practice of Lent is giving something up. While I don’t do this myself, I can see why others do. Abstaining from alcohol, meat, or sugar for the 40 days of Lent may remind us of the difficulties of the path and of the costs involved in rising to a new life closer to Love.

Instead of giving something up for Lent, I focus on illusions. Peter and the other friends of Jesus follow him from Galilee to Jerusalem. But they do so with illusions in what the movement can accomplish and what the end result will be.

The illusions they confront are similar to those that many of us struggle with today. Peter and the disciples are blinded by tribal ambitions.

They worship Jesus as a new tribal king like David and a new incarnation of the tribal God YHWH. Jesus agrees that he is both god and king, but not a god or king for just one tribe. He is a divine sovereign who lives and reigns in the heart of people from any tribe or nation who follow the Way.

Just as it was in the time of Jesus, today many voices call us to retreat to our tribe. Politicians run for office with slogans like “Italy for Italians” or “No refugees.” Religious leaders call other faiths unacceptable as was the case last week when the German Christian Social Union leader and Interior Minister said that Islam does not belong in Germany.

Of course, we suffer from many more illusions than just tribalism. At different times, we may worship peer groups, sports teams, or substances like alcohol. We grasp at them to find relief from fear and pain.

But even though tribal passions are not the only illusions that bedevil us, they seem to be perennially powerful. I am struck that the desires of Peter for a tribal king and god are similar to the illusions peddled by many misleaders of our world today.

In troubled times, misleaders claim that if we could somehow return to the so-called good old days in which people of different languages, creeds, and races lived apart from each another, then chaos and confusion would wither away. They ask us to imagine tribal utopias in which we would finally be able to relax.

Such dreams are illusory not only because they can’t be realized. Even if a country could manage the evil deed of expelling people of the “wrong” colour or “wrong” religion, the pains of life would remain. People would still get sick and die too young. Boredom or depression would still afflict us.

Fortunately, tribal or national nightmares rarely come to fruition; and even when they do, healing and freedom do not result.

Jesus challenges the tribal dreams of his friends. But it is only his execution that most of them transform their illusions into something more loving.

The same thing may be true for us. Words from a pulpit can remind us that some of our dreams are illusions. But it is the ups and downs of life that expose our false hopes and open us to deeper love. Happily, those ups and downs happen to everyone.

Peter’s tribal illusions begin to burn away when Jesus is arrested. Out of the ashes of his illusions, he is offered the joy and mystery of resurrection.

Today’s tribal passions can also be challenged by defeat, but at great cost. So, we build communities of faith that value diversity, justice, and peace and in which we preach resurrection. We pray that this will be enough.

On Easter Sunday, we celebrate the joy that follows disillusionment. Jesus is raised to a mysterious new life. While this new life is a far-cry from the tribal glory longed for by Peter, it is both more realistic and more loving.

Today as followers of Jesus, we retrace Peter’s steps during Lent. We gather in community to support one another. We preach, teach, and pray. We confront injustice. We encounter illusions; and with Grace we rise to new life.

This path is a never-ending one, whether for individuals or institutions.

Two thousand years ago, tribalism was a common pitfall for many people. Today it continues to impact our culture and our hearts.

The Good News is that disillusionment is guaranteed. In life’s many Lenten crises, we receive the Grace to die to old ways and rise to a new life. This new life is not just for one tribe, but for all people. It is not about power, but compassion. It not about the gods of warring tribes but about the One God who is Love.

Two thousand years ago, Peter ended his Lenten journey in denial and tears. This year as we near the end of Lent, I find it easy to identify with him. Fortunately, neither his story nor ours ends in death. They end with an empty tomb on Easter morning with its promise of a life that moves beyond our illusions into the heart of the God.

May it be so. Amen.

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“Do I wake or sleep?”

Text: Mark 14:26-42 (Jesus prays in Gethsemane)

I got the idea for this reflection when I woke up last Sunday afternoon from a nap. I was glad to have slept for an hour, and it felt like I could sleep a lot longer. But dimly, I realized this might be a poor decision. So I crawled out of bed, took the dog for a walk, and settled in for an evening of watching the Academy Awards.

Waking up from the nap helped me reflect on the discomfort we feel when we get up before we are completely rested. The other side of this is the discomfort we feel when we want to fall asleep but are unable to do so.

Sometimes, circumstances demand that we wake up whether rested or not. At other times, we are unable to fall asleep even when we are desperate for rest.

Today’s Gospel story is about sleeping and waking. Jesus wants his friends to stay awake with him as he prays during the hours before his betrayal. Nevertheless, they fall asleep, and so on three separate occasions, Jesus rouses Peter and the others from their slumber.

It isn’t clear to me why Jesus wants his friends to stay awake. Is he looking for support in his distress? Does he want them to witness his betrayal by Judas and his arrest by the Temple authorities?

Jesus has brought his friends to Jerusalem from Galilee. Three times on the road, he told them that he would be arrested and killed; but Peter and the others don’t understand . Jesus implies that death is at the heart of his Good News. But they don’t get it.

Because Jesus wakes them, Peter does witness the arrest. But Peter misses Jesus’ death the next day. According to Mark, of the friends who followed Jesus from Galilee, only Mary Magdalene and a few other women are present when he is crucified and buried.

But surely Peter witnesses the resurrection? Matthew, Luke, and John say “yes.” But Mark, which is the first Gospel to be written and the one we are reading this Lent, says only Mary and two other women come to the empty tomb on Easter morning. Mark writes that the three of them flee from the tomb in fear and tell no one.

Does this mean that Jesus’ work had been in vain? He had proclaimed the realm of God; created a movement based on this message; and healed people in Galilee. He led a welcoming and inclusive community; and he taught that the way to new life was to take up one’s cross. But his friends didn’t understand this, and they fell asleep when Jesus asked them to stay awake. Even when Jesus woke them, they missed his death and resurrection.

This outline of the Gospel of Mark might seem discouraging, but I find Grace in it. It can be difficult to understand Jesus, today as much as then. Nevertheless, we gather to reflect on the stories. The friends of Jesus must have found a way to follow him despite their incomprehension and fear or we would never have heard of them.

Fear and incomprehension are not a barrier to following Jesus because the path of death and resurrection is an inevitable one, I believe. Even the sleepiest of us will stumble onto it eventually. We may not understand it, but death and new life keep appearing in our hearts, families, and world regardless.

I have compassion for Peter and the others who sleep because, like them, we are often fearful and therefore unaware of what is going on.

Do I really want to know the toll that aging has taken on my body? Do I really want to know about environmental damage? Do I really want to know about the successes of racist politicians as in the elections in Italy last week? Often, I am afraid to know such things; and so I may stay both oblivious to what is happening and anxious about it. Because of these fears, I may have trouble staying awake during the day and trouble going to sleep at night.

Some people advise us to not dwell on things we can’t change. For instance, there is not a lot we can do about aging bodies, environmental damage, or the rise of racism. So why pay attention to these things?

I understand this perspective. It might help us avoid despair in the face of personal and social change.

But we also can’t change many of the things we love – things like the beauty of a sunset, the emotions we feel when listening to music, or the connections we create when we reach out to our neighbours. Because we love such experiences, we may be moved to engage with reality in all its colours.

We can also join faith communities that pursue love and justice. We may not be able to instantly create the world we want. But working with others who follow Jesus can help us resist the voices of those who would have us sell our souls for values that are not loving.

But can we really know what is going on? The news media are an obvious source, but they are prone to sensationalism, and so I am often skeptical of them.

Other sources are available. We can look inside our bodies, hearts and minds and notice the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that flow through us.

We can have deep conversations with loved ones at home and church.

We can pay attention to the works of creative artists. Novelists, poets, and musicians often explore reality at levels much deeper than news media.

We can also join movements for peace with justice. Their failures might discourage us; but sometimes they reveal shifts that encourage us, as with the success of the #metoo movement this past year.

The path of Jesus helps us to face both what we like and don’t like. It shows how facing fearful realities can lead us closer to Love.

All of us need sleep, and all of us crave moments in which we are aware of love and joy. Fear can interfere with both.

Happily, by stumbling onto paths of death and new life we learn that our fears need not disturb our sleep or cloud our consciousness.

In any blessed moment, we can accept the Grace to face reality, die to old ways, and wake up to love in a deeper way. And at the end of life, we trust that everyone rises to new life within the Heart of Love from which we have come.

Whether we wake or sleep, we belong to God. And for this antidote to fear, I offer endless thanks and praise.


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Narrow paths

Text: Mark 14:1-9 (Jesus is anointed for burial)

The journey of Lent is sometimes called a “narrow path” because Jesus says “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:13). But is there only one path or are there many?

In today’s reading, Jesus describes an act of oil being poured on his head as his anointment for burial. Today, I reflect on what this phrase might mean and how it relates to the narrow path of Lent.

The word “anointing” is used in different contexts. Powerful leaders are sometimes accused of trying to anoint a successor. Monarchs are anointed with oil at their coronations. In the Catholic tradition, terminally ill people are anointed in a ritual called The Last Rites.

When an unnamed woman pours oil on Jesus’ head, his friends protest at the extravagance. But Jesus defends her. She has done him a kindness, he says.

Peter had identified Jesus as the Anointed One when they began their journey to Jerusalem. He assumed that Jesus would be revealed to the nation as the Christ at a coronation ceremony in the Temple. In a ritual from the time of King David, the High Priest would anoint Jesus with oil and put a crown on his head.

This is still the case with monarchs in Europe whose coronation ceremonies are based on those in the Hebrew Bible. Since 1727, the coronation of every British monarch has been accompanied by the singing of the anthem “Zadok the Priest” written by Handel. Zadok was the High Priest who anointed King Solomon in a ceremony in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago (1 Kings:38-40).

But Jesus is not like David, Solomon, or the monarchs of Europe. He is a king who wears a crown of thorns and who reigns in the hearts of those who follow a path of death and resurrection.

When Kim and I were on vacation in February, we participated in a ritual that included a moment that to me felt like anointment for burial. The resort where we stayed in southern Mexico had a spa overlooking the Pacific Ocean. To our delight and surprise, the spa not only offered massage, hydrotherapy, and pedicures. It also had a domed sweat lodge called a “Temazcal.” One afternoon, we entered this low-slung stone structure and participated in a 90-minute sweat.

I appreciated the experience, although it was far from easy. In the darkness of the lodge, ten of us sat around a central pit in which the leader placed heated stones and on which she poured scented water. While she offered prayers to the four directions, we confronted our fears and desires as the temperature and humidity soared to uncomfortable levels.

Before we crawled into the Temazcal, the elder who led the ritual smudged us with smoke from sacred herbs. She told us that the lodge represented both tomb and womb and that the sweat was designed to symbolize death and rebirth. Because of her words, I accepted the smudge as a kind of anointing for burial.

When I read more about Temazcal this week, I was not surprised to learn that the Spanish colonizers who conquered Mexico 500 years ago did not approve of them. Before the conquest, Temazcal were found in most cities and villages in Mexico. But the Spaniards destroyed them. Happily, in recent years, many have been rebuilt, and these sweat lodges have spread even to all-inclusive tourist resorts.

I don’t know how “authentic” our experience was, but it reminded me of the little I know about First Nations’ spiritual practices here in Canada.

This was the first sweat I had experienced, but not my first smudge. I first encountered smudging ten years ago in a course on First Nations’ spirituality. One day after a visit to a former Indian Residential School in Brantford, an elder in our circle smudged us with tobacco and sage to help us deal with the disturbing things we had encountered that day.

The Christian church can be divided along different lines. One divide is between those who say that the church has a monopoly on salvation and those who say there are many paths to new life.

I stand with the latter. While I love the rituals of the church, I also appreciate other traditions. I was born into the church, and I am sure that following the path of Jesus will fill my heart all the days of my life. But I also glimpse that the truths revealed by the death and resurrection of Jesus are also revealed in many other traditions of the past and present.

Another division in the church is between those who focus on Jesus as the sole actor in salvation and those who say that we all participate. Does Jesus do all the work for us? Or do all who love God and neighbour undergo our own death and resurrection?

I stand with the latter. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, which for me indicates that the narrow path is one we all walk.

Death and resurrection are not one-time events. They are a reality repeated many times in the life of all people and institutions; and rituals like sweat lodges can help us relate to this reality.

Baptism provides another example. When we baptize people here, as we did with Hazel Grace two weeks ago, we hear the following passage from Romans: “all of us who are baptised into Jesus Christ have, by that very action, shared in his death. We are buried with him in baptism so that we too may rise to new life just as Jesus was raised from the dead by God’s power. Having shared his death, let us now rise and live new lives with him” (Romans 6).

But baptism is only a ritual. The reality of death and resurrection is encountered in the vicissitudes of life in which we experience disillusionment and then rise to a life closer to Love. I appreciate baptism because it reminds us of the difficulties and joys of life’s journey and of how a loving community and God’s Grace can help us.

The narrow path that Jesus takes from Galilee to Jerusalem takes the form of a hero’s journey. When we symbolically join this path each Lent, we remind ourselves that each of us is on a hero’s journey. Jesus shows us the way, but we also walk it.

I am grateful that the narrow path of Christ helps in times of death and rebirth. I am also happy to realize that people and cultures outside of the church have found paths that follow this universal pattern. And how could it be otherwise?

The sweat that Kim and I experienced in Mexico was as powerful as any ritual I have encountered in church. This does not mean I will abandon the church for Indigenous spirituality. But neither should the church spurn such traditions. Everyone is enriched, I believe, by living in a diverse society that offers multiple ways to symbolize the truths of resurrection.

And for this awareness I say, “Thanks be to God.”


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“The Drum Major Instinct”

Text: Mark 10:32-45 (the greatness of service)

February has been a busy month for televised sports. It began with curling at the Tournament of Hearts, and it includes the Winter Olympics, which closed yesterday in South Korea. In-between was the Super Bowl, which is the most popular televised event in the United States and Canada.

I enjoyed this year’s Super Bowl. It was high-scoring ; the underdog won; and, as usual, I was entertained by the commercials. Many of them used humour. Others appealed for unity in the face of today’s sharp social divisions.

One of the latter immediately caught my attention. It began with titles saying it was an audio recording of a sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fifty years ago to the day, on February 4, 1968. This was just two months before Dr. King’s assassination.

As a video montage of first responders, teachers, and workers unspooled, we heard King’s marvelous baritone say: “If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness . . . [It] means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to [know a lot to serve] . . . You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”

After King stopped speaking, the grill of a Dodge Ram truck filled the screen followed by the truck’s slogan, “Built to Serve!”

It is not often that America’s current favourite Sunday pastime, NFL football, is interrupted by America’s former favourite Sunday pastime, a sermon; and this particular attempt did not go over well. Dodge was roundly condemned for using King’s sermon to sell trucks especially because this one condemned commercialism in general and advertising for cars in particular.

King’s sermon also condemned the War in Vietnam. In it he said, “we Americans are criminals in that war. In fact, we’ve committed more war crimes than almost any nation in the world.” This part of his sermon, also unheard in the TV ad, adds a further irony to Dodge’s use of it in a broadcast of the final event of the National Football League’s season because this year America’s flag and national anthem have been a flashpoint between a militarist U.S. President and football players who protest racism. But I’ll leave that one aside for today.

Today, I begin with the ad for Dodge Ram because King’s sermon — known as “The Drum Major Instinct” because of a repeated metaphor he uses in it — was a reflection on the same reading that we heard this morning from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Mark.

In the reading, Jesus tells his friends about his impending death for a third and final time during their journey to Jerusalem. Despite this being the third time, James and John still don’t get it. They ask Jesus to let them sit at his right and left-hand when he comes into his glory.

Jesus says that they will drink from the same cup and undergo the same baptism as him meaning they too will face painful death and joyous resurrection. But as for greatness, Jesus says that in his eyes greatness comes from service and that to rank first means serving the needs of all.

Jesus’ message is countercultural. In God’s realm, he says, to try to save one’s life is to lose it. In God’s realm, the first will be last and the last will be first. In God’s realm, greatness comes not from dominating others but from serving them.

Whatever one makes of Jesus’ words, they surely do not endorse the Dodge Ram! Nor does King’s sermon suggest that serving others is about buying the right truck; and so Dodge deserves all the scorn this ad received . . . although there is a cynical part of me that wonders if Dodge knew the ad would spark outrage. For instance, I have never mentioned a brand of truck in a sermon before! Perhaps Dodge is relying on the saying that there no such thing as bad publicity. Perhaps.

Regardless, this month’s sports events provide a backdrop for us to reflect on glory and what is most important in life.

Sports competitions like the Super Bowl and the Olympics offer stunning displays of superhuman achievement. To watch an athlete land six quadruple jumps in a five minute skating routine, or to ski down a mountain course at 140 km an hour, or to catch a football while running 35 km per hour and being shadowed by a huge opponent who is waiting to pounce on you with crushing force as soon as you touch the ball can take our breath away, even as they might give also us pause as to the risks such superhuman feats pose for athletes.

Partisanship adds to the pleasure we gain from watching sports. During the Super Bowl, I was mildly cheering for Philadelphia over New England. But if it had been Edmonton versus Ottawa, I would have been more engaged.

The same thing happens with the Olympics. While I admire watching Russian or American skaters dazzle with artistic and athletic prowess, I love the achievements of Canadian skaters even more simply because we live in the same country.

Competition between teams and countries provides much of the motivation for the athletes. It is hard to imagine anyone hurtling themselves down a mountain at literal break-neck speed without the tremendous rewards we give to those who manage to win without killing themselves in the attempt.

Unlike in the realm of God, in the Olympics, the first are first, the last are to be pitied, and those who place fourth just off the medal podium might be pitied even more.

But of course, the Olympics don’t pretend to be the realm of God, unlike the ad for the Dodge Ram. And that is OK, I guess.

Still, I do wish more of life were in synch with the message of Jesus and Dr. King. King notes that all of us want to win praise, recognition, and fame. He does not downplay that impulse, which he calls the drum major instinct. Instead, he prays that as we mature we learn to satisfy this impulse through loving service to others. We can all be great he says. All we need is a heart full of grace and love.

This echoes the call of Jesus to James, John and us. In family, neighbourhood and church we respond to a call to ministry not to gain brownie points in some sort of heavenly reward book, but because we experience deep joy when we glimpse that our egos and their desires are illusions and that our true reality is found in community and in caring for other people.

I love spectacular human achievement, whether in art, science, or sport, and I marvel at the level of excellence some people achieve under the spur of competition and the quest for glory.

But even more than that, I love moments of self-emptying when one finds oneself awake to the flow of Spirit and to God’s eternity in simple acts of service to family and neighbour.

Today , I close with words that King used in his sermon 50 years ago this February, just two months before his death.

King said: “Every now and then we all think about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator — that something we call death. And every now and then I think about my own death and my own funeral. I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. But every now and then I ask myself, ‘What is it that I would want said?’

If you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important . . .

That day, I’d like somebody to mention that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I tried to feed the hungry,
to clothe the naked; and to visit those in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

If you mention that I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice; for peace; and for righteousness. All the other things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. In the words of a song . . .

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the Master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.”

“Yes, Jesus,” King concludes, “I want to be on your right or your left side not for any selfish reason. I want this not in terms of political ambition. I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others so that we can make of this old world a new world.”


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“You can’t always get what you want”

Text: Mark 8:37-45 (“take up your cross”)

Peter gets a bad rap in the gospels. He is the first person Jesus calls as a disciple. He has more conversations with Jesus than anyone else. He is present at every turn in the story, from the mission in Galilee, to the Transfiguration that Bruce preached about last Sunday, to the events in Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus’ life. And in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus singles out Peter as the rock upon which he will build his church. So, Peter is an important figure.

But Peter also comes in for a lot of criticism. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, Jesus warns that Peter will deny him three times, which, despite Peter’s protestations, he does a few hours later. On that same night, Jesus chastises Peter for falling asleep while Jesus is praying. And in today’s reading, Jesus calls Peter a Satan (!) for not appreciating Jesus’ predictions of death.

Many of us might resonate with Peter’s reaction. When Jesus asks his friends who they think he is, Peter says “the Messiah,” or Jewish king. Jesus doesn’t disagree with this, but he says that he is a king who will suffer, who will be rejected by the religious leaders, and who will be put to death.

Peter is shocked. He and the others who follow Jesus want a king like the ones of ancient story: a military leader who will expel the Romans and restore Jerusalem to its rightful place as both the earthly home of God and the capital of a Jewish empire.

Peter and the disciples love their life with Jesus in Galilee. They preach, heal, and build communities that discard old rules and reach out to so-called sinners.

Now that they are leaving Galilee to travel to Jerusalem, visions of kingly glory dance in Peter’s head. To Peter’s dismay, Jesus immediately dashes those visions by predicting his betrayal and death. Then, Jesus goes further. He says that all who want to follow him must take up their own cross and give up their lives too.

Peter and the others never come to fully understand this teaching even after they learn on Easter Sunday that Jesus’ tomb is empty, that he has been raised, and they will find him back in Galilee. But despite their lack of understanding, Peter and the others journey to Jerusalem with Jesus.

Peter lets Jesus know what he wants — a Messiah, Christ, or King. Jesus hears him, but immediately dashes Peter’s expectations. Peter complains about this; and Jesus responds with insult and anger.

Instead of offering the disciples what they want, he points them to what they need.

In life, sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we don’t. What Jesus teaches is that we can always get what we need if we receive the Grace to accept life as it is and not as we wish it were.

He says that if we try to cling to our life, we will lose it. But if we deny ourself and give our life away for the sake of Jesus and the Good News then we will gain new life.

Parenting provides a good example, I believe. It is important for parents to know what their children want. But it would be foolish if parents always gave their children what they wanted. Parents are called to establish boundaries and provide care based on their children’s needs and not their wants.

Parenting is also about self sacrifice. When you take on the responsibility of raising a child, you are called to put their needs above yours. Parenting involves seeing life from a child’s perspective – both their desires and their needs; and striving as best as a mortal can to ensure that many of those needs are met.

No parent would say the work is easy. But for many, it is the most rewarding work they ever do. By denying themselves and providing for their children, parents stumble into the truth of the paradox that Jesus preaches. They find new life. Parenting does not always provide what one desires. Instead, it is a life that is lit up with love and shot through with joy. By taking up the cross of parenting, parents lose much of their old selves and find a new life that is radically closer to Love.

The challenges of parenting are many. Knowing one’s own desires is hard enough. Figuring out what children want can be tougher still. Then there is the task of discerning what the family needs. Even harder can be finding ways to fulfill some of those needs, especially in this world of too much greed and violence; and in a society filled with vast opportunities and rapidly-expanding social power.

No one gets it right. All who take up the cross of parenting stumble again and again. Parents can’t always listen so their kids will talk and talk so their kids will listen. They can’t teach their children everything they need to thrive in this crazy world. They can’t provide perfect protection. Parents are fragile mortals with spirits and minds that only partially reflect God’s love.

And yet, all across the world 350,000 children are born every day; and the blessings of family life continue to pour forth in endless fountains of love regardless of the heartache, conflict, and fear that also mark family life. Sacrifice is called for. Sacrifice is often achieved. And children and parents grow spiritually despite all our many personal limitations.

Something similar is found in ministry, I believe. In communities of faith like this one, we are called to mourn and celebrate together, to reach out to our neighbours in love, and to join Peter and the others as followers of Jesus who journey to the cross and beyond to new life.

As in family life, it is useful for a church to know what it wants. But as with parenting, we also learn that our desires are not always in alignment with our needs. We may desire to worship not only the God who is Love, but also the nation or empire into which we were born. The stories of Jesus tell us that we can’t have both, and this can be a painful lesson for us we stumble down the path to Jerusalem.

We may want to deny the poverty in this city and injustices like racism and sexism. The stories of Jesus suggest we do otherwise, and so, we may find ourselves involved in outreach and justice work that conflict with some of our wants, but which, with Grace, provides us with the spiritual growth we need.

Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones expressed this 50 years in the song which gives this sermon its title. “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Lent is a season in which we try to get what we need. But the rigours of the journey don’t mean that we ignore our desires. Spiritual journeys require both a growth cycle and a comfort cycle; both awareness and sleep; both hikes up the sides of mountains and restorative meals around the family hearth.

The journey with Jesus provides both. It is a journey to death and rebirth. It is also one in which we meet each other in joy at the baptismal font of Living Water and in hope at the Communion Table of Living Bread.

As fellow pilgrims, I am grateful when we know what we want and when we strive for what we need. May it be so in this beloved community as it continues its Lenten journey of faith, hope and love towards Easter morning.

Thanks be to God.


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