• A starlit night on a Cornwall coast

    A Homecoming Like No Other

by Bev Patterson

HOMILY – 1 John 3:1-7

I DON'T REMEMBER when my fascination with the night sky began. Maybe it was in college, seeing the moon for the first time through a telescope. That one glimpse was enough to captivate my imagination. In that iconic moment I realized how small I was, and how immense and vibrant the universe was in comparison. But instead of feeling alienated, seeing the face of moon connected me to an aliveness beyond myself.

It remained a random event, a passing memory I have become fond of. A touchstone to wonder and awe. And yet, I have also felt the opposite. Realizing our insignificance in the grand scheme of things can fill us with dread, from which wonder turns to foreboding.

When that sense of foreboding creeps into our personal lives it feels like we are about to spin out of orbit. Instinctually we grasp for the nearest life preserver, something solid and dependable. We don’t realize until much later how inadequate those earthly lifelines really are.

Back in 1991—the year of our community upheaval—we felt lost in space, untethered from the Mothership of Church and Family. Attempting to find some sense of gravity, we tried to keep one foot in the faith of our tradition; with the other foot, some of us tentatively stepped out onto the edges of new and different spiritualities. For me that took the form of astrology. I became intrigued by the rich life of planets, their cosmology and mythology spinning out tales of destiny. Little did I know this side hobby would have some unforeseen outcomes. Like stars colliding, my newfound interest would bump up against deep-seated patterns.

It wasn’t a lasting fascination, but persisted long enough to get my astrological chart read. There was enough insight to keep me curious but unlike my fascination with the moon, my wonder at astrology soon receded into the background.

I’ll never forget one night in particular. Long after everyone had gone to bed, I became caught up in the vortex of Pluto. I couldn’t stop reading up on the sinister pull this astral body could have on our lives. Prediction mode set in as I started to doggedly detect patterns and outcomes, especially as they related to my son Erik, barely a toddler at the time. When I finally went to bed I was frantic, overwhelmed with a sense of foregone conclusions. I was convinced Erik’s life was doomed before it had even started.

I tell my story not because astrology is demonic, or to warn against exploring spiritualities from different traditions. I tell this story because using an established system to find my way out of disorientation, uncertainty, and anxiety did not bring me rest or assurance. In fact, it brought the opposite.

We all crave meaning, coherence and a sense of identity, a place of belonging and we’ll do anything to satisfy this drive whether it’s through a system, typology, ideology or self-worth project.

We all crave meaning, coherence, and a sense of identity, a place of belonging; and we’ll do anything to satisfy this drive, whether it’s through a system, typology, ideology, or self-worth project. Even our spiritual practices can quickly turn from contemplation to just another technique squeezed into our hurried routines.

I thought decoding the path of Pluto and other planets would secure my ability to stay clear of ominous outcomes. Here I was placing my bets on the darkest, coldest, most distant sphere on the Astrological Chart. I had become deceived. I was no longer able to recognize the care God had for me and those I loved. I had left the galaxy of God’s grace.

The Elder of 1 John knows all about the dangers of being deceived:

Consider what kind of extravagant love the Father has lavished on us—He calls us children of God! It’s true; we are His beloved children. And in the same way the world didn’t recognize Him, the world does not recognize us either. 2 Dear loved ones, we have been adopted into His family; and we are officially His children now. And that's only the beginning. The full picture of our destiny is not yet clear, but we know this much. When Christ is openly and fully revealed, we’ll see him—and in seeing him, we’ll become like him. 3 When we focus our hopes on Him, that is Christ, and His in-breaking we will long to purify ourselves just as He is pure. 4 But when we indulge in a sinful life we are on dangerous ground, for sin is a major disruption of God's order. 5 We know without a doubt that Christ showed up in order to rid creation of sin. There is no sin in him, and sin is not part of his character or his reality. 6 Anyone who lives in an intimate relationship with Him does not persist in sin. But when we continue to hang on to our sinful patterns, it’s as if we’ve forgotten who the real Jesus is. 7 Dear children, don’t let anyone pull one over on you. Whenever we follow in his footsteps, we bear the likeness of Christ, the Righteous One.

Quite the pendulum swing, from the gush of love-language to strident words of warning. As tempting as it is to ignore the sin part and just stick with love, the passage asks us to honour both swings so that we can fully receive the impact of the Good News.

Sin comes up seven times in seven verses. It’s a huge theme for 1 John. Something fractious was happening within this early community. The unity of the body was under attack through a series of false teachings. The epistle, noted for its earnest and polemic tone, was targeting the loss of their heritage and their core values. Belief in the Incarnation, the importance of Jesus’s death, the love command, the role of the spirit, and eschatological expectations were in serious jeopardy. Some community members were mesmerized by esoteric ideas, to the point of thinking they were free from sin. “Don’t let anyone pull one over on you” in verse 7 most likely meant to beware of Gnosticism, to stay clear of philosophies that distort the ground of your faith and distance you from God’s felt presence.

closeup image of Pluto

All this talk of sin was meant to re-align them with their first love for Jesus, the Christ, and God, the Father. In our modern consciousness we tend to avoid the word “sin.” Yet feeling spiritually out of sorts and overpowered by our compulsions is a familiar state of being. There is no end to our conversations around destructive patterns and the need for healing. It’s so disheartening when we lose sight of our organizing centre, getting so caught up in harmful distractions that we barely recognize the spirit of God in our lives.

Having recently completed another Enneagram test (yes, another system), I discovered that instead of a 6, I was actually a 9 (see What Is The Enneagram). Sloth has replaced Fear as my compulsion of choice, or my “Core Sin.” Finding this out about myself was a punch to the gut, pun fully intended. How could this be? I’m such a doer, always completing tasks, running from thing to thing. The real “wince” moment came when I found out that at the very root of my indolence was spiritual sleepiness. What I value most, a commitment to living a conscious, self-aware, and meaningful faith life, has been essentially railroaded by unhealthy self-forgetfulness and my need to keep the peace at all costs. How could I have been so wrong? I had pulled one over on myself.

Tucked into the passage are clues that sin is not so much about our individual random transgressions but more about false perception, intentional blindness, mistrust, and choosing to avoid reality. By reorienting our perspective, the Elder is drawing out a deeper notion of purity.

“When we focus our hopes on Him, that is Christ, and His in-breaking we will long to purify ourselves just as He is pure.”

Purity takes on a sense of clarity, a desire to will one thing. Longing and hope replace moralism and tight-fisted, teeth-clenched works of righteousness. This shift in understanding can only happen when we claim our adoption papers.

Without the promise of being re-born we remain stuck in the grooves of all these deep-seated patterns: judgmentalism, control, mistrust, pride, deceit, indolence, anger, withholding, envy, and greed. These tendencies can feel so discouraging, so persistent. We feel fated by some force beyond our control, yet God’s promise of love proves even more persistent. He has charted out a course, a different destiny, that changes everything.

“He calls us children of God! It’s true; we are His beloved children … loved ones … adopted into his family … And that’s only the beginning.”

Right from verse 1 we’re told many times—five times, to be exact—that we are loved beyond belief. The Message translation says “What marvelous love the Father has extended to us!” When I googled “marvelous” the following synonyms came up: amazing, astonishing, breathtaking, staggering, stunning, phenomenal, spectacular, remarkable, wondrous, miraculous, unbelievable, magnificent. It’s as if God’s love is a precious gem, exquisite and priceless; yet it’s the orphans, the forgotten ones, who are the object of this rarefied love. “Just look at it,” the Message translation goes on to say: a love we don’t have to earn.

It’s a love that compels and scares us for the very groundswell of this love is found in suffering.

The Voice translation says: “Consider what kind of extravagant love the Father has lavished on us.” Surprisingly, “extravagant” came up with a different set of synonyms: spendthrift, wasteful, free-spending, prodigal, squandering, lavish, immoderate, excessive. Nothing noble about this kind of love. It’s hard to miss the sharp contrast. Here we see God’s love as reckless, irresponsible, needless, flagrant, unnecessary, shameless, costly, extreme, unwarranted, disproportionate, unrestrained, wild, steep, elaborate, absurd and over-the-top.

There’s a profound truth to this paradoxical reading. God’s love is both marvelous and extravagant in the truest sense of both words. It’s the kind of love that any button-up, law-abiding, careful, respectable, and esteemed citizen of the world would shake their head at. Really; how embarrassing!

In no uncertain terms we are told that God, our Abba Father, loves us in a way that is gigantic and robust but also subtle and small, barely noticeable out of the corner of our eyes. So brilliant, so pure is this love that the world can’t recognize it for what it is. And when we love in this way, with even an iota of this marvelous, extravagant kind of love, we too are met by confusion.

We have been adopted into a family that breaks every collective mold, tears apart the structure of genetic determinism, and moves beyond the nuclear family unit to include more than our kin or even our species. Our assumptions change under the light of this love. Purity, order, sin, righteousness, and destiny take on a complex prismatic hue. It is a love that carries both the foolishness of the cross and the wisdom of creation. It is large enough to embrace both the personal and the universal.

Sounds like the best news ever. It’s inspiring and sprawling in its poetry. But how to live as if this is true on a “mud day” is indeed a vexing question. In our cynicism, apathy, and patterns of resistance we, too, find God unrecognizable. We forget who the real Jesus is. His is a love that compels and scares us, for the very groundswell of this love is found in suffering. It seems so impossible, even on a good day. But remember, God has charted a destiny for us despite how inferior and downcast we feel.

stylized map of Winnipeg with nest and space in background

visual homily by Penny Kovacs

“It’s only the beginning … Who knows how we’ll end up?”

This invitation into the unknown is meant to evoke joy and curiosity instead of being something to be feared. As Father, God desires to see his children flourish, play, and become immersed in Christ. He is our big brother pouring out his cruciform love on us. A close and constant companion, he guides us from morning to night. In watching Christ, in seeking him out and growing into the likeness of him, our wonder is restored; we begin to reach out, just like him, to others who also feel un-homed and lost in space. In Christ we’re excited to help restore God’s order to its rightful place.

Being part of God’s household inspires us to live by the rhythms of Sabbath. Here in God’s broad place, our relationships are formed by creational goodness, committed covenantal friendship, right thought, discerning speech, and compassion. In the order of God’s Kingdom, justice and mercy is poured out on everyone. When we recognize and honour our familial likeness and bond in Christ, we are empowered to grieve and lament of our sinful ways and together ask for our deeper desires to be rekindled.

It’s true that this love can seem as far away as the next solar system; but when we become attentive it shows up, as Alan Alda says so well, in “beautiful, miraculous ordinary moments.” A week doesn’t go by without reminders. Whether it’s in the theological struggles we share during our Wednesday bible studies, confessions followed by words of encouragement, the first bike ride of Spring, or when we hear the harmonica and banjo play together, we are given a deep recognition of the love that expands our universe.

Even if we don’t always recognize God, God always recognizes us, forming us into the likeness of his beloved son, despite our deformities and our flaws.

Even nature jogs our memory: an unexpected visit with a frog, a purring cat, a new bird at the feeder, the intricate hidden beauty of mushrooms, lilies of the garden, the wonderful creepy life of emerging cicadas, seeing a brilliant sunrise from a downtown balcony, the moon in harvest, and even Pluto, dark and distant—and we can’t forget all those wildlife sightings. This love just goes on and on and on, gathering and bringing every being, sentient and non-sentient, back home where we all belong.

“So my dear Children, don’t let anyone divert you. … don’t let anyone pull the wool over your eyes”

The spillover of all this Good News is that God in his love has chosen us, regardless of where the planets take us, regardless of random cosmic forces, regardless of what Enneagram number we are or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that affect us. And even if we don’t always recognize God, God always recognizes us, forming us into the likeness of his beloved son despite our deformities and our flaws. Though we are orphaned and disoriented, God in his extravagant marvelous love brings us home and welcomes us into the House of Resurrection. “It’s really true. Just look at it.” A Homecoming like no other.

A starlit night on a Cornwall coast

permission pending from Josef FitzGerald-Patrick