Giving Up Theories of Atonement for Lent in Favour of Listening for God’s Laughter

Laughter St Teresa

Traditionally the season of Lent is a mournful time filled with calls to repentance and self-examination as we follow Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted and then on that long march to Jerusalem where the powers that be will have their wicked way with him. Our liturgies take a mournful tone as we lament our woeful human existence, confess our sinfulness, and hear exultations to take up our crosses so that we too can follow Jesus to the bitter end. Over and over again we are asked to remember that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, as we gaze upon the cross remembering that Jesus our savior bled and died as a result of our wicked sinfulness.

Lent is a strange season that harkens back to a forgotten era. Unlike so many of the seasons of the church year it’s not exactly a season that attracts people to church. Not many of you got out of bed this morning and said, “Yippy it’s the first day of Lent. Oh goodie!  We get to be reminded that we are sinful, that life is miserable and unless I’m willing to take up my cross and follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha, there’s precious little hope cause we’re all going to die and when the time comes we want Jesus to remember us.”

Now I know that there are some people who just love Lent and I must confess that I like the quieter, more somber tone that our liturgies take. I actually enjoy the opportunity to slow things done and be more reflective in our worship together. I savor the silences and the opportunities to be more contemplative. I love the colour purple with all its vibrant hues and the best part of all is that the beginning of Lent means that spring is just around the corner. What I don’t like about Lent are the signs, symbols, hymns and stories that make it so easy for us to fall back into the 11th century.

It is so easy for us to lean not on the ever-lasting arms of Jesus but on the scales of St. Anslem and find ourselves not looking forward to the promise of resurrection and the gifts of eternal life, but rather dreading judgment day knowing that the scales of justice must be balanced and fearing the moment of truth when our sins are piled onto the scale and knowing that our only hope for reconciliation with our Maker is that Jesus is sitting on the other end of the scale.

“Woe is me.  Woe is me for I am sinful. My sins are too numerous to count. There are all the things I have done and all the things I have left undone. Thank God Jesus died for me. Somebody had to pay the price for my sinfulness. Jesus died for a reason, and you and I dear sisters and brothers are that reason. A blood sacrifice had to be paid. God’s justice demanded it and Jesus paid the price with his very own blood.   Jesus took our place up there on that cross and the least you and I can do to say thank-you is to spend some time shouldering our own crosses as we retrace Jesus steps to Jerusalem.”

The season of Lent with all of its liturgical trappings makes it so easy to fall back upon St. Anslem’s theory of atonement.  St Anslem the 11th century English monk, a legal scholar who came up with the theory about why Jesus died on the cross known as substitutionary satisfaction. Jesus stood in on our behalf to satisfy the debt that had to be paid.

St Anslem’s theory may have satisfied the minds of worshippers in the 11th century but a lot has changed in the last ten centuries. Take for example the sixteenth century — Martin Luther a name near and dear to the hearts of Lutherans everywhere.   Good old Martin Luther was so obsessed with his own sinfulness that he spent many a long night agonizing over those things that he had done and left undone that he often found himself flagellating of an evening. You don’t hear much about flagellation these days; at least not in church. But flagellation was all the rage among the religious of Martin’s day. 

Why Marty would whip himself into a positive frenzy just thinking about his sinfulness; and I do mean whip himself. Flagellation is the fine art of punishing oneself for ones’ sins by stripping down to the waist and whipping one’s back to the point of drawing blood so that you could bleed just like your Saviour bleed for you before he was led through the streets of Jerusalem on his way to Golgotha. Martin became so obsessed with his own sinful nature that his own priest feared for his life. Father Staupitz, the priest to whom Martin was constantly confessing his sins to is said to have become so frustrated with Martin’s obsession with trivial sin. I mean how much can a faith monk, living in a monetary have to confess. Legend has it that Staupitz grew weary of Martin’s confession of every trivial sin, that in desperation he once told Luther to go and sin boldly, perhaps hoping that Luther would at least have something to actually flagellate for.

Happily for Christendom, Martin Luther eventually came to the realization that far from being a harsh judge of our sinfulness, God is actually a gracious God and thus the Luther’s theology of Grace gave birth to the Reformation. No longer did the faithful have to worry about balancing the scales with acts of piety because God’s grace is sufficient. God in Christ freely forgives us all our sins, not because of any merit we might gain from acts of piety but simply because in Christ, God took on human form and travelled to the cross and paid the ultimate price. Thanks to Luther we all know that we are justified by faith through grace.  We are made righteous in the eyes of God through Christ and there is nothing that we can say or do about it. Continue reading

Evolution – There’s No Going Back: an Ash Wednesday Homily

purple light 2

Here’s an Ash Wednesday homily for the 21st century!

We’ve all been there. Driving down the road – distracted by thoughts of this and that, when all of a sudden it happens, a car comes at you out of no where and you slam on the breaks or you quickly swerve to avoid a disaster. You could have been killed. You could have killed someone. Your life or someone else’s life could have been radically changed in an instant. As you pull back into traffic you are ever so conscious of the weight of you foot on the accelerator and you swear that you’ve got to be more careful.  You begin to scold yourself.  What were you thinking? Why weren’t you paying attention? Wake-up you could have been killed.

Welcome to Ash Wednesday. What have you been thinking? Why weren’t you paying attention? Wake-up — you are going to die!!!  Ash Wednesday is your mid-winter wake-up call. Some of you may not need the wake-up call. Some of you know all too well that death is all around us. Some of you have lost someone dear to you. Some of you have felt that fear in the pit of your belly when the doctor suggests a particular test. Traditional Ash Wednesday worship would require us to focus on the brevity of life and remember that none of us will get out of this life alive.  Our ancestors in the faith, entered into a morose season of Lent by via the awesome reminder that they came from dust and soon they shall return to the dust. Continue reading

Beyond the Veil – a story for Transfiguration Sunday

buterfliesReadings:  Exodus 34:29-34 and Luke 9:28-36 Listen to the sermon here

 

What the World Needs Now is Love! 1Corinthians 13:1-13

Mr Happy ManThe Epistle Reading (Second Reading) for this coming Sunday is 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Most of us have heard this reading over and over again at weddings as if it were some sort of recipe for happiness between lovers. So often we hear it as an impossible recipe and cast it aside as something nice but unattainable. What would happen if we could hear this passage not as a prescriptive recipe but as a descriptive revelation of the LOVE that is God. Couple this revelation with the knowledge that God dwells in, with, through, and beyond us and it becomes a description of the possibilities for each of us being LOVE in the world. The knowledge that LOVE dwells in us might just open us to being the love that the world so desperately needs. 

91 year-old, Johnny Barnes is a Bermuda native who embodies the LOVE that dwells in him. How might we embody the LOVE that dwells in us? What does, would, could, will the embodiment of LOVE look like in you?

Act As If… a sermon on Luke 4 by Bishop Gene Robinson

eye of the stormThe Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson understands what it means to be threatened because of the Gospel he embodies. While reflecting threatening reaction of those who heard Jesus’ first sermon as it is recorded in Luke 4, Bishop Robinson challenges us all to stand on the clifftop with the courage of Jesus. Well worth a listen to all those who are preparing to preach on this text on Sunday.

TODAY!!! – a reflection on Luke 4:14-21

Luke 4Today, rather than a traditional sermon, we engaged in a reflection on what is known as Jesus’ first sermon from Luke 4:14-21…a bible study of sorts. The Acclamation sung before the reading is “God of My Childhood” by Miriam Therese Winter Listen to the reflection here

Lester McLean Returns to PubNite at Holy Cross – Jan.31 at 7pm

PubNight Jan31 2016By popular demand: Lester McLean will be back! PubNite:

Sunday January 31 @ 7:00pm

Nobody does it better than Lester and his Trio! Check him out on iTunes

PubNite at Holy Cross provides an opportunity for folks to enjoy music, dance, sing, and chat. Join us for a terrific evening! Passes are free. Just email contact@holycrosslutheran.ca to let us know you’re coming and your passes will be waiting at the door! Check out the dancing below:

A Storyteller’s Storyteller: Joan Chittister

Two dogs & parrotAs storytellers go, Joan Chittister is one of the best! That she is also an extraordinary theologian who has an uncanny ability to communicate wisdom in ways that both enlighten and enchant her audiences is a wonder to behold. Here Sister Joan weaves two tales from one of her latest books “Two Dogs and a Parrot.” While I am throughly enjoying the book, I dearly wish that I could watch and listen to her embody more of these stories as only she can. Enjoy!

 

Spinning Wheel – A Sermon on Luke 4:14-21 for Epiphany 3C

Blood Sweat & Tears

This sermon explores the need to set the captives free. It was inspired by a Globe and Mail article written by David Clayton Thomas, former lead singer of Blood, Sweat & Tears and dedicated to the memory of an old friend who did not “go naturally” and will never be forgotten! You can listen to the sermon here to get you in the mood, watch the video of Blood, Sweat & Tears below

The year was 1969. I was just twelve years old and my family had only recently moved to Ladner, a small village south of Vancouver. I was the new kid in a tightly knit grade seven class. I remember being angry, a lot. Being twelve is tough, but being twelve and new in town; well that’s a kind of hell I wouldn’t wish on anyone. There were only two places I felt safe: One was my bedroom where I could escape into my books or listen to music. The other place was music class. We had a really cool, young teacher, she must have been fresh out of teachers’ college, because she had all these new ideas about something she called music appreciation. The songs we sang in Miss Conroy’s class were songs off the radio. Some days she’d let us put our heads down on our desks and she’d just play music and all we had to do was appreciate it. Not all of the music was stuff we’d heard on the radio, sometimes Miss Conroy would sneak in some jazz; not any kind of jazz I’d ever heard before, improvisational jazz; it was so cool to my twelve year-old ears that I gave Miss Conroy a pass when she would slip into teacher mode and put some classical music on the record player.

One day, Miss Conroy announced that we’d been listening to her music long enough; it was time we began to listen to our music. Miss Conroy explained that she was going to divide us into pairs and each pair would have to work together to select a piece of music to bring to class and share it. We would have to explain to the class, why the piece that we choose was worth paying attention to. Now even though there were all sorts of pieces of music that I thought would be great for this assignment, I began to panic. Who on earth would want to work with me on such a project? The thought of being teamed up with anyone of my classmates struck fear into my heart. I didn’t have any real friends in this class and as the new kid I knew that nobody would want to be stuck with me. Vision’s of being left out, all alone without a partner began to overwhelm me, as Mrs. Conroy announced that we would be drawing names out of a hat in order to determine who our partners would be. When my turn came to pull a partner’s name out of the hat, I didn’t even know what to hope for. I didn’t know people well enough to want anyone in particular to be my partner, there was only one person in the whole class that I knew that I knew well enough to know that I didn’t want to be my partner. I, like all my classmates was positively terrified of, for the sake of this sermon I’m going to call him Kenny. Kenney sure wasn’t twelve; he was a few years older than the rest of us. He was a big guy; dark hair, good looking, and unlike the other adolescent boys in the class, Kenny had already started shaving. Once during the lunch hour I witnessed Kenny bullying a younger boy into eating an apple core that had been discarded a few days earlier. The kid ate the rotting core rather than face whatever it was Kenny was threatening him with. Kenny was big, tough and loud. Most of us were frightened of Kenny and because kids are cruel, behind his back we diagnosed him as crazy. But there was something about Kenny, maybe it was his good looks, maybe it was the buckskin fringe jacket that he sported, or maybe it was just his wildness that made him the talk of the jittering boy-crazed girls in the class. So, I was more than a bit upset when of all people, I pulled Kenny’s name out of the hat. What piece of music could the two of us possibly have in common and how was I even going to talk to him? Miss Conroy slipped perilously into my bad books on the day she forced me into the company of the dreaded Kenny.

Ours was an uneasy partnership. There was precious little conversation involved. Kenny picked the piece of music. Kenny told me what I was going to tell the class about our piece of music. Fortunately, I actually knew and liked the piece that Kenny had chosen. It had been a big hit the previous summer and I owned a copy of the record. The only problem was that my copy was a 45. Kenny insisted that we just had to use the version that was on the album; not the version that they played on the radio off the 45. The version on the album included the trumpet solo that never made it onto the 45. It would have made the song too long for the hit parade! And that’s how I ended up in front of my classmates, standing beside a boy, who though handsome and tough had suddenly become monosyllabic as I struggle to explain why our choice of Blood, Sweat and Tears, Spinning Wheel, was music well worth appreciating.

What goes up must come down

spinning wheel got to go round

Talking about your troubles it’s a crying sin

Ride a painted pony

Let the spinning wheel spin

You got no money, and you, you got no home

Spinning wheel, spinning all alone

Talking about your troubles and you,

you never learn

Ride a painted pony

let the spinning wheel turn.

Did you find a directing sign

on the straight and narrow highway?

Would you mind a reflecting sign

Just let it shine within your mind

And show you the colours that are real

Someone is waiting just for you

spinning wheel is spinning true

Drop all your troubles, by the river side

Catch a painted pony

On the spinning wheel ride

Someone is waiting just for you

spinning wheel is spinning true

Drop all your troubles, by the river side

Ride a painted pony

Let the spinning wheel fly.

They just don’t write songs like that anymore. Kenny was right, the trumpet solo, is a must. Blood, Sweat and Tears had the best horn section. They could take a mediocre song and turn it into something special:  “Spinning Wheel,” “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “God Bless the Child,” “Hidey Ho, Hidey Hi,” “And When I Die.” Thanks to Kenny, I bought every LP that Blood, Sweat and Tears ever recorded.

So, what has any of this got to do with this morning’s Gospel reading? Well the words that the writer of the Gospel of Luke puts into the mouth of Jesus of Nazareth have been spinning round in my head all week long. I keep hearing Jesus quote the words of the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison—to proclaim the year of God’s favour.” The year of God’s favour is the prophet Isaiah’s way of describing the year of Jubilee. Written into the Jewish law was a provision meant to address the systemic injustices that creep into the law as time goes by. It is said that every 50 years a Jubilee would be declared. Continue reading

Can the Eucharist Feed Us NOW?

IMG_1347Reflecting upon the more-than-literal meanings in today’s reading from the Gospel according to John tells the story of the wedding at Cana I was prompted to ask some questions about the eucharist’s ability to continue to nourish us. These questions prompted me to dispense with my usual practice of preaching from a manuscript. Inspired by John Shelby Spong’s work in “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic” to see the characters in this story as symbols of entities much bigger than they first appear, I have begun to see that just as the early followers of Jesus found themselves in a time of transition that gave birth to new practices, we 21st century followers of Jesus find ourselves in the midst of transitions that have the potential to give birth to new ways of being in the world. As always I am indebted to Jack Spong, who has visited Holy Cross three times to share his work with eager learners. Indeed, in the Preface of “The Fourth Gospel” Jack thanks Holy Cross for being a place where his book “first found public expression. Jack’s insights continue to challenge us. You can listen to this morning’s reflection here and Jack lecturing on the symbolism of the characters of the Mother of Jesus and the Disciple who Jesus loved here. This morning’s reflection begins a congregational conversation on our worship together.

Reflections on the Eucharist: Epiphany 2C, John 2:1-11:

Bishop John Shelby Spong:

Introduction to the Gospel according to Mark

P45 Mk7Holy Cross’ Adult Education Classes begin an exploration of the Gospel according to Mark using as our guides a commentary by Marcus Borg and a New Testament annotated by Amy-Jill Levine. You can listen to the first class, view the keynote slides, and get a copy of the class handout here

Intoxicated on Life – Epiphany 2C Sermon – John 2:1-11

Intoxicated on lifeA sermon on The Wedding at Cana – Water Into Wine?

Listen to the Sermon here

The gospel according to John is my favourite of all the gospels. Maybe it’s my Irish heritage but I just love a good story and the more outrageous the better. The Irish have never been known to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and neither did the writer of the Gospel we can John. This gospel was the last of the four gospels to be written and it nearly didn’t make it into the biblical cannon because the religious powers that be cited all sorts of problems with this particular portrait of Jesus. Not the least of which are all the signs and wonders that Jesus commands in this gospel. So, just for the record, let me say that I don’t believe that this particular story happened exactly the way it was written. I don’t believe that the man Jesus of Nazareth had the ability to instantaneously change water into wine. I do believe that getting hung up on whether or not Jesus could actually work miracles is to miss the point of this story all together.

This morning rather than go into a long and drawn out explanation of the historical critical method of studying the scriptures in order to explain why the writer of the gospel of John wrote this particular story and speculate upon the particular theological points the author was trying to make to his second century audience, I would like to set the history aside for a moment and look at what the author might have been trying to inspire in the people who would hear and read his or her story about the Wedding at Cana. To do that I want to get to the heart of this story to explore what it might be like for the people who actually encountered the Man Jesus of Nazareth. I mean on the surface of it this story is about a kind of intoxication that happened to people who come into the presence of this strange man from Nazareth. The best way I know of interpreting a story is to lay down another story right beside it and let one story interpret another.

Once upon a time, I remember it was a damp and dreary day in Vancouver that stood out from all the other damp and dreary days. It was in the middle of February; it had been overcast or raining for weeks and weeks and weeks. I was riding on the bus to work. It was the same bus that I had been riding on for two years. Every weekday morning I would commute by bus from the suburbs to the heart of the city. Every morning at six-fifteen, I would stand with the same people at the same bus stop and get on the same bus, which carried all the same people to their same jobs. On a good day the trip would usually take 45 minutes. Nobody ever spoke on that bus. Occasionally people would nod or smile at the all too familiar faces of their travelling companions, but conversation would be reserved for sunny days, when people could only manage a word or two. It was like there was this unwritten rule that nobody had the energy or the inclination to break. We saw one another almost every day, and yet we knew absolutely nothing about one another and that was the way we were determined to keep it.

On this particular February morning in addition to being tired, I was also wet. The wind was really blowing and I had to rely on my hooded jacket to keep me dry. The bus was running late and the water was just beginning to seep threw my jacket. I sat in my usual seat on the bus and I was determined to ignore the damp and get in a short nap before we reached the city. I was just dozing off when the bus screeched to a halt. Several passengers climbed aboard. All but one of them, were recognizable. I’d seen them a hundred times before. But the young man, who loudly greeted the bus driver with a “Hello,” him I’d never seen before. He struggled to fold his broken umbrella as he stumbled to the rear of the bus. He sat opposite me, and proceeded to greet everyone around him. People weren’t sure how to take this. Some just nodded and then looked away. Others mumbled a greeting before fixing their gaze out the window. I smiled, nodded and then closed my eyes, determined to escape into sleep.

The young man, continued to fuss with his umbrella. He explained in a loud voice that the umbrella was a gift from his sister and he hoped that it wasn’t ruined. He asked the gentleman seated beside him if he could help him to fold it. The somewhat flustered gentleman proceeded to fold the umbrella without a word. When the task was completed the young man, thanked the gentleman and asked him what his name was. He said he wanted to be able to tell his sister, who the nice man was, that had helped him with his umbrella. Without revealing his name the gentleman assured the young man that it wasn’t necessary to thank him. The young man on the other hand, proceeded to break all the rules, and said that his name was Michael and he told us all that he had never ridden on this bus before. He usually had to get a bus that went to the city in the afternoon and then he would get a ride home after dinner with his sister. But on this day, he would begin to work full days at his job. So he had to catch the bus in the dark. He went on to tell us that the bus we were riding in was much nicer than the one he usually caught. He decided that this bus must be a new bus, and weren’t we lucky to get to ride on a new bus. Then Michael took off his hat, held it out in front of him so we could all see it, and declared that he was the luckiest person in the world because his mother had bought him this wonderful hat that kept his head dry.

Michael went on to tell us all sorts of details about his life. At first people managed to listen, without responding. But as Michael went on describing his wonderful life, people found that in spite of themselves they were drawn into the conversation. As we approached the tunnel, that normally causes traffic to back up in rush hour, it was clear that there must have been some sort of accident in the tunnel. It would be a long wait. There would be no escaping Michael’s enthusiasm. Before long we all knew that Michael worked in the mailroom of a securities company. He assured us that this security company was a safe place to work, because they didn’t take care of the safety of people, but just took care of pieces of paper that were called stocks and bonds. Michael told us just how much he loved his job. Having a job was the best thing. Before he had the job he didn’t have any money to help his parents. But now he had enough money to help his parents and lots left over. Michael told us that he was really lucky because he worked with really nice people who took good care of him and let him do all kinds of fun jobs. Continue reading

I Really Don’t Like John the Baptist: a sermon on the Baptism of Jesus – Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

John the Baptist's headI’m indebted to Daniel Simundson for teaching me to pay attention to the missing verses in lectionary readings. Listen to the sermon here

Baptism of Jesus

Epiphany worship

Join us tomorrow as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. Everyone is welcome!

See you at 10:45am at Holy Cross Lutheran Church

Our Hymn of the Day will be Marty Haugen’s Song Over the Waters

The Things We Do For Jesus! – a sermon on the Baptism of Jesus

waters 4Baptism of Jesus Sermon — Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Sunday January 13, 2013    Listen to the sermon here

There’s a definition of what it means to be a priest that has always daunted me. A priest it has been said is “a keeper of the mysteries; a keeper of the sacred mysteries of our faith. People often confuse the idea of mystery with the idea of secret. But I can assure you that as a keeper of the mysteries of the faith it is neither my job nor any other priest’s job to keep the mysteries of our faith a secret. Yes, as an ordained pastor, one of my responsibilities is to be a keeper of the mysteries of our faith by ensuring that the communities that I serve hold those mysteries sacred. It is my job to hold the mysteries in such reverence that we all remember that the reality that we call God works in with and through those mysteries. Baptism is considered to be one of the mysteries of our faith. Baptism is a sacrament of the church and by definition a sacrament takes ordinary stuff – water – mixes that ordinary stuff with the Word and in the combination of water and the Word you have a tangible means of God’s grace. God’s grace is revealed in the sacrament of Baptism by the act of our gathering together and mixing the stuff of the earth with the Word. We have only two sacraments in the Lutheran church Baptism and Eucharist, and both of those things are sacraments because we gather together take ordinary stuff – bread and wine, or water and mix it with the Word of Jesus the Christ and in the water, the bread and the wine the means of God’s grace is made visible to us.

So, there you have it the technical definition of the sacraments, the mysteries of Baptism and Communion, in which the reality that we call God works in, with, through and under. But like all technical definitions of mysteries, these definitions fail to capture the essence of the mystery that likes at their very heart, the mystery of the reality that we call God. As a keeper of the mysteries, one would think that a priest, a pastor ought to be able to reveal, by way of definition something of the nature of the reality of the Divine.

The truth is I have no real definition to offer you of this reality that we call God. I read once, I wish I could remember where the wisdom of a priest far more skilled than I who declared that he’d given up trying to explain God to anyone because in the end, he said, “I cannot lead you to God, anymore than anyone can lead a fish to water.” The most important thing I learned in seminary is that “I don’t know is an answer.” The truth is the more we learn the more we know that we don’t know. But this unknowing can be so unsatisfying, precisely because we believe that God is the one in whom we live and breath and have our being, we want to know the very nature of the One who is the ultimate Reality. Now, if these words haven’t already become so vague that the veil of unknowing has begun to make any tangible means of God’s grace seem invisible and so beyond our grasp, let me leave the theology behind and tell you a story. Because one thing I do know for sure is that the shortest distance between the questions of what it means to be human and understanding our humanity is a story.

It happened on Thursday night. All week long I’ve been thinking about what I would say about the Baptism of Jesus and I wasn’t getting very far. It’s been a busy week, with lots of things to do as programs around here gear up again after the lull of the holidays. After teaching Confirmation on Thursday, I got home at about 9:30. The house was empty because Carol was off visiting the grandchildren for a few days. It had been a long day, and I quickly got into my pajamas, switched on the fireplace, and settled into my recliner in front of the television. The PVR was full of shows for me to watch and the opening scenes of Gray’s Anatomy dragged me into the complications of lives I would never have to minister to and I began to relax. The drama of medical emergencies mixed with the complications of various love affairs pulled me into a world where there was absolutely nothing expected of me and I was loving it right up until the moment that the telephone rang. Modern technology means that the name of the person calling usually appears on right there on the TV screen so that I can decide whether or not I’m going to answer the call. When the phone rang I expected it to be Carol calling to say goodnight, so I’d already pushed the pause button, expecting that after a quick goodnight I could get back to my shows. Buy the time I realized that there was no name on the TV screen but only a phone number, it was too late and I was already saying hello.

The caller was someone I’d heard from only once before. They were already halfway through a very nasty tale of woe when I realized that they were asking me to come out. It was a call for help. It was a call that I had every right not to respond to. I mean the caller wasn’t even a member of this congregation. It was late. I was already in my pajamas. It was dark outside.

I was annoyed. I mean really. Couldn’t this person have called me before I left Newmarket? What gave them the right to think that I would come out so late, in the dark, for someone I’d only met once before? The audacity. The sheer audacity of such a request was enough to make you scream. Give me a break. I listened to the caller’s plight with precious little sympathy. I asked her to hold on for a moment so that I could try to think of a way to help. What I really meant was: is there anyone in Newmarket that I can disturb at this time of night and ask them to go over and help. Some of you have offered to help in this way in the past. You know who you are and you can be sure that your names went through my mind as I tried to avoid leaving the comfort of my warm snug. It was only the thought of how annoyed I was to be disturbed at such a late hour that kept me from disturbing one of you. So I told the caller to hold on and I would be there in about half an hour.

I was cursing to bet the band as I went upstairs to get dressed. The air was positively blue. I was angry. I was going out, on what in my mind was the middle of the night, it was ridiculous. Hell, it was dangerous. It was dark. Yeah we were going to meet in a public place. But why the expletive, curse, fill in the blank your self, why the ………blanket blank, should I? I certainly wasn’t going out of love for my neighbour. I was ticked. I was going because it’s my job to go. Sure I knew that I had every right to refuse to go. But if I didn’t go, my shows would be ruined. How could I possible sit there and enjoy my shows when I knew that someone needed my help? Forget the shows, if I didn’t go, I knew darn well I wouldn’t get any sleep. Continue reading

Recognizing the Sacred In and Beyond the Stories We Tell: the Baptism of Jesus

Joshua bell Subway1In this sermon, I attempt a method of interpretation which places one story beside another in order to reveal the sacred. The modern legend of Joshua Bell playing Bach in the subway told alongside the story of the baptism of Jesus provides epiphanies about the sacred in the other and begs questions about the way in which we tell our stories.  This sermon was preached last year in the wake of tragic events in Paris. Listen to the sermon here

In April of 2007 an article appeared in the Washington Post, which earned its author, Gene Weingarten, a self-described “heathen” a Pulitzer Prize. The story went virile and over the years I have read and heard all sorts of sermons that include a version of the story loosely based on Weingarten’s article. For reasons, which I hope, will become clear, I’d like to quote Weingarten’s article without any of the usual embellishments.

“HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L’ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play. It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant. Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment? 

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend? The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls. The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant.

The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician’s masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang — ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.”

Some of you may recognize this article and those of you who do will know that the violinist was Joshua Bell. In the course of his article, Weingarten goes on to describe the complexity and the beauty of the 6 classical pieces that the virtuoso Bell played, which included masterpieces from Bach, Massenet, Schubert, Ponce, and Mendelssohn. What happened in the Washington Metro station is the stuff that legends are made of. If you read or hear this story from the 169,000 posts on the web, you will read a fairly consistent tale, which lends itself well to repetition and is the stuff great sermons are made of. However, in the retelling of this story, the details have been exaggerated in order to make a point.

There is a video of the events, which took place, so the facts can be checked. But when have we ever let facts get in the way of a good story; especially when we are trying to make a moral point. In the popular version of this story, the greatest violinist on the planet, played for 45 minutes and thousands and thousands of busy rush hour commuters passed by without paying any notice what so ever, except for one middle aged man, who slowed down and paused for just 6 seconds, later a women threw a dollar in Bell’s violin case. The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year-old boy. His mother dragged him along, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head al the time. This action was repeated by several children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on. In the 45 minutes that Bell played, only 6 people stopped and paid any attention, 20 tossed money as they hurried by. No One applauded and no one recognized Joshua bell.

Joshua Bell subwayThese are the details of this popular myth. However, the Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize winning article and the videotape tell a more modest story. Exactly 1,097 people passed by, not thousands and thousands. Several people stopped and paid quite a bit of attention; one woman was heard to say that she really didn’t want to leave. As for the child, he managed to delay his mother for only 3 seconds, no other children appear on the video to take any notice and Joshua Bell was in fact recognized by a woman who couldn’t believe her good fortune and waited around until Bell’s magnificent performance was over to introduce herself to Bell before placing a twenty-dollar bill in his violin case. For his virtuoso performance Joshua Bell earned a grand total of $52.17 and a legend was born. Despite the exaggerated details in this legend, the essence of truth remains: One of the greatest violin players alive today, played some of the best music ever written, on one of the best violins in the world, and most of the people who where there that day never even noticed.

When I read the stories about the Baptism of Jesus, I get the impression that something similar has happened to this myth. The fantastic details as they are told by the gospel-story-teller known to us as Mark are pretty incredible. I don’t mean the characterization of John the Baptizer who is described as wearing camels’ hair and a leather belt around his waist, and who ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. According to the gospel-story-teller we know as Mark, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by this wild-baptizer John. Immediately upon coming out of the, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favour rests.” Continue reading

A Progressive Christian Wades into the Waters of Baptism

baptism 33A sermon for the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus 

Listen to the sermon here

Wading into the waters of baptism is no simple matter for a progressive Christian. Once you leave the myth of perfection in some distant garden back there in the mists of time, reject the notion of humanity’s fall from grace as a result of original sin, and give up worshipping the sadistic image of a god who demands a blood sacrifice, it’s difficult to navigate the waters of baptism without spouting notions that the institutional church condemns as heresy. But today is the day when the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the stories about the baptism of Jesus that have been handed down to us by our ancestors suggest that on this day of all days, we should have the courage to follow Jesus into the river of life even if it does challenge some of our long held assumptions about what it means to be a child of God.

I venture into these troubled waters as someone who treasures the sacrament of baptism. Long before I ever entertained the idea that I might one day respond to the call to become a baptizer, I became a lover of this particular sacrament of the church. I am now, and I have always been one of those people who find it almost impossible not to shed a tear or two at baptisms. The beauty of all that hope and expectation all wrapped up in the guise of a tiny little human has a way of generating in me a watery contribution as my tears join the sprinkling to wet the babies head. When the baptized is an adult my tears flow even more bountifully. Let’s face it folks these days the reality is that infant baptisms are rare enough. Adult baptisms, especially in mainline churches are so rare that the nostalgia alone is enough to send us into spasms of uncontrollable weeping for seer joy at the thought that it is even remotely possible that someone has been able to see beyond the church’s doctrine long enough to embrace the amazing possibilities of the sacrament to provide any benefit in this the twenty-first century.

When we look back to the stories told in the synoptic gospels about the baptism of Jesus we are sometimes so distracted by the opening of the heavens, the descent of the dove and the voice of God declaring Jesus to be the beloved, that we miss an important detail of the way in which the early followers of the Way chose to tell the story of Jesus public coming out party. New Testament scholars remind us that the stories told by the writers of the gospels were written at the end of the first century; a time when it would have been clear to all those who had ears to hear, that by going down to the river Jordan to be baptized by John would have stirred up the political and religious waters. John the Baptist was a revolutionary who made no bones about the fact that the religious authorities and the political rulers were leading the people down the wrong path. John’s shouting in the wilderness was his way of warning the people to repent; to literally turn around and follow a different path. John was doing far more than ranting when he condemned the religious authorities as a brood of vipers; he was calling on the people to reject the teachings of the authorities. John’s insistence on repentance was a call to revolution, a revolution designed to overthrow  the status quo. John was out there in the wilderness because it wasn’t safe for him to spout his own particular brand of incendiary fire and brimstone rhetoric within earshot of the authorities. By going down to the River Jordon and submitting to John’s baptism of repentance Jesus was choosing to identify himself with a political revolutionary.

That the writers of the gospels chose to tell there story in ways that see the God of Israel give Jesus a shout out, and the very spirit of God descending like a dove onto the shoulders of Jesus, turns John’s baptism of repentance into a kind of passing of the torch from one revolutionary to the next. Yet, despite the gospel-writers having cast Jesus into the role of revolutionary torchbearer none of the gospel writers shows Jesus following the ways of his predecessor John. There is no record of Jesus calling people to repent nor is there any record of Jesus ever having baptized anyone. All we have is Jesus “Great Commission” which if New Testament scholars are to be believed, Jesus probably never even said, “go therefore and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, it’s true, most preachers, dare I say modern-day baptizers, learned in seminary that rather than being an instruction given by Jesus the Great Commission was actually added to the story by the early followers of Jesus. But I digress, the point I’d like to emphasize about Jesus’ trip down to the waters of the Jordan, is that by choosing to publicly submit to John’s baptism, Jesus was making an important statement about his own public ministry. For just like John, Jesus intended to challenge the religious and political authorities.

That the gospel writers have Jesus head off into the wilderness to find his own way prepares us to follow Jesus down a completely different path than the one his predecessor John pointed toward.

So on a day, when the church looks back upon the baptism of Jesus, surely we can take courage from Jesus’ example of wandering off into the wilderness to find our own way of challenging the religious authorities of our day. Continue reading

Bat Qol – The Daughter of a Sound: Hearing the Word Utter Our Name

Preparing to Preach on Jesus’ Baptism

BAT QOL pastordawnEach year, I begin my preparations for preaching on the Baptism of Jesus with this video in which  Heather Murray Elkins tells her story, “The Secret of Our Baptism.” Elkins opens us to a new way of hearing the Bat Col, the Daughter of a Sound, the Voice of the Divine, the Word, who speaks in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

So this is Christmas…I hope you have fun: a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas, Matthew 2:1-12

IMG_1254I am indebted to the work of John Phillip Newell; especially his book “The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings” for the insights into the burning bushes that surround us. Listen to the sermon here