A few days ago, I was asked how I am coping with the isolation of physical-distancing. The question made me realize that in the absence of in-person worship, I find myself upheld by visual liturgies. Fortunately, we are blessed with technologies which bring such beauty to our screens. These moments nourish, ground, and sustain me. May you too find sustenance in the music of The Brilliance whose work anchors my pandemic playlist. Coupled with the images of an evocative dance, it is for me a, visual liturgy.
There’s a Zen Buddhist story about three monks who decided to practice meditation together. So, they went to a quiet place at the side of a lake and closed their eyes and began to concentrate. Then suddenly, the first monk stood up and said, “I forgot my prayer mat.” Miraculously the monk stepped onto the water in front of him and walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. He returned to his fellow monks just the way he had gone; striding upon the water. When he sat back down, the second monk stood up and said, “I forgot to bring my prayer mat.” Miraculously the second monk stepped onto the water in front of him and he two walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. When the second monk returned to his fellow monks, he too returned striding upon the water.
The third monk had watched the first two monks very carefully and he decided that this must be some sort of test. So, he stood up and loudly declared: “Is your learning so superior to mine? I think not! I too can match any feat you two can perform!” With that the young monk rushed to the water’s edge so that he too could walk upon the water. The young monk promptly fell into the deep water. Surprised and annoyed, the young monk climbed out and promptly tried again, and again he sank into the deep water. Over and over again, he dragged himself to up on the bank, shook himself off, and confidently set out to walk upon the water and over and over again he promptly sank into the deep water as the other two monks watched from the shore. After a while the second monk turned to the first monk and said, “Do you think we should tell him where the stones are?”
Looking upon the sea of interpretations of the story about Jesus walking upon the waters of the Sea of Galilee, makes me feel like that young monk who continues to sink each time he tries to find his way across the lake. Centuries of interpretations of this text seem to come to the same conclusion; a conclusion which insists that we set forth in faith and that if we keep our eyes firmly fixed upon Jesus, we will defy all the odds; a conclusion that leaves the vast majority of us lingering on the shore because we know that like Peter, we too have precious little faith that wen or even Jesus for that matter, can defy the laws of nature. Traditional interpretations of this text continue to rely upon us leaving our understanding of the way the planet actually works, suspending rational thought, and setting off knowing that neither we, nor Jesus, are or were super-natural beings. Traditional interpretations set us up for failure and threaten to sink our faith. Fortunately, there are other monks, to guide us. So, let me draw your attention to two of those monks because I believe that these two monks tell us where the stones are, so that we can navigate the waters, even in the midst of whatever storms may come.
One of the monks who has helped me to find some of the stones are, is the ancient theologian known simply as Origen of Alexandria who lived from about 185 to 254. Origen left behind a body of work which provided the Church with a way of approaching the texts of Scripture which nourished the lives of believers for generations. Indeed, Origen’s approach to scripture only fell out of fashion among protestants in the last 200 years or so. To make a long story short, Origen believed and taught, as have generations of theologians since Origen, that the stories in Scripture have various layers of meaning. The first layer is the literal meaning, or surface meaning which is designed by the writers to reach those who are uninitiated or uneducated about the ways in which the sacred texts function. Beyond the literal meaning lies a deeper meaning, indeed Origen taught that beyond the simple literal meaning of the biblical texts, the seeker of wisdom would find layers of deeper meaning.
For centuries, the Church followed Origen’s views of scripture, teaching the simple literal meaning to the masses while reserving the deeper layers of meaning for the initiated, often referring to these deeper layers of meaning as “The Mysteries.” While the masses were busy getting on with life, the religious professionals dug deeper and deeper into the mysteries, eventually creating a Church hierarchy that firmly divided the uninitiated from the enlightened. Obviously, I’m giving you the abbreviated version of this long and complicated story which goes much deeper; I am if you will simply pointing you toward a stone that lies below the surface of the water upon which we seek to walk. Hidden beneath is a method of exploring scripture which relies on symbols, myth, and illusion to reveal hidden meaning or meanings within the text. A story with a hidden meaning is often referred to as an allegory. Origen, and generations of theologians, who came after him understood that the stories of scripture had many, many layers and so they relied on symbolic and allegoric methods to touch our imagination and inspire in us a way of being in the world.
Sadly, perhaps in the beginning for expediency’s sake, but eventually to preserve its own power over the masses, the Church began to rely more and more on the simple literal meaning of the text. Indeed, the Church reserved the mysteries to such an extent that it can be said that, the hierarchy by and large hid the deeper layers of the text so well that even some members of the hierarchy forgot about the symbolic and allegorical methods of interpreting the scriptures.
The hidden mysteries might well have remained hidden if it had not been for the fact that so many other mysteries have been uncovered by human reasoning regarding the nature reality, especially when it comes to the nature of Creation. Human knowledge has expanded by leaps and bounds and you and I live in a world where information is at our finger tips; most of us carry devices in our pockets which can unlock more mysteries that we can keep track of in the recesses of our memories. The reality is that these little devices, these phones, can now unlock the deeper mysteries which the church once kept hidden. The insights gleamed from historians, theologians, and clergy which once remained tucked away in the halls of academic institutions or in seminary libraries, are now available to one and all. Every line of scripture, every jot and tittle, has been carefully examined and re-examined and we now have so many interpretations that no single one of us can claim to be an expert in the field. We are all, once again, simply seekers of meaning.
But there are a few of us who have dedicated our lives to the study of the deeper meanings and we at Holy Cross have had the privilege of one who has come to be known as one of the leading New Testament Scholars in the world. We have been blessed twice, to have John Dominic Crossan teach in our sanctuary. So, it is Dom to whom I’d like to point to as our second monk on the bank who has the power to point us toward a stone beneath the surface, which might just enable us to find our way upon the sea, so that we too, might walk on water toward this character Jesus. Dom is a wise revealer of mysteries, who insists that we must bring all our faculties of reason to bear upon our interpretations of scripture, while he warns against the dangers of relying upon literal interpretations.
Dom insists that, when it comes to reading scripture the important thing to remember is that, “It is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” So, when it comes to the story about Jesus walking upon the water and of Peter’s lack of faith impeding his ability to follow Jesus, we do not have to check our brains at the door and believe that Jesus literally walked upon the water in order to follow Jesus. Indeed, in order to follow Jesus, we must look beyond the literal toward the symbolic and the allegorical if we are to begin to grasp the mysteries which the anonymous gospel-storyteller, which we call Matthew, was trying to reveal.
We must begin with reason, and reason tells us that humans cannot walk upon water unless that water is frozen and we know that the Sea of Galilee does not freeze. So, on the surface the story may appear to be about a miracle, but hidden beneath the surface are stones which can enable us to follow Jesus. The anonymous gospel-storyteller was writing some 50 to 70 years after Jesus walked the earth. The author whose name we don’t know, but whom tradition calls Matthew was writing to a fledging community which was struggling to follow the teachings of Jesus; a fledging community which lived in the midst of chaos. The Romans had only just destroyed their world and in addition to living under a brutal military occupation, this fledging little community was singled out by their oppressors for special persecution because many of them were Jewish and they aspired to follow the teachings of a Jew, who had been executed by the Romans, as an enemy of Rome. Chaos was all around them, their leaders where being pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions. Peter and Paul had long since been executed by the Roman authorities. In the ancient world chaos was represented by the sea. Storms on the sea represented a particularly fatal kind of chaos which threatened to destroy the fledgling little community known as followers of The Way.
The anonymous gospel-storyteller works with the symbols his readers would have had no difficulty recognizing. The story is written to encourage a battered and abused little community so that they might have the courage to continue to follow The Way, which Jesus taught, lived, and died for. The listeners of this particular allegory would have understood well that even in the midst of chaos, no storm could defeat them if only they kept their eyes firmly on Jesus. Have faith continue in The Way and the storm will cease and even you of meagre means, you will not sink.
So, with those stones revealed, mindful of the symbolic meaning of the story, what depth of understanding can we come to on our own particular journey across our stormy seas? What difference does it make how we interpret this little story? Well as long as we continue to argue over whether or not it is possible for a human to walk upon the surface of the water or to calm a storm, Jesus remains but a mythical character. Either Jesus remains a mythical character or we suspend our understanding of reality. What a choice? As a mythical character, we can admire Jesus, but can we actually emulate Jesus? Can we embody Jesus? I mean we are after all only human. So, if Jesus remains some sort of super-human, how are we supposed to embody Jesus? Without super-powers, how do we live into the teachings of a super-hero? It is impossible to live as Jesus lived as long as our image of Jesus is one which insists that Jesus had super-powers.
If we are to take Jesus teachings seriously, we must look beyond the literal to the deeper symbolic meaning. You and I, we are living in the midst of storms of biblical proportions. The current pandemic has blown away so many ways of being in the world. We have all had to cope with new ways of being. In the midst of this pandemic, many other storms continue to rage. There are still far too many wars and rumours of wars. Our planet continues to suffer the ravages of climate change.Refugees continue to search for safe havens. The hungry continue to perish. No super-hero is going to save us from the rolling waves of greed and selfishness which continue to overwhelm us.
How can we embody the peace to which Jesus points, if we don’t even believe that Jesus was fully human? How is it possible for we mere mortals to aspire to be all that we are created to be, if we actually believe that it takes abilities beyond the natural order to save us from ourselves? The storms which are raging, war, poverty, disease can only be quelled by a concerted effort from those who earnestly seek healing, justice and peace in this world. If we are to do this as followers of the Way we are going to need to know where the stones are so that we can point them out to others yes, but more importantly so that we can lay them alongside the stones which followers of other ways have found.
If humanity has any hope of evolving into a species which can sustain life on this planet we need to look deeper into the sea, and begin to reflect what we see hidden beneath the surface of our seas. Let the chaos reveal what is there.
Creation is sufficient to all our needs, we have the resources and the means to walk upon the waters of this life in the midst of any storm which comes our way. It is time for us to learn from our elders, it is time for us to look into the riches of all our traditions and to learn from our mistakes, as well as our triumphs. It is time for us to have the courage to trust the wisdom which has been handed down to us and, and this is equally important, it is also long past time, for us to reject the nonsense which has also been handed down to us.
It is time for us to dig deeper into the meaning of everything. It is time for us to stop looking to the heavens for salvation. It is time for us to have the courage of Elijah, who in the story handed down to us by our ancestors; a story rife with deeper meaning than we have yet to discover, a story in which Elijah a mere mortal dared to hope that the chaos of his time might be navigated. A story in which the ancient symbol of a mountaintop was used to reveal the place where Divine presence might appear. A story in which it is revealed that God comes not in the rush of a mighty wind, not in the power of an earth-quake, not in the devastation of a fire, but in the sound of a gentle whisper. The ancient Hebrew words Bath Qol, which can be translated as gentle whisper, or still small voice, or literally as “the daughter of a sound.”
As much as we long to hear the mighty sound of a super-hero come to save us from ourselves. The truth is that the DIVINE ONE, the ONE we call God, the ONE who lies at the very heart of reality, that ONE: lives and breathes in, with, through and beyond us, and speaks as a gentle whisper, a still small voice, the daughter of a sound. So, standing upon our stones, we must begin to listen as we look to the ONE who lives in with, through, and beyond us.
When I was a child, I remember being handed a large seashell. I was told that if I put the seashell up against my ear, I would hear the sound of the ocean. As I grew up, I learned that the sound which I was hearing was not actually the ocean. I learned this the day that I cupped my hand over my ear and heard the very same sound. I learned that it was a sound which emanated from deep inside of me.
While I still love the notion that I might be able to hear the ocean, I am even more intrigued that I can hear a sound which emanates from deep within. Sometimes when the seas of chaos threaten to sink me and I can’t for the life of me, hear the Bath Qol, when the still small, the daughter of a sound eludes me, no matter how hard I’ve been trying to listen, and like Peter I too have little faith, I will cup my hands over my ears, and then that sound which emanates from deep within will help me to hear the Bath Qol, the ONE who lives, in, with, through and beyond me.
Standing upon the stones which have been revealed just beneath the surface, I encourage you to cup your hands over your ears if you need to be reminded of the sound which emanates from deep within you. Listen to your life. Listen to the deeper meanings which lie beneath the surface the stones which will enable you to walk upon the waters, to face the storms which rage around you, following The Way which has been revealed to us by our brother Jesus, so that together we can lay our stones alongside those who follow other Ways of Wisdom. Listen, to the Daughter of a Sound.
Listen to the wisdom that lives and breathes in, with, through and beyond us, so that together we can walk upon the water, and quell the raging storms. So, that all may live in the peace which heals, nourishes, grounds, and sustains all life. Let it be so among us. Let it be so. Amen.
(Zen story: Walking On Water: Website: http://www.buddhagrove.com – author: Unknown)
See the full WORSHIP Video below – Download the Order of Service here
When I was a teenager, I was always in a hurry. I wanted to see and do everything there was to see and do. When I was nineteen, I knew that I just had to get out there and see what the world had to offer. So with nothing more than a backpack, a three-month Euro-rail pass, and eight-hundred dollars in travellers cheques, I boarded an airplane bound for Amsterdam. I was searching for adventure and I was convinced that Europe held the excitement I was looking for.
Inside my backpack was the book that would make it all possible, a little book entitled, “Europe on Ten Dollars a Day.” I was determined to make my eight-hundred dollars stretch the length and breadth of Europe. I was going to see and do it all! It wasn’t easy. In fact, when I look back on it now, it seems like such a lot of hard work. Up early in the morning sightseeing all day long. Meeting new people. Fighting my way through the crowds of tourists. Searching for cheap places to eat and sleep.
After two months of traveling from one European city to the next, I just couldn’t face one more castle or museum. I figured that it was time to get away from the cities so I headed for the Alps. After a long train ride from Munich, I arrived in the Swiss town of Interlaken. There I boarded a coggle train that would take me to the Alpine village of Grindelwald. The train was filled with tourists anxious to fill their rolls of film with pictures of the mountains. When I arrived in Grindelwald, I was told that the youth hostel was only about three kilometres from the station, so I and several other young backpackers which I had met on the train decided to walk to the hostel. What we didn’t know was that the hostel was three kilometres straight up the side of a mountain. As we trudged up the mountain, we were embarrassed by the speed with which villagers three times our age just passed us by. Despite our youth, the senior Swiss locals were much more adept at climbing than we were.
When we finally arrived at the hostel there was a lot of complaining about how tired we were. We were exhausted. Tired of the demands of traveling. Too tired to be impressed by the fact that here we were, in a Swiss chalet in the middle of the magnificent Alps. It was only two o’clock in the afternoon, but we collapsed onto our beds in the dormitory and promptly fell asleep and didn’t wake up until morning.
Breakfast tastes incredibly good when you eat it in a Swiss chalet surrounded by friends you have only just met. People from all over the world with just two things in common: youth and an incredible thirst for adventure. There was only one thing for us to do. We had to get a closer look at the mountains. So about a dozen of us decided to climb to the top of what was called the Glacier Gorge so that we could get a better look at the famous Eiger. We had been assured by the hostel manager that we could easily walk to the top of the glacier that lay adjacent to the Eiger and from there the view would be magnificent. Right after breakfast we set off, newfound fiends from the farthest reaches of the earth.
Canada, South Africa, Tokyo, England, Finland, Australia, New York and California, and there wasn’t a real climber in the bunch. The first part of the journey was pleasant enough.
The alpine meadows were delightful, and the conversation was playful. The switch back trail was a bit more of a challenge as our calf muscles began to feel the strain. But when we reached the cliffs, I wondered if we were up to the challenge. Before us lay a series of cliffs into which the Swiss had embedded a series of wooden ladders. My fear of heights began to surface. But I was determined to give the first cliff a try. So, one by one we began to climb. Each rung of the ladder was a challenge and I resolved never to look down. As I climbed hand over fist, step by step, I kept my vision firmly fixed on the butt that was up ahead of me willing myself up the cliff, one rung at a time.
When all of us had safely negotiated the first ladder, several people, myself included, suggested that perhaps we were overreaching ourselves. Maybe the glacier gorge was more of a climb than we could handle. But the keeners in the group encouraged us to go on. After we had slowly made our way up about half a dozen ladders, there was more dissension in the ranks, but we had come this far and so we headed towards the next ladder. It was a doozy. We moved ever so slowly. I resolved that I had had enough and once I got to the top of this particular ladder, I wasn’t going to go any higher.
As I scrambled to the top, I was relieved that my climb at least was over. My legs were a little shaky as I straightened up and took a look around. It took my breath away. There we were on top of a plateau opposite the Eiger. We had made it to the foot of the glacier gorge. The view was magnificent. I was awe-struck. Our once talkative little group, was silent as each of us tried to take it all in.
I found a spot of grass and sat down. The air was fresh and clear, the sun burned bright, and the snow glistened as though it were a sea of diamonds. Over-whelmed by the beauty, no one spoke a word. I wish I could share the wonder of that moment with you. It was a glimpse of the CREATOR’s power and majesty. Everywhere I looked I saw the evidence of DIVINE splendour.
It was truly a once in a life-time mountaintop experience. One of those rare moments when you are totally conscious of the presence of something so much bigger than yourself; something DIVINE, something that has been described for generations as “God.” One of those moments that has the power to transform you.
Eventually our silence gave way to slumber as we rested our weary selves. When the warmth the afternoon sun woke me from my slumber, my eyes tried desperately to adjust to the vivid colours. Before me stood the Eiger. I looked out across picture post-card Switzerland and I marvelled at the glory and majesty of CREATION. Slowly I became aware of my traveling companions. We had gathered together just a few hours earlier. We came from the farthest reaches of the earth and together each of us felt the wonder of the experience.
There on the top of a mountain a rag tag group of travellers was transformed by a glimpse of DIVINE Creation. Without words we began to dig around in our daypacks for something to eat. With little or no preparation, we created a feast from what we were able to scrounge together. Out of one pack came two apples, out of another a crust of bread, some salami, lots of cheese, an orange, a banana, a few Swiss chocolate bars and even the remains of a bottle of red wine. In silence we passed around the ingredients of our feast. I was conscious of the reality that we were in the presence of something much larger than we could possibly imagine; a DIVINE presence, as we enjoyed this holy communion. It was just an impromptu meal shared without much forethought, but it was as holy a communion as I have ever partaken of.
These past few months, we have not been able to gather together in our sanctuaries to share communion with one another. The journey back to worshipping in-person, seems even more insurmountable than climbing a mountain. Public health protocols surrounding in-person gatherings mean, that for the foreseeable future, the rituals we have developed over two millennia must be set aside. Even when we do go back to our sanctuaries, much of what so many of us have come to love about worshipping together will not be possible, no warm welcoming embraces, no singing, no passing the peace with hugs and kisses, probably no communion, or at the very least no wine at communion, and definitely no sharing all those goodies that we normally share after the formal worship is over, no coffee, no sandwiches, no cookies or cakes and sadly still no more farewell embraces. As I contemplate staring out at a masked congregation from behind my own mask, those Zoom squares which for months now have been my only view of my beloved congregation, well those screen images don’t seem so bad.
During our lock-down we have found new ways of being the Church, new ways of seeing the DIVINE in one another, new ways of communing with one another. They may not exactly be the mountaintop experiences that we long for, but then I suspect that whatever the meal that Jesus and his first followers shared by the lakeshore so long ago, came as an unexpected surprise.
But it was indeed as sacred an experience as any ritual partaken of in the Temple. It was just an impromptu meal shared without much forethought, and yet all those who partook of that feast did so in the presence of the DIVINE. What made that experience SACRED was the reality that they were in the presence of something much larger than any of us can possibly imagine; a DIVINE PRESENCE.
Becoming conscious of the DIVINE PRESENCE which is the source of all that IS, nourished, grounded and sustained Jesus’ first followers who were able to meet the challenges of living under circumstances far harsher than we privileged North Americans can even begin to understand.
I’m sure that each of us can recall sacred moments spent in the splendour of Creation in which we were conscious of the PRESENCE of something much greater than we can imagine. Some of us are blessed to have experienced such sacred moments aided by the rituals which have nourished generations of seekers of such DIVINE encounters. Many of us have missed our familiar rituals and practices. We have been forced to find new ways of being the Church and new ways of encountering the DIVINE.
For months now, seekers of the DIVINE have flocked in numbers not seen for decades to worship services that are being offered over the internet. Screens of all sorts have been utilized as worship leaders have attempted to open seekers to the SACRED MYSTERY which many of us call “God”. Churches everywhere are reporting unprecedented numbers of viewers. Our own congregation’s online offerings are engaging between 20 and sometimes 50 times more people than we were engaging before we had to close down our sanctuary. Church leaders of every denomination are asking all sorts of questions about what this means for the future of the Church. The truth is none of us really know.
I can’t help wondering what those 5,000 well fed followers of Jesus actually knew about what was happening in and around them. The truth is none of us really know any more than they did, what the experience of the DIVINE PRESENCE can lead to. We know that the rag-tag bunch of Jesus’ followers managed to change the world and their impact continues to provide hope to millions and millions of people generations upon generations after they ate their fill. My own life was forever changed after an impromptu meal on a mountaintop; to this very day I am nourished by that long-ago experience.
So, as I contemplate what the coming months and indeed years may bring to our shared hunger for the DIVINE PRESENCE, I realize that even though so very much of what we have relied on over the years to nourish us, may not be available to us and so each and every one of us will need to reach into our back-packs to discover what we have to offer to provide nourishment to one another. Just last week, as new public health policies allowed for socially distant visiting, I was blessed to share not one but two meals with two sets of dear friends.
Figuring out the logistics of how to safely prepare and serve food to one another was complicated and I’m sure we made a few mistakes. We certainly missed the warm embraces. But oh, how nourishing those gatherings were. Despite the challenges we were fed. The LOVE we shared nourished, grounded and sustained me in ways beyond measure.
As we look ahead to what may be, let us embrace the challenges. Let us dig deep into ourselves to discover what gifts we have to offer to nourish one another. Let us have the courage to grieve what may be lost without letting our grief keep us from discovering new ways to nourish, ground, and sustain one another in the presence of the DIVINE. Everywhere we look there is evidence of DIVINE SPLENDOUR. Let us prepare the feast for one another and let us partake together however, wherever, and whenever we can, trusting that the ONE we seek is ever ready to welcome us into the LOVE which is the MYSTERY we call “God.”
View the full Worship Video below
There’s a famous story about Mahatma Gandhi in which, Gandhi has just finished expressing his admiration for the teachings of Jesus and is asked, “Mahatma, if you love Jesus so much, why don’t you become a Christian?” Gandhi is reported to have replied, “My friend, when I meet a Christian, I shall become a Christian.” This story has always caused me to insist that,“I am not a Christian!” When the shock of hearing a Christian pastor say, “I am not a Christian!” begins to settle, I declare that, “I aspire to be a Christian.”
Part of my refusal to claim that I am already a “Christian” comes from the enormous task of being a Christian, which I believe comes down to following Jesus’ mandate to LOVE; to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. I believe that following Jesus’ takes us on a pathway which can open us to the reality life itself is all about learning how to be LOVE in the world.
Over the years, I have encountered may followers of Jesus, as well as followers of other faiths, and indeed followers of no faith at all, who have embodied this LOVE which many of us call, “God.” I pray that from time to time, I too have been able to be LOVE in the world. But neither I, nor any of those holy ones, for it is by embodying LOVE that we are “holy,” none of us have arrived as the LOVERs we are created to be, for life is a journey of endless becomings.
In the arrogance of my youth, I thought that it was all so very simple as I reduced Christianity to simply following Jesus commandment to “love God”, I trusted that loving God was motivation enough to love the very things which God loved, namely, my neighbours and myself. Indeed, my simple conviction that my love for God was the foundation from which my Christianly would mold me into a “good Christian” when it came to caring for my neighbours eventually drove me into my vocation as a pastor. My own Christianity was all wrapped up in my love for my God. And therein lies the rub. You see, my confidence in my christian identity revolved around my love for my god. The identity of my god was based on my understanding of all that I had been taught, together with my own hopes and expectations, mixed with a dash of childish anxieties, and some not so subtle ingrained biases. My god, was very much a bearded, wise, domineering, old, white, man, who was prone to fits of anger, insisted upon getting his own way, confessed to be jealous, kept a list and checked it more than twice, and knew me in ways that I didn’t know myself.
It is not surprising then, that the Psalm prescribed for this particular Sunday in the Church year, Psalm 139, was my favourite of all the Psalms. Listen to the words of Psalm 139 as they are prescribed in the Revised Common Lectionary. I should note that the powers that be have decreed that several verses are to be left out of todays reading. So, I shall read the only the verses of the psalm that the powers of the church have decided should be read. The verses which are to be left out are indicated with an ellipsis: dot dot dot – three dots which if you google them you will discover actually indicate: something which has been deliberately hidden.
I am reading from the inclusive Bible, Psalm 139:
YHWH, you’ve searched me,
and you know me.
You know if I am standing or sitting,
you read my thoughts from far away.
Whether I walk or lie down, you are watching;
you are intimate with all of my ways.
A word is not even on my tongue, YHWH,
before you know what it is:
you hem me in, before and behind,
shielding me with your hand.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
a height my mind cannot reach!
Where Could I run from your Spirit?
Where could I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you’re there;
if I make my bed in Death, you’re already there.
I could fly away with wings made of dawn,
or my home on the far side of the sea,
but even there your hand will guide me,
your mighty hand holding me fast.
If I say, “The darkness will hide me,
and night will be my only light,”
even the darkness won’t be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day—
darkness and light are the same to you.
You created my inmost being
and stitched me together in my mother’s womb.
For all these mysteries I thank you—
for the wonder of myself,
for the wonder of your works—
my soul knows it well.
My frame was not hidden from you
while I was being made in that secret place,
knitted together in the depths of the earth;
your eyes saw my body even there.
All of my days
were written in your book,
all of them planned
before even the first of them came to be.
How precious your thoughts are to me, O God!
How impossible to number them!
I could no more count them
Than I could count the sand.
But suppose I could?
You would still be with me!
Examine me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts—
see if there is misdeed within me,
and guide me in the way that is eternal.
Looking back at the young woman I was, I can understand how this became my favorite Psalm. Hearing this psalm for the first time in church, confirmed all my fondest desires about the god of my understanding. Hearing this psalm spoken or chanted as part of the church’s liturgy, I encountered the kindly old gentleman of my fondest hopes; a gentle grandfather who knew me better than I knew myself and still loved me, a love so immense that I, little old me, I was assured of only the gentlest of corrections as I journeyed toward eternity. I loved this psalm right up until the moment I actually read this psalm. dot dot dot – indicates that something is deliberately hidden Once read the hidden verses can never be forgotten:
O God, if only you would destroy those degenerates!
If only these reprobates would leave me alone!
They talk blasphemously about you;
Your enemies treat you as if you were nothing.
Don’t I hate those who hate you, YHWH?
Don’t I loathe those who defy you?
I hate them with a total hatred,
And regard them as my own enemies!
My disappointment was palpable. The god of my dreams reverted to type; a type of god who inspired hatred. But never mind. “Have faith!” I told myself. For surely God who is infinitely wiser than you, surely God of Heaven and Earth, like all wise, old, holy, white, men, surely our god has reasons beyond our understanding for all his objectional characteristics. So, I put away, or at least tried to put away my doubts, and followed the wisdom of church elders and put away the objectional verses so that I could rest secure in the care of my great, grand, Father-in-the-Sky.
There’s been a great deal of water under the bridge since stopped claiming that, “I am a Christian!” and began insisting that, “I aspire to be Christian” … dot dot dot In addition to meaning, “something deliberately hidden” can also mean: “therefore”. I no longer envision the MYSTERY which some of us call “GOD” as a person. As the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes wisely understood, if horses could draw their gods, they would draw god as a horse. So, after giving up the vision of God drawn for me by men, I tried images of God as female, only to discover that I was simply projecting visions of my deepest desire for a god who is merely a better version of me onto the SOURCE of ALL.
dot dot dot Only by including the words of Psalm 139 which are deliberately hidden can we begin to understand that the author of this beloved psalm in his full humanity. Like the imaginary horses of Xenophanes, who would draw horse-like gods, the psalmist draws a god who is just like himself. This psalm is attributed to King David; a deeply flawed man if ever there was one. Guilty of adultery, murder and possibly a genocide or two this warrior king projects his own hatred upon the god of his own desires just as surely as I projected the attributes, which I hold dear onto the god of my own desires.
dot dot dot . . . Therefore, what are we to do with this much beloved psalm? Well, I hope that we can continue to love this psalm for its brutal honesty. For like all great literature, this psalm reveals wisdom about who we are. Taken in its entirety this psalm, can teach us to search our very selves, deeply and intimately so that we may come to know who we are. Journeying into the very darkness which reveals magnitude and the apparent insignificance of our being; stitched together in our mother’s womb by a CREATOR who is the purveyor of mysteries beyond our comprehension; a SOURCE beyond, mere knowing, capable of intimacy beyond our imaginings a MYSTERY BEYOND all mysteries, is a journey into which the teachings of Jesus invite us.
Yes, it may have all been simpler back then, when we were but children and drew upon images drawn by those who had gone before us, of a god-like-them. Such a god is capable of inspiring faith in children, who long for their stockings to be filled to overflowing by a santa-like-sky-god. But when and if we have the courage, or dare I say, the faith to search ourselves, all ourselves, what is revealed is a REALITY beyond our images, beyond our hopes, beyond our dreams, a MYSTERY which IS BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also. Yes, I know that it is easier to love a person than it is to love a mystery; especially a MYSTERY beyond our comprehension. Why else would we settle for personifications of the DIVINE? Hear me when I say this, there is absolutely nothing, I repeat NOTHING wrong with personifying the DIVINE MYSTERY which some of us call “God.” Humans personify all sorts of things! It is perfectly fine to refer to the DIVINE as a person just as long as we remember what it is that we are doing. We can personify the DIVINE as long as we remember that the DIVINE MYSTERY is not a person. For to worship the personification is to worship something less than the DIVINE itself. Our ancestors had a word for worshipping something other than the DIVINE and that word is idolatry. If we set the DIVINE up as a Father or a Mother, or even a horse, believing that God is a Father, a Mother, or a horse, than we have created our own version of the Golden Calf and the object of our worship is not the DIVINE MYSTERY but an idol.
A wise Hindu friend of mine, once reminded me that the notions of god as a person whether it be: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit , are but an educational toys, designed to help learn to love the MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of all that IS. She reminded me that Christians often wrongly insist that Hindus have many gods.She went on to explain that these gods are merely educational toys, all of which point toward the ONE who is beyond all. Later her brother, explained to me that the ONE which we Christians call “God” is BEYOND, the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also.
It may be easier to love a mere personification, or educational toy, or even an idol, but for those of us who strive to follow the teachings of Jesus, we are called upon to LOVE God with all our heart, soul, and mind. How do we wrap our arms around the MYSTERY, which is BEYOND, the BEYOND and BEYOND that also? I don’t know. That’s my point.We don’t know. dot dot dot . . .
We don’t know; therefore, we get to set out upon a journey into the unknown.For those of us who aspire to Christianity, we begin with our desire to follow Jesus call to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbours as ourselves. We begin with love, the LOVE which is DIVINE, for God IS LOVE. Some of you know that my favorite way of describing the MYSTERY which is DIVINITY, dates all the way back to the fourth century when St. Augustine expressed the Trinity as the LOVER, BELOVED and LOVE ITSELF.
As the Apostle Paul writes our God is the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being. dot dot dot – therefore we live and move and have our being in our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF. How do we love a MYSTERY which IS BEYOND, the BEYOND and BEYOND that also? We begin by loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. For if we have our being in LOVE then LOVE lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us. dot dot dot – therefore . . .Let us aspire to be LOVE in the world.
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Jesus of Nazareth was an obscure poor, brown, Jewish rabbi living in an oppressed part of the Roman Empire, whose death continues to impact the world. His death upon the Empire’s instrument of execution, was relatively unremarkable. Thousands upon thousands of unruly inhabitants of the Empire were executed during Jesus’ lifetime by those charged with the task of establishing and maintaining order by force. To the powers that be, Jesus’ execution was little more than the routine death of a homeless, outcast who spent far too much time creating social unrest. Nothing more than the insignificant death of a troublemaker without influence in the halls of power, who would not or could not moderate his own behavior. An insignificant troublemaker dies, under the rule of law, and yet, the impact continues to reverberate all around the world, nearly 2000 years after it should have been long forgotten.
Late last fall, nobody’s really sure exactly when or to whom it happened, but sometime last fall, a person so obscure that history will fail to name them, someone living in an Empire where order is maintained by force, got sick and died. The impact of that death has kept millions of us all around the world, locked up inside our homes avoiding tiny droplets whose impact upon any one of us could be catastrophic. For months now, I have heard various people, including myself, refer to these strange times which we are living in as “chaotic”. The very word chaos summons in me visions of Genesis, when the Ruach, the breath of the CREATOR hovered over what in Hebrew is called the tohu va-bohu, the formless void, or the chaos, the RUACH hovers over the tohu va-bohu and calls forth light out of the chaos of darkness.
I can’t help wondering what it will take to bring forth light out of the chaos which continues to swirl around us. When the impact of apparently insignificant events can create waves which reverberate throughout creation in an endless whirl and swirl capable of sweeping us off our collective feet and setting us adrift on stormy seas, where or how can we find moorings to set us a right? It makes sense to look to science as a way of knowing, so that we might chart a course to solid ground. So, my mind jumps to what little science I have. I must confess that I dropped out of physics before the Christmas exam so as to avoid failing physics altogether. I am but a humble wordsmith. So clutching my visions of chaos, let me cross into unfamiliar scientific territory to explore the contours of what physicists call, chaos theory. I say contours of chaos theory, because I am but a wordsmith and it sounds appealing, but it would be more accurate to say, let me examine a small droplet of chaos theory.
The term “chaos theory” was coined back in the 1960s by a mathematician named Edward Lorenz who worked at MIT as a meteorologist. Lorenz was trying to use complicated mathematical formulas to develop models to predict the weather patterns and systems. During the course of his research, what seemed like an insignificant computer input decision, revealed the impact of unintended consequences. Lorenz had rounded off the number 0.506127 to 0.506, assuming that the difference of 0.000127 was so insignificant that its impact would be inconsequential. Lorenz turned out to be wrong. What appeared to be a tiny inconsequential number, turned out to have a significant impact.
That tiny number, somewhere in the mere millionths of a difference in barometric pressure, capable of only an infinitesimal impact on wind speed, no bigger than a baby’s sneeze or the beat of a butterfly’s wings, that tiny change, at the beginning of a weather system turned out to be the difference between a blue sky and a monsoon. Lorenz coined the phrase: “Butterfly Effect” to describe this phenomenon.
Today, quantum physicists use the butterfly effect to describe what happens when a small change in one place in a system can result in a ginormous difference in a later state. The mere flapping of a butterfly wing has a ripple effect which multiplies over time and changes weather patterns thousands of miles away.
The unintended consequences of our actions are almost unfathomable. When George Floyd lay dying beneath the knee of a police officer steeped in the supremacy myths of Western Empires, Floyd called out for his Mamma and a world in lockdown rose up and risked the dangers of marching in the streets during a global pandemic. Mothers and nurturers in cities and towns all over the planet responded to one more death in a long line of forgettable deaths of obscure people who just happened to be Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. Suddenly, collective chants of “Black lives matter,” and “Indigenous lives matter,” ring out across this planet and once again the forces of Empire resort to calls for “law and order.”
Somehow the randomness of events coming together makes life seem just that, random, and we are left hovering over the tohu va bohu, the formless void, longing for a creative power stronger than our puny empires to call forth light from the darkness. Fortunately, not all darkness is terrifying. After all, we humans gestate in darkness. New life begins in darkness. Whether life is cocooned in in the waters of the womb, or planted in the darkness of the Earth, the seeds of life require darkness to thrive.
Ah ha, you were wondering when I’d get to the Sower in our gospel reading. Well, let’s look at this Sower. For most of my life I have read this parable and said, “Ah ha! Finally, a parable without hidden meaning; a parable which I can understand.” But that was back when I believed that God, you know the grand-puppeteer in the sky, the god who is in charge of everything, the one who is up there manipulating everything; that god who I have long since retired in favour of the DIVINE MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of reality; the MYSTERY which is the LOVE we call “God”. Believing that we live and move and have our being in the MYSTERY who lives and breathes in with through and beyond us, means that I must dig a little deeper to find the hidden seeds sowed by a SOWER who lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us.
You see there is more to chaos theory than the randomness of the butterfly effect. The god of my past, let’s call him, and I do mean, him, let’s call him the sky-god, withers into absurdity when cast in the role of first and final cause, a supreme universal agent, first imagining and then designing all outcomes in the universe. As theologian Robin Meyers insists in his book, “Saving God From Religion:”
“It is comforting to believe that we exist because God intended that we should exist. It means we are here in our present form because, as the poetry of Genesis asserts, humans are the final, consummate project of a creator who had us in mind all along. Chaos theory, on the other hand, suggests that we are a onetime, non-repeatable, fantastic but essentially meaningless occurrence. Go back and introduce even the smallest variable—say, a primate virus at just the right moment…and your aunt Martha would not exist, nor would you, nor would anyone else you love. .. …..Except that isn’t exactly what chaos theory says. It is paradoxically named, because Lorenz believed that results that appear chaotic may, in fact, be “ordered” at the outer limits by some mysterious “boundary.” You never get the same results twice, but there is also a kind of phenomenological “edge” beyond which those final results never go. Lorenz mapped this boundary and called it a “strange attractor.” When he looked at his graphs, he realized that although the weather patterns never repeated themselves, they all traced a pattern that was undeniable, a self-imposed elegance that kept what appeared to be chaotic from flying off the page. Some people have compared this boundary, this strange attractor,” to God.”
The MYSTERY which is the LOVE which some of us call God is a strange attractor indeed, living and breathing in, with, through, and beyond us, sowing seeds of new life into the blessed darkness, ever-creating more and more glorious ways of being in the world. Even the tiniest of seeds are capable of giving birth to the most awesome creations. An obscure poor, brown, Jewish rabbi living in an oppressed part of a totalitarian Empire, his life and death continue to impact the world.
Your life, my life, our lives together, there are all sorts of possibilities. Random, perhaps, unintended consequences almost certainly. But also, splendid opportunities. You see, you are all wonderfully made, endowed with the capacity to choose. Which means that in addition to circumstances beyond our control, there are also circumstances within our control. Each and every one of us can choose to perpetrate random acts of kindness, outrageous outpours of generosity, ridiculously displays of hospitality, dangerous demonstrations of courage, along with extravagant acts of LOVE.
What does LOVE look like in these strange and chaotic times? LOVE looks like you: you speaking out when you hear of injustice, you listening with a fierce passion to someone who desperately needs to be heard, you standing in solidarity with the poor or the oppressed, you marching in the streets for change, or you tenderly touching the shoulder of someone who is lost, or you feeding the hungry, giving a cold glass of water, or welcoming a stranger, you daring to move beyond your comfort zone, you laughing out loud in the face of ignorance, you wearing a mask, you holding your lover, or you knelling in prayer, or you refusing to give up, or you daring to hope, or dreaming new dreams.
LOVE is you and I working together with all the many embodiments of LOVE to live into the dream of the kin-dom. It may appear to all the world that your one precious life is insignificant, hardly worth mentioning in the grand scheme of things. Then suddenly, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, your random action begins a journey, we know not where. Meyers insists that, “To choose. Is life’s most powerful, most spiritual, most God-like activity.”
Friends we are indeed, living in strange and chaotic times. There are forces out there who would have us restore order so that we can return to what is familiar. We could simply just choose to plant the same old seeds. There’s something appealing about the powers of empire, better the evil we know than the evils we don’t know. Or we could put our faith in the STRANGE ATTRACTOR and trust in the elegance of Creation to ensure that we don’t fly off into oblivion. For this STRANGE ATTRACTOR holds our existence in a miraculous web of tiny occurrences which have power beyond our wildest imaginations.
So, let us choose to plant seeds of kindness, generosity, hospitality, and courage so that the LOVE which is the MYSTERY we call God can live, and move, and have being, in, with, through, and beyond us. Let us be the CREATORS you were created to be.
For we were created out of the tohu va bohu, out of the chaos and we are held in LOVE by THIS STRANGE ATTRACTOR, which is the MYSTERY that gives us the audacity so that we can choose what seeds we shall plant. Let us be random, outrageous, ridiculous, dangerous, extravagant sowers of the seeds of kindness, generosity, hospitality, and courage. Let us be LOVE in the world! LOVE which is BEYOND the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also!
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In Jesus’ words, we can hear the dim echoes of a time gone by. Long before Jesus came there was a character who called out in the marketplaces. You can read about her in the biblical books of Proverbs, Job, the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus. What students of the Bible call the “Wisdom literature” is full of stories about a character who so many people have never heard of.
In the book of Proverbs, she claims to have been there when CREATOR was busy creating and she declares: “When God set the heavens in place, I was present, when God drew a ring on the surface of the deep, when God fixed the clouds above, when God fixed fast the wells of the deep, when God assigned the sea its limits…when God established the foundations of the earth, I was by God’s side, a master craftswoman. Delighting God day after day, ever at play by God’s side, at play everywhere in God’s domain, delighting to be with the children of humanity.”
So, just who is this master craftswoman? Job insists that, “we have heard reports of her”. But, “God alone has traced her path and found out where she lives.” The writer of Ecclesiasticus admonishes the reader to: “court her with all your soul, and with all your might keep her ways; go after her and seek her; she will reveal herself to you; once you hold her, do not let her go. For in the end, you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.”
In the Wisdom of Solomon, she is described as, “quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her. She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, image of God’s goodness. Although alone, she can do all things; herself unchanging she makes all things new. In each generation, she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets.”
You may not know who she is, but Jesus certainly did. Tales of her deeds were popular in Jesus’ day. Jesus, a student of the scriptures who was referred to as a rabbi, would certainly have known who this heroine of the scriptures is. In the ancient Hebrew texts of the Wisdom Literature she is called “CHOKMAH.” In the ancient Greek translations of these texts she is called “SOPHIA.” In our English translations of these texts she is simply known as “wisdom.” The ancient Hebrew and Greek languages were written without punctuation. Often in Greek, there were no spaces between the words. Until long after Jesus’ day there were only capital letters. Upper- and lower-case letters were not used. Unlike our system where personal names begin with capital and are followed with lower case letters, ancient texts consist of lines of unbroken capitals. Often ancient Greek, the words did not have spaces between them and so translating these texts into English is tricky. This is just one of the reasons why Sophia’s story has remained hidden from most of us.
When you read the texts that describe “wisdom,” it is clear that they are, at the very least, speaking about Wisdom as though Wisdom is a person. SOPHIA is wisdom personified. SOPHIA is spoken of as being around from the beginning–before Creation. She was with YAHWEH at the time of creation; creation couldn’t happen without her presence. Other biblical passages show her coming to be with humanity, reaching out to people to be in relationship with them. She walks through the streets, calling out to people, trying to get them to listen–to follow her. She’s also a welcoming hostess inviting people to her table, a bountiful provider of food, the source of all good things. She is the way to abundant life.
She is also a trickster and play is one of the ways she gets things done. You may not have heard of her, but when Jesus speaks to the people about children calling to one another in the marketplaces, the people would have remembered SOPHIA standing in the marketplaces and calling the people out to dance. But the people refused to join in SOPHIA’s playful dance. SOPHIA’s reputation for playfulness led the people to refuse her invitation. In the same way, Jesus who came eating and drinking, called out to the people and his reputation led the people to label him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!
Jesus declares: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance”. Jesus harkens back to the images of SOPHIA in the Scriptures and insists that, “SOPHIA/WISDOM will be vindicated by her deeds.” SOPHIA’s reputation as a trickster who accomplishes great deeds through play and Jesus’ reputation as a glutton and a drunkard who comes to the world eating and drinking aren’t usually emphasized these days, by those who tout their religion in the public square, or on social media. I can honestly say, I have never heard people who call themselves, “Bible believing Christians,” taking to social media to encourage friends and followers to eat, drink, and be merry. And yet, this stuff is in the Bible.
The Bible describes playfulness as an important part of the God in whose image we are created. All too often those of us who profess to follow Jesus, refuse to hear Jesus’ cry: ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance.” Jesus is calling us out to play. Yes, I know this is a summer like no other summer we have ever experienced. I would love to just go out to the lake and splash and play in the water. But the beaches remain closed, so let Jesus’ words take us back to the words of Sophia, so that we can play together in the words of the scriptures.
In the Bible, it is Sophia who is first given the task of calling God’s people out to play, and that playfulness goes way beyond dancing. Despite the church’s history of attempts to contain and or constrain our playfulness, Jesus continues to call us out to play!
On this glorious summer Sunday, on a weekend when it is meet right and salutary to celebrate, we can listen to the tune Jesus is piping and we can dance for joy for we are wondrously and gloriously made. Weekends are not the only things designed for play; we are. In the biblical books which are known as Wisdom Literature, it is made very clear that our bodies are blessings given by God so that we might delight in them.
Playfulness includes exploring the pleasures that one body can give to another body. There’s a little book in the Bible which we call the Song of Solomon, which for centuries was simply known as the Song of Songs and there you will find words that can make self-righteous Christians blush and televangelists positively apoplectic. “Look, there my love stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; and come away; for now, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. Let my love kiss me with kisses on the mouth!” How did this get into the Bible?
The Song of Solomon, or as it is sometimes called, the Song of Songs is surely the most erotic book of the Bible. This erotic song of songs is a long poem in which a woman, “Black and beautiful,” woman and a man, “radiant and ruddy,” speak the language of desire, cataloguing every inch of each other’s body, every smell and every taste. The radiant young man declares to his lover, “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.” And she tells anyone who will listen that, “His cheeks are like beds of spices, yielding fragrance. His lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh,” He responds by exclaiming that her, “two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. I am my beloved’s” she exults, “and his desire is for me.”
The Song of Songs is a song about desire, and so it is also a song about the pain of separation, of missed meetings, and of absence. “O that his left hand were under my head,” the woman sings with palpable yearning, “and that his right hand embraced me!” When this passionate woman’s lover knocks on her door, she hesitates for a moment to open it. And when she begins to speak, this ancient biblical woman speaks some of the sexist lines in any literature. “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt.”
When she opens the door, he is gone, and she heads out into the city to search for him, crying, “I implore you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love.”
How did this erotic love poem make it into the Bible? No one knows for sure. But scores of interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have found in it the song of human yearning for the DIVINE ONE and the DIVINE ONE’s desire to be in intimate relationship with humanity.
The Song of Songs is read at the festival of the Passover as a reminder that YAHWEH delivered Israel from slavery not only because the DIVINE ONE was bound by the covenant to do so, but also because the HOLY ONE loved the people of Israel and desired goodness for them.
The ancient Christian writer Bernard of Clarvaux wrote more than eighty sermons on the Song of Songs without even making it past the third chapter. According to Clarvaux the poem provided a means by which the individual believer could come into intimate relationship with God. Like all great poetry, the Song of Songs can easily sustain a wide range of interpretations. But it resists being read only as a spiritual text about human beings devoid of bodies. Clairvaux warned young monks and nuns not to read it until their faith matured, because of the sexual feelings it is able to inspire.
The song is so erotic, that to this day, orthodox Jews are cautioned not to read it until they reach the age of forty. For to read the Song of Solomon without the wisdom that comes from age could cause the reader to unwisely give in to their own passionate desires.
From the pages of scripture sacred to Jews and Christians alike, the Song of Songs remains a testimony to mutuality in love, to the beauty of the human body, to the goodness of sexual desire and the power of love. The Song proclaims that “Love is as strong as death, and passion fierce as the grave.” “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.”
And we’re not talking about agape here. No this is not the agape love shared between friends or members of a faith community. We’re talking about eros. Eros, the love that is expressed in the passionate embrace of bodies. In the Song of Songs, we find no anxiety about erotic desire’s power.
In the Song of Songs, passionate desire is portrayed as the force that binds us to one another. The relationship described in the Song is one of mutuality; the lovers are evenly matched in the force of their desire. They are equally vulnerable in their desire to be desired by one another; they are equally determined to give and to receive pleasure. For centuries, the church has selected particular pieces of scripture in order to say, “no” to the pleasures of sex in any way shape or form.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus declared that “WISDOM/ SOPHIA will be vindicated by wise deeds.” Surely WISDOM/SOPHIA is vindicated in relationships so intimate and satisfying that they draw us out of ourselves and more deeply into the passions of life in Creation? Relationships in which pleasure is given and received with joy. Relationships in which knowledge of the body is sought with care and gentleness, in which the body is pronounced beautiful over and over again.
As we come to experience the erotic as sacred, we can begin to know ourselves as holy and to imagine ourselves sharing in Creation with one another for our common well-being. When we recognize the face of the HOLY ONE in the face of our lover as well as in our own face, we can begin to feel at ease in our bodies. The DIVINE ONE moves among us. In, with, through, and beyond our bodies the DIVINE ONE lives and breathes and plays.
Jesus implores us: “come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yolk is easy, and my burden is light.” In these strange times, we may not be able to enjoy our regular summer pleasures. So, as our beaches remain closed, why not open up the Song of Solomon and rejoice and be glad, as you read: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved’s desire is for me. Come, my beloved let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages; let us go out early into the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened, and the pomegranates are in bloom. Then I will give you my love.” According to the Scriptures, SOPHIA stood out in the streets and invited the people to come and play–to tell jokes–to laugh at our blunders.
In today’s gospel Jesus compares his generation to children who sit and refuse to play. Do NOT let it be said of this generation that we refused to play, that the delights and pleasures which come to us as gifts from our CREATOR were shunned or wasted. Our bodies are sacred instruments designed to play. In the sacred dance of desire, we are opened to the transforming power of LOVE. So, remember to give and take delight in your play. Let yourselves be transformed. Let your bodies open you to the wonders of life and for God’s sake dance! Dance, and rejoice for you are wonderfully made; designed to play. Amen.
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June is Pride month; a month set aside to both celebrate how far we have come and advocate for all those who have not and do not enjoy the freedom to express fully who they are regardless of who they love. But this is a June like no other. We are living in the midst of a world-wide pandemic and whether we are out and proud or still in the closet, all of us queer or straight, we have all been locked down for the better part of the last three months. Closeted away in our respective homes, our fear of COVID-19 has been matched by the horror of the even more insidious infection of racism, a disease which has for centuries infected the hearts and minds of white privileged people and robbed Black, Indigenous and People of Colour of their liberty, dignity, and all too often their very lives. So, as June 28th, the 50th anniversary of the very first Pride Parade drew closer and closer, I wondered how we can celebrate Pride in the midst of so much suffering. Forget the fact that we can’t celebrate with a party, let alone a parade. How do we say, “Happy Pride!” on a day like today.
I must confess that I was sorely tempted to skip any mention of Pride celebrations this year. That is until, I was struck by an ear-worm. You know those annoying ear-worms, pieces of songs that pop into your heard, over and over again. This particular ear-worm is a song from my misbegotten youth; a popular song which is actually based upon a piece of scripture. Rather than sing my earworm to you, let me share it with you: …..
there you have Psalm 137, adapted and interpreted, but Psalm 137 indeed. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, Yeah we wept, when we remembered Zion. When the wicked carried us away in captivity Required of us a song Now how shall we sing the LORD’s son in a strange land.”
I know that this is not Babylon, and we haven’t been carried away into captivity by our enemies. But who among us can doubt that so much of what we have taken for granted has changed and right now we are living in a very strange place indeed? So how can we celebrate today of all days, when so many people are suffering?
Perhaps we should go down by the river, or the lake and just sit and weep. Alas, here where I live, the beaches remain closed, because we are afraid of what might happen should too many people rush to the shore. So, how do we celebrate Pride in these strange times? I’m not sure that we can begin our celebrations without weeping. The duelling pandemics of the virus and racism have caused so very much pain. Strange thing about weeping, as we weep, we remember. Weeping can be such a catharsis. As we weep for the victims of the pandemic and for the ravages of racism, memories of other pains often join our tears.
Memory is a marvellous, miraculous gift which can bring with it pain even while it sooths our pain. As I weep, I can’t help but marvel at how very much has changed since I first began to become aware of who I am. I was only ten years old in 1967, when Pierre Trudeau declared that, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” I was too young to understand the news in 1968, when Canada decriminalized homosexual acts. I don’t remember being aware of the Stonewall riots which erupted in 1969. As a teen-ager in the 1970’s, what went on between consenting adults was something seldom talked about. It wasn’t until the early 80’s when the reality of the AID’s epidemic drove conversations about homosexuality into the public square, that I began to pay attention to the cause of gay rights. Living in Vancouver and working in the travel industry, I lost friends, good friends, to a disease which devastated the gay community.
Later as I began to allow myself to understand who I am, I remember trying and failing to find the courage to march in Vancouver’s Gay Pride parade. I don’t know what frightened me more, being seen at the parade or seeing myself for who I am. Fear is a long, long way, from pride. So, it took me longer than I care to admit, to summon up the courage to participate in the pride parade in 1986.
Later as I was preparing myself to become a pastor, I had the very good fortune to fall in love. Falling in LOVE is a very empowering experience. But falling in LOVE in 1997, when your church says things like “love the sinner, hate the sin”, well let’s just say, that when I was called here to Holy Cross in 1999, it wasn’t just fear that kept Carol and I quiet on the subject of our relationship, it was the reality that if I said anything at all, I wouldn’t survive as a pastor for very long. “Don’t ask don’t tell,” was the unofficial policy of the ELCIC. So, you didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell.
Newmarket, I was told was a conservative town. Well a lot has changed over the years. Many of us worked for a very long time at considerable cost to change the policies of our government and of our church. The benefits of equal marriage in Canada, and full inclusion in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada are life changing and I confess that there are days when I still feel like pinching myself. “Can it actually be true? Can I actually be married to the woman I love and still be a pastor?”
The relief and the joy of being who I am without fear of persecution, makes me proud not only of who I am, but of who you are as a church, who we are as a community and who we are as a country. My pride runs deep and so it is a joy to see how very far we have come. This week as I continued to wonder how to celebrate in these strange times, I couldn’t help but marvel at the courage of so many people who paved the way for us. As I recall their stories filled with struggle and pain, my tears give way to resolve. Today, my question has become: How can we NOT celebrate? So many people struggled for so very long. Surely, they deserve our thanks and praise as we celebrate how far we have come, even as we contemplate how much farther we still need to go?
Today, I dry my tears and I give thanks to all those brave folks who marched these past 50 years. Today, I celebrate all the brave pride-goers who risked so much, so that we can be all that we are created to be without fear. It has been a long and difficult struggle, and our pride celebrations inspire such joy. So, we sing, we dance, we make noise and yeah, we flaunt our sexuality when we can in public! As the saying goes, “Next year in Jerusalem.” or “Next year in the promised land!” But for now, let us celebrate, how we can, where we can. Next year in public! Because we know that the gay rights movement has liberated more than just the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, pansexual, two-spirit, androgynous, and asexual communities. I know that our straight sisters and brothers have learned a great deal about who they are. I’m pretty sure that liberation and freedom from sexual repression is indeed a blessing that more than just a few of us are grateful for.
The reality that we a wonderfully and beautifully made creatures of mysterious and sublime wonder is a blessing of unfathomable joy. So today, we celebrate who we are! But with each and every utterance of, the words “Happy Pride!” we cannot forget that our joy is tinged with sadness for all our sisters and brothers around the world who continue to live and die in fear. The Pride movement is still in its infancy. We have come a long way. We are blessed to live in a place where we can be who we are and love one another without fear of the state. Sadly, there are still places here where some of us are afraid to hold hands. There are places where some of us fear to go. We will need to do a whole lot more marching. We will also need to make a great deal of noise so that our communities become safe havens for all people, regardless of how they identify themselves or how they are identified by others because of the colour of their skin. We will need to make a great deal more noise so that the lives of Black, Indigenous. and People of Colour MATTER.
Those of us who remain in the Church must continue to make a whole lot of noise so that our institutions repent of the abuses of our past and stop the abuses which continue to be perpetrated in the name of Jesus. We have been richly blessed. We follow ONE who continues to teach us the importance of offering and receiving even what seems the smallest of kindnesses. So, let our celebrations refresh us and let us offer welcome refreshment in the LOVE we share with our neighbours.
Happy Pride EVERYONE! May this time of celebration feel like a cool drink of water, which refreshes you, so that you can refresh all who are thirsty for the freedom to love and to be loved. May the LOVE which is DIVINITY continue to empower all of us to be all that we are created to be. Sing LOVE’s song in these strange times! Happy Pride EVERYONE!
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The raging storms are all around us! The tumultuous winds are churning up the waters and tossing us about in treacherous seas. Our small boats are tossed to and fro as massive waves heave us left and right. The roaring winds create upheavals, which leave us cowering in fear, trembling as we struggle to meet each wave which carries with it the potential to destroy the few planks of wood that we have hewn together to carry us upon the ever changing sea, which holds both the promise of sustenance and the threat of oblivion within the darkness of its depths. With each crash upon the hull our fear rises, and the ferocity of the storms intensifies. Frightened, clinging to life as we are tossed from one danger to the next, we cry out into the storm, convinced that only some power more intense, bigger, stronger, beyond our abilities to even imagine, only a power such as this can save us from being swamped in our small boats. We fear that left to our own devices, without the meager security offered by our small boats, we will be overcome by the waves and drown in the very sea that we must rely upon to sustain us.
Racism, poverty, disease, and violence; four winds that howl so ferociously that all we can hear is the sound of people’s fear. As the storms rage all around us, we see the very real possibility that the bottom might just fall out of the small craft we have fashioned to navigate the troubled waters which lie before us. Racism, poverty, disease, and violence; four winds that drive us ever closer to wrecking our small boats. Boats hastily designed without thought to the perils which threaten to consume us, as monsters from below depths below, surface all around us.
The weather forecast looks bleak as one storm after another rolls our way. We are so very tired. Tired of the winds of racism, which continue to blow despite our efforts to quell their intensity. We have seen the power of racism which over and over again rises up in our midst. Some of us have learned to live in the almost silent breezes which are generated by our fear of the “other.” We have figured out mechanisms to quell the intensity of racism’s loathsome impacts. We built lifeboats to carry us beyond the pain of the hatred which wafts in and around us, blown about by racism’s destructive currents. We are afraid that there aren’t enough lifeboats to save us all, so we jettison lives and simply turn away as “others” drown. We’ve grown accustomed to systems designed to allow us to deny the suffering of “others” as they flail about. We trust the designs of our lifeboats to protect us. Different seas have different “others.” But the lifeboats are crafted from the same materials.
As racist breezes churn up the waters, poverty, disease and violence continue to howl, while we are tossed upon the waves, trusting that sleeping in the back of our lifeboat lies a power who IF roused will protect us, save us, carry us safely to better shores. Today, many of us are feeling more than just a little seasick. Many of us believed that we’d managed to quell the racism that once again howls in our midst. It’s Fathers’ Day after all and we were looking forward to calm waters so that we could celebrate the love of fathers for their children and children for their fathers. Our treasured memories were to be hauled up on deck, so that we could all admire the virtues of loving fathers and loving children, treasured memories, hopes for the future, gentle embraces, good wishes, and happy families. Surely, the ill winds can be quelled long enough for us to celebrate Father’s Day in peace. But the winds of racism and violence have joined forces and blown about the pain of too many atrocities which threaten the stability of our lifeboats. Our boats are weighed down with the pain of First Nations martyrs, Inuit martyrs, Metis martyrs, black, brown, and Asian martyrs; the pain of those “othered” by white privilege, slaughtered in the places we believed the winds could not, and did not penetrate.
Not even our beloved Canada, all dressed up in the history of the underground railway and multiculturalism, not even the mythical Canada, can protect us from the harsh winds of racism and violence. We recognize the power of racism and violence to stir up the waters and so we comfort ourselves with the thought that the destructive winds blow only in the south, as if we here in the north are immune to the dangers which are blowing in the wind. We point to our American cousins as if they alone, with their lifeboats weighed down by their shoot-em-up culture, are at risk of sinking. But we have our own baggage stowed deep within our holds which has the power to sink us.
National Indigenous Peoples Day: a day scarcely etched in our calendars for the sake of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples. Not even a day set aside to reveal what lies in the bowels of our own lifeboats can convince us to jettison the baggage of imperialism or forgo legacies of colonialism, which we are hell-bent upon preserving even if it means that Indigenous women and girls are thrown overboard, indigenous men beaten and incarcerated, while families and indeed whole nations are denied safe drinking water; water: water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink.
We breathe deeply of the winds of racism, while denying that the very air we breathe is polluted by systems designed to ensure that the white privileged few continue to enjoy the benefits so many of us have grown to love and to horde, convinced that if the first inhabitants of these shores would only learn from us how to swim, all would be well. The winds of racism carry with them abuse, while poverty howls, dis-ease wipes out family after family, and violence destroys, and we turn away, continuing to deny that we have the power to save them all. So, we don’t save anyone of “them,” because they are “them” and not us. Let them, those people, the “others,” save themselves, there is only so much that we can do. Besides, they don’t want our help anyway. They would rather be left to their own ways. So, we narrow our gaze, trim our sails and hope for calmer seas. Relieved whenever we hear one of them, one of the “others,” condemn us for our delusions of grandeur, which allow us to imagine ourselves as “their” saviours.
Friends, the powerful metaphor offered to us by the anonymous gospel storyteller we call Mark is designed to open us to the reality of the relentless storms which rage all around us. Using familiar symbols designed to conjure up images of the fears we all harbour deep inside the very fibers of our being, the gospel storyteller wants us to feel the lashing winds which threaten to separate us from one another, as we desperately seek to survive. We have been distracted for too long now, arguing about whether or not this miracle story actually happened exactly the way it was written. It simply doesn’t matter whether or not Jesus of Nazareth preformed miracles.In fact, a miracle worker living 2000 years ago doesn’t matter at all when people are dying and being killed here and now. What matters to those who are threatened by storms or who are perishing in storms, or who are mourning the death of victims of storms, is not whether or not some guy living 2000 years ago had the power to change the course of nature. What matters to those in peril on the sea is what you and I and they are going to do in the face of the howling winds of racism, disease, poverty and violence. For this miraculous story to be worth anything at all, it needs to be able to carry us away from the realities of the ordinary into the dream of a future where miracles are actually possible.
It has always annoyed me that Jesus lies sleeping in the back of the boat, lying on a cushion no less, while his followers are in fear for their lives. I know that according to the story, Jesus was tired. He’d spent the whole day, saving those around him. The crowds had gathered and were pressing in on him and the only way to get away from their incessant demands was to get in a boat and sail away. Who among us hasn’t needed to get away from the incessant demands of others? We get it. Jesus was tired. We’re tired. I don’t want to hear about one more killing. I’m sick of hearing about racism. I’m smart enough to know that I’m one of the privileged. I know that the systems of power and control favour me and mine. What can I do about? Besides, I don’t hate black people or indigenous people. I wasn’t raised to think I’m better than anybody else. Yeah, I know the system ensures that I remain one of the privileged. But I didn’t ask to be born white and powerful, any more than they asked to be born poor and powerless. I can’t save them all. Besides they don’t want a white saviour. We keep hearing that white privileged people need to shut-up, listen, and learn because our solutions are not “their” solutions. So, I just sail on, sparing only a prayer and some small change for those who are flailing about in stormy waters.
It sure would be nice if Jesus was the answer to every question. If not Jesus then that big something more than me, that God fella, the old bearded white man in the sky, sure has a lot to answer for, leaving us alone to flail about, letting untold millions sink to the bottom. No wonder, I read this story and I want to scream at the god of my dreams, “Wake up. Don’t you care that so many people are drowning?” Wake up we need you to do something. Help us! Save us! I’d really like to believe that if we shout loudly enough that God will hear us and that God is powerful enough to make a difference, to save us, and to save “them.” I’d sure like to believe that there’s a master mariner powerful enough to still the winds and calm the seas. Peace! Be still!
Like many people, I am reeling from the onslaught of the news and I too, am trying to make sense out of what I do and don’t believe. Over and over again the familiar words we at Holy Cross, use to close our worship services each Sunday ring in my ears: “Go in peace. Be LOVE in the world.” Be LOVE in the world! It would be so much easier to rely on a force more powerful that I to quell this storm. And yet, we profess to follow a saviour who taught that God is LOVE; a saviour who embodied the LOVE that IS God.
Be LOVE in the world? Be God in the world? God in the world? We are part of a church which teaches that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the ONE in whom the LOVE that IS God was embodied. I smile every time I remember, Dom Crossan saying, “Do you want to know what God looks like in the first century? Well, Jesus is what God looks like in sandals.” Jesus is what LOVE looked like in the first century. Jesus is the Christ precisely because he was LOVE in the world. Christ is God in the world. The Church teaches us that we are the body of Christ. In the words of Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours.” “Christ has no hands now but yours.” Being Christ in the world means being LOVE in the world.
Being LOVE in the world means to stop seeing ourselves as disciples cowering in fear, terrified that the storm is going to cause the seas to rise up and drown us. It is time for us to see ourselves sleeping in the back of the boat, resting on a cushion. For all those who are afraid shouting for a saviour to wake up, we, you and I the followers of Jesus, we are the body of Christ. It is time for us to wake up, speak-up, and calm the storm which is raging. We have the power together as the body of Christ to command the winds of racism, disease, poverty, and violence to cease. Together we are the Body of Christ and together we are so much more powerful than any storm. If it really does matter to us that our sisters and brothers are going to drown, if we really do care, then it is time to wake up and speak up. It is time to put an end to the power of white privilege to in-spire or to give breath to the winds of racism, disease, poverty and violence. There is work for each one of us to speak up. We all know the power of racism. We have all, at one time or another remained silent in the face of racism so as not to rock the boat. We all have relatives and friends who are trapped in delusions of superiority and have spouted racist comments and we have let them pass. We all know or have been those people who deny that our systems are rigged so that one race, the white race, maintains its power. It is time for each of us to speak up and to take some risks, we have to rock the boat even in the midst of a storm. If our particular part of the sea appears quiet, we have to have the courage to see our reflection in those calm waters and take a long hard look at the way we live our lives. We need to examine the systems that we are engaged in to seek out injustice and to do our part to create peace through justice. Together, we are a power which is stronger than the raging storms or the treacherous waters. In the past we have used, or allowed our power to be used, to save ourselves along with those few we have deemed worthy of our rescue.
Slowly, some of us are learning that the ways in which we have exercised power from positions of privilege have only increased the ferocity of the winds of racism, poverty, disease, and violence. It is long past time for white privilege to remember the ONE so many of us profess to follow. Jesus may have rocked that boat when he spoke up, but he very quickly turned his attention to calming the seas. Together we, the Body of Christ must use our power to calm the seas. In the open letter to Canadians, the Chiefs of Ontario asked Canadians to: “Make a personal commitment to change the narrative by listening, challenging racism, educating yourself and sharing your power, space and platforms.”
The storms raging around us will not end until the winds of racism, poverty, disease, and violence are deprived of breath. So, what might being LOVE in the world look like for those of us who are privileged? Well, we may not need to put on sandals, but we will surely need to take off the trappings of wanna-be-saviours. To be LOVE in the world will mean taking off our capes of privilege, by listening to those who are drowning outside the boats we have crafted. We can begin by taking onboard the Chiefs wisdom: listen, challenge racism, educate ourselves, and share our power, space and platforms. It’s time for us to wake up to the power of LOVE which lives in, with, through, and beyond us; the power which is the LOVE we call God.
Peace…be still….peace….be still…..peace….be still.
It all begins when we are awakened to the power which lies sleeping within us all. Together we can command the winds to cease, so that as the seas are stilled, peace can be restored. It is long past time for us to wake up, speak-up, to risk rocking the boat, and begin the difficult work of stilling the storms raging around us, by listening to those who are drowning in the turbulent waters of white privilege, challenging racism whenever and wherever we find it, educating ourselves, and sharing our power, space and platforms.
It is time for us to be LOVE in the world. The seas will only be calmed when we work with and for one another to put an end to racism, an end to disease, an end to poverty, and an end to violence. Wake up, there is no miraculous saviour who is going to do this for us. We are the body of Christ. We are in God, and God is in us! God is not a caped crusader. God IS LOVE. In the LOVE which we call God, we live and move and have our being.” Wake up, speak up, rock the boat and be LOVE in the world. Be LOVE in the world so that peace may begin to break out on these turbulent of seas. Peace…be still….peace….be still…..peace….be still. Let it be so, dear ones. Let it be so here and now, be LOVE in the world. Amen.
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How did we get here? All over the world people are marching in the streets proclaiming, “Black lives matter.” Millions have defied the fear of the corona virus, and taken their lives into their hands to venture out into the streets to protest the systemic racism that permeates institutions all over this planet. Even in Canada, where it takes a colossal effort to turn people out into the streets, even in Canada hundreds of thousands of people have defied public health orders to march against racism.
By now we are all familiar with the recent murders which ignited the powder keg of outrage which continues to propel people into the streets. As horrific as these current murders are, it is not enough for those of us who benefit daily from our white privilege to simply look to the most horrific consequences of racism in order to understand the inherent depths of systemic racism which infect our world. If we are to begin to untangle ourselves from our own participation in the proliferation of racism, we must begin to understand the role of Christianity in the creation and maintenance of white supremacy. For the same Christianity which gave us these words from Galatians which I just read as today’s Gospel, also gave us the words which are actually prescribed as the Gospel reading for this Trinity Sunday.
“All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, male or female. All are ONE in Christ Jesus.” This is the Gospel as it was professed in the first century, by the followers of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. But this is not the gospel reading which is prescribed for this Trinity Sunday. The prescribed reading for this day comes from the end of the Gospel According to Matthew, which was written by an anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Matthew. This prescribed reading is known by the Church as “The Great Commission.” I deliberately, did not read “The Great Commission” and indeed, I doubt that I will ever again read The Great Commission and publicly claim it as “Gospel.” Over the course of many years of study, I have come to believe that the so-called “Great Commission” is anything but the “Gospel.” Indeed, I have come to believe that this particular ending to the Gospel According to Matthew may be the source of the systemic racism which permeates, not just the Church, but also, all of the Western cultures and institutions which arose out of what history has dubbed the Holy Roman Empire.
Hear the words, prescribed for this Trinity Sunday, they come from the end of the Gospel According to Matthew, and as I said before this reading is known as Jesus’ “Great Commission.” Matthew 28:16-20
“The Eleven made their way to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had summoned them. At the sight of the risen Christ they fell down in homage, though some doubted what they were seeing. Jesus came forward and addressed them in these words: “All authority has been given me both in heaven and on earth; go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of Abba God, and of the Only Begotten, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I AM with you always, even until the end of the world!”
Here ends the gospel, not according to the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we call Matthew. No, no, I could not get out of a first year New Testament class and without learning about Eusebius, (265-339) an early Christian historian who quoted this text from Matthew and the trinitarian clause does not appear, suggesting to some that the text was altered. Could, the so-called “great commission” have been added to the gospel by the Christian community sometime around 325 – to bring it into line with the brand spanking new Creed which you know as the Nicene Creed? Now whether or not you agree with the preponderance of evidence unearthed by New Testament scholars, about the very real possibility that Jesus never actually said everything he is propertied to have said in the New Testament, you must begin to understand that these words, whether Jesus said them or not, these words became the justification for The Doctrine of Discovery. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI (6th) issued the Papal Bull which would give license to European Christians to colonize the world. The Church granted white European Christians the authority to claim, seize, conquer, and “Christianize” any and all lands inhabited by people who were not Christian.
Colonizing became Europe’s preferred method of evangelizing and in Jesus’ name indigenous people were slaughtered or subjugated. The Doctrine of Discovery not only justified the dehumanization of those peoples who lived in lands beyond Europe, the Doctrine of Discovery, birthed by the Great Commission, solidified the notion of white supremacy in the so-called “civilizing” of North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Asia, and far too many points in-between to enumerate here.
The roots of today’s civil unrest run deep into the very bible the colonizers used to ensure the privileged status their descendants, that’s you and me, and all the other white privileged folk who continue to thrive as settlers, on lands stolen from indigenous peoples.
I am only beginning to learn the contours of my own white privilege. While there is so much more for me to learn, one thing is becoming clear, it is long past time for me to listen to the cries of all those who have felt the knee of my privilege pressing down upon their necks. It is time for me and my privileged sisters and brothers to learn about the ways in which the institutions, in which we have thrived, have perpetuated systemic racism.
It is long past time, for us to set aside our defensive denials of our own white privilege and accept the truth of our participation in the racism which is perpetrated on our black, brown, red, and yellow sisters and brothers. All lives will not matter unless and until black lives matter, brown lives matter, indigenous lives matter, and Asian lives matter.
No place is our white privilege more evident than in the church which has fostered us, nourished us, grounded and sustained us in our white privilege, while all the while claiming authority from none other than Jesus himself to baptize all nations in his name. So, on this Trinity Sunday, when the Church celebrates its creeds, let us not look to the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, nor God-forbid, the Athanasian Creed. But let us look to the very first creed; the creed quoted by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Church in Galatia
Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written long before the second, third, or fourth century when the Great Commission was added to the Gospel according to Matthew. Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in some 20 to 30 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Many scholars now believe that the Apostle Paul did not actually write the words of the first Creed, but rather quoted them from the well-known liturgical practices of the first followers of the teachings of Jesus. The Apostle Paul borrowed and adapted the words, which were the earliest attempts to capture in words the meaning of the Jesus movement.
This nascent Jesus movement understood well the tendency of humans to resort to tribalism and in the teachings of Jesus they came to understand “that race, class, and gender are typically used to divide the human race into us and them to the advantage of us.” This evolving Jesus movement declared in their creed that there is no us, no them. We are all children of God. The Jesus movement was about solidarity, not cultural obliteration.
New Testament scholar Stephen J. Patterson has studied the early manuscripts in an attempt to uncover the words which the Apostle Paul quoted and adapted. His unearthed version of that first christian creed reads like this:
“You are all children of God. There is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no male and female, for you are all ONE.”
Imagine a subjugated and oppressed people hearing that they too are “Children of God” for in the DIVINE MYSTERY we call GOD there is “no Jew or Greek” no race; there is “no slave or free,” no class; there is “no male or female,” no gender. In the eyes of the DIVINE all are equal. Please do not hear this as a denial of race, class or gender, but rather a denial that race, class and gender can be parleyed into a first-class ticket to the Kin-dom of God. Now imagine a misguided white privileged member of a racist system hearing, “your race, class and gender” are of no account for all are equal, all are children of the DIVINE.
Just how different would our world be if the Church in which we were nourished, grounded and sustained had not have become “a citadel of patriarchy” and enforced a regime prioritizing race, class and gender? Even the very Trinity, which we are called by the Church to celebrate today, even this doctrine carefully designed to depict the very nature of the DIVINE MYSTERY has for generations portrayed the institution’s preference for a white, male, god who quite naturally bestows riches upon those created in the image of its white, male deity. “You are all children of God. There is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no male and female, for you are all ONE.” In the Kin-dom of the DIVINE, race, class, and gender do not bring with them privilege.
So, now what? What are we, the benefactors of church’s institutional racism, to do, now that we know the nature of our white privilege? Well, we might begin with the difficult work of confession. We have a lot to learn and a lot to confess. Denial is no longer an option. As the contours of our privilege become clearer, we need to learn to repent; to turn around, and to cease and desist. Some of us will need to just shut up and listen. Once confession and repentance begin to lead us beyond our tribalism, then the really difficult work of reconciliation will begin. This means many of us will need to look in the mirror and see the things that are actually there, not the things we hope to see, but the actual truths that are reflected back to us. It means having the intellectual courage to confess that Jesus didn’t say all the things we would have liked for him to say. It means moving beyond our cherished notions about the nature of the DIVINE MYSTERY, even the blessed trinity! It means having the courage to learn at the feet of others, silently, reverently, and respectfully. It may even mean having the honesty to give back what was never ours in the first place.
There is an old spiritual which I have always loved, the refrain speaks of the troubled waters in which we find ourselves, Wade in the water, wade in the water children
Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the waters. The waters are indeed troubled. May all that is HOLY, grant to each of us the courage to wade into the troubled waters, trusting that we are all created in the image of the ONE who IS, BEYOND the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also. Amen.
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I work on Sundays, so I tend to worship on Monday mornings. Modern technology affords me the opportunity to visit various churches in order to hear the gospel proclaimed by some incredibly talented preachers. For about five years now, one of my first stops on a Monday morning is at Trinity United Church of Christ, in Chicago, so that I can listen to one of the finest preachers I have ever had the privilege of being challenged by. To say that the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III is simply a great preacher, is to do him a disservice. Dr. Moss is a disturbingly gifted challenger of the status quo, whose words have the potential to move mountains.
Two Mondays ago, as I listened to Dr. Moss’ disturbing sermon entitled, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Requiem for Amaud Arbery,” I found it difficult to breathe. Trained in the style of the American Black Church, Dr. Moss moves from swift insight, to provocative challenge without missing a beat. So, it was not unusual for me to return to his sermon again on Tuesday in order to capture more pearls of wisdom. On Wednesday, the news of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of those sworn to protect, sent me back to Dr. Moss’ all to prescient proclamation of the Gospel. I did not want to be placated by nice, comforting words. I wanted to hear an expression of outrage. I wanted to be inspired to tap into my own outrage to find the courage to do something. So, over and over again I returned to Dr. Moss and found the courage to dig deep into my own being to discover the roots of my own complicit role in the systemic racism which permeates our world.
By Sunday I was exhausted by the horrors playing themselves out on various screens and devices So, rather than wait until Monday to worship, I went back to Dr. Moss’ pulpit to discover how he was responding to yet another murder of a young black person. I am forever grateful for the fortitude of Dr. Moss who did not, despite my fondest wishes, offer me comfort, but continued to challenge me.
I know that there are many Canadians and indeed Americans who are unfamiliar with Dr. Moss. So, allow me to introduce you to a preachers’ preacher, who has the ability to articulate the horrendous realities of the violence which continues to be perpetrated by systems founded and upheld by white privilege. His articulations may cause you to squirm as you reach for words to deny your own complicity. But he may also inspire you to move beyond your comfort zones in order to take the risk of learning from and working with those who are struggling to achieve justice.
Below are the two sermons which demonstrate my own need to repent of my white privilege, so that I may quietly sit at the feet of those who are struggling in the thick of this battle to usher in the DIVINE KIN-DOM of peace through justice. May someday come soon!
Meister Eckhart’s fervent plea: “I pray God, rid me of God” becomes a sort of mantra for me whenever the task of contemplating the Trinity rolls around on the liturgical calendar. I offer some previous Trinity sermons to my fellow preachers as my way of saying, “I pray God, rid me of God!!!” Shalom…
click on the sermon title
The SPIRIT of Pentecost inflames our worship with images of tongues of fire and shouting excited crowds creating a cacophony of sound. Preachers pontificate about the birth of a movement which became the Church, with talk of rushing wind, and breath, breath of the SPIRIT breathing life into our churches. Breath, wind, and flame. And yet, there are those who cannot breathe, and the only wind that seems to blow are the ill winds that bring angry, desperate, frustrated, and oh so intemperate tongues of fire, which dance upon our screens as a visual expression of the virus which threatens to suck the life out of all that we hold dear. It is oh so very tempting, to discard the masks designed to protect us from disease so that we can breathe the fresh air which blows just beyond our gasp.
We cannot breathe freely and so we look away. As we cling to our all but useless masks of denial, the tut tutting begins. “It is not happening here.” “The United States is not Canada.” “We are different.” “They had slavery.” “We freed slaves.” “They are a melting pot.” “We are multi-cultural.” “Those poor Americans.” “I’m so glad we live in Canada.” “Let’s put on our masks of denial and look away. We are not infected by their virus.”
But we cannot breathe freely or deeply behind our masks. Looking away will not cure the virus which infects even us. Even us with our polite Canadian sensibilities, we are infected with a strain of the virus, albeit a strain born out of a different history, still powerful enough to crush the life out of even its healthiest victims. So, God knows what the weak or wounded among us will do to find relief. He can’t breathe. She can’t breathe. Come Holy SPIRIT, come.
Like many of you I have watched a wept as over and over again, young black men and women have their breath taken from them as they are murdered in the streets, in their yards, on their porches, and in their beds by the very ones who are sworn to protect and serve them. I too have shaken my head and tut tutted as I caught my own precious breath and turned away convinced that my own liberal, progressive, christian, Lutheran, Canadian attitudes have saved me from the virus. I am not a racist. You are not racists. We are “nice” polite Canadians. Just look at the numbers. Our death tolls versus their death tolls, surely this proves that our rates of infection are less.
Shall we look at the numbers? One-in-five Canadians do not think it’s safe to sit next to an Asian or Chinese person on a bus, while a quarter of Canadians “don’t know” if it’s safe. Anti-Asian attacks are on the rise in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. This week anti-semitism was visited upon a synagogue in Montreal. This week, during an encounter with Toronto police, a young black woman fell to her death. The cause of Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s death has not been fully explained. Whatever happened, it is telling that her family, friends and neighbours, quickly suspected malpractice by the officers involved. I hope this is not the case. I pray that this was a tragic accident. But the fact that trust between the black population of Toronto and the police force is so tenuous speaks volumes about the symptoms of the virus which lurks in the hearts and minds of those who fear the systemic nature of the illness and those who are privileged by the systemic nature of the very racism which we deny.
Decades ago, activist and educator Jane Elliot, asked a class of privileged white students to raise their hands if they would be happy to receive the same treatment as black citizens receive. Not surprisingly none of the privileged white students raised their hands. They knew full well the benefits of their own privilege. I remember studying Jane Elliot’s work when I was in university. I also remember feeling rather smug about my own enlightened attitudes, right up until the moment our professor asked us to raise our hands if we would be happy to receive the same education and housing as citizens of First Nations enjoy under the auspices of the administrators of Canada’s Indian Act. Not a single one of us privileged white students and yes, all my classmates except for one was white, and not one of us raised our hands.
The one student of colour in the classroom was a foreign student from the Southside of Chicago, who squirmed nervously in her seat. A fellow student, safely ensconced in his white privilege, asked the black woman who sat amongst a sea of white faces, “Do you think Canadians are racists?” We all presumed we knew what her answer would be. “Of course NOT! Canadians aren’t like Americans.” To this day, I can still her response continues to ring in my ears. This wise, proud African American Woman bravely took the opportunity to respond with the words of her compatriot Angela Davis, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.”
Sisters and brothers, from the confines of my own white privilege, I am still only beginning to learn about the powerful virus which infects our Canadian society. I suspect that many of you might think that I’m talking about the virus of racism. Well I’m not. You see, I believe that racism although it may be the most dangerous symptom of the virus, it is not the disease itself. The virus which I am talking about is white privilege. Our Canadian strain of this insidious virus did not thrive in the Petri dish of slavery, like the strain our American cousins have cultivated. But our Canadian white privilege was born of the same sin of colonialism which saw British and European “conquerors” wash up on North American shores to rob the indigenous peoples of North America of their land, their wealth, their freedom, their cultures, and indeed in oh so many cases their very lives.
Our wealth, yours and mine was birthed out of the theft of land and it is maintained by oppression. There will be many who will point to the past and say, “that was then and this is now, we cannot take responsibility for the sins of our ancestors.” Fare enough. But you and I we continue to drink fresh clean water while so many of our Indigenous sisters and brothers do not have access to fresh, clean, drinking water. I know, we’re working on it. We all want to do better. We must do better. But we are not racists. We are kind, well-meaning, descent, kind-hearted Canadians.
Yes, we are. But our ability to be kind, well-meaning, descent, kind-hearted Canadians is made possible by our privilege. The very wealth we hungered for, worked for, educated ourselves for, and carefully accumulated is for the most part born out of white privilege. In Canada whiteness, privilege and wealth are all intimately connected.
Lest we fall into the trap of believing that because some white people are not privileged and some people of colour are privileged, we need to remember that all of us privileged folk, we are playing by culturally white rules. Whiteness is not just a colour, it is also a social construct. Like all social constructs it builds walls to protect the privileges folks inside the walls and creates all sorts of barriers to keep people without privilege from breeching those walls unless and until they conform, change their ways and become just like the people inside the walls.
So, if white privilege is our disease, what is the cure?
I’ve already listened to all sorts of privileged people like myself point to the chaos and the violence in the United States and argue that we need bigger walls and stronger barriers. Order must be maintained because they, them, those, people well they are just getting out of hand. Rioting must not be tolerated. Everybody needs to calm down. Anger won’t get us anywhere. I’m reminded of the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who insisted that, “riots are the language of the unheard.”
Yesterday, I listened as Bakari Sellers reminded a white American newsman that “the Boston tea party was no tea party.” It was a riot which gave birth to a rebellion. Anger is not in and of itself a bad thing. Back in the day, when we were struggling for equality for women. I can’t tell you how many times people tried to put us back in our place by warning us not to be angry feminists. Well that is until we learned of the power of anger in the work of love.
When it comes to the disease of white privilege and the deadly symptoms of racism which are crushing the life out of so many, black and brown sisters and brothers, and the racism which emboldens fellow Canadians to spit on our Asian sisters and brothers, which continues to confine our Indigenous brothers and sisters to living conditions which are deadly, or the symptoms of privilege which confine the poorest among us to lives robbed of dignity, well its long past time to shed our veneer of calm and rise up in anger.
It is time for us to turn over some tables in the temple, in all of the temples where we worship. The rush of the SPIRIT of Pentecost is by its very nature wild and chaotic. The SPIRIT is prone to turn our systems upside down as it blows out the cobwebs from our carefully controlled lives. It’s time to do more with our anger than simply suppress or deny it. I am NOT talking about violence; violence begets violence. I’m talking about expressing our anger in ways which compel change.It is time to put the power of our anger into the work of LOVE. Which for those of us who are white privileged Canadians means taking risk of being offensive. We might just have to risk saying the wrong thing in order to engage our neighbours in deep conversations about the nature of our dis-ease. We might just have to risk saying nothing at all. That’s right shut up and listen. It isn’t always about us. We don’t always know what is best.
We might just have to do more than just complain about injustice. We might actually have to make sacrifices. Instead of complaining about the corporate systemic injustices which ensure our privileges while squeezing the life out of multitudes of people, we might have to begin demanding less profits to feather our retirement nests. Ushering in the kin-dom of God, proclaiming the Gospel of Christ, being swept up by the SPIRIT means not just complaining about corporate greed but working and sacrificing to build a more equitable economic system. Like many cures, it may seem like the cure is worse than the dis-ease.
Angela Davis’ words continue to ring in my ears, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.” In the face of such dis-ease, even as the flames still burn and the breath continues to be squeezed out of so many, perhaps it’s time for those of us who have enjoyed our privilege for so long to begin to realize that it is not enough for us to not be showing the symptom of racism, it is time for us to stand up against all the symptoms of white privilege by sacrificing, by taking risks, and maybe even suffering some strong medicine in order to quell the symptoms of racism, violence, poverty, hatred, and let the SPIRIT blow where SHE wills. Maybe then, the peace, we all long for, will break out all over this land and all people, black, brown, red, yellow, white, Indigenous, settlers, Asian, Arab, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Sheik, believers and non-believers can catch our collective breaths and breathe deeply of the SPIRIT in which we live and move and have our being, the ONE who is the MYSTERY which some of us call God. Come Holy SPIRIT. Come. Amen.
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According to experts, an interesting side effect of the current public health crisis, is the increasing number of people who report that they are experiencing exceptionally vivid dreams. Apparently, all the extra decisions we are making each and every day, should we do this, or that how can we do this or that, do we really need to do this or that, what shall we do instead of this or that; well these extra decisions pile up and our brains are maxing out. Dreaming is our brain’s way of coping or sorting through the events of our days. Now I’m not exactly sure, how taxed my brain is. If I’m honest my brain feels a bit numb these days. So, it could just be that reading the article about vivid dreams caused me to have a particularly vivid dream, the other night. Not surprisingly, I was dreaming about returning to the way things used to be. You know way back when. It’s hard to believe it was just about three months ago when we were all busy making all those plans, which we are so very fond of making. Back then, I had most of my year all planned out; church priorities, speaking engagements, vacation plans, things I wanted to do, people and places I wanted to see. And then one day, I was in my house, cancelling all my plans, wondering when I could get back to making plans again.
Well in this vivid dream of mine, I was sitting in front of a giant calendar, days, weeks, and months, all blacked out and I was weeping. It was all so black. I picked up a pen and I tried to put something on the calendar, and nothing happened. I grabbed a blank piece of paper and I checked to make sure the pen was working. The pen was working just fine. So, once again, I tried to put something on the calendar, and again, and again and again, but there was nothing, just days, and weeks, and months all blacked out. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a big new eraser. I haven’t seen an actual eraser for years. But there it was a big pink eraser with sharp new edges. I picked it up and set about rubbing as hard as I could, trying desperately to erase the blackness from the calendar. But as hard and as fast as I rubbed, the blackness simply wouldn’t budge.
My arm became weary, and my grip on the eraser began to weaken, I was barely rubbing at all, when suddenly, the blackness began to fade to grey. So, I rubbed a little more gently, and as I rubbed flowers began to emerge, then birds, butterflies, green grass, daffodils, until one by one each square upon the calendar, gave way to a vision of Creation in which vivid colours emerged into visions of such beauty which leapt off the calendar and danced around the room. When I awoke, I felt a lightness in my being, before I began to remember the details of my dream. Lingering over a strong cup of coffee, I pondered the contours of this dream as I moved beyond the dream into a vision.
“Abba, the hour has come! Glorify your Only Begotten that I may glorify you, through the authority you’ve given me over all humankind, by bestowing eternal life on all those you gave me. And this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent, Jesus, the Messiah.”….“and this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God.”
For years, I thought of eternal life as a quantity of time and I confused eternal with everlasting. It is only in the past decade or so that I have understood the real meaning of eternal, is limitless. Limitless, by definition, cannot be time-bound. Limitless has no beginning and no end. Limitless is larger than we can imagine and smaller than we can imagine. Limitless is farther than we can see and smaller than we can see. Limitless is not a quantitative it is qualitative. So, if eternal life is not about life everlasting, then what exactly might the gift of eternal life be? One of the qualities of the eternal which I have come to understand is the limitlessness of grace, which comes to us as an integral part of life. The gift of breath itself is pure grace. Fourteen billion years of evolution have resulted in the cosmos producing human life. Our very being is a miracle of grace and each and every breath we breathe is pure gift. We are living breathing, walking, talking, loving, miracles. The breath which flows through us, enlivens us, and empowers us, this breath is the SPIRIT of ALL LIFE, that emanates from the ONE who is the source of our being.
The eternal quality of our life, of all our lives is knowing; knowing. To know, is to experience deeply. The ancients understood this as the essence of what it means to be human; to know. The anonymous gospel-storyteller which we call John, puts into the mouth of Jesus words that I am only beginning to know, to experience deeply. Jesus said, “And this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God.” The words translated from the Greek as “to know” are the same words used in the scriptures to describe the intimacy of lovemaking. This is eternal life, to know, to make love to God, the DIVINE MYSTERY who is LOVE ITSELF.
Eternal life is a quality of living that shares a deep intimacy with the ONE who is the SOURCE of our being. Knowing the presence of the I AM the ONE who IS wakes us from our distractions. Knowing the I AM, is a daunting way to BE. The renowned interpreter of myths and dreams, Joseph Campbell warns that, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” I realize, that despite the reality that the life I’d planned for myself, back then, before this lockdown began, that life is gone, not postponed, it is gone. There is a new life waiting for us here, now, in this place where we find ourselves. All around us, the sheer magnitude of Creation’s beauty has the power to awaken us to the intimacy and wonder of the lovemaking in which the SOURCE-of-ALL that IS, continues to engage with Creation. If we let go of the life we planned, the life which is bursting forth all around us, has the power to draw us into life eternal, now.
The eternal quality of living draws us into this intimacy, in ways that can inspire such joy. But this eternal quality of living can also draw us into a LOVE which pierces our hearts. As the news of ever-increasing death tolls pierce our consciousness, we begin to envision new ways of being in the world. When I recall all the various plans which once drove me from day to day, I realize that this isolation has provided a much needed sabbath. It may not be a sabbath of rest, but it is a sabbath of return; a kind of retreat from what was into a place of what is, from which we can begin to dream of what might be. There are things we need to pay attention to in this sabbath of retreat. What are we being called to notice, to learn, to imagine, to prepare, to dream as what was gives way to what might be?
Lingering over my morning coffee, I looked out as rain fell gently upon the grass. Never before has the grass been so green. Beyond the colours, I see an image of the ONE who IS the Source and Ground of Being weeping like a prodigal parent tormented by wayward children who have lost their way. Eternal life is not all sweetness and light. Limitless LOVE demands a kind of attention which opens us to the pain of all those with whom we share this precious gift of life. LOVEmaking is a kind of knowing which can break our hearts just as surely as it can cause our hearts to race with a passion for intimacy. To know the Sacred, the Divine ONE is to see our CREATOR weep, to feel the pain of illness, violence, oppression, greed, destruction, and death. The temptation is to look away, to protect our fragile hearts, and fill our days with distractions, to flee from eternal life, from this knowing which brings such intensity. Tears, like rainfall of torrential proportions, are falling all around us. This gift of eternal life, this knowing, this lovemaking, is intense. Such deep intimacy with the ONE who is the SOURCE-of-ALL-BEING is not for the faint of heart. But this intimacy, this Eternal life, makes the flowers smell so very sweet, and the birdsong sound so sublime.
YAHWEH. Our CREATOR, the GREAT I AM WHO AM. I AM here, now in this sabbath of retreat: rejoicing, weeping, longing, singing, dancing, grieving, shouting, playing, living, breathing, waiting, touching, dying, rising, laughing, crying, feeding, loving, in, with, through, and beyond you. I AM here!
To approach intimacy with the ONE WHO IS, WAS, and Ever More Shall BE, LOVE, is life eternal. To make LOVE with the SACRED, the DIVINE, the HOLY ONE, is life eternal. Life without limits. Light beyond Light. Light which penetrates our distractions. A light which shines on the beauty and the pain of life, all life, with an intimacy which opens us to a way of being which is eternal.
I AM here. YAHWEH. I AM WHO AM. May you know, may you experience deeply, the power and the intimacy of eternal life, here and now, now and always, as you awaken to the ONE, who IS LOVE, awaken to what is, so that you may dream of what might be, in this ONE beautiful life in which we live and move and have our being, in, with, through, and beyond, our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF. Amen.
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Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus
The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is a church festival that I have always chosen to ignore. The ancient tradition that has Jesus floating up into the clouds stretches the credibility of the church to such an extent that I’ve always assumed that the less said about the Ascension the better. But I was challenged by a parishioner to try to make some sense out of the Ascension story so that 21st century Christians would not have to check their brains at the door should they happen upon a congregation that still celebrated the day. What follows is a transcript of my attempt to leave behind the miraculous Jesus in order to be better able to welcome the human Jesus down from the clouds. I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong together with Clay Nelson of St Matthew-in-the-city for their liberating insights.
Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have not celebrated Ascension Sunday. But as this particular Ascension Sunday follows so closely after Jack Spong’s visit with us, I thought that it was about time that rather than avoid the Ascension, I’d like to try to confront it.
Jack has been telling his anti-Ascension story for quite a few years now. Just in case you’ve never heard it or have forgotten it, let me remind you. It seems that Jack was speaking with Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. Jack says that Carl Sagan once told him “if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”
With that said, let me just say, that the Ascension never actually happened. It is not an historical event. If a tourist with a video camera had been there in Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing.
I know what the Nicene Creed says, “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures. And so, as I do not understand the Bible literally, neither do I understand the Nicene Creed to be a literal interpretation of the faith. Like all creeds the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds are snapshots of theology as it was at a particular time in history.
We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. I know that the universe is infinite. I also know about gravity. I also know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus had helium flowing through his veins. I’ve flown around the world, and I can tell you that there is no heaven above the clouds. So, I can say with confidence that: The very present Jesus of resurrection faith did not literally elevate into heaven while his disciples looked on. Continue reading
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There is a time for everything, a season for every purpose under heaven: “a season for holding close and a season for holding back,” some translations say, “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.” I’ve never fully understood, never deeply felt this season until right now, when we are smack dab in the middle of this season of holding back, of refraining from embracing. And I’ve gotta tell ya, “this sucks!” Don’t get me wrong, my wife and I are in lockdown together and we are certainly not refraining from embracing. In fact, were it not for the tender embraces of my darling Carol, I dare say, that I could not cope with this lock-down. I give thanks every day for Carol’s presence with me. Her embraces feed my soul. My heart goes out to those of you who are at home alone. I’d dash over, right now and give you a big hug if I could. But I cannot.
There are so many embraces which are being held back right now. Embraces which I long for. What I wouldn’t give for one of those joy-filled tight, tight, squeezes from my grandchildren. There’s nothing quite like the joy of a child, when they race across a room, and launch themselves into your arms and squeeze for dear life. No wonder, desperate parents are devising those plastic barriers to serve as hug devices so their kids can hug their grandparents! I also miss those friendly, gentle hugs like the ones many of us exchange when you arrive at church and those reverent embraces we exchange during worship when we pass the peace. But the held back embraces, which I desperately long for more than anything else, are the gentle embraces we extend to comfort one another when our hearts are broken. There is no technology, no plastic barrier, no scribbled note, no well-wishing card which can comfort quite the way a gentle, tender, embrace which passes between friends and family who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
Grieving our loved ones during these surreal days of physical distancing, accentuates our sadness. In our gospel reading, Jesus is heard to say, “I will not leave you orphaned.” Touching, embracing, and comforting are such an integral part of parenting. Is it any wonder then, that so many of us can resonate with that old spiritual right now, “Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child.”? I must confess that, on more than one occasion this week, I’ve actually missed the “old-faraway-father-sky-god” who I used to pray to. You know that old bearded grandfather in the sky who was in charge of everything, ready, willing and able to hear my prayers and respond in an authoritative way. That far-away-father-sky-god who I used to believe in would know just what to do in a pandemic. If I prayed all the right prayers to him, and I do mean him, if enough of us had just enough faith, in him, he would sort us all out. You know the way our parents used to sort things out for us when we were kids. This covid thing has got me feeling like an orphan; an orphan in search of a saviour, to say, “there, there dear, I’ve got this.”I’m feeling very much like “a motherless/fatherless child,” and so to hear Jesus say, “I will not leave you orphaned,” these words are like balm to sooth my soul. Yes please, Jesus. Help me Jesus. Help us Jesus. We want to feel your embrace!
“If you love me and obey the command I give you, I will ask the ONE who sent me to give you another Paraclete, an Advocate, another Helper to be with you always—the SPIRIT of truth, whom the world cannot accept since the world neither sees her nor recognizes her; but you can recognize the SPIRIT because she remains with you and will be within you. I will not leave you orphaned.” The SPIRIT is with you, and will be within you. We are not alone. Jesus insists, “On that day you will know that I AM in God and you are in me, and I AM in you.”
The I AM is in us and we are in the I AM. YAHWEH, the I AM, the SOURCE of all BEING, is in us and we are in YAHWEH. Or as the Apostle Paul says in the Book of Acts: “the ONE who is not really far from any of us – the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being. As one of your poets has put it, “We too are God’s children.”
ONE in whom we live, ONE in whom we move, ONE in whom we have our being, ONE the LIFE in ALL. Jesus of Nazareth lived and died proclaiming that we have no need to seek salvation from anything other than the very SPIRIT who breathes in, with, through and beyond us.
In what has been called Jesus’ “Farewell Address” Jesus implores us, “if you love me and obey the command I give you.” In the Gospel according to the storyteller we call John, Jesus gives only one commandment: we are “to love one another as Jesus has loved us.”
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection embody the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being, the ONE who is LOVE. Jesus’ embodiment of the LOVE which IS the DIVINE MYSTERY we call God, points us not to some lofty throne, but rather to the very breath we breathe; to the SPIRIT who breathes in, with, through, and beyond us.
We are ONE in the SPIRIT. If this virus has taught us anything, surely it has taught us that we are ONE, for when one of us is ill or at risk, all of us are all ill and at risk. So, how then shall we comfort one another during this season of holding back, when we are to refrain from embracing. Well ironically, the very breath which carries the droplets we are all avoiding right now, is also the very breath which has the power to comfort us. I am not an epidemiologist; I am but a lowly pastor. I am not trained in science; I am but a humble theologian. As a pastor and a theologian, I am trained in the art of metaphor – metaphor – the very word actually means “to carry beyond words”. So, please allow this lowly, humble pastor and theologian to use the virus which is currently plaguing us as a metaphor. We are all perfectly capable of breathing in each and every pathogen which infects Creation today. We only need a few shallow breathes to separate us one from another and we have seen the diss-ease which results from this kind of infection; our planet is groaning, people are dying, refugees are fleeing, the poor are suffering, violence, greed and self-centeredness are rampant.
But if we have the Wisdom, to breathe more deeply, the healing power of the SPIRIT rises in us resurrecting the LOVE in whom we live, and move and have our being and gratitude, generosity, compassion, and peace flow in, with, through, and beyond us. I know metaphors aren’t perfect ways of communicating and there will be those who will see only the holes and the gaps in my metaphor. But metaphors by their very nature are not designed to be words which communicate perfect solutions, metaphors and by design crafted to carry us beyond words, toward a vison of what might be.
So, in this season of holding back, of refraining from embracing, I invite you to step away from the swirling fear which comes with the virus which plagues us, move deeply into your splendid isolation, and take a long deep breath. Breathe deeply of the SPIRIT of the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being. Feel the SPIRIT as the SPIRIT enters you, and feel the SPIRIT as you exhale the SPIRIT who IS LOVE. Let the SPIRIT whirl and twirl and dance in and around you and feel the gentle, tender, embrace of the ONE who IS, WAS, and evermore SHALL BE, LOVE.
We have not been left orphaned. We are held, embraced, comforted, empowered, by the ONE who lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us. Breathe deeply of this embracing SPIRIT and know the power of resurrected LOVE to embrace, to heal, and to comfort us as we are carried beyond words, to the ONE who IS, BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also, our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF. Amen.
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Six years ago, when Acts 17:22-31 last came round in the lectionary, I had the distinct pleasure of baptizing our grand-daughter. This sermon welcomes her to this grand journey of life that we travel as companions. The sermon begins with an adaptation of a creation story by by Dr. Paula Lehman & Rev. Sarah Griffith. the readings were included Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Acts 17:22-31 and John 14:14-21
As nearly as we can figure out, little Audrey’s journey to the baptismal font began some 13.7 billion years ago. Audrey’s journey, like all our journeys began with a bang!
“In the beginning, the energy of silence rested over an infinite horizon of pure nothingness. The silence lasted for billions of years, stretching across eons that the human mind cannot even remotely comprehend. Out of the silence arose the first ripples of sound, vibrations of pure energy that ruptured the tranquil stillness as a single point of raw potential, bearing all matter, all dimension, all energy, and all time: exploding like a massive fireball. It was the greatest explosion of all time! An eruption of infinite energy danced into being. It had a wild and joyful freedom about it, and like a dance it was richly endowed with coherence, elegance, and creativity. The universe continued to expand and cool until the first atoms came into being. The force of gravity joined the cosmic dance; atoms clustered into primordial galaxies. Giant clouds of hydrogen and helium gases gathered into condensed masses, giving birth to stars! Generations of stars were born and died, born and died, and then our own star system, the solar system, was formed from a huge cloud of interstellar dust, enriched by the gifts of all those ancestral stars. Planet Earth condensed out of a cloud that was rich in a diversity of elements. Each atom of carbon, oxygen, silicon, calcium, and sodium had been given during the explosive death of ancient stars. These elements, this stuff of stars, included all the chemical elements necessary for the evolution of carbon-based life. With the appearance of the first bacteria, the cosmic dance reached a more complex level of integration. Molecules clustered together to form living cells! Later came the algae, and then fish began to inhabit the waters! Thence the journey of life on land and in the sky. Insects, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and mammals: all flourished and diversified and elaborated the themes of life. And now it is our time, too. This is our story. The story of our beginning, our cosmology.” (Dr. Paula Lehman & Rev. Sarah Griffith)
This great cosmic journey is bigger that we can even begin to imagine. The vastness of millions, some say billions of galaxies of which we are a part, challenges the abilities of our minds to comprehend. We gather here in this infinitesimal part of the cosmos because we are convinced that at the very heart of the cosmos lies the REALITY which we call God. A REALITY beyond our abilities to express. This REALITY is a MYSTERY which down through the ages, all those who have looked up into the night sky or held a newborn in their arms, has been fascinated and perplexed by. The attempts of all those who have gone before us to comprehend, express, or explain have fallen so far short of capturing the essence of the BEING who called all being into existence. How do you express the inexpressible? How do we begin to speak of that which is beyond, the beyond and beyond that also? From the earliest cave drawings, itched in in wonder at the MYSTERY, our ancestors have tried to capture in art, poetry, literature, drama, song, and dance the hints of the MYSTERY which sustains all life. But all our attempts, be they simple sculptors or grand theologies, pale in comparison to the REALITY we so long to know and understand. As incapable of description as we are, each season of creation sends us back to the drawing board as we attempt to capture the beauty which surrounds us. Each new life which comes into our midst and each parting death causes to wonder and marvel at the complexity of our existence. No one can hold a baby in their arms and not be amazed at the miracle of life. No one can hold a hand as a body breathes it’s last and not wonder how or why and even where or who we might be. At the very heart of all life there is MYSTERY.
For those of us gathered here in this place, the overwhelming evidence of the ages convinces us that the REALITY at the heart of the cosmos, the ONE we call God is LOVE. In response to this LOVE we gather together to in LOVE so that we might also be LOVE; LOVE for each other and LOVE for the world. In the evolving complexity of our cosmos, we see over and over again the miracles and wonders of life spring forth and we can’t help ourselves but respond to the LOVE which sustains all life. From time to time, individuals have appeared who have opened windows into the REALITY of the ONE we call God. These individuals live their lives in ways that enlighten us on our journey.
We gather here in this place to remember Jesus of Nazareth, a person of wisdom and integrity who lived and loved in ways which opened us to the LOVE of God inspiring us to live fully and love extravagantly so that all may know LOVE. Jesus was confronted by the harsh realities of failed attempts to live beyond LOVE. Born into poverty and oppression, Jesus refused to respond to the cruelty of a world where hatred and greed had taken hold and insisted upon living in ways that might usher in a new Reign of Justice and Peace in a world where military might and violence prevailed. Jesus refused to take up arms against the powers that be, and insisted that peace could only be achieved through justice; for when everyone has enough, enough food, enough shelter, enough justice, enough love, then and only then can there be peace.
Evolution is a difficult and messy business. Humanity does not evolve without error or pain. When we lose sight of the REALITY which lies at the heart of our existence, when we fail to love as we have been loved, our journeys and the journeys of those around us become infinitely more difficult. Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest. Our best scientists have warned us not to misinterpret evolution’s natural selection as being all about “the strong shall survive.” More and more we are beginning to understand the role of co-operation on a cellular level as the building blocks upon which a species changes and survives. Modern evolutionary science points to social co-operation as key to survival. Social co-operation is if you’ll allow me, akin to a primitive form of love; a building block if you will to LOVE.
It should come as no surprise to any of us who are on this grand journey of life that every major religion in the world has at its core the wisdom which has commonly become known as the Golden Rule: “do on to others as you would have them do onto you.” Jesus, who was after all a Jewish rabbi, expressed the Golden Rule in terms his Jewish audiences would have understood from their own sacred scriptures: Love God with all your heart, with all strength, with all your mind and love your neighbour as you love yourself. Jesus lived and died for LOVE. The powers that be believed that execution would stifle this LOVE, but Jesus lived so fully and loved so passionately that the LOVE he lived for did not die. And so, we gather here, trusting that the LOVE we have experienced on our journey is akin to the LOVE that lies at the very heart of the cosmos; trusting that in that LOVE we live and move and have our being. We look at the world around us and see that only justice can bring the kind of peace in which our love can thrive. So, we seek to achieve that peace by ensuring that everyone has enough, enough food, enough shelter, enough work, enough joy, enough love. Like Jesus we seek peace through justice for all. Continue reading
When I was a child in Northern Ireland, my Mom would often as me a question which would be the beginning of a conversation, a routine of sorts which I suspect she learned when she was a child from her Mother. The routine goes something like this. Mom would ask me, “How much do you love me?” and I would answer, as I’d been taught to answer: “A big bag of sugar!” To which Mom would reply, “I love you more, I love you to bags of sugar!” To which I would reply, that I love my Mom, “Five bags of sugar!” Over the years I’ve met lots of people from Belfast who grew up measuring love in bags of sugar.
As near as I can tell this loving conversation has something to do with rationing during World War II. Sugar’s ability to make all things sweet tied it to people’s perception of a happy life. A “big bag of sugar” was more sugar than most people would ever see. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how people could begin to measure love in bags of sugar. To this day my great-nieces and nephews still learn from their elders, to measure love in bags of sugar; even though we have all since learned that consuming large quantities of sugar makes us sick. I suspect the wartime custom of expressing love in terms of bags of sugar will soon go the way of Ring-around-the-rosy…while children still sing it they have no idea that it is all about the black plague which saw millions of children fall to their death…. Love measured in bags of sugar, like packets full of posy, is a thing of the past…vaguely remembered by only a few.
This week the world remembered VE Day; the end of war in Europe was commemorated from the confines of our physically isolated planet as we all seek refuge from the pandemic which has brought an end to many of our treasured cultural norms. The combination of Mothers’ Day, the 75 Anniversary of VE Day, a global pandemic was topped off with news of the arrival in North America of some beast called a “murder hornet.” These are strange times in which to live. According to the experts, many of us are experiencing culture shock. Think back to just two months ago. Way back then, we would not be confined to worshipping together over the medium of the internet. Less than two short months ago, we enjoyed the freedom of movement which all of us took for granted and many of us would have been gathered together in our sanctuary, singing, praying, exchanging the peace, sharing communion, and then feasting together over coffee, tea, and conversation. In less than two months, so very many things which we took for granted, are no longer possible and we do not know when or if they shall be returned to us.
Last week I listened as Bill Gates, the kazillionaire behind so much of the technology which characterized the past thirty years, insisted that many of us have had to learn new skills at a rate which has seen us absorb fifteen years’ worth of change in just six weeks. Gates called this phenomenon “cultural compression.” So, if you are struggling to come to terms with your new life, rest assured, you are not alone. Go easy on yourself. Humans were never designed to cope with the rate of change we are experiencing today.
Yes, we are privileged. We came into this crisis as the privileged few. We are certainly wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of our parents and grandparents. In addition to our wealth and privilege we also have all sorts of mechanisms in place to cushion the effects of whatever we may still have to endure. We know that there are others who are much worse off than we are, and yet, we can’t quite shake the angst which comes in the middle of the night. No amount of sugar or packets full of posy can obscure the shock waves which are impacting our way of being in the world.
So, reeling from the so many changes, I must confess that today’s Gospel text, makes me feel the way I used to feel when I would turn the tables on my Mom and ask her, “How much do you love me Mom?” As some of you know, my Mom lives on the West Coast, I miss her terribly and there I nothing more I’d rather hear than, “Five big bags of sugar!” There is something about your mother’s voice that has the power to sooth even our deepest upsets. Even if your Mom has long since gone on to “prepare a place for you,” I’m sure that you can still hear her soothing you in times of trouble.
Now, I know full well all the scholarly reasons for insisting that the words of the anonymous gospel-story-teller which we call John has put on the lips of Jesus, very probably come from the community of people who followed the ways of Jesus, rather than Jesus himself. I don’t care much whether or not Jesus actually said these words. However, I do care very much about the truth which these words convey about the DIVINE MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of ALL. I know that love measured in “bags of sugar” and safeguards like “packets of posy” are expressions whose meanings have been lost over time. I also know that the words used to express the characteristics of the DIVINE MYSTERY have also lost their power over time.
We have forgotten so very much about those things we once took for granted. “Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible tells me so! Little ones to him belong! Yes! Jesus loves me! Yes! Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.” We are all grown up and in the face of so much suffering, it may indeed be time for us to put away childish things. When our physical isolation is over and we are released to return to our lives, our lives will not be as they once were. Nothing stays the same under normal circumstances. Life changes over time and the experts may just be correct when they tell us that the effects of cultural compression will have a colossal impact on the ways in which we return to life out there. But whether it’s bags of sugar, pockets of posy, or the sure and certain knowledge that “Jesus loves me!”, this I do know, LOVE remains constant.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust in me as well.” Our way of speaking about the DIVINE MYSTERY which is the source of ALL REALITY may have changed and will continue to change over time. But the truth that the DIVINE MYSTERY IS LOVE, this LOVE never changes. God IS, was and evermore shall be LOVE. In Jesus of Nazareth, his followers like the anonymous gospel-storyteller who we call John, in Jesus people for generations have seen the embodiment of the LOVE which IS God. Jesus’ Way of being in the world is LOVE alive in the world.
Jesus insistence that, “I myself AM the Way—I AM Truth, and I AM Life.” is not some arbitrary barrier to be crossed or hoop one must jump through in order to know the DIVINE. But rather the followers of Jesus’ attempting to express the reality that for Jesus the Way of LOVE is the only Way of being. The Way of LOVE empowered Jesus to claim unity with LOVE. “I AM in LOVE and LOVE is in me!” “The words I speak are not spoken of myself; it is LOVE, living in me, who is accomplishing the works of LOVE.” Jesus loves me this I know; just as surely as I know that my Mom loves me. Just as surely that I know that there is nothing in heaven or on earth which can ever separate me from the LOVE that IS God.
It may indeed be scary out there. I suppose it has always been scary out there. But my Mom always pushed me out the door to meet the world, in the sure and certain knowledge that she loved me more than five big bags of sugar. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Trust in the DIVINE ONE who is LOVE. LOVE beyond the ability of mere words to describe. LOVE beyond the beyond and beyond that also. LOVE which lives in, with, through, and beyond you. LOVE is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Know that LOVE is in you and you are in LOVE and there is nothing which can separate you from the LOVE which is God. LOVE’s got this! Be LOVE and you will be well. Be LOVE and all manner of things shall be well.
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The Gospel of Thomas 70
1 Peter 2:2-10
He was screaming at me like some kind of lunatic. Clearly, he was furious with me. His face was beet red. He kept jabbing the air in front of my face with his index finger. The veins in his neck were raised and throbbing. He kept going on and on and on and on about how wrong I was. I tried to calm him down, but he could no longer hear anything I was saying. He was so inflamed by my original statement that nothing I could say or do short of falling to my knees and begging his forgiveness for having been so wicked would suffice. So, I just stood there, hoping that eventually he would wear himself out and quiet down long enough for us to agree to disagree. But his enthusiasm for his cause was stronger than I’d anticipated. He knew that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life and that NO ONE, NO ONE, NO matter who they are, or how good they may be, NO ONE COMES TO THE FATHER EXCEPT THORUGH JESUS CHIRST, WHO IS THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AN DTHE LIFE! The sooner I confessed Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and quit trying to figure out ways to get people into heaven through the back door the better off I would be. Furthermore, unless I was willing to confess the error of my ways, then I had no business calling myself a Christian, because I was clearly damned to hell.
I can still see the anger and hatred in my old friend’s face. Anger that seemed so out of place. We were on retreat in the mountains of British Columbia. We had just listened to a sermon about the Many Mansions that God has prepared for the people of the world. Not surprisingly my friend took exception to the preacher’s emphasis on God’s different ways of including the different people of the world into God’s Reign. Over lunch we argued about just what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. NO one comes to the Father except through me.” My friend it seems had all the answers. Those who did not accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior will never be acceptable in the sight of God, they will never be included in the Kingdom of God, for indeed they are damned to hell!
I could not accept that a loving and gracious God could be so cruel. So, I walked away from my friend and his theology. I ignored Jesus’ words about how to get to the Father and focused on God’s many mansions. After all, the Bible is full of contradictions and to some problems you just must admit that there are no answers.
That method worked for me for quite awhile. Then one day, while I was studying for an under-graduate degree in Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia, I was confronted once again by Jesus’ words. Words I believed to be incompatible with the gospel of grace and mercy. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I was studying the history of inter-faith dialogue. Our class was made up of Hindu’s, Muslims, Jews, Taoists, Sikhs, and one lonely Buddhist. Together, we discussed the problems that have happened down through the centuries when people of different faiths encounter one another. One day we were given a particular assignment. We were teamed up with a member of another faith tradition and asked to bring to the table a piece of sacred scripture from our partner’s faith tradition that we found intriguing. Of course, that meant that we had to read the sacred scriptures of another tradition. Continue reading