Since 911, the rhetoric has been dialled up to piercing levels when it comes to the relationship between religion and violence. The constant noise has numbed us to the realities of history as many of us accept the judgments of the endless cacophony of popular voices proclaiming that violence is a natural consequence of religion. Karen Armstrong’s meticulous research challenges the popular doctrine of both atheists, theists, and all those who would lay claim to the notion that religion is responsible for violence, terrorism, and war. Armstrong surveys a wide sweep of history, beginning 3000 years before the Common Era with the kind of vigour that has lead readers of her previous epics to trust her conclusions. Adept as Armstrong is when it comes to revealing her encyclopedic knowledge of world religions, Fields of Blood is a must read for all those who work in the field of religion as well as an enlightening read for all those who find themselves on the receiving end of modern pundits of both the religious and political varieties.
In the video below, Karen Armstrong provides an overview of her work which will no doubt compel you to add Fields of Blood to your reading list. Filmed at Chautauqua in August of 2014.
Three years ago, I reluctantly gave in to requests to preach on the subject of prayer and I devoted my sermons during the season of Epiphany to the subject of prayer. I have been asked to re-post those sermons. In the course of three years, my theology has continued to evolve. However, I have resisted the temptation to edit the sermons and so the manuscripts are what they are, an exploration of sorts. Here’s the Fourth sermon in the series. I shall repost the seven sermons in the series over the course of the Season of Epiphany.
Prayer #4 – AWE: Reclaiming the word Religion, preached on Epiphany 4B, 2012 – listen to the sermonhere
Readings: Genesis 28:16-22;
Hildegard of Bingen – Soul Weavings:
“The soul is kissed by God in its innermost regions.
With interior yearning, grace and blessing are bestowed.
It is a yearning to take on God’s gentle yoke,
It is a yearning to give one’s self to God’s Way.
The marvels of God are not brought forth from one’s self.
Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played.
The tone does not come out of the chord itself, but rather,
through the touch of the Musician.
I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.”
Our Gospel reading was extended to include Mark 1:21-35 “Rising Early the next morning, Jesus went off to a lonely place in the desert and prayed there.”
I was about 16 or 17, when God first overwhelmed me. I’d been attending church for about two years. Looking back on that confused young girl, I can see how I might have been attracted to Christianity by Jesus. Jesus the radical, who changed the world, is a compelling figure for a teenager who’s out to change the world. I remember that I prayed a great deal back when I first got involved in the Church. I can remember believing that prayer could change everything. Prayer could change the world. Prayer could change my life. Prayer could change other peoples’ lives. Prayer could even change the mind of God. If only I could figure out the correct way to pray. And if I prayed often enough and hard enough and at just the right moment, prayer would change everything.
The trouble was, I was praying often, I was using all sorts of types of prayer and nothing seemed to be working. So, I remember deciding, that my ineffective prayers had nothing at all to do with the power of God or the power of prayer, but with the power of me. I kept telling myself that if I could just learn how to pray, God would definitely do the rest. So, I prayed and I prayed, and I prayed and when nothing much seemed to happen, I blamed myself for not being a good enough Christian: if only, I’d spend more time reading the bible, or if only I was a better person, or if only I was a better believer. It was all up to me. So, I promised myself, and sometimes I even went so far as promising God, that someday, I’d learn how. Someday, I’d find the right teacher, I’d study hard and I’d learn exactly what I needed to do to make my prayer life, more effective. But in the meantime, I’d keep trying, even though it felt like no one was listening. I told myself that this kind of persistence is precisely what people meant when they said, “have faith”. Having faith means praying when it seems like there’s no point at all, in praying. So, I had faith and I prayed…and nada. Not a single thing. It was like talking to myself. Not even a warm fuzzy glow. But I had faith that somehow God, that big guy up there in the sky, He, and I do mean He, cause back then God was an old, bearded, guy who lived on a fluffy cloud, and spoke King James English, in a very lofty way. Anyway, He, must have been hearing my prayers, but because he was God and all, and knew everything there was to know, he was keeping stuumm in an effort to teach me something. So, all this empty praying was going to pay off in the end.
Eventually, I began to expect very little from prayer. Prayer became something akin to my car insurance. I knew I had to pay it, even though I couldn’t afford it, because someday it might just come in handy. But I never really expected my car insurance to do anything for me, especially as I couldn’t afford to pay for collision insurance. But if I hit someone else, well it just might keep me out of jail. So, I kept on praying, trusting that if I happened to hurt someone else, God would function kinda like my car insurance, only instead of keeping me out of jail, God would keep me out of hell. It was all about me back then. And then one night it happened.
My little world was blown apart and for the first time in my young life, I knew that life wasn’t all about me. It happened on the beach. Actually, it was on a boardwalk down by the ocean. A bunch of my friends and I had managed to talk our parents into letting us spend the night sleeping out under the stars. It was late August and there was supposed to be a particularly amazing meteor shower. The only problem was that in our part of the globe, the best viewing time was supposed to be between 3 and 6 am. So, we begged and we pleaded, or we miss-lead our parents and told them we were staying over at a friend’s place and about a dozen of us headed down to the boardwalk to sleep out under the stars.
It was a fabulous night. No adults to tell us what to do. Good friends to talk to. Swimming after dark. An illegal campfire to make us feel just a little bit afraid that someone might catch us. And just enough beer to make us feel like we were big shots and not enough beer to give us a buzz, because only a couple of us were brave enough to try to buy beer from the dozy lady at the convenience store who never seemed quite able to do the math when she bothered to card us. Did I mention that we’d slipped down across the boarder, not because the meteor shower would be any better down there, but because we lived close enough to Washington state and the beaches in Pt Roberts were very attractive because, we knew that there was only one sheriff on patrol and we figured that we could out-run him if we had to. Besides old Dusty, weren’t much of a sheriff and he pretty much stayed away from the boardwalk cause he knew better than to go looking for trouble. And we were trouble. We were a gang of kids from church, about a dozen kids, with about a dozen beer, and we were gonna stay up all night and watch the stars and no, no good copper was gonna stop us.Continue reading →
News of Marcus Borg’s death has caused thanksgiving to well up in so many of us who where touched by his generous way of imparting wisdom. Marcus Borg was blessed with a gentle touch which allowed him to challenge us to move beyond our long held beliefs so that we might see the One in whom we dwell as the One who comes to unique expression in each of us. I have been richly blessed by his scholarship. His ability to make his readers and listeners feel as though he was articulating our thoughts, doubts, questions, and insights was matched by his ability to push us beyond the limits we set for ourselves so that we too could challenge the status quo which plagues religious traditions. I am a better pastor, teacher, preacher, and human as a result of Dr. Borg’s skillful expressions of his passion for delving into the riches of our shared christianity and the gentle, generous way in which he challenged us all to think anew about the wisdom of the ages. Marcus Borg was blessed with gifts which he used to bless others. May it be said of us that we use the blessings he bestowed on so many of us to be a blessing to others. Well done Marcus. Thank-you Marcus. Shalom Marcus. Shalom.
The first reading prescribed for this coming Sunday is from the first chapter of the book of Jonah; a great big fish story! I believe that I was all of ten years old when I first read Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” I loved each and every mesmerizing page of it and I’ve been a fan of big fish stories ever since. I didn’t actually read the Book of Jonah until I was in my twenties and it took me many more years to appreciate it too as a splendid big fish story. This short film written by Jack Thorne and directed by Kibwe Tavares revisits the Jonah story with prophetic urgency and reminds me that though we may never go back to the way things were, we can dream of how things may be, so that we might never have to long so desperately to return. Enjoy this feast for the eyes!
Three years ago, I reluctantly gave in to requests to preach on the subject of prayer and I devoted my sermons during the season of Epiphany to the subject of prayer. I have been asked to re-post those sermons. In the course of three years, my theology has continued to evolve. However, I have resisted the temptation to edit the sermons and so the manuscripts are what they are, an exploration of sorts. Here’s the Third sermon in the series. I shall repost the seven sermons in the series over the course of the Season of Epiphany.
Prayer #3 – Corporate Prayer, preached on Epiphany 3B, 2012 – listen to the sermonhere
Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; excerpts from St Thomas Aquinas’ God’s Nature, Mark 1:14-20 – Our worship began with the singing of the old song, I Come to the Garden Alone.
Before we set forth on the third sermon in this series, let’s take a brief look at where we have been. We began looking at what happens when we give up the image of God as a grand-puppeteer in the sky to whom we pray to. We moved beyond the notion that prayer is about us talking and God listening. We looked at a model of prayer that begins with us shutting up and listening, for the voice of God, which in Hebrew is called the Bat Cole, or daughter of a sound. Listening for the still, small voice of God, begs the question: “If I happen to hear this daughter of a sound, how do I know that it is God that’s doing the talking?” This question led us to look at the two streams of thought concerning the nature of God that flow through the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The first way of looking at God, sees God as a super natural deity; a kind of person writ large, a super hero God capable of interfering and altering the course of human affairs. The second way of understanding God, is just as ancient, and just as biblical, has the fancy theological name “panentheism” which in the words of the Apostle Paul, sees God as “the ONE in whom we, live and move and have our being. Panentheism simply put means, everything is in God and God is in everything; the universe, all of creation is in God, and God permeates all of creation.
When it comes to prayer, we’ve all been trained to see God as a kind of super-hero-santa character who exists to respond to our prayers with either a yea or a nay, and if the answer is yea, then all is well, and if the answer is nay, then this super-hero-santa God is either responding negatively to our request because we haven’t prayed it properly, or this all-knowing supreme being is saying no for our own good, or this super-human-god is simply trying to teach us something. Sadly, for so many people in our day and age, unanswered prayers, especially those unanswered prayers about unmerited suffering, have lead so many of our contemporaries to conclude that this super-hero-stanta God is little more than a creation of our own making and therefore does not exist and so apart from those times when they are so desperate because there’s nothing left to try, they have for the most part given up on prayer.
The popularity of the super-hero God rises and falls upon the responses or lack of a response to our prayers. Panentheism takes us beyond worshipping the image of God that we have created and opens us to the reality of the force that lies at the very heart of creation; a force that lives and breathes in, with, and through us. When we move beyond seeing God as a super-person, to understanding God as that which permeates all that is, we are compelled to open ourselves to a power beyond our ability to name. In the presence of such a deity our prayers can seem hubris at best, ridiculously childlike, or even useless and so we are all too often reduced to a silence born out of frustration rather than intention. But however, we arrive at the silence, it is out of the silence that God comes to us and we hear the Bat Cole, the daughter of a sound, the still small voice of God. So we’ve come full circle and we can’t help but ask, how do we know that the sound we here is God?
As we struggle for an answer to this question, I’m going to try to take us on a journey that I hope will help us learn some of the skills we will need to test the voice of God. It’s a long journey, so we won’t get there with this sermon. After today we will spend four more Sundays on the subject of prayer; four more Sundays in which we will delve deeply into what it means for us as individuals to pray to a God that we understand to be the one in whom we live and breath and have our being. But before we tackle the subject of individual prayer, we’re going to look at corporate prayer.
What are we doing when we pray together? If we are in God and God is in us, what does it mean to get together as a community to pray? How do we pray? What do we expect, if anything to happen? Today we will look at corporate prayer, next Sunday we’ll delve into praying as individuals, then after a couple of Sundays we’ll include an exploration of the Lord’s prayer. Which will take us to the last Sunday of Epiphany, when we’ll arrive at the mountain-top for transfiguration and we’ll wander around the thin places before heading off into the wilderness for Lent, where even Jesus needed all his skill to determine which of the voices he was hearing was actually the voice of God.
Now for some of you beginning by exploring corporate prayer seem counter-intuitive. Most of us are more interested in your own individual prayer life than we are in the prayer-life we share as a community. But I am convinced that if we begin by looking at how our prayer-life together has changed as we’ve opened ourselves to seeing God as the One who permeates all of creation. When you think about it, our prayer-life begins when we are children with a form of corporate prayer, when an adult in our life teaches us to pray. Usually, we are taught to begin by asking God to bless, Mommy and Daddy, grandma and grandpa, our sisters and brothers, our aunts and uncles and whoever else we loved. Sometimes we’d pray for the boys and girls who were less fortunate than we are. Some of us were taught the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Some of us were taught that horror of horrors: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.” I don’t think I understood what I was asking in that particular prayer, because if I did, I’d never have let my parents leave the room, because I don’t ever remember wanting God to appear in my room to take me away.Continue reading →
Today as our neighbours to the south celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. King, I offer this sermon (John 1:29-42) preached last year at Holy Cross when our worship service celebrated the life and witness of Dr. King. You can listen to the audio which includes the Acclamation, sermon and a stirring rendition of the Hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
During the struggle to open the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada to the full participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, there were some very dark days. As many of you know, during my first years in ministry, it was not a struggle that I did not want any part of. I was for all intents and purposes living in the closet, even if it was the most transparent of closets, the walls of that closet made it very clear to me that my job would be at risk if I spoke publicly about who I am. So, in the early years, I was determined to keep my mouth shut about my own sexuality and fight the good fight from the relative safety of the background. Then by virtue of my office, I was asked to speak publicly at a forum being held by York region, mental health professionals who were gathering resources to support GLBT youth. The organizers of the forum knew that many young people suffered as a result of their family’s involvement in churches that propagated hatred toward gays and lesbians and they wanted me to speak directly to these issues so that mental health professionals might be equipped to begin to counter some of the religious propaganda that was damaging so many young people.
A few days after I spoke at this public forum a note was hand delivered to the mailbox at the parsonage. The note contained two quotes from the book of Leviticus: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind it is abomination” and “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
I was shaken by the quotes and even more shaken by the fact that they were hand delivered to my home. I tried to shake off my fear by telling myself that the note represented the ravings of a fool. But when I shared the note with members of the church council, I was reminded that in my world these words represented Bible quotes but in the real world they actually constituted a death threat.Continue reading →
Three years ago, I reluctantly gave in to requests to preach on the subject of prayer and I devoted my sermons during the season of Epiphany to the subject of prayer. I have been asked to re-post those sermons. In the course of three years, my theology has continued to evolve. However, I have resisted the temptation to edit the sermons and so the manuscripts are what they are, an exploration of sorts. Here’s the Second sermon in the series. I shall repost the seven sermons in the series over the course of the Season of Epiphany.
Prayer #2 – Pray to a Super-natural Deity or a Panentheistic God? preached on Epiphany 2B, 2012 – listen to the sermon here
Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, The Flowing Light of the Godhead by Mechthild of Magdeburg, John 1:43-51 – Our worship began with the singing of the old song, I Come to the Garden Alone.
Last week we began a sermon series on prayer. We are spending the season of Epiphany exploring what it prayer is like after you give up the idea that God is some grand-puppeteer in the sky. We spent some time exploring the description of the Voice of God that we find in the Hebrew Scriptures. In ancient Hebrew the Voice of God is described as the Bat Cole. Which translates literally as the daughter of a sound. Our English bibles translate the Bat Cole, the daughter of a sound as the Still Small Voice of God. It is sometimes translated as “the thinnest silence.” I asked you to spend sometime during the week, listening to the Bat Cole that emanates from deep inside of you. Today, I want to talk about what it means to listen.
What does it mean to listen to the voice of God? What does the voice of God sound like? How do you know that the voice you are hearing is God? What are you supposed to do if you think you hear the voice of God? I’ve been thinking about these questions all week long and I’ve got to say that these questions have driven me more than a little crazy. Earlier in the week, a colleague sent me a recording of televangelist Pat Robertson talking about his latest message from God. It seems that God has told Pat Robertson exactly who the next president of the United States is going to be. God has also, rather conveniently told Robertson not to talk about it. So, Pat’s not saying who it will be. But he is saying that God has told him that the current president; that would be Barak Obama, “holds a radical view of the future of the United States that is at odds with the majority” so the nation should expect chaos and paralysis.”
It strikes me as all too convenient that God just happens to hold the same views as Pat Robertson, so I’m not about to listen to the voice that he hears. But then, how do I know that the voice that I hear is God and not just me impersonating God? To hear Pat Robertson tell it, he hears a clear voice and has no doubt that it is God doing the talking. I on the other hand have never heard a clear voice. In fact I’m pretty sure that if I stood up here and told you all that God spoke to me in a clear voice, you’d begin to wonder about my sanity. I mean hearing voices is a clear signal that something has gone terribly wrong and we have all sorts of medication for that. So, if hearing voices is symptomatic of mental illness, then why in the world would we bother listening for the voice of God?
Before we can even begin to understand what the so much of the Christian tradition means when they talk about listening to the voice of God, we need to take a step back and look at what we mean when we say the word god. Throughout the Jewish and Christian traditions you can trace two very distinct ways of understanding and talking about God. The first and most familiar way of understanding God is as a supernatural being. God is described as a sort of person, a supernatural person. The term supernatural describes it all, super means beyond the natural. God is understood as a being beyond the capabilities of most beings. God is personified; given the characteristics of a person; only it is as if God has the powers of a super-hero; someone far greater than we can even imagine.Continue reading →
Three years ago, I reluctantly gave in to requests to preach on the subject of prayer and I devoted my sermons during the season of Epiphany to the subject of prayer. I have been asked to re-post those sermons. In the course of three years, my theology has continued to evolve. However, I have resisted the temptation to edit the sermons and so the manuscripts are what they are, an exploration of sorts. Here’s the first. I shall repost the seven sermons in the series over the course of the Season of Epiphany.
Prayer #1 – Bath Qol – The Daughter of a Sound – preached on Baptism of Jesus Sunday 2012
And so John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camels’ hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey.
In the course of his preaching, John said, ‘One more powerful than I is to come after me. I am not fit to stoop and untie his sandal strips. I have baptized you with water, but the One to come will baptize you in the Holy Spirit. It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.”
I began the sermon by asking the congregation to sing a cappella from memory the familiar hymn: I Come to the Garden.
I come to the garden alone,
while the dew is still on the Roses;
And the voice I hear,
falling on my ear the Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me, and he talks with me,
and he tells me I am his own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
Non other has ever known.
He speaks and the sound of his voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that he gave to me
Within my heart is ringing,
And he walks with me, and he talks with me,
and he tells me I am his own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
Non other has ever known.
I’d stay in the garden with him,
Though the night around me be falling;
But he bids me go;
Through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.
And he walks with me, and he talks with me,
and he tells me I am his own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
Non other has ever known.
The season of Epiphany begins and ends with stories of Jesus’ hearing the voice of God. In this morning’s story of Jesus’ baptism, Jesus hears the voice of God as a dove descends from the clouds. On the last Sunday of Epiphany, we will hear the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop when the voice of God is heard speaking from out of a cloud. Both times the voice will say essentially the same thing: “This is my beloved”
The word Epiphany is a Greek word which means “manifestation or revelation” of the divine. Over the years, the word epiphany has been used to describe those “a ha” moments in which something quite obvious is revealed. The phrase, “I saw the light” springs to mind whenever I think of the word Epiphany. I’d like to say that I associate that particular phrase with the word epiphany because, in the season of Epiphany is the season when plunged into the darkness of winter the church celebrates light. But the truth is the word epiphany makes me think of cartoons I watched as a child, when a light bulb would appear over the head of a character when the cartoon character had a bright idea. When that light-bulbs appear in cartoons, it’s a sure sign that the character is headed for trouble, because bright ideas often get us into trouble. So, you’d think I would have known better when, earlier this week a light-bulb went off and I had a bright idea that during the season of epiphany I should begin a sermon series on the subject of prayer. I mean, what better season than the season of epiphany to tackle a subject that people have been asking me to address for months now.
Ever since we set off on this grand journey of re-thinking our theology, trying to understand Christianity in the 21st century, the issue of prayer has been lurking in the background, almost haunting us. As we’ve explored ancient and mystic, understandings of the reality that we call God our cherished notions of God as a grand puppeteer in the sky who intervenes from above to change the course of history, have been challenged. As we’ve come to understand God as more than our images of God could ever even begin to capture, we have explored the possibility that God is more immediately present in with and through us. As we begin to see God’s work in the world grounded in the world, there are moments when I really miss that grand puppeteer in the sky.
It is certainly easier to talk about prayer if your talking about appealing to an other-worldly creature to fulfill your longing for a divine parent to solve all our problems. Because seriously folks, when you give up the idol that we’ve created of a god who controls all things from up in heaven, a god who listens to our prayers and then decides what is and isn’t good for us, and answers those prayers according to some grand plan he devised eons ago, in which all we are required to do is believe that whatever happens its God’s will, and we shouldn’t question but simply believe because in the end all will be revealed, well when you give up that particular image of God, the question that haunts me, and judging by the questions and comments I’ve heard from a good many of you is,
Who or what do we pray to know?
Should we pray, and how should we pray?
And more importantly who or what will answer those prayers?
In light of this events of this past week, I have been hearing the phrase “innocent victims” over and over again and these words have summoned up the memory of a song that now haunts my thoughts with the question: “Are My Hands Clean?”
Various news reports delivered over various mediums have declared particular victims of recent violent atrocities to be innocent. It is true that none of the Parisian victims of the violent jehadists deserved to be targeted, held hostage, or killed! But, I wonder about our desire to label certain victims as “innocent” whenever violence shakes our world.
Yes the perpetrators of the violence are guilty! But who among us is completely innocent? There are some who have worked diligently to love their neighbours as they love themselves. There may even be some among the Parisian victims who loved their enemies. But who among us can claim that we have not failed miserably to love our enemies?
Nothing can justify the acts of violence perpetrated by those who seek to inflict terror. Yet, we appear to feel justified as we continue to enjoy the benefits of a society whose systemic injustice engenders the very frustrations which breed the hostilities which leave so many of the victims of our privilege believing that violence is the only answer.
Can we, who have and continue to benefit from the world’s power imbalances, open ourselves to the possibility that we are part of the problem? Can our efforts to end the violence begin with confession as we endeavour to love our enemies. I’m not suggesting that our love be anything other than the fierce love which has the power to change the world. Fierce love is costly and difficult, requiring the kind of wisdom that creates justice. Justice will no doubt have an impact upon our lifestyles and our power. Do we have the courage to see that our hands a far from clean and begin to offer tangible proof of our desire to love our neighbours and our enemies?
As one who endeavours to follow the teachings of Jesus, I find myself praying that this cup be taken from me. The task is too daunting. The way is to difficult. And yet… the alternative is to become my enemy and take up violence to preserve my lifestyle, my privilege, my power, my world. May the ONE who is LOVE, live and breath in me so that I might have the courage to love.
Wading into the waters of baptism is no simple matter for a progressive Christian. Once you leave the myth of perfection in some distant garden back there in the mists of time, reject the notion of humanity’s fall from grace as a result of original sin, and give up worshipping the sadistic image of a god who demands a blood sacrifice, it’s difficult to navigate the waters of baptism without spouting notions that the institutional church condemns as heresy. But today is the day when the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the stories about the baptism of Jesus that have been handed down to us by our ancestors suggest that on this day of all days, we should have the courage to follow Jesus into the river of life even if it does challenge some of our long held assumptions about what it means to be a child of God.
I venture into these troubled waters as someone who treasures the sacrament of baptism. Long before I ever entertained the idea that I might one day respond to the call to become a baptizer, I became a lover of this particular sacrament of the church. I am now, and I have always been one of those people who find it almost impossible not to shed a tear or two at baptisms. The beauty of all that hope and expectation all wrapped up in the guise of a tiny little human has a way of generating in me a watery contribution as my tears join the sprinkling to wet the babies head. When the baptized is an adult my tears flow even more bountifully. Let’s face it folks these days the reality is that infant baptisms are rare enough. Adult baptisms, especially in mainline churches are so rare that the nostalgia alone is enough to send us into spasms of uncontrollable weeping for seer joy at the thought that it is even remotely possible that someone has been able to see beyond the church’s doctrine long enough to embrace the amazing possibilities of the sacrament to provide any benefit in this the twenty-first century.
When we look back to the stories told in the synoptic gospels about the baptism of Jesus we are sometimes so distracted by the opening of the heavens, the descent of the dove and the voice of God declaring Jesus to be the beloved, that we miss an important detail of the way in which the early followers of the Way chose to tell the story of Jesus public coming out party. New Testament scholars remind us that the stories told by the writers of the gospels were written at the end of the first century; a time when it would have been clear to all those who had ears to hear, that by going down to the river Jordan to be baptized by John would have stirred up the political and religious waters. John the Baptist was a revolutionary who made no bones about the fact that the religious authorities and the political rulers were leading the people down the wrong path. John’s shouting in the wilderness was his way of warning the people to repent; to literally turn around and follow a different path. John was doing far more than ranting when he condemned the religious authorities as a brood of vipers; he was calling on the people to reject the teachings of the authorities. John’s insistence on repentance was a call to revolution, a revolution designed to overthrow the status quo. John was out there in the wilderness because it wasn’t safe for him to spout his own particular brand of incendiary fire and brimstone rhetoric within earshot of the authorities. By going down to the River Jordon and submitting to John’s baptism of repentance Jesus was choosing to identify himself with a political revolutionary.
That the writers of the gospels chose to tell there story in ways that see the God of Israel give Jesus a shout out, and the very spirit of God descending like a dove onto the shoulders of Jesus, turns John’s baptism of repentance into a kind of passing of the torch from one revolutionary to the next. Yet, despite the gospel-writers having cast Jesus into the role of revolutionary torchbearer none of the gospel writers shows Jesus following the ways of his predecessor John. There is no record of Jesus calling people to repent nor is there any record of Jesus ever having baptized anyone. All we have is Jesus “Great Commission” which if New Testament scholars are to be believed, Jesus probably never even said, “go therefore and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, it’s true, most preachers, dare I say modern-day baptizers, learned in seminary that rather than being an instruction given by Jesus the Great Commission was actually added to the story by the early followers of Jesus. But I digress, the point I’d like to emphasize about Jesus’ trip down to the waters of the Jordan, is that by choosing to publicly submit to John’s baptism, Jesus was making an important statement about his own public ministry. For just like John, Jesus intended to challenge the religious and political authorities.Continue reading →
Each year, I begin my preparations for preaching on the Baptism of Jesus with this video in which Heather Murray Elkins tells her story, “The Secret of Our Baptism.” Elkins opens us to a new way of hearing the Bat Col, the Daughter of a Sound, the Voice of the Divine, the Word, who speaks in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. Mark 1:4-11
I have just completed reading James Carroll’s latest book “Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age” for the second time. I know that I will read it many more times as I continue my own work of articulating an understanding of Jesus for the 21 century. Carroll’s way of exploring Christianity has always been enlightening and refreshing because he has the courage to question the tradition from the vantage point of someone who has lived the tradition with passion. Carroll is former Roman Catholic priest who now serves as Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University and is a columnist for The Boston Globe, whose books include: “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews,” “American Requiem: God My Father,” and the “War That Came Between Us, Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War,” “Toward a New Catholic Church: The Promise of Reform,” as well as eleven novels.
Carroll’s critique of Christianity is infused with a sense of responsibility for the ways in which our anti-Jewish texts have misremembered the story of Jesus. His exploration of first century history points to the profound influence of the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. upon the way in which the gospel-storytellers crafted their accounts of Jesus for their late first century communities. Insisting that we must measure everything we say about Jesus now against Jesus’ Jewishness, Carroll asks a compelling question: “What if the so-called divinity of Jesus lays bare not so much the mystery of God as it does the majesty of what it means to be human?” Carroll sees that the divinity of Jesus in some way suggests the Divinity in which we all participate. Carroll’s work is a must read for those of us who are working to articulate a 21st century Christology!
The video below was recorded at First Parish in Cambridge on Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Thanks to science and all we have learned about creation, we are beginning to develop new images of the ultimate reality we call God. New images of God challenge the patriarchal misogyny of religious traditions. When it comes to re-imagining the faith, Sister Joan Chittister paints a picture of God as One Who Summons from among us – Emmanuel. The Summoning One calls and encourages us toward a world of equals. “Evolution is shedding new light on our lives.”