Echoing the Divine Plea: “I Lay Before You Life and Death. Choose Life!” a Reformation Sermon

Listen to the sermon Here

As you can see and hear, our granddaughters are spending the weekend with us. As many of you know, because you have experienced it yourselves, when little children come into your life, they completely change your perspective. For the past several weeks, my focus and indeed, our focus together has been upon our Visioning Process as we try to envision the kind of church we here at Holy Cross want to be over the course of the next five years. There have been many questions and conversations about who and what we are together as a congregation and where and how we want to engage our talents and resources; questions and conversations about what it means to be a congregation in the 21st century and how we might respond to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. What do we have to offer? How can we play to our strengths? How might we make a difference in and with the various communities that we currently serve? How can we do more? What is the more that we can and should be doing? What are we as a congregation being called to be and do? What is the importance of our Lutheran heritage? What does our reputation for being a “progressive church” mean to us, to the communities that we serve, and to the future we see for ourselves? How can we stay relevant in a world where the church is continually being judged as irrelevant? How will we choose what is most important? Which needs or whose needs can and must we meet, and which needs, or whose needs must we say no to because we can’t possibly hope to meet everyone’s needs? Where will the energy, time, and resources come from so that we can fully live into all that we envision for ourselves?

Semper Reformanda, Always Reforming can and is so very exhausting. But Semper Reformanda, Always Reforming is also challenging, invigorating, and vital! So, “here I stand” on this Reformation Sunday, charged with the responsibility to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News in ways that will challenge us all to be bold, to be the Church that Martin Luther set loose on the world 500 years ago.  So, since our Visioning Session last Sunday, I’ve been all up in my head trying to figure out exactly what I could possibly preach to you that would help us to break the log-jam in which we find ourselves as we try to figure out where we are going and what we are called to do. I’ve been reading and studying, going over and over where we’ve been, what we’ve been doing, and what we have been considering and my mind has been full of questions and concerns, and hopes, and dreams. That is until Friday evening when the little girls arrived. Suddenly, I was jolted out of my head and into the fierce immediacy of now! Now Gran? Gran, can we? Gran, can you get me? Gran, I want!!! Gran, NOW!!! Followed by me, saying, In a minute. Just a minute. Wait, I’m coming. Look out! You’re going to hurt yourself. Stop that please! Wait, hold-on, maybe, let me see, I don’t know, maybe, let’s wait and see, OK, Yea, OK, I said, “NO”. What, leave her alone. Don’t do that! Do this! Please. Please Gran. Can we Gran, can we? Playing with and responding to the needs of a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old has shifted my focus.  It’s exhausting and it’s liberating and there’s nothing quite like little ones to get you out of your head and into your heart.

So, today, despite all the grand and glorious questions that are swimming around in my head as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and regardless of all our concerns about our future together as a congregation, one question looms very large in my mind and perhaps more importantly, in my heart. Today, my response to Martin Luther’s challenge to the church to be “Semper Reformanda!” – “Always Reforming” comes from my heart’s concern for my grandchildren. Looking toward the future of these little people, I cannot help but wonder what kind of church they will encounter as they grow into all that they have been created to be. Will they encounter an irrelevant, out of touch, Church, that is in so much denial about the realities of existence, that fails to respond to our changing understanding of what it means to be human, a church that holds tightly to ideas, doctrines and dogmas of a bygone era and cannot respond to the needs of the poor, the hungry, or the powerless? Or will they encounter a Church that has died a slow, agonizing death? Or maybe they will meet a living, thriving, vibrant Church that is relevant, responsive, and vital? Continue reading

What if we won’t ever really understand Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection until we understand that God is dead? – a Reformation Sermon

Listen to the sermon here

All over the world, Lutheran churches celebrate the earth-shattering events that were set in motion on October 31st 1517, when a Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Luther challenged the most powerful institution that his world had ever known. Luther shook the very foundations upon which the reality of his fellow humans was based. The power of the Holy Roman Catholic Church rested upon an interpretation of reality that envisioned a God who sits in judgement upon a throne in the heavens, a God who commanded a quid pro quo relationship with HIS subjects; a God whose determination to tip the scales of justice was so precise that he sent HIS only Son to die as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity, a God who used the sacrifice of that Son to somehow atone for the sins of every man, woman, and child who ever lived; saving them from the wrath of this God who had no other choice but to condemn sinners to eternal torment in the fires of hell, a God who established the church on earth to oversee the administration of the atoning power of Jesus death upon the cross, a church so powerful that they could sell you a piece of paper called an indulgence that would whisk you or your loved one out of the pits of Hell and up, up, up into the willowing, billowing, soft, gentle fluffy whiteness of Heaven, so that you could spend all of eternity basking in the Glory of your Father in heaven’s presence. These indulgences were more valuable than gold and it’s no wonder that the Church was able to sell them like hot-cakes, pardon the pun, and yes, I’m been sarcastic in my telling of this tale. Yes, history is more complicated than I’m telling it right here and right now, because I’m trying to make a point. The selling of indulgences was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the abuses the church on earth and in heaven. Continue reading

Reformation Sunday Resources

Preparing for Reformation Sunday? Some of these posts might be useful:

Here We Stand, For We Can Do No Other

Luther, Spong, Fox, and Holy Cross

Enough with “A Mighty Fortress” Already! Sing a New Song!

95 Theses for the Twenty-first Century

Freedom from What?  All this Reforming is Wearing Me Out!

What Darwin Never Knew

A Reformation Day Nailing to the Internet – John Shelby Spong

A Prayer for Reformation – Thomas Berry

Glimpses of the MYSTERY we call GOD – Exodus 33

Listen to the sermon here

About ten days ago, I traveled up to Owen Sound for the funeral of a young colleague who died in a tragic motorcycle accident. During the two-and-a-half hour drive I couldn’t help wondering what life is all about. The stunning reality of the death of someone so young reminds us how very fragile life is. As I drove north the weather began to turn. So, by the time I reached Blue Mountain the wind was really howling. Driving along the shores of Lake Huron I could see waves rising. I’d been driving for over an hour, so I decided to pull over and take a walk before the rain began. Staring out over Nottawasaga Bay toward the vast grey horizon, I felt very small and insignificant. My mind wandered as my face was pelted by the sand that was kicked up by the wind. The sensation of the sand hitting my face awaked me to the reality that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

As my mind wandered, I caught sight of a small tuft of tall grass bent over by the force of the wind and sand. The long, tall grass shared my feeling of fragility as it was laid almost parallel to the beach by the strength of the wind. I thought about the Ruach, the wind, breath or Spirit of God, the power and majesty of the Ruach as it blows where it wills. Pelted by the wind, the sand, and the reality of death, the fragility of my own being struck me to my core as a deep, loud, “No!” rose up from my inner being. It was as much a plea to the Ruach as it was a staunch denial of the reality of fragility of life. “NO!” I shouted into the horizon. But the Ruach, the wind and the sand threw my “NO” back in my face as my tears mixed with the rain that began to fall.

The wind must have changed direction because when I looked back at the tuft of fragile grass it was standing tall even as the rain’s intensity increased. I took a long, deep, intake of breath. It was as if the very Ruach of God entered my being. I wiped the tears and the rain from my face, straightened my spine and walked back to the car ready to face the reality of our mortality, strengthened by the knowledge that I had encountered MYSTERY; the MYSTERY that is the source of All.

The Bible is full of stories that touch the deepest MYSTERY of life. The ancients knew that eternal truths are best communicated through stories, and so we plumb the depths of the scriptures’ parables, myths, and similes to discover our reality. Memories, stories, imaginings, myths, wonderings, and glimpses are the stuff of truth.  We human creatures just can’t help wondering. How did we get here?  Who made us? Why were we made? Why are we here? Where are we going? We humans can’t seem to help wondering, what’s it all about? From days of old, we’ve been sitting around campfires weaving tales about how we came to be, and what it’s all about; speculating on the nature of our creator.  Story after story has been told; stories that weave in and out between our experiences and our wonderings, what’s real, what’s not, what’s true and what are imaginings. The best stories, the ones that captured our imagination and stimulated our wonderings, those stories were told over and over again. Handed down from one generation to the next. Some stories so profound that they just had to be written down. Elevated to the realm of the sacred these wonderings, took on the quality of myth. Sacred truth, so precious that over the years some have sought to defend these stories with their very lives. Others have built their world around these sacred truths, found their identities between the lines of their imaginings. Still others have feared the very wonderings that birthed these sacred truths. So afraid have they become that they’ve tried to insist that these sacred truths aren’t even ours, but rather the divine ramblings of our God. Whispered into the ears of scribes who jotted them down word for word, in the Kings English no less, holding between their lines not only sacred truths, but perfectly preserved history. So treasured are these sacred truths that some even claim that between their lines lie the for-telling of our future. So treasured are these sacred truths that the questioning of even the slightest detail has the power to set one tribe or nation against another. Continue reading

Glimpses of God’s Backside – Exodus 33:12-23

glimpseYAHWEH said to Moses: “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Memories, stories, imaginings, myths, wonderings, and glimpses are the stuff of truth. Even though I was only a child, I have very vivid memories of my very first trip on an airplane. We lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland and we were moving to Canada. I was terrified and fascinated all at the same time. I don’t know where I heard them first, but words like “frozen,” “north,” “wolves,” “igloos”, and “Eskimos” filled my imagination. I have a vague memory of being told that there wouldn’t be any Eskimos where we were going.

I remember the excitement and the fear about flying up in the sky, higher than the clouds. We’d be so high that we’d be able to look down at the clouds. I just couldn’t wait. I was going up, up into heaven. Visions of angels sitting on clouds, maybe, just maybe I’d catch a glimpse of Jesus playing with all the little children. I never dreamed that I’d see God. God would be clothed in a cloud and if God peaked out I’d hide. I didn’t want to see God. God was way too scary. I wanted to stay well clear of God. God was a scary guy, so scary that you’d probably drop down dead if you saw God. Maybe I shouldn’t look down on the clouds, just incase I caught a glimpse of God, because then I’d never make it back down from heaven. And then, I’d never get to see the Eskimos that I just knew were waiting for me down in Canada!

It wasn’t easy being up there in the sky for the very first time. I couldn’t take my eyes off that little porthole. Even though I knew somewhere deep down inside that I wasn’t really looking out at heaven, I just couldn’t help wondering what was really out there. I remember thinking that maybe just maybe there were angels dancing on those clouds, invisible angels, cause I knew that you became invisible when you died. God was pretty much invisible most of the time.      Continue reading

Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth: Is this the Gospel of Christ? – Matthew 22:1-14

Listen to the sermon here

Then Jesus spoke to them again in parables. He said,  “The kindom of heaven is like this: there was a ruler who prepared a feast for the wedding of the family’s heir; but when the ruler sent out workers to summon the invited guests, they wouldn’t come. The ruler sent other workers, telling them to say to the guests, ‘I have prepared this feast for you. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding.’  But they took no notice; one went off to his farm, another to her business, and the rest seized the workers, attacked them brutally and killed them. The ruler was furious and dispatched troops who destroyed those murderers and burned their town. Then the ruler said to the workers, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but the guests I invited don’t deserve the honour. Go out to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find.’  The workers went out into the streets and collected everyone they met, good and bad alike, until the hall was filled with guests. The ruler, however, came in to see the company at table and noticed one guest who was not dressed for a wedding. ‘My friend,’ said the ruler, ‘why are you here without a wedding garment?’ But the guest was silent. Then the ruler said to the attendants, ‘Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.’   “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew 22:1-14

Is this the Gospel of Christ? In Lutheran, Anglican, United, Roman Catholic and other mainline denominations this text will be read and in those congregations the preacher will conclude the reading with a proclamation declaring that this is, “The Gospel of Christ!” or “The Gospel of the Lord!” to which the people will declare “Praise to you O Christ!” But I ask you: “Is this the Gospel of Christ?” “Wailing and gnashing of teeth.”  Is this the Gospel of Christ?

I must confess that when I realized that this text is the one assigned for this, the very Sunday when we are about to begin our “visioning process,” my heart sank. This gospel reading comes around every three years and I’ve always managed to be on vacation when that happens, so I’ve never actually had to preach this particular gospel text.  I was sorely tempted to change our gospel reading to something more in keeping with the task that lies before us this afternoon. This text is hardly conducive to creating a new 21st century vision of what our church might become.  “Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many are called but few are chosen.”

Throw him out into the darkness for the crime of being badly dressed? What kind of vision is this for us, here, today? Are we not a progressive congregation? Do we not pride ourselves on being an inclusive community?  “Many are called but few are chosen.” Is this the “Gospel of Christ?” “Praise to you O Christ!” I don’t think so. Continue reading

The Blessing of Michael’s Story – a Thanksgiving

Listen to the story here

I went to bed early last night with only a rough outline for today’s sermon. I usually struggle with Thanksgiving sermons. It’s not easy to come up with something new to say about Thanksgiving. So, I spent most of yesterday digging deeply into what other people have written about the power of gratitude so that I might be better able to encourage you to express your gratitude on this Thanksgiving Sunday. But no matter how deeply I dug into the wisdom of gratitude, I couldn’t quite pull this sermon together. So, I went to bed early, hoping that something would come to me in the night and I would arise early in the morning and somehow pull it all together.  

I was awakened in the wee hours of this morning by a howling wind and the sound of rainfall. The sounds reminded me of winter in Vancouver and my mind wandered off into a dream about the doldrums Februarys in Vancouver. February can be the most challenging month that the weather in Vancouver can throw at you. Usually by about the middle of February it has been so wet, damp, and grey for so long, that most Vancouverites cannot remember what the sun looks like. There’s a kind of malaise that rolls in over the city like a fog, that seems as if it will never lift. There are days when it seems as though the entire population is suffering from seasonal affected disorder. People don’t smile very much and depression is the order of the day. During February in Vancouver, the suicide rate is higher than at any other time of the year; and this in a city that has the highest suicide rate in North America.

I remember one damp and dreary day in Vancouver that stands out from all the other damp and dreary days. It had been a particular damp, grey February. It had been overcast or raining for weeks and weeks and weeks. I was riding on the busy to work. It was the same bus that I had been riding on for two years. Every weekday morning, I would commute by bus from the suburbs into the heart of the city. At six-fifteen, I would stand with the same people at the same bus stop and get on the same bus, that carried all the same people to their same jobs. On a good day, the trip would usually take 45 minutes. Nobody ever spoke on that bus. Occasionally people would nod or smile at the all too familiar faces of their daily travelling companions, but conversation would be reserved for sunny days, when people could only manage a word or two. It was like there was this unwritten rule that nobody had the energy or the inclination to break. We saw one another almost every day, and yet, we knew absolutely nothing about one another and that was the way we were determined to keep it. On this particular dull, depressing, February morning, in addition to being tired, I was also wet. The wind was really blowing so I carried my umbrella in vain. Unable to open my umbrella, I had to rely on my hooded jacket to keep me dry. The bus was running late and the water was just beginning to seep through my jacket.  When I finally climbed aboard, the windows of the bus were totally steamed, obscuring the view of the darkened wet world. I was determined to ignore the damp and settled in for what I hoped would be a short nap before we reached the city. I was just managing to doze off when the bust screeched to a halt. Several passengers climbed aboard. All but one of the passengers were recognizable. I’d seen them a hundred times before. But the young man, who loudly greeted the bus driver with a “Hello”, him I’d never seen before. He struggled to fold his broken umbrella as he stumbled to the rear of the bus. He sat opposite me, and proceed to greet everyone around him.  People weren’t sure how to take this.  Some just nodded and then looked away.  Others mumbled a greeting before fixing their gaze out the window. I smiled, nodded and then closed my eyes, determined to escape into sleep. Continue reading

To Whom Shall We Go to Say Thank-you After We Move Beyond Personifying God?- Thanksgiving Sunday sermons

Thankyou autumn

Follow the links for previous sermons:

Reckless Generosity a sermon with a Monty Python flair!

Who IS God? – Not One, Not Two – inspired by Garrison Keillor & Joan Chittister

Brussel Sprouts, Ebola, and Thanksgiving – seeking the ONE who IS

To Whom Shall We Go to Say Thank-you

After We Move Beyond Personifying God?

Over the course of the past nine years a group of little people have come into my life: lovely little people who call me Gran. There are seven of them and participating in their little lives is a source of such great joy. Each stage of their development is a wonder to behold. I particularly enjoy watching their parents as they attempt to teach these little darlings the things that they need to know about being human. One of the first things that we teach little humans is the fine art of saying thank-you. It takes a fair amount of repetition to teach a child to say thank-you. Over and over again, after giving them exactly what they want, we ask, “Can you say thank-you?” and the little darlings repeat the words “Thank-you.” Sometimes all we have to do is ask the question: “What do you say?” in order to hear the words “Thank-you” uttered in such a delightful way as to inspire us to praise them as such good little girls and boys.

Expressing gratitude is a skill that all tiny little people must learn in order to develop into well-rounded human beings. Indeed, scientists insist that being grateful is a prerequisite of happiness. Happy humans it seems, are humans who embody gratitude. But there is more to gratitude than simply saying thank-you. I remember learning that gratitude includes more than simply expressing our thanks. It happened when I was about sixteen and actually noticed the beauty of a sunset and for the first time I realized that I was part of something so much bigger than myself. I know I must have seen the sunset before, but this time I actually saw the sun set. We were driving down the road, my friend Valerie and I were riding in a car driven by her mother, Lola. It was a partly over-cast day on the west coast of British Columbia.  Just a few clouds.  You could see the mountains off in the distance. We were chatting back and forth when all of a sudden, Lola pulled the car over to the far side of the road, switched off the engine and got out. Valerie followed her mother out of the car, so I figured I had better do the same. Val and her mother scampered down from the road and onto the beach. When they reached the water’s edge, they stopped and  just looked off into the distance. Apart from a tanker-ship making its way across the horizon, I couldn’t see much of anything. Lola had the most amazing expression on her face. She positively glowed with happiness. Valerie wore a similar expression. I must have looked somewhat puzzled because Val smiled at me and said “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?” This only confused me more. What were they looking at that had made them stop the car, scamper down the bank and stand there at the water’s edge on a cold autumn evening. 

These happy, glowing, smiling people made me nervous. There they stood grinning from ear to ear.  What were they on? And then, I saw it. For the first time in my life, I saw it.  It had been there before. But I had never really seen it before. The sky was amazing.  The colours were overwhelming. It almost didn’t look real. It looked like someone must have painted it that way. It was magnificent. A work of art. The most beautiful thing I have ever seen. If you’ve never seen a late October, Pacific Coast Sunset before, you’ve missed one of the great wonders of the world. Neither Emily Carr’s paintings nor picture perfect post cards do a western sunset justice.          

Believe it or not, even though I had been living on the west coast for about four years, at that point I had never before really noticed just how beautiful a sunset could be. No one in my experience had ever taken the time to stop and look at one. No one had ever pointed one out to me before. I would never have dreamed of stopping a car and getting out to watch as the sun put on a show while setting. So, I stood there.  Overwhelmed by it all. Amazed at just how beautiful it was. Wondering just who or what could be responsible for such a spectacular thing as this. Before long my thoughts drifted to the Creator. Actually noticing a magnificent sunset was the beginning of a journey beyond myself as the reality that I am part of something so much bigger than myself continues to permeate my being.

Back then, I expressed my gratitude by very much the same way as my grandchildren are being taught to express their gratitude, simply by saying “Thank-you”. The object of the Thank-you being God. At the time, God was an old bloke up there in the sky somewhere. As my images of God changed over the years, my Thank-you’s continued to be expressed to my ever-changing images of God. But I must confess, that it was a whole lot easier to say thank-you to God when God was some big guy up there, out there somewhere? It was so much easier when I thought of God as “Father” or even as “Mother” to express my gratitude by simply mimicking the behaviour that I’d been taught as a child, “Can you say “Thank-you” Oh yes indeed I can say thank-you. “God is great, God is God, let us thank him for our food. By his hand we must be fed, Give us Lord Our Daily Bread.” Continue reading

Weeds Upon the Altar – a sermon in celebration of St. Francis of Assisi

On this the last Sunday of the Season of Creation we celebrate the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. Our Gospel text was Matthew 6:25-28

Listen to the sermon here

Sisters and Brothers, hear again the words of St. Francis of Assisi:

I think God might be a little prejudiced.

For once God asked me to join God on a walk

through this world,

and we gazed into every heart on this earth,

and I noticed God lingered a bit longer

before any face that was

weeping,

and before any eyes that were

laughing.

And sometimes when we passed

a soul in worship

God too would kneel

down.

I have Come to learn:  God

adores God’s

creation.

In the spirit of St. Francis, I bid you peace. Please take a long deep breath…..Peace. Now if you would focus your attention upon these two beautiful bouquets upon the altar. Yes, I am well aware that these bouquets are little more than a collection of weeds. Yes, I know that many of us were taught by the Church, I’m talking here about the capital “C” Church; we were taught by the Church that flowers don’t belong upon the altar. Flowers upon the altar distract people from the presence of God and the acts of worshipping God, so if we must have flowers in the sanctuary, we were all trained to place them anywhere other than upon the altar; the holy of holies, the place where God works in, with, through, and under the bread and wine to touch us, love us, strengthen us, and empower us. We can’t, reasoned the Church, we can’t have people distracted from the actions of God that center upon the altar. So, the Church banished flowers from the altar. But on this the feast day of St. Francis, I asked Carol to gather up some bouquets of weeds and place upon the altar. I did so, because these bouquets are beautiful!

Take a good look…..In this beautiful season of autumn these particular weeds are everywhere. You cannot go for a walk or a drive in and around town without being confronted by the existence of these spectacular weeds. Take a good look….aren’t they beautiful.In the words of St. Francis,

I have Come to learn: 

God adores God’s

creation.

Now look around you, take a very good look at this spectacular gathering, this splendid bouquet of what some might call weeds but, if you look very closely you will see in one another a breathtakingly beautiful bouquet of awe-inspiring flowers.  Aren’t you lovely? Made from LOVE. Gathered around this makeshift altar of ours God will indeed work in, with, through, and under each one of us to touch us, to love us, to strengthen us and to love us. In, with, through, and under this is the way that Lutheran theology describes the way in which God comes to us in the bread and wine of holy communion. I have gotten into the habit of always reminding you that we live and move and have our being in God and that God lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us. I repeat this over and over again, not only to remind all of you but to remind myself that God is not some far off distant being, who lives up there or out there somewhere. God is here, right here, all around us, in us and beyond us just as surely as we are in God. So, on this the final Sunday in the Season of Creation it is so very appropriate for us to turn our attention to St. Francis who reminds us that all of creation is in God.

Francis was born into a wealthy merchant family and spent his young life striving to become a knight by actively participating in the completion between Italian cities to dominate the emerging capitalist system. Francis learned like each one of us must learn that acquiring things, amassing wealth, competing for power, these things cannot ever bring us peace. And so, Francis renounced things, gave up his wealth and powerful position in Italian society, and walked away from the competitive capitalist system.

Francis even went so far as to challenge the Church’s teachings about how to be a Christian. For centuries, the Church taught that the best way, the truest way to be a Christian in the world was to follow the example of the early followers of the Way that we find in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Continue reading