From desert cliff and mountaintop we trace the wide design, Strike-slip fault and overthrust and syn and anticline… We gaze upon creation where erosion makes it known, And count the countless aeons in the banding of the stone. Odd, long-vanished creatures and their tracks & shells are found; Where truth has left its sketches on the slate below the ground. The patient stone can speak, if we but listen when it talks. Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the rocks.
There are those who name the stars, who watch the sky by night, Seeking out the darkest place, to better see the light. Long ago, when torture broke the remnant of his will, Galileo recanted, but the Earth is moving still High above the mountaintops, where only distance bars, The truth has left its footprints in the dust between the stars. We may watch and study or may shudder and deny, Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the sky.
By stem and root and branch we trace, by feather, fang and fur, How the living things that are descend from things that were. The moss, the kelp, the zebrafish, the very mice and flies, These tiny, humble, wordless things — how shall they tell us lies? We are kin to beasts; no other answer can we bring. The truth has left its fingerprints on every living thing. Remember, should you have to choose between them in the strife, Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote life.
And we who listen to the stars, or walk the dusty grade Or break the very atoms down to see how they are made, Or study cells, or living things, seek truth with open hand. The profoundest act of worship is to try to understand. Deep in flower and in flesh, in star and soil and seed, The truth has left its living word for anyone to read. So turn and look where best you think the story is unfurled. Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the world.
Skoda – think of the skoda as the focus of the church’s attention???
While our focus is upon our doctrine’s, or style of worship, our buildings, or generally preserving the instructional church, our neighbourhoods have been changing right before our eyes and we have failed to notice
How much attention do our concerns about the church distract us?
What changes in our neighbourhoods have we failed to pay attention to?
Van changing to a taxi?
Scooter changing to a pair of bicycles?
Lady holding a pig
The entire landscape has changed!
Skoda is one of the oldest car companies in the world – Skoda has been around since they first began building automobiles
The old Czechoslovakia
Sold primarily to Eastern block countries
Nobody really wants a skoda – they are cheap, unattractive cars – the image of the Skoda is tied up in a time when people weren’t free to buy the cars of their dreams and had to settle for a skoda
Much like the image of the church
There was once a certain Pharisee named Nicodemus
Nicodemus represents the religious establishment
Our story is told in a time when people were not free to choose their religion – the idea of being or believing something other than what the religious establishment told you went against the established norms
People couldn’t change from one set of beliefs to another, from one tribe to another, without suffering enormous consequences
As a powerful member of the Parisees, Nicodemus, a member of the ruling Sanhedrin, – think Bishop or Arch-Bishop at a time when religious leaders ruled society
Nicodemus comes by cover of darkness, sort of skulks into the presence of Jesus in order to find out what all the fuss is about
Jesus tells this powerful member of the Sanhedrin that everything he stands for, the wisdom of the ages, all the religious doctrine, all the institutional power, his tribes status quo – everything that Nicodemus considers truth, must be cast aside
“The truth of the matter is, unless one is born again, one cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus is being asked go back to the very beginning! To begin again, to see the world, to see God in a whole new way
Nicodemus cannot or will not
Today, churches and members of churches are in much the same place as poor old Nicodemus – all that we hold dear is being challenged by the world around us
“The truth of the matter is, unless one is born again, one cannot see the kin-dom of God.”
Like Nicodemus we have blinders on, we have been so focused upon preserving all that we love about the church, a church that like the skoda, no body really wants.
Who wants an unattractive cheap car?
A cheap car that burns fuel that threatens the very survival of our planet
Who wants a dying, old, cheap, church, a church whose doctrines have contributed to the violence and abuse that haunts the psyche of its members,
Who wants to be part of an old dying church?
The good news is that the old church will die – the symptoms of the disease that is killing the church are all around us
The good news is that the church will die
But just like Jesus, death will not have the final word!
Death could not kill the teachings of Jesus
Death could not kill Jesus’ dream of the kin-dom of God, the dream of a Way of being in the world that ensures that everyone has enough
Death did not kill Jesus’ dream of peace through justice
We are a people who lay claim to the power of resurrection to keep the dream alive
Like Nicodemus, our focus upon maintaining the status quo, our desire to hold on to the things we love about the church, this focus may have blinded us to what has been going on for decades
I am indebted to Jim Kast-Keat, a pioneering preacher who inspired me to open this sermon with the video below. I am also indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong for teaching me more that I can articulate with words. His excellent book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic opened the Gospel According to John in ways that have helped me to see aspects of the Divine to which I was once blind. Much of the sermon consists of extensive quotes from chapter 9 of Jack’s book.
Readings: John Chapter 2 and John 3:1-17
Watch the video below carefully before reading or listening to the sermon the sermon below.
Listen to the sermon:
So, before tackling the story of Nicodemus, I want to toss two balls into the congregation. The first ball I want to toss over here to this side of the congregation represents something all too familiar, biblical literalism. We know all too well that this particular ball has been distracting the church and most of the western world for the past few centuries. The second ball I want to toss over here to this side of the congregation represents historical biblical criticism. This particular ball is newer. It’s only been seriously tossed about for the past couple of centuries, but it is a really serious contender for our attention. But these balls have acquired a rather rhythmic bounce that tends to mesmerize us. Add to that these other balls the balls of church doctrine and theological dogma and before you know it we are so distracted that we forget what game we were trying to play in the first place as we try to keep up with the various passes made by players that have taken on a professional edge that leaves us watching from the sidelines unable to focus one of them.
None of these balls commanded the attention of the early Christians. They simply weren’t interested in taking the scriptures literally, nor were they particularly interested in the historicity of the scriptures. As for doctrine and dogma, well they were left to the professionals who only came to town on those unpleasant occasions when the league needed to ensure that it’s franchises continued to rake in enough money to keep the game on a sure footing. The scriptures, like all sacred writings, were about so much more than words scribbled on a scroll. The scriptures, like all scared writings, are about the mysteries of life. But these balls have been served up for us to play with and literalism and concerns about historical accuracy have done a magnificent job of distracting us from what really matters in these texts. Our fascination with the details of the fight-patterns of the balls that are tossed around whenever the stories in these texts play through our lives, have caused us to miss so many moon-dancing bears over the years.
Please don’t get me wrong, I love tossing these balls around and over the years I’ve learned to play ball with the best of them. But when a moon-walking bear dances onto the court, at the very least, we ought to notice the bear’s moves because the only way we’re going to learn to dance with these bears is by paying attention.Continue reading →
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. Once again, I have failed to have the foresight to book my holidays so as to avoid the task of preaching on this festival of the church. So, I find myself plumbing previous sermons in search of a way through the quagmire of doctrines which threaten to overcome even the most dedicated of preachers. I offer them here to my fellow preachers as my way of saying, “I pray God, rid me of God!!!” Shalom…
The official explanation of the Victoria Day Holiday that appears on the Canadian Government Website reads: “This holiday is named after the British monarch who gave royal assent to Confederation. Queen Victoria, who reigned over Great Britain, was born on May 24, 1819. She enjoyed the longest reign in British history, ascending the throne in 1837 and ruling until 1901—a period of over 62 years! The Parliament of Canada first declared her birthday a holiday in 1845, well before Confederation! The May 24th celebration was a popular one—if you had been a resident of Canada West (Ontario) in 1854, you might have joined a crowd of thousands that gathered in front of Government House in Toronto to shout a cheer to the Queen. In 1901, the year of Victoria’s death, the holiday officially became known as Victoria Day. Since that time, Victoria Day has commemorated two royal birthdays: the birthday of Queen Victoria and that of the current monarch. May 24th is a statutory holiday in all Canadian territories and in seven out of ten provinces. (In Quebec, this date is celebrated as La Journée nationale des Patriotes, orNational Patriots’ Day, in memory of Anglophone and Francophone activists who fought for democratic government in 19th-century Quebec.)“
So, just how should we commemorate Victoria Day in church? Well a 21-gun salute is out of the question. I thought about inviting you to join me in shouting the traditional British cheer to Queen Victoria, but we’re just not the “hip hip horay, hip, hip horay, hipp horay” sort of chaps are we? Maybe we should replace communion wine with Queen Victoria’s favourite drink which according to the internet was a mixture of claret and single malt whiskey. But then if you were the sovereign of 40 million square kilometers with 387 million loyal and some not so loyal subjects, you might just end up mixing a fair amount of single malt in your claret. Queen Victoria, her official title was: Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India.Now there’s a mouthful. Queen of the British Empire; our Queen Elizabeth’s reign may be about to surpass that of Queen Victoria’s but her years on the throne pale in comparison to the power, scope, and majesty of the women who reigned over the British Empire for over 63 years. The Sun never set upon Victoria’s Empire.The Fathers of Confederation could not have created Canada without the consent of the Great Mother Victoria.Empire, planet earth has seen empires come and go.Humans have been creating empires as for longer than we have been recording history. Empires have come and gone, risen and fallen, conquered and been conquered, waxed and waned, they’ve been glorified and vilified, and as is the case with the British Empire, they’ve seen the sun rise and the sun set upon their power.But there is no doubt about the fact that Empires are established by force both military force and economic force. The British Empire like the Roman Empire before them and the American Empire after them, came, saw and conquered.
Canada is what it is today as a result of the clash of Empires. The British and the French came and saw, and they liked what they saw, liked it enough to do battle over it and as the always the British were victorious in battle. At least that’s what the history books tell us.
History as we all know is written by the conquerors and so most of us learned what little we may know of our history from the perspective of the victorious British Empire, with a dash of colour commentary added by the now mighty American Empire. Very few lines are devoted to the life or culture of the peoples who suffered the indignity of being conquered by Empire and what lines are devoted to the conquered ones are lines designed to serve the needs of Empire itself. We know very little about the people who were the first inhabitants of this land that we love to love on this particular weekend.
The first weekend of summer; the weekend that is sometimes referred to as the May two four; synonymous for getting out there into the great outdoors to enjoy a drink or two or four. Beer sales are brisk leading up to this holiday as Canadians all over the country invade the wilderness with their own sort of wildness. Hip hip horay doesn’t quit cover it. We’ve been cooped up over the long winter months and it’s time to party to celebrate all the things we love about being Canadian; all the things we enjoy about being Canadian. Who among us doesn’t have found memories of going camping on the May two four. Even if it is pouring down on the first long weekend of the summer, Canadians just can’t resist the outdoors. Whether its camping or gardening there will be no shortage of folks who will be firing up the barbeque more than once or twice this weekend. While claret mixed with scotch may not be the choice of very many people there will be a good many bevies mixed on this Victoria weekend. So, why not drink a toast to the old girl, hip hip horay!!!
Cheers! And how about one more for the great British Empire. The sun may well have set, but you and I have so very much to be grateful to those conquers of old who secured this great land of ours so that we could enjoy the benefits of empire. We are richly blessed. Hip hip horay!
Canadians are according to all accounts happy, wealthy and wise. Hip hip horay! Canadians are among the happiest people on the planet. Apparently, our cold, harsh winters make us merrier, not morose because the only people who rank higher than Canadians on the world’s happiness scale are our fellow northerners in Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden. Canada ranks then on the happiness charts – our American cousins are a distant 17thin the rankings. Canadians are wealthy our GDP per captia exceeds that of all but ten other countries and of those ten there isn’t a happier country among them, except for those darn Norwegians, but not to worry because we are the largest country on the planet, so there’s much more wealth that we have yet to discover. As of last week, it is official Canadians are wise, or more correctly Canadians are smart; that’s right Canada made the top ten, while the British languish at number 20 and the United States tied with Italy for number 28, Canada ranked number ten in the world when it comes to math and science. Hip hip horay.
Canadians are happy, wealthy and wise. So, here’s to the great British Empire for getting us off to such a magnificent start as a nation. Here’s to the British Empire – they came, they saw, and they conquered and we my friends are the happy beneficiaries of Empire. Who says imperialism is evil? Don’t believe everything you hear. None of us would be doing quite so well if it weren’t for some very happy accidents of history that sees us on the right side of Empire. We owe the agents of her majesty Queen Victoria a great deal and there is so very much that we enjoy that would not be possible without there can do, might makes right approach to civilizing this great land of ours.
Okay….I am about to choke on my words. Even though I come by this stiff upper lip honestly, I cannot maintain the façade of empire loyalist; not even if all of my ancestors were to rise from their graves to encourage me to keep calm and carry on. An empire is what an empire is. Jesus wept. Jesus wept because empires do what empires do. They come they see they conquer. For Jesus, it was the Romans. For the First Nations of this great land it was the French and the British. They came they saw they conquered. Veni, Vedi, Vechi.Continue reading →
Well here we are in church on celebrating Pentecost! For generations Pentecost was one of the great high feast days of the church; right up there with Easter and Epiphany. That’s right, for generations, the three great high feast days of the church year were Easter, Epiphany and Pentecost; not Christmas. Pentecost the day when the church celebrates the birth of the church. But in our life-times the festival of Pentecost has pretty much slipped off the radar of our culture. This year, well here in Canada at least, Pentecost is eclipsed by the first long-weekend of the summer season and most of our sisters and brothers are out there enjoying this rainy Victoria Day weekend. As for the rest of the world, this weekend’s Royal Wedding has garnered far more attention than the church’s birthday.
I remember, back in the olden days, when I first joined the church as a mere teenager, even then, Pentecost’s attraction was waning. I remember being taught all about the meaning of Pentecost. I can still hear our pastor, doing his best to get us excited about those tongues of fire resting upon the first followers of the Way. I remember the worship and music committee encouraging us to wear red to church. I remember the Sunday school coordinator releasing 7 red balloons into the congregation.
I was a bit of a dork back then. Unlike my fellow teenagers, who were mostly leaving the church, I joined the church when I was fifteen. I became enthralled with my guy Jesus. I immersed myself in the church. On Pentecost Sunday, 1972, just a few weeks before my 15thbirthday, I affirmed my baptism and joined Benediction Lutheran Church. So, even though the flames of Pentecost are continue to wain in our culture, Pentecost will always hold a special place in my heart. Back in 1972, I began a long journey of discovery; a journey that would see me study not only the birth of the church but the long history of the church; a journey that took be into the story of Jesus in ways that I could never have understood back then.
I can still remember how earnest I was back then; how diligently I studied, how deeply I believed! I took it all in. I breathed deeply of the Spirit. I was a true believer. Yes, I always had my doubts.But my doubts only drove me deeper into the MYSTERY.
I can still remember devouring every one of those red-letter words in the bible. You know the way those old bibles used to have the words of Jesus printed in red. I can still remember the trauma of discovering that Jesus didn’t actually say all those red-letter words! I was so very certain in the beginning that if I just studied harder, I would discover the answers. Over the years, I have studied harder, but my studies have not given me the answers; my studies have driven me to deeper and deeper questions. So many certainties, have evolved into deeper questions. So, today on this, the festival of Pentecost, when most of the world is out there, and there are but a few of us in here, I wonder, “Can these bones live?”
As handfuls of us, all over the world, celebrate the birthday of the Church, it is tempting to ask: Are our bones too dry? Is our hope gone? Is the Church doomed? Or, can these bones live? I’d love to be able to answer each of these questions with more than a hint of my youthful certainty. Maybe, just maybe we are in the valley of dry bones. Over the years, I’ve often grieved the loss of my youthful certainty. Over the years, I’ve shed many a tear as tightly held beliefs have been challenged. Over the years, I’ve often missed that young woman that I once was, who was so sure of herself, so confident, so steadfast in her faith, so secure in the knowledge that God was in his heaven and all would be right with the world if we would only learn to do things properly. Over the years, I have often been laid low by the pain of discovery and locked myself away to mourn the loss of that which I held so dear.
I suspect that the followers of Jesus tasted the pain of loss. They had loved Jesus and placed all their hopes and dreams for the future in him, only to have those hopes and dreams die a horrible death. Their grief is incalculable. Still pungent some 50 or 60 years later when the anonymous gospel writer that we call Luke wrote the in the Book of Acts and created the story of Pentecost.
“Upon entering the city of Jerusalem for during the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost, Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, and Mathew: James ben-Alpheaus: Simon, a member of the Zealot sect: and Judah ben-Jacob. Also, with them were some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. With one mind they devoted themselves to constant prayer.”
I can see them in my mind’s eye all huddled together in an upper room united in their grief. All their hopes and dreams shattered, their lives in disarray as what they had believed so strongly so passionately was gone. What were they to do? How could they go on? What was the point of it all? If Jesus was gone, why bother? Maybe he wasn’t all that they had hoped for?
I can hear them, up there in that room arguing, weeping, searching for answers, longing for the security of the way it had been when Jesus was there with them; when they were certain about what needed to be done. I can hear them talking about Jesus, remembering the stories listening to the tales of his courage, marveling at his audacious courage, second guessing his teaching, longing for his touch, feeling the hope stir in their bellies, hope for justice, anger at the oppression they were left to deal with, confused about what to do next, not knowing what to think or believe now.Continue reading →
I cannot begin to explain to you what happened on that day in Jerusalem, without explaining to you who I am. My name is Mary and I come from the village of Magdala. You may know me as Mary Magdalene. But you have no idea who I am. There are many stories that have been told about me. Some of the things that have been said about me make my head spin. Over the years, thanks to the twisted interpretations of the men in the church that I helped to give birth to, I have gained quite a reputation for being a prostitute, a whore, an adulterer. Now I will lay claim to being a sinner and God knows I have had my share of demons, but prostitution, adultery, whore, where do people get these ideas? It seems that all you need to do is use the words sinner and woman in the same sentence and all some people can think about is sex.
Read your bibles and you will discover that, people have made me out to be something that I am not. It does not say anywhere in the New Testament that I, Mary of Magdala was ever a prostitute, the New Testament doesn’t say that, the men of the Church did that. The New Testament simply says I was a sinner who just happened to come from the city. If you insist on calling me a prostitute based on this evidence, that says more about you than it does about me.
You see, I come from a good family in Magdala. Magdala is a wealthy city on the Sea of Galilee, just south of Capernaum. My family made a lot of money in the fishing industry in Magdala. While I was growing up I lacked nothing. But I was not happy. I was sick. I would sit around the house moping and complaining and make everyone miserable. I was so distraught. Often, I was so upset that I pulled out my own hair. Sometimes I would be so excited that people couldn’t stop me from talking. I ran up all sorts of bills in the market place which my parents had to pay. I was always cooking up some mad scheme or other. I would rant and rave at the slightest provocation. From time to time I would become ill and stay in bed for weeks on end. I knew something was terribly wrong and nothing seemed to ease my anxieties. I was a prisoner inside my own mind. Then I met Jesus. Continue reading →
Pentecost Sunday is a day for stories about the nearness of God. So we begin with the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11:1-9, then make our way to the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Luke’s story of the early followers of Jesus’ encounter with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21, and then the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call John’s story of Jesus’ insistence that he and God are one, before rounding off with Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s excellent children’s book God In Between.
There’s a children’s Book that I love. I won’t tell you the name of the book because the book’s title is also the book’s ultimate meaning. I will tell you that the book is written by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who just happens to be the second woman to be ordained as a rabbi back in 1974. She is also the first rabbi to become a mother. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso brings the wisdom she has learned as a rabbi to her children’s books. As the Christian celebration of Pentecost is intimately tied to the Jewish festival of Shavout, when the Jewish people read the Book of Ruth, it seems fitting to read to you from the book of a Jewish Rabbi. Shandy Eisenberg Sasso’s story begins:
“Once there was a town at the foot of a hill with no roads and almost no windows.
Without roads the people of the town had nowhere to go, and they wondered what was on the other side of the hill.
Whenever they tried to leave their homes, they would sneeze through tall tangled weeds, tumble into deep holes and trip over rocks as large as watermelons.
Without windows they would sleep late into the day, and they often wondered when the sun turned night into morning.
Their houses were closed up like boxes sealed with tape.
They could never look out and their neighbours could never look in.
Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. Birthday celebrations lend themselves to the telling of stories. So, we begin with a parable by the radical theologian Peter Rollins. So, sit back and try to imagine that you live not at the beginning of the 21st century but at the middle of the 21st century; say about 2050. The world has changed quite a bit. “It seems that in the future laws will be passed declaring that all those who follow the teachings of Jesus are subversive. Churches have been banned and to be a follower of Jesus is illegal. You have just been accused of being a believer. You’ve been arrested, and dragged before a court. You have been under clandestine surveillance for some time now, and so the prosecution has been able to build up quite a case against you. They begin the trial by offering the judge dozens of photographs that show you attending underground church meetings, speaking at religious events, and participating in various prayer and worship services. After this, they present a selection of items that have been confiscated from your home: religious books that you own, worship CDs, and other Christian artifacts. Then they step up the pace by displaying many of the poems, pieces of prose, and journal entries that you had lovingly written concerning your faith. Finally, in closing, the prosecution offers your Bible to the judge. This is a well-worn book with scribbles, notes, drawings, and underlinings throughout, evidence, if it were needed, that you had read and reread this sacred text many times. Throughout the case you have been sitting silently in fear and trembling. You know deep in your heart that with the large body of evidence that has been amassed by the prosecution you face the possibility of a long imprisonment or even execution. At various times throughout the proceedings you have lost all the confidence and have been on the verge of standing up and denying Christ. But while this thought has plagued your mind throughout the trial, you resist the temptation and remain focused.
Once the prosecution has finished presenting their case the judge proceeds to ask if you have anything to add, but you remain silent and resolute, terrified that if you open your mouth, even for a moment, you might deny the charges made against you. Like Christ you remain silent before your accusers. In response you are led outside to wait as the judge ponders your case. The hours pass slowly as you sit under guard in the foyer waiting to be summoned back. Eventually a young man in uniform appears and leads you into the courtroom so that you may hear the verdict and receive word of your punishment. Once you have been seated in the dock the judge, a harsh and unyielding man, enters the room, stands before you, looks deep into your eyes and begins to speak. “On the charges that have been brought forward I find the accused not guilty.”
“Not guilty?” your heart freezes. Then, in a split second, the fear and terror that had moments before threatened to strip your resolve are swallowed up by confusion and rage. Despite the surroundings, you stand defiantly before the judge and demand that he give an account concerning why you are innocent of the charges in light of the evidence. “What evidence?” asks the judge in shock.
“What about the poems and prose that I wrote?” you ask. “They simply show that you think of yourself as a poet, nothing more.” “But what about the services I spoke at, the times I wept in church and the long, sleepless nights of prayer?” “Evidence that you are a good speaker and an actor, nothing more,” replied the judge. “It is obvious that you deluded those around you, and perhaps at times you even deluded yourself, but this foolishness is not enough to convict you in a court of law.” “But this is madness!” you shout. “It would seem that no evidence would convince you!” “Not so,” replies the judge as if informing you of a great long-forgotten secret. “The court is indifferent toward your Bible reading and church attendance; it has no concern for worship with words and a pen. Continue to develop your theology, and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world. We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christlike endeavor to create a better world. So, until you live as Christ and Christ’s followers did, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then, my friend, you are no enemy of ours.” “
Rollins insists that this parable is true right here and right now. We don’t have to imagine a world were Christianity is illegal for this parable to be true. Rollins insists that: “If you or I were really to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, would we not sooner or later, find ourselves being dragged before the authorities? If we were really to live a life that reflected the subversive and radical message of love that gives a voice to the voiceless and a place to those who are displaced, if we were really to stand up against systemic oppression perpetrated by those in power, then would we not find ourselves on the wrong side of the lawmakers?”Continue reading →
Her name was Julia Ward Howe. She was born in 1819, in New York City. Her parents died when she was very young. She barely even knew her own mother. She was raised by her aunt and uncle. Her uncle was known as a bit of a radical. He saw to it that his niece received a good liberal arts education; something very rare for a young woman of Julia’s day.When she was 21 years old, Julia married Samuel Gridley Howe.Howe had made a name for himself as a reformer who took quite a strong stand against slavery.Samuel often told people that he admired Julia’s ideas, her quick mind, her wit and above all her commitment to causes he supported.But Samuel, like many men of his day, believed that women should not take an active part in the causes of the day, nor should they speak in public.For her part, Julia did her best to respect her husband’s wishes. Julia had six children.Two of her children died when they were very young. In her diaries, Julia describes her life during the early part of her marriage as one of isolation.
In deference to her husband she had no life outside of her home except for Sundays when she attended church.Julia wrote of her husband’s violent outbursts as he attempted to control his wife’s activities. Julia’s only out-let was her writing. She began to gain quite a name for poetry. It is not clear just how she managed to get her poems published, but the success of her poetry led to invitations for Julia to speak at various gatherings. Apparently, Julia had quite a mouth on her. A friend of hers wrote that, “Bright things always came readily to Julia’s lips, and second thoughts often came too late to prevent her words from stinging.”
Samuel resented his wife’s success and after he managed to lose most of Julia’s inheritance from her father, he became more and more violent. Julia raised the issue of divorce, but Samuel threatened to take the children from her, so instead Julia decided to try to fill her days of confinement to her home by educating herself. Julia began to study philosophy. In time she even managed to teach herself several languges.Her diaries speak of her husband’s concern that Julia’s attempts at self-education were outrageous for a woman in her position in society.It was not until Julia discovered that Samuel had been unfaithful to her that she was able to negotiate a more active public life for herself.Continue reading →
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 →
“I myselfam the Way—I Am Truth, and I am Life. NO one comes to Abba God but through me.” Over the course of two millennia, the ways in which these words have been interpreted by far too many people who insist that they are “Christian” is enough to make most mothers, be they Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Shikh, Jew, atheist, or agnostic. It seems to me, that to insist that it’s Jesus’ Way or the highway, as if Christians have the exclusive way of being in the world, violates the basic principles of the image we have of what it means to be a good mother. Today, while we celebrate all the various stereotypes of what it means to be or to have a good mother, I don’t think any of you would hold point to the image of a mother who favoured one of her children to the exclusion of her other children. Yet somehow, the image of God as “Father” of us all, is messed up with the notion of a God who insists on a particular Way of being in the world, a way of being that believes particular things about who Jesus of Nazareth is, was, and ever more shall be; a way of being that insists that only those who believe particular things about Jesus will be welcomed into God’s household. The Good News is, that New Testament scholars have learned a great deal about this passage that contradicts the so-called “traditional interpretations” of this text. New Testament scholars begin by teaching us that these words attributed to Jesus, were in fact written some 70 plus years after Jesus’ crucifixion by an anonymous story-teller that we call John, who in all likelihood put these words into the mouth of Jesus in order to address a particular problem in the community to which this story is addressed.
But, more important than the realization that Jesus may never have actually said these words is the reality that taken out of context and proclaimed in ways that exclude some people at the expense of others, these words fail to express the very ideas of inclusion that the anonymous story-teller that we call John was trying to express to his community in the first place. For as the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call John insists:
“In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you? I am indeed going to prepare a place for you and then I will come back to take you with me, that where I am there you may be as well.
I suspect that part of the reason that some people are so willing to portray God as the kind of Father who would shut the door on the vast majority of human-beings, has something to do with the ways in which the reality that we call God has been imagined for far too long. So, on the day that we honour our mothers, let me remind us all, about the ways in which our tradition has failed to imagine the Source of our Being in ways expand our vision of the LOVE that is God.
In the beginning, that’s right. Genesis chapter one, verse one.
In the beginning God;
that’s God with a capital “G” in English.
But in Hebrewit’s just “el” no capital yet.
Just “el” the generic Semitic wordfor a god.
In the beginning “el” created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was a formless void.
Void,“tohu w’ bohu” in Hebrew a squishy, damp cavern; reminiscent of a womb.
The earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep.
Tehom dark waters.
And ‘el’s” spirit hovered over the water.
Spirit,rauach, the feminine for breath.
El’s feminine breath hovered over the tohu w bohu.
When suddenly, god speaks and there is light and the waters divide or are broken, depending on how you translate it, and all sorts of life comes teaming forth.
Five days of labour; labour get it!
Five days of labour and finally ‘el’ is ready:
“Let us make adam”
“adam” which literally means earth creature.
And so el takes some ha adama which is literally earth; dirt.
The pun is lost in our English translations but its actually funny in Hebrew.
El takes a chunk of earth and creates the earth creature in the in the very image of the divine.
Inthe image of God, God created them.
That’s right them, that’s what it actually says in the Hebrew text of Genesis:
In the image of God, God created them, male and female God created them.
And then God blessed them.
God blessed them male and female.
Male and female made in the very image of the Creator.
Could this mean that in the eyes of our ancestors in faith, the Creator is beyond gender?
But remember, there’s another creation story in chapter two of Genesis.
This one says that the“Lord God” made the earth and the heavens.
This creation story says that the “Lord God”formed “man” out of the dust of the earth.
The “Lord God,” everyone knows that lords are men, so the Lord God is clearly male.
But then again Lord God is only an English translation of the Hebrewword, “elohim”.
You’ll never guess what “elohim” literally means in Hebrew.
It’s the plural form of the feminine noun for majesty.
Sound male to you.
Well it was male enough for the male translators who worked for King James.
But read just a little further to chapter 17 of Genesis.
When the Lord, that’s Elohim when Elohim first enters into a covenant with Abraham.
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him,
“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.
And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”
God Almighty, from the Hebrew, El Shaddai.
El Shaddai, finally we have a name for this God, this el.
Shaddai, the feminine plural for breast.
El Shaddailiterally translated means God with breasts, or Breasted God.
Good thing those translators chose to translate that one as God Almighty,
because you wouldn’t want people to think that God has breasts.
Those translators sure had their work cut out for them.
Over and over again in the Old Testament the Hebrew uses the word“rechem” to describe god’s love.
Now God’s love is a very important concept.
Remember later in the New Testament God is defined by love.
“God is love.”
Well in the Old Testament, God’s love is prefaced by the word “rechem” and those clever translators, had to fix that one cause rechem is the Hebrew word for womb.
You can’t have God Almighty having breasts and you sure can’t have God’s love describedas “womb love” so what did those guys do?
So, the next time you read the words mercy or compassion in the Old Testament remember, chances are it’s really “rechem”.
I suspect that, womb love became merciful, because the only other way to describe womb love is“motherly love” and we can’t have that, now can we?
El Shaddai breasted one.
Rechem “ womb love” motherly love.
And I haven’t even gotten to the really interesting parts, so I don’t really have time to tell you that God’s Spirit, well you probably already guessed or remembered that,
The Holy Spirit in Hebrew was rauach, a feminine noun for breath, breath, wind
and even in Greek pneumani is a feminine nounfor breath, wind or spirit, but by the time the church gets around to translating the Bible into Latin, and before you know it the Holy Spirit becomes a he.
But I don’t have time to go into that, so let’s fast forward to the book of Proverbs.
And there you have the stories of God’s wisdom.
Chokma in Hebrew, a feminine name.
Sophiain Greek, also a feminine name that in our English translations becomes the noun “wisdom”.
But I digress, because everybody knows we believe in God the Father the Almighty, Jesus Christ the only Son of God and the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Now don’t get excited, I’m not about to commit heresy, not yet anyway.
The expression of the Trinity as three male persons is not in and of itself wrong.
Men are indeed created in the image of God and maleness can and indeed shouldbe used as a symbol for God.
However, the tenaciously exclusive use of male symbols or images for God has reached the point of idolatry.
God is not male.
God is not female.
God is beyond gender.
All our feeble attempts to describe God with language fail to express the immense wonder of our God.
To date, I still think the Hindus have the best way of expressing the very nature of our God.
In Hindu literature we find goddescribed as: “beyond the beyond, and beyond that also.”
We simply have no words.
So, our attempts to capture God in words fail.
Our images of God are incomplete like peering through a glass darkly.
No wonder our ancient ancestors portrayed God as the one who forbids us to worship idols.
We cannot create an image of God and worship that image and expect to have a relationship with more than a pale reflection of our God.
In the bookof Proverbs: Chokma, Sophia, Wisdom is personified. She becomes an expression of God’s Wisdom. The writer of Proverbs urges us to:
“Acquire Sophia, acquire perception, never forget her, never deviate from my words.
Do not desert her, she will keep you safe, love her, she will watch over you.”
In the creation story from the Book of Proverbs, Sophia calls aloud in the streets, she raises her voice in the public squares; she calls out in the street corners, she delivers her message at the city gates, “You ignorant people, how much longer will you cling to your ignorance?
How much longer will mockers revel in their mocking and fools hold knowledge contemptible? Pay attention to my warning: now I will pour out my heart to you, and tell you what I have to say.”
“From everlasting I was firmly set, from the beginning, before earth came into being.
The deep was not, when I was born, there were no springs to gush with water.
Before the mountains were settled, before the hills, I came to birth; before God made the Earth, the countryside, or the first grains of the worlds dust.
When God fixed the heavens firm, I was there, when God drew a ring on the surface of the deep, when God thickened the clouds above, when God assigned the sea its boundaries—and the waters will not invade the shore—when God laid down the foundations of the earth,
I was by God’s side, a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
Happy the one who listens to me,”
The ancient Hebrews had a symbol for Chokma, she was often portrayed as a dove. Sophia God’s wisdom and the rauach , the spirit of God are intimately connected in the ancient stories that try to make sense of who God is.
Throughoutthe scriptures God is portrayed as a strong mother, labouring to give birth, determined to protect her young. Suckling and nurturing the children of God at her breasts. These feminine images of God can all be found in the Bible. But still these feminine images disturbed the powers that be. So much so that scholars now believe that the evidence of the motherly attributes of God were indeed suppressed by the religious authorities. So, much so that by the turn of the first century when the author of the Gospel of John sat down to write his account of creation, God’s wisdom, Sophia who had a reputation for playfulness had to take on a more reasonable tone. And so wisdom became reason, the Greek word for reason is logos. Sophia becomes logos, logos has two meanings in Greek, it can mean either reason or word.
In the beginning was the reason, and the reason was with God, and the reason was God.
Reason, Wisdom, no matter how you express it, when the Word becomes flesh and lives among us it is still Jesus you’re talking about.
The links between Jesus and Sophia are many. That’s a whole other sermon. Suffice it to say that our idolatrous preoccupation with the image of that bearded old man in the sky fails to take the Bible seriously.
The church has deprived the people of God of the tender images of our God. So much so that sometimes I feel like a motherless child. We have grown up in the faith as motherless people living in a single parent universe headed by God our Father.
Psychologists warn us that in children the “loss of a mother is experienced as a loss of safety, security, nurture, comfort and joy. A child without a mother often fails to know itself as valued, or precious and often feels unworthy of love. How might our lives have been different if deep within us, we carried an image of El Shaddai, the Breasted One, Mother of Us All, and when things were bad we could nestle in her tender embrace? Men and women could both turn to El Shaddai and I suspect that the church would be a different place. The Vatican would certainly be different. Just imagine women and men created in the image of God, walking the halls of the Vatican; or what about women and men created in the image of God with an understanding of their own equality haunting the hallways of fundamentalist institutions.
Wisdom/Sophia is calling; calling us beyond the boundaries of our language and beyond the images we have created. Remember the words of the anonymous storyteller that we call John attributed to Jesus: “In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you?” Now, try to imagine what the welcoming of El Shaddai might look like as the Breasted One welcomes all her children into the household of God who is LOVE. Imagine, if you will, Jesus the Christ, God’s Sophia, describing herself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, how might we emulate the Way of Christ, the truth of Christ, and the Life of Christ in any other way, than the way in which the anonymous story-teller that we call John portrayed Jesus, as the ONE in whom God was made visible, in the way that he lived and moved about the earth, tending to the needs of everyone he encountered, with compassion, ah there’s that word again, compassion, womb-like LOVE.
Let the Ruach of the Breasted ONE be who she will be, the Mother of us all, the ONE who is now and ever more shall be womb-like LOVE.
Mothers’ Day is not on the church’s liturgical calendar and yet the statisticians tell us that church attendance on Mothers’ Day is surpassed only by Christmas and Easter. Worship leaders who fail to mark the importance of this day do so at their peril; the same kind of peril that compels so many reluctant offspring to accompany their mothers to church. However, a simple liturgical nod in the direction of mothers or an over-the-top sentimental sermon all too often fails to capture the magnitude of the day’s significance in the history of women. Planning the liturgy is challenging enough, but writing the sermon is a challenge which promises to keep me toiling away into the dark hours of this coming Saturday. So, for my colleagues who share a similar plight: below you will find links to previous attempts to commemorate this day of days. Feel free to share your efforts with me in the comments section. Please! I need all the help you can offer!!! click on the links below for previous Mothers’ Day sermons:
to listen to the audio only recording of the sermon here
A little girl held tightly to her grandfather’s hand as together they walked toward the centre of town. Suddenly a tall, beautiful, woman dressed from head to toe in a long black flowing gown appeared in the street just ahead of them. The woman’s flowing gown gave the impression that she was floating rather than walking. Beneath the black flowing cloth which covered the woman’s head, was an elegant face encased by restricting starched white material. Below the smiling woman’s face, hung a slender silver cross. The little girl tugged on her grandfather’s sleeve and asked, “Who is that, Grand-dad?” The little girl’s grandfather explained, “That my dear is a witch! Now mind you behave yourself or she will take you away and boil you in her stew pot”. The little girl squeezed her grandfather’s hand tightly and resolved to stay far away from witches no matter how beautiful they looked.
I couldn’t have been more than about four years old when my grandfather and I encountered that Roman Catholic nun on the road in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I can’t tell you how many times as a child in Belfast, I was warned to behave myself or the nuns would come and take me away. Later I would learn that the threat of nuns was often used by protestant families to keep children in line.
For generations, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland have spent most of their fighting with their neighbours about how to love God that they’ve barely had time to love God and they’ve never really learned how to love their neighbours. When I was growing up, I was taught that there are good religions and there are bad religions. It wasn’t very complicated; our religion was a good religion and everyone else’s religion was a bad religion. My parents left Northern Ireland to avoid the warring madness between Protestants and Roman Catholics euphemistically known as the “Troubles.” I know all too well the mess we humans can get into when we forget that there is more than one way to live and move and have your being in the MYSTERY that we call God.
For just over ten years now, congregations that identify themselves as “progressive” have been celebrating Pluralism Sunday. Pluralism Sunday was conceived as an opportunity for churches to celebrate religious diversity and affirm that there are so very many pathways into the MYSTERY that we call God. I must confess that nun/witch that I encountered in Belfast all those years ago has haunted my preparations for this Pluralism Sunday. Life seemed so much simpler back then.Continue reading →