Not Even Jesus of Nazareth Can Contain ALL that Christ IS

By now most of us are well on our way to “Preparing the Way.” Unlike John the Baptist’s plaintive cry to clear a straight path, fill every valley, and level every mountain, our preparations find us harkening back to the Christmases of our childhood, so that we might capture the love and joy that we imagine awaits us if only we prepare to do Christmas, the way it was done way back when. Right about now, in gatherings all over the place people are telling stories about how it was “way back when.”  You know, “way back when” people knew just how to prepare the way for Christmas. I remember way back when I was just a little girl, you know long, long, ago, way back when Christmas celebrations were so different. Way back when I was a child, we didn’t hang fancy, specially dedicated stockings on the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. No, way back when, people didn’t have the money to waste on special, fancy, Christmas stockings that were only used once a year.  Way back when, we just went into our sock draw and pulled out the largest sock we could find, and we hung it up, in the hope that if we’d been good, our stockings would be filled with treats, instead of the dreaded lump of coal that our parents had been threatening us with for weeks. Come Christmas morning, way back when, we were happy when our sock was filled not with stocking-stuffers like we have these days, but with the same thing we got every Christmas in our stockings, an apple, an orange, a few toffee’s and a couple of coins.

You see way back when, fruit was seasonal and fresh apples and oranges were a real treat. These days we can haul crates of tiny delectable oranges from the grocery store all year long. But, way back when, oranges at Christmas time, they were a real treat. I never did like oranges very much, so I would always try to trade my orange with my brother so that I could have two apples instead. You see, way back when, children were easier to please and Christmas was different.

Which leads me to another story. I don’t remember when or where I first heard this story about way back when, World War II had just ended, and refugees were loaded into camps until the world could figure out what to do with the millions of displaced people. Back then, refugee camps were filled to overflowing with children who’d lost their families during the war. Apparently, there was this little boy in a camp in France, we’ll call him Andre. Andre couldn’t have been more than about seven years old and he could barely remember the family he lost almost three years before the war ended. He’d been living in the refugee camp, more of an orphanage really, for almost a year.

The camp was run by a few nuns who never could scrap together enough money to feed the children properly. But they did their best, and the children were, after all was said and done, lucky to be alive. The children hardly noticed that Christmas was approaching until one of the nuns announced that a neighbour had promised to come by on Christmas Eve to drop off a sack of oranges. Andre had only a vague memory of an orange. The year before a stranger had shared an orange with him and he remembered the taste of the three tiny sections of his share of the orange that oozed precious juice down his half-starved throat. Andre spent the days leading up to Christmas Eve dreaming of having a whole orange of his very own. He thought about the smell of the orange, dreamed of peeling the orange, and carefully considered whether or not to devour each and every section of the orange all at once or whether he should divide it and save a section or two for Christmas morning. Continue reading

Keep Watch: John the Baptist, Like Christ, Has Many Disguises!

homeless-manThere was a  young woman who lived in an apartment, in a very rough neighbourhood.  It was the east end of a very large city.  Many of the people who lived in this neighbourhood got by on welfare, others earned their living any way they could.  The young woman moved into the apartment because it was close to the office where she worked, the rent was cheap and quite frankly she was young and foolish.  She ignored all the warnings of her family and friends and moved into the apartment convinced that she could handle anything that came her way.

Her neighbourhood contained the most unsavoury of characters.  The office where she worked was just down the street from her apartment and every morning as she walked to work she would meet some of her neighbours returning home from an evening of plying their trade on the streets and in the alleys.  Each morning, she would be met at the entrance to her office by an old man named Ed.

Ed had been living on the streets for years.  He was very hairy, very dirty, and he tended to rant and rave a lot.  Ed was a wild man.  He slept on the doorstep of the young woman’s office because it was somewhat protected from the winter weather.  Even though Ed made the young woman nervous, she got used to seeing him in her way.

Ed always gave the young woman a warm welcome when she arrived.  He knew that when she got inside, she would brew fresh coffee. He used to tease her that, she was a sucker for a sad face as he waited patiently for her to bring him a cup of coffee.  They never talked much, though.  Ed would just rant and rave about the injustices of the world.   The young woman never found out how Ed ended up on the streets.  She didn’t know how he spent his days. Continue reading

St. Nicholas Is Too Old and Too Tired to Defeat the Selling Power of Santa Claus!

santa_as_satanToday: the Feast of St. Nicholas, the ancient precursor to the modern Santa Claus, will pass without much ado. Some will try to encourage us to resurrect St. Nicholas to save us all from Santa’s powers for we have gone astray.  To those well meaning souls who would rid Christmas of its flagrant consumerism, I can only offer up a feeble, “Baa Humbug!”

The very best traditions about St. Nicholas suggest that he was a protector of children while the worst tradition has him providing dowries so that young girls could be married off by their father rather than be sold into slavery. Meanwhile, the modern character Santa Claus grooms children to take up their role as consumers in the cult materialism. Some parents may bemoan the little gimmie-monsters that their children become, but most adults are rendered helpless by our own remembered indoctrinations and so we join in what we choose to deem as harmless fun.

‘Tis the season for contradictions.  ‘Tis the season when we prepare to celebrate  the incarnation of God in human form while also waiting for Santa Claus to come down our chimneys. Face it; most of the folks dashing about in the malls are more worried about the imminent arrival of Santa Claus than they are about God. I’d even go so far as to say that a good number of people have unconsciously substituted Santa Claus for God.  Santa Claus and the baby Jesus get into some pretty fierce competition at this time of year; and in the culture the larger loyalty belongs to Santa. Continue reading

Know Thyself – a sermon for Advent 2C – Luke 3:1-6

knowThyselfQuotes from John Shelby Spong’s essay “Looking at Christmas Through a Rear-View Window” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem Gnothi Seauton: Know Thyself

Listen to the sermon here

I’ve known more than a few heralds in my times; modern heralds whose voices have cried out in the wilderness. Heralds whose voices have made ready a way through the desert. Heralds whose voices have cleared a path and made the rough road smooth. These voices crying out in the wilderness haven’t always belonged to characters that look a lot like I imagine John the Baptist to have looked. They may not have all been wild, wooly, but they were all driven, passionate people, who talk about their passions as if our very lives hang in the balance over every word. If the truth be told, I’m partial to these wild and passionate types. These prophets who lend their voices to seemingly lost causes and dedicate themselves to seeking and proclaiming the truth no matter what it costs them personally. Passionate prophets tilting at windmills trying to open up whoever will listen to them, to the wisdom that lies beyond the ways of the world are a rare breed. I’m sure that if you think back, most of you can remember a John the Baptist in your own lives who has opened you up to pathway beyond the limits of conventional wisdom. I’m sure that each one of you could weave a tale of a prophet who has been able to make the rough places smooth, by filling a valley, or leveling a mountain that has stood between you and the wisdom you needed in order to embrace the future.

The first herald I can remember didn’t drape himself in camel’s hair or consume locusts and wild honey, but he did wear leather pants and I’m pretty sure that he consumed more than his share of magic mushrooms. My grade nine English teacher let’s call him Mr. Ripple, just in case he’s still teaching, and because I’m sure he’d rather I didn’t use his real name; Mr. Ripple wasn’t like any teacher I’d ever met before. In addition to the black leather pants and tie-dye t-shirts which he wore despite the fact that all the other male teachers wore boring old suits, Mr. Ripple had a long unkempt mustache which made him look a little like a cartoon bandit. I remember the very first class I had with Mr. Ripple shocked me into believing that he might just be some sort of joke the principal was trying to play on us and that Mr. Ripple wasn’t actually a teacher at all but an imposter who just needed to hide out for a while. My suspicions were only heightened when Mr. Ripple insisted that we call him by his first name. This John went on and on about pushing beyond the barriers imposed upon us by the system. John insisted that we needed to… get to really know who we are because in his view self knowledge was crucial to living a life that was worth anything at all. John also insisted, that in order to find out who we really are, we need to take chances. To give us the courage to take chances, John guaranteed that each and every one of us would receive a B in his class just for showing up and asking questions. I never really liked Bs. A’s were more my style. So, I put up my hand in order to ask what it would take to get an A in his class. John said, we didn’t need to raise our hands in his class, just shout out. Then he assured us all that students who demonstrated that they had learned something about themselves would get an A+ from him. I said, “I thought we were supposed to learn something about English Literature in his class.” John insisted that studying literature was all about learning about your very own self.

W O H Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind, had been listed in the published syllabus for the course and many of us had newly purchased copies of it sitting on our desks. John suggested that we could read it if we wanted to kowtow to the system or we could read something more challenging of our own choosing. This annoyed me, because I’d purchased “Who Has Seen the Wind” and read it during the summer break, anticipating that this would help me towards my goal of an A in English. John suggested that rather than reading books that the school-board gave their stamp of approval to, we might like to read some books that over the years had been banned by more than one or two school boards. He then opened up his cupboard and revealed all sorts of books free for the taking as long as we promised to pass them on to someone else when we finished reading them. That year I read, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and learned to love Hemingway, “Catch-22” and contemplated the horrors of war, Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Ginsberg’s “Howl.” My own love of books had met its match in John. Continue reading

PREPARE THE WAY FOR OUR GOD! Become the Prophet Crying FOR the Wilderness! – a sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent when John the Baptist Cries

BCsunsetReading over sermons I have preached about John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, I came across this “cry for the wilderness” that I preached six years ago. Sadly, the wilderness has an even greater need today for prophets who are willing to cry out on its behalf! I offer my plaintiff cry here to inspire my colleagues as they prepare to prepare the way on this coming Sunday.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I actually met John the Baptist when I was fifteen years old. She didn’t look much like you’d imagine John the Baptist would look, but she had that same crazy intensity, that same focus on the fact that we’d better change our ways, we’d better repent, and start doing things differently or we’d be in real serious trouble. Lola was my friend Valerie’s mother and she simply couldn’t stop going on and on about the environment and how we were destroy the earth. At the time, I remember thinking she was a bit of a nut-case and on more than one occasion I wished she’d just shut up about it. I was just a kid, and the earth was just something I took for granted.  The earth was just there to provide for our needs. I couldn’t believe how much Lola went on and on about all the stuff we humans were doing to destroy the earth. I just wished she’d leave us along to get on with things, I couldn’t abide her incessant nonsense about how we were going to destroy the planet.  All her feeble little attempts to be kind to the earth, made me seriously question her sanity.

I tolerated Lola not just because she was my friend’s mother, but I didn’t really understand her until one day when the three of us were travelling together. We were coming home from church. I had only been going to church for a few months.  I was trying hard to understand this whole God thing. So, I went to church a lot.  My friend Valerie had persuaded me to start going to church with her and family had become like my second family as they supported me during my first attempts to explore the mysterious world into which I had begun to feel pulled. As we drove home from church, I was feeling a little glum. Try as I might, I couldn’t really understand this church thing; all that singing and praying didn’t really help me to feel closer to God. Mostly I just liked how people at church treated each other.  I liked how they went out of their way to help me feel at home. Whether or not God was there, well I really wasn’t sure. 

Anyway, we were driving along the road.  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? 

Maybe my parents were right, these religious types are a little bit weird.  Happy, glowing, smiling people make 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. Suddenly this God, that I had been trying so hard to fathom, was there. Right there.  Not just in the magnificence of the sunset, but right there on the beach.  At that moment, I was just as sure of God’s presence as I was of my own. I remember an overpowering feeling  of gratitude, gratitude for God’s presence, gratitude, because for the first time in all my life I was at home.  I knew that I was home. Home, not because of the place; home not because of the beauty of the sunset, but home because of God’s presence.  That longing that I had always felt; that longing that I have always labelled as homesickness, that over-powering longing was gone.  In that glorious moment, the presence of God, filled my longing and I was at home.

I’m sure that each of you could tell of a similar experience. So many of us have been blessed by the presence of God in creation. So many of us have had our longing for God filled by the wonder and majesty of creation. I suspect that our love of creation comes as a direct result of our relatedness to creation. For like creation and everything in creation we share a common Creator. My own love affair with creation kicked into high gear on the beach gazing at the magnificence of the setting sun and it has grown in intensity over the years. This past summer, Carol and I drove out to Vancouver and I have to say, if you want to renew your love for creation, drive across this magnificent country of ours.

You’ll find yourself absolutely besotted with creation as you fall in love all over again. By the time we reached my beloved Rocky Mountains, it was like some star-crossed lover, who simply couldn’t help herself from bubbling over with excitement. Not even the first rainy day of our trip could dampen my excitement as we drove south from Jasper toward the Columbia Ice fields. I couldn’t wait to gaze upon the grandeur of the glacier that I remembered from so many visits over the years. The rain was falling quite heavily as we pulled into the massive parking lot perfectly situated across from the ice-field. As we climbed the steps toward the viewing station, I couldn’t see much because I’d pulled my hood up over my head to protect me from the rain. When I reached the top and looked across the highway, it took my breath away, the mass of ice that was frozen in my memory, was gone.

I’m not sure if the drops of water falling down my cheeks were raindrops or teardrops, as I stood there frozen by a strange mixture of fear and sadness. In the decades that have passed since I first began to visit the ice-fields back in the 1970’s the ice has been receding at a rate of between 10 and 15 centimeters per decade. 120 centimeters may not seem like a great distance, but couple that with a decrease in the thickness of the ice and it is positively shocking to see the amount of ice that has vanished from view.

jokulsarlon-glacier-lakeTake a look at the iceberg that I asked Andrew to hang. This photograph was taken in a place I visited long ago. It’s a place were icebergs are born. I ended up there back in the days when I was in the travel business and ended up on a cheap Air Iceland flight that was delayed for a week in Reykjavík for a week. Back then Iceland’s airline must have had only two airplanes and when one of them suffered mechanical difficulties you literally had to wait around for them to fix it. It’s one of the reasons that flights were so cheap on Air Iceland.  You simply never knew how long your stopover in Iceland might be. I was trapped there for a week and during that time we decided to explore some of the most amazing geological sites that the earth has to offer. We travelled about 400 kilometers outside of Reykavik to the Jokulsarlon Lagoon; the birthplace of glaciers. It was in this strange lagoon, under an eerie twilight that lasted for the entire duration of my stay in Iceland, that I stud on the hull of a small tourist vessel, staring up at a magnificent glacier. I have no words to describe my terror. Continue reading

Advent and the Quest for the Perfect Christmas – Luke 1

Let me begin, good friends, by addressing you in the same way that the anonymous gospel storyteller that we know as Luke addressed his congregation, for I trust that each one of you are indeed “Theophilus”. LOVER of GOD from the Greek words: “theo” which means “God” and “philus” which means “lover”.

Dearest lovers of God, welcome to the Gospel according to Luke. ‘Tis the season for the first two chapters of Luke which read much like a Broadway musical. While others may have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events exactly as they were passed on to us by the original eyewitnesses, the anonymous, gospel-storyteller that, for the want of knowing his or her actual name, we call Luke, has put together an opening to his portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth in the grand style of Jewish midrash, with a cast of characters aptly named to put his audiences in mind of some of the Jewish people’s greatest heroes; a real blast from the past with a view toward a new kind of future. Over the years, those who have heard Luke’s account have added the musical score which includes Zachariah’s “Bennedictus,” Elizabeth’s “Hail Mary” as well as Mary’s “Magnificat”. And that’s just in the first chapter!

The Gospel we call Luke came into the life of the Christian community in the late 9thor early 10thdecade of the Common Era, or some sixty years after Jesus’ earthly life had ended. It opens with a magical birth story never intended to be viewed as history. Let me say that again. It opens with a magical birth story that was never intended to be viewed as history. The story is filled with supernatural signs: angels that sing, fetuses that communicate, a virgin that conceives and even a post-menopausal pregnancy. It is the author of Luke’s attempt to capture in parabolic language the essence of who he thinks Jesus is – namely the one through whom God can be experienced.

Like I said before, the author is unknown to us. The name Luke was given decades, perhaps centuries after the book was actually written. All we really know about the author is that heby his own admission, was not an eye-witness to the events of Jesus’ life. We know from his own writing that he wrote excellent Greek; a feat only accomplished by the most highly educated people of his day. Based on the way he wrote, and the phrases he used, experts have concluded that he was in all likelihood a gentile convert to Judaism who then became a Christian. By his own account, he is writing not an accurate detailed account, but rather, an account that will make theophilus, the lovers of God, believe. His account takes the form of a series of short stories; short stories that are easily dramatized. Some, New Testament scholars believe that these stories were told over and over again in dramatic ways; ways designed to hold the interest of their audiences. Continue reading