Back in November of 2015, my Mom, who lives in Vancouver, fell. The fall was the cumulative effect of years and years of ill health, which for all sorts of reasons my Mom was unable to face; ill health that my family has fretted over and worried about. But no matter how hard we tried, it took a fall to get my Mom into the hospital. Many of you know the pain of living thousands and thousands of kilometers away from loved ones. The telephone rings and suddenly your life is turned upside down as you anxiously try to decide if you should book a flight, pack a bag, and rush to the bedside of someone you love. As I was agonizing over whether I should or shouldn’t rush out to Vancouver, my brother called and said that I needed to come right away. The sound of my brother’s voice cracking in mid-sentence convinced me to move heaven and earth in order to race to Vancouver, in order to sit at what we were now convinced would be my mother’s deathbed.
As a pastor, I have had the privilege of being present with all sorts of people as they sit vigils with their loved ones. Over the years, I have learned the value of a quiet, gentle, presence to accompany us in the darkest of journeys. In my head, I knew that whatever my family was about to experience, all that was really necessary was for me to do was to be present. So, I went to Vancouver, not as a pastor, not as someone who has been trained to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of a crisis, not as a professional who has accompanied many people on this kind of journey, not as Pastor Dawn; no on this journey I was simply, as my Mom calls, me when she wants to talk seriously to me, “Dawn Lesley”, a little girl, terrified of what lay in front of me.
The flight to Vancouver is about five hours long and during that five hours, I imagined what it would be like when I arrived and I tried to steel myself. My family is not what you would call religious, they don’t go to church, they don’t much talk about what they believe in, and they view my involvement in the church as a bit of strange; I’m an oddity in my family. They don’t really know this persona, Pastor Dawn is a mystery and to them I am simply their daughter Dawn, or their sister, or their Auntie Dawn. To the youngest members of the family Carol and I are lovingly referred to as their far-away aunties. We fly in for a visit every once in a while and the history that I share with my family, reminds us of the love we share for one another, and carries us through our all too brief encounters. The history that we share filled my thoughts as the plane carried me and all my baggage home; home so that I could be present for whatever might happen. The seats on either side of me were empty. Normally, empty seats on a plane, meant more room to stretch out and be more comfortable. But this time those empty seats only served to remind me of my own emptiness. I wanted Jesus to be in the seat beside me. I wanted God the “Father” to be in the other seat. And I wanted the Holy Spirit to be outside the plane somewhere holding us all up there in the sky, keeping the plane safely above the clouds. I wanted the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to keep me safe, to comfort me, to take care of my Mother. I wanted the big and powerful, Almighty Sky God, to reach down and interfere in the world, and I wanted it right then and there for me and for mine. I wanted that old-time religion, the kind of religion I signed up for way back when, when life was simpler. The kind of religion where all I need was to have faith and God would answer my prayers. Instead, all I had with me was my iPad full of theological books about the nature of God, the historical Jesus, and progressive Christianity. Cold comfort when your tens of thousands of feet up in the sky, hurtling in a metal tube towards a situation that strikes fear in your heart and could rob you of your Mother. Somehow, the Ground of my Being, the One Who Lies at the very heart of Reality, the God who Is LOVE, was obscured by God the Father, the Almighty Idol who served me so well in the past, was back, and the only problem was that I have long since stopped worshipping idols.Continue reading →
As many of you know, one of my favorite ways of attempting to name the DIVINE comes from the fourth century Bishop Augustine of Hippo. Augustine’s trinitarian formulations describes the DIVINE Creator as the LOVER, Christ as the BELOVED, and the Holy Spirit as the LOVE that binds them together. LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Herself! Remember that Spirit is feminine in both Hebrew and Latin. LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Herself!
Now the trouble with words is that words let us down. Words are after all simply symbols pointing beyond themselves to something other than the words. Words are a way to make meaning and to share whatever meaning we make with one another. The trouble with words is that words tend to let us down when it comes to making meaning of our experiences of the DIVINE MYSTERY. Words simply aren’t capable of giving us more than a glimpse of the DIVINE MYSTERY that is the LOVE that we call GOD.
So, even though I’m particularly fond of Augustine’s attempt to describe the DIVINE MYSTERY as LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Herself, I realize that even this lovely, pardon the pun, even this lovely gathering of words gives us but a glimpse of the LOVE that we call GOD. Part of the problem is the word “love”. In these parts and in these times the word “love” has become rather wish-washy. I am a child of the 60’s when the word “love” appeared all over the place in stylized letters, with flowers; often daisies, incorporated into the O. “PEACE, LOVE, and Rock ‘n roll,” “Looking for love and feeling groovy…”
In the decades since the sixties the flower-children have all grown up and the groovy part has faded. But from our comfortable positions of North American, upper-middle class privilege, we have a tendency to over-sentimentalize the world “love”. That’s why I had Pat read, Dr. King’s warnings about the kind of love that is sentimental and anemic. Anemic love is endemic these days. Anemic love is rampant in our culture, our politics, and sadly in our churches. LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Herself is certainly NOT anemic love. The kind of love that Jesus taught in his sermon on the mount in the gospel according to Matthew, or in the sermon on the plain in today’s gospel from the anonymous-gospel-story teller that we call Luke. Anemic love is simply not up to the task of empowering us to love our enemies. Anemic lovers aren’t capable of doing good to those who hate them, or blessing those who curse them, or praying for those who mistreat them. That kind of love, the kind of love that Jesus is talking about, the kind of love that Jesus taught with his very life and death, that kind of love is anything but anemic. That kind of love is powerful. In the words of Dr. King:
“Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Dr. King had that kind of love. I was just eleven years old, when Dr. King’s power was cut down. I can still vividly remember the stunned emotions that poured out from the adults in my life when news of Dr. King’s assassination came over the radio. Dr. King was a hero of mine. I’d followed his quest for freedom and justice for his people and cheered him on from the safety of my living room. To this day, I’m convinced that it was Dr. King’s embodiment of the teachings of Jesus that inspired the curiosity in me that led me to first seek out my mother’s bible so that I could read for myself what it was that this Jesus actually taught. I never went to church as a kid. Most of what I knew about Jesus, I picked up by osmosis. Dr. King’s speeches mesmerized me. But I was just a kid and it would take me decades to begin to grasp the magnitude of Dr. King’s non-violent resistance. Eventually, I would learn that Dr. King was mentored in non-violent resistance by the Reverend Doctor Howard Thurman, who intern was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s non-violent resistance overthrew what was at the time one the most powerful empire on the planet. Howard Thurman had traveled to India as early as 1935 where he met Gandhi whose commitment to ahimsa, the Hindu principle of refusing to do harm to any creatures, sent Thurman back to the gospels to discover anew Jesus’ commitment to non-violence. In 1949, Dr. Thurman wrote a little book that Dr. King carried with him throughout his struggles for civil rights. Thurman’s little book entitled, “Jesus and the Disinherited” revolutionized the civil rights movement. In his book, Thurman reminds us that Jesus was a Jewish man and as a Jew he was a member of an oppressed race. Jesus was also poor. Jesus was a member of a race that was oppressed by the power of an Empire that had been established through violence, an Empire that maintained its power through violence and injustice perpetuated upon the poor oppressed. Thurman insisted that as a poor and oppressed man, Jesus new what it meant to suffer at the hands of the powerful. Jesus’ concern for justice was born out of his love for his sisters and brothers who like him were poor and oppressed. Jesus had absolutely no interest in being worshipped or believed in. Jesus wanted to be believed and followed. Jesus could preach good news to the poor because he was one of them. Jesus understood what it meant to preach release from captivity because Jesus and his people were captives. Jesus taught a radical form of non-violent resistance. Jesus’ commitment to non-violent resistant lead him to Jerusalem where he would confront the powers of empire. Jesus’ teachings continue to resonate with the poor and the oppressed where-ever people suffer from the abuses of empire; be they political, military, or commercial empires.Continue reading →
In the Gospels According to Matthew and Luke, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Plain provide distillations of the teachings of Jesus; teachings Jesus lived for, teachings that eventually made Jesus so dangerous to the oppressive Roman Empire that they executed him as an enemy of the state. The very heart of these sermons is Jesus’ teaching on non-violence. I can think of no better way to begin my own preparations to preach on this Luke 6:27-38 than to look to the work of the great Walter Wink. I will always be indebted to this amazing teacher for all that I have learned and continue to learn from him. The videos below comprise the various parts of a lecture that Wink offered on the subject of Jesus’ teaching on Non-Violence. For anyone who aspires to follow Jesus this lecture is a must see. Wink’s books are well worn friends that I have often thumbed through to find more than a nugget or two to enable me to teach anew something that I have long since come to know as a result of Wink’s excellent work! His enlightening trilogy: Naming the Powers, Engaging the Powers, and The Powers that Be along with Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Wayshould be at every preacher’s fingertips as we proclaim Jesus’ radical way of being in the world. Follow this link to a sermon based on these resources.
Once upon a time, in a poor Chinese village, there lived a farmer and his son. The farmer’s only material possession, apart from the land and a small hut, was a horse that he had inherited from his father. One day, the horse ran away, leaving the farmer with no animal with which to work the land. His neighbours, who respected him for his honesty and diligence, went to the farmer’s house to say how much they regretted his loss. The farmer thanked his neighbours for their visit, but asked them: ‘How do you know that what just happened is a misfortune in my life?’
Someone muttered to a friend: ‘He obviously doesn’t want to face facts, but let him think what he likes, after all, this is better than him being sad about it.’ So, his neighbours went away, pretending to agree with what the farmer had said.
A week later, the horse returned to its stable, but it was not alone; the horse brought along a beautiful mare for company. The inhabitants of the village were thrilled when they heard the news, for only then did they understand the reply that the farmer had given them, and they went back to the farmer’s house to congratulate him on his good fortune, ‘Instead of one horse, you’ve got two. Congratulations!’ they said.
‘Many thanks for your visit and for your solidarity,’ replied the farmer. ‘But how do you know that what happened was a blessing in my life?’
The neighbours were rather put out and decided that the farmer must be going mad, and, as they left, one of his neighbours spoke for them all when he said: ‘Doesn’t the farmer realize that the horse is a gift from God?’
A month later, the farmer’s son decided to break the mare in. Unfortunately, the animal bucked wildly and threw the boy off; the boy fell so violently that he broke his leg. The neighbours returned to the farmer’s house, bringing presents for the injured boy. The mayor of the village solemnly presented his condolences to the farmer, saying how sad they all were about what had occurred.
The farmer thanked them for their visit and for their kindness, but he asked: ‘How do you know that what just happened is a misfortune in my life?’
These words left everyone dumbstruck, because they were all quite sure that the boy’s accident was a real tragedy. As they left the farmer’s house, they said to each other: ‘Now he really has gone mad; his only son could be left permanently crippled, and he’s not sure whether the accident was a misfortune or not!’
A few months went by, and Japan declared war on China. The emperor’s emissaries scoured the country for healthy young men to be sent to the front. When they reached the village, they recruited all the young men, except the farmer’s son, whose leg had not yet healed. None of the young men came back alive. The son recovered, and the two horses produced foals that were all sold for a good price. The farmer went to visit his neighbours to console and to help them, since they had always shown him such solidarity. Whenever any of them complained, the farmer would say: ‘How do you know that what just happened is a misfortune?’ If someone was overjoyed about something, he would ask: ‘How do you know that what just happened is a blessing?’ And the people of the village came to understand that life has other meanings that go beyond mere appearance.[i]
Jesus’ comments about blessings and woes are sometimes interpreted as a forecast of what is to come. The poor shall be rewarded, the hungry will be filled, those who weep will laugh, being hated scorned, insulted, and spurned won’t be so bad because this will gain you a great reward. But woe to those who are rich because you’ve had yours now and there won’t be more of that. Woe to you who are full because you are going to be hungry. As for those of you who are laughing now, woe is me you are going to weep in your grief. As for you whom folks speak well of, well we all know what horrors are in store for you because we’ve seen it all before. It’s as if these blessings and woes are a kind of prediction of a reversal of fortunes.
Well if that’s true, I have only one thing to ask of Jesus: Where’s the good news? What’s the point of predicting that things are going to be turned upside down? Is Jesus really pointing toward a Creator who is nothing more than a judge who’s going to punish those who appear to have one life’s lottery, so that the apparent losers can become apparent winners? Well as someone who is blessed beyond measure, I don’t really want to know let alone worship such a Deity. And I can tell you this, I hope that even if I was poor, I wouldn’t wish poverty on my worst enemy, even if that enemy was a greedy, filthy, stinking, rich so-and-so. After all is said and done, isn’t Jesus the rabbi who lived and died teaching the way of LOVE? Cleary, we need to look beyond interpretations that set up the apparent winners and losers as players in a perverse game of reversal of fortunes. It’s long past time for us to move beyond a quid pro quo philosophy that pits winners and loser against one another as if the only way we can have winners is if someone loses.
So, where is the good news here? Good news for the rich and the poor? Good news for the hungry and the fed? Good news for those who weep and for those who laugh? Good news for the winners and for the losers?Continue reading →
I went to high school on the West Coast in a small town called Ladner. Today, Ladner is pretty much a suburban bedroom community from which people commute to their jobs in the city of Vancouver. But back in the early 1970’s, Ladner was a small fishing village. It was a terrific place to go to high school; that is if you were white, middle-class and male. I don’t really know how it was for the handful of folks who weren’t part of the white majority. I remember when I was in grade ten; a new girl showed up in our classes. I’ll call her Shirley for the purposes of this sermon. Shirley, we were told, came from somewhere way up north in British Columbia. Shirley wasn’t part of the majority, back then we called Shirley’s people “Indians.” I remember our homeroom teacher introduced Shirley as an Indian who had travelled south for her education. We were told that there weren’t any high schools where Shirley came from, so she had to leave her family behind and come down to Ladner all by herself. She was boarding with a family in Ladner.
About all I can remember about Shirley’s first days with us is the unusual way that Shirley dressed. Back then there was a sort of dress code. We all wore the same stuff, blue jeans, not just any blue-jeans, mind you, we wore a brand called Seafarers which had bell-bottoms, that dragged on the ground. Both boys and girls wore white tee-shirts and you just had to have the latest thing in foot wear: leather adidas running shoes. We thought we were so cool, with our anti style, which in our rebellious naiveté we didn’t realize was actually a style in itself. Shirley didn’t fit in, because she wore what we openly mocked as stylish clothes. I remember that all her cloths looked new and expensive as if someone had taken her out and bought her an entire wardrobe of old people’s cloths; and by old people I mean 30 somethings. She just didn’t look like one of us. But that didn’t really matter because Shirley wasn’t one of us and so we never included her in anything we did.
After Shirley had been in our school for a few months, I remember a social studies class in which the teacher asked Shirley to tell us about her life in Northern British Columbia. The tale that Shirley told us about the reservation on which she lived was unbelievable to our young ignorant ears. Shirley claimed that she had been forced against her will to leave her family behind and travel all by herself to live with a family that was only interested in the money that the Indian Affairs department paid them for her room and board. She said that her parents would be thrown into jail if she wasn’t in school even though there was no school anywhere near the reservation. She said she’d run away several times, but that she’d always been caught, and her family was punished because she’d missed so much school. She claimed that her family hated living on the reservation. Shirley told us that it wasn’t safe on the reservation because most of the men drank.
My classmates asked all sorts of questions, but there was something in the way they asked the questions that made it clear that none of us believed a word Shirley was saying. After all, how could any of this be true? Nobody would ever take kids away from their families by force. Back then we cut class all the time. It was a different world and as long as you kept your grades up nobody cared whether or not you went to every class. Cutting classes was part of our culture, so the idea that parent could be thrown into jail because you skipped school was crazy talk.
Why we wondered out loud, would the government send you to a school so far away; why not just send you to a school nearer the reservation so that you could go see your folks on weekends? Well, according to Shirley, the government picked schools that were far away so that the Indian kids wouldn’t just run away from school and head back home. The only way home for Shirley was on an airplane and the government only gave her two tickets a year. When the teacher asked Shirley about conditions on the reservation, Shirley spoke really softly about there not being enough water and food to go around. One of us said, that was because they spent all their money on booze and cigarettes. Shirley got really quiet then and the teacher ended the conversation.
Later in the cafeteria there was a lot of conversation about the lies we were convinced Shirley had told us. We simply didn’t believe a word she said. I mean really, this is Canada after all. Canada is a great country, a good place. My parents brought us to Canada because it’s the land of opportunity. If Shirley’s people were having a tough time it wasn’t the government’s fault. Like my classmates, I believed Shirley’s people had only themselves to blame for their troubles. From our position of privilege, we insisted that all “they” had to do was work hard and to get ahead. We believed that we Canadians are good people, we are not prejudice at all.
I remember an actual conversation about the many ways in which Canadians take care of “our” Indians, because we are not like the Americans. Canadians didn’t declare war on Indians, Canadians took care of Indians. Our ignorance was matched only by our arrogance. I, like my privileged classmates, had a naïve understanding of this country. We had been taught to look at Canadian history through rose-coloured glasses. I believed what I was taught about the honour and gallantry of the early settlers of this land, hard workers one and all;
good honest people who’d left the hardships imposed on them in their homelands to build lives for themselves here in Canada. I knew nothing of the world that Shirley was describing. We weren’t taught anything about broken treaties, or the abuses perpetrated by the Indian Affairs Department and we’d certainly never heard about the travesty of residential schools. The conditions Shirley tried to tell us about and the circumstances in which she found herself sounded ridiculous to us, so we assumed that Shirley must be lying. Ignorance and denial were not just our collective responses to Shirley’s story, in my own heart of hearts I was convinced that it that Shirley’s stories could not be true, and I was comfortable passing judgement upon her.
So, the good people of Ladner marginalized Shirley. We weren’t bad, no not us. We weren’t prejudiced, no not us. We simply could not, nor would we believe that the Canadian system could or would inflict such hardships on Shirley’s people. “They, those Indians” must be doing something to bring down the wrath of the Indian Affairs Department. We convinced ourselves that if “they” would just get themselves together and live more like us, things would go a whole lot better for “them.” Just look at Shirley and you’ll see what I mean. Shirley never finished grade ten, she started taking drugs and hanging out with men; older men. I heard that she tried to kill herself not once but several times. Shirley was messed up. From where I was standing, it sure looked like Shirley brought a whole lot of trouble upon herself.
Looking back on the young girl that I once was, I am ashamed of the self-righteousness that blinded me to Shirley’s pain. Sure, I can tell myself that it was a different time and we just didn’t know any better. I can let myself off the hook with all sorts of rationalizations, but the truth is that not a whole lot has changed, even though we all know better. The truth is that to this very day, I continue to find it difficult to accept the reality of my white privilege. I grew up with all the privileges of a world where everything was interpreted from the perspective of a paradigm of Empire and make no mistake about it, that Empire was ruled by white people who were mostly male. Every aspect of our culture was controlled by an Empire that bestowed privilege upon the tribe that I just happened to be born into.Continue reading →
When I was a kid, my family moved around a lot. All that moving around, and always being the new kid at school, really messed me up. When I was about fifteen years old, I started hanging out with a gang. I haven’t got time to go into the details of my involvement with this gang;
suffice it to say, if I knew what this gang was all about, I would never have gotten involved with them. What I didn’t know when I started hanging out with this gang was that the members of this gang all had one thing in common. These members of this gang were part of a Lutheran Youth Group. These gang members managed to convince me to run away with them. They were going on something I’ve never heard of before; a retreat, a weekend at a place called Camp Luther. Somehow, I found myself with a gang of young, socially aware, politically astute kids who wanted to change the world. As I figured out who and what this gang was, I thought they might be a cult. It was kind of exciting to flirt with a cult. So, there I was at Camp Luther on the shores of Lake Hatsick.
Pastor Don Johnson was one of the retreat leaders. Don was the father of our National Bishop Susan Johnson, he died just a few months ago. That retreat was where I first met the young woman who would become our National Bishop. The very first exercise that we were assigned was to team up with someone we didn’t know and share our favorite bible passage. This gang was about to discover that I didn’t belong. I didn’t have a favorite bible passage. I’d only been to church a handful of times in my life, and I hadn’t read very much of the bible. So, I decided to break the rules of the exercise and teamed up with someone I knew slightly and suggested that she go first.Continue reading →