The DIVINE Finds Expression In, With, Through, and Beyond Us – a sermon for Lent 3C

It was nearly 20 years ago, and I still remember it as if it were yesterday. I was working as the on-call Chaplain at the Grand River Hospital in Kitchener. I had been paged to the emergency room to attend to a man who had accompanied a patient to the hospital, VSA, the code for Vital Signs Absent. Someone was waiting for me in the Quiet Room. The Quiet Room was a small ten by twelve room, into which loved ones of really serious patients were asked to wait for the worst possible news. They were kept there in the Quiet Room so that they wouldn’t be disturbed, but I suspect that the real reason is so that they wouldn’t disturb the less seriously ill patients.

Inside the Quiet Room sat one of the largest men I have ever met. He was about six-eight, with big broad shoulders. He wore blue jeans and a black leather jacket. He had long black hair and a bushy beard. He could have passed for the head of a biker gang and under normal circumstances, I probably would have been very afraid of this character. I introduced myself as the Chaplain and he just put his head in his hands. Chaplains are not popular people in hospital emergency rooms. People usually expect the worst when the medical profession calls in a chaplain. I took a seat and together we waited. 

Slowly, this big bear of a man began to tell me what had happened. He said, that everything was all his fault; he was to blame. Anne, his partner wouldn’t be in the other room fighting for her life if it wasn’t for him. After years of being on his own, driving truck from one place to another, never really having a home, he had met Anne and she had changed everything. No more long hauls for him. He switched to driving locally. For the first time in a very long time he had a home; a home he and Anne had made together. She’d made him so happy. He loved her so much. Everything was going so well for them.

Why? Why did this have to happen? He knew he shouldn’t have allowed himself to be happy. It was all his fault. If only he hadn’t of stuck around. None of this would have happened.

Quietly, I asked him just what had happened. He explained that he had come home from the store. He’d gone out for a pack of cigarettes. Anne had asked him to quit. He should have quit smoking. When he got back from the corner-store he found Anne lying on the floor. He dialed 911 and started CPR.

They wouldn’t let him stay with her. Could I go and see how she was doing? I headed back to the resuscitation room. They were tidying up. The doctor said she had a massive coronary, she was dead before she got to the hospital, they had just been going through the motions. I waited while the doctor filled in the paperwork and then together, we headed toward the Quiet Room. The doctor didn’t say a word when we arrived, he let his face do all the talking and I watched as a giant of a man fell to pieces.

When he quieted down a little, he told me that Anne was one of the best things in his life and that he should have known better. It was all his fault. If he’d just left her alone she would have been better off. Mutual friends had introduced them just a year ago. He fell for her right away. He should have known it was too good to be true. It was all his fault. It was happening all over again, only this time he should have known better. Through his tears, he asked me, how I could believe in such cruel God. God took his son away from him and now God had taken Anne.       He began to moan, over and over again, crying out for his lost son Billy.

It took about an hour for him to tell me what had happened, some 25 years earlier. His son had been playing with some friends down by the river. They’d made a makeshift raft. Somehow, little Billy had drowned. Just five years old and he was taken away. It was all his fault. If he hadn’t been such a lousy father, Billy wouldn’t have been taken away from him. After Billy died, his marriage fell apart. That was all his fault too. If only he’d been a better husband, a better man, God would have helped them to work it out. But clearly, God was punishing him for all the terrible things he had done in his life.

He should have known better than to take the chance. He just should have known better. If he had just stayed on the road. If he hadn’t tried to make some sort of life with Anne, she’d still be alive. God had really stuck it to him this time. This was his punishment for trying to be happy. He cried softly then. Over and over again crying out the names of Anne and Billy.

I quietly told this big bear of a broken man, that I didn’t believe in the kind of God that he was talking about. The God that I know wouldn’t do something like that. God is not that cruel. I told him that I believed that God wept for his son and for Anne, and that God knew the kind of pain that he was feeling. He just kept on sobbing, telling me that I didn’t understand, insisting that it was all his fault. Looking back, I realize that I was probably trying to convince myself at that moment that God was not some sort of monster. At that very moment I suppose that I felt like God was indeed some sort of monster. How could I have expected to help this man to reconcile the death of his son and his partner with the notion of a loving God? Surely that man was better off believing in a punishing God rather than an absent or capricious God who allowed the innocent to suffer?  The man himself was willing to blame himself rather than to blame God. God, in that man’s mind, was just doing what had to be done, punishing a guilty man. He knew beyond a doubt that he was to blame. His crimes had caused the deaths of his loved ones, not God. Who was I to destroy his worldview? At least his reasoning allowed him to make some sense out of his life.

Who among us has not done the same when calamity strikes, wondering what we have done wrong to deserve our plight?   Who among us at some time or another has not scrutinized our own behaviour, our relationships, our diets, our faith or lack of faith, hunting from some cause to explain our lot in the vain hope that we can find the reason behind our suffering?  We are only human after all, less interested in the truth than in the consequences. What we crave above all else is to grasp for control over the chaos of our lives. Continue reading

Help Me Jesus, Help, Help Me Jesus – in memory of Marlene Healy-Ogden – a story for our Lenten Journey

When I was in high school, I used to have a recurring nightmare. In my nightmare I would be standing in front of my locker staring down at the combination lock, trying desperately to remember the combination. All the books that I needed for class, all the binders that contained my carefully completed homework assignments, as well as the time-table that would tell me which class I was supposed to go to next, were inside my locker. The clock was ticking, the bell was about to ring, I was supposed to be sitting down at a desk somewhere, but I had absolutely no idea where because I couldn’t for the life of me remember the combination for the lock, that dangled before me, keeping me from the stuff I so desperately needed in order to be where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing. I would have this nightmare whenever my anxiety levels where elevated which when I was a teenager, used to happen quite often. The funny thing is, I never forgot my combination and even though the lock is long gone, confined to the garbage of history, I can still tell you my combination:  21,13, 27. You see whenever I find myself feeling totally overwhelmed and anxious, and not knowing what to do; when I know that I am in over my head and I’m almost paralyzed with fear, in order to get myself going again, in order to find the courage to do something, I will often repeat to myself the numbers of my high school locker combination: 21, 13, 27.

I learned this trick on a September morning standing beside a locker located not in my high school, but up on the second floor of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. It was my first day at seminary as a student in the Master of Divinity Program. I was 36 years old; the oldest person in a class of a dozen students. I was standing in front of the locker that had just been assigned to me. It had an all too familiar lock on it. In my hand I held a small piece of paper on which the seminary office staff had written the number and combination of the locker that had been assigned to me. I stood there staring at the combination, and suddenly I was a teenager again, standing terrified in front of a locker, with absolutely no idea what to do next. I was 36 years old for crying out loud, I’d travelled thousands of miles to get to this locker, I was about to embark on a program that I’d been preparing to enter for the previous 4 years as an under-graduate. I’d left a good job, and a good life behind, and I was supposed to be headed to some classroom or other to begin a program that I was convinced I didn’t have what it takes to complete. I’d already met my fellow students and they all looked like children to me. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the faculty discovered that I didn’t really belong at seminary. I remember standing there and wanting with all my heart to run away and hide, I remember praying, “help Jesus, help, help, me Jesus, help, me Jesus, yeah, get me out of here.”

I was terrified, when all of a sudden, a well-dressed woman came up beside me and said, “Can I help you with anything?” From her age and the tailored suit, she was wearing, I assumed that she must be a professor and I knew that I should say something, but I was too afraid that anything I might say, would give me away as someone who really didn’t belong at seminary. So, I just sort of stood there. “I’m Marlene” she said, “It looks like we’re locker neighbours. Just take a deep breath you’re going to be all right. Do you feel like you’re back in high school?” I nodded. “Just breathe” she said. “You can do this.”

“I’m too old for all this.” I said. “Ha” she said, “I’m older than you and I keep waiting for the hook to come and drag me off the stage and outta here. But trust me,” she said, “this is way harder than anything you’ve ever done before, but you can do this, just pretend you’re back in high school and put one foot in front of the other and you’ll be just fine. If you need any help, my name is Marlene, I’m in my second year here, so I should be able to help you.”   Continue reading

St. Patrick’s Day – Faith and Begorrra – John 12:1-8 – a sermon

Faith and Begorra! St. Patrick’s Day fall on a Sunday this year!. Yes, it is also the second Sunday in Lent and and the perfect time to explore Jesus’ use of the image of God as a mother hen, but St. Patrick’s Day provides so many rich opportunities to explore some thirst-quenching images. So I’m reposting this sermon I preached six years ago because the memory of preaching with a Guinness glass in my hand still makes me chuckle.  The best way to fully appreciate this sermon is to pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple, sit back, listen and enjoy a laugh. For those colleagues who are busy searching for sermon ideas for this coming Sunday you can read my attempt to write with a Belfast accent below…you’ll probably need a tipple of some-at to get tru it! Cheers!

Readings:  Numbers 27: 1-11; Acts 13:44-51; John 12:1-8

guinnessbeerOn this particular St. Paddy’s Day, I decided to be somewhat playful and irreverent with a sermon designed encourage folk to think beyond words on a page. The first reading brought the wonderful story of the Daughters of Zelophehad to church and as this reading does not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary it was fun to play withirish these feisty women. The reading from the book of Acts is actually the prescribed reading for the commemoration of St. Patrick and the Gospel text is prescribed for Lent 5C. The Guinness was just for fun! Enjoy.

Listen to the sermon

https://pastordawn.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/st_patricks_sermon.m4a

It’s not every year that St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday. “An so,” and so, that’s a very Irish expression. At least it is in some parts of Ireland. You’ll hear someone use that wee phrase, usually at the end of a sentence. An so…Sometimes they follow it with iy….and so, iy. But not from the part of Ireland that my people are from, sure the never said that. An so… What was I sayin? Sure it’s not every year that St. Paddie’s Day falls on a Sunday. And I don’t think it will every happen again that you’ll get all three lined up together like this, St. Paddie’s Day, Sunday and Holy Cross’ Annual Meeting. And so…. So, let me be tellin ye…Such a grand and glorious day as this, calls for a sermon like no other, an so…

I brought props. Sure St. Paddie had his shamrocks and faith and begorra…an so…I have a book….A book called, “How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe.” By none other than Thomas Cahill, himself. Faith and begorra…did ya ever in all your life hear such a ting as dat??? But that’s not all, I’ve sumtin else…

Take a look at that there??? Sure there’s nothing better on a St. Paddie’s morning than a glass of Guinness….an so… Well you’ll notice that this here particular glass of Guinness, well she’s as empty as Paddie’s pig on market day… An so…for the rest of this wee sermon you just think of me as the preacher who had we tipple before she set about tellin ya what’s what. My glass might be empty, but my heart is full… Full a the devil some may say…or full a the love a Jesus if the truth be told…an so… Where was I? Yeah, sure it’s St. Patrick’s Day and all the world is Irish if only until ya fill there glass. And then faith and begorra…that’s when the truth comes out. That’s when you find out who really saved the world. Now like any good Irish story, we’re gonna wander a bit…so falla me, for like my dear old Nannie used to say, you’d better falla me cause I’m right behind ya. That’s right falla me I’m right behind ya. But that should be no trouble for you lot, cause ya haven’t touched a drop. Yet. And a drop is all you’ll be gettin for have ya seen the size of those Jeesus jiggers;  Why you wouldn’t quench the thirst of the devil’s flees with the wee titch of wine they give ya in dose wee glasses. An so…the Irish and those that want to be Irish well this is a big day indeed. An so… I want to tell us all, exactly how the Irish saved civilization, an, an, I’m gonna tell the truth about St. Patrick himself…an, an, while I’m at it, I wanna take to use about those Daughters of Zolophehad, now there were a bunch of girls if you know what I mean…and speaking about a bunch a girls, while I’m at it I wanna tell ya all about those Marys…Faith and begorra, who’d be havin it?

Sure there’s Mary de Mother of Jesus, and then there’s Mary Jesus’ best friend, you know the girl from over Bethany way…and then there’s that lovely Mary, you know the lovely girl from over there in Magdela who everyone is after confusing with dat other woman, the one the call, Mary who really wasn’t Mary at’al, at’al, at’al… Sure wasn’t she after being healed, her being a sinner from the city and all…Sure there’s more Mary’s in this story, than I have time to be tellin ya about. So, we’ll just leave Mary the mother of Jesus out of it, cause she’s got nothing to do with this really. Unless of course, I loose me, way…and then begorra, I be Jesus, Mary and Joseph, this and Jesus Mary and Joseph that…an so… Were was I ??? I was needin a wee drink that’s where I was…. Continue reading

The Fox is in the Henhouse – a sermon for Lent 2C – Luke 13:31-35

Written 3 years ago, before the fox became the most power person on the planet.

Sadly, it still resonates.

Drawing the connection between the French word “lent” as meaning slow and the historical Lenten practice of fasting, we began our Lenten journey with the suggestion that we adopt a spiritual practice of slowing down for lent by fasting from fast. So, following a delightfully slow start on Monday morning, I read the assigned gospel text for this Sunday and spent some time luxuriating in the study of fables about foxes in henhouses.  The gospel’s description of Jesus describing himself as a mother hen longing to gather up her chicks in the safety of her breast so to protect them from encounters with Herod the fox created images that suggested that we lean into the Mystery that we call God. If as our friend Dom Crossan is fond of saying, Jesus really “is what God looks like in sandals,” then surely the gospel-storyteller’s casting Jesus as someone who compares himself to a mother hen, must tell us something about how Jesus want’s his hearers to understand the nature of God. So, I began thinking about preparing a liturgy devoted to gently leaning into the MYSYERY of God.

Part of my lenten practice of fasting from fasting from fast caused me to shun my regular Monday morning consumption of news media, as most of you know, I’m a bit of a news-aholic and so on my day off, I usually spend way too much time catching up on the news of the world. These days the news tends to send my blood pressure racing so, I avoided my usual media haunts in favour of enjoying a few movies and some exercise.  As the week wore on, I developed a cold and so Wednesday and Thursday were spent drifting in and out of consciousness as I tried to sleep off the effects of fever and congestion. So, imagine my horror when I finally tuned back into the news of the world on Friday. The fox was actually in the hen house. There he was a fox whose sly cunning makes Herod Antapis look tame, attacking a beautiful tender sweet hen, who over and over again wants for nothing more than to gather children as a mother hen collects her babies beneath her wings. Donald John Trump was attacking the Pope! At first, I thought the decongestants that I was taking were causing hallucinations! Talk about foxes in the hen houses!

Herod Antipas wanted nothing more than to be King of the Jews and Trump wants nothing more than to be King of the World! Herod Antipas scandalized the first century and Trump is well on his way to scandalizing the 21st century. Jesus Christ shocked the first century by comparing himself to a hen.

Donald Trump continues to shock this century with the size of his ego. For over a billion Roman Catholics, Pope Francis is Christ’s representative on earth, billions more see him as a religious leader of impeccable credentials, others see him as a kindly old gentleman who is struggling to bring a stodgy religious institution into the 21st century by opening the doors to welcome in the poor and marginalized.  Donald Trump is a narcissist of epic proportions; a real-estate mogul, who despite his three financial bankruptcies has managed to translate his business savvy into reality show ratings that paved the way to a media career which he is currently trying to translate into a political career in his quest for the White House. Responding to a question about the astonishing popularity of Donald Trump, the Pope said something to the effect that “any person who focusses on building walls and not trying to build bridges is not a Christian.” And that audacious fox stopped dead in his tracks just long enough to insist that the Pope is and I quote, “disgraceful”.

Can you blame me for suspecting that I’d taken one too many decongestants?  I turned the TV off lest I discover that aliens were about to land on earth and lock us all up for our own safety. Back in the relative safety of my office I returned to biblical commentaries to read about metaphors for God. What exactly is the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Luke getting at with this particular metaphor?  I mean why a chicken? Why not something more elegant or graceful or majestic; an eagle perhaps, or a lion, or a bear? This are metaphors for God that were good enough for other biblical storytellers, but not for this one. Now I have only ever really had a relationship with one chicken in my life.  I’ve got to say a chicken is the last thing I would want to be compared to let along something I’d compare myself too. If Jesus is comparing himself to a mother hen collecting her babies under her wings, and the gospel-storyteller wants us to think of Jesus as God then is the gospel-storyteller actually asking us to think of God as a mother hen?

Let me tell you about the one chicken I have actually known personally. Her name was Betty, Betty the Broiler. We called her Betty the Broiler because she wasn’t anything much to look at. You see back in the day, when I was helping to run a retreat centre, among the various animals we kept on Seabright Farm were chickens. Seabright chickens to be exact.  Seabright chickens were breed to as ornamental chickens and a flock of seabrights are about as beautiful a flock of chickens as ever adorned a farmyard. For some unknown reason, our flock of seabright chicks came complete with a rather plain looking banti hen that was anything but a seabright, she was a plain white hen which we nicknamed Betty the Broiler on account of how she looked like a generic hen fit for broiling.

But Betty was anything but generic. Betty thought she was human. Right from the start rather than scratch about with the other hens, Betty liked nothing better than to follow the children wherever they went. The kids on the farm loved Betty and because they loved her, they fed her stuff that the average hen never eats; sandwiches, crackers, bananas, berries, ice-cream, Betty’s favourite food was hot dogs. The kids used to squeal with laughter as Betty chased them around the yard demanding that they share their food with her. Well one day, depending on whose telling the story, either one of the dogs on the farm, wanted to share in the food that the kids were eating or a strange dog wandered onto the property to only to attack one of the kids, anyway long story short the kids ran into the farmhouse screaming for help because “a dog tried to kill Betty.” By the time we got to her Betty was gasping on the lawn surrounded by feathers. Her throat had clearly been cut. Betty looked ready for the broiler.

But the children insisted, and so none of the adults had the heart to do what seemed like the kind thing and simply finish her off. Instead against better judgement of the adults, Betty the broiler was rushed to the vet, who even though he thought the so-called adults had taken leave of their senses, agreed to stitch Betty up. The vet had never before tried to rescue a chicken, so when he handed her back to the adults, he suggested that she might be in considerable pain, but rather than prescribe costly drugs, he suggested that we might try alcohol to ease her pain. Continue reading

Bows and Arrows – sermon for Lent 2C

This morning’s sunshine has left me longing for spring. I know that when all is said and done this winter will probably go into the record books as a particularly mild one. But even so, I’ve grown weary of the trappings of winter and I cannot wait for spring to arrive. On Friday I found myself suffering from a case of cabin fever. I’d spent the day working in my office and even though my desk faces a large window, the dull grey hue of the cold, overcast, afternoon made me long for spring, when the sunshine would entice me to open my widow and I’d hear the sounds of the world out there waking up from its long winter nap. From my office window I caught a glimpse of some kids who judging from the time of day, were heading home from school. As they trudged along the sidewalk, the sight of their mother tagging along behind them made me incredibly sad. Those poor kids were being escorted by their mother. How in the world were they ever going to have any adventures with their mother tagging along behind them? I know that the world has changed some since I was a kid, but the adventures that we could have on the way home from school, well let’s just say, what our mothers don’t know can’t hurt them. The kids walking down the street on Friday, were going straight home; something we rarely did. We wandered home from school, and it could take hours to get home. Now I know that some of you may be fond of saying that when we were kids, we had to walk for miles and miles and miles, and it was all uphill and the sidewalks weren’t ploughed back in the day and the snow, well you should have seen it back then it was piled as high as the rooftops and we had to trudge through snow drifts that were taller than we were. Yeah, yeah, kids today, they just don’t know how well off they really are. Or are they?

Kids are escorted home from school and there’s no time for dilly-dallying. I’ve got to say that dilly-dallying on my way home from school was some of the best fun I can remember. After a day spent at school there was nothing quite like the fun we could get up to on our way home. I remember one spring my friends and I spent days and weeks collecting tree branches. We wandered here and there trying to find branches with just the right amount of sap in them to make them supple and pliable. You had to be able to bend them just so and unless they had lots of sap in them, they would snap in two. We needed branches that we could bend into bows and when we found those branches, we collected other branches that we could fashion into arrows. It wasn’t difficult because all of us had jack knives and we would take those branches and with our jack knives we’d sharpen them just so. When we had all our bows and arrows ready, we’d practice shooting arrows. Continue reading

Carcasses Torn Asunder – Do We Really Have to Listen to This In Church? Lent 2C

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 – Musing About Genesis Bloody Carcasses

Genesis 15From time to time, the prescribed readings from the Common Lectionary fill me with dread and despair. Something about those bloodied, split, rotting carcasses that sealed the deal between God and Abraham makes me wonder about the nature of the god we have projected into the heavens and ask: Have we evolved or has God? The story of God’s promises to the “Chosen People” portrays God as a churlish player in humanity’s game of tribal rivalry. While I’d rather not preach on the text from Genesis this Sunday, I know full well that simply reading this text during worship without elaboration, will if folk are paying attention, leave a distasteful oder in the sanctuary  that will surely spoil our appetite for our common meal of body and blood disguised as bread and wine.

The readings for this coming Sunday have me thinking about tribalism. There’s always more than one way to look at things. Tribalism has served us well. New people to meet can be exciting or it can be frightening. Taking comfort with your own people is wonderful, but taking too much pride in your own kind is dangerous. One minute you’re cheering for your team the next minute you’re hurling insults at the other guy and one too many insults and the next thing you know you’re at war. A little tribalism is a good thing, but how much tribalism is too much? Tribalism is a basic human survival instinct. Tribalism is lodged deep within our psyches and has been from the very beginning of time. Tribal is part of our primordial selves. Tapping into this basic human instinct can mean the difference between survival and death.

Tribal thinking exists on almost every level of human life, from the international to the local. Attack a human on any level and that human will resort to instinctive behaviour. When threatened humans have two basic instincts, fight or flight and the choice between the two often comes down to tribalism. If you have enough people to back you, you’ll probably choose to fight. Not enough people and you’ll probably choose flight.

Human kind has evolved a great deal over the centuries but we haven’t evolved very far from our basic instincts. You don’t have to scratch a fan too deeply to find the primitive tribal mentality. Tribalism is seen in the way we portray our rivals. I once heard a Kiwi say, “I root for two teams, New Zealand and whoever is playing Australia.” Sporting competition is all well and good, but when tribalism is carried to its worst possible conclusion, wars beak out. Tribal feeling is then exacerbated in times of war, and tribal propaganda is used to dehumanize our enemies to make it easier to hate or kill without any qualms of conscience.           We don’t kill human beings in war; our victims are not someone’s child, spouse, or parent.  NO, one kills either, the Huns, the Krauts, the Japs, the Nips, the VC, the insurgents, the fanatics or the terrorists.

There is within us all a basic, dominant, intrinsic fear of those tribes different from our own, a predisposition to be on guard against them, to reject them, to attack and even to kill them. This tribal tradition arises out of our deep-seated survival mentality and it feeds something at the heart of our insecure humanity. We are tribal people to our core. Far more than we will consciously admit, the religions of the world including Christianity rise out of and undergird our tribal thinking. Continue reading

Revolutionary LOVE – First Sunday in Lent

During Lent we are exploring the various ways in which the work of LOVE is accomplished. Each Sunday in Lent we will view and reflect upon a video that tells a story of LOVE’s embodiment in the world. Revolutionary LOVE calls us to love, others, love our opponents, love the Earth, love ourselves and thereby LOVE the MYSTERY that we call God. 

Today, Valarie Kaur’s TEDtalk: “3 Lessons of revolutionary love in a time of rage” portrays the embodiment of LOVE in the life of a social activist, lawyer, filmmaker, Sikh, and mother, who envisions a world where LOVE is a public ethic.

First view Valarie Kaur’s empowering talk, then our reflections can be viewed in the video below. Then contemplate Valarie’s questions: 

“What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb,  but the darkness of the womb?”  What if our future is not dead but still waiting to be born?”

LOVE Others, LOVE Opponents

LOVE the Earth, LOVER Ourselves

and thereby LOVE

the MYSTERY that we call God.

LOVE is more than a rush of feeling

LOVE is sweet labour

a choice we make over and over again.

See no Stranger

Tend the Wound

Breathe and Push

In the name of

Our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Herself.

Don’t Give up Chocolate, Give Up God for Lent: a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent

Eckhart rid me of GodAn article by Brandon Ambrosino in the Religion section of the Hufington Post sent the wheels in motions. I am indebted to Pete Rollins  book the Idolatry of God as well as his video Atheism for Lent for providing me with the courage to preach this sermon.

I swear to you it happens to me every year! It usually happens when the first person asks me what I’m giving up for Lent. When you’re in the line of work that I’m in, I suppose you should just get used to it. But somehow that particular question makes me wish I did something else for a living. People don’t usually mean much by asking the question. At this time of the year, “What are you giving up for Lent?” is sort of like when people ask you, “How are you doing?”  They’re not really interested unless you have a pithy answer. I must confess that over the years, I’ve come up with more than a few pithy answers. Like the time, shortly after I first came to Newmarket to be your pastor and my Mother, who does not observe Lent asked me what I was giving up for Lent and in a feeble attempt to make my Mother laugh, I told her I was giving up drugs and sex for Lent. Things went very quiet on Mom’s end of the phone line. The truth is that the answer I most feel like giving when people ask me what I’m giving up for lent requires so much time to explain that I rarely answer the question truthfully. But t’is the season for confession, so please forgive me but I’d really, really, really, like to give up Lent for Lent. I mean who among you, woke up this morning and said to yourself, “Oh goodie it’s Lent! Yippie!!!”

I remember when I first started going to church, I was a teenager, and I don’t mind telling you that my first experience of Lent almost sent me packing. All I heard was that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. All that talk about sin made me feel so guilty and worthless. I was just 15 years old and I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to commit much in the way of sin, and all I kept hearing was repent, repent! The message I received loud and clear during those first few Lents in the church was that I was nothing but a wicked sinner, a worthless worm! Poor, poor, pitiful me! But have no fear, cause Jeeeeesus can make you better. All you have to do is give something up for Lent!!!  Jeeeeesus, he’s on his way to be executed on a cross, because of you, so you owe it to Jesus to feel lousy because he’s going to sacrifice everything for you. They’re going to nail him to a cross because of you. You wicked sinner. The least you can do is give something up for Lent. I know, how about a little chocolate? That’s it, that’s it, just give up some chocolate for Jeeeeesus! Hands up anybody who has ever thought about giving up chocolate for Lent. Now Lord knows, I could sure do with giving up chocolate, I mean lets face it, I could give up chocolate and maybe loose a few pounds andhave something to say to folks when they ask me what I’m giving up for Lent.

I remember years ago, listening in on a conversation between two little kids about the merits of giving up chocolate for Lent. Little Katie asked her big brother why people were giving up chocolate for Lent and her big brother carefully explained that: “We have to give up chocolate for 40 days and 40 nights so that when Easter comes, we can really, really enjoy the lots and lots of chocolate that the Easter Bunny brings us.”

So, while I’m busy confessing my distaste for Lent, let me move on to that other Lenten subject that I love so very much: temptation! Chocolate!!!! First of all, let me just say: I firmly believe that chocolate is a sublime pleasure, not a sin. Yes, chocolate can be sinful. When I have all the chocolate and you have none; that’s a sin. So, I brought you all a little taste of temptation. The very idea of giving up something you love for Lent strikes me at the very least as self-indulgent. So, I brought enough chocolate for everyone to have a taste, because today I want to see if we can move on from wanting to give up Lent for Lent.

Let me remind you that there is indeed some very good news about Lent. You see Lent doesn’t appear in the Bible. Lent is not based on any biblical instruction. Nowhere in scripture will you find anybody saying, “You shall keep a holy Lent; ponder your sinfulness; give up your pleasures; for you are a worthless worm.” Lent is a season that was developed by the church to encourage people to fast, confess, repent and pray. Now the people the church was trying to convince to fast, confess, repent, and pray were for the most part uneducated, superstitious and illiterate and to keep the masses in line the clergy used fear and intimidation. Death was all around and so why not play on people’s fear of death. Life was full of danger and all sorts of evils lurked around every corner, so why not play on people’s fascination with the temptations of evil. So, over the centuries the church developed what some theologians like to call worm theology. Miserable sinners that we are: why we deserve to have to wallow in Lent. I mean if we want people to rejoice in the glories of God’s grace why not deprive them for a while so that they can really whoop it up come Easter. Now, I know I’m over simplifying things here. But I hope you get the idea. Lent is a season that was designed by the Church to control its members (pardon the pun). All that excessive wallowing in guilt went a little over the top and even the church has had to re-think Lent. For years now the church has been encouraging people to forget about giving up things for Lent and instead try taking something positive for Lent. But even these attempts at putting a positive spin on Lent hasn’t done much to encourage people to embrace the season of Lent. I mean come to church all you good, busy people, and we’ll make you feel so guilty that you’ll feel compelled to add one more thing to your busy days. For forty days and forty nights, excluding Sundays, you can take on some Lenten discipline or other to make yourself feel good about you.

Well, not this year!  We don’t have to keep up the control games of Lent. This year, I’m going to suggest something really radical for Lent. Something that ought to move us beyond the trivial self-indulgent, control games that we are tempted by the traditions of Lent to give up or take on. Before you get excited, I’m not going to suggest that we actually give up Lent for Lent. What I have in mind is more radical that simply giving up something that doesn’t really make much of a difference to the world. This Lent, I’m going to put it all on the table. This year for Lent I’d like you to consider the possibility of giving something up for Lent. This year, how about giving God up for Lent? Continue reading

Please Don’t Ask Me to Take On Any Lenten Disciplines!

JOHN OF THE CROSS wordsIt’s March. It’s cold outside. I have places to go, people to see, and by the time the driveway is shovelled, the ice is scraped, the windshield juice is topped up in my car and all the extra time it takes to navigate the roads in this weather, I can barely complete the regular tasks that this busy modern life of ours demands, let alone feel guilty because I’m not adopting some contemplative spiritual exercise! I heard someone say, “If you are currently not experiencing any stress in your life, you should immediately lie down because it appears that you may be dead.” So, please don’t ask me to take on any Lenten disciplines!

I have also heard it said, that in Canada the most common response to the question “How are you doing?” is the word “Busy!”. Canadians and I suspect Americans, Europeans, and most inhabitants of the so-called Developed World, seem to feel the need to justify our existence by assuring others that we are leading busy lives. While I am absolutely convinced that lives lived in the twenty-first century are busier than the lives of our ancestors, I’m not so sure that being busy is something we ought to be proud of.

Growing up, I remember all sorts of predictions about how life in our immediate future would be filled with so much leisure time as a direct result of the technology that would be at our fingertips. But as technology advances, our ability to work wherever and whenever the need arises has severely curtailed our leisure time. Our lives are busy and we have forgotten what it means to be human beings because most of us have become human doers. We have forgotten how to simply be. Continue reading

Embrace Your Mortality in MYSTERY: Ash Wednesday Our Wake-up Call!

I’m not sure that I need any ashes to remind me of my mortality. I think the wake-up call that Ash Wednesday provides rang for me over a week ago. I was driving down the road – distracted by thoughts of this and that, when all of a sudden it happened, a car came at you out of nowhere and I slammed on the breaks and quickly swerved to avoid a disaster. I could have been killed. I could have killed someone. My life or someone else’s life could have been radically changed in an instant. As I pulled back into traffic, I was ever so conscious of the weight of my foot on the accelerator and I swore out loud to no one in particular! I began to scold myself. What was I thinking? Why wasn’t I paying attention? Wake-up you could have been killed!

Well, just in case you haven’t had a wake-up call like that recently, welcome to Ash Wednesday. What have you been thinking? Why weren’t you paying attention? Wake-up — you are going to die!!! Ash Wednesday is our winter wake-up call. Some of us may not need the wake-up call. Some of us know all too well that death is all around us. Some of us have lost someone dear, others are walking with someone who is close to death. Some of you may have felt that fear in the pit of your belly when the doctor suggested a particular test. Wake-up calls come in all sorts of ways.

Traditional Ash Wednesday worship would require us to focus on the brevity of life and remember that none of us will get out of this life alive. Our ancestors in the faith, entered into a morose season of Lent via the awesome reminder that they came from dust and soon they shall return to the dust.  Lent was a season of lament and repentance based on a particular understanding of what it means to be human. Since the 11thcentury most of Christianity has understood the human condition as that of those who have fallen from grace. But we live in a post-modern world. We no longer believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans. We read Genesis not as history but as myth. We understand that humans evolved over millions of years. There was no perfect human condition for us to fall from. What happens when you reject the theological construct of original sin? What happens when you embrace the idea that we are fiercely and wonderfully made? What happens when you see humanity as originally blessed? Continue reading

Lent: Letting Go of our Tightly Held Piety to See Our Need of Confession

JOHN OF THE CROSS as
Little Crystal was only two and a half years old when she got hopelessly stuck.
 And when she got stuck she did what all small children do, when they have gotten themselves into a situation that the can’t get out of, little Crystal cried for help. She went into her mother’s study, holding in one hand a family treasure and her other hand couldn’t be seen.  Crystal cried out, “Mommy I’m stuck”. Her unseen hand was stuck inside her great-grandmother’s vase.  The precious vase had been handed down from her great-grandmother to her grandmother, to her mother. Crystal had always been told that one day the magnificent vase would be hers.

Crystal’s mother tried to move quickly without panicking. She scooped the vase and her little girl up into her arms and carried them to the kitchen sink. She used warm soapy water to try to loosen the toddler’s hand, which was stuck all right. When soap didn’t work she reached for the butter. While greasing her child’s wrist like a cake pan, she asked the obvious “mother question.” “How in the world did you do this, child?” Crystal carefully explained that she had dropped candy down into the vase to see if she could still see it when it was at the very bottom. But she couldn’t see it, so she reached in for her candy and that’s when she got stuck and she couldn’t get her hand back out.

Well, as time passed, the situation became more and more serious. Crystal’s mother called for re-enforcements. She phoned her own mother and told her to get there as fast as she could. A neighbour suggested Vaseline. The apartment manager got out some WD40. Still no luck.  It began to seem like the only way to get Crystal’s hand out was to break the family heirloom.

When Grandma finally arrived, both Crystal and her mother were almost hysterical. They were both more than a little relieved to have Grandma’s calming presence. Grandma sat little Crystal on her knee. 

Crystal was very upset and still very stuck. Grandma took a good look at the vase that used to sit on her mother’s kitchen table all those years ago.  She looked at the miserable look on her grand-daughter’s face, and she said, “Crystal, sweetheart.  Your mommy told me that you reached into the vase for candy.  Is that right?”

Crystal was a little breathless from all the crying she had been doing and all she could manage was a whimpered, “Mmm hummm.” “Honey, tell grandma the truth now. Do you still have a hold of that candy?” “Mmm humm”.  Crystal sobbed. Then Grandma rubbed little Crystal’s back, held her close and gently, but firmly said: “Let it go, child.  Let it go.” Sure enough, the vase slipped off as smooth as silk. (I have searched for the source of this story, without success. I first heard it at a retreat on the West Coast a lifetime ago)

In this fast paced world of ours, I often find myself in little Crystal’s predicament.  Surrounded by a treasured family heirloom, desperately clinging to a treasure.  My predicament often makes it difficult for me to appreciate the beauty of the heirloom. Letting go isn’t as simple as it sounds. But sometimes letting go is the only way to preserve the integrity of the heirloom. When I think about the church’s practice of public confession, I can see how desperately I have been holding on to candies that no longer satisfy my need for forgiveness.  Continue reading

Transforming Into Something More Beautiful – Transfiguration Sunday

Following our worship, our Annual Congregational Meeting began and we had plenty of opportunities to talk about the things we value about Holy Cross and the various transformations that we have experienced as well as our hopes and dreams for the future. 

the notes used for this sermon can be found here

Ash Wednesday Sermons

I long to spend time in this “secret place” where God IS – reflecting on Ash Wednesday’s strange Gospel text – Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21 here

On Ash Wednesday, Let Us Revel in the Knowledge that We are Dust and to Dust We Shall Return here

Evolution – There’s No Going Back here

Embracing Mortality: a reflection here

Stardust here

We Are ONE here