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I learned the Tale of the Two Wolves from an elder-woman of the Coast Salish people, who told us, a group of white students, that she learned this WISDOM from a settler, who learned it from her white mother, who learned it from a Cherokee. As Chief Sheila told it to me, it was a Grandmother who told her grandson about the tow wolves which struggled within her.
My home is located in a new sub-division, built in 2000. Once the houses were built, the town planted young trees. By the time we moved in in 2006, the tree in our yard was already dying. Eventually, the town replaced it with a new young tree, which looked so fragile in the presence of all the other bigger, more developed trees on our street. I despaired of its chances of survival. The town left us with instructions about watering and fertilizing our little baby tree. I despaired of my ability to keep the young tree alive. But I dutifully watered and fed our spindly little tree, hoping against hope that it would survive.
About a month ago, the town removed all the trees from our street except for two. Only two trees were spared because they were the only two trees which weren’t Mountain Ash. Mountain Ash are being destroyed in an effort to stop a disease called fire blight The tree in our yard is one of those two trees. Not only has it survived, it is thriving. That tree continues to mature and now stands tall upon our street.We continue to feed and water it.
I know, I know, it’s just a tree and as evocative as a parable about dueling wolves may be, children are dying, and they will continue to die. Despair and Hope: how can we dare to hope. Show us the Way! Show us the Way! Show us the Way of compassion! I wish I knew the answers.But I will not insult your intelligence by offering you false hope.
Despair, deep paralyzing despair, is the only intelligent response to the plethora of tragic news which keeps hitting us in wave after wave. I feel very much like the tree in our front yard during last week’s windstorm. Battered and bent to the point of snapping. I’m angry and find myself cursing the perpetrators of violence. Not just the pitiful losers who perpetrate violence against the innocent with assault weapons, but the perpetrators of war in Ukraine, the perpetrators of violence against our beloved Earth, the corporate raiders perpetrating larceny, the racists, rapists and violent so-in-sos who perpetrate violence upon the weak just to make themselves feel better.
I could go on and on, but then I too become an ally of despair, feeding the raging wolf within me and in you.
So, I stare longingly at tall, strong, steadfast trees determined to feed Hope struggling to survive in me. I’m told that each and every day, we modern, tuned in, connected, privileged North Americans are exposed to more bad news in a day than our parents had to cope with in a month. I’m not sure if this is true. I suspect that the truth is worse than that. I know it feels that way. It feels like a day brings more bad news than we would have been exposed to in a year, before technology became so adept at sending us bad news. The reality that bad news travels fast is now amplified by our own temptation to help spread it. Try as we might, we cannot control the volume of tragic news which surrounds us.
We cannot control what is happening in the world, but we can control how we respond to the news. For we are “Good-hearted people” and we do indeed have so much “good medicine stored up in our hearts.” We have blessings beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors. When bad news reaches us, we are privileged enough to make a choice. We can feed the Wolf of Despair, or we can reach into our hearts which are filled with good medicine and we can feed the Wolf of Hope. I’m not talking about Polly-anna, pie-in-the-sky, wishy, washy, hope, the kind of hope which will make people want to smack you. I’m talking about the kind of Hope born when we begin to feed Hope, for Hope, real Hope, requires, no, demands action.
Action is the food necessary for Hope to thrive. Despair feeds upon in-action. When good people do nothing, Despair thrives.
I know, I know, Hope appears to be starving right now. Hope’s appetite for action is overwhelming. But if each one of us who is blessed with a morsel offers ourselves and acts, it will be like those potlucks in the before COVID days, when feasts of LOVE appeared out of nowhere. There is so very much we can do. It begins by not magnifying the bad news. Shaking our heads, tutting, complaining, moaning, groaning, pointing fingers, insisting that there is nothing we can do, is food for Despair, and that Wolf will eat us all. Hope hungers for us to dry our tears, rack our brains, figure things out, access our compassion, reach out, take risks, be prepared to fail sometimes, dust ourselves off, encourage one another, and work together to embody the LOVE our world hungers for.
Action feeds Hope. It is said that when things were particularly bleak and people were paralysed by despair Martin Luther insisted that: Even if he knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, he would still plant his apple tree. Now the despairing wolves among us would point out that there’s no proof that Martin Luther actually said this. But in these “hot mess times” I choose to feed the Wolf of Hope in, by insisting that I don’t much care whether Luther said it or not, for just like good old Martin Luther himself, “I choose to live my life as if it were true.” I choose to feed Hope.
So, I’m happy to tell you that the two lonely trees on my street will soon be joined by a street full of new, young, spindly, fragile trees, which our town assures us will grow strong if we feed and water them.
May everyone who meets you discover in you, a good-hearted person, who speaks a word of hope drawn from the plethora of good medicine stored in your hearts. Choose to feed hope. Feed hope with action. Gather together the morsels of WISDOM with which we have been blessed, through in a dash of your most treasured spice, summon up your compassion, and if you have to, through tear filled eyes, see your way clear, to action. Feed hope. Choose hope. Be hope.
 Jacqui Lewis
This past week I attended the Festival of Homiletics. Like so many events, this year’s Festival of Homiletics was a hybrid event, so rather than travel to Denver, I was able to attend the Festival online and wallow in the wisdom of some renowned preachers. I must confess that I registered for the event, out of a sense of loyalty to my profession. COVID has dealt a huge blow to so many organizations, and every registration helps, besides an old preacher like me, can always use some new ideas. Unfortunately, the theme of the festival did not bode well for my enthusiasm for the event. But come Monday morning, coffee in hand, I tuned in from the comfort of my home-office, even if my expectations were lowered by the festival’s theme, “After the Storm: Preaching and Trauma”
I remember scoffing to myself, “those Americans sure do love the drama of a trauma,” as I steeled myself for the inevitable sensationalizing of the multitude of traumas, we’ve all experienced over the past year. I was unmoved by the idea of spending a week going back over the turmoil created by COVID, antivaxxers, white supremacy, climate change, war in the Ukraine, economic woes, and the impending demise of Roe versus Wade.
But preachers, we are trained to approach our homiletical task, with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. So, even though these days it is the bible in one hand and our device of choice in the other hand, the news of the day is part of our stock and trade. So, I expected the endless list of the world’s traumas to dominate the dozen or so sermons and lectures, because life’s traumas loom large in our business, and Lord knows this year has been a doozy. What I didn’t expect was the wallop which hit me as preacher after preacher pierced the armor which I’ve been wearing since COVID first showed us its ugliness. What I didn’t expect were the endless floods of tears, as I heaved my way from one ugly cry to the next.
In between the sermons, the lectures, and the workshops, I found myself adding my own Canadian traumas to the colossal list of trauma: the unmarked graves of indigenous children, the hatred and division inspired by the truck convoy, the floods, and melting ice-cap, and our own brand of political divisions, not to mention the reality of church closings of congregations whose demise was hastened by endless lockdowns, together with my own concerns about the future of this beloved congregation.
I knew if I let myself, I would dissolve in the puddle of tears my own trauma was creating. So, I added more and more armor to my weary soul and resolved to cut it out. For after all I had work to do. So, with my shield in hand, I girded my loins, dried my tears, steadied my breath and read this week’s assigned gospel so that I could begin my own preparations to preach today. Trauma be damned, I’m not going there!
So, hear the words of our gospel as it is recorded by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John: “Judas—not Judas Iscariot—said, “Rabbi, why is it that you’ll reveal yourself to us, and not to the whole world?” Jesus answered, “Those who love me will be true to my word, and Abba God will love them; and we will come to them and make our dwelling place with them. Those who don’t love me don’t keep my words. Yet the message you hear is not mine; it comes from Abba God who sent me. This much have I said to you while still with you; but the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit whom Abba God will send in my name, will instruct you in everything and she will remind you of all that I told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace. Don’t let your hearts be distressed; don’t be fearful. You’ve heard me say, “I AM going away but I will return.” If you really loved me, you would rejoice because I AM going to Abba God, for Abba is greater than I. I tell you this now, before it happens so that when it happens you will believe.” (John 14:23-29)
The gospel of our God, thanks be to ALL that IS HOLY. It was all I could do to hold on to myself through one of the ugliest cries I’ve allowed myself in a very long time. When my heaving was done, all that was left was my own “Yes please…” “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” Yes, please Jesus, I’ll take a big dollop of peace, right now if you please.
I know, I know, I’m the preacher and my job, my calling, my vocation, is all about proclaiming the very peace which Jesus promises. But just like you, just like our fellow humans all over the globe, we have been traumatized and traumatized people, don’t find it easy to discover the peace they long for. How can we? No amount of platitudes, or pretty words, or charming sentiments, or skillful articulations, or even powerful sermons, can heal the wounds of the traumatized.
I did learn something new about trauma from a festival workshop lead by a preacher I admire. From Nadia Boltz-Weber I learned the phrase “complex trauma”. Complex trauma describes the condition of those who have been exposed to multiple traumatic events over the course of a long period of time. For more than two years now, we have all been exposed to multiple traumatic events, which have allowed us precious little peace in the midst of our world’s turmoil. People suffering from complex trauma can experience what some call “emotional flashback” in which you have intense feelings that you original felt during the initial trauma, such as fear, sadness, despair, guilt, or shame.
Some of the symptoms of complex trauma include difficulty controlling your emotions, periods of losing attention and concentration, physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness chest pains, and stomach aches. Prolonged exposure to multiple traumatic events leading to complex trauma, if left untreated can lead to complex traumatic stress disorder.
Now I’m not a medical doctor, nor am I a trained psychologist. I am but a lowly preacher who is tasked with helping the afflicted find a little peace. That’s peace period, not peace of mind. Alas, the peace which I am tasked with proclaiming is the peace which Jesus promises: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace.”
As I said before, “yes please Jesus! I’ll take a double dose of that peace. If you please!” But the news didn’t get any better this week. There are more unmarked indigenous graves, war rages on in the Ukraine, our political divisions continue as our own right-wingers mimic our American neighbours, the floods and fires of climate change are eclipsed by yesterday’s storm damage, not to mention the vivid images of monkey-pox on our own doorstep. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace.” Where Jesus? Where? Where can we find this peace you speak of? Where is this peace which is not like the worlds peace.” We’ll take it. We need it. Please where and how can we find this peace.
Late last night, I despaired of ever finding this peace. The bulletins were already printed, so it was too late to change the gospel reading. So, I did what a preacher is trained to do, I looked at the other readings assigned for this day. There in the 16th chapter of the book of Acts, I was reunited with an old friend, Lydia. Lydia is one of the many Mothers of Christianity. Lydia is the first European convert to Christianity. Lydia is the founder of the church at Philippi. Lydia is described as a “God fearer, a worshiper of God and a dealer in purple. According to the story in Acts, two men Paul and Silias, meet a woman and end up going home with her. Scandalous thou this may be, Lydia a professional businesswoman, of considerable means, is discovered down by the riverside. You see Paul and Silas had traveled to Philippi to proclaim the gospel. As self-respecting Jews they looked first for a synagogue. But in order to have a synagogue you need 10 men to gather for prayer.
Alas, without ten men, the synagogue would be closed. So, the woman who wanted to gather for prayer would meet down by the riverside. After Paul and Silas proclaim the gospel, Lydia invites them to her home. Imagine two strange men invited to a woman’s home? Out of such a scandalous event the church at Philippi is born.
As I reacquainted myself with Lydia’s story, two things jumped out at me. The riverside and the colour purple. Visions of Celie and Shug from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, come to mind, and I hear Shug quietly declare, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” To which Celie asks, “It (God) just wanna be loved like it say in the Bible?” To which Shug responds, “Yeah Celie, everything just wanna be loved. Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved.”
The riverside and the colour purple. The beauty of the Earth and LOVE. Therein lies the peace which the world with all its trauma cannot give. The peace which surpasses all understanding. Down by the riverside, in the meadows, the forests, the fields, the mountains, the beauty of the earth and in the LOVE we have for one another it is there where we shall find the peace to heal our wounded souls.
In the friendship, in the companionship, in the LOVE we have for the Earth and for one another, its LOVE itself which provides the peace we long for.
Early this morning, as the Sun was beginning to rise, I sat down to write this sermon, and I could hear the birds singing. The doves were coo cooing as I remembered the peace which comes as pure gift from Creation herself, together with all the peace which has been created by the LOVE of friends, family, neighbours, and LOVERS. And I remembered that peace is not just a noun describing a state of being which we long for. Peace is also a verb, a way of being in the world which moves us to be LOVE in the midst of whatever trauma the world dishes up. LOVE is the peace we long for.
LOVE is our peace. Yes please and thank-you very much for being the LOVE which is the peace our world longs for. Let us be that LOVE. Let us be the LOVE which heals all trauma. Let us be that peace. Shalom, dear ones. Shalom.
During these past two years, we have had to adapt to an awful lot. If you’d have asked us just three years ago, how we would cope if we had to lockdown in our homes for months and months on end, we couldn’t have imagined how we would cope. But somehow, we all managed to adapt to the isolation, working from home, the masks, the technology, the fears and the disappointments.We found ways to cope with a life-threatening pandemic by adapting to changing circumstances.
Humans are blessed with the ability to adapt to our surroundings. We are blessed and we are also cursed. Adaptation allows us to make adjustments to our behaviour in order to cope with changing realities. But adaption can also allow us to continue relatively unchanged. For those of us who live as the wealthiest Christians who have ever walked this planet, the privileges we claim for ourselves, allow us to continue our lives in relative security provided we adapt ever so slightly to our changing circumstances. And therein lies the curse of adaptation. Adaptation allows for the maintenance of the status quo. In the grand scheme of things, the fundamental realities of our lives haven’t been transformed by the monumental challenges of a life-threatening pandemic. Sure, we may have tweaked a few things, but we are still the privileged few on this planet and our planet, the only home we have is still careening toward becoming largely uninhabitable. We are clever enough to understand that the status quo cannot hold, and we are adaptable enough to carry on without being transformed by the reality that our behaviour is threatening the survival of billions of people. We have largely adapted to the terrifying realities of climate change without letting the facts transform us.
I used to put my faith in the intelligence of our species to adapt. These days, I’m beginning to see that the intelligence of our species may only be able to help us adapt, when what we need in order to survive is to be transformed. Transformation of the way in which we live threatens the status quo, and without threatening the status quo, we won’t be able to adapt quickly enough to survive. To date human intelligence is failing us. The facts, we are all well versed in the facts, and we have all, myself included, chosen to tinker with a few minor adaptations, rather than seriously engaging our need for radical transformation of the status quo. So, I have to ask what it will take for us to open ourselves to the possibility of the radical transformation necessary to meet the challenges which are raining down upon us.
Status quo – the existing state of affairs – has been good to those of us who live privileged lives here in Canada, and if you are watching on a screen somewhere other than Canada, then believe me you too are privileged. Our wealth makes it possible to take time out in our day, to come here, or to turn on a screen, and spend some time contemplating that which is BEYOND, the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also. The luxuries we enjoy, afford us the time, the space, the tools, and the company of like-minded individuals to explore the MYSTERY with. We are all richly blessed.
Blessed enough to have the wear-with-all to maintain the status quo longer than the vast majority of our siblings on this planet will be able to. Today, lots of privileged people, just like us, all over the world, will gather like us to listen to the Gospel reading which is proclaimed on this the Fifth Sunday of Easter, which comes to us from the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John, who writes:
“Once Judas left, Jesus said, “Now is the Chosen One glorified and God is glorified as well. If God has been glorified, God will in turn glorify the Chosen One and will do so very soon. My little children, I won’t be with you much longer. You’ll look for me, but what I said to the Temple authorities, I say to you: where I am going, you cannot come. I give you a new commandment: Love one another. And you’re to love one another the way I have loved you. This is how all will know that you are my disciples: that you truly love one another.” (John 13:31-35)
According to the anonymous gospel-storyteller, Judas has just left the room, and we all know what that means, Jesus is about to be betrayed, the status quo will not hold. Jesus is about to be executed by the forces of empire. Jesus is a smart guy. He knows full well that the status quo will not hold. Jesus knows he is going to die. He tells the people he loves, “where I am going, you cannot come.”No amount of tinkering with adaptations will suffice. Jesus proposes total transformation. “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. And you’re to love one another the way I have loved you. This is how all will know that you are my disciples: that you truly love one another.”
Love one another. It sounds too simple to our ears. Love one another. We have prettied love up, with hearts and flowers, for so long that we have forgotten the power of LOVE to transform everything. In the recesses of our imagination, we piece together the story of what LOVE looked like for the followers of Jesus, as if it were some fluffy-cloud world in which they lived. We imagine that it was easy for them. In our mind’s eye we see those happy-clappy christians, smiling as if they haven’t a care in the world, welcoming strangers, and being LOVE and it is all so peaceful, so beautiful, so groovy, with all those hearts and flowers, who wouldn’t be able to just peace out, man. “LOVE one another” doesn’t seem to measure up somehow at least not the hearts and flowers kind of love, the impotent, easy, lovin of we privileged few; the kind of love which demands adaption without transformation.
This cannot be what a man on his way to his execution was calling for. Jesus spent his life teaching people about the kind of LOVE which is beyond the hearts and flowers pretty love, we privileged few are fond of. Cornel West describes this kind of LOVE as JUSTICE, when he says that, “Justice is what LOVE looks like in public.” Justice is what makes the LOVE which Jesus commands transformative. Justice transforms and without justice we cannot be the LOVE humanity needs us to be in order to transform the status quo into a Way of being which is life-giving.
Now for those of you, who aren’t convinced that talk of LOVE can save us, who’d rather fight facts with facts, well let’s take a long hard look at the status quo: This week, I’ve been devouring a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson called, The Ministry for the Future. The novel takes its name from an international agency set up by the Paris Agreement to concern itself with the people of the future.
The book is laced with facts about the status quo. Stanley Robinson writes this:“Possibly some of the richest two percent of the world’s population have decided to give up on the pretense that “progress” or “development” or “prosperity” can be achieved for all eight billion of the world’s people. For quite a long time, a century or two, this “prosperity for all” goal had been the line taken; that although there was inequality now, if everyone just stuck to the program and did not rock the boat, the rising tide would eventually float even the most high-and-dry among them.
But early in the twenty-first century it became clear that the planet was incapable of sustaining everyone alive at Western levels, and at that point the richest pulled away into their fortress mansions, bought the governments or disabled them from action against them, and bolted their doors to wait it out until some poorly theorized better time, which really came down to just the remainder of their lives, and perhaps the lives of their children if they were feeling optimistic—beyond that, après moi le deluge.
A rational response to an intractable problem. But not really. There was scientifically supported evidence to show that if the Earth’s available resources were divided up equally among all eight billion humans, everyone would be fine. They would all be at adequacy, and the scientific evidence very robustly supported the contention that people living at adequacy, and confident they would stay there (a crucial point), were healthier and thus happier than rich people. So the upshot of that equal division would be an improvement for all.
Rich people would often snort at this last study, then go off and lose sleep over their bodyguards, tax lawyers, legal risks—children crazy with arrogance, love not at all fungible—over-eating and over-indulgence generally, resulting health problems, ennui and existential angst—in short, an insomniac face plant into the realization that science was once again right, that money couldn’t buy health or love or happiness.
Although it has to be added that a reliable sufficiency of money is indeed necessary to scaffold the possibility of those good things. The happy medium, the Goldilocks zone in terms of personal income, according to sociological analyses, seemed to rest at around 100,000 US dollars a year, or about the same amount of money that most working scientists made, which was a little suspicious in several senses, but there it stood: data. And one can run the math.
The 2,000 Watt Society, started in 1998 Switzerland, calculated that if all the energy consumed by households were divided by the total number of humans alive, each would have the use of about 2,000 wats of power, meaning about 48 kilowatt-hours per day. The society’s members then tried living on that amount of electricity to see what it was like: they found it was by no means a form of suffering; it was even reported to feel more stylish and meaningful to those who undertook the experiment.
So, is there energy enough for all? Yes. Is there food enough for all? Yes. Is there housing enough for all? There could be, there is no real problem there. Same for clothing. Is there health care enough for all? Not yet, but there could be; it’s a matter of training peopled and making small technological objects, there is no planetary constraint on that one. Same with education. So all the necessities for a good life are abundant enough and everyone alive could have them. Food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, education.
Is there enough security for all? Security is the feeling that results from being confident that you will have all the things (I just listed) and your children will have them too. So it is a derivative effect. There can be enough security for all; but only if all have security.If one percent of the humans alive controlled everyone’s work, and took far more than their share of the benefits of that work, while also blocking the project of equality and sustainability however they could, that project would become more difficult. This would go without saying, except it needs to be said. To be clear, concluding in brief: there is enough for all. So there should be no more people living in poverty. And there should be no more billionaires. Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall; also a ceiling above which on one can rise. Enough is as good as a feast—or better. Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader.”
I am struck by the way in which Stanley Robinson lays out the facts, transforming our perceptions of the status quo, into a vision of reality which sounds so much like, the basileia ton theon, the kin-dom of GOD which Jesus taught a new kind of status quo in which everyone has enough. This basilea of DIVINITY, this way of being LOVE in the world, is not the kind of justice which can be achieved by merely adapting, this kind of justice requires transformation. We have been richly blessed. By we, I do not mean, we privileged few. The Earth’s blessings are more than enough for everyone.Today, here and now, LOVing one another, requires the kind of justice which is transformative.
Listen again to the transformative cry for justice: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. And you’re to love one another the way I have loved you. This is how all will know that you are my disciples: that you truly love one another.” We, my friends, we have been richly blessed. Blessed to be a blessing. Let us be transformed. Let us be justice, so that all may know in us, the LOVE which transformative.
View the full worship video below.
Sure, when you are blessed to have a Mom who is from Belfast, it is almost impossible to be a literalist…so it t’is. Like people everywhere, people who’re from Belfast, have their own way of speaking the Queen’s English…so they do. An the way they talk’s enough ta make ya think twice before you’d ever make the mistake of takin the written word literally. Sure it twas m’ Belfast Mommy, who prepared me well to make a living searching for the more than literal meaning of a story…so it was. For if I was to take the words in the story of the resurrection of Tabitha literally, I can hear my Mom saying, “Ach away and give your head a shake, catch yourself on, you wee melter.”
Let me break that down for you. “Ach away.” Now you might guess that “ach away” means “go away”, or you might confuse “ach away” with the American “get otta here” and ye’d be close, but no cigar, for “ach away” means just the same as another Belfast phrase, “come here, wait’ll a tell ya. That’s right in Belfast, “come here wait’ll a tell ya” and “ach away” mean the same thing.
“Ach away and give your head a shake, catch yourself on you wee melter.” Well now, why don’t we give the second part of this a go, literally: “give your head a shake.” Go on. I mean it, “give your head a shake.” Well, all you who actually gave your head a shake, you might actually be a literalist because you see when my Belfast Mom, says, “give your head a shake” what she actually means is, well how shall I put this,
Canadian’s might use a very common Anglo-Saxon curse word in front of the word off, in this case, one of those words that would have prompted me Mom to send me for a bar of soap. I’ll just have to trust that you get my meaning, cause I’m not going to use the Canadian equivalent, not in church…and so. So, what about the next one, “catch yourself on”. Anybody know how to take that one literally? No you can’t actually catch yourself on, so even if you wanted to you can’t take that one literally… so ya can’t. Catch yourself on simply means, wise up…so it does.
Ok we’re almost there, “Ach away and give your head a shake, catch yourself on you wee melter.”Come ere, and blankety blank yourself, wise up, “you wee melter” any ideas? I’ll give you a hint “wee” in Belfast can mean anything at all, and nothing in particular. But “melter”, well you don’t wanna be called a “melter”. Melter simply means that you are annoying…so it does. So, when I tell you that words, especially words which people have bothered to put down on the page, believe me when I tell ya, words have a more-than-literal meaning… so they do.
Sadly, there are more than a few we melters who insist upon scundering me to no end…so the do. Scunder, scundering, one of my favourite Belfast ways of saying that to take the words of any story literally is just plain scundering…so it tis. That is to say depressing. Sure tis so depressing when people settle for the literal meaning of the words, so, ach away and give your heads a shake, catch yourselves on and don’t be wee melters, because I’m about to read you a Gospel story, in which we are about to discover, the more-than-literal meaning of the story of the Resurrection of Tabitha or is it Dorcas?
Our Gospel comes to us from the ninth chapter of Book of Acts, which scholars tell us was written by the same anonymous gospel-story-teller who wrote the book we know as Luke.
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple, a woman named Tabitha—“Dorcas,” in Greek—who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. About this time she grew ill and died. They washed her body and laid her out in an upstairs room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter with the urgent request, “Please come over to us without delay.” Peter set out with them as they asked. Upon his arrival, they took him upstairs to the room. All the townswomen who had been widowed stood beside him weeping, and showed him the various garments Dorcas had made when she was still with them. Peter first made every on go outside, then knelt down and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, stand up.” She opened her eyes, then looked at Peter and sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her to her feet. The next thing he did was to call in those who were believers—including the widows—to show them that she was alive. This became known all over Joppa and, because of it, many came to believe in Jesus Christ. Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.” (Acts 9:36-43)
An so, there you have it, the Gospel according to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. The miraculous story of how the Apostle Peter raised a disciple named Tabitha from the dead. You all know that when someone is dead, that’s it, they are dead. Well in Belfast dead doesn’t mean what you think it means. If my Mommy were to say something is “dead on” she’d be telling me that “it’s not a problem.” And being dead isn’t a problem in this story because Tabitha is about to stand up. Ah, but give your head a shake because this story was written in Greek and the word for stand up, sit up, rise up, is the very same as the word we translate as “resurrection.”
And you can catch yourself on, if you’re saying to yourself, “there’s about as much chance of a person standing up after they’ve actually been dead as there is of little green men from outer space landing on Wayne Drive. Or, maybe you’re the generous type and so you say, “don’t be too hasty, it could happen if the person wasn’t really dead. I mean maybe Tabitha’s friends got it wrong and she just appeared to be dead.” Catch yourself on, the story says that Tabitha died, then her friends washed her body and laid her out in an upper room. Then since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter who was in Lydda and they asked Peter to head back to Lydda which was about 10 miles away.
That’s a 20-mile round trip on foot with a walking speed of about 3 miles per hour, it would take at least 7 hours. She was definitely dead the situation was anything but dead on. According to the story Peter sends everyone out of the room, knelt down and prayed and then said, “Tabitha, stand up.” And she did just that. The story of the raising of Tabitha is one of those stories which we wouldn’t believe for a second if it wasn’t in the Bible. I suspect that when it comes to stories from the Bible, most of us don’t really believe that they happened exactly the way the Bible says they happened. Or do we? Stories like the raising of Tabitha make many of us uncomfortable. Because it’s stories like this which make the bible so difficult to deal with.
According to New Testament scholar Marcus Borg: “In the last half century, more Christians have left the church because of the Bible than for any other single reason.” Biblical literalism which despite popular opinion is actually a modern and not an ancient approach to scripture, has boxed many 21st century minds into a proverbial corner from which the only escape is to reject the Bible as a source of wisdom. From the very beginning of Christianity, the Scriptures have been understood as a complex mix of historical, metaphorical, allegorical, and symbolic writings which reflect the relationship between the CREATOR and Creation. It is only in about the past 200 years or so that people begin insisting that the bible must be accepted as the literal factual historical truth.
The stories about Creation found in the book of Genesis are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sinking the beliefs of the faithful. Unable to check their brains at the door, many Christians have simply refused to cross the threshold of the church and disengaged from even trying to relate to texts that appear locked in a mindset that is trapped in a bygone age. The predominance of Biblical literalism has left so many Christians desperately clinging to the Bible fearing that if one single portion of the text is determined not to be the literal factual truth then the whole house of cards will come tumbling down and their faith will be lost.
And so, the arguments about the truth of the Bible have come to overshadow the wisdom which is to be found in the sacred texts and in some stories positively bulges between the lines of the scared pages. Sadly, the preoccupation with the literal factual truth of scripture has become a distraction which has kept too many people from exploring the more-than-literal truth and the wonders of metaphor, allegory, and symbol have been lost to all but the brave few who dare to challenge the lopsided literal approach to truth. So, let’s just give our heads a shake, wise up and start from the beginning.
This story begins in Joppa, which today is known as the cosmopolitan city of Jaffa. Jaffa is a city on the coast of the Mediterranean and when the Acts of the Apostles was written at the turn of the first century, Joppa was every bit as cosmopolitan as Jaffa is today. A first century audience would have heard in the name Joppa a clue to alert them to the fact that the followers of Jesus were venturing beyond the predominately Jewish area of the Roman Empire. In Joppa, the followers of the way would encounter a very gentile society where questions about mixing with non-jews were similar to the questions Catholics and Protestants used to raise in Belfast.
Joppa was the city from which the prophet Jonah set out for Tarshish on his ill-fated journey to escape the will of the ALMIGHTY. And for this reason alone the name Joppa conjured up images of a city on the outer edge or the boundary of the Jewish faith. But I’ll return to the notion of boundaries in a moment.
Now, I’ve told you before that whenever you are dealing with an ancient text, names matter. Just as surely as the name Adam literally means Earth, or Abraham literally means father of nations, or Jesus which comes from Joshua literally means YAHWEH, names are important. YAHWEH which literally means I AM WHO I AM. Everything is in the name. And just in case you forget to pay attention to names, the writer of Acts spells it out for you in both Aramaic and in Greek when he introduces the woman named Tabitha which he tells us is Dorcas in Greek— so let me tell you that Dorcas literally means gazelle.
Gazelle a word that literally comes from an older Arabic word for “LOVE” is the name given to that splendid creature we sometimes call an antelope. Gazelles are very common in the Middle East especially the variety which has become known as the dorcas antelope, which literally means “the love, love.” But wait it gets even better. Because the writer of the book of Acts would have known just as well as his listeners that the mere mention of a dorcas antelope would have conjured up images of religious controversy.
Gazelles you see inhabited a strange sort of boundary when it came to Jewish dietary laws. A gazelle is four-footed cloven-hoofed animal which chews its cud. This puts the gazelle in a category known as “clean” which means that it could be eaten. But because the gazelle is not a domesticated animal, it could be hunted and eaten, but it could not be sacrificed in the temple. Wild animals could not be eaten in connection with any religious rite. The gazelle which inhabits the land on the boundaries of the cities and towns, living on the fringes of civilization was hunted for its meat, and although it was deemed clean and therefore it was permissible to eat a gazelle, a gazelle is also wild and so it needed to be kept well away from any religious ceremony, because a gazelle could not be consecrated.
Now, I realize that I’m running the risk of losing some of you with too much detail, so let me give you a clue here. The early followers of the Jesus were in a quandary as to how to deal with gentile converts. Could they sit down to a meal and eat with the uncircumcised and risk ritual impurity? Could they let the uncircumcised come to the table? In addition to bringing up issues of ritual purity the gazelle would have also provoked images of something, or should I say someone far more crucial to the Jewish listener. I told you before that the word gazelle literally means LOVE.
So, who else was called LOVE? GOD is LOVE right? Well in Jewish art the gazelle is used as a symbol for YAHWEH. But even more interesting than that, the gazelle was also used to illustrate the life-giving aspect of YAHWEH. In a culture where the majority could not read, pictures were used to represent the details of the faith and the life-giving aspect of YAHWEH which is LOVE were depicted by images of the gazelle. Now there’s so much more that I could tell you about the symbol of the Gazelle, but I simply don’t have time and yees’d be tell me to catch me-self on, or worse to give my head a shake.
Suffice it to say that the writer of Acts was determined that his listeners did not fail to see that, and I quote, that “Tabitha—that is Dorcas in Greek” is named for YAWHEH who also inhabits the boundaries, the margins of the Jewish faith. By giving the name in both Aramaic and in Greek the author practically hits us over the head with the fact that this woman symbolizes something far greater than we can even begin to imagine, for she bears the name of YAHWEH who is LOVE.
So, if you need to limit her to being an actual living breathing human being who, if you traveled back in time you could take a picture of her and say “here she is,” then you are going to limit yourself to the literal truth, and you will fail to see the more-than-literal truth that this story is trying to tell us and that my friends is scundering. The author has set his listeners up for a story which expresses more than words can tell. Need I remind you that the literal meaning of metaphor is that which is “beyond words”. Meta means beyond and phor means word, metaphor means to carry beyond the words.
So listen up, you are about to hear a metaphor about Joppa a town on the boundaries of Judaism where Jews and Gentiles mix and the lead character in the story is Tabitha—Dorcas in Greek who is by her very name both Aramaic and Greek the product of the mixing of races and religions, whose very name represents a creature which inhabits the fringes of civilization, and is by nature both clean and unclean, acceptable and yet not acceptable, and whose very name symbolizes YAHWEH who is LOVE.
Clearly this story is so much more-than-literal. So let me give you one more fact to throw into the mix. The antelope has horns and in the Middle East the Dorcas Antelope uses its horns to dig for water. Water is the stuff of life. Indeed, the early followers of Jesus referred to Jesus himself as the Living Water.
Tabitha—Dorcas in Greek is described as a disciple who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. She represents the gentile convert to faith in the Jesus’ Way of being, who at the time inhabited the fringes of the early communities of Followers of the Way. At the very time when Jesus’ Jewish followers were debating the inclusion of the gentiles, Peter is called upon to raise this gentile convert from the dead. To demonstrate her value to the community the townswomen showed Peter (whose name literally means rock, indicating that he is the rock who will serve as the foundation of the community). The women, show Peter, the fruits of Tabitha’s faith. In the various garments which she wove together, Peter sees all the evidence he needs, to weave gentiles and Jews, women and me, slaves and free together.
And so, he tells everyone to go outside, then Peter kneels down and prays. Turning to the body, Peter said, “Tabitha, stand up.” And here the first hearers of this story would have heard the echo of an earlier story in which Jesus uttered the words, “Tilitha cum”. Which actually means “little girl stand up.” And just in case you missed it, the literal meaning of the word which gets translated into English as resurrection also quite literally means “stand up”.
And low and behold Tabitha opens her eyes. Opening her eyes, they would have been catching themselves back in the day, because they all knew that gazelles with eyes open…mean life! DIVINE life! With her eyes open, our text says Tabitha “sat up” but in the Greek the word is the same for as the word for “stand up” or resurrect. DIVINE life is restored to a gentile convert. This story is not about the resurrection of an individual. It is about much more than that. It is about the gift of DIVINE life being extended beyond the boundaries of Jewish religious life.
And just in case you still don’t get it, the writer of Acts tells you in the last line of today’s lesson that, “Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.” Now in case you missed it, Simon was Peter’s name before Jesus gave him the name Peter. And if you still don’t get it, this Simon is described as a leather tanner. Now every self-respecting Jew would have known that contact with a leather tanner makes you ritually impure because tanning leather requires contact with corpses which is a definite no no if you’re an observant Jew.
And so, the writer of Acts sets up his listeners for the next story in Acts, which describes Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and Peter’s dilemma about what the followers of Jesus can and cannot eat, and who they can and cannot eat with. And just in case you’ve forgotten Peter’s vision, suffice it to say that LOVE wins out in the end. LOVE, antelope, gazelle, Tabitha, Dorcas, YAHWEH are all intimately and DIVINELY intertwined to reveal the very nature of our CREATOR who breaks all our boundaries so that we can dwell in LOVE with all our neighbours.
That dear friends is the more-than-literal truth about the raising of Tabitha. As for me, I don’t know if this story actually happened this way, but I do know that this story is absolutely true! God is LOVE and LOVE traverses and triumphs over boundaries. So, catch yourself on, wise up, you wee loves and be the LOVE your mothers raised you up to be.
I am indebted to Rick Strelan’s excellent essay “Tabitha: The GAZELL of Joppa” published in 2019 in the Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture – follow this link for more details: here
These past two years have been challenging in many ways. Today, I’d like to focus on a challenge which in the grand scheme of things, may seem insignificant. For some of us who have chosen to gather in community to celebrate the MYSTERY of the LOVE we call GOD around Word and Sacrament, the challenge of participating in the Sacraments has brought with it some interesting revelations. Technology helped us with the Word part of worship.
Indeed, congregations all over the planet have managed in various ways to traverse the steep learning curve of technology which has empowered them to proclaim the WORD in worship in new and innovative ways. And while two years of worshipping primarily online has provided some interesting revelations about the way in which we experience the WORD in worship,
I’d like us to turn our attention both here in this sanctuary and indeed, out there among those of you participating online, to some of the disturbing revelations about the Sacrament of the Eucharist which have come to light after two long years of abstaining from the Eucharist. I say abstaining because for two years during which we were only able to worship in-person for a brief period last fall, we didn’t celebrate Communion. Even when we returned to in-person gatherings, on March 20th, we didn’t resume the celebration until just 3 weeks ago on Easter Sunday. So, in two years, we, here at Holy Cross have only celebrated Holy Communion twice.
Speaking only for myself, I have to confess that while I desperately missed gathering in-person to worship with this congregation in the flesh, I really didn’t miss celebrating Communion. I know that many worship leaders made different decisions during lockdown and discovered various ways to celebrate Communion over the internet. While we briefly considered using those individual plastic sealed containers of a sip of wine and a thin wafer, the idea of all that packaging, left much to be desired.
And yes, I have absolutely no difficulty understanding that the SPIRIT is not bound to the physicality of our sanctuaries and indeed can work wonders over the internet, I must confess that I just wasn’t feeling the need to give it a try. It wasn’t until Easter Sunday and the challenges of celebrating Communion safely with all the COVID protocols in place, that my own faith in the power of Communion was severely challenged. So, as word reached me this week, of several of our members testing positive for COVID, even though I know that they were infected elsewhere, and that over time we are all going to be infected by OMICRON, I had to ask myself and eventually our Worship Team, should we continue to take the risk of celebrating Communion.
It wasn’t until I allowed myself, to actually listen and hear the words repeated in the anonymous gospel-storyteller’s story of Jesus celebrating breakfast with some of his followers. Writing some seventy years after the life of Jesus, our gospel-storyteller sets a scene in which Jesus, repeats words which speak to me, challenging me to actually taste and see the goodness of the LOVE we call GOD. When speaking to Peter, you remember Peter the friend of Jesus who, when push came to shove, when it really mattered, Peter is the one who betrayed Jesus not once but three times, Jesus sits Peter down by the lake, and not once, not twice, but three times, Jesus puts Peter in his place. In my sacred imagination, I can see the two friends sitting on the lakeshore, and I like to think that Jesus invited the friend he called his Rock to sit upon a rock, and ask not once, not twice, but three times, “Peter, I thought you were my rock, but all things considered, I have to ask, do you love me?” I can see Peter visibly shrivel sitting there remembering what he did and didn’t do or say. “Yes Rabbi, you know I’m your friend.”
It is Jesus’ response which speaks to me now, “Then feed my lambs.” In my sacred imagination, I’m right there on the adjacent rock shrivelling along with Peter, when Jesus asks again, “Do you love me.” I hear the words, “Care for my sheep.” and again I hear Jesus insist, “Feed my sheep.” Yes, I know it’s my imagination speaking to me. Yes, I know I’ve entered the realm of metaphor. You are neither lambs nor sheep and I’m certainly not Peter, and all the New Testament scholars I love and respect, insist that the historical Jesus didn’t actually say these words. Like Peter, I have all sorts of reasons for denying Jesus. Not the least of which is the fact that this world-wide pandemic ain’t over just yet, and I, we together, we have a duty of care, and feeding people remains a risky endeavour.
So, on Friday, I met with our Worship Team and we talked about the challenges of safely celebrating Communion. It was a good conversation, a conversation when I learned that I am not alone in wondering why? So, we tweaked our protocols, and I was encouraged to consider celebrating Communion in one kind, that is to say distributing the bread but not the wine, because passing wine around brings with it safety challenges, and after all, breaking bread together ought to be enough for us to experience the visible tangible means of GOD’s grace. So, we decided, loosely that we would remind one another that the word companionship comes from the French pan for bread, com means with, companions are those who break bread with one another. I confess that I was prepared to leave it at that.
But in my sacred imagination, I kept hearing Jesus say, “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” Not just once, not just twice, not just three times, on and on it went, until finally I crumbled.
As the solid rock of my avoidance crumbled, I finally began to see what I didn’t want it to be revealed.
So, let me confess to you my beloved community, both here in the room and online, the truth is of all the things I have missed these past two years, Communion doesn’t even make the list. Once the truth was revealed to me, after I dried my tears, I had to ask myself, “Why?”. Why haven’t I missed Communion?
Over the course of my life in the Church, the Sacrament of Communion has fed and nourished me in ways I can’t even begin to count. Yes, my understanding of the Sacraments has changed over the years.
Long gone are the notions of Communion as a sombre penitential act of remembering Jesus as a sacrifice for sin. Over the years, I came to understand our Lutheran theology about celebrating the sacrament as a visible, tangible means of GOD’s grace. Not a blood sacrifice but a celebration of the gifts of bread and wine with the understanding that the DIVINE MYSTERY works, in, with, through, and under the visible and the tangible elements so that we can taste and see that our GOD is good.
Over the decades, of celebrating the Eucharist, which literally means “thanksgiving”, I have been nourished, grounded, and sustained by the companionship created over this meal. Yes, as my theology changed, and I gave up the notion that Jesus was a human sacrifice for sin, rejected the idea that humans were once perfect and fell from grace, and indeed fixed my gaze beyond the notion of a personified deity, the words of the sacrament challenged me to find new ways to express our place in the Cosmos. The reality of the DIVINE MYSTERY responsible for setting the Cosmos into being, juxtaposed to a little piece of bread and a tiny taste of wine, did indeed challenge my sacred imagination as I struggled to enter ancient metaphors so that I could taste and see that the MYSTERY which is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also, is indeed good. Let’s just say, our little ritual Communions began to feel all too puny a celebration to carry all that.
The last two weeks of trying to celebrate communion with COVID protocols have left me hungry for better ways to taste and see that the MYSTERY is indeed good. So, with Jesus’ words ringing in my sacred imagination, I did what I usually do when faced with a problem which I cannot resolve. I tried to read my way out of the reality that I haven’t really missed communion. Surely, I’m not the only one, who is struggling with Communion. Surely, somebody wiser than I am, has seen something which I cannot see. So, I scoured my bookshelves, until I came upon a book which actually arrived there just before the first lockdown. At the time, Communion was the last thing on my mind, we had bigger problems to be unravelled. The book is entitled, “Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century” – by R. Alan Street. It sounds very dry. But Jesus kept going on and on in my head, so for the love of Jesus, I began to read, if only to drown out my doubts, screaming in my head, in the guise of Jesus. I reminded myself that those first century followers of Jesus had so much more to worry about and they managed to be nourished by Communion. I might as well learn how they fed one another.
Well, right here on page one, in the very first sentence, I was hooked, when I read this: “…the Lord’s Supper of the first-century CE was an anti-imperial praxis. Whenever early Christians met for a communal meal they saw themselves as participating in subversive non-violent acts against the Roman Empire.” What! Holy Communion, the Eucharist as a subversive non-violent act against the Roman Empire? Well, let me tell you I have devoured this book and it has fed me, even as it has created a hunger in me for more. Pass the bread. More wine please, and while you’re at it send the fish my way, I’m starving, starving I say, famished for some of that old-time religion. But don’t give me any of your comfort food. Just some basic bread, wine, and if you happen to have it some fish would be fine too.
Those first century followers of the Way certainly knew how to throw a supper. Not even our church potlucks come close to the resistance they served up back in the day. Do me a favour, open your historical imaginations, and travel back in time with me to the first century. We only have time for a brief visit. But trust me we will be going back for more and more in the weeks ahead.
So, here we are let’s say at the end of the first century. Jesus was executed by the state as a criminal almost 70 years ago, that’s about 3 and a half generations ago. Much has been said about Jesus. Not much has been written, besides you probably can’t read anyway. The Romans have been making your life a misery and you liked what you’ve heard about Jesus. You’ve joined the struggle and you’re a part of the resistance to the domination of the Empire. It isn’t easy to risk your life but you can’t see any other way to resist than to through your lot in with the followers of Jesus’ Way of being in the world. To keep your strength up you get together, a crime in itself, but you get together with the members of the resistance to participate in a subversive non-violent act against Rome. Rome dominated and kept its citizens in line by any means possible. Those didn’t just include tyranny, brutality, terrorism, and civic events designed to mold their citizens into acquiescence.
One of these civic events was the Roman banquet. Roman banquets were designed to do more than feed the body, they followed a formula which enforced patronage, together with a strict hierarchy. They would begin with a meal, at which only those invited could attend, and were seated according to their place in the Roman power structure. Slaves and women had no place around the table. The meal lasted about ninety minutes, followed by a libation. A libation was a kind of toasting. Wine was poured out for the gods, of which CAESAR was supreme. With raised chalices those in attendance would proclaim, CAESAR IS GOD! The toasting was followed by a three hour symposium. The symposium included storytelling, mostly about the triumphs of Rome, entertainment, music, sport, magic, and jokes. All designed to uphold the values of Rome and solidify one’s place in the Empire.
Now follow me to the home of a prominent follower of the Way, where we are getting together to encourage one another to resist the forces of the Empire. We’re going to take that Roman banquet idea and turn it upside down. First, we shall eat our fill. Remember food insecurity was rampant at this time, people were starving. We are going to pool our resources and everyone regardless of class or wealth is going to eat their fill. Forget about whether you are a slave or free, Jew or a Gentile, man or woman, you have a place at the table, we are all equal at this mean.
Oh, and there will be a libation. But you don’t have to worry about toasting CAESAR! We will raise our chalice and proclaim that Jesus and not Caesar is our GOD! And yes there will be a symposium. Stories will be told. We will sing songs of protest. We will hear from our WISDOMKEEPERS and we will dream together, strategize together, and we will be nourished for the struggle which lies before us.
Now, move from your historical imagination and come with me into your prophetic imagination, the place where we dream dreams about what can be. Imagine if you will, a banquet in which we gather to resist the forces of the empire in which we are hopelessly entwined. A banquet where everyone is equal, everyone has a place at the table. A banquet where the hungry are fed with good food. Yes there will be a libation. We will raise our glasses to proclaim that LOVE is our GOD. We will drink a toast to justice as the way to peace! We will declare that the Earth is our home and not our property. We will toast justice seekers and peace makers and not powerbrokers and warriors. We will declare that generosity and not greed is our way. We will toast all that makes us ONE.
And then the symposium will begin. Stories will be told of resisting our lesser angels, songs of protest will be sung, our WISDOMKEEPERS will reveal truth as they teach us to reverence Creation, care for the Earth and feed everyone who hungers. There will be music. There will be dancing. There will be art and beauty and wonder. We shall all taste and see that the MYSTERY in which we live and move and have our being is GOOD.
Suddenly, my desire to resist is creating hunger-pains, and once again I need to taste and see. I hope that as we continue to follow Jesus Way of being in the world, we can once again learn to taste and see, for life is so very GOOD. I pray that our feasting together will nourish us in our struggle to resist, so that all may know the LOVE which is DIVINITY.