The DIVINE MYSTERY which we call “GOD” is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also! So, how do we embark on the journey of Lent once we have moved beyond theistic notions of “GOD”? How do we follow the radical teachings, life, and death of Jesus into the wilderness of Lent when we no longer believe in a supernatural being which requires placating? Once you no longer believe Jesus was or is a sacrifice for sin, the various atonement theories which have undergirded so many of our Lenten practices fail to lead us into or out of the wilderness toward RESURRECTION.
Tinkering with our Lenten traditions is NOT enough! Our world is in desperate need. There’s precious little time for wallowing in worship which fails to lead us BEYOND the desert to RRESURRECTION! Radical 21st century theology empowers us to move BEYOND atonement theologies, BEYOND worship which relies on penal sacrificial thinking, BEYOND preaching which pays lip-service to Jesus’ teachings, BEYOND rituals which require insider knowledge, BEYOND singing hymns which inculcate medieval theologies, and BEYOND participating in journey which demands that we suspend reality so that we can tamely follow the church into the wilderness.
Worship is a powerful tool which holds the potential to empower the embodiment of the DIVINE MYSTERY which is the LOVE that IS GOD. Worship has the power to form and to transform worshippers, empowering the radical nature of LOVE to move us BEYOND the wilderness of LENT into RESURRECTION!
So, whether you are a worship leader, a creator of liturgy, a preacher, a teacher, or more importantly, someone who aspires to follow Jesus, this course is designed to nurture and challenge you as together we embark on a Lenten journey which promises to provide resources to inspire RESURRECTION!
Resources for worship leaders, preachers, musicians, and Followers of the Way, will be provided in advance of a weekly Zoom seminar to discuss various empower the embodiment of LOVE in the world.
To sample the kinds of resources which will be offered you can check out the resources provided for Ash Wednesday – Click here
Once you register on the People’s Catholic Seminary teachable platform, (Click here to register) you will have access to resources for the First Week of Lent. Resources will include weekly video lectures together with sample sermons, provided by Dawn Hutchings, who has been developing Lenten liturgies, preaching progressive sermons, and teaching progressive theology for 23 years. Our first Zoom seminar on Tuesday February 21st at 7pm EST, will set the format for opportunities to look ahead to each Sunday’s readings. So, worship leaders, Lenten study facilitators, preachers, and liturgists will have resources with which to inspire RESURRECTION. Those who are simply looking for new ways of understanding as you seek to follow Jesus’ Way of being in the world, will discover resources for your personal Lenten journey.
During these first few months of my retirement from parish ministry, questions about ‘the Church’s’ survival continue to be asked of me. After 23 years of approaching such questions from the perspective of professional leadership in a mainline denomination, I grew weary of speculating on the future, even as I recognized that as a member of the clergy, it was my job to participate in the generation of hope for the future of the church. I expected that my retirement would put an end to dealing with such questions. However, people continue to ask me, with renewed vigour, “Can will, or indeed should ‘the Church’ survive?” It is as if my questioners expect that my newfound freedom will allow me to respond with some newly discovered candour that will push me to speak some hidden truths which will reveal to them the way forward. Alas, although my retirement does afford me different perspectives, I have yet to discover a talent for soothsaying. Fortunately, my candour remains intact. So, from various different perspectives, some of them new and some of them not so new, let me respond as I was trained to do, with hope: “Yes, I do hope the church will survive!” and “No, I hope the church will not survive!”
For far too many selfish reasons, I do hope that the church will survive. But for the sake of LOVE, not only do I hope the church does not survive, I believe that the church should not survive.Believing, as I do, that the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call “GOD” is LOVE, I am convinced that whatever our concept of church is, surely church ought to be the embodiment of that LOVE. Or, at the very least, church ought to be about the work of empowering its members to embody LOVE in the world. Sadly, much of what passes for church fails to either embody LOVE or to engender LOVE in the world. So, because the church has at the very least inspired hope in me, I hope that the church does not survive. My hope for the church’s demise is buttressed by my faith in resurrection which encourages me to imagine what new kind of church might rise up out of the death throes of ‘the Church’.
After more than two decades of leadership in the church, the best definition of the DIVINE MYSTERY which I can proclaim with confidence is that GOD is LOVE and that LOVE is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also. We must look BEYOND Church in order to participate in the birth of a church which concerns itself with embodying LOVE, while it empowers its members to be the BODY of LOVE in the world. So, it is the resurrection of LOVE upon which I hope to fix my gaze as I peer BEYOND Church to explore some of the contours of the BODY of LOVE. I hope you’ll join me as together we explore the possibilities of LOVE’s resurrection among and beyond us.
Over the course of the coming months, I will be posting BEYOND Church. It is my hope to look with compassion upon the death of what we know as ‘the Church’ confidant in LOVE’s power to resurrect something worthy of the LOVE which is BEYOND, the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also; something BEYOND Church, something in which the MYSTERY which is our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself might find expression, in, with, through, and beyond us.
Preaching on Trinity Sunday is not a task I am going to miss. Over the years, I have made no secret of my distaste for this particular festival of the church year. I am not alone among preachers, when it comes to Trinity Sunday. Trinity is one of those Church Doctrines that defies logic and the best advice, I’ve ever read about preaching on Trinity Sunday is to book this particular Sunday off or call in sick. In twenty-three years, I’ve never called in sick, but I confess to having booked Trinity Sunday off on a few occasions. Alas, this is my last Sunday in the parish and calling in sick wasn’t an option.
So, rather than fall into the trap of trying to explain the Trinity, let me tell you a story, which my Belfast Buddy, Pete Rollins is fond of telling, which captures some of how I feel about the miss-communication which is happening in so many pulpits as preachers are compelled to try to express the inexpressible. According to Pete, there was a Jewish community which had sought sanctuary from danger that was granted refuge in property of the Roman Catholic Church in Vatican City.
The authorities thought the Jewish community would only be there for a few months, but after several years had passed, several priests appeal to the Pope urging him to tell the Jewish community that they would have to leave and find refuge somewhere else. The Pope is reluctant to evict the Jews.
Quite rightly the Pope insists, that to simply evict them isn’t very neighbourly. So, the Pope comes up with a plan. He instructs the Priests to summon the Chief Rabbi, for a debate. The Pope insists that if he wins the theological debate, the Jewish community will have to leave, if the Chief Rabbi wins, they can stay. Adding to the tension around the debate is the reality that the Roman Catholics and the Jewish community do not speak the same language, so the debate has to be conducted without words. A theological debate without words; just signs and symbols. So, the Jewish community enters St. Paul’s Cathedral, with all its ornate signs and symbols. The Chief Rabbi, with the entire Jewish community, walks up to the Pope who is surrounded by priests, bishops, and cardinals. The Pope begins by holding up three fingers. Immediately, the Chief Rabbi holds up one finger. Then the Pope starts to wave round and round above his head. The Chief Rabbi, without hesitating, takes his finger and points down to the ground. The Pope appears a little on edge, almost like he thinks he’s losing the debate. The Pope goes up to an incredibly ornate altar, and moves in close on this diamond encrusted chalice and he pours wine into this diamond encrusted chalice, he takes a single wafer, and the Pope holds this symbols in front of the Chief Rabbi. And the Rabbi, as if he already knew this was going to happen, reaches down into a brown, crumpled, paper bag, and takes out an apple, the Rabbi takes a bite and then he and his community leave the cathedral.
So, the priests, bishops, and cardinals gather round the Pope, and begin to ask, “What happened? Who won the debate?” The Pope says, “Well I tell you what. The Rabbi won fair and square. That guy had an answer for everything. First, I held up three fingers and said, “God is three, a Trinity. And our Rabbi friend held up one finger and said, “God is ONE, a Unity.” So, I pointed up to the heavens and said “God is transcendent. God is above and looking down on all of Creation.” And my Rabbi friend, pointed to the Earth and said, “Ah, transcendence is immanent. God is in the grit and grime of the world.” So, then I brought the wine and the wafer, the body and blood of CHRIST the second Adam.And our Jewish friend, as if he knew I was going to do that, reached into a bag, pulls out an apple and takes a bite to remind me of the first Adam.”
At that moment, the Jewish community gathered around the Chief Rabbi, asking him to explain what happened. The Rabbi begins by telling his community that it was a nightmare, terrible, terrible. First of all the Pope said, “You’ve got three days to leave.” And I’m like, “No way. Not one of us is going to leave.” So, then the Pope says, “Right we’re going to round you all up.” I said, not likely, we’re staying rooted to the ground, we’re not budging. And the Jewish community, got even closer to their Chief Rabbi, as they anxiously asked, “Then what happened? Do we have to leave, or what? The Rabbi answered, “That’s the most frustrating part, because right then, we broke for lunch.”
So, as preachers all over the world, do their level best to express the inexpressible, I suggest we move on to my other task for this particular Sunday and that is for me to bid farewell to my role as your pastor. I simply don’t have words to express the inexpressible emotions which are careening around inside of me today. Fortunately, the Gospel reading assigned for this Trinity Sunday, actually, quite literally comes to us from the section in the part of the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John’s account of what the church calls Jesus’ farewell discourse. The gospel-storyteller goes on for several chapters. Only a few lines of which are assigned for today. Listen to the Gospel to part of the way Jesus is reported to have said farewell:
“I have much more to tell you, but you can’t bear to hear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all truth. She won’t speak on her own initiative; rather, she’ll speak only what she hears, and she’ll announce to you things that are yet to come. In doing this, the Spirit will give glory to me, for she will take what is mine and reveal it to you. Everything that Abba God has belongs to me. This is why I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and reveal it to you.” This is the GOSPEL of CHRIST.
Ah, Dear ones, I do indeed have so very much more to tell you. I suspect that you can’t bear to hear it now. I know I can’t bear to tell it now. You see, I’m from Belfast and in Belfast we have a special way to say Goodbye. It is known as the “Irish Good-bye” The way an Irish Good-bye works is, we wait until the farewell celebrations, get to the part where the drinks are flowing, and the stories are being told, and while people’s attention is held by the story, we slip out while nobody notices. That way there’s no tears. Unfortunately, a while back, when I told a friend whose advice I value, of my plan to avoid the tears, she reminded me of something, I’ve said, over and over again, during my ministry, and that is that some things, some people are worth crying over. So, there’ll be no Irish Good-bye today.
So, before I fill up, and am reduced to a babbling, soggy, mess, for you my dears are definitely, worth crying over, let me end my ministry with you as began my ministry with you. tell you a few wee snippets from a couple of stories. Open up your bulletins, where a couple of pages in, right under the Gospel, where it says, Irish Goodbye followed by a question mark. For our ONLINE friends, the picture we’re looking at should be on the screen right now. Do you see that Bunny? That bedraggled creature is my granddaughter Evelyn’s Bunny, I think BUNNY is a boy, but I really can’t remember, because Evie’s bunny is simply called ‘BUNNY”, so she could be a girl. Let’s just say BUNNY is non-binary, BUNNY’s pronouns are “they, them, their”. Now, I hope that you can see from this small picture, just how worn out BUNNY is. Evie is seven years old and BUNNY has been with her for seven years. BUNNY arrived all pristine and new, full of lovely fur, which my darling Evie loved off BUNNY. Every last piece of fur has been loved off. Over the years BUNNY’s legs and arms have been loved right of their body and sown right back on again. BUNNY’s nose has been rubbed off and their ears are frayed and tattered. That’s what seven years of love has done to BUNNY; I can only imagine the state they will be in after twenty-three years.
Twenty-three years and three months ago, I was welcomed into this family, and given the privilege of serving as your pastor. I arrived before I was ordained, and you saw to it that the church ordained me and together with all the folks of Holy Cross, some here, and some who have moved on before me, you have loved me and more importantly, you have taught me how to love you. I can still remember, way back in my seminary days, in our Christian Doctrine class, where I failed to learn how to explain the Trinity, our professor Dr. Bob Kelly, reassuring us wanna-be pastors, not to sweat the doctrine, because being a pastor was about one thing and one thing only, our job is in the words of wise old Dr. Bob, to LOVE them. LOVE our parishioners. At the time, I thought there must be more too it than that.
I didn’t realize that LOVE was so much more than I knew at the time. You see Dr. Bob didn’t tell us to comfort you, to reassure you, to agree with you, or to simply love you. Dr. Bob insisted that the job of a pastor is to LOVE the people with whom we serve. I’m a bit dim, because when he said “love” I saw hearts and flowers, and I wasn’t sure I was up to the lovie dovie parts of this job. It has taken me decades to understand just a small part of what it means to be LOVE in your congregation.
For God is LOVE and LOVE is DIVINITY, the LOVE which Dr. Bob was talking about is in and of itself inexpressible. Being LOVE in a congregation, includes, the lovie dovie aspects of LOVE, I’m still learning that part, so I’m grateful that LOVE also includes, challenging one another, disturbing one another, pushing one another, leading one another, helping one another, crying with one another, questioning one another, tolerating one another, appreciating one another, embracing one another, having one another’s backs.
Which brings me back to BUNNY, bedraggled, worse for ware BUNNY. Go back to your bulletins and turn the pages to a couple of pictures. You’ll see a photograph of well-loved BUNNY and then you will see WELL LOVED BUNNY and BACK-UP BUNNY. BACK-UP BUNNY came into Evelyn’s life round about the time BUNNY became indispensable. A very wise person in Evie’s life realized that if something terrible ever happened and for whatever reason BUNNY couldn’t be there for Evelyn, then BACK-UP BUNNY would have to be there. Now you can see that BACK-UP BUNNY has managed to do their job while keeping their fur on, but even BACK-UP BUNNY is a little worn around the edges.
Evelyn has so much LOVE to give. So, before I stretch these metaphorical bunnies beyond their ability to carry us beyond themselves to the truth which I am trying to communicate to you, let me just say, that over the years, sometimes, I have played the role of BUNNY and you have been my BACK-UPS. Sometimes, I have taken on the role of BACK-UP while you have been BUNNY.
I don’t mind confessing that two-years of lockdown, have left me wondering if my hair, or my arms, and legs are going to fall off. But all the while, whether it was struggling to make the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada a fully inclusive Church, receiving death threats at the parsonage, or being disciplined by the Eastern Synod, or welcoming renowned speakers to Newmarket, having the audacity to ordain Lionel, or to welcome Tom to Team ministry, or all the questions and challenges of progressive theology, or being locked down for two years, this bedraggled, worn, out, old BUNNY of a pastor, has felt the LOVE. You my dear ones, you have had my back. You have had my back. I hope that over the years, when you have been worn out, you have also felt the LOVE as I have done my best to have your backs. This being LOVE in the world, is not comforting, it is not easy, and it is not safe. But over the years, we have had our moments of sanctuary from the world, here in this place, and online, and those moments of sanctuary have nourished, grounded, and sustained us for the challenges of being LOVE in the world. I have so much more to learn about being LOVE, LOVE in the church, LOVE beyond the church, LOVE in the world.
But as I leave you, I want you to know that you have taught me well, you’ve LOVED off some of my rough edges, and even though I may be worn, I am also excited and hopeful. New chapters are about to unfold for me, for Carol, and for all of you. After a long rest, I hope to get some of my colour back, and I may even grow some new fur. There’s still so much more that I want to learn about being LOVE. My hope is that you too will continue to get your colour back as you continue to come back from lockdown, some new fur is called for. I suspect colourful things will once again begin to appear from Holy Cross as you discover new ways to be LOVE in the world. I trust our friends Online to gain some colour as well.
I look forward to all these new chapters unfolding as we learn new ways to be LOVE. So, there will be no “Irish Goodbye” because as I will keep saying, some things, some people are worth crying over. I have no words. I have only LOVE, the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being. The LOVE which will continue to nourish ground and sustain us as we continue to find new ways to be that LOVE in the world. I can’t begin to express the inexpressible, the inexpressible gift and gifts of LOVE which you have been.So, let me end this not so Irish Goodbye, with an Irish Blessing,which I have adapted from the words of another Irish friend of mine, Padraig O’Tauma, whose words of Benediction come close to expressing my emotions:
As I prepare to embark on my last week with you, I can’t help looking back at all that has transpired during our 23 plus years together. It occurs to me that there have been so many moments when the SPIRIT, the RAUCH, the HOLY SPIRIT, the PNEUMA, the BREATH of LOVE has been present among us. Not in the tongues of fire sense as it is described in the book of Acts. But certainly, in ways which have moved us, disturbed us, pushed us, and sometimes turned our well-intentioned plans upside down and inside out. One of the things I’ve learned over these years, is that we are pretty good at pointing to the actions of the SPIRIT in Church. But when it comes to recognizing the work of the SPIRIT in our lives, well let’s just say, that the SPIRIT would need tongues of fire to get most 21st century mainline Christians to recognize the SPIRIT. So, as it’s Pentecost, I’d like to call out the SPIRIT. Don’t panic. I’m not about to give up the habits of a lifetime and start acting like some sort of Pentecostal preacher who’s been slain by the SPIRIT. There will be no speaking in tongues. The SPIRIT is clever enough to go easy on us frozen chosen types. You see one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that when all is said and done the role of a pastor is pretty basic, my role, my calling, my responsibility, is quite simple really. My job is to recognize the SACRED when and where the SACRED can be seen and then point it out to you.
It’s pretty basic, recognize the MYSTERY which we call GOD, and then point out the MYSTERY to all of you. Yes, there’s all that complicated theology we learn, and then there’s all the technical hermeneutical skills for exegeting ancient texts, the Hebrew, the Greek, and even the Latin, the homiletical technics, the liturgical practices, the psychology, the pastoral approaches, not to mention, the reality that every pastor must face, at some point or other, when our role as pastor is reduced to cursing as we do our best to fix the church toilet, and we are left wondering why they failed to teach us janitorial skills in seminary. I can still remember the Sunday after my ordination, when I was preparing for my very first baptism, and I plugged the coffee-pot, because every Lutheran pastor knows that you can’t have church without coffee. Just imagine the panic when I blew all the electrics in this place. I can assure you that I spoke in tongues and those tongues had a blue streak to them. Where I come from, in Belfast, there’s a reason they call people who wear a collar, “GOD-Botherers” Clergy are more than adept at cursing up a blue streak and we are not afraid to bother the MYSTERY, the CREATOR of all that is, was, and ever shall be, with our ramblings.
But bothering GOD is not what my job is all about. Not when you get right down to the heart of what it is I’ve been trying to do here all these many years. This GOD-Botherer’s job, my real job, is to recognize the SACRED, and to point the SACRED out to you, in the hope that when the SACRED shows up in your lives, you will recognize it as the SACRED. So, on this Pentecost Sunday, let me do my job and point to the SACRED and say, “there it is. Right there. Can you see it? Can you see the ONE which is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also?”
The trouble is that there are so many GOD-Botherers who have made us believe, or at least given us the impression that the SACRED is a pretty rarefied thing; all dressed up in fancy words, with lots of churchy stuff attached to it. For far too many people, the word GOD has become so “holier than thou” that most of us frozen chosen types, would never presume to point to anything in our lives and say, there, there IT is, there is GOD, or the MYSTERY, or the ONE that IS DIVINITY, the GREAT I AM, YAHWEH, BREATH of LOVE. The truth is we are in GOD and GOD is in us.
Each and every day, each and every moment in time, we are held in the embrace of the LOVE which is GOD. All around us, here, there, and everywhere, the BREATH of LOVE caresses us and if we just pause for but a moment, we can feel the SPIRIT’s BREATH breathing in us. So, please for just a few moments, try to forget that you are in church. Those of you online, try to forget that you are trying to worship online. Just breathe. In and out. Just breathe.
Now come with me in your SACRED imaginations, away from church, away from thoughts about worshipping. I’m travelling back in time to a place long, long, ago, when I was just a child. I couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. I was lying in the grass, looking up at the sky, when something happened. Something this preacher doesn’t have words for. Something that let me know that I was connected with the sky, the blades of grass, in a way that to this day, I cannot even begin to describe. It was just a few moments, but moments which have stayed we me for sixty years. Moments powerful enough to feed me even now. I can see the blueness of the sky, and the greens, oh the greens of those magnificent blades of grass, blades all together, waving in the gentle winds which blew through my hair, caressing my scalp, and tickling my fancy so much so that I burst into laughter. My joy in the presence of the ONE which IS my very SOURCE can still move me to joy.
Now fast-forward with me now, I’m nine-teen years old, back-packing around Europe. We’re in Copenhagen. We’re wandering around a gallery, the Carlsberg Glypotek and I’m bored. When you’ve visited one art gallery in Europe, you can be astonished. But when you’re on your umpteenth gallery, well you’ve seen enough. Especially when you’re dreaming of adventures. I was looking for the exit, when I came around a corner and there it was, Van Gough’s painting of Saint Remy. It took my breath away. Never before had I seen such beauty on canvass. I was mesmerized. I could feel, feel not see, every brushstroke, every colour. I was overwhelmed by the way in which the painting moved. Each blade of grass moved. The trees moved. The clouds in the sky moved. For the first time in my life, I was in a painting, lying in that grass and looking up at that sky. I could feel IT. I was connected to IT. The WIND, the SACRED, the HOLY, the SPIRIT, the BREATH of LOVE. I’ve spent years, decades returning to that place, feeling the feels, trying desperately to find words to express this DIVINE encounter with the ONE which is MYSTERY.
My desire to find words eventually, after many twists and turns, lead me to seminary, where I was compelled to complete my clinical training in a hospital. It was there where I encountered the depths of the SACRED. Imagine if you will a trembling younger me, standing in a hospital room, with new parents. I’m holding in my arms a stillborn baby, a little girl, not fully formed, whose lungs never drew air. We were engulfed by darkness; an incredible darkness, a beautiful darkness, a darkness so still, it could take your breath away, a darkness of which we were intimately connected to, a soothing darkness which enfolded me, which enfolded that young mother and father. I was not there…and yet…I was everywhere. In that darkness we felt the caress of MYSTERY.
I wish I could explain what happened. But we could be here all day and I would never find the words. So, come with me now to a place, I’ve taken you too many times before. Niagara Falls. For our American friends, you need to come over to the Canadian side. Where you can stand at the top of the falls and watch the force of the water, actually feel the force of the water in motion just before it tumbles over the cliff. Now walk with me along the pathway, to a spot where you can see the power and the majesty of the water as it falls. Feel the force, the power, the majesty of the water as it rushes down, down, down, and the spray dampens your body, pulling you into the force, the power, the majesty of you know not what. It was in a moment like this that I caught a glimpse of a tear flowing down my lover’s cheek. In that tear, on the face of my beloved, I saw everything. I was not there and yet I was everywhere and everywhere was in me, and there was no distance between me, and whatever it is that lies at the heart of reality.
I could go on and on. My point is that so could you. Each and every one of us has encountered the SACRED over and over again in our lives. But far too many of us aren’t bold enough to recognize, and name the SACRED. There are moments when we are exposed to the MYSTERY we have come to call, “GOD”. These moments expose us to the reality that we are in GOD and GOD is in us. Whether you call that MYSTERY “GOD” or “SPIRIT” or DIVINITY, FATHER, MOTHER, ABBA, YAHEWH, ALAH, BUDDHA, the MOST HIGH, ELOHIM, EL SHADDAI, SOPHIA, SHEKENAH, ADONAI, HOLY, or SACRED, that MYSTERY is LOVE. LOVE beyond words. We are in LOVE and LOVE is in us.
Do this old GOD-Botherer a favour, forget the words and just breathe, breathe in the BREATH of LOVE and when you feel the SPIRIT in you, breathe out the BREATH of LOVE. For you are ONE with the MYSTERY which is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also, our LOVER, BELOVED, and BREATH of LOVE, for you dear ones are SACRED, HOLY, LOVE, now and forever more. Amen.
“Show us the Way of compassion, the Way of joy and peace.”
“Show us the Way of life.”
Lost in the midst of such devastatingly bad news.
Shaking our heads in disbelief.
Cursing the stupidity of our neighbours.
Shrugging our shoulders despairing that much of anything can be done to stop the pain.
Clenching our fists in anger.
Or weeping, just weeping.
Children are dead.
War is raging.
Weapons are brandished, waved, fired, and clung to.
We are lost.
As the anger rose, seeking a way out of the rising despair I remembered the WISDOM of ancestors, who knew all too well the pain of weapons fired indiscriminately in their direction, inflicting wounds which even now resist healing.
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.
The evil, angry wolf, battling a good, compassionate wolf.
The battle which rages, over and over again in each of us.
Which wolf will win?
WISDOM insists that it is the wolf we feed that will win in us.
Today, in what have been described as “hot mess times,” the wolves struggling within me go by the names of despair and hope.
Despair and Hope struggling to win my allegiance.
Day after day.
Despair and Hope.
Which one shall win?
Let us look to the WISDOM of our ancestor Jesus, as it is recorded by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as Luke, reading from the First Nations Version:
“Healthy trees give good fruit and rotten trees give bad fruit.
Do grapes come from a thorn bush or figs from thistles?
The human heart is like a medicine pouch.
Good-hearted people speak from the good medicine sored in their hearts.
Bad-hearted people speak from the bad medicine stored in their hearts.
For the mouth will speak what the heart is filled with.
How is it that you call me “Great Chief” but do not walk in my ways?” (Luke 6:43-46)
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.
“The human heart is like a medicine pouch.
Good-hearted people speak from the good medicine stored in their hearts.
Bad-hearted people speak from the bad medicine stored in their hearts.
For the mouth will speak what the heart is filled with.”
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.
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.
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 ofBook 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.
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Tis the season of “resurrection.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned after nearly a quarter of a century of preaching on the subject of resurrection, it’s that when it comes to resurrection, we look for what we have been conditioned to see. Just like Thomas, who had the good sense to doubt the resurrection, most of us have been conditioned to look for the physical resuscitation of a corpse; a bonified, pardon the pun, a bonified, actual physical body, complete with wounds and all. Sadly, far too many of us have been conditioned to look for what we have been conditioned to see instead of what is all around us, if we could only see beyond our conditioning. Perhaps a story will help us move beyond what we think we’re looking for to actual miracle of resurrection. I’ve told this story before, but then haven’t we all heard the story of Thomas, every Easter. The story I want to tell you comes from the Irish author Frank McCourt’s autobiography entitled “Tis”. McCourt was a schoolteacher, and he tells this story about a particular class in which he was challenging the assumptions of his young students. The story begins with a familiar nursery rhyme: “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; All the king’s horses and all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.” McCourt asks his young students to tell him what’s going on in this nursery rhyme. The hands are up like a shot.
“Well, like, this egg falls off the wall and if you study biology or physics, you know you can never put an egg back together again. I mean, like, it’s common sense. McCourt asks: “Who says it’s an egg?”
“Of course, it’s an egg. Everyone knows that.”
“Where does it say it’s an egg?”
McCourt’s story forces me to confess that for most of my life, I believed that Humpty Dumpty was an egg; a magical egg to be sure, with a face, and legs, and hands, a jolly fellow, but an egg none the less. The truth is Humpty Dumpty was not an egg. But let’s just leave Humpty Dumpty up there on the wall for a while, and shift our focus to today’s story, from the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John.
For a very long time, the story of Jesus’ appearance in the upper room where his followers were huddled in fear, conditioned me to focus my attention upon Jesus’ wounds, Thomas’ doubts, and back again to Jesus’ wounds, and then to Thomas’ belief. Occasionally, I was able to hear Jesus say, “Have you believed because you have seen me? For far too long, my conditioning caused me to see this story as the story about casting away doubts and believing in Jesus’ physical resurrection. But there is more going on in this story than just the literal words on the page. However, in order to see more we must try to see our longing for the physical resuscitation of a corpse as the product of generations of conditioning designed to have us believe in a certain way, that is to say to believe in spite of our doubts.
Today, it is Easter Sunday for orthodox Christians. In both Ukraine and in Russia a wounded CHRIST is struggling to rise from death. Today, it doesn’t matter how CHRIST rose nearly 2000 years ago. Today, it only matters that CHRIST rises in us, rises in the people of Ukraine, rises in the people of Russia, rises in people wherever they are, who long for peace. Today, during this season of Easter, our doubts about the possibility of resurrection are not as important as our doubts about the possibility of peace. Today, in the midst of colossal violence, it is long past time for us to see beyond our conditioning about what to believe about resurrection so that we can focus our attention on practicing resurrection.
This story with which we have been conditioned to look at the issues of our doubts about the resurrection itself, was written in the midst of colossal violence, violence which had escalated in the 70 years since the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. This story was written by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John some 70 years after Jesus’ death, some twenty years after the Jewish war with Rome in which the Empire destroyed the Temple, raised most of Jerusalem to the ground, and sent Jews and the followers of Jesus into exile. Our gospel-storyteller wrote his story within a deeply wounded community to provide the much need hope for their own resurrection.
According to this story, a bunch of rag-tag Jesus followers were huddled together in fear. Their beloved leader had been brutally executed by the powers that be and they were terrified that they would be next. Paralyzed by their fear, hiding behind a locked door, something happened which gave them the strength to burst forth from their own tomb and change the world. I believe that the anonymous gospel-storyteller wrote his story the way that he wrote to address the fears of the people of his community. According to the story, paralyzed by their fear, hiding behind a locked door, something happened that gave them the strength to burst forth from their own tomb and change the world. It wasn’t about believing in resurrection it was about practicing resurrection. Ever since they began to practice resurrection, people have been trying to figure out exactly what may have happened. What could have changed these bumbling, terrified, betrayers, abandoners, who seemed to be always getting things wrong, into a bunch of leaders who began a movement that spread throughout the Empire within their own life-times and then based on the power of their witness, spread throughout the world and continues to nourish and sustain millions of people from generation to generation?
Now there are those that insist that it was the power of Jesus having been physically resuscitated from the dead that motivated his followers to change their lives and the lives of millions who have come after them. But we live in the 21st century and we have access to all sorts of information that the generations who have gone before us did not. Our friend, Dom Crossan makes the point that, “it is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” I believe that in order to understand the power of this particular story of resurrection we must move beyond simplistic literal explanations and open ourselves to the more-than-literal symbolic – dare I say it, spiritual understanding of resurrection. It is long past time for us to move beyond arguments about a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body.
Let me remind you that a generation before our anonymous gospel-storyteller wrote his account of Thomas’ doubts, somewhere around the years 50 to 53, the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthian followers of the Way, that such questions about physical resurrection were in fact “stupid”. That Paul didn’t much care about a physical resurrection ought to give us the courage to see the notion of a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse for the late first century development that it was.
So, let us forget about what we have been conditioned to look for in order to see what needs to be seen, today in the midst the violence in which our world seems incapable of forsaking. What can we see in the wounds which are depicted in this story? Jesus suffered the worst of his world’s violence.
Yet the story of Jesus’ Way of being in the world continued to be present among those who sought to live as Jesus lived. Death, not even violent death at the hands of a powerful empire could keep Jesus’ commitment to compassionate resistance to the forces of empire from those who longed for the Shalom of the Reign of GOD which Jesus proclaimed with his life.
The basileia ton THEON, the Empire of GOD, the GOD which Jesus knew as ABBA, a LOVING PARENT, the basileia ton THEON, the Reign of the GOD that IS LOVE, where justice and not violence creates the kind of peace in which everyone has enough to live the abundant life Jesus insisted he came to give to the world. “I have come that you might have life and live it abundantly.”
Abundant life, where everyone has enough to live fully, love extravagantly, and be all that they are created to be, this is the basileia ton THEON, the REIGN of DIVINITY, the Empire of the LOVE which is GOD.
Abundant life is the Shalom we long for, for without justice there can be no peace, and without peace there can only be abundance for some and not for all. Can we now look beyond what we have been conditioned to see, and see the wounded CHRIST standing in the middle of fearful followers, a vision of the impact of violence, saying, SHALOM, “Peace be with you!” Can we look beyond what we have been conditioned to see the ONE wounded by violence bidding us peace?
Yes, I have my doubts about the possibility of SHALOM, especially now as we peer into the abyss which are the horrors of Ukraine, Syria, Myanmar, and countless other places where injustice has bred violence the likes of which seems unstoppable. I don’t much care about silly arguments about Jesus rising from the dead unless those arguments lead us to a place where we ourselves can claim the power of resurrection to create a hunger for SHALOM, a passion for the justice which creates peace. Just like the people in the story, I want to be transformed by the story of Jesus; transformed from someone who cowers in a place of safety, filled with fear and doubts, into a powerful member of a movement to create peace through justice.
We will never know what actually happened two thousand years ago, we will always. But we do know that whatever happened it transformed a people hiding from the endless violence into courageous followers of a Way of Being in the world which death could not destroy.
When I read the accounts of those early followers of the way who abandoned the tomb of the upper-room to gather together to build communities of compassion it is clear to me who was raised up by images of resurrection. The followers of Jesus were lifted up from a crouching or cowering position as they boldly proclaimed what they had learned from Jesus. The followers of Jesus stood up and got on with the business which was begun by Jesus. The followers of Jesus began to understand themselves in a whole new way.
The Apostle Paul wrote: “We who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” When followers of Jesus in the first century and in the twenty-first century talk about the resurrection of Christ, we are proclaiming that death did not have the last word in the Jesus story because his followers were raised up to be his body right here, right now. When we say that we believe in the resurrection of the dead, we are proclaiming that no matter how dead someone may appear to be, no matter how dead we may feel, new life is always possible. Practicing resurrection begins when we huddle together refusing to let our fears entomb us. Practicing resurrection happens when we gather to build communities of compassion. Resurrection is not a solitary endeavor. Practicing resurrection requires that we gather sharing our gifts, talents and treasure for the good of all. Practicing resurrection happens when we empower one another to rise.Practicing resurrection happens when we build communities of compassion that live fully, love extravagantly, and empower people to be all that they were created to be.
So, fellow followers of the Way, if Humpty Dumpty wasn’t an egg what was she? Anybody??? What we all missed is what was there all along, Humpty Dumpty you see was a cannon. The nursery rhyme dates back to the English civil war, when the Royalists were being attacked by the Parliamentarians, they put their faith in the size of their cannons, one of them was so large it went by the name Humpty Dumpty, which at the time was a term used to describe fat rich guys. The Royalists placed their biggest cannon on the wall which surrounded the city of Colchester. Somehow the Parliamentarians managed with their smaller cannons or battering rams to shatter the wall and the cannon, Humpty Dumpty came tumbling down, shattered, irreparable. And all the kings horses and all the kings men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Violence, how long will we put our faith in violence? The Parliamentarians victory may have looked like the way to peace, but it was no peace at all, it was as Dom Crossan puts it, just a lull in the violence. History should have taught us by now that that justice and not violence is the way to peace.
Resurrection is not about the physical resuscitation of a corpse. Resurrection is about the wisdom and the courage to proclaim with our lives that Jesus’ vision of the Reign of LOVE continues to rise in us. So, let us see the wounds inflicted by violence, and practice resurrection. Let us be resurrection by practicing resurrection, that is by resisting violence, resisting injustice, so that the Reign of LOVE ushers in the peace we long for the SHALOM which is abundant living. Peace be with you. Shalom dear ones. Shalom.
View the full Worship Video for the Second Sunday of Easter below
What I remember most about Malcolm is that he did not suffer fools gladly. He couldn’t have been much older than I am now when we first began working together. By day, Malcolm was an astounding problem solver. But on evenings and weekends, Malcolm was a super-hero! A justice-seeker, peacemaker and the personification of LOVE itself. Malcolm was a brilliant co-worker. But, if you needed his help at work, you had to catch Malcolm during working hours, because as soon as the clock struck 5, Malcolm would be out the door. He always had places to go and people to see, mountains to move, wrongs to make right, people to save, injustices to oppose, and people to feed. Malcolm, no matter how much you tried to resist his charms, would sweep up any able-bodied person to help him on his epic his quests to right whatever wrongs he encountered. I don’t remember much of what I learned from Malcolm at work, but I can still feel the intensity of his passion, sweeping me up like a whirlwind as he embodied a vision of justice which always took my breath away.
Malcolm and I shared a kind of bleak gallows sense of humour which we put down to our shared British birthplace. When he discovered that as a child, I had been subjected to my father’s collection of recordings of Goon Show, our gallows humour went into overdrive. Malcolm would insist that I play Eccles to his Seagoon. For those of you who were never blessed to hear the Goons, suffice it to say, the Goons taught the Monty Python crew how to do comedy, the way comedy needs to be done. Says I, using the voice of Eccles, to Malcolm who hailed from Aberdeen: “All you hairy Scotsmen, today we’re gonna march north to England!” To which Malcolm would responded with the voice of Neddie Seagoon “But England’s to the south!” “Aye” says I, “We’re gonna march right round the world and sneak up on them!”
Our co-workers thought we were mad, but I loved that old guy, right up until the moment he left us. I remember sitting by his hospital bed as he lay dying, we’d exhausted all the Goon bits we could remember, and the rattle of Malcolm’s breathing warned me that it wouldn’t be long. When all of a sudden, he sat right up in bed and demanded to know what Jesus was all about. Never once, in all the time I’d known him had we ever mentioned Jesus to one another. I’d kept my mouth shut on anything remotely connected with religion simply because every single time anyone else mentioned religion, Malcolm would become incensed. Malcolm was positively vulgar on the subject of religion and I for one didn’t want to risk our friendship by saying anything remotely religious.
“Come on tell me, what was Jesus all about? Quickly, I don’t have much time!” Malcolm pointed to the Easter cards which the nurses had lined up on the windowsill. “There look at them” he’d taken on the voice of Seagoon, “If those cards are anything to go by, then Jesus must have been a bunny rabbit, hopping through a field of daffodils.” Trying with my best Eccles voice, I could only muster the classic Eccles conundrum, “He’s goon but he’s not forgotten.”
Sorry, you’ll just have to Google it because it is Easter after all, and my task here is Malcolm’s question, “What is Jesus all about?”
I believe that Jesus is all about the story; a parable to be exact. I’m not just talking about the parables which Jesus told. I’m talking about the Parable of Jesus. The Parable of Jesus is not about his death, although Jesus does die, but then again, in the Parable, he is dead, but he won’t lie down. The Parable of Jesus is not all about Jesus’ death, nor is it about life after death. The Parable of Jesus is about so much more than individual salvation from some vengeful god. The Parable of Jesus is about the context in which Jesus was born, the oppression under which Jesus lived, and the passion with which Jesus embodied non-violent resistance to the powers of domination, a commitment which Jesus was willing to die in order to teach the world that justice and not violence is the way to the peace we long for.
The Parable of Jesus is a Parable of Resistance. The Parable of Jesus is about resistance to a way of being that is based upon selfishness and greed. The Parable of Jesus is about a vision of a new way of being in which the abundance of Creation is shared by all, so that everyone has enough in order to live their lives. Jesus insisted, “I have come that you might have life and live it abundantly.” Jesus’ understanding that the MYSTERY responsible for creating life is so much more than a tribal deity who favours one tribe over the other. Jesus spoke of this MYSTERY as an ABBA, a PARENT, with which we are ONE. Jesus’ understood this ABBA’s primary concern for the people of the world, all the people of the world, is that we LOVE ONEanother. Jesus took the best of the teachings of his people when he highlighted as the most important rule of their religious teaching that we LOVE one another and added a new twist, spelling out exactly how we are to LOVE one another. In the Parable of Jesus, on the night before Jesus is executed, he gives his followers a New Commandment that we LOVE ONE another in the same way as Jesus’ loved them.
We don’t have to look very far into the Parable of Jesus to see exactly how Jesus loved. The Parable of Jesus contains all sorts of little parables about the way in which Jesus loved without discrimination, the lowest and the least, the outcasts and the sinners, and the powerless, comforting, feeding, healing, eating and drinking with them. As for enemies, the powerful, the self-centered, the wealthy, Jesus called his followers NOT to take up the sword against them, but to lay down their arms, to love them. Jesus urged his followers to live self-less-ly, giving extravagantly, as they learned new ways to LOVE one another.
In the Parable of Jesus, we meet a person willing to sacrifice, to make holy every aspect of his being in order to resist the forces of empire. Jesus steadfastly he resisted violence as a way to resist. Jesus’ whole life proclaims that peace cannot be achieved through violence, peace is born of justice,
justice not just for the rich and powerful, but justice for all. Jesus resisted violence. He resisted the trappings of his fame. Jesus even resisted the temptations of his own power, even in the face of the one thing we humans fear most of all, death.
According to the Parable of Jesus, not even death can kill Jesus’ vision of the Reign of GOD, what Jesus called the basileia ton theon, the Reign of the MYSTERY which Jesus understood as the ABBA, the LOVing Parent. Not even death at the hands of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, could kill Jesus’ vision of the Reign of ABBA, in which justice prevails.
Jesus’ idea of justice did not include revenge. Jesus understood justice to be distributive. Distributive justice ensures that everyone has enough to live life abundantly. After the empire had done its worst, after Jesus was executed for resisting the powers of the Empire, his followers came to understand Jesus teachings, and they too became non-violent resisters who looked to the Parable of Jesus’ resistance to encourage their quest for peace through justice.
But the temptations of empire are powerful, and over time, the all too human fear of death softened Jesus’ followers commitment to resistance. Over time, the followers of Jesus were co-opted by the very temptations Jesus resisted all his life, even unto death. Eventually, Jesus’ resistance was softened, as people returned to the old ways of trying to establish peace through the empire’s violence. As Jesus’ resistance was softened, the people’s vision of Jesus’ ABBA was hardened, indeed the Father became known as a vengeful, punishing parent, who employed threats not unlike the Empire’s torture.
Sadly, the Parable of Jesus’ Resistance, became a quid pro quo with the powers that be. Resist the empire which the church had become and be damned to eternal punishment. NO wonder resistance was forsaken in favour of bunnies and chocolate, as Jesus himself became an opiate which if swallowed produced a kind of euphoria which promised heavenly rewards in some other life-time, allowing the people to forget the creation of heaven here on Earth. Resistance was set aside in favour of acquiescence in the service of the empires created by wealth. The forces of the empires of Rome and the religious authorities may have killed Jesus, but according to the Parable of Jesus, not even death could kill Jesus’ vision of the basileia ton theon. We catch glimpses of Jesus’ vison, here and there, wherever and whenever people resist the temptations of empire. You’ve all seen glimpses of the basileia ton theon, whenever peace breaks out not because of violence, for this is no peace at all, but mearly a lull in the violence. You’ve seen the basilea ton theon when peace is established because justice prevails, when justice and not violence creates the kind of peace where LOVE flourishes.
That’s the Easter part of the Parable of Jesus, the time and place when resurrection happens. When and where the LOVE which Jesus embodied resists the temptations to selfishness, greed, and violence. Those moments when LOVE rises up and people are empowered by their LOVE for one another, to resist injustice, to champion justice for people everywhere. The Parable of Jesus is just a story told by idealistic, religious, fools, when it is fed by those who intoxicated by the temptations of empire. But the Parable of Jesus still holds the power of resurrection within the transforming LOVE which is embodied in the life, the teachings, the death, and the powerful legacy of Jesus’ resistance.
For it is Jesus’ vision of the basileia ton theon, the Reign of ABBA in which the power to be LOVE in the world is resurrected each and every time LOVE is embodied in the world. For the REIGN of the LOVE which is the MYSTERY we call GOD, is already here, in the life of each and every person who resists selfishness, resists greed, resists the hunger for power, resists complacency, resists hatred born of fear, resists me first, resists not with violence but with the quest for justice, not the punitive justice born of our self-centred desire to punish, but the distributive justice of Jesus vision of a world in which everyone has enough to live fully, love extravagantly and be all that we are created to be.
The Parable of Jesus is a powerful parable of resistance which does not end with Jesus’ death. Death does not have the final world in this powerful parable of resistance, because death cannot destroy the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being, precisely because LOVE has being in, with, through, and beyond us. LOVE lives, LOVE dies, and LOVE comes again and again and again.
As the rattle in Malcolm’s chest weakened, his grip on my hand tightened. I could almost see the young man he once was, leaning in close to the wireless so that he could hear every silly word the Goons broadcast. I couldn’t help but smile, which when Malcolm noticed, he asked me what I was smiling about. I told him that the folks in the afterlife weren’t going to know what hit them once he arrived. “So, you think I’m going to Heaven then?” “You don’t believe in Heaven.” I reminded him.
“That’s because I’m not there yet. It will be heaven once I get there.” That’s our Malcolm, “There’s always something that needs doing to make things better for everyone!”
It was standing room only at Malcolm’s funeral. Dozens of people stood up to remind us of Malcolm’s super-powers. Last night as I was remembering my old friend Malcolm, I couldn’t help laughing when I thought of an old line from a long-ago Goon Show. I think it was the character of Bluebottle, who was played by Peter Sellers, who was always being killed off, or as the Goons would have it Bluebottle was always being “deaded”. Each time Bluebottle would be “deaded” he would rise up and go on talking. I can still remember Malcolm saying in his Seagoon voice, “He’s deaded, but he won’t lie down.” Laughing in the face of death is an old Easter tradition because at Easter, death is always the butt of the joke. “He’s “deaded” but he won’t lie down.”
Malcolm’s passion for justice, his visions of making heaven here on Earth, they live on in each and every person that Malcolm ever loved. Jesus’ passion for peace through justice, this LOVE which people encountered in the life and teachings of Jesus could not be conquered by death. LOVE rises again and again and again. On this Easter morning it may appear as if LOVE has died and is buried in the tomb of our stupidity. But I assure you that not even death will have the final word; not death in the Ukraine, or South Africa, or Myanmar, or in the violent streets of corporate greed, or the lonely hovels in which people die unjustly from hunger and disease.
LOVE may indeed be deaded but LOVE won’t lie down for long. LOVE is risen. LOVE is risen indeed. In every act of resistance inspired by the vison of the already and not yet Reign of LOVE. Resistance is the only kind of resurrection we need in order to create the peace we long for.
Death cannot conquer LOVE. Not as long as LOVE is embodied in the world. Every act of LOVE resurrects our hunger for justice and inspires our desire to be LOVE in the world. LOVE even if it is deaded won’t lie down. LOVE never lies down for long. ay we all know the power of LOVE rising in us!
My GOD, My GOD, why? On Good Friday, it is so difficult to know where to begin. My GOD, My GOD, why have you forsaken me? The Hebrew Psalmist’s cry ought to be enough. My GOD, My GOD, why have you forsaken me? But on Good Friday, which is anything but Good, it is my own selfish cry, “My GOD, My GOD, WHY?” which seems like as good a place as any to begin. But then there is nothing “good” about Good Friday, not even where we begin, which is of course in agony.
So, let us not begin with the “MY” part of this plea for answers, but with the “GOD” part. “GOD” such a little word for the MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of ALL this IS, WAS, and EVER MORE SHALL BE. The MYSTERY in which we live, and move, and have our BEING, the MYSTERY which has BEING in, with, through, and beyond us. The MYSTERY responsible for the creation of the Cosmos and therefore the ONE which must BE BEYOND, the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also;
certainly the ONE beyond any and all words, any of us can utter. This ONE is the ONE to which when all is said and done, when the worst of all possible things happens, this is the ONE to which each of us cry, which in and of itself, make us all ONE. My GOD, My GOD, why?
And so, like his ancestors before him, and those who will follow in his wake, when the worst of all things happens to him, Jesus cries out, “My GOD, My GOD, why?” So, let the reality of the MYSTERY of our GOD, move us beyond the details articulated with mere words, so that we might catch a glimpse of the WHY of it ALL. Why death? Why not just any death, which must come to us all, but why such needless death, at the hands of ourselves, why such violent death? My GOD, My GOD, why? Why violence? Violence the word we use to describe the physical force used to cause injury, damage, or death. Violence we can define. Violence we can know. Perhaps more importantly, violence we can feel. We can feel it when it is applied to our person and worse yet we can feel it when it rises up in us. Violence is all too familiar for violence too has the power to make us one; one in the perpetration of violence, one as we perish from violence inflicted upon us, and one in our fear of violence. Violence disturbs our peace and violence motivates our desire to become strong enough to resist the violence of others. No wonder our ancient ancestors imagined the MYSTERY responsible for Creation as super-heroes powerful enough to save them from violence. My GOD, My GOD, why?
My GOD is bigger than your GOD. My GOD’s violence can defeat your GOD’s violence. My father can beat your father. My GOD will not forsake me. And if your violence is stronger than my violence, it is not because your god is strong than MY GOD, for surely therein lies the despair which leads only to madness, the kind of madness in which we are consumed by our fears. Within our fear is where violence gestates. Surely, any defeat is not down to the power of our GOD, but rather to some offence or other we have given to our GOD, who because of such an offence our GOD has chosen to forsake us. And there you have it, our need to placate the POWER of the ONE who IS. What can we offer to placate the anger of such a ONE? What will return our god to our side, ensuring our victory? What can we mere mortals offer to make atonement with the HOLY ONE?
Questions, heaped upon questions, as one violent tragedy leads to another. Our historians, our archeologists, and our anthropologists can point to the sacrifice of humans to the gods, here, there, and everywhere. Sacrifice which literally means to make holy, “sacrem facere”. To restore to wholeness our relationship with that which is BEYOND our words. So, it is beyond the words themselves to the stories handed down from one fear-filled generation to another that we must turn with the same old question, My GOD, My GOD, why? Why have you forsaken me? us? In favour of them? Our Hebrew ancestors tell the story told to end the violence born of fear’s attempt to sacrem facere. It is a story told by the WISDOM bearers of old to put an end to human sacrifice.
Abraham the Father of nations, learned the difficult lesson of the ONE who IS BEYOND our fear, YAHWEH, the Great I AM, the ONE who will BE. It is a story which was told to put an end to human sacrifice, in which the son Isaac is spared the violent death, the making holy by the offering of a life, the spilling of blood, to placate a DIVINITY which has no need of sacrifice. But the WISDOM of moving beyond our fear, beyond our primitive attempts to placate the ULTIMATE POWER, which the most precious things we can offer, life itself, upon the altar of our fear, the WISDOM of forsaking violence as the answer, was stillborn, killed in us by the very fears which gave it birth.
So, another story is born. A story designed to turn our ways of thinking upside down. A parable if you will. The parable of Jesus. Not a parable told by Jesus. But rather the parable of Jesus. The story of a life and death, for you can’t have one without the other; the story of a life and death told to put an end to making violence holy, the end of the sacrem facere of violence.
As the story is told, over and over again, the GREAT I AM, the FATHER of FATHERS, is cast as both the recipient and the giver, indeed even as the instigator of an act so horrendous in its violence that surely will put an end to making violence holy. For even if the myth of Abraham and Isaac, a myth designed to carry the truth that violence cannot make our fear holy in order to create peace.
For the ONE who we call GOD cannot by refusing such a sacrifice convince us to put an end to human sacrifice, perhaps in the sacrifice of GOD’s own beloved son, we can see the inability of such violence to make anything HOLY. So, the parable of Jesus is told over and over again. A parable created to put an end to violence. A parable in which Jesus lives within the brutality of violence refusing to become violent while all the while pointing to the I AM as ONE who has no need of our sacrifices. For Jesus came not to participate in violence, but that we might have life and live it abundantly. Life and not death.
The choice is ours and we have made it. We choose not Jesus’ life but his death, glorifying the violence, once again we offered blood to placate our GOD. Despite Jesus’ insistence that violence is not the answer. Despite everything Jesus lived for in every act of non-violent resistance, we refused to see that for Jesus, justice is the only way to make things holy.
Justice and not violence is the only way to peace.
In glorifying the violence which killed Jesus, we cannot see the parable of Jesus; a parable designed to move us away from sacrificing human lives to violence born of fear.
Look beyond the violence to the life of Jesus and you will see a human-being struggling to move beyond the notion that violence can save us from what we fear most in life, only LOVE can do that. For if the life of Jesus teaches us anything it is that LOVE conquers fear. Jesus embodied that LOVE, insisting that, “I and the Abba, the Father, are ONE.” You and I and the LOVE we call GOD we are ONE, nothing can separate us from this LOVE, not even death.
The parable of Jesus is the story of a life which embodies LOVE, the LOVE which continues to allure us beyond our fear, beyond our violence, beyond death itself. Jesus saw a DIVINITY which was more than the sum of our fears. Jesus called us to a vision of the HOLY which invites us to forgo violence as the answer to our fear, a vision of the HOLY which offers justice and not violence as the way beyond our fears into the peace we long for.
Like all parables there is a twist, a moment when our expectations are turned upside down. Along the way, Jesus embodies LOVE, calls for justice as the way to peace, and steadfastly refuses to resort to violence no matter how fearful his oppressors become. Jesus’ embodiment of LOVE gives us a glimpse of LOVE’s life in the world. This parable of LOVE in the flesh opens us to the possibility of a new way of being in the world.
The WISDOM is clear, justice must prevail if we are to live beyond our fears. But Jesus’ way of being makes us nervous. For who are we to challenge the power of empire, the biggest baddest perpetrators of violence are all around us? We fear for Jesus’ life. We are afraid that we cannot embrace what Jesus taught us. We long for a superhero to save Jesus from our fear. My GOD, My GOD, why? Jesus the perfect one, why does he have to die? Our fear looms large, and our god becomes small, smaller than the vision of Jesus. Jesus’ vision of the ABBA with which we are ONE, is too much for us to bear. For if we are ONE with the DIVINE then it is we who have forsaken Jesus.
The parable does its work, but we are afraid, so we forsake the parable. We confine the power of the myth so that the truths it reveals can be managed.
We are afraid to embody LOVE, to forgo violence, to seek peace through justice, to be LOVE in the world. So, our fears echo the shouts of those who would “Crucify him. Crucify him” and once again Jesus is sacrificed to placate the gods we have become. The parable of Jesus takes us into the darkness of our very selves, as LOVE dies in us, sacrificed to our fears. The parable of Jesus leaves us with but a glimpse of peace, pointing as Jesus does to a MYSTERY beyond our fear, beyond the power of death itself.
My GOD, My GOD, why? Until we see that we are in GOD and GOD is in us, we will not see that we are the ONES to whom Jesus cries, My GOD, My GOD, why have you forsaken me? Will death have the final word? Can LOVE rise in us? My GOD, My GOD, when will the violence end? My GOD, My GOD when will we put an end to violence born of fear? My GOD, My GOD, why have we forsaken Jesus?
Maundy Thursday marks a turning point, not only for Holy Week, but also for the way in which Christianity functions in the world. For quite some time now, I have been struggling to pinpoint just where Christianity went wrong. I confess that for years now, I’ve conveniently pointed to the year 312, when the emperor Constantine formally adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire is a convenient scapegoat, partly because we can point our fingers and say, There, right there the followers of a passionate, non-violent, radical resister, to the domination of empires, right there by imperial fiat, these rag tag communities of non-violent resisters were transformed into a new kind of empire; an empire that would go on to create the Doctrine of Discovery, justify violence, and plunder the planet so that it could dominate the power structures of countries, nations and lands all over the globe. Right there, with Constantine, that’s where it all went wrong.
If only this were that simple, then all we’d need to do is dress Constantine up as a scapegoat and drive him from our midst. After all, Holy Week, of all the days in the Church year, Holy Week provides so many opportunities for scapegoating. However, despite the reality that Christianity was indeed joined in unholy matrimony with the forces of empire by Constantine, the impetus for this coupling can be seen in the betrayal of LOVE which occurred on the very night which Christians commemorate each and every Maundy Thursday.
Now, before you pounce upon another scapegoat, let me assure you that I’m not pointing to the betrayal of Judas Iscariot as the one responsible for Christianity’s getting into bed with the domination forces of his day. Sadly, there are more betrayers on Maundy Thursday than we can ever begin to count. For it is our focus which betrays us. It is our focus which betrays the teaching and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We who call ourselves Christian, and so many who went before us, touting their love for Jesus, we took our eyes off the “maundy” and there began our betrayal of everything Jesus lived his life to teach us.
When I ask people what Maundy Thursday is all about, the majority of good, faithful, followers of Jesus respond with sentences which include the phrase “last supper.” Which is of course correct. The anonymous gospel storytellers we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have provided the followers of Jesus with various accounts of the Passover meal which Jesus shared with his followers shortly before he was executed by the Empire for disturbing the Pax Romana. Out of those different accounts, the followers of Jesus adopted ways of remembering which were ritualized. Sadly, only one of these Last Supper rituals developed into a sacrament. Even more tragically, all too often this particular sacrament is “celebrated” as a sacrifice, complete with a scapegoat, or should I say a sacrificial lamb, whose blood is spilled in the minds and hearts of worshippers again and again and again.
Imperial Christians, that’s us, we who enjoy privileges established by the domination forces of various empires which have used Christianity as a sort of opiate of the masses, we have been betrayed by generations who have fixed their gaze upon the myth of redemptive violence. Indeed, lest we fall into the trap of scapegoating those who have gone before us, let us also remember our very own betrayal, for we too have fixed our gaze upon the myth of redemptive violence and we taken our focus off the “maundy” of that long ago supper, “maundy” from the Latin word for “commandment.” As the story is told, Jesus said, “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’re my disciples: that you truly LOVE one another.”
That we should “LOVE one another” is not a new commandment. There were many before Jesus, and many who came after Jesus who commanded, advised, encouraged, implored, and even begged us to, “love one another.” What is new about Jesus’ commandment is that we are to love one another the way that Jesus loved us. Which begs the question: How exactly did Jesus love? According to the story, which is told on Maundy Thursday, Jesus didn’t just tell those gathered around the meal to “LOVE one another” Jesus embodied LOVE in a way which demonstrated the way LOVE works in the world. The anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John puts it this way: “Jesus realized that the hour had come for him to pass form this world to Abba God. He had always loved his own in this world, but now he showed how perfect this love was. The Devil had already convinced Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. So during supper, Jesus—knowing that God had put all things into his own hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God—rose from the table, took off his clothes and wrapped a towel around his waist. He then poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and dry them with the towel that was around his waist. When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said, “Rabbi, you’re not going to wash my feet, are you?” Jesus answered, “You don’t realize what I AM doing right now, but later you’ll understand.”
By washing the feet of followers, Jesus humbles himself and provides an example of service that exemplifies how we are to carry out his new commandment that we love one another. And so, on Maundy Thursday, some churches participate in the ritual of washing one another’s feet as a way of embodying Jesus’ new commandment. But let’s face it, a ritual only sporadically embodied once a year doesn’t really have the same power as a ritual which became a sacrament and is now embodied again, and again, and again. There are very few people in the world who would identify Christians as foot washers. Christians are however identified as consumers of the body and blood of the Lamb of God.
Two rituals were born at Jesus’ last supper, but only one became a sacrament. Our focus upon ritual sacrifice would not be such a betrayal of Jesus’ new commandment if it were not for the way in which doctrines of atonement have cast the sacrament of the meal, the eucharist, Holy Communion as a sort of commemoration of a violent bargain struck with a violent god. I am well aware, that Communion can be and is often celebrated as a thanksgiving, or celebration of LOVE, but far too many of us have focussed our gaze on the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” as the ultimate scapegoat, the divinely ordained blood sacrifice. I can’t but help asking what ought to be an obvious question: What might christianity have become with a focus on foot washing? Could foot washers have embodied Jesus’ new commandment in such a way as to create a more humble christianity; a christianity less palatable to empire?
We will never know the answer to this question. But we can ask it anew. What if we 21st century followers of Jesus, shifted our focus away from the myth of redemptive violence and toward the embodiment of LOVE? Imagine if you will, a community humble enough to wash one another’s feet, sitting down to a holy meal. What might we become if we allow the story of the last supper help us to understand that it is our focus and not Judas that betrays Jesus? As foot-washers instead of scapegoaters, might we learn new ways of embodying Jesus’ new commandment to LOVE one another? Might shifting our focus help us to see new ways of being LOVE in the world?
All things considered; I can’t see the ritual of foot washing becoming a sacrament any time soon. Not unless we are prepared to imagine what foot washing might look like here and now, in our day, in our time. Imagine all the opportunities a shift in our focus might reveal. What might Jesus’ new commandment look like in the face of the empires in which we are entwined? Can you see yourself embodying LOVE as you do whatever you can, whenever you can to tend to the needs of your neighbour, to care for even the betrayers you encounter, or to humbly open yourself to ridicule for the sake of LOVE?
We know all too well, that the myth of redemptive violence is alive and well. Our world is rife with the impacts of violence. But it is not just out there in the world that violence lives. It is in here (within me). For I too am compelled by the alure of violence as a solution. Violence is alive in me, and it lives in you.
So, as we anticipate the events we will commemorate tomorrow, Good Friday, I hope we can see that it is violence which will kill LOVE, and more importantly, it is LOVE which dies not just on Good Friday, but each and every time that violence triumphs. Whether LOVE is crucified on a cross, or in the streets of Ukraine, or the jungles of Myanmar, or in the darkest reaches of corporate empires, or in the palatial homes of the rich and powerful, LOVE is crucified over and over again. LOVE dies, and it is LOVE which lies in the grave of our being, in need of resurrection.
But death will not have the final word. For we do not live as ones without hope. LOVE dies. LOVE will rise. LOVE will live again. So, let us remember Jesus’ last supper. Let us remember, trusting that there nothing in heaven or on Earth which can separate us from the LOVE which is DIVINITY. May the power of the ONE which allures us into LOVE, shift our focus so that we can see beyond the violence, beyond the death of LOVE, to the resurrection of LOVE as we learn to embody Jesus’ new commandment to LOVE one another.
Earlier this morning, a child was baptized. I do not know all the details of his baptism. But let me tell you what I do know. Little Lev was born on March 10. Little Lev was baptized this morning, on the one-month anniversary of his birth. Little Lev’s baptism took place at Saints Peter & Paul Garrison, Catholic Church in Lviv, Ukraine. Little Lev is our brother in CHRIST, as are the proud members of his family who paused as they were leaving the Church, just long enough to speak to a Canadian reporter, who up to this point had been interviewing Father Stephan Sus about his work in Lviv. In the midst of the chaos, which is Ukraine, Father Stephan spoke about life. Five funerals yesterday, a wedding and a baptism this morning. Father Stephan is from Kiev, where he hopes to return soon.
But for now, he is busy, tending to the needs of our sisters and brothers in CHRIST. Father Stephan spoke about the ways in which life continues even in the face of what he described as “the evil of our enemies” who “want to destroy the people” who “want to destroy the peace of Ukraine.”
Father Stephan described his work helping to “receive migrants to Lviv” having coffee with mourners, tending the cemetery, providing meals for those in need, comfort to the wounded. Father Stephan spoke about continuing with what he called, “existing life here during the war.” Existing life, like Little Lev’s baptism. He reminded us that “children are being born and couples are getting married.” He said, “we are trying to live because we understand that to be alive is to be strong to fight this evil which wants to destroy life.” Father Stephan is our brother in CHRIST.
This is not the sermon I wrote to preach this morning, not on this particular Palm Sunday. For the past two years, our Holy Week commemorations have seen us locked down inside our homes. We have waited a long time to be able to gather here in this place, to return to “normal” if you will. Much has changed over the past two years. Today, we are living a new kind of normal. We have grown accustomed to the changing realities of COVID and the divisions various public health precautions have inspired among us. Our new normal has been shattered this past month by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the shock of the daily images of destruction and slaughter which invade our screens each and every day, even that is becoming normal. I confess, my own desire to look away from the daily bombardments to shield myself from the images of blurred out bodies lying in the once suburban streets, which look very much like our streets. This has become routine, a kind of normal for us. So, I try to limit my exposure to the news in order to preserve my own mental health. I check in each morning. It has become a bit of a routine. I turn on the news. I allow the horror to touch me, just for bit, and then I move on with my day. War in Ukraine has found its way into our normal routines.
Today, marks the beginning of a break in our normal routines as we embark upon the week which we call Holy. For centuries, Christians have marked Holy Week by tracing Jesus of Nazareth’s journey to Jerusalem, bearing witness to the events which lead up to Jesus’ execution. We begin today with the joyous celebration of Jesus entry into Jerusalem, knowing that it will lead his, betrayal, his arrest, torture, his trial, and his execution. So, here we are bearing witness to a parade which happened nearly 2000 years ago. A parade in which our brother in CHRIST, Jesus of Nazareth publicly demonstrated against what New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan calls the incredible “drag of normalcy.” Life in the first century had its own sense of normal. Jerusalem had been occupied by the Romans for decades, and the routine cruelties of Empire were normal. The celebration of the Passover happened against the backdrop of this oppression. The Empire demonstrated its power by exerting additional hardships during a time when pilgrims flocked to the city to commemorate the pass over, where their ancestors were delivered from yet another oppressor. Rome’s military might was on full display.
It was also normal for some people to rebel against the status quo. So, the religious authorities, they flexed their own muscles in order to keep the people in line. All in all, it was a normal kind of celebration, despite the violence of Empire. Even though in their heart of hearts the people longed for a messiah to save them from their oppression. A messiah the likes of King David, who would ride in with majesty and strength to put down their oppressors and lead them to victory. And along comes Jesus, moseying into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. No military might. Resisting the temptations of violence and yet still turning the heads of the crowd if only for a moment. And we all know how it will end. Rome will do what empires always do, they will crush Jesus, make an example of him. Jesus will become an instrument of their terrorism. The people Jesus longed to awaken to a new way of being will not just turn their heads away, they will join in the crushing because Jesus threatens their own status quo. How dare he expect them to change their ways now! The have spent their lives accommodating the evils of empire. They’ve made their peace with violence; they have put their faith in power, in strength, and in might. Soon, so very soon, they too will cheer on the executioners, the powers that be. Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!
It’s perfectly normal. Totally expected. Over and over again the strong, the powerful, the violent, stomp all over the weak, the powerless, the idealistic dreamers, who dream of a different way of being in the world. So, why are we here? Why do we choose to bear witness to a parade which demonstrated that resistance to violence is a dead end? Why do we still talk about resisting violence when we know that it leads to death? I expect that we are here for all sorts of reasons, many of them quite normal under the circumstances. Some of us are here looking for company as we navigate our new normal. Some of us are here out of a sense of longing for the way things used to be. Some of us are here just because it’s Sunday and that’s what you do on Sundays. But I hope that in each of us, deep down, we are also here because we are sick and tired of normal. I hope that somewhere inside each of us there is pent-up desire for a messiah, a saviour, who will hear our Hosannas and save us from the incredible drag of normalcy.
I hope that some of us are here to access hope for a new way of being in the world! A way that resists that pull into the normalcy of violence. I hope that the reality that even though the powers that be threw everything they had at Jesus, perpetrated the worst kind of violence upon him that is humanly possible, even though Jesus died up there on that bloody cross, death did not have the final word. Jesus’ dream of peace through justice, of a world where everyone has enough, and greed is replaced with generosity, and shalom becomes a reality, Jesus’ dream never died. Death did not and will not have the final word. The hope for resurrection is waiting to burst forth.
This morning, our little baby brother, Lev was baptized into this hope. In the midst of all the violence, our brother Father Stephan, spoke about the support the Ukrainian people feel from the people of Canada, from North America and from Europe. It would be perfectly normal for us to turn our backs, to walk away, to get on with our lives. Especially, when the pundits keep telling us that it is only a matter of time, Russia will win this war. They have the military advantages.
Our brother, Father Stephan spoke this morning about his sadness yesterday at the five funerals for those who did not survive the violence. Father Stephen insisted that, “despite the sadness, we are living as a people who still have hope. We are not hopeless,” he went on, “but those who live with hope, hope in victory, hope that we will continue our life, hope that we will stop the war. Every funeral for us,” he said, “but also a moment for sadness and also a moment for hope. We are as a faithful people, in providing these funerals, we hope that one day we will meet our friends, our guys, our military, in the heaven we would together be. But now, during the funeral we are feeling responsibility that we have to follow their example and do all these good things which they show by their life, defending our country, defending the people, and dignity of human beings, the people in this war.”
A perfectly normal thing for a priest to say. I felt myself slipping back into the myth of redemptive violence, longing for some of that military might. But then my brother Stephan became the voice of hope, when he insisted, “We never stop to repeat that our hero’s never die. It means that they are living forever. Why because they never stopped to love, they laid down their lives to love this world, to love the people, to love their neighbours, and I think against all this hate, and evil which we see in the faces of our enemies, we are trying to be a people who are ready to love.”
Ready to love against all this hate, and evil. Father Stephan’s words ring out as the answer to our Hossannas. For we are the messiah. The LOVE which is DIVINITY lives and moves and has being, in, with, through, and beyond us. As for the faces of our enemies, Jesus’ dream that we can see in the faces of our enemies that they too are our sisters and brothers in CHRIST, this dream is our hope for resurrection.
Today, we can see the cross on the horizon, and there will be many more crosses ahead. There will be more violence, and more death. This is the normal state of affairs in our world. But this morning our little brother Lev was baptized into the Body of Christ. This morning, in Russia little sisters and brothers were also baptized. We do not live as ones without hope. Let the hosannas of our little sisters and brothers, friends and foe alike, let their hosannas ring in our ears and move our hearts to be LOVE in the world.
LOVE is not yet the normal way of being in the world. There are crosses which must be endured.
But death has not and will not have the final word. For we live in hope. Our hope lies in the not yet and already here Reign of LOVE in which justice and not violence is the way to peace. We live in hope by living lives, unafraid to be messiahs, bearing LOVE as we encounter the crosses of this world.
There are many crosses in sight and many more crosses beyond our sight, but there are many, many, many, more resurrections ahead. Resurrection will happen each and every time LOVE is brought to life in the world, in the tending of the sick, harboring of the homeless, healing the wounded, and seeking justice for the oppressed, and most of all in loving our neighbours and most of all in learning to love our enemies. This is the work of messiahs. Responding to hosannas, wherever and whenever we hear people crying out for LOVE. Let us be that LOVE in the world. Here and now. Amen.
I think her name was Anna. It’s difficult for me to remember her name because most people simply referred to her by her nickname. Of course, we never actually called her by that to her face because it was a nickname based upon the way she smelled. I knew her back in the 80s. We ran into each other at various different protest rallies or in meetings of advocacy groups. She part of many of the groups that I belonged to. Anna was an old hippie long before there were old hippies. She always wore sandals, a colourful peasant dress, and her long grey hair tied up in a bun on the very top of her head. Despite her funky attire, Anna wore a kind of elegance which allowed her to waft into any room and immediately command everyone’s attention. She was an absolute powerhouse, determined to seek justice for the oppressed whether they be members of First Nations, or women struggling for equal pay, the homeless seeking shelter, or banning the bomb. I remember going to my very first Earth Day rally, not because I was concerned about the environment back then in the 80s, but simply because Anna badgered a bunch of us into going with her. Anna never shut up about her many causes. So, much so that people would scatter when they knew was Anna coming into a room, lest she shame us into working for justice for this or that group of people who needed our advocacy.
To this day, I’m guessing that like me, everyone else who knew her was as afraid of Anna. Fortunately, we always knew when Anna was coming simply because her smell arrived long before she did. It also lingered long after she had left. Hence Anna’s nickname. As I say, I never did call her by her nickname to her face, nor did I ever hear anyone else use that name in her presence. But when her smell indicated that she was about to sweep into the room, or after we were left basking in her scent long after she had departed, that is when we used Anna’s nickname. To us, Anna was not so affectionately known as Coco. When I first heard “Coco”, I didn’t understand. Until, an old gentleman quietly explained, “Coco as in Coco Chanel.” My blank uncomprehending stare encouraged him to go on to explain that Anna’s unmistakable smell came from her liberal application of Chanel No.5. I didn’t know much about perfume back then. I still don’t know much about perfume. But one thing I did know is that Chanel No5 was and still is expensive. The only reason I knew this is because of all those cheap perfume bottles, I would buy to give to my mother and to my aunties. Chanel No.5 was way out of my price-range. I usually went for the larger bottles, The less expensive perfumes. You know the gift sets where you got bang for your buck – a big bottle of Yardley, with some dusting power thrown in for good measure. Those small bottles of Chanel No.5 couldn’t fool me.
I remember thinking at the time how odd it was for the ever-frugal Anna to buy such an expensive perfume. I’m mean, Anna was into recycling things long-before recycling was a thing. She never bought anything new. Everything was always on the cheap. For Anna to be wasting her money on expensive little bottles of perfume which she liberally splashed all over herself, well it just didn’t make sense. Especially, when she was always complaining about how she couldn’t afford to get her hair cut. And what about all those causes she was always collecting money for? Surely, her money would be better spent fighting for justice, all those she could never shut up about. “Coco” was our way of making fun of Anna’s extravagance.
Coco’s extravagance is one of the reasons I love the Parable of Jesus’ Anointing as it is recorded by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call John. The way John tells this parable, it takes place six days before Jesus’ last celebration of the Passover. John puts it like this, “Jesus went to Bethany, the village of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they gave a banquet in Jesus’ honour, at which Martha served. Lazarus was one of those at the table. Mary brought a pound of costly ointment, pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus, piping them with her hair. The house was full of the scent of the ointment. Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples—the one who was to betray Jesus—protested. “Why wasn’t this ointment sold? It could have brought nearly a year’s wages, and the money been given to poor people!” Judas didn’t say this because he was concerned for poor people, but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the common fund and would help himself to it. So Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You have poor people with you always. But you won’t always have me.””
Thanks to Coco, this parable and the word extravagance are intimately entwined. Extravagance in the face of danger and poverty. Of all the stories that this anonymous gospel-storyteller could have told about Jesus, why did he tell this one, and why did he tell it the way that he told it? What is the storyteller trying to tell us about the character of Jesus? I’ve studied this passage for decades and I’m still surprised at how full and lush, how extravagant the details of this story are. I’m also aware that most of those lush and oh so extravagant details are all too often lost on 21st century ears.
We are not first century Jews, so the pungency of this particular extravagance can all too easily elude us. There are details that first century Jews would have been overcome by. Details that we need to sniff out if we want to smell the pungent aroma of the spikenard that oozes, soothes, and anoints the feet of the one we claim to follow. This story has but a dozen sentences, but each and every sentence positively oozes with details; details which can open us to a kind of extravagance of our own.
Six days before the Passover. Every first century Jew would have understood that six days before the Passover, the biggest festival of the year, the roads and pathways would have been crowded with people heading to Jerusalem to celebrate. Jesus too would have been on his way to Jerusalem; Jerusalem, each and every one of the anonymous gospel-storyteller’s listeners would have known all too well what happened in Jerusalem. They like us, knew exactly what kind of execution awaited the political troublemaker, the justice seeking radical Jesus. Bethany, a small town just outside of Jerusalem, six days before the Passover and we all know that Jesus will not be passed over. Jesus will be just like a lamb to the slaughter when the Romans are done with him. There will be no Exodus for Jesus, no blood upon the lintels to save him. Six days before Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, the village of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.
Lazarus, with his sisters Martha and Mary are the only three people in the bible who earn the distinction of being named as people, “Jesus loved.” Lazarus, the rumors where ripe about Jesus raising Lazarus from the tomb. “There they gave a banquet in Jesus’ honour, at which Martha served.” Martha served; they would have heard of Martha’s service before. But do not think of housework here, the Greek word, dioconia is used here. At the end of the first century, the Greek word dioconia is a technical term used to refer to church leadership. Martha at the end of the first century would have been a name that the storyteller’s listeners would have been familiar with because Martha was a leader among the followers of the Way. Martha presided at the Passover, the Passover Meal the most important Jewish religious ritual of the first century. Mary brought a pound of costly ointment, pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair. Mary one of the three people in named in the bible as being loved by Jesus. Mary of Bethany, Jesus’ beloved, the woman the gospel-storyteller’s listeners would have remembered because Jesus praised her for concerning herself with Jesus’ teaching. Mary a student, a disciple of Jesus, interrupts the most important Jewish ritual of the year with a pound of costly ointment; a point of pure nard; spikenard, incredibly expensive, a whole year’s wages in the first century. Pungent, the smell would have been over-powering. All eyes on Mary; a woman, her hair down, first-century listeners would have had something to say about a woman in the company of men, with her hair down. She lets her hair down, no honourable woman would do such a thing, and with the pungent smell of expensive spikenard permeating the room, Mary proceeds to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. His feet, she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet. His feet, that would have sent tongues to waggin. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word for a man’s feet is often used as a euphemism for another, part of a man’s anatomy which, even now, modesty prevents me from mentioning in church. Those first century listeners would have been wondering, his feet, does this storyteller mean Jesus’ feet, or does he mean his feet? You know what I’m talking about??? “Feet.” A woman who Jesus loves, pours a year’s worth of wages, over Jesus’ feet, and then has the audacity to wipe the oil with her hair. Wait a just a minute, you mean to tell us, that she anointed Jesus’ feet with oil, his feet, in the middle of a religious ritual, his head maybe, people do that for kings, but not the feet. Only the dead have their feet anointed with oil.
What is this gospel-storyteller trying to tell us about Jesus? “The house was full of the scent of the ointment.” Nard is not the only thing which smells here. Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples—the one who was to betray Jesus—Judas protested. Judas Iscariot, by the end of the first century the very mention of Judas Iscariot would have raised the hackles of any audience who knew of the execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans, the Romans who had by the end of the first century, executed tens of thousands in Palestine, destroyed the Temple, burnt Jerusalem to the ground, and sent each and every Jew into exile. The name Judas Iscariot had in just a few sort decades become synonymous with the word “betrayer.”
Whether or not Judas Iscariot ever existed, or was simply, as our fiend Jack Spong taught me, simply a literary character designed to stand in for every betrayer who has every betrayed, you can be sure that the gospel-storyteller’s audience would have perked up at the mere mention of the name Judas. Just imagine the audacity of this character, selling Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver, and here he is protesting the use of a costly ointment as if he cares about the poor.
“Why wasn’t this ointment sold? It could have brought nearly a year’s wages, and the money given to the poor.” Even the gospel-storyteller can’t keep up the pretense when he adds: “Judas didn’t say this because he was concerned for poor people, but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the common fund and would help himself to it.” All these centuries later, we can hear them sniggering, Judas worried about the poor; indeed, pull the other one.
It is at this point that the anonymous gospel-storyteller, shows just what kind of storyteller he or she was when she/or he has Jesus say, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.”
We know that Jesus is about to die, and Mary is doing what needs to be done, the problem is not the ritual, the problem is the extravagance of the ritual. “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.” Here’s the rub, pardon the pun. The gospel storyteller has Jesus, Jesus of all people say:
“You have the poor people with you always. But you won’t have me.” Jesus, the champion of the poor, can he really be saying don’t worry about the poor because the poor aren’t going away. Of course not!!!
Jesus was, is, and forever shall be a Jew. The anonymous gospel-storyteller was Jewish. The first-century audiences would have been Jewish, or God-fearers, who were Jew’s in all but circumcision; the few Gentiles in the group would have been schooled in the Hebrew scriptures. What our 21st century ears rarely hear is the echo of the scriptures which would have sounded loudly and clearly in the minds of our first century ancestors. Remember, Jews learned their scriptures by heart. They could recite the words of Deuteronomy in the same way we can recite the words of commercial jingles.
So, hear what they would have heard, when the heard the words, “You have the poor with you always.” Hear the words of the 15th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy:
“If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that YAHWEH is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near.”and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing: your neighbor might cry to YAHWEH against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account YAHWEH will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Now hear again, the words of Jesus the Jewish rabbi: “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not have me with you always.” Surely, we all know exactly what to do about the poor, enough said, take care of the poor. We know what we need to do about the poor. But do we know what to do with Jesus? There’s the rub. How do we deal with Jesus?
What are we to do about Jesus? Poverty and extravagance, two realities. What are we who claim to follow Jesus to do about poverty and extravagance?Injustice and extravagance? War and extravagance? Resistance and extravagance?Justice seeking and peace making and extravagance?
Well, I can tell you what were not supposed to do. We are not supposed to deal with the poor as if we don’t have enough to help the poor. All too often, we act as if we are poor ourselves, as if we can’t afford to help. We are among the wealthiest people on the planet and still we worry about whether or not we can afford to help the poor. We earn more than our ancestors could ever dream of earning, we have more than our forebears ever had, and still we want to pay less tax, and spend less money for the common good. We live as if we scarcely have enough to get by let alone to help a neighbour or to follow Jesus into the streets to feed the hungry, and to heal the sick. We have all been trained to worry and to be conservative, and to act like tomorrow it will all be taken from us. It is not in us to be extravagant. And yet, just look at the extravagance in Creation. Every single time I see a flower, I’m blown away by Creation’s extravagance, just one variety of flower would have been amazing, half a dozen varieties of flowers would have been wondrous, but the sheer number of varieties and colours is positively extravagant.
We are surrounded by such beautiful pungent extravagant examples of the wealth of nature. Yes, we are called to be good stewards of all our many blessings. But we are also called to breathe deeply and feel the soothing healing balm which our blessings are. Yes, the poor will always be with us. But we know what we are supposed to do about the poor. So, let’s take care of the poor. We have more than enough to take care of everyone’s needs. We can well afford to welcome the refugees.
We also have more than enough to breathe deeply of our blessings and be extravagant. Extravagant with the poor and extravagant with all those, who like Jesus won’t always be with us. Life is not only precious. Life is short.
I remember a potluck picnic on the beach. It was after a long protest march, for a cause I have long since forgotten. Anna and I were sitting on a log, staring out at the sun which was just beginning to set. We had just finished an extravagant meal, people were milling around sipping wine and strategizing about how to achieve justice for whoever or whatever cause urgently needed our attention next. Anna leaned over to me as she pointed to the others, “They think I don’t know what they say about me”
I didn’t have the courage to respond. Anna stood up, smiled down at me, untied her long grey hair, and proceed to take off her clothes. Standing there, stark naked, Anna the wise old hippie, shook her head. “Remember” she said to me, and to me alone, “life is too short to worry about what people think of you! I may just be Coco to them. But I am also Anna bathed in the scent of a woman who understands what it means to be alive. So, Coco I am, and Coco I shall be!”
Anna began to twirl around and around, a kind of dance which she accompanied with a beautiful litany of thanksgiving for: “the beauty of the sun, the majesty of the ocean, the sweet smell of salt in the air, the gentle breezes kissing our skin, the shortness of our life, the splendor of wisdom, and the freedom to enjoy it all!”
Anna’s twirling stopped and she leaned down, kissed my cheek, and gently said, “Enjoy it all. Enjoy it all. Life is very short. Remember, we don’t have much time and that’s as good a reason as any to enjoy it all!” Then she straightened up, offered her naked breasts to the gentle breezes, and shouted to the others: “This Coco is going for a swim. Who’s with me?” With that, Coco turned toward the setting sun and led us all into the embrace of Creation.
Enjoy it all. Enjoy it all. Life is very short. We don’t have much time and that’s as good a reason as any to enjoy it all! All the extravagant blessings showered upon us! Enjoy! Then be about the work of justice-seeking and peace-making. Then give as extravagantly as you have been given. Enjoy!
So, the thing about stories, really good stories is that they have a life of their own. I suspect that most of us have heard these parables of loss so many times that it is the many and varied of interpretations of these parables, which tend to stick with us, rather than the details and circumstances under which these particular parables were born and raised. I’m guessing that in vast majority of the interpretations of these parables, the shepherd, the woman, and the father are usually identified as a symbol for the MYSTERY which we call GOD.
But if this MYSTERY really is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also, and we are in GOD and GOD is in us, then every character in every parable you have ever heard is in GOD and GOD is in every character. Now this doesn’t really present much of a problem with the first two parables of loss. We can wrap our heads around GOD embodied in a shepherd, and even GOD embodied as the woman who losses her coin. We do tend to point to those characters in order to personify the MYSTERY. So that it’s not just the characters’ actions which are pointed to as the workings of DIVINITY, but the characters themselves are viewed as stand ins or symbols of GOD Himself or Herself. When we do see ourselves in the story we are usually the lost the lost sheep or the lost coin and we take comfort in the reality that no matter how lost we may become GOD the supernatural being, out there, or up there, will find us. But when we begin to see the DIVINE MYSTERY, the CREATOR of the Cosmos, and try to imagine the ONE WHICH IS the GREAT I AM, WHO I AM, I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE, YAHWEH as so much more than a person, well the idea of a shepherd, or a woman, or even the father who loses his son, these mere personifications begin to lose their ability to symbolize the MYSTERY.
So, today I’m inviting you to stop trying to identify the DIVINE MYSTERY as an individual person in these parables. I also want you to resist making the story all about you. Don’t try to see yourself as a character in the story. You’re not a lost sheep, or a lost coin, or even a lost child. It’s not all about you. Let’s try to focus on what is actually happening in the story.
If we begin with what is actually happening in these parables, we will have to confess that these parables of the lost and the found are simply outrageous. If we fix our gaze upon the surface, we limit the power of these parables to do what parables are designed to do, to turn worlds and lives upside down and inside out. These parables have an air of foolishness about them, if we see them as simple stories told by Jesus about the way a personified god loves us.
Surely, Jesus can’t be pointing to the GREAT I AM, the MYSTERY which we call GOD and saying that GOD is a fool. For: Only a fool…. Would leave ninety-nine sheep to look for one lost sheep. Only a fool…Would leave the ninety-nine unguarded: to wander aimlessly, to be ravaged by some unknown predator, to fall prey to who knows what. Only a fool would leave to search for the stray who might be wounded, damaged, dying, not interested in being rescued. Only a fool…Would risk a reputation as a wise shepherd, a careful guardian of the known and secure, to seek one lone sheep.
Only a fool…Would find. Would restore, would be a shepherd, foolish enough to care enough to save the lost, the wandering, the lonely, the one outside the bounds of the flock. Only a fool…Would sweep and sweep and sweep, leaving her purse unguarded, to search for one lone coin. Only a fool…Would search and look and scour and puzzle, bend and peer, lift and move everything, to find a single coin. Only a fool… Would resist the contentment, the satisfaction of a purse fat with nine shiny, weighty coins. Only a fool… Would rather be relentlessly looking – for one small, lone coin when nine, known and countable, are all that are really needed. A small but secure fortune in hand. Only a fool… Would fret about the loss of a small insignificant coin. Only a fool…Would know the joy, the absolute delight of finding — what really isn’t needed. Only a fool would rejoice with such extravagance. Only a fool would be such a steward as this. Only a fool would welcome home with joy and abandon a wayward child who had used, rejected, dishonoured, and then returned only to try to use them again. Only a fool, would run head-long, open armed to kiss such a wayward fool, extravagantly bestow more household treasures, and expect the faithful to join in the rejoicing.Only a fool, would cajole the self-righteous, indignant child to join the celebration.
So, if Jesus isn’t describing the characteristics of a personified deity, is Jesus actually teaching us how to embody the LOVE which is DIVINITY here in the world? These parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons, point us in a direction of a way of being in the world characterized by foolish and passionate abandon. What is the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as Luke trying to tell his community with these parables? Did Jesus really believe that people ought to forsake everything they have in order to find the one thing they have lost?
Is the anonymous gospel-storyteller really saying that Jesus taught his followers to risk everything they have in order to find the one thing they have lost? Remember how many times these parables must have been told before they were written down. Remember the precarious nature of the lives of the people who first heard these parables. Why did they repeat these stories over and over again? Remember those first gatherings of the people who followed Jesus’ teachings met in secret because they feared for their lives. The occupying Roman forces not only publicly executed their teacher as a warning to any of Jesus’ would be followers, The Roman Empire, crucified as many dissenters as they could catch. Historians tell us that those roads which all lead to Rome, those roads were dotted with thousands of crucifixion sites. Thousands of rotting corpses were left nailed to crosses in order to terrify the masses into submission. The magnitude of loss was positively unbearable.
If we take off our rose coloured glasses, and pick up a pair of lenses permeated with the desire to resist persecution, violence, and the forces of Empire, these parables have the potential to inspire the kind of passion necessary to recover the one thing which is lost, justice. Justice without which there can be no peace. We can only begin to imagine the magnitude of what a conquered, oppressed, suffering people has lost.
But I suspect that justice, the kind of justice which ensures that everyone has enough so that everyone can live in peace, is something worth leaving behind everything you have in order to pursue. I suspect that even offering all you have to a wastrel and a scoundrel is worth a shot if it means finding peace.
I suspect that pulling brothers together who have genuine axes to grind is the kind of recklessness that is worth the risk, if those siblings can learn to work together to pursue justice.
Contemplating the miracle that these parables survived, were told over and over again, written down and preserved by people persecuted by empire, I have to believe that they are more than nice little stories all about how we should live.They have to be more than mere speculation about the character of YAHWEH, casting the CREATOR of ALL that is, was, and ever more shall be as a fool.
Because when you look at the shepherd, the woman, and the father in these parables, they come do come off as reckless fools, unless they are risking all that they have for the sake of something worth risking everything for.
These parables can’t just be about a lamb, or a coin, or even a couple of squabbling children. Nor can I believe that Jesus saw YAHWEH, the GREAT I AM as a fool.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the systems of domination and the pain inflicted by the unjust empires of our world. The reality of the systems in which we are intimately entangled is being played out on our screens. The injustice of it all explodes into our living rooms day after day. My own desire to resist the urge to respond to violence with violence weakens with every report of the injustices perpetrated as innocent lives are lost. I’m in real danger of losing my ability to follow Jesus on what appears to all the world to be the foolish path of non-violent resistance to empire. Not if it means risking all that we have for the sake of Jesus’ vision of peace through justice.
Sometimes, when I manage to muster up my courage and try to view these parables of loss through lenses of resistance, I can begin to feel a kind of reckless abandon welling up in me, inspiring the kind of passion, which tempts me to take leave of my senses, to risk everything for the sake of what is currently being lost. I can also hear the voice of reason condemning me as a fool. None of these parables is the stuff of everyday loss. I don’t think that Jesus, or his followers, or Luke, told these parables in order to teach their listeners about the character of YAHWEH.
Think about it, Jesus can’t have being trying to teach us that the DIVINE MYSTERY was a reckless fool. Nor were they trying to teach us to live as reckless fools. For none of us can do this kind of relentless, reckless abandon constantly. But I can, even now hear these stories told to inspire resistance to the violence and injustice of empire, for the sake of justice and peace. Living lives of reckless abandon is untenable. Jesus’ vision of the BASILEIA ton THEON, the Empire of DIVINITY, is not the world we live in.
The EMPIRE OF DIVINITY is not yet here. But there are times. There are times when … risks must be taken. Times when we must leave all that we have, all that we know, in order to seek, to find and to restore the lost, the abandoned, the wayward, and yes even the self-righteous religious types.
Yes, the shepherd should have been guarding the 99. Yes, the woman should have been content with her 99 coins. Yes, the father should never have trusted his sons with all that he had, and when his lost son showed himself to be untrustworthy, he shouldn’t have been welcomed with open arms, and as for the faithful, self-righteous son, well sometimes justice demands that we abandon the rules, if we are to achieve peace. Sometimes boundaries must be crossed in order to achieve justice.Peace-making requires risk-taking, and the reckless abandonment of some things we hold very dear.
When I can bring myself to read these parables through the lenses of resistance, I can begin to tell these stories as a call to resist. Resist making the characters in these parables all about us. Resist looking for a saviour in these parables who will find us and put everything back together for us. Resist reading into the parables a too small personal shepherd, woman, or father to act the part of a too small recklessly, foolish god. Resist the distractions of all that we have, all our treasures, our land, our homes, all the trappings of the empires in which we are entangled. Resist the empires to which we have lost the justice which has the power to create peace. Resist with reckless abandon, our fear of the very passions which flow from the LOVE which is the MYSTERY which allures us onto the pathways of justice and peace. Resist the illusion that finding what we have lost will be a sweet, harmless, story. Recklessly abandoning the status quo, is never sweet, never harmless.
The BASILEIA ton THEON may not yet be the world we live in, but the BASILEIA ton THEON is already here. They not yet but already here EMPIRE of DIVINITY is here in every stranger who welcomes a refugee, in every aid worker, doctor without borders, in every reckless fool who risks it all for the kind of justice which makes peace.
We don’t have to travel to Europe or Afghanistan, or Syria, or Myanmar to catch a glimpse of the EMPIRE of DIVINITY, for the not yet REIGN of LOVE is already here. You can catch glimpses of this LOVE resisting the violence of domination systems, in every champion of the environment, every compassionate advocate for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. You can see it in the reckless passion of justice-seekers fighting for affordable housing, equitable healthcare, and food security.
Jesus’ vision of peace through justice, what he called the BASILEIA ton THEON, the Empire of GOD, is the already but not yet SHALOM we long to find. It is the vison of the foolish who are prepared to risk it all for the sake of what we have lost, the SHALOM we long for. And each and every time we find what has been lost is a time for celebration. Especially when what was lost is restored.
So, when you catch a glimpse of the REIGN of LOVE, celebrate and as you celebrate remember to invite others into the party. What shalom there will be as SHALOM is restored through justice. When the peace which is lost breaks out and the lost, the forsaken, and the forlorn greet one another with open arms and go into the feast to celebrate, for what once was lost is found. Embrace the HOLY foolishness which lives, in, with, through, and beyond you. Risk it all for the sake of LOVE.
“I tell you, you will all come to the same end unless you change your ways.” The anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as Luke places these words on the lips of Jesus, and I have no difficulty believing this story of Jesus’ response to those who were grieving the tragedy of the deaths of the Galileans whose blood had been spilled as the result of political violence. “I tell you, you will all come to the same end unless you change your ways.” This is as true now as it was then. We shall all come to the same end unless we change our ways.
“Change our ways.” This phrase is translated from the Greek word metanoia – and I’ve spoken about metanoia many times — it is all too often translated simply as repent. Sadly, our understanding of the English word repent, is scarcely capable of capturing the depth of meaning in the Greek word metanoia. Taken at its most literal, the word metanoia means to turn around, to go another way. In first century Palestine, metanoia was often used to communicate the need to change the way you think, the way you see things, they way you respond to things, the way you act. To do things differently, to change our ways. To go beyond the mind you have, the way you think and respond to life or to change our ways. Unless we change our ways, we will all end up like the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their own sacrifices in the Temple.
Pontius Pilate, the appointee of the Empire which dominated the people in the lands it invaded with an iron fist. Pontius Pilate, so wicked that even his own Roman over-lords couldn’t stomach his abuses. So vile was Pilate, that even the powers that be in Rome were forced in the end to relieve him of his post and summon him back to Rome to face charges, for what today, we would call war crimes.
The Galileans of which Jesus’ spoke are believed to have been, the news of the day, the latest victims of Pilate’s cruelty, pilgrims to Jerusalem murdered on Pilate’s orders, their blood spilled as a public example to obey the Empire. Did they deserve their fate? The oppressed peoples of Palestine certainly didn’t believe so. They were good people, pilgrims fulfilling their religious obligation to visit the Temple, publicly displaying their piety. Then murdered in the public square, in front of the Temple, no less. A violation of everything the people held dear. Such good people, they surely didn’t deserve to die.
Why do bad things have to happen to good people? I don’t know about you, but that question resonates a little too well for me, right now. It rises from deep within my very core, causing my entire body rock back and forth. I’ve recognized this question rocking the bodies of others several times in the past few weeks. Most vividly of late in a young man, a boy really, a boy forced to grow up, far too soon. He’s kneeling before the butchered body of his mother, head in his hands, his whole body rocking back and forth, his mother’s blood running in the bombed-out street of a far-off town in Ukraine. His pain beamed around the world and into our own living-rooms, and it caused me to rock back and forth with him.
Why. It is a question on the lips of countless sisters and brothers all over the world this very morning. A question rocking the bodies of countless millions grieving, those who are grieving the spilling of blood and the oppression in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Myanmar, in Ukraine and in countless other locations all over the world. “I tell you, we’ll all come to the same end unless we change our ways.” Metanoia. Metanoia. Metanoia. You would think we would have learned by now. How much more innocent blood must be spilled before we learn that we’ll all come to the same end unless we change our ways.
Hypersonic. Hypersonic missiles. I’d never even heard of hypersonic missiles until just a few days ago. Nor had I thought much about NORAD recently. Remember NORAD? I’m old enough to remember those drills in school where we were taught that in the event of a nuclear attack we should hid under our wooden desks. We laugh at it now. It was as a child in school crouching under my desk, that I learned the acronym NORAD. North American Aerospace Defense Command. This week, the Canadian Commander General of NORAD warned us all about the treat of supersonic missiles something I’d never heard of before. But he warned us of this threat, these missiles which he predicted might lobbed in our direction. Then he came in with his clincher: the reality that we have no way to stop them. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Bad things it seems can happen even to good, upstanding, peace-loving Canadians. Albert Einstein is often credited with having lamented that “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”. Metanoia! “We’ll all come to the same end unless we change our ways.”
I know. I tried not to do this. This should be a day of celebration. It’s been two long years of pandemic isolation, and here we are together, in the flesh. It’s the first day of spring. We should be celebrating. We should be jumping for joy! We should be filled with the excitement as we anticipate what the future holds. And all this preacher can offer you is a warning. No wonder, churches can’t attract people back into their buildings. I could sugar-coat all of this. I know colleagues who do. No talk about what’s happening in the world. Let us pray. Let us just bow our heads and pray.
Maybe our prayers will stop us from rocking back and forth in despair. I too would like something more to offer Jesus saying, “you’ll all come to the same end unless you change your ways.” That’s the thing about truth, we know it deep within the very core of our being, that place where the rocking back and forth begins. The place where our “Why?” questions are kept. Deep within us. We know that unless we change our ways blood will continue to be spilled.
We also know that there are so very many of our ways which need to be changed in order to end the violence. Justice is a difficult taskmaster. Peace, real peace, the shalom Jesus lived for, demands armies of justice-seekers in order that peace can break out all over the planet. There’s so much to do. We are enmeshed in systems, in ways of being which demand the oppression, the poverty and the inevitable spilling of blood of innocents. What can we possibly do to achieve justice in the kinds of empires of domination in which we continue to live, and move, and have our being? We are but a handful of people. What can we possibly do?
Well, it turns out that there is so very much we can do. For we are wonderfully and beautifully made, capable of such astonishing deeds of compassion. Millions and millions of us have mobilized, armed only with our desire to offer comfort and support. About a million people a week have fled their homes in Ukraine. Their neighbours in Poland, Romania, Moldovia, Hungry, and various other places, they have opened their arms in welcome, offering shelter and comfort. Millions and millions and millions of dollars have been offered to meet humanitarian needs. They may have escaped the media’s attention but aid agencies, continue to mobilize colossal responses to the needs of those who are suffering in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria and countless other places were innocent people are suffering from the oppression and violence perpetrated by the empires in which we are enmeshed.
Yes, the needs are many and the workers are few. But we are all part of something so much bigger than ourselves. We can shrink in despair, or we can roll up our sleeves, join together, pool our wisdom and our resources, and tend the vineyard. That’s what prayer is. Prayer begins with our “why?” moving deep within us. Prayer flows through our tears and rocks our bodies in ways we have the power to ignore and the power to respond to with action.
Yes, the suffering is immense. Yes, the injustice, the oppression, the hatred, and the greed seems insurmountable. Yes, it is tempting to offer up a few prayers, post something positive on social media, wear a ribbon, and then shake it off, move on to the next thing, comforting ourselves with the idea that we are only one person. What can we possibly do in the face of so much suffering in the world? We can do? What can we do? We can do what we all too often do; we can allow ourselves the luxury of turning away. We can turn away and we can resign ourselves to the fact that we can’t change and so, yes we too shall perish. Or we can refuse to accept that we are less than splendid creatures. Billions of years of evolution resulted in the creation of our species. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
We can do so much more than we are doing. We can change our ways. The MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of REALTY lives, and moves, and has being, in, with, through, and beyond us. We are intimately connected to one another in ways which will take more than our lifetimes to comprehend. We are in the DIVINE MYSTERY which is LOVE and this LOVE which is DIVINITY is in us. Each one of us is a beautiful expression of the DIVINE MYSTERY which IS LOVE. The SPIRIT of LOVE has been at work for billions of years finding expression in the wonders of Creation. Right here and right now, this LOVE is expressed in, with, through and beyond us, seeking justice and making peace.
Unless we change our ways, we will perish. So, might I suggest that we begin by changing up our questions a little. How about instead of “why” we begin to ask “what?” What will people learn about the MYSTERY which is DIVINITY when they encounter us? What LOVE will they discover living in, with, and through us? What justice will they see us seeking? What peace will they see us making? When people encounter us, “What” expression of DIVINITY will they encounter us?
Don’t like the question “what?” Then ask, “HOW?” How can I embody the LOVE which is the SOURCE of all being, right here and right now? How can I become the answer to my prayers? How can I become the answer to their prayers? Maybe now is not the time for our questions. Maybe now is the time for us to change our ways, so that no more blood needs to be spilled. We, together with all those we are intimately connected with, we are the answer to our prayers, to our questions, to our longings for justice and peace.
There is so very much more that we can do, right here and right now. Let us join our efforts to the efforts of the countless millions who are right now, seeking justice, right now making peace. Yes, there is lots of work for us to do. More work than we can even begin to imagine. But when we begin to understand that LOVE finds expression in us, LOVE which is beyond our ability to even begin to imagine, finds expression in us, then we begin to see endless possibilities.
There’s a mishmash of quotes attributed to the Talmud which has been going around these days, which has become for me an answer to, the seemingly endless work which lies before us. It goes like this, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon the work.” The good news is we are fearfully and wonderfully made, capable of changing our ways. So, let us metanoia, now. For we have a whole lot of LOVE in us and a whole lot of LOVing to do. Metanoia, now. Be LOVE in the world. Now.
The images of the horrific war in Ukraine together with the prescribed readings for this second Sunday in LENT have me thinking about tribalism. My first temptation was to ignore the first reading from Genesis. I was not planning to include it in our worship because we have all born witness to far too much bloodshed as our sisters and brothers of Ukraine are relentlessly attacked, killed, and wounded by our sisters and brothers of Russia. This week, I have heard the word unimaginable uttered by pundits and friends alike and each time it is expressed I want to scream, “this bloodshed is all too imaginable! Indeed, this bloodshed is part of the foundational imaginings of our very own tribes. We need not look farther than the Book of Genesis to soak ourselves in our own bloodthirsty imaginings!”
The story which will be read in worship services of most mainline Christian church this very Sunday is a foundational myth about the patriarch of the world’s three powerful religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Our foundational myth from the 15th chapter of the Book of Genesis, goes like this: the word of YAHWEH came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram! I AM your shield; I will make your reward very great.” Abram said, “But my Sovereign, My God, what good are these blessings to me, so long as Sarai and I will die in disgrace? My only heir is a foreigner who lives in my household, Eliezer of Damascus. Since you have given me no offspring,” Abram continued, “An attendant in my house will be my heir.” Then the word of YAHWEH came to Abram and said, “This person will not be your heir. Your heir will be of your own flesh and blood.” Then God took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can! As many as that, you will have for descendants.” Abram believed YAHWEH and God accounted it to Abram as righteousness. YAHWEH the said to Abram, “I AM YAHWEH who brought you from UR of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession.” Abram asked, “Sovereign God, how am I to know that I will possess it?” God answered Abram, Bring me a heifer, a goat, and a ram, each three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”Abram brought all of these, cut them in half, and place each half opposite the other—except the birds, which he did not cut up. Birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. As the sun was about to set, a trance fell over Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him. When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking brazier and a flaming torch appeared, which passed between the halves of the sacrifices. On that day YAHWEH made this covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates: the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadomonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephaim, the Aorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18)
Here ends the reading. This is not the Gospel. Not because it is the first reading. But because it is not good news for anyone at all. There’s something about those bloodied, split, rotting carcasses which sealed the deal between God and Abraham that makes me wonder about the nature of the god we have projected into the heavens and ask: “Have we evolved at all?”
This foundational myth portrays the MYSTERY which we call “GOD” as a god who promises to “His” “Chosen People” a deal which reduces this god to little more than a churlish player in humanity’s game of tribal rivalry. I am aware that in the evolution of humanity tribalism has often served us well. I would even go so far as to agree that tribalism continues to serve 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. It has been from the very beginning of time. Tribalism 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, from the congregation to the denomination, from the denomination to the religion. 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.
Humankind 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. 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 to 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, the fascists, or the terrorists. Of late, we have begun to hear our Russian sisters and brothers described as monsters.
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 sustain our tribal thinking.Religions are all too often, very deep expressions of a tribal mentality which worships a tribal god. Our foundational myth, is the story of Abram a wandering Aramaean, who is about to become the father of many nations.
Abram has a vision; a vision in which his god promises to give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky if Abram only promises to worship YAHWEH as his only god. To seal the promise YAHWEH enacts an ancient tribal custom, common in Mesopotamia. Centuries ago, in the days of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, custom dictated the appropriate manner in which a bargain was to be sealed. When two parties entered into an agreement, a covenant, they would take a bunch of good-sized animals, slaughter them, sever them into halves, clear a path between the pieces, and require that each partner to the agreement walk between them as a sort of self-curse. Kind of like: “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” By passing through the severed bodies of the animals, each partner says, in effect, “May the same thing happen to me if I do not keep my word.”
The whole thing sounds so very barbaric to our modern ears. But this story is part of the foundation of the narrative which begins the narrative of YAHWEH’s covenant with the self-described “chosen people.” The last two verses of this story are not usually read in church. The crafters of our lectionary leave them out; perhaps because they are so very offensive. But I would argue that we must include them because it is important for us to remember that tribalism permeates our foundation myths.
“When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking brazier and a flaming torch appeared, which passed between the halves of the sacrifices. On that day YAHWEH made this covenant with Abram: To your descendants I give this land, from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates: the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanite, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”
The Promised Land, the land which this image of the DIVINE promised to the chosen people was not some vacant lot somewhere, waiting for inhabitants to come and enjoy the bounty of milk and honey which flowed there. The Promised Land was inhabited by many tribes; tribes who worshipped other gods. And there have been wars and rumours of wars in the Promised Land from that day to this. The image of YAHWEH painted by this story is not a particularly glorious one if you are anything other than the Chosen People. The Kenizzites the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephiam, the Amorites, the Canaanite, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites, rue the day YAHWEH chose the descendants of Abram over them.
This image of a tribal god is offensive to our modern ears. We much prefer the more evolved image of God which Jesus paints in the gospel text for this Sunday. “Jerusalem, O, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird collects her babies under her wings—yet you refuse me! “ (Luke 13:13-35)
This MOTHER-HEN-GOD is a far cry from the YAHWEH of Genesis. Sadly, this MOTHER-HEN-GOD is rarely imagined, let alone embodied by Christianity. Except perhaps when Christians, resort to a kind of “my tribe is better than your tribe” kind of one-upmanship which points to Jesus’ portrayal of the ABBA as a kinder gentler version of Judaism’s violent GOD. Forgetting all the while that Jesus is, was, and ever more shall be Jewish. Not to mention the fact that this Jewish Jesus is hailed by the vast majority of Christians to be the blood sacrifice sent to appease their very own image of the DIVINITY, as a scapegoating, Father willing to send his own beloved son to be murdered. Not to mention the part about this particular tribal image of the DIVINE goes on to insist that every tribe must believe in their version of events, or their very own Father God will toss them into the fires of Hell where they will be burn in torment for all eternity. This all out rejection of the MOTHER-HEN-GOD must be maintained at all costs in order to ensure obedience to the tribal hierarchy, the domination system which so many churches embody.
Don’t. I know that right about now, you are tempted to point to some other tribe of Christians and condemn them. Those ones not us are the churches which cling to primitive theologies while absolving your very own tribe’s theology of any error. The temptation to see only the best in ourselves while condemning the worst in others is in and of itself indicative of a kind of tribal mentality which does not serve humanity well.Tribalism may well have been an asset in the human struggle to survive during our early evolutionary development. But there is a primitive dark side of tribalism which feeds on our fear and stunts our evolution. Unless these destructive aspects of tribalism are transcended, a deeper more compassionate, peaceful, humanity cannot be realized. We cannot transcend what we fail to recognize.
At this moment in our collective history, it is possible to recognize the role of tribalism in the war Russia is inflicting upon the people of Ukraine. Even as Putin insists that Kiev is the birthplace of Russia, he can also insist that Russia acts with impunity because the Ukrainians have deviated from his own Russian tribal narrative which sees Ukraine moving toward western notions of democracy. This threat to Putin’s tribal insistence upon compliance is further acerbated by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s perceived defiance of the Russian Orthodox Church’s claim of authority.
Religious, political, economic, ethnic, cultural, and military expressions of one tribe verses the religious, political, economic, ethnic, cultural, and military expressions of another tribe propel the whole world toward the possibility of the kind of violence which is propagated on the threat of mutual inhalation. As our worst fears escalate our desire for peace, we in the West are quick to recognize an affinity with the religious, political, economic, ethnic, and cultural expressions of the Ukrainian people. So, we quickly mobilize everything we deem to be safe for us to mobilize in order to offer comfort and support to Ukraine, while never once recognizing the ways in which our own tribal instincts have been aroused.
While I’d like to believe that we, you know our tribe, we Westerners, especially we Western Christians, and most especially we progressive christians, we have risen above our tribal instincts. But then I remember the reality of the plight of the woman of Afghanistan which has slipped from our radar, and it causes me to tremble. My trembling increases when I realize my very own failure to express any tangible aid or comfort to the starving millions, who face even more dire consequences as the result of this war.
What is it about those tribes which fails to compel me to weep in the way the fleeing Ukrainians can? I must confess that I am racist. I do not want to be racist. But I can find no other explanation to our current reality than the racism which inevitably flows out of tribalism. And so I tremble. Just like the words of that old American spiritual, which we sing every Good Friday. I tremble, because once again, over and over again, LOVE is crucified by tribalism.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that we should not be consumed by the plight of our Ukrainian sisters and brothers. We should celebrate the tribalism in us which evokes kinship and compassion. We should do everything in our power to provide aid and comfort to our Ukrainian sisters and brothers.
What I am saying is that we should also do everything in our power to provide aid and comfort to our Afghani, our African, our Syrian, our sisters and brothers in Myanmar, and yes everything we can to provide aid and comfort to our Russian sisters and brothers. I’m not there yet. I still hesitate at the thought of providing aid and comfort to the enemy. I have much to learn about what LOVE for our enemies looks like. But if humanity has any hope at all of becoming all that we are created to be, we must learn that it is not either this tribe or the other tribe.
Escaping our destructive tribal mentalities and the inherent racism which flows from tribalism is not an either-or equation. Being LOVE in the world calls us into a both-and equation as we struggle to LOVE our enemies in ways which benefit this tribe as well as that tribe. Transcending the destructive racism which flows from tribalism cannot begin until we confront the racism which we do not want to see in ourselves.Once recognized we can begin to transform our behaviours and be about the task of being LOVE in the world.
The three world religions which look to Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar as the founders of our faith, bear a special responsibility to transcend our tribalism; for Judaism, Christianity, and Islamic religions undergird the very tribalisms which rely on the acquiesce of our religious institutions. Our primitive images of the CREATOR continue pose an imminent danger to our planet as tribes and nations parade around the world proclaiming with their lives that our god is bigger than your god. Sadly, our collective images of the MYSTERY we call GOD have failed to represent the CREATOR of all we hold dear in ways which foster peace. Recognition of our failures is the only way we can begin to transcend the destructive aspects of our various tribal practices. Each of us must begin where we are, in our own tribe, embodying what our tribal allegiances proclaim: that the CREATOR of all that is and ever shall be, the MYSTERY we call GOD, according to the revelations we hold dear, is BEAUTY, JUSTICE, and LOVE.
So, if you feel a particular kinship affinity for the people of Ukraine, you must embody the BEAUTY, JUSTICE, and LOVE which has been revealed to you in the life, teachings, and death of Jesus by doing whatever you can to provide aid and comfort to the people of Ukraine. Celebrate the aspects of tribalism which contributes to our evolution as humans, the tribalism which allures us into UNITY. Empathize with the victims of this war and then do something, anything, and everything you can, for we are richly blessed. As our Jewish sisters and brothers believe, teach, and embody, we are blessed to be a blessing.
As you embody LOVE for those who have evoked this strong tribal affinity in you, challenge yourself. Ask yourself, why these and not those. Recognize the destructive aspects of tribalism which motivate you.Challenge yourself to see and then transcend the racism which flows out of our tribalism. I’m learning that the only thing worse than a racist is a person who fails or refuses to see the racism which lives in them. The destructive aspects of tribalism which foster racism in us do not serve humanity. They only serve our fear while creating even more indifference and violence.
We who are privileged to live in safety must challenge ourselves to transcend the racism which motivates both our indifference and our compassion by challenging ourselves to also provide aid and comfort to a tribe we feel no affinity for. We must empathize with the victims of war, all wars, and then we must do something, anything, everything we are able for them, those others, the ones we feel little or no affinity for. For we are richly blessed and as our Islamic sisters and brothers proclaim with their almsgiving, charity is pleasing to the DIVINE, for the DIVINE is charitable. Charity comes from the word which means LOVE.
LOVE is of the DIVINE, so be LOVE, for you are made of the DIVINE. You don’t have to do it all, but you do have to do something. We are called to be LOVE in the world, LOVE to the members of every tribe, every nation, clan, and people. We are blessed to evolve into the embodiment of the MOTHER-HEN-GOD embracing, enfolding, tut tutting, cluck clucking, as we gather together the of the children of the DIVINE to provide aid and comfort to every tribe and nation.
So, you LOVEly chickadees, grow a pair. Wings that is. The HOLY Wings which will embrace every tribe and nation in LOVE. Be that LOVE in the world.
View the full Worship Service for the Second Sunday in Lent below