Whenever I come across Jesus’ words, “Follow me”, I can’t help remembering my Nannie. Nannie was from Belfast and whenever we got into a tough spot, Nannie would laugh and say, “Follow me! I’m right behind you!” Like many Irish sayings, on the surface it sounds ridiculous, laughable. How can I follow you if you are behind me? And then the penny drops, and you realize how can I follow you if you aren’t behind me? Good leaders always have your back.
So, fellow followers of the Way, what does it mean for us to respond to Jesus’ invitation, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of people”? For generations this invitation has been interpreted by the church as a mission. Jesus wants you to go out there into the world and fish for people. There’s plenty of fish in the sea! So, let’s go out there and get them, hook, line, and sinker, and then let’s reel ‘em in, in here. Let’s fill up our nets, so that the church will be full to overflowing. As my Nannie would say, “Ah Jesus!”
Ah Jesus, if only it were as simple as that! Some of us are of an age where we can remember hordes of little children standing up in front of congregations, singing their little hearts out, casting imaginary fishing rods, and reeling em in.“I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men. I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.” If you follow me?
Ah Jesus? What are we doing wrong Jesus? Come on Jesus. How about it? Won’t you lead us back to the good old days? If only we could point Jesus in the right direction? It certainly would make following Jesus easier if only Jesus would lead us where we want to go? Trouble is, Jesus never was much interested in taking people where they want to go.Continue reading →
I never in a million years dreamt that I would begin a sermon by quoting not the scriptures but Alice in Wonderland, but…“The time has come” the walrus said, “to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships—and sealing wax—of cabbages and kings”
To say that the last couple of years have been unusual, would be an understatement of epic proportions. These days, it is as if we are all following Alice in Wonderland and together the world has gone through the looking glass and we find ourselves in a strange new world, were up is down and down is up, facts no longer matter, the way forward has a strange orange hue about it, and I can’t quite see a path through to reality. Everywhere I look the darkness appears deeper and darker than I ever imagined possible. Just when I think I have seen a glimmer of light to guide me, the orange hue blinds me with its outrageous, narcissistic, bellicose, outpourings of hubris, designed to lead us all up the garden path. For days, I’ve felt strangely uneasy. I don’t know where to turn, how to feel, or what to do and there is nowhere, I mean nowhere, I can flee to; nowhere to escape the darkness of this strange new world.
As my stomach churns at each outrageous upheaval of basic human decency, and I feel in every fiber of my being the impending dangers, as we all bear witness to the abandonment of common sense, as the Mad Hatter tweets his demands that we all believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” It is true dear friends, the leader of the so-called free world is a mad hatter who is going to make America great again. Welcome to wonderland, a strange world where a man in a read baseball hat, a thrice bankrupt, reality tv celebrity, comb-over, lives in a world oblivious to reality and we all now live in a wonderland not of our choosing but rather in his peculiar dream; a nightmare in which, just like Alice’s Wonderland we find ourselves falling, spiraling downward into the rabbit hole to a world where, “everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be wat it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”
My memories of the story of Alice’s boat ride down the river are distant and vague, I can’t for the life of me remember how when, or how she emerged from her voyage. These past couple of days, I’ve tried to imagine Jesus walking along the shore calling me to abandon my own small boat. I can just about hear Jesus calling me, “Come follow me.” But I can’t quite seem to imagine where Jesus will lead us. I want to abandon my small boat, but today even the shore looks treacherous.
So, bobbing up and down, my queasiness increases as I struggle to hold down the bile that keeps rising up in me. I thought I was doomed to ceaselessly bobbing up and down in this upside down wonderland, and then I through the light of my own white hot anger, I began to see beyond the topsey-turvey madness that threatens to become our new normal. My anger was inspired by a sermon I did not hear but was directed to by a colleague whose anger was whiter and hotter than my own. It was a sermon delivered on Friday morning by the Reverend Robert Jeffress at a very special worship service attended by the mad-hatter himself. It was the sermon that the orange, self-aggrandizing, braggart, heard immediately before taking the oath of office that would give him the football; I’m talking about “the football” the one that launches not a game but the horrendous destruction of all that we hold dear upon this planet; the nuclear codes were in his possession when the mad hatter was treated to a sermon the likes of which cause me to tremble, tremble, tremble….
According to the Washington Post and I quote:
“The sermon was delivered by Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, who compared Trump to the story of the biblical leader Nehemiah who helped rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its walls after the people of Judah had been exiled from the land of Israel.
Israel had been in bondage for decades, Jeffress explained, and the infrastructure of the country was in shambles, and God did not choose a politician or a priest but chose a builder instead.
The first step of rebuilding the nation, Jeffress said, was the building of a wall around Jerusalem to protect its citizens from enemy attack.
“You see, God is not against building walls,” Jeffress said in his sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in D.C.
Nehemiah, according to the biblical account, completed the project in 52 days. Why was Nehemiah so successful in building the wall and rebuilding the nation?
Jeffress said that Nehemiah refused to allow his critics to distract him, noting how some people still don’t believe Trump will succeed in his agenda.
Nehemiah, Jeffress said, had two antagonists named Sanballat and Tobiah. “They were the mainstream media of their day,” he said.
“They continued to hound and heckle Nehemiah and spread false rumors while he and the Israelites were building the wall.”
He noted that Nehemiah answered his critics by saying: “I’m doing a great work. . . . Why should I stop the work and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). Trump’s work, he said, “is a work far too important to stop and answer your critics.”
Nehemiah faced setbacks, Jeffress noted, including an economic recession, terrorist attacks from enemies and discouragement among the citizens.
“The true measure of a leader is what it takes to stop him,” he said.
“And knowing you, I believe it’s going to take a lot to stop you.”
Jeffress said Trump has assembled an “unbelievably talented group of advisers” and has Vice President-elect Mike Pence by his side, “a great and godly man.”
“Mr. President-elect, I don’t believe we have ever had a president with as many natural gifts as you,” he said.
But, Jeffress said, “we need God’s supernatural power.”
He said Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” resonated with Americans and that “Psalm 33:12 gives us the starting point for making that happen: ‘Blessed — great — is the nation whose God is the Lord.’” Unquote.
JEEZZZES H CHRIST!!! Suddenly, the bile rose in me, only now, I refuse to stifle it. I am angry. I am angry that the scriptures have been transformed into succor for a narcissistic, megalomaniac, whose dreams and visions threaten all that I hold dear. Now I know that there are those among you who might counsel me to calm down. Well that’s just not going to happen. Living in the land of the shadow of death, the light has dawned and I happen to believe that anger, I’m talking about hot, vivid, piercing, anger is the only light that people who are living in darkness have available to them at this moment in time. I ain’t about to calm down. In fact I hope that I can provoke or tap into some of the anger that’s gotta be rising in so many of you right about now. You see, I can hear Jesus call us, and I hope that you too can hear Jesus calling us from the shore to abandon our small boat and follow him.Continue reading →
When I was in my early twenties, I grew weary of sharing space and I decided that I wanted an apartment all to myself, despite the fact that I couldn’t really afford an apartment all to myself. But I was determined and that’s how I ended up living in a very rough neighborhood in the east end of Vancouver. My parents weren’t’ very happy about the neighbourhood and worried about the unsavory characters that lived in the run-down building where I found a spacious one bedroom apartment that I could just about afford. The apartment was just a couple of blocks away from the office where I worked, so I was able to walk to work. I ignored all the warnings of my family and friends and I convinced myself that I could handle anything that came my way.
In my heart of hearts I was rather pleased to be living in such a poor rough and tumble neighbourhood. I was young and foolish and the neighbourhood was exciting. Every Sunday I would make the trip back to my home church in the suburbs. Sometimes I would make a second trip out during the week to attend a Bible study. Like so many young people, I was harsh in my criticisms of the elaborate life-styles of my elders. At bible studies, I was always bringing up the plight of the poor and the oppressed and challenging people to do something. Various members of my own family often accused me of being a bleeding heart liberal. I wore their criticism with a certain amount of pride, convinced that I was living out my beliefs.
Although I walked to work each day, I didn’t know any of my neighbours, until one morning I was surprised by a knock on my apartment door. I wondered how anyone would get past the lock on the front door. So, I peered through the peephole and was relieved when I saw a young woman at my door. I unbolted the door and in swept Brenda. Brenda was all smiles and laughter as she explained that she and her roommates were out of coffee and she wondered if I might be able to lend them some coffee. When I explained that I had just used up the last of my coffee making my own morning brew, Brenda told me not to worry, she and her roommates would be happy to join me. When Brenda returned, she introduced her roommates, Janice and Sue and we all sat down together for our morning coffee. Continue reading →
“What are you looking for?” It takes a special kind of person to venture out on a cold and snowy January morning to come to church. So, let me ask you again, “What are you looking for?”
The people of Jesus’ day were looking for a Messiah to come and save them from the injustices perpetrated by the Romans. Many of them believed that they’d found the kind of saviour that they were looking for in Jesus. But Jesus refused to be the kind of messiah that they were looking for. Jesus refused to lead them in an armed revolt against the Romans. Jesus called them to a different path; a path that required them to renounce violence, hatred, and greed; a path that demanded not violent resistance, love of enemy, and care for the poor and marginalized among them. Jesus’ way of being in the world was not an easy path to walk.
Already, in the gospel according to John we see those early followers of Jesus, retelling the story of Jesus in ways that recast him into the role of the messiah that they longed for. Over time, the storytellers, the theologians, and the church has pointed to Jesus and declared, “Look, there’s God’s sacrificial lamb, who takes away the world’s sin!” For generations, too many of us have looked to Jesus to take away our sin. Believing that all we need to do is believe and Jesus will save us. Like so many who have gone before us we have wanted Jesus to be the kind of saviour who would save us from our sinfulness.
Our ancestors defined sin as missing the mark. Who can live a life without missing the mark? Surely, there is someone, who can offer us some way of living a life without missing the mark, for each time we miss the mark, there is sadness, pain, suffering and death. Surely there is someone who can save us from all this? But Jesus refuses to be the kind of messiah that we want. Jesus calls us not to believe in him, but follow him, follow him to passionately non-violently resist injustice, follow him by loving our enemies, follow him to care for the poor and the marginalized among us.
Believing in Jesus won’t save us. Becoming a Christian, Muslim, Jew, agnostic, atheist, Buddhist, or New Ager won’t save us. Only our shared humanity will save us. Jesus lived and taught a way of being human that spoke directly to our common humanity and called us to walk a path that would lead humanity to a new way of being in the world. But what are we looking for? Are we looking for a different kind of Messiah than one who will not save us from our troubles?
Our friend Pete Rollins tells a story of this kind of longing. Pete speaks of an: “old Buddhist parable that tells the story of a young woman who gives birth to a beautiful baby girl. But after only a few weeks the child dies and the woman is distraught. She wraps the child’s body in linen and then she wraps the child’s body to her own, and she goes in search of someone, of anyone who could resuscitate her child. She goes to faith healers, and witch-doctors. She talks to the tribal elders. But nobody can help.Continue reading →
When I turn the gospel according to John and read about John the Baptist pointing to Jesus, saying: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” I want to scream, “NO!” I have come to believe that our images of God are far too narrow. As far as I’m concerned most of our ideas about God fall far short of ever even beginning to describe who God might be. One thing I’m absolutely certain of is if we can imagine ourselves being more loving, more gracious, or more merciful that our theology suggests that God is, then we had better go back to the drawing-board and think again. The ways in which we have traditionally interpreted the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, paint a picture of a God who is far less loving, gracious or merciful than you or I. Nobody in this room, would demand a blood sacrifice of a lamb, let alone the blood sacrifice of their own child. So, the image of God that is based on this kind of theology must be judged as inadequate to the task of evening beginning to provide us with a glimpse of who our God is.
As we go back to the drawing-board, we ought to take a long hard look at how we arrived at this image in the first place. Thank goodness for the work of our friend Jack Spong who has enabled us to see beyond the literal to the more-than-literal meanings of the various ways in which the followers of Jesus have understood the life and teachings of Jesus. During the years that followed the crucifixion, Jesus’ followers were left wondering what it was all about. How could someone in whom they had seen the fullness of God, be taken from them in such a horrendous way? How could their God allow it? What were they to do? Over the years that followed, Jesus’ followers looked back at the life, death, and resurrection of Christ through the lens of their own religious experiences. Jesus’ followers were primarily Jewish and so it didn’t take long for the familiar Jewish symbol of the Lamb of God to be applied to Jesus as a way of making some sense out of his death. Today most Christians associate the symbol of the Lamb of God with the Jewish celebration of Passover. While the Gospel narratives do indeed locate the time of Jesus death during the celebration of the Passover, and there is indeed a sacrificial lamb involved in the Passover, the actual phrase “the Lamb of God” comes not from the religious rites of Passover, but rather the religious rites of Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement. Phrases like “the Lamb of God”, “died for our sins” and “washed in the blood of the lamb” can all be found in the religious rites of Yom Kippur. Continue reading →
On Monday, Western Christendom celebrated Epiphany as we heralded the arrival of wise folk from the East, from a place we know call Iran. By Wednesday, the world was mourning the crash of Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 over the skies of Iran. By Friday, it was clear that the crash was no accident, that 176 people were murdered by some not so wise folk from the East in retaliation for the assassination of the most celebrated of all Iranian Generals. By Saturday, the pundits, the folks who claim to be wise, continued to argue over who is to blame. Was Iran totally responsible or does the orange ruler who sits on the most powerful throne on the planet ultimately to blame for plunging the world into madness? Today, still reeling from the reality that so many of the victims of this insanity were our very own kin, returning to Canada after visiting family and friends. Today, Canadians and Iranians are united in grief; grief at the loss of life, grief at the apparent inevitability of war as systems of domination clash. Today, we gather to do what Christians do on the Sunday after Epiphany, we gather to remember our baptism through the stories told by our ancestors about the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth.
What possible wisdom, comfort, or challenges can this story of a baptism which happened in the Jordan River nearly 2000 years ago offer to us on a day like today? Not much. Not much that is if we choose to remember this story the way the church all too often remembers this story. For centuries the church has adopted a kind of collective amnesia when it comes to baptism. We have chosen to forget the power of this story to inspire resistance to the very systems which continue to prevent us from living in peace. We have forgotten so very many of the contours of this story which, if remembered drag us out of our preoccupation with our own selfish needs toward a lifestyle of resistance to what has become the status quo. Where once the story of Jesus Baptism inspired his followers to deny allegiances to the powers that be so in order to take upon themselves a new way of being in the world, generations of amnesia have left us marching in lock-step to the drumbeat of violence even as we claim allegiance to the Prince of Peace.
So, what have we 21st century would be followers of Jesus, forgotten about this story of Jesus baptism in the first century? Well, for starters we have forgotten that our first century ancestors risked everything when they chose to be baptized. Jesus contemporaries lived under the oppression of not one but two domination systems. Under the domination of what was the mightiest Empire the world had ever seen, first century people living in Palestine whether they be Jew or Gentile were required on pain of death to swear allegiance to Rome. The act of swearing allegiance was called in Latin a “sacramentum” – that’s right our word sacrament comes from the word sacrementum which means “to vow” or to “swear an oath” or “to pledge allegiance.”Continue reading →
Wading into the waters of baptism is no simple matter for a progressive Christian. Once you leave the myth of perfection in some distant garden back there in the mists of time, reject the notion of humanity’s fall from grace as a result of original sin, and give up worshipping the sadistic image of a god who demands a blood sacrifice, it’s difficult to navigate the waters of baptism without spouting notions that the institutional church condemns as heresy. But today is the day when the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the stories about the baptism of Jesus that have been handed down to us by our ancestors suggest that on this day of all days, we should have the courage to follow Jesus into the river of life even if it does challenge some of our long held assumptions about what it means to be a child of God.
I venture into these troubled waters as someone who treasures the sacrament of baptism. Long before I ever entertained the idea that I might one day respond to the call to become a baptizer, I became a lover of this particular sacrament of the church. I am now, and I have always been one of those people who find it almost impossible not to shed a tear or two at baptisms. The beauty of all that hope and expectation all wrapped up in the guise of a tiny little human has a way of generating in me a watery contribution as my tears join the sprinkling to wet the babies head. When the baptized is an adult my tears flow even more bountifully. Let’s face it folks these days the reality is that infant baptisms are rare enough. Adult baptisms, especially in mainline churches are so rare that the nostalgia alone is enough to send us into spasms of uncontrollable weeping for seer joy at the thought that it is even remotely possible that someone has been able to see beyond the church’s doctrine long enough to embrace the amazing possibilities of the sacrament to provide any benefit in this the twenty-first century.
When we look back to the stories told in the synoptic gospels about the baptism of Jesus we are sometimes so distracted by the opening of the heavens, the descent of the dove and the voice of God declaring Jesus to be the beloved, that we miss an important detail of the way in which the early followers of the Way chose to tell the story of Jesus public coming out party. New Testament scholars remind us that the stories told by the writers of the gospels were written at the end of the first century; a time when it would have been clear to all those who had ears to hear, that by going down to the river Jordan to be baptized by John would have stirred up the political and religious waters. John the Baptist was a revolutionary who made no bones about the fact that the religious authorities and the political rulers were leading the people down the wrong path. John’s shouting in the wilderness was his way of warning the people to repent; to literally turn around and follow a different path. John was doing far more than ranting when he condemned the religious authorities as a brood of vipers; he was calling on the people to reject the teachings of the authorities. John’s insistence on repentance was a call to revolution, a revolution designed to overthrow the status quo. John was out there in the wilderness because it wasn’t safe for him to spout his own particular brand of incendiary fire and brimstone rhetoric within earshot of the authorities. By going down to the River Jordon and submitting to John’s baptism of repentance Jesus was choosing to identify himself with a political revolutionary.
That the writers of the gospels chose to tell there story in ways that see the God of Israel give Jesus a shout out, and the very spirit of God descending like a dove onto the shoulders of Jesus, turns John’s baptism of repentance into a kind of passing of the torch from one revolutionary to the next. Yet, despite the gospel-writers having cast Jesus into the role of revolutionary torchbearer none of the gospel writers shows Jesus following the ways of his predecessor John. There is no record of Jesus calling people to repent nor is there any record of Jesus ever having baptized anyone. All we have is Jesus “Great Commission” which if New Testament scholars are to be believed, Jesus probably never even said, “go therefore and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, it’s true, most preachers, dare I say modern-day baptizers, learned in seminary that rather than being an instruction given by Jesus the Great Commission was actually added to the story by the early followers of Jesus. But I digress, the point I’d like to emphasize about Jesus’ trip down to the waters of the Jordan, is that by choosing to publicly submit to John’s baptism, Jesus was making an important statement about his own public ministry. For just like John, Jesus intended to challenge the religious and political authorities.
That the gospel writers have Jesus head off into the wilderness to find his own way prepares us to follow Jesus down a completely different path than the one his predecessor John pointed toward.
So on a day, when the church looks back upon the baptism of Jesus, surely we can take courage from Jesus’ example of wandering off into the wilderness to find our own way of challenging the religious authorities of our day.Continue reading →
How many of you know what this is? Where I come from it is often referred to as a dog-collar and the folks who wear them are called God-Bothers. Back when I first started seminary, I resolved that I wouldn’t wear a clerical shirt and collar. I didn’t like the idea of being set apart from others. I really didn’t want to be seen as one of those holier-than-thou types, who took themselves so seriously. Learning the history of clerical garb didn’t help me to warm up to the idea of wearing them. Apparently, back in the middle ages fashion dictated that educated professionals wear black. Also, during the middle ages, long before shirts had collars it was all the rage to let your white undergarments show around your neck. This was the precursor to shirt-collars. Apparently during the reformation, this trend fell out of fashion but clergy, who couldn’t afford to keep up with fashion continued to wear black shirts with their white under-garment showing.
Over time, the church does what the church often does and applied a liturgical meaning to explain what is already happening. So, the church began to explain clerical attire theologically. If you google it, you will discover that, pastors are just like everyone else, they are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves. So, they wear a black shirt to signify their sinfulness, but they wear a white collar to signify that the words they speak are not their own, but God’s words, because you see the collar covers the pastors voice-box to signify that we speak the Word of God. Now the presumption that I or anyone else speaks on behalf of God is rather daunting to say the least and did nothing to encourage me to wear a clerical collar, nor did the obscure explanation of the tab collar, which insists that this little white notch is placed strategically over the Adam’s apple to cover over the reminder of Adam’s sin. Not having an Adam’s apple, myself, I wasn’t much taken with the idea of wearing special clothing to set me apart. But when I first became a pastor, I was insecure and believe it or not I didn’t want to rock the boat. So, I ever so hesitatingly began wearing a clerical collar. I was uncomfortable wearing the collar, so I decided that I would only wear it on Sundays, or to protest marches, and sometimes when I was visiting people in the hospital, because in hospitals, wearing a collar makes it easier to gain access to patients.
Well one day, I needed some candles and so I dashed into the Zellers over the road to quickly grab a couple. I was having difficulty finding just the right candles when a store clerk came up to me and asked me if I would come with her. I figured that I’d been lingering over the candles for so long that she must have mistaken me for a shoplifter, but as we hurried along, she explained to me that there was a man in housewares who was abusing his wife and child. I’d forgotten that I was wearing a collar, but the reality of what this clerk was asking me to do choked me into realizing that the collar had led her to believe that I could actually do something. Not knowing what she expected me to do, I told her to call 911. She assured me that they had already called, but that in the meantime perhaps I could help. We stopped just before the aisle where the abuse was taking place. The store clerk whispered that, “they are just over there.” As she pointed, I realized that she wanted me to go on alone. So, not knowing what to expect, I took a deep breath and walked in on a scene that was way beyond my abilities. A big burly guy was twisting the arm of a woman while a little girl of about 4 or 5 stood crying. The man was yelling obscenities when I interrupted him. When he looked at me, I saw the fear in his eyes as he immediately let go of the woman who fell to the floor. The little girl ran to her mother. I expected the man to turn on me, but instead he just stared at me, as he began to cry, “I’m sorry pastor, forgive me.” It wasn’t I who stood before him, but the church, his church, the church that had taught him right from wrong. The collar I wore made the church visible to him and made it impossible for him to forget who he was. As a child of God, he couldn’t continue what he was doing. As a child of God, he knew in his bones that he was wrong. He wept until the police arrived. From that day on, I’ve known the power of the collar to make the church visible in the world and so I wear it a lot more often than I’d ever expected I would.Continue reading →
Each year, I begin my preparations for preaching on the Baptism of Jesus with this video in which Heather Murray Elkins tells her story, “The Secret of Our Baptism.” Elkins opens us to a new way of hearing the Bat Col, the Daughter of a Sound, the Voice of the Divine, the Word, who speaks in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. Matthew 3:13-17
“In the beginning there was the WORD; the WORD was in the presence of the HOLY ONE, and the WORD was the HOLY ONE.” Even the word WORD carries meaning beyond the page. In the context of the prologue of the Gospel according to John. The word WORD is translated into English using a capitol W or in some translations in all-caps, to alert readers that the word Word is being used in a particular way. Words are powerful symbols which have the ability to capture the meaning of a thing. Or words can be used as symbols to point beyond themselves to something whose meaning cannot be captured by any word. As we have journeyed together exploring new ways of being Christian in this relatively new century, new ways of understanding have required us to find new words to express our images of the MYSTERY that cannot be captured with the word God. Finding words to use when we worship together has become more difficult. But nowhere is the task of finding words to express the inexpressibly more challenging than choosing hymns.
We love to sing together. Music moves us in ways that open us to the MYSTERY in which we live and move and have our being. Sadly, some of our favorite old hymns fail to express the freedom we have begun to discover in the LOVE that IS God. But the tunes, ah the tunes, the tunes continue to move us. Fortunately, we have been blessed with a multitude of new words to sing to those beloved old tunes. Sometimes those new words work well and sometimes not so well. Nowhere is that more apparent than during the Christmas season. The words to most Christmas Carols have been married to the tunes in ways that no one shall put asunder.
Take Silent Night for example. Christmas Eve just isn’t Christmas Eve unless we sing Silent Night. You hear the first few notes and memories come to light as the familiar words come back to us. Now there have been some splendid new verses that have been written to Silent Night which expand our images beyond “round young virgin mother and child” to capture the Cosmic nature of the incarnation.
Silent night, holy night.
All is calm, all is bright.
Cir-cle the sun
Star-dust cy-cles through
Life abounds upon Earth
Life abounds upon Earth (by Keith Mesecher)
I love the imagery these words capture. I love the theology these words open us up to. These words give me a sense of the cosmos far beyond my childhood nativity images. But I can promise you now, that I would never dare to tinker with the words of Silent Night on Christmas Eve. The moment Marney’s fingers touch the keyboard, just the first few notes signify the beginning of a treasured nostalgic experience which cannot be tinkered with. From the very beginning of a tune, assumptions are made; assumptions which are inscribed in our very nature. So, just imagine the audacity of the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call John, who dared to tinker with the most iconic beginning of all as far as his audiences were concerned. Remember, unlike 21st century worshippers, first century worshippers didn’t just commit hymns to memory, they committed the Hebrew Scriptures to memory. So, when our anonymous gospel-storyteller began his story with the words, “In the beginning” each and every one of his listeners would have been primed to hear what comes next… “In the beginning” Genesis, the very word Genesis translates as beginning. And so begins the prologue of our storytellers gospel of the life and times of the Joshua ben Joseph, you know Mary’s boy! “In the beginning” wait I know you think you know what comes next, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Ah, but think again. “In the beginning…wait for it…in the beginning there was the LOGOS.”Continue reading →
The art of blessing is often neglected. The birth of a New Year calls forth the desire in us to bestow a blessing upon those we love. Several years ago, John O”Donohue, one of my favorite Irish poet’s created a New Year’s blessing for his mother entitled Beannacht-for Josie. It is a blessing of superior quality. And so, on this New Year’s Eve, may you all receive this beannacht with my added blessing for a peace-filled New Year in which the God in whom all of creation is held, might find full expression in your miraculous life!
Epiphany falls on a Monday this year. Traditionally, Epiphany was celebrated in grander fashion than Christmas. But time has seen the Christmas feast eclipse the festival of Epiphany. Here are a few of the Epiphany sermons I have preached over the past few years.
Shine for the sake of Jakelin, Felipe, and Refugees Everywhere, Shine here
An Epiphany Sermon, preached in 2008. I had just read “The First Christmas” by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. Our congregation played host to Dom Crossan a month before I wrote this sermon. So, Dom’s insights run through this effort. But the heart of this sermon beats as the result of a sermon preached by Bruce Sanguin a self-proclaimed evolutionary christian who is a United Church Minister (Canadian Memorial Church, Vancouver). I had the privilege of meeting this modern mystic while on sabbatical this summer and his compelling way of unlocking the scriptures using the wealth of the christian tradition together with the insights of modern science and psychology borders upon the poetic. This sermon was anchored by Sanguin’s words (Epiphany 2007). Sermons are a “live” event. So, this manuscript is an approximation of what was actually preached.
Just five days before Christmas (2008), The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Doctor Rowan Williams, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion started a firestorm. During a BBC interview, His Grace was quoted to say that the story of the “three wise men is a legend”. The Archbishop was also heard to say that he remained unconvinced that there was indeed a star that led the legendary trio to the birth place of the Christ Child.
If that wasn’t enough to send folks off the deep-end, it has been revealed that the Presiding Bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church The Most Reverend Doctor Katherine Jefferts Schori, who just happens to be the first woman elected primate in Anglican history, has fanned the flames of the fire-storm by sending out what has been judged by some to be an incendiary Christmas card.
I downloaded a copy of the offensive card, so that you could see for yourself. Her Grace’s choice of card has offended the good deacons of Ft Worth Texas who claim that their Primate’s actions defy explanation. As you can see the wise folks depicted on this image look a lot like women. Can you imagine the nerve of the first woman primate! How could she be so bold as to select such an offensive image? Leave it to straight talking Texans to set things straight: for despite the audacity of the Primate, the Texans have pledged to “stand for the traditional expression of the Faith.” Continue reading →
During these twelve days of Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Messiah. Messiah, is a word the ancient Hebrews used to describe the anointed one. The one whom God would send to change the world. In Greek the word for Messiah is Christ.
My thoughts swirl around a poem written by the unknown writer of the Gospel of John in which the birth of the Christ is describe as the WORD. It’s a mysterious cosmic poem that moves our minds away from the mundane everyday ordinary stuff of life to the extra-ordinary mysteries of creation, which when you think about it is what every birth does.
Just holding a newborn in your arms and before long you’ll find yourself pondering the mysteries of this life. Who are we and where do we come from? Why are we here? What does it all mean? These are all perfectly wonderful questions and speculating upon the many possible answers to those questions is a fascinating process. But in the end, our words will always fail us when it comes to answers. As we are speculating about the birth of this beautiful little baby, the baby is alive and among us, and needs to be fed and changed, nurtured, guided and protected.Continue reading →
Christmas Eve is a holy night; a night when the distinctions between the sacred and the ordinary fall away and we are able to see beyond the boundaries which limit our vision. On this holy night, if we look closely, we can see visions of the LOVE which is the Source of All Reality, the LOVE that many of us call God. The best way to see beyond the boundaries which limit our vision is through a story. The fellow whose birth we celebrate tomorrow was particularly fond of revealing truth through stories. Jesus would often tell a new story alongside a familiar sacred story in order to reveal unseen truths within the familiar. So, on this holy night, I’ll tell you a new story, in the hope that it will help us to see once again the truth revealed in the stories that our ancestors used to tell about the birth of Jesus….
Not so very long ago, a young woman, let’s call her Dora, short for Doreatha, which comes from the Greek phrase “gift from God.” Dora spent most of her childhood dreading Christmas. Christmas in Dora’s family was a volatile affair. Dora’s father never needed much of an excuse to drink too much. Most of the holidays were consumed by the fallout from his excessive drinking. After far too many devastating Christmas Eves which ended in tears, Dora figured out that the best thing she could do to protect herself from the trauma of her family’s gatherings was to stay away from home on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, Dora was blessed with friends from church who regularly welcomed her into their home each Christmas Eve. Beth and Michael had three small children the youngest of which, little Sophia was Dora’s goddaughter.
With her family of choice, Dora new exactly what to expect on Christmas Eve. First a trip into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree, which they would trim together before sitting down to a traditional feast, followed by Michael’s dramatic reading of the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke. When the children were safely tucked into bed with dreams of, well not so much sugarplums dancing in their heads, but rather visions of packages which would magically arrive whilst they slept, Dora and Beth would slip out quietly to attend the Christmas Eve candlelight communion service.
Well, one Christmas Eve, Dora found herself alone in the house trying to amuse her goddaughter Sophia, who was very, very, unhappy. Her parents had decided that the unusually cold weather, together with the deep snow, were too severe for a three-year-old to trudge through. Sophia and Dora were given the task of getting the living room ready to receive the Christmas tree. Sophia was not pleased at all happy about being left behind. But it didn’t take long for the boxes of decorations to catch her attention. All through the Advent season, little Sophia had been learning the Christmas story. As they tackled the sorting out the decorations, Sophia began to regale Dora with her own version of the Christmas story. As they unpacked the shepherds, wise guys and angels, little Sophia told Dora how: “Once upon a time, before they had picture books or TVs, there wasn’t anything fun to do, because there was no Santa to bring anybody any presents. And there weren’t any cars, so Mary who was going to have a baby, had to ride on a donkey and Joseph walked because he had longer legs. And they walked and they walked all day long until it was dark and then when they got where they were going, they were very hungry, but there wasn’t any food, so they went into a stable where they talked to the animals until they weren’t hungry anymore. It was dark but they weren’t afraid because there was a big star shining up in the sky so they could see what was happening. And soon it was time for a big surprise, but not the kind of surprise that Santa brings; this was a really big surprise.” Sophia’s eyes lit up as she told Dora about this big surprise. She said, when the animals fell asleep, “then the baby was borned.” Sophia asked Dora, “Do you know who the baby was?” Dora played along, asking, “Tell me, who was the baby who was borned?” Sophia climbed up onto her lap and whispered into Dora’s ear: “The baby was God!” With that, Sophia jumped down and began to dance around the room. Rarely is the good news told with such earnest appreciation for the amazing surprise.Continue reading →
The anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Luke addresses his depiction of the life of Jesus of Nazareth to a character named Theophilus. Our storyteller begins with these words: “Many others have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events which have been fulfilled among us, exactly as those happenings were passed on to us by the original eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word. I too have investigated everything, carefully from the beginning and I have decided to set it down in writing for you, noble Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things which you have been instructed.” As I have told you many times before, pay close attention to the names. Ancient storytellers are well known for selecting the names of their characters with great care. The character Theophilus is a case in point. Theophilus comes from the Greek words which mean “lover or lovers of God”. Our anonymous gospel-storyteller is addressing his account of the life and times of Jesus to everyone who is a lover of God.
In the ancient world, a miraculous birth story was part of being a famous person. Jesus was a famous person and so Jesus needed a birth story. Birth stories were used by storytellers to set their heroes apart from all the others. Luke’s birth story certainly set Jesus apart from all the other would be messiahs of his day. For starters, Luke weaves his story from the perspective of Mary, and there’s something about Mary that we modern readers tend to miss. Today, more often than not, modern depictions of Mary fail to mention the revolutionary character of this ancient protagonist. Mary is no bit player in this story. The role of Mary is revolutionary! Over the years generations of listeners and readers have taken the author’s depiction of Mary and created an image of Mary that is marginal at best. But there is a dark side to our images of Mary. The popular image of Mary paints her as the ideal woman, the ideal woman no woman could ever live up to. The image of Mary is that of both virgin and mother, meek and mild, obedient and perfect. She is impossible as a role model of course and totally unreal.
This idealization of Mary is a major factor in the Santa-fication of Christmas. The ideal popular image of Mary fails to reveal the true nature of the Christ child that she bears. In order to see Jesus, we have to move beyond Mary’s popular image and look at what the author of Luke actually wrote about Mary. It is in the words of the Magnificat that the author reveals the revolutionary character of Mary. The Magnificat is the song Mary sings when she meets Elizabeth. When read in its original Greek it is clear that Mary bursts into song. The text of the song is a revolutionary text full of historical meaning that would have been clear to its first century listeners, but the radical nature of this song has been lost as successive generations have set it to music and prettied it up as best they can. But in the first century, Mary was seen as a revolutionary.Continue reading →
A number of years ago, back when I had only been a pastor for a couple of years, on the Sunday just before Christmas, immediately after our worship service, I travelled over to the hospital to pay a visit to a member of this church. I was all decked out in my Sunday best.
So, I very much looked the part of a pastor. Back then, I was very unsure of myself in my new role as a pastor. Nothing made me more uncomfortable than hospital visits. I felt like I was a bit of impostor. It was the Sunday before Christmas, and even though the collar around my neck often felt like it might choke the life out of me, that collar proclaimed to everyone at the hospital that I was there in my professional capacity.
I enjoyed a very pleasant visit with one of the seasoned members of this congregation, who went out of her way to ensure that we both enjoyed the visit. As I was leaving the floor, a woman beckoned me into a visitors’ lounge, ever so quietly she asked, “Could you please help me?”
I sat down beside her and listened to her story. When you’re wearing a clergy collar people presume all sorts of things about who you are. This distraught young woman presumed from my attire that I was a competent professional who could accomplish what she could not. Tearfully, she told me that her farther, from whom she’d been estranged for many years, was dying and needed a priest. She had called the Roman Catholic churches in town and none of the priests were available to come right away. The young woman explained that she was afraid that there may not be enough time to wait for a Roman Catholic priest. She asked me if I would be able to administer the Last Rites to her father. I hesitated as I considered her request.
I was frantically going over what I had been taught about the Roman Catholic practices commonly known as “the Last Rites:” Confession, Absolution, Communion, Anointing the Sick. I had been trained to do all of these as a Lutheran, but not as a Roman Catholic. The Last Rites always were intended to provide comfort to those who were dying. But for centuries, many Roman Catholics had come to believe that the dying needed to receive the Last Rites in order to assure their place in heaven. This popular misconception created all sorts of anxiety about securing the services of a priest. While I was tossing this over in my mind, the young woman, grabbed my arm and loudly asked: “Protestants do have Last Rites, don’t you?”Continue reading →
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we try to reach beyond the lectionary to the folks who won’t make it to church on Christmas Eve or on Christmas morning by forgoing the prescribed readings in favour of reading the entire Birth Narrative.
Click on these links to find sermons I have preached on Advent 4. They may also inspire some Christmas reflections.