The Plague and the Printing Press to the Pandemic and the Internet: Always Reforming!

Semper Reformanda, Always Reforming! This tired old phrase is trotted out each Reformation Sunday by preachers like myself to encourage our listeners to embrace the need for the reformation of the Church to continue. However, appealing it may sound, Semper Reformanda, to be always reforming, is not a task which is often embraced by the Church. Take for example preachers: we who are called to earnestly exhort our listeners to be about the task of reforming the Church, we preachers, we all too often fail to reform our own preaching, especially when it comes to Reformation Sunday. A quick review of some of my sermons and my colleagues sermons  written for this occasion, reveal a tendency to narrow our focus upon the story, or the legend, perhaps dare I say it, myth that on October 31, 1517, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and launched, “THE Reformation.” We proclaim the central thesis of Dr. Luther’s theology, that we are justified not by church rules or doctrine, but rather, we are saved by the grace of God, by faith in Christ, then we all sing a few verses of the good doctor’s “A Mighty Fortress” and give thanks that we have been set free from the errors of the Church’s past and move quickly onto next week’s celebration of All Saints. Alas, our annual, protestant reformation rituals, are in and of themselves designed to free us from the burden of always reforming! So, on this Reformation Sunday, I would like to embrace the Reformation tradition of preaching a loud “semper reformanda” by giving thanks that on this Reformation Sunday, the church’s pandemic predicament makes it impossible for the church to do anything but reform. In the words of the wise Dr. Luther, “Here we stand. For we can do no other.”

Here I stand in an empty sanctuary, for we can do no other! Ten months ago, this sanctuary was effectively shut down and I have been leading worship from my home to your home. Remaining physically distant is what LOVE-ing our neighbour looks like in 2020. So, here I stand!  Alone, preaching into the camera on my phone, trusting that the miracles of technology will bring us together. What I wouldn’t give to see this sanctuary filled with your smiling faces. I miss you all and my longing for the traditions of old is only accentuated by the reality that we are headed into what promises to be a long, dark, and difficult winter. There is no end in sight. So, we must content ourselves with our hopes and dreams of a vaccine to cure what ails us. Or do we?

I know that many of us are blessed with the wherewithal to hunker down in our homes and sit this winter out, as we wait for the scientists to do their magic. If you’re watching this on a screen, you like me are among the wealthiest people on the planet and while we are not immune to COVID, we are insulated in ways that the poor, the dispossessed, the oppressed, and the homeless can only dream of. So, if we are careful, follow all the rules, and forgo some the pleasures we used to take for granted, we stand a pretty good chance of survival. Well today on this strange Reformation Sunday, I am here as your preacher, to proclaim that survival is not enough. I want us to consider the possibility, indeed the hope that we can do so much more than simply survive this pandemic. I stand here today to encourage us all to consider the hope which comes from semper reformanda; the hope found when we truly engage in the process of always reforming.

I believe that our Lutheran heritage will stand us in good stead if we manage to shift our gaze from the legend of Martin Luther’s mythical nailing of his 95 Theses upon the doors of the Church, to focus our attention upon the all too real events which took place in Luther’s actual life some ten years after his initial challenge to reform. So, let’s shift our gaze some ten years beyond the legendary events of 1517 to the summer of 1527, when the plague came knocking on all the doors of the people of Wittenberg. The black plague, unlike COVID-19, was an epidemic not a pandemic. One of the basic differences between an epidemic and a pandemic is that it is possible to travel your way out of an epidemic to find some place where the plague is not. For even though, the epidemic known as The Black Death, covered most of Europe, killing over 25% of the population, it was possible for people to escape the cities and towns ravaged by the plague. Indeed, Martin Luther’s wealthy patrons urged him to leave Wittenberg for the relative safety of a country estate. Luther refused, insisting that his calling as a pastor, required him to exercise his love for his neighbours by remaining in the city to minister to the needs of the sick and the dying.

As summer turned to autumn, Luther despaired for the safety of his pregnant wife Katy, Luther’s infant son, became ill. Indecently, it is said that Luther’s dire worries about the lives of his wife, son, and unborn child provided the impetus for the words of the reformation hymn “A Mighty Fortress.”  Luther could have safely sat out the ravages which the plague visited on Wittenberg, but he chose instead to engage the circumstances in which he and his neighbours found themselves. He did so not just by staying put, Luther used the latest technology available to reach out beyond himself and those he cared about to address and engage the reality in which his whole world was languishing.

Just ten years earlier, Luther’s 95 Thesis had travelled the length and breadth of Europe thanks to the ability of the newly invented printing press to produce new-fangled ways of communicating information, ideas, and even the Bible itself. The world went from scribes hand producing one Bible a year, to printing presses which could produce a Bible in a day. The printing press’ impact on the daily lives of millions was astounding.

The exponential increase of the availability of books radically changed the power dynamic of the Church. But it was the printing of short tracts which radically changed the political impact of theologians in the town square. In addition to changing the Church, Martin Luther’s embrace of this new technology changed the world. During the depths of the plague’s ravaging of Wittenberg, Luther took advantage of the power of the printing press to produce a short tract in the newest format, that was all the rage of the day. It was known in German as “flugschriften” “flying writings” in English we would say, “flyer.” These new-fangled fliers functioned as the “twitter” feeds of the Reformation.

On the subject of the plague Luther wrote this: “Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together (as previously indicated) so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another … Use medicine; (wrote Luther) take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbour does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? … I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it.

I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence …

(Luther wrote) If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when a neighbour’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die … ” [1]

While references to the devil may not sit well today, I dare say Luther’s flyer is as prescient today, perhaps even more so than the millions of tweets which we are bombarded with every minute of every day. Back in April, when we were learning to live in lock-down, Bill Gates the creator of Microsoft and one of the world’s gazillionaires, was interviewed about the lasting effects of this pandemic. Gates pointed to the reality that in a matter of weeks the world embraced technologies which under normal circumstances would have taken at least fifteen years for us to embrace. Well I remember April like it was yesterday, and I can tell you that those first few weeks of lock-down saw churches all over Christendom and indeed temples and mosques all over the planet, scrambling to embrace newfangled technologies to get the Word out. I suspect that just like the church, many of you also found yourself on screens and devices, waving at loved ones, meeting with work colleagues, or even raising a glass to toast with a Happy Birthday greeting. Scrambling to get worship services online became the bane of my existence. Martin Luther himself, who was famous for his ability to swear, would have blushed at my language as I struggled to navigate new technology. Faith leaders all over the planet continue to swap stories with one another about of the horrors of trying to render and upload videos. I know we’ll all be able to laugh about this someday, but until then, let me warn you not to expect good pastoral care whilst your pastor is fighting with her computer. My point is, this pandemic as horrendous as it is, has revealed some difficult truths which will forever change the world, particularly the Church. For the foreseeable future, our sanctuaries will remain empty, and we will rely more and more upon technology to enable us to continue to be LOVE in the world. The sad truth is, in-person worship, just like the status quo before COVID, was not working. The Church was dying and those of us who remain in the Church refused to change our ways, believing somehow if we just did it better and flasher, happier and clappier, we might just be able to attract the lost generations who have long since deserted our sanctuaries.

The good news dear friends, is that the current crisis invites us into a liminal space, a thin place if you will; a place where the veil between the everyday status quo and the sacred extra-ordinary falls away and we can see things that we were once hidden from us. Today, the Church stands on the precipice of a new era. Like Luther of old, who inspired centuries of cries for semper reformanda – to always be reforming, we today have the opportunity to reform the church in ways which will speak to generations to come. But just like Luther, who used the printing press as a means to proclaim a reformed theology, we too must embrace the internet, not to proclaim the status quo theology that wasn’t working anyway, but to proclaim a reformed theology.

Tinkering on the surface and learning new technologies will not save the church. The power of the Luther’s call for reformation came from new ways of understanding Creation itself, together with new ways of understanding what it means to be human. If our reformation today is to have any power at all, it will require the church and all who sail in her, not to rely upon Luther’s way of understanding reality. We cannot simply move the deck chairs on this titanic which the church has become and expect the church not to sink.

There are gaping holes in the hull which we ignore at our peril. We must have the courage to build upon Luther’s insights as together, we learn new ways to express new understandings of what it means to be human here and now in Creation today. We must dare to learn to understand reality in ways which would have dumbfounded and possibly even offended Luther himself.

So, here I stand, in 2020, in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, for I can do no other, but to proclaim the need to be always reforming. For the church can do no other. We cannot go back to the way things were, any more than Luther himself could go back to life before he discovered his freedom as a Christian. Whether we like it or not, our world has changed and continues to change. The church has changed, being LOVE in the world has changed too, and it must continue to change. Just imagine the wonders we shall be able to embrace to help us to LOVE our neighbour!

These are exciting times and they are also terrifying times. But each and every day, we are free to embrace possibilities which once seemed unthinkable as we embrace new ways to be LOVE in the world. Now more than ever we need one another, so that together we can empower greater LOVE! We dear friends, we are richly blessed. Let us take courage from the blessings of our great heritage, let us seek wisdom from the blessings of heritages unlike our own, and let us be inspired by the ingenious insights of scientists,  philosophers, theologians, poets and artists so that we can learn new ways to embody the LOVE our world so desperately needs so that we can heal the wounds of Creation. Semper Reformanda! Always be reforming! Thanks be to all that is Holy. Amen.

[1] From Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1968), 43:119-138.)

View the full Reformation Worship Video below

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Reformation Sunday Resources

semper reformanda

Preparing for Reformation Sunday? Some of these posts might be useful:

Always Reforming: Freedom and Loss

”The Truth Will Set You Free. But First It Will Piss You Off!”

Echoing the Divine Plea: “I Lay Before You Life and Death. Choose Life!”

What if we won’t ever really understand Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection until we understand that God is dead?

Enough with “A Mighty Fortress” Already! Sing a New Song!

95 Theses for the Twenty-first Century

Freedom from What?  All this Reforming is Wearing Me Out!

What Darwin Never Knew

A Reformation Day Nailing to the Internet – John Shelby Spong

A Prayer for Reformation – Thomas Berry

GOD’s Backside Passes By Our COVID Regulated Wilderness – Exodus 33

Yesterday, I while on my way to preside at a wedding, my mind kept wandering away from the imminent nuptials toward the vivid autumn colours and all that they foretell. I love autumn. I’m fond of saying that autumn is my favorite colour. But as I drew closer to my destination, thoughts of the passing of autumn into winter saddened me as I thought about how this wedding would unfold. Here in this region we are about to go back into lockdown, so this wedding was a wedding like no other wedding, I have ever been part of. As we hastily drew up plans for the event, we joked about our new reality and the challenges which have become all too real during this pandemic. Only a handful of guests would gather outside, in the back yard of the parents of the bride. Masks would be mandatory, and we would be required to keep our distance. The realization that this couple was just one of many couples whose weddings have been postponed or curtailed or carried out under strict social distancing regulations began to lower my mood. So, returned my focus to the vivid autumn vistas which lined my route. As my mind soaked up the beauty, it also began to wander toward the reality that these bursts of colour mean that the leaves are about to die. Soon they will all fall, just as the snow will begin to fall. Winter is coming.

Winter is coming and it shall be a winter like no other we have ever experienced. For in addition to the hardships which winter inevitably brings to this part of the world, the increased presence of the coronavirus will force us into the kind of hibernation which this past spring’s lockdown only hinted at. As my mood began to spiral down into the deeps of the wilderness into which we will soon find ourselves, I couldn’t help wondering, in the words of the psalmist in the old King James version, “from whence cometh our help?” I know the psalmist provides the answer, “My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” But I have long since given up the notion that the DIVINE MYSTERY which the interpreters of the King James Version of the Bible called, “LORD” was waiting around to magically solve all our problems.

During these intense days filled with the challenges of living and dying during a pandemic, those of us who spend our lives wrestling with questions about the mystery and meaning of life, find ourselves, like most people in a new kind of wilderness. In my line of work, talk of mystery, meaning, and wilderness often sends us scurrying back to the sacred stories which weave their way in and out, over and under, the meaning we try to make about the deepest MYSTERY of life. The Bible is full of stories which touch the deepest MYSTERY of life. The ancients knew that eternal truths are best communicated through story, and so we plumb the depths of the scriptures’ parables, myths, and similes to discover our reality.  

Memories, stories, imaginings, myths, wonderings, and glimpses, these are the stuff of truth.  We human creatures, we just can’t help wondering. How did we get here?  Who made us? Why were we made? Why are we here? Where are we going? We humans can’t seem to help wondering, what’s it all about? From days of old, we’ve been sitting around campfires weaving tales about how we came to be, and what it’s all about; speculating on the nature of our CREATOR. Story after story has been told; stories which weave in and out between our experience and our wonderings; what’s real, what’s not, what’s true and what are we imagining? The best stories, the ones which capture our imagination and stimulate our wonderings, those stories were told over and over again. Handed down from one generation to the next. Some stories were so profound that they just had to be written down.

They were elevated to the realm of the sacred and these stories, these wonderings, took on the quality of myth. Sacred truth, so precious that over the years some of us have sought to defend these stories with our very lives. Others have built their world around these sacred truths, found their identities between the lines of their imaginings. Still others have feared the very wonderings which birthed these sacred myths. So afraid have they become, that they have tried to insist that these sacred truths aren’t even ours, but rather the DIVINE ramblings of our GOD, who whispered into the ears of scribes who jotted them down word for word, in the Kings English no less, holding between their lines not only sacred truths, but perfectly preserved history. So treasured are these sacred truths that some of us even claim that between their line lie the for-telling of our future. So treasured are these sacred truths that the questioning of even the slightest detail has the power to set one tribe or nation against another tribe or nation.

From the storytellers of old to the recesses of our imaginations the character Moses has cast a spell on generations of wanderers and wonderers. Let me remind you of once such story handed down from one generation to another, which is embedded in our psyche and contributes to our identity?

It’s a story of Moses, Moses who wanted to see GOD in all GOD’s glory. Moses who’d been talking with GOD for years, who’d staked his whole life, and the lives of his kinfolk, the lives of his people on the conversations he had had with this god of his. Moses wanted to actually see GOD, in all GOD’s glory.

Who could blame Moses? Wandering out there in the wilderness, trying to juggle the needs of a people lost and wandering, hoping against hope that there was a land of milk and honey out there somewhere, anywhere. Moses had the stone tablets, yes. GOD’s law written in stone a gift for this people who’d followed him out into the wilderness. Imagine: they followed Moses out into the wilderness all because Moses had heard GOD speak to him. Right there from out of the flames of a burning bush GOD called out to Moses. The god of Moses’ ancestors spoke, and a promise was born, the promise of liberation from slavery, of deliverance from oppression. The promise of a land; a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Such a promise required more than just the ramblings of a burning bush; such a promise required a name. Who was this god?

Moses said to Moses’ god, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?”

From that burning bush came the sacred name GOD said to Moses, “YAHWEH. I AM WHO I AM. YAHWEH. I SHALL BE WHO I SHALL BE.” YAHWEH the sacred name of GOD, so sacred that Moses and his people would never utter it. So sacred that even after they’d told their stories for generations, they’d proclaim the name of GOD with only a silence; a long pause where people could breathe the name within themselves. So sacred that when it came time to write down the sacred stories, they didn’t write the whole name of GOD. Just the consonants were enough to evoke the sacred name. Over the generations, the people forgot how to breathe the name of GOD, and so the scribes, hinted at the vowels so that the breath of GOD continued to emanate from GOD’s people. But as the tribes fought over the details of the story, the sacred code of silence failed to evoke the breath of God. Even though, from the burning bush GOD was said to have declared, “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations,” the peoples of God forgot the sacred name. So, the scribes replaced the sacred code with bold capital letters which included vowels and once again the name YAHWEH was heard when the sacred stories were told. YAHWEH, I AM WHO, I AM or I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.

That says it all, our GOD IS. GOD WILL BE. NOW and FOREVER. This ought to be enough. But wouldn’t you like more? Is it any wonder that Moses asked for just a little more? And so, one day, Moses gave it a whirl: come on, just once show me. “Show me your glory, I pray.”  And the MIGHTY ONE said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the HOLY NAME, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. “But,” said the MIGHTY ONE, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”  

And the MIGHTY ONE continued, “See there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not see.”

And so, Moses caught but a glimpse of YAWEH’s backside. Just a glimpse mind you. But isn’t that how it always is. Just a glimpse, a glimpse of God here and there. For our GOD WILL BE, WHO GOD WILL BE. And we must let the glimpse be enough, but oh those glimpses.

When I arrived at the backyard location, I was greeted by masked faces laughing and joking their way through last minute preparations. My own somber contemplations were dispersed by the task at hand. Proud parents and delighted siblings opened me to their sense of expectation, while beaming sunshine, stirred hope in this happy gathering in ways that only LOVE can. Once the bride and groom took their place in the midst of the LOVE which lives and breathes in every one of us who was gathered to bear witness to their promises, all our worries about the future slipped away as we celebrated LOVE’s triumph. Later, as we raised a glass to the happy couple, the wind rustled, and leaves fell, and I caught a glimpse of the DIVINE MYSTERY.

Even though I’m not so sure I’d live to tell the tale, I’d still love to see the face of GOD. But for now, I’ll settle for a glimpse of GOD’s backside. For now, all we’ll see is a glimpse of God’s glory. But oh, those glimpses. Once you catch a glimpse, you’ll never forget it. Remember the glimpses.

There, look can you see a glimpse of the DIVINE ONE? There, in the eyes of your beloved. The first time you knew you were in love and there in your beloved eyes, you saw but a glimpse of the DIVINE. Or standing there holding that beautiful child for the very first time, gazing into the wonder which you held in your arms, there was but a glimpse of the DIVINE. Look down onto the page, between the lines of that poem which told your whole life in just a few lines, there’s the hand of GOD.

Look, look there she goes, she just learned to ride it all by herself, she’s growing up so quickly, do you see right there behind her, there in the shadows watching her, if you look closely you see the arms of GOD in your own arms, waiting to catch her. Look at him he thinks he knows it all, there he goes with the keys to your car, in the screech of tires can you hear it, it’s the sound of GOD trying to catch up with him, trying with all your might to keep him safe; for you are the arms of GOD.

Look carefully as you watch the news, see the researchers, the doctors, nurses, and caregivers in all their efforts is the wisdom and the compassion of the LOVE which IS GOD, working in, with, through and beyond the many hands which will see us through.

Listen carefully can you hear it? It’s ever so faint, the rattle of her last breaths makes it hard to hear but if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the breath of the ONE breathing alongside her as you breathe with her, as she breathes her last breath; for you are the breath of YAHWEH. And as you struggle to comprehend, wondering how you can ever find a way to say good-bye; good-bye Grandma, good-bye Grandpa, good-bye Mom, good-bye Dad, good-bye my love, if you lean back you will feel them, there, there they the arms of the MYSTERY holding you both in the LOVE which is GOD.

Look there, GOD is in that smile, the smile that says I’ve known you so long and yes I still love you even if you drive me nuts, there in the gleam in your lover’s eyes, you will see the DIVINE MYSTERY which IS LOVE? Gaze out into the vivid autumn colours, there dashing by, through the trees, trudging up into the hills, hiking over the mountains, if you look closely, you’ll see GOD’s backside passing by even now in this very wilderness of this pandemic.

There’s truth in our stories, sacred truth; truth in our myths, in our wonderings, our musings and our longings. Between the lines, beyond the page, in, with, through and under the words, there’s truth in questions and questions in truth, and through it all dances the DIVINE MYSERY, the LOVE which we call GOD. Even in the midst of these challenging times, if you open your eyes and look around, you’ll catch a glimpse of the LOVE which is YAHWEH; whose backside is more beautiful than words can say. Words may fail us, but we will keep trying to describe this wonder, this beauty, this magnificence of YAHWEH’s glory. That’s just the kind of creatures we are.

So, proclaim GOD’s glory! Delight in the knowledge that all our wonderings pale in comparison to YAHWEH’s splendor. Trust the MYSTERY of the LOVE which we call GOD, who even now passes in, with, through, and amongst us giving us a glimpse of YAHWEH’s ever so beautiful backside. Amen. Alleluia! Amen!

View the full Worship Service below

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Brussels Sprouts and Coronavirus at Thanksgiving

This year, an unwelcome presence looms large over all of our Thanksgivings. Oh, how I long for those childhood thanksgivings when the only unwelcome presence at Thanksgiving was the brussels sprouts, which thanks to my Mom, always managed to make their way onto my plate. If only the coronavirus was as easy to deal with as brussels sprouts. As a child, I became quite adept at swallowing those little suckers whole so that I didn’t have to bit into them and have their flavor invade my senses. I’d take one look at the obligatory brussels sprouts on my pate, take a deep breath, and pop them in my mouth and down they went, one at a time. Fortunately, my Mom was a cook from a different generation who always boiled vegetables into mush. So, there was no fear of choking on a whole soggy brussels sprout.

This Thanksgiving, the unwelcome presence of a global pandemic, is keeping us from gathering together in our homes with family and friends. Most of us will sit down with only the people we live with, no invited guests, no visiting family, no large tables, filled to overflowing with loved ones. Small turkeys rather than large turkeys were all the rage in the grocery stores this week. Over Zoom, I have heard people lament the empty spaces which will dominate their Thanksgiving celebrations.

Like the lepers who failed to give thanks for their healing, some of us may even be tempted to give Thanksgiving a miss this year.  I know, I know, we do indeed have so very much to be thankful for. A small turkey is better than no turkey. A small gathering is better than no gathering. The lingering presence of COVID is better than having COVID. We are so very richly blessed! We have so very much to be thankful for. We have roofs over our heads, food on our tables, technology to connect us, and most of us are healthy! We have the means to protect ourselves from the lingering presence of COVID and should we find ourselves testing positive, we are blessed to live in a country where our medical needs will be met. In a world-wide pandemic, Canadians are blessed to have the odds in our favour.

We have so very much to be thankful for. We ought to be among the first to offer our thanks and praise. I suspect, if the questions I’ve received from some of you over the course of this week leading up to Thanksgiving are anything to go by, I suspect that some of us may be keeping company with the nine lepers who failed to offer thanks and praise to “God.” This Thanksgiving is much like other Thanksgivings, when folks have asked me a perplexing question: “How or to whom do progressives give their thanks?” Over the years many of us have moved beyond the old images which personified the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call “God” as a person, a super-hero kind of super-person.

Who am I kidding those old images personified “God” as an old-man in the sky who enjoyed various omini super-powers. This omni-god was omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent – all powerful, all knowing, always and everywhere present – sky-god is the same god which so many people conjure up when they tell me that they don’t believe in God.To which I usually reply, I don’t believe in the same god which you don’t believe in. This image of the DIVINE MYSTERY falls far short of the ONE in whom we live, and move, and have our being, the ONE who in IS BEING ITSELF.

So how or to whom do we give thanks and praise when we no longer think of God as a super-hero, up there, or out there, who functions as a kind of master puppeteer in the sky? I will admit that it is so much easier to say, “Thank-you” to a deity that we have personified than it is to give thanks to a deity which is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also! Our thank-yous to the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being, tend to be expressed in words which are so much more awkward than simply saying, “Thank-you Father” or “Thank-you Lord” or even “Thank God.” Continue reading

To Whom Shall We Go to Say Thank-you? – Thanksgiving Sunday sermons

Follow the links for previous sermons:

Reckless Generosity a sermon with a Monty Python flair!

Who IS God? – Not One, Not Two – inspired by Garrison Keillor & Joan Chittister

Brussel Sprouts, Ebola, and Thanksgiving – seeking the ONE who IS

To Whom Shall We Go to Say Thank-you

After You Move Beyond Personifying God?

Over the course of the past nine years a group of little people have come into my life. Lovely little people who call me Gran. There are seven of them and participating in their little lives is a source of such great joy. Each stage of their development is a wonder to behold. I particularly enjoy watching their parents as they attempt to teach these little darlings the things that they need to know about being human. One of the first things that we teach little humans is the fine art of saying thank-you. It takes a fair amount of repetition to teach a child to say thank-you. Over and over again, after giving them exactly what they want, we ask, “Can you say thank-you?” and the little darlings repeat the words “Thank-you.” Sometimes all we have to do is ask the question: “What do you say?” in order to hear the words “Thank-you” uttered in such a delightful way as to inspire us to praise them as such good little girls and boys.

Expressing gratitude is a skill that all tiny little people must learn in order to develop into well-rounded human beings. Indeed, scientists insist that being grateful is a prerequisite of happiness. Happy humans it seems, are humans who embody gratitude. But there is more to gratitude than simply saying thank-you. I remember learning that gratitude includes more than simply expressing our thanks. It happened when I was about sixteen and actually noticed the beauty of a sunset and for the first time I realized that I was part of something so much bigger than myself. I know I must have seen the sunset before, but this time I actually saw the sun set. We were driving down the road, my friend Valerie and I were riding in a car driven by her mother, Lola. It was a partly over-cast day on the west coast of British Columbia.  Just a few clouds.  You could see the mountains off in the distance. We were chatting back and forth when all of a sudden, Lola pulled the car over to the far side of the road, switched off the engine and got out. Valerie followed her mother out of the car, so I figured I had better do the same. Val and her mother scampered down from the road and onto the beach. When they reached the water’s edge, they stopped and  just looked off into the distance. Apart from a tanker-ship making its way across the horizon, I couldn’t see much of anything. Lola had the most amazing expression on her face. She positively glowed with happiness. Valerie wore a similar expression. I must have looked somewhat puzzled because Val smiled at me and said “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?” This only confused me more. What were they looking at that had made them stop the car, scamper down the bank and stand there at the water’s edge on a cold autumn evening. 

These happy, glowing, smiling people made me nervous. There they stood grinning from ear to ear.  What were they on? And then, I saw it. For the first time in my life, I saw it.  It had been there before. But I had never really seen it before. The sky was amazing.  The colours were overwhelming. It almost didn’t look real. It looked like someone must have painted it that way. It was magnificent. A work of art. The most beautiful thing I have ever seen. If you’ve never seen a late October, Pacific Coast Sunset before, you’ve missed one of the great wonders of the world. Neither Emily Carr’s paintings nor picture perfect post cards do a western sunset justice.          

Believe it or not, even though I had been living on the west coast for about four years, at that point I had never before really noticed just how beautiful a sunset could be. No one in my experience had ever taken the time to stop and look at one. No one had ever pointed one out to me before. I would never have dreamed of stopping a car and getting out to watch as the sun put on a show while setting. So, I stood there.  Overwhelmed by it all. Amazed at just how beautiful it was. Wondering just who or what could be responsible for such a spectacular thing as this. Before long my thoughts drifted to the Creator. Actually noticing a magnificent sunset was the beginning of a journey beyond myself as the reality that I am part of something so much bigger than myself continues to permeate my being.

Back then, I expressed my gratitude by very much the same way as my grandchildren are being taught to express their gratitude, simply by saying “Thank-you”. The object of the Thank-you being God. At the time, God was an old bloke up there in the sky somewhere. As my images of God changed over the years, my Thank-you’s continued to be expressed to my ever-changing images of God. But I must confess, that it was a whole lot easier to say thank-you to God when God was some big guy up there, out there somewhere? It was so much easier when I thought of God as “Father” or even as “Mother” to express my gratitude by simply mimicking the behaviour that I’d been taught as a child, “Can you say “Thank-you” Oh yes indeed I can say thank-you. “God is great, God is God, let us thank him for our food. By his hand we must be fed, Give us Lord Our Daily Bread.” Continue reading

Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth: Is this the Gospel of CHRIST? – Matthew 22:1-14

Fortunately, this Sunday is Thanksgiving in Canada, so I do not have to preach on this troublesome text. However, for those of you who are struggling with this text, I post this sermon preached six years ago.

Listen to the sermon here

 

Then Jesus spoke to them again in parables. He said,  “The kindom of heaven is like this: there was a ruler who prepared a feast for the wedding of the family’s heir; but when the ruler sent out workers to summon the invited guests, they wouldn’t come. The ruler sent other workers, telling them to say to the guests, ‘I have prepared this feast for you. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding.’  But they took no notice; one went off to his farm, another to her business, and the rest seized the workers, attacked them brutally and killed them. The ruler was furious and dispatched troops who destroyed those murderers and burned their town. Then the ruler said to the workers, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but the guests I invited don’t deserve the honour. Go out to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find.’  The workers went out into the streets and collected everyone they met, good and bad alike, until the hall was filled with guests. The ruler, however, came in to see the company at table and noticed one guest who was not dressed for a wedding. ‘My friend,’ said the ruler, ‘why are you here without a wedding garment?’ But the guest was silent. Then the ruler said to the attendants, ‘Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.’   “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew 22:1-14

Is this the Gospel of CHRIST? In Lutheran, Anglican, United, Roman Catholic and other mainline denominations this text will be read and in those congregations the preacher will conclude the reading with a proclamation declaring that this is, “The Gospel of CHRIST!” or “The Gospel of the Lord!” to which the people will declare “Praise to you O CHRIST!” But I ask you: “Is this the Gospel of CHRIST?” “Wailing and gnashing of teeth.”  Is this the Gospel of CHRIST?

I must confess that when I realized that this text is the one assigned for this, the very Sunday when we are about to begin our “visioning process,” my heart sank. This gospel reading comes around every three years and I’ve always managed to be on vacation when that happens, so I’ve never actually had to preach this particular gospel text.  I was sorely tempted to change our gospel reading to something more in keeping with the task that lies before us this afternoon. This text is hardly conducive to creating a new 21st century vision of what our church might become.  “Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many are called but few are chosen.”

Throw him out into the darkness for the crime of being badly dressed? What kind of vision is this for us, here, today? Are we not a progressive congregation? Do we not pride ourselves on being an inclusive community?  “Many are called but few are chosen.” Is this the “Gospel of CHRIST?” “Praise to you O CHRIST!” I don’t think so. Continue reading

Being LOVE in Toxic Soup??? coping with Trump’s toxicity!

My oh my, what a toxic week this has been. The bilious rhetoric went off the scale this week when the most-watched debate in history transmitted ignorance and hatred around the world like poison.  I know that there may be some of you who did not watch the presidential debate for all sorts of really good reasons, not the least of which may be your desire not to be infected by the toxic politics of our neighbours to the south. However, unlike wearing a mask, which offers the best protection we have in this pandemic, not watching the debate on Tuesday night offered little protection from the fumes of the toxic soup which is being cooked up by our neighbours.

I myself, I breathed far too deeply as the fumes from the bubbling orange cauldron travelled through various media into my home. I am ashamed to confess that the steam from this toxic soup nourished my own dark side. I did not know how dangerously infected I had become until the media brought the news that the most powerful person on the planet had tested positive for the coronavirus. I simply couldn’t help myself. Try as I might, the darker side of my nature positively bubbled up with glee, as smug retorts collided upon the tip of my tongue. “That’ll teach that arrogant, orange, idiot!” This was one of the kinder retorts that I will confess in this context. I shall leave you to imagine the more colourful thoughts, words, images and desires which sprang to mind as I smugly anticipated a fellow human being’s demise and gleefully rejoiced in my “I told you so!s”. I know that I can trust you to come up with more than a few dark thoughts of your own, some harsh words, and some smug images as well, because we’ve been swimming around together in this toxic soup for years now, waiting for the orange fellow who holds the nuclear football to receive his comeuppance.

It took more time than I care to admit for my kinder, gentler self to begin to choke on the bile being generated by my darker self. May all that is HOLY forgive me, but it sure isn’t easy to be LOVE in the world. As we flail about in this hate-filled toxic soup which feeds our baser instincts, it is difficult to remember those things which nourish, ground, and sustain us as the LOVERs we are created to be. Continue reading

St. Francis – BEYOND the bird-bath!

This coming Sunday, the Season of Creation concludes with the celebration of the life of St. Francis – Matthew 6:25-29 – this video was recorded in 2019 – when we looked beyond the ubiquitous bird-bath image to uncover the radical Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (1181-1286), who posed a prescient question which continues to resonate with those of us who live lives of privilege?  ARE WE BEING LOVING ENOUGH WITH EVERYTHING WE HAVE? As we learn to understand the Gospel as LOVE, then putting the Gospel at the centre of our lives requires us to ask ourselves, over and over again, “I am I loving with everything I have?”

The RIVER of LIFE

Whenever I sit down by a riverside, memories of other trips to other riversides tend to meander through my mind, flowing here and there, as images of my younger self reveal the long and winding, twists and turns of this river of life, and I can’t help but reach out to pat that little girl, or young woman, that I once was on the head and tell her to relax and go with the flow. I remember as if it were yesterday, standing by a riverside, holding onto a brand new fishing rod, hoping against hope that I would be able to somehow catch a fish. I had come well prepared and yet not prepared at all for what I was about to encounter. Earlier in the week my Father had presented my brother and I with our first fishing rods. Throughout the week, Dad had instructed us in the fine art of casting our lines. Instead of hooks, Dad had tied little rubber weights to the end of our lines. Over and over again we practiced, releasing our thumbs from the levers on our reels at just the right moment so as to send the line way out beyond us onto the grass. I could hardly sleep the night before our first fishing trip. I worried that I wouldn’t have the courage to impale a wiggling worm on my hook. I wondered which one of us, me or my younger brother, which one of us would manage to impale ourselves with a barbed hook. I can almost see the little girl that I once was tossing and turning on the top bunk as she hoped against hope that she would catch a fish, but not just any fish, this little girl longed to hook a really big fish, a fish to impress her Dad. No one told that little girl, that fishing is a waiting game which requires the kind of patience which few children can muster. I can see that little girl staring at a little red and white float, waiting for movement, determined that at any moment a fish, a really big fist was going to come along.

There were many riverbanks, and lots of fish were landed, some were big, some were small. All of them were interesting. Not beautiful really, but interesting. Personally, I liked catching the small fish, or at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. The small fist could be released back into the river to fight another day. Eventually, other things captured my attention. Dragon flies, darting here and there, birds singing, grasses blowing in the breeze, there was so much to discover down by the riverside. Dad was the purveyor of wisdom, explaining every mystery until that little girl began to tire of life on shore.

Eventually, I gave up fishing in favour of diving in. I can see that little girl splashing about in the water, laughing and giggling as I played for hours and hours in the river. I remember once, trying to stand still as the river’s swift current threatened to topple me over. I wondered where the river might take me if I failed to keep my balance. And just as that little girl is about to topple over, the image of a confident young woman emerges from the depths and she rolls over on her back and begins to float upon the water, and I can remember staring up at the clouds content just to be me, on a summer’s day so long ago. As the summer’s day gives way to evening, I see a less confident image of myself, sitting on a riverbank staring up as the sun sets wondering and wondering, filled with questions about how and why, longing to fish out of the river, or the sky, the answers to my endless questions.

I wonder when I stopped looking to the rivers, or to the sky, or the oceans, or the mountains and all the creatures who live upon the Earth so that I might find the answers to my questions. I can’t quite pinpoint the moment when I stopped fishing for answers in Creation and began fishing in libraries. One after another, each book caught me rather than me catching them, but still fishing none the less for answers. Sometimes the books would give way to the wisdom of teachers, scholars, mentors, and folks whose faith was stronger than mine. Hoping against hope, that this one, or the next one would provide answers to the MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of reality.

Looking back at this long meandering journey, I can’t help but see that I’ve been fishing for answers my whole life long. Whether its fishing or studying, I’m still that little girl, longing to capture the really BIG FISH, the ONE which IS the SOURCE of ALL, the ONE who is MYSTERY. I wish I had tapped myself on the head a long time ago and told myself to relax. There’s no need to catch a fish, or follow the trail of some creature. There’s no need to harvest knowledge from books, or seek wisdom from the wise ones. Just go with the flow, let the river take you.

I remember once a long time ago watching a fish flounder on the shore, desperately trying to stay alive, when the wind drove the current on shore, and suddenly the fish was carried back into the river. The salvation of that fish brought tears to my eyes as I longed to be able to simply be carried away like that. For the fish lived and had its being in water; water flowed in and around and through the fish. The answers to the MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of reality are all around us. For as our ancestor Paul said some 2,000 years ago, the MYSTERY, the ONE Paul called, “God.” is “the ONE in whom we live, and breathe, and move and have our being.”

So, as I pat the little girl, or the young woman, that I once was on the head, I hope that the person I continue to become will have the faith to go with the flow of this RIVER OF LIFE, this MYSTERY in whom we live and move and have our being. And when from time to time, the current runs swiftly, I hope that the person I am continuing to become will have the WISDOM to remember that the RIVER itself flows in, with, through, and beyond me and that I find the courage to drink deeply from this LIVING WATER which is the MYSTERY at the very core of who we are: BELOVED children of the ONE who IS.

The next time you find yourself down by the riverside, splash about a bit. Life in the river is far more exciting and life-giving than any of the answers you might be able to capture. So, splash about and play in the ONE who IS, our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF, the ONE in, which, we, live, and move and have our being, the ONE who lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us, now and forever. Amen.

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Getting to the Root of Our Dominion Over Creation: Genesis 1:27-28

From Coast to Coast to Coast, we Canadians live upon a land which far exceeds the blessings many of our ancestors could only long for. In addition to the milk and honey of our ancestors’ dreams, this land is rich in blessings more numerous than all the words in all the languages spoken by this land’s diverse inhabitants. I suspect that those of you who call other lands “home” are also blessed with a similar love for your land. We only have to close our eyes to see the images of the beauty of the land we love simply because it is home. Walking upon the land, the ground beneath our feet holds promises passed down from generation to generation. Memories of landscapes long changed by human hands, haunt our visions of ever-expanding settlements. In addition to being overwhelmed by the vast beauty and majesty of the land, our eyes weep and our bodies shudder at gaping wounds, and ugly scares which threaten to pierce our over-inflated egos and challenge the wisdom of our imbedded delusions of grandeur. Standing upon the Earth, with its vast, majestic lands, how did we ever become so enamored of our species domineering posture of self-importance? There is an arrogance to our Western posture which threatens the land.

Years ago, when my family immigrated to this land which I call home, it was known as the DOMINION of CANADA. That word “dominion” sticks in my throat, like a bile which threatens to make me wretch. While it has been a long time since this land was viewed as the DOMINION of CANADA, this land we love continues, like many lands, to suffer the pain of the dominion we inheritors of the Genesis myth continue to claim as our place in the order of Creation.

Listen to these words taken from one of the Creation myths found in the book of Genesis. I’m using the New Revised Standard Vision because it is a familiar translation of Genesis chapter 1, verses 27 & 28: the NRSV translates the Hebrew text like this:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”             Here endth the reading…or does it?

In one of the most treasured Creation myths of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cultures, humans are placed as the crowns in the jewels of Creation. For two millennia, the dominant Christian culture has interpreted this myth to endow the right of “dominion over” every living thing that moves upon the Earth; indeed, over the Earth itself. Creation is ours to rule over. We have dominion over Creation.

“Dominion” the word comes from the Latin word dominium which means “lordship” or “right of ownership” from the word dominus which means “lord”.  Humans, male and female, for that is how “He” the “LORD GOD” created them in this particular Creation Myth, Humans are “lords of every living thing” we have dominion over Creation and we are to subdue the Earth, and multiply. Is it any wonder then that we are so very quick to consume the bounty of the Earth? It is as if we see ourselves as lords and ladies exercising our god-given right to tax the Earth and all her Creatures. One look at a “man-made” (sic) machine, excavating a mountaintop, confirms our “dominion” our “lordship” as we ravenously devour the land, so that we can gobble up the Earth’s resources.

Creation myths function as a kind of compass which orients a culture’s place in the world. But what if our Creation myths, or rather, Western Christianity’s translations and interpretations of our Creation myths went askew somehow? Perhaps instead of a compass our Creation myths are functioning as weights around our necks, millstones if you will, which continue to unbalance us? I believe that our notions of “dominion” continue to function as such a millstone and that we must cast off this weight if we are to have any hope of restoring our balance. Let me begin to lighten the load by looking back to our Creation myth to see if we can discover the roots of our delusions of “dominion”.

For centuries, the Hebrew word “radah” has been translated as “dominion” but when we go back to the roots of our myth we actually, quite literally discover a “root”. The Hebrew word, “radah” means “a point high up on the root of a plant.” When gardeners who pull up weeds encounter the radah the discover where the strength of the plant is. The radah of the root is the centre of the plant’s strength. The radah helps the plant say firmly in the ground when the winds come. What happens to the meaning of our Creation myth when we begin to understand the strength of a new translation? Continue reading

Peaceful Tomorrows: preaching on Matthew 18:21-35

islamophobia_pdf_imgOn Friday the world will mark the nineteenth anniversary of 911. Much has happened since that day that changed our world. Sadly, much has stayed the same. This Sunday the Gospel reading for those congregations following the Revised Standard Lectionary comes from Matthew 18:21-35 and is all about forgiveness. Looking back on the sermons that I have preached on this particular text, I discovered that on the first anniversary of 911 the same reading came around to challenge preachers and their listeners. Reading that old sermon, I was struck by how very little we have learned over the years. My theology has changed considerably over the years and so the way in which I speak about the work of the Divine in the world has also change. But, replace some the names like Sadam Husain, Taliban, and El Queada with ISIS or ISEL, or Hamas, or Assad, or Kim Jong Un, and the world’s willingness to use violence seems almost inevitable. What has not changed for those of us who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth is the challenge to change our ways and seek peace. So, I post this old sermon here, in the hope that some of the echoes of our past might enlighten our present with a desire to work for peace. 

I seriously considered quitting my job this week. It’s been a tough week and I’ve gotta tell you, that by the time Friday rolled around, I felt like handing in my notice. I was sick and tired of my boss’s holy than thou attitude and I didn’t want to work for Jesus any more. You see all week long I’ve had this gospel lesson rolling around in my head. This is a lousy week to try and write a sermon on mercy and forgiveness. Images of towers crumbling, family members weeping and American politicians calling for an escalation of the war against terrorism, aren’t exactly conducive to thoughts about mercy and forgiveness. On any other week, I could write a sermon proclaiming the goodness of God’s grace and reminding you how much we owe God. On any other week, I could come up with a story about the colossal debt we owe our God and how dramatically God has wiped the slate clean. On any other week, I could write a sermon urging you to look with compassion and mercy on those who are in your debt. On any other week, I could proclaim the good news of God’s mercy and point to the many ways that we have sinned and count up the many times God has forgiven us and urge you to be just as forgiving to those who have sinned against you. On any other week, I could do my job. But this week Jesus’ words about forgiving not once, not twice, not three times, not even seven times but forgiving those who have sinned against us seventy-seven times is more than I can bare. Continue reading

The DIVINE Expression of BEING ITSELF – Exodus 3:1-15

It has been said that the shortest distance between humanity and the truth is a story. I believe that it stands to reason that a good story, a really good story has the power to reveal truth about the MYSTERY which we call God. So, let me tell you a good story. It is a story which I have told many times because like all good stories it is worth repeating. The first time I heard this story was from a seminary professor. Since then I’ve heard this story attributed to Marcus Borg he attributes it to Parker Palmer. Like many good truth revealing stories, its origins are somewhat elusive.

This story is about a little girl. She was four years old and her Mom is expecting a baby and Mom tells this little girl that the baby is coming to them as a gift from God and that this gift from God will be a new member of their little family. Sure enough, the baby arrives. A boy is born. The parents are a little bit worried because everyone knows that nobody knows how a 4-year-old will react, especially as an only child, to having a new baby in the house. So, they’re reading their parenting books and they’re trying to figure out ways to assimilate this new person into their family without having their little 4-year-old suddenly feel shunted to the side.

Well it turns out that this little 4-year-old has an unusual request; a request which her parents don’t know quite how to deal with. For some unknown reason the little girl keeps asking for some time alone with her new baby brother. The parents are a little worried because they’ve heard horror stories about what 4 year-olds can do to newborn babies. They don’t want to leave this child alone with their precious newborn. Then they remember the baby monitor and they figure they’ll set this baby monitor up so they can listen from a distance and know what’s happening.

Once everything is carefully set up, the little girl goes into the bedroom and her parents hear the footsteps of their daughter going over to the crib. The parents are very, very nervous. Then their little girl leans into the newborn’s crib and they hear her say to her new baby brother,  “Tell me about God. I have almost forgotten. Tell me about God.  I have almost forgotten.”

This coming Tuesday, churches all over the world will begin a monthlong celebration of the Season of Creation. From Sept. 1st, which is the Day of Creation until St. Francis Sunday on October 4th our awe and wonder at the beauty of Creation will be given voice in our worship celebrations.

The Season of Creation is a relatively new liturgical season, born out of our response to the concerns of so many of us about the plight of CREATION under the weight of human contempt and abuse of the Earth and her creatures. I know that many of you are concerned about the many and various ways in which our ravenous consumption of the bounty of the Earth threaten the wellbeing of CREATION. So, I won’t presume to preach to the choir. Instead, I’d like to look at the many and various ways in which the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call God finds expression in, with, through, and beyond CREATION.

Tell us about God. We have almost forgotten. For far too long, traditional Christianity has emphasized theological responses to our desire to know about God. Lutherans, Anglicans, protestants in general, our traditions have for all intents and purposes divorced the DIVINE from CREATION. Yes, I know that images of a DIVINE “FATHER” are employed to portray the MYSTERY of the ONE who is the SOURCE of ALL REALITY as “THE CREATOR”, but, this image casts the CREATOR off into the distant heavens and relegates the DIVINE to the role of distant observer, occasional interferer, and constant judge. This divorce, like all divorces, has impacted the children in ways which have allowed us to run amuck, forgetting as we do so often to pay attention to the LOVE which gave us birth, continues to nurture us, and in which we continue to live and move and have our being. Continue reading

Who do YOU say Jesus was and IS? – Matthew 16:13-20

“Who do you say that I AM?” Jesus’ question has been preoccupying me for most of my life. Indeed, my professional life requires me to spend hours and hours, week after week, month after month, year after year, and dare I say it, decade after decade, trying to figure out just who I think Jesus was and is. Your very presence here watching this video, suggests to me that you have also tried to figure out who Jesus was and is. From time to time, I suspect that most of us have believed that we had worked it out; that we know just who Jesus is. But Jesus, just like every person we have ever known, and or ever loved, Jesus keeps changing on us.

The Jesus I knew when I was a child was little more than an imaginary friend. “Jesus loves me this I know!” “Yes! Jesus loves me! Yes! Jesus loves me!” not because the bible tells me so, but rather as my friend and biblical scholar Harold Remus always insists, “because my Mommy told me so!” When I was a kid, the knowledge that Jesus loved me, earned Jesus the role of my imaginary friend.

Later, when I was a teen-ager looking for more love than my family could give me, I found my way into the Church and discovered, “What a Friend I have in Jesus! All my sins and griefs to bear!”

The idealism of my youth turned my imaginary friend Jesus into my radical friend Jesus, who understood my passion for justice, and led me into deep friendships with folks who were determined to practice what Jesus preached, as we proudly sought to be the kind of people who, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Sadly though, after 25 years in the church, I found myself as a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, with the keys of the kingdom jangling in my pockets, firmly believing that Jesus was and is, the: “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  It has taken years for me to get to know Jesus as something other than the sacrificial Lamb of God. I stand in a long line of priests and pastors known as the Apostolic Succession.

According to the story, which comes to us from the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we call Matthew, Jesus handed the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter, the “Rock” upon which the Church was founded, and in doing so Jesus handed over the authority to bind and loose in heaven. For generations, this passage has been interpreted by the Church as the establishment of the priesthood. The Apostle Peter is given the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and becomes the first gatekeeper precisely because possession of these keys gives him the power to decide just who will and who won’t be forgiven. Continue reading

“Nasty, Uppity, Woman!” – Matthew 15:21-28

That annoying Canaanite woman is at it again and not even Jesus can catch a break. Every three years that annoying woman comes along to disturb us. The way the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Matthew tells his story, this annoying woman exposes Jesus for the human being that he was and shatters our illusions of Jesus the god-like super-hero. I know we could just look the other way. We could do what people, all too often, do when someone brushes off another human being with a racial slur; we could just pretend that we didn’t hear it. We could do what, according to the story, Jesus’ followers wanted Jesus to do, when they urged him to: “Please get rid of her! She keeps calling after us”

It is clear from the way that the story is told that Jesus was trying to ignore this annoying woman’s incessant pleas. But she will not leave him alone. As much as I’d like to ignore her and everything she represents, she just won’t give us a break. Yes, I know that according to the story this woman was worried about her child, but how dare she expose Jesus in this way? Especially now, when we are all trying to cope with a global pandemic. Surely, we have enough on our plates, without rehashing this old story!  This one a hell of a pandemic we are living through. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard more than enough about racism during this pandemic to last me a lifetime. I don’t want to have to think about racism or white privilege, while I’m worrying how to stay healthy and protect my loved ones. I want to get away from all the noise about racism and I certainly don’t want to have to think about the fact that even Jesus is guilty of uttering a racial slur. If I still believed in the kind of god who functions like a puppeteer in the sky, I might suspect that this gospel reading didn’t just appear in the midst of this pandemic by chance. Even though I don’t believe in that kind of god, every once in a while, it would sure be nice to be able to blame this reading on some super guy up there. But like I said, every three years this reading comes up in the lectionary and this annoying woman forces us to see Jesus for who he was and always has been, a man.

Jesus was a man of his time; a man who was raised in an environment where women were to be seen and not heard;  a man who was raised to believe that his people were superior to other people, a man who wasn’t about to be disturbed by the yammering of a woman who was when all was said and done, nothing more than a Canaanite. Jesus was, after all a rabbi, and a busy rabbi at that. According to the story, Jesus had just fed the 5,000 and walked on water? He was a rabbi who was in demand, the crowds couldn’t get enough of him, Jesus had places to go and people to see. Just who did this woman think she was? Continue reading

Feeding Our Hunger for DIVINE PRESENCE Amid a Pandemic – Matthew 14:13-21

When I was a teenager, I was always in a hurry. I wanted to see and do everything there was to see and do. When I was nineteen, I knew that I just had to get out there and see what the world had to offer. So with nothing more than a backpack, a three-month Euro-rail pass, and eight-hundred dollars in travellers cheques, I boarded an airplane bound for Amsterdam. I was searching for adventure and I was convinced that Europe held the excitement I was looking for. 

Inside my backpack was the book that would make it all possible,  a little book entitled,  “Europe on Ten Dollars a Day.” I was determined to make my eight-hundred dollars stretch the length and breadth of Europe. I was going to see and do it all!  It wasn’t easy. In fact, when I look back on it now, it seems like such a lot of hard work. Up early in the morning sightseeing all day long. Meeting new people. Fighting my way through the crowds of tourists. Searching for cheap places to eat and sleep. 

After two months of traveling from one European city to the next, I just couldn’t face one more castle or museum. I figured that it was time to get away from the cities so I headed for the Alps. After a long train ride from Munich, I arrived in the Swiss town of Interlaken. There I boarded a coggle train that would take me to the Alpine village of Grindelwald. The train was filled with tourists anxious to fill their rolls of film with pictures of the mountains. When I arrived in Grindelwald, I was told that the youth hostel was only about three kilometres from the station, so I and several other young backpackers which I had met on the train decided to walk to the hostel. What we didn’t know was that the hostel was three kilometres straight up the side of a mountain.  As we trudged up the mountain, we were embarrassed by the speed with which villagers three times our age just passed us by. Despite our youth, the senior Swiss locals were much more adept at climbing than we were.   Continue reading

LOVE, which we call God, IS a STRANGE ATTRACTOR!

Jesus of Nazareth was an obscure poor, brown, Jewish rabbi living in an oppressed part of the Roman Empire, whose death continues to impact the world. His death upon the Empire’s instrument of execution, was relatively unremarkable. Thousands upon thousands of unruly inhabitants of the Empire were executed during Jesus’ lifetime by those charged with the task of establishing and maintaining order by force. To the powers that be, Jesus’ execution was little more than the routine death of a homeless, outcast who spent far too much time creating social unrest. Nothing more than the insignificant death of a troublemaker without influence in the halls of power, who would not or could not moderate his own behavior. An insignificant troublemaker dies, under the rule of law, and yet, the impact continues to reverberate all around the world, nearly 2000 years after it should have been long forgotten.

Late last fall, nobody’s really sure exactly when or to whom it happened, but sometime last fall, a person so obscure that history will fail to name them, someone living in an Empire where order is maintained by force, got sick and died. The impact of that death has kept millions of us all around the world, locked up inside our homes avoiding tiny droplets whose impact upon any one of us could be catastrophic. For months now, I have heard various people, including myself, refer to these strange times which we are living in as “chaotic”.  The very word chaos summons in me visions of Genesis, when the Ruach, the breath of the CREATOR hovered over what in Hebrew is called the tohu va-bohu, the formless void, or the chaos, the RUACH hovers over the tohu va-bohu and calls forth light out of the chaos of darkness. Continue reading

Erotic Playfulness: SOPHIA/WISDOM, a sermon Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

In Jesus’ words, we can hear the dim echoes of a time gone by. Long before Jesus came there was a character who called out in the marketplaces. You can read about her in the biblical books of Proverbs, Job, the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus. What students of the Bible call the “Wisdom literature” is full of stories about a character who so many people have never heard of.

In the book of Proverbs, she claims to have been there when CREATOR was busy creating and she declares:  “When God set the heavens in place, I was present, when God drew a ring on the surface of the deep, when God fixed the clouds above, when God fixed fast the wells of the deep, when God assigned the sea its limits…when God established the foundations of the earth, I was by God’s side, a master craftswoman. Delighting God day after day, ever at play by God’s side, at play everywhere in God’s domain, delighting to be with the children of humanity.”   

So, just who is this master craftswoman? Job insists that, “we have heard reports of her”. But, “God alone has traced her path and found out where she lives.” The writer of Ecclesiasticus admonishes the reader to: “court her with all your soul, and with all your might keep her ways; go after her and seek her; she will reveal herself to you; once you hold her, do not let her go.  For in the end, you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.”

In the Wisdom of Solomon, she is described as, “quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her. She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, image of God’s goodness. Although alone, she can do all things; herself unchanging she makes all things new. In each generation, she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets.”

You may not know who she is, but Jesus certainly did. Tales of her deeds were popular in Jesus’ day. Jesus, a student of the scriptures who was referred to as a rabbi, would certainly have known who this heroine of the scriptures is. In the ancient Hebrew texts of the Wisdom Literature she is called “CHOKMAH.”  In the ancient Greek translations of these texts she is called “SOPHIA.” In our English translations of these texts she is simply known as “wisdom.” The ancient Hebrew and Greek languages were written without punctuation. Often in Greek, there were no spaces between the words. Until long after Jesus’ day there were only capital letters. Upper- and lower-case letters were not used. Unlike our system where personal names begin with capital and are followed with lower case letters, ancient texts consist of lines of unbroken capitals. Often ancient Greek, the words did not have spaces between them and so translating these texts into English is tricky. This is just one of the reasons why Sophia’s story has remained hidden from most of us.  Continue reading

Celebrate 50 Years of Pride: sermon

June is Pride month; a month set aside to both celebrate how far we have come and advocate for all those who have not and do not enjoy the freedom to express fully who they are regardless of who they love. But this is a June like no other. We are living in the midst of a world-wide pandemic and whether we are out and proud or still in the closet, all of us queer or straight, we have all been locked down for the better part of the last three months. Closeted away in our respective homes, our fear of COVID-19 has been matched by the horror of the even more insidious infection of racism, a disease which has for centuries infected the hearts and minds of white privileged people and robbed Black, Indigenous and People of Colour of their liberty, dignity, and all too often their very lives. So, as June 28th, the 50th anniversary of the very first Pride Parade drew closer and closer, I wondered how we can celebrate Pride in the midst of so much suffering. Forget the fact that we can’t celebrate with a party, let alone a parade. How do we say, “Happy Pride!” on a day like today.

I must confess that I was sorely tempted to skip any mention of Pride celebrations this year. That is until, I was struck by an ear-worm.  You know those annoying ear-worms, pieces of songs that pop into your heard, over and over again. This particular ear-worm is a song from my misbegotten youth; a popular song which is actually based upon a piece of scripture. Rather than sing my earworm to you, let me share it with you: …..

there you have Psalm 137,  adapted and interpreted, but Psalm 137 indeed. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, Yeah we wept, when we remembered Zion. When the wicked carried us away in captivity Required of us a song Now how shall we sing the LORD’s son in a strange land.”

I know that this is not Babylon, and we haven’t been carried away into captivity by our enemies. But who among us can doubt that so much of what we have taken for granted has changed and right now we are living in a very strange place indeed? So how can we celebrate today of all days, when so many people are suffering? Continue reading

National Indigenous Peoples Day: In this storm, Jesus is not asleep in the back of the boat! We are!

The raging storms are all around us! The tumultuous winds are churning up the waters and tossing us about in treacherous seas. Our small boats are tossed to and fro as massive waves heave us left and right. The roaring winds create upheavals, which leave us cowering in fear, trembling as we struggle to meet each wave which carries with it the potential to destroy the few planks of wood that we have hewn together to carry us upon the ever changing sea, which holds both the promise of sustenance and the threat of oblivion within the darkness of its depths. With each crash upon the hull our fear rises, and the ferocity of the storms intensifies. Frightened, clinging to life as we are tossed from one danger to the next, we cry out into the storm, convinced that only some power more intense, bigger, stronger, beyond our abilities to even imagine, only a power such as this can save us from being swamped in our small boats. We fear that left to our own devices, without the meager security offered by our small boats, we will be overcome by the waves and drown in the very sea that we must rely upon to sustain us.

Racism, poverty, disease, and violence; four winds that howl so ferociously that all we can hear is the sound of people’s fear. As the storms rage all around us, we see the very real possibility that the bottom might just fall out of the small craft we have fashioned to navigate the troubled waters which lie before us. Racism, poverty, disease, and violence; four winds that drive us ever closer to wrecking our small boats. Boats hastily designed without thought to the perils which threaten to consume us, as monsters from below depths below, surface all around us. Continue reading

“The Great Commission” Birthed White Supremacy! – Trinity Sunday sermon

How did we get here? All over the world people are marching in the streets proclaiming, “Black lives matter.” Millions have defied the fear of the corona virus, and taken their lives into their hands to venture out into the streets to protest the systemic racism that permeates institutions all over this planet. Even in Canada, where it takes a colossal effort to turn people out into the streets, even in Canada hundreds of thousands of people have defied public health orders to march against racism.

By now we are all familiar with the recent murders which ignited the powder keg of outrage which continues to propel people into the streets. As horrific as these current murders are, it is not enough for those of us who benefit daily from our white privilege to simply look to the most horrific consequences of racism in order to understand the inherent depths of systemic racism which infect our world. If we are to begin to untangle ourselves from our own participation in the proliferation of racism, we must begin to understand the role of Christianity in the creation and maintenance of white supremacy.  For the same Christianity which gave us these words from Galatians which I just read as today’s Gospel, also gave us the words which are actually prescribed as the Gospel reading for this Trinity Sunday. Continue reading