The DIVINE MYSTERY which we call “GOD” is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also! So, how do we embark on the journey of Lent once we have moved beyond theistic notions of “GOD”? How do we follow the radical teachings, life, and death of Jesus into the wilderness of Lent when we no longer believe in a supernatural being which requires placating? Once you no longer believe Jesus was or is a sacrifice for sin, the various atonement theories which have undergirded so many of our Lenten practices fail to lead us into or out of the wilderness toward RESURRECTION.
Tinkering with our Lenten traditions is NOT enough! Our world is in desperate need. There’s precious little time for wallowing in worship which fails to lead us BEYOND the desert to RRESURRECTION! Radical 21st century theology empowers us to move BEYOND atonement theologies, BEYOND worship which relies on penal sacrificial thinking, BEYOND preaching which pays lip-service to Jesus’ teachings, BEYOND rituals which require insider knowledge, BEYOND singing hymns which inculcate medieval theologies, and BEYOND participating in journey which demands that we suspend reality so that we can tamely follow the church into the wilderness.
Worship is a powerful tool which holds the potential to empower the embodiment of the DIVINE MYSTERY which is the LOVE that IS GOD. Worship has the power to form and to transform worshippers, empowering the radical nature of LOVE to move us BEYOND the wilderness of LENT into RESURRECTION!
So, whether you are a worship leader, a creator of liturgy, a preacher, a teacher, or more importantly, someone who aspires to follow Jesus, this course is designed to nurture and challenge you as together we embark on a Lenten journey which promises to provide resources to inspire RESURRECTION!
Resources for worship leaders, preachers, musicians, and Followers of the Way, will be provided in advance of a weekly Zoom seminar to discuss various empower the embodiment of LOVE in the world.
To sample the kinds of resources which will be offered you can check out the resources provided for Ash Wednesday – Click here
Once you register on the People’s Catholic Seminary teachable platform, (Click here to register) you will have access to resources for the First Week of Lent. Resources will include weekly video lectures together with sample sermons, provided by Dawn Hutchings, who has been developing Lenten liturgies, preaching progressive sermons, and teaching progressive theology for 23 years. Our first Zoom seminar on Tuesday February 21st at 7pm EST, will set the format for opportunities to look ahead to each Sunday’s readings. So, worship leaders, Lenten study facilitators, preachers, and liturgists will have resources with which to inspire RESURRECTION. Those who are simply looking for new ways of understanding as you seek to follow Jesus’ Way of being in the world, will discover resources for your personal Lenten journey.
During these first few months of my retirement from parish ministry, questions about ‘the Church’s’ survival continue to be asked of me. After 23 years of approaching such questions from the perspective of professional leadership in a mainline denomination, I grew weary of speculating on the future, even as I recognized that as a member of the clergy, it was my job to participate in the generation of hope for the future of the church. I expected that my retirement would put an end to dealing with such questions. However, people continue to ask me, with renewed vigour, “Can will, or indeed should ‘the Church’ survive?” It is as if my questioners expect that my newfound freedom will allow me to respond with some newly discovered candour that will push me to speak some hidden truths which will reveal to them the way forward. Alas, although my retirement does afford me different perspectives, I have yet to discover a talent for soothsaying. Fortunately, my candour remains intact. So, from various different perspectives, some of them new and some of them not so new, let me respond as I was trained to do, with hope: “Yes, I do hope the church will survive!” and “No, I hope the church will not survive!”
For far too many selfish reasons, I do hope that the church will survive. But for the sake of LOVE, not only do I hope the church does not survive, I believe that the church should not survive.Believing, as I do, that the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call “GOD” is LOVE, I am convinced that whatever our concept of church is, surely church ought to be the embodiment of that LOVE. Or, at the very least, church ought to be about the work of empowering its members to embody LOVE in the world. Sadly, much of what passes for church fails to either embody LOVE or to engender LOVE in the world. So, because the church has at the very least inspired hope in me, I hope that the church does not survive. My hope for the church’s demise is buttressed by my faith in resurrection which encourages me to imagine what new kind of church might rise up out of the death throes of ‘the Church’.
After more than two decades of leadership in the church, the best definition of the DIVINE MYSTERY which I can proclaim with confidence is that GOD is LOVE and that LOVE is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also. We must look BEYOND Church in order to participate in the birth of a church which concerns itself with embodying LOVE, while it empowers its members to be the BODY of LOVE in the world. So, it is the resurrection of LOVE upon which I hope to fix my gaze as I peer BEYOND Church to explore some of the contours of the BODY of LOVE. I hope you’ll join me as together we explore the possibilities of LOVE’s resurrection among and beyond us.
Over the course of the coming months, I will be posting BEYOND Church. It is my hope to look with compassion upon the death of what we know as ‘the Church’ confidant in LOVE’s power to resurrect something worthy of the LOVE which is BEYOND, the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also; something BEYOND Church, something in which the MYSTERY which is our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself might find expression, in, with, through, and beyond us.
Preaching on Trinity Sunday is not a task I am going to miss. Over the years, I have made no secret of my distaste for this particular festival of the church year. I am not alone among preachers, when it comes to Trinity Sunday. Trinity is one of those Church Doctrines that defies logic and the best advice, I’ve ever read about preaching on Trinity Sunday is to book this particular Sunday off or call in sick. In twenty-three years, I’ve never called in sick, but I confess to having booked Trinity Sunday off on a few occasions. Alas, this is my last Sunday in the parish and calling in sick wasn’t an option.
So, rather than fall into the trap of trying to explain the Trinity, let me tell you a story, which my Belfast Buddy, Pete Rollins is fond of telling, which captures some of how I feel about the miss-communication which is happening in so many pulpits as preachers are compelled to try to express the inexpressible. According to Pete, there was a Jewish community which had sought sanctuary from danger that was granted refuge in property of the Roman Catholic Church in Vatican City.
The authorities thought the Jewish community would only be there for a few months, but after several years had passed, several priests appeal to the Pope urging him to tell the Jewish community that they would have to leave and find refuge somewhere else. The Pope is reluctant to evict the Jews.
Quite rightly the Pope insists, that to simply evict them isn’t very neighbourly. So, the Pope comes up with a plan. He instructs the Priests to summon the Chief Rabbi, for a debate. The Pope insists that if he wins the theological debate, the Jewish community will have to leave, if the Chief Rabbi wins, they can stay. Adding to the tension around the debate is the reality that the Roman Catholics and the Jewish community do not speak the same language, so the debate has to be conducted without words. A theological debate without words; just signs and symbols. So, the Jewish community enters St. Paul’s Cathedral, with all its ornate signs and symbols. The Chief Rabbi, with the entire Jewish community, walks up to the Pope who is surrounded by priests, bishops, and cardinals. The Pope begins by holding up three fingers. Immediately, the Chief Rabbi holds up one finger. Then the Pope starts to wave round and round above his head. The Chief Rabbi, without hesitating, takes his finger and points down to the ground. The Pope appears a little on edge, almost like he thinks he’s losing the debate. The Pope goes up to an incredibly ornate altar, and moves in close on this diamond encrusted chalice and he pours wine into this diamond encrusted chalice, he takes a single wafer, and the Pope holds this symbols in front of the Chief Rabbi. And the Rabbi, as if he already knew this was going to happen, reaches down into a brown, crumpled, paper bag, and takes out an apple, the Rabbi takes a bite and then he and his community leave the cathedral.
So, the priests, bishops, and cardinals gather round the Pope, and begin to ask, “What happened? Who won the debate?” The Pope says, “Well I tell you what. The Rabbi won fair and square. That guy had an answer for everything. First, I held up three fingers and said, “God is three, a Trinity. And our Rabbi friend held up one finger and said, “God is ONE, a Unity.” So, I pointed up to the heavens and said “God is transcendent. God is above and looking down on all of Creation.” And my Rabbi friend, pointed to the Earth and said, “Ah, transcendence is immanent. God is in the grit and grime of the world.” So, then I brought the wine and the wafer, the body and blood of CHRIST the second Adam.And our Jewish friend, as if he knew I was going to do that, reached into a bag, pulls out an apple and takes a bite to remind me of the first Adam.”
At that moment, the Jewish community gathered around the Chief Rabbi, asking him to explain what happened. The Rabbi begins by telling his community that it was a nightmare, terrible, terrible. First of all the Pope said, “You’ve got three days to leave.” And I’m like, “No way. Not one of us is going to leave.” So, then the Pope says, “Right we’re going to round you all up.” I said, not likely, we’re staying rooted to the ground, we’re not budging. And the Jewish community, got even closer to their Chief Rabbi, as they anxiously asked, “Then what happened? Do we have to leave, or what? The Rabbi answered, “That’s the most frustrating part, because right then, we broke for lunch.”
So, as preachers all over the world, do their level best to express the inexpressible, I suggest we move on to my other task for this particular Sunday and that is for me to bid farewell to my role as your pastor. I simply don’t have words to express the inexpressible emotions which are careening around inside of me today. Fortunately, the Gospel reading assigned for this Trinity Sunday, actually, quite literally comes to us from the section in the part of the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John’s account of what the church calls Jesus’ farewell discourse. The gospel-storyteller goes on for several chapters. Only a few lines of which are assigned for today. Listen to the Gospel to part of the way Jesus is reported to have said farewell:
“I have much more to tell you, but you can’t bear to hear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all truth. She won’t speak on her own initiative; rather, she’ll speak only what she hears, and she’ll announce to you things that are yet to come. In doing this, the Spirit will give glory to me, for she will take what is mine and reveal it to you. Everything that Abba God has belongs to me. This is why I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and reveal it to you.” This is the GOSPEL of CHRIST.
Ah, Dear ones, I do indeed have so very much more to tell you. I suspect that you can’t bear to hear it now. I know I can’t bear to tell it now. You see, I’m from Belfast and in Belfast we have a special way to say Goodbye. It is known as the “Irish Good-bye” The way an Irish Good-bye works is, we wait until the farewell celebrations, get to the part where the drinks are flowing, and the stories are being told, and while people’s attention is held by the story, we slip out while nobody notices. That way there’s no tears. Unfortunately, a while back, when I told a friend whose advice I value, of my plan to avoid the tears, she reminded me of something, I’ve said, over and over again, during my ministry, and that is that some things, some people are worth crying over. So, there’ll be no Irish Good-bye today.
So, before I fill up, and am reduced to a babbling, soggy, mess, for you my dears are definitely, worth crying over, let me end my ministry with you as began my ministry with you. tell you a few wee snippets from a couple of stories. Open up your bulletins, where a couple of pages in, right under the Gospel, where it says, Irish Goodbye followed by a question mark. For our ONLINE friends, the picture we’re looking at should be on the screen right now. Do you see that Bunny? That bedraggled creature is my granddaughter Evelyn’s Bunny, I think BUNNY is a boy, but I really can’t remember, because Evie’s bunny is simply called ‘BUNNY”, so she could be a girl. Let’s just say BUNNY is non-binary, BUNNY’s pronouns are “they, them, their”. Now, I hope that you can see from this small picture, just how worn out BUNNY is. Evie is seven years old and BUNNY has been with her for seven years. BUNNY arrived all pristine and new, full of lovely fur, which my darling Evie loved off BUNNY. Every last piece of fur has been loved off. Over the years BUNNY’s legs and arms have been loved right of their body and sown right back on again. BUNNY’s nose has been rubbed off and their ears are frayed and tattered. That’s what seven years of love has done to BUNNY; I can only imagine the state they will be in after twenty-three years.
Twenty-three years and three months ago, I was welcomed into this family, and given the privilege of serving as your pastor. I arrived before I was ordained, and you saw to it that the church ordained me and together with all the folks of Holy Cross, some here, and some who have moved on before me, you have loved me and more importantly, you have taught me how to love you. I can still remember, way back in my seminary days, in our Christian Doctrine class, where I failed to learn how to explain the Trinity, our professor Dr. Bob Kelly, reassuring us wanna-be pastors, not to sweat the doctrine, because being a pastor was about one thing and one thing only, our job is in the words of wise old Dr. Bob, to LOVE them. LOVE our parishioners. At the time, I thought there must be more too it than that.
I didn’t realize that LOVE was so much more than I knew at the time. You see Dr. Bob didn’t tell us to comfort you, to reassure you, to agree with you, or to simply love you. Dr. Bob insisted that the job of a pastor is to LOVE the people with whom we serve. I’m a bit dim, because when he said “love” I saw hearts and flowers, and I wasn’t sure I was up to the lovie dovie parts of this job. It has taken me decades to understand just a small part of what it means to be LOVE in your congregation.
For God is LOVE and LOVE is DIVINITY, the LOVE which Dr. Bob was talking about is in and of itself inexpressible. Being LOVE in a congregation, includes, the lovie dovie aspects of LOVE, I’m still learning that part, so I’m grateful that LOVE also includes, challenging one another, disturbing one another, pushing one another, leading one another, helping one another, crying with one another, questioning one another, tolerating one another, appreciating one another, embracing one another, having one another’s backs.
Which brings me back to BUNNY, bedraggled, worse for ware BUNNY. Go back to your bulletins and turn the pages to a couple of pictures. You’ll see a photograph of well-loved BUNNY and then you will see WELL LOVED BUNNY and BACK-UP BUNNY. BACK-UP BUNNY came into Evelyn’s life round about the time BUNNY became indispensable. A very wise person in Evie’s life realized that if something terrible ever happened and for whatever reason BUNNY couldn’t be there for Evelyn, then BACK-UP BUNNY would have to be there. Now you can see that BACK-UP BUNNY has managed to do their job while keeping their fur on, but even BACK-UP BUNNY is a little worn around the edges.
Evelyn has so much LOVE to give. So, before I stretch these metaphorical bunnies beyond their ability to carry us beyond themselves to the truth which I am trying to communicate to you, let me just say, that over the years, sometimes, I have played the role of BUNNY and you have been my BACK-UPS. Sometimes, I have taken on the role of BACK-UP while you have been BUNNY.
I don’t mind confessing that two-years of lockdown, have left me wondering if my hair, or my arms, and legs are going to fall off. But all the while, whether it was struggling to make the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada a fully inclusive Church, receiving death threats at the parsonage, or being disciplined by the Eastern Synod, or welcoming renowned speakers to Newmarket, having the audacity to ordain Lionel, or to welcome Tom to Team ministry, or all the questions and challenges of progressive theology, or being locked down for two years, this bedraggled, worn, out, old BUNNY of a pastor, has felt the LOVE. You my dear ones, you have had my back. You have had my back. I hope that over the years, when you have been worn out, you have also felt the LOVE as I have done my best to have your backs. This being LOVE in the world, is not comforting, it is not easy, and it is not safe. But over the years, we have had our moments of sanctuary from the world, here in this place, and online, and those moments of sanctuary have nourished, grounded, and sustained us for the challenges of being LOVE in the world. I have so much more to learn about being LOVE, LOVE in the church, LOVE beyond the church, LOVE in the world.
But as I leave you, I want you to know that you have taught me well, you’ve LOVED off some of my rough edges, and even though I may be worn, I am also excited and hopeful. New chapters are about to unfold for me, for Carol, and for all of you. After a long rest, I hope to get some of my colour back, and I may even grow some new fur. There’s still so much more that I want to learn about being LOVE. My hope is that you too will continue to get your colour back as you continue to come back from lockdown, some new fur is called for. I suspect colourful things will once again begin to appear from Holy Cross as you discover new ways to be LOVE in the world. I trust our friends Online to gain some colour as well.
I look forward to all these new chapters unfolding as we learn new ways to be LOVE. So, there will be no “Irish Goodbye” because as I will keep saying, some things, some people are worth crying over. I have no words. I have only LOVE, the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being. The LOVE which will continue to nourish ground and sustain us as we continue to find new ways to be that LOVE in the world. I can’t begin to express the inexpressible, the inexpressible gift and gifts of LOVE which you have been.So, let me end this not so Irish Goodbye, with an Irish Blessing,which I have adapted from the words of another Irish friend of mine, Padraig O’Tauma, whose words of Benediction come close to expressing my emotions:
During these past two years, we have had to adapt to an awful lot. If you’d have asked us just three years ago, how we would cope if we had to lockdown in our homes for months and months on end, we couldn’t have imagined how we would cope. But somehow, we all managed to adapt to the isolation, working from home, the masks, the technology, the fears and the disappointments.We found ways to cope with a life-threatening pandemic by adapting to changing circumstances.
Humans are blessed with the ability to adapt to our surroundings. We are blessed and we are also cursed. Adaptation allows us to make adjustments to our behaviour in order to cope with changing realities. But adaption can also allow us to continue relatively unchanged. For those of us who live as the wealthiest Christians who have ever walked this planet, the privileges we claim for ourselves, allow us to continue our lives in relative security provided we adapt ever so slightly to our changing circumstances. And therein lies the curse of adaptation. Adaptation allows for the maintenance of the status quo. In the grand scheme of things, the fundamental realities of our lives haven’t been transformed by the monumental challenges of a life-threatening pandemic. Sure, we may have tweaked a few things, but we are still the privileged few on this planet and our planet, the only home we have is still careening toward becoming largely uninhabitable. We are clever enough to understand that the status quo cannot hold, and we are adaptable enough to carry on without being transformed by the reality that our behaviour is threatening the survival of billions of people. We have largely adapted to the terrifying realities of climate change without letting the facts transform us.
I used to put my faith in the intelligence of our species to adapt. These days, I’m beginning to see that the intelligence of our species may only be able to help us adapt, when what we need in order to survive is to be transformed. Transformation of the way in which we live threatens the status quo, and without threatening the status quo, we won’t be able to adapt quickly enough to survive. To date human intelligence is failing us. The facts, we are all well versed in the facts, and we have all, myself included, chosen to tinker with a few minor adaptations, rather than seriously engaging our need for radical transformation of the status quo. So, I have to ask what it will take for us to open ourselves to the possibility of the radical transformation necessary to meet the challenges which are raining down upon us.
Status quo – the existing state of affairs – has been good to those of us who live privileged lives here in Canada, and if you are watching on a screen somewhere other than Canada, then believe me you too are privileged. Our wealth makes it possible to take time out in our day, to come here, or to turn on a screen, and spend some time contemplating that which is BEYOND, the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also. The luxuries we enjoy, afford us the time, the space, the tools, and the company of like-minded individuals to explore the MYSTERY with. We are all richly blessed.
Blessed enough to have the wear-with-all to maintain the status quo longer than the vast majority of our siblings on this planet will be able to. Today, lots of privileged people, just like us, all over the world, will gather like us to listen to the Gospel reading which is proclaimed on this the Fifth Sunday of Easter, which comes to us from the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John, who writes:
“Once Judas left, Jesus said, “Now is the Chosen One glorified and God is glorified as well. If God has been glorified, God will in turn glorify the Chosen One and will do so very soon. My little children, I won’t be with you much longer. You’ll look for me, but what I said to the Temple authorities, I say to you: where I am going, you cannot come. I give you a new commandment: Love one another. And you’re to love one another the way I have loved you. This is how all will know that you are my disciples: that you truly love one another.” (John 13:31-35)
According to the anonymous gospel-storyteller, Judas has just left the room, and we all know what that means, Jesus is about to be betrayed, the status quo will not hold. Jesus is about to be executed by the forces of empire. Jesus is a smart guy. He knows full well that the status quo will not hold. Jesus knows he is going to die. He tells the people he loves, “where I am going, you cannot come.”No amount of tinkering with adaptations will suffice. Jesus proposes total transformation. “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. And you’re to love one another the way I have loved you. This is how all will know that you are my disciples: that you truly love one another.”
Love one another. It sounds too simple to our ears. Love one another. We have prettied love up, with hearts and flowers, for so long that we have forgotten the power of LOVE to transform everything. In the recesses of our imagination, we piece together the story of what LOVE looked like for the followers of Jesus, as if it were some fluffy-cloud world in which they lived. We imagine that it was easy for them. In our mind’s eye we see those happy-clappy christians, smiling as if they haven’t a care in the world, welcoming strangers, and being LOVE and it is all so peaceful, so beautiful, so groovy, with all those hearts and flowers, who wouldn’t be able to just peace out, man. “LOVE one another” doesn’t seem to measure up somehow at least not the hearts and flowers kind of love, the impotent, easy, lovin of we privileged few; the kind of love which demands adaption without transformation.
This cannot be what a man on his way to his execution was calling for. Jesus spent his life teaching people about the kind of LOVE which is beyond the hearts and flowers pretty love, we privileged few are fond of. Cornel West describes this kind of LOVE as JUSTICE, when he says that, “Justice is what LOVE looks like in public.” Justice is what makes the LOVE which Jesus commands transformative. Justice transforms and without justice we cannot be the LOVE humanity needs us to be in order to transform the status quo into a Way of being which is life-giving.
Now for those of you, who aren’t convinced that talk of LOVE can save us, who’d rather fight facts with facts, well let’s take a long hard look at the status quo: This week, I’ve been devouring a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson called, The Ministry for the Future. The novel takes its name from an international agency set up by the Paris Agreement to concern itself with the people of the future.
The book is laced with facts about the status quo. Stanley Robinson writes this:“Possibly some of the richest two percent of the world’s population have decided to give up on the pretense that “progress” or “development” or “prosperity” can be achieved for all eight billion of the world’s people. For quite a long time, a century or two, this “prosperity for all” goal had been the line taken; that although there was inequality now, if everyone just stuck to the program and did not rock the boat, the rising tide would eventually float even the most high-and-dry among them.
But early in the twenty-first century it became clear that the planet was incapable of sustaining everyone alive at Western levels, and at that point the richest pulled away into their fortress mansions, bought the governments or disabled them from action against them, and bolted their doors to wait it out until some poorly theorized better time, which really came down to just the remainder of their lives, and perhaps the lives of their children if they were feeling optimistic—beyond that, après moi le deluge.
A rational response to an intractable problem. But not really. There was scientifically supported evidence to show that if the Earth’s available resources were divided up equally among all eight billion humans, everyone would be fine. They would all be at adequacy, and the scientific evidence very robustly supported the contention that people living at adequacy, and confident they would stay there (a crucial point), were healthier and thus happier than rich people. So the upshot of that equal division would be an improvement for all.
Rich people would often snort at this last study, then go off and lose sleep over their bodyguards, tax lawyers, legal risks—children crazy with arrogance, love not at all fungible—over-eating and over-indulgence generally, resulting health problems, ennui and existential angst—in short, an insomniac face plant into the realization that science was once again right, that money couldn’t buy health or love or happiness.
Although it has to be added that a reliable sufficiency of money is indeed necessary to scaffold the possibility of those good things. The happy medium, the Goldilocks zone in terms of personal income, according to sociological analyses, seemed to rest at around 100,000 US dollars a year, or about the same amount of money that most working scientists made, which was a little suspicious in several senses, but there it stood: data. And one can run the math.
The 2,000 Watt Society, started in 1998 Switzerland, calculated that if all the energy consumed by households were divided by the total number of humans alive, each would have the use of about 2,000 wats of power, meaning about 48 kilowatt-hours per day. The society’s members then tried living on that amount of electricity to see what it was like: they found it was by no means a form of suffering; it was even reported to feel more stylish and meaningful to those who undertook the experiment.
So, is there energy enough for all? Yes. Is there food enough for all? Yes. Is there housing enough for all? There could be, there is no real problem there. Same for clothing. Is there health care enough for all? Not yet, but there could be; it’s a matter of training peopled and making small technological objects, there is no planetary constraint on that one. Same with education. So all the necessities for a good life are abundant enough and everyone alive could have them. Food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, education.
Is there enough security for all? Security is the feeling that results from being confident that you will have all the things (I just listed) and your children will have them too. So it is a derivative effect. There can be enough security for all; but only if all have security.If one percent of the humans alive controlled everyone’s work, and took far more than their share of the benefits of that work, while also blocking the project of equality and sustainability however they could, that project would become more difficult. This would go without saying, except it needs to be said. To be clear, concluding in brief: there is enough for all. So there should be no more people living in poverty. And there should be no more billionaires. Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall; also a ceiling above which on one can rise. Enough is as good as a feast—or better. Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader.”
I am struck by the way in which Stanley Robinson lays out the facts, transforming our perceptions of the status quo, into a vision of reality which sounds so much like, the basileia ton theon, the kin-dom of GOD which Jesus taught a new kind of status quo in which everyone has enough. This basilea of DIVINITY, this way of being LOVE in the world, is not the kind of justice which can be achieved by merely adapting, this kind of justice requires transformation. We have been richly blessed. By we, I do not mean, we privileged few. The Earth’s blessings are more than enough for everyone.Today, here and now, LOVing one another, requires the kind of justice which is transformative.
Listen again to the transformative cry for justice: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. And you’re to love one another the way I have loved you. This is how all will know that you are my disciples: that you truly love one another.” We, my friends, we have been richly blessed. Blessed to be a blessing. Let us be transformed. Let us be justice, so that all may know in us, the LOVE which transformative.
Sure, when you are blessed to have a Mom who is from Belfast, it is almost impossible to be a literalist…so it t’is. Like people everywhere, people who’re from Belfast, have their own way of speaking the Queen’s English…so they do. An the way they talk’s enough ta make ya think twice before you’d ever make the mistake of takin the written word literally. Sure it twas m’ Belfast Mommy, who prepared me well to make a living searching for the more than literal meaning of a story…so it was.For if I was to take the words in the story of the resurrection of Tabitha literally, I can hear my Mom saying, “Ach away and give your head a shake, catch yourself on, you wee melter.”
Let me break that down for you. “Ach away.”Now you might guess that “ach away” means “go away”, or you might confuse “ach away” with the American “get otta here” and ye’d be close, but no cigar, for “ach away” means just the same as another Belfast phrase, “come here, wait’ll a tell ya. That’s right in Belfast, “come here wait’ll a tell ya” and “ach away” mean the same thing.
“Ach away and give your head a shake, catch yourself on you wee melter.” Well now, why don’t we give the second part of this a go, literally:“give your head a shake.”Go on. I mean it, “give your head a shake.” Well, all you who actually gave your head a shake, you might actually be a literalist because you see when my Belfast Mom, says, “give your head a shake” what she actually means is, well how shall I put this,
Canadian’s might use a very common Anglo-Saxon curse word in front of the word off, in this case, one of those words that would have prompted me Mom to send me for a bar of soap. I’ll just have to trust that you get my meaning, cause I’m not going to use the Canadian equivalent, not in church…and so. So, what about the next one, “catch yourself on”. Anybody know how to take that one literally? No you can’t actually catch yourself on, so even if you wanted to you can’t take that one literally… so ya can’t. Catch yourself on simply means, wise up…so it does.
Ok we’re almost there, “Ach away and give your head a shake, catch yourself on you wee melter.”Come ere, and blankety blank yourself, wise up, “you wee melter” any ideas? I’ll give you a hint “wee” in Belfast can mean anything at all, and nothing in particular. But “melter”, well you don’t wanna be called a “melter”. Melter simply means that you are annoying…so it does.So, when I tell you that words, especially words which people have bothered to put down on the page, believe me when I tell ya, words have a more-than-literal meaning… so they do.
Sadly, there are more than a few we melters who insist upon scundering me to no end…so the do. Scunder, scundering, one of my favourite Belfast ways of saying that to take the words of any story literally is just plain scundering…so it tis. That is to say depressing. Sure tis so depressing when people settle for the literal meaning of the words, so, ach away and give your heads a shake, catch yourselves on and don’t be wee melters, because I’m about to read you a Gospel story, in which we are about to discover, the more-than-literal meaning of the story of the Resurrection of Tabitha or is it Dorcas?
Our Gospel comes to us from the ninth chapter ofBook of Acts, which scholars tell us was written by the same anonymous gospel-story-teller who wrote the book we know as Luke.
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple, a woman named Tabitha—“Dorcas,” in Greek—who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. About this time she grew ill and died. They washed her body and laid her out in an upstairs room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter with the urgent request, “Please come over to us without delay.”Peter set out with them as they asked. Upon his arrival, they took him upstairs to the room. All the townswomen who had been widowed stood beside him weeping, and showed him the various garments Dorcas had made when she was still with them. Peter first made every on go outside, then knelt down and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, stand up.” She opened her eyes, then looked at Peter and sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her to her feet. The next thing he did was to call in those who were believers—including the widows—to show them that she was alive. This became known all over Joppa and, because of it, many came to believe in Jesus Christ. Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.” (Acts 9:36-43)
An so, there you have it, the Gospel according to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. The miraculous story of how the Apostle Peter raised a disciple named Tabitha from the dead. You all know that when someone is dead, that’s it, they are dead. Well in Belfast dead doesn’t mean what you think it means. If my Mommy were to say something is “dead on” she’d be telling me that “it’s not a problem.” And being dead isn’t a problem in this story because Tabitha is about to stand up. Ah, but give your head a shake because this story was written in Greek and the word for stand up, sit up, rise up, is the very same as the word we translate as “resurrection.”
And you can catch yourself on, if you’re saying to yourself, “there’s about as much chance of a person standing up after they’ve actually been dead as there is of little green men from outer space landing on Wayne Drive. Or, maybe you’re the generous type and so you say, “don’t be too hasty, it could happen if the person wasn’t really dead. I mean maybe Tabitha’s friends got it wrong and she just appeared to be dead.” Catch yourself on, the story says that Tabitha died, then her friends washed her body and laid her out in an upper room. Then since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter who was in Lydda and they asked Peter to head back to Lydda which was about 10 miles away.
That’s a 20-mile round trip on foot with a walking speed of about 3 miles per hour, it would take at least 7 hours. She was definitely dead the situation was anything but dead on. According to the story Peter sends everyone out of the room, knelt down and prayed and then said, “Tabitha, stand up.” And she did just that. The story of the raising of Tabitha is one of those stories which we wouldn’t believe for a second if it wasn’t in the Bible. I suspect that when it comes to stories from the Bible, most of us don’t really believe that they happened exactly the way the Bible says they happened. Or do we? Stories like the raising of Tabitha make many of us uncomfortable. Because it’s stories like this which make the bible so difficult to deal with.
According to New Testament scholar Marcus Borg: “In the last half century, more Christians have left the church because of the Bible than for any other single reason.” Biblical literalism which despite popular opinion is actually a modern and not an ancient approach to scripture, has boxed many 21st century minds into a proverbial corner from which the only escape is to reject the Bible as a source of wisdom. From the very beginning of Christianity, the Scriptures have been understood as a complex mix of historical, metaphorical, allegorical, and symbolic writings which reflect the relationship between the CREATOR and Creation. It is only in about the past 200 years or so that people begin insisting that the bible must be accepted as the literal factual historical truth.
The stories about Creation found in the book of Genesis are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sinking the beliefs of the faithful. Unable to check their brains at the door, many Christians have simply refused to cross the threshold of the church and disengaged from even trying to relate to texts that appear locked in a mindset that is trapped in a bygone age. The predominance of Biblical literalism has left so many Christians desperately clinging to the Bible fearing that if one single portion of the text is determined not to be the literal factual truth then the whole house of cards will come tumbling down and their faith will be lost.
And so, the arguments about the truth of the Bible have come to overshadow the wisdom which is to be found in the sacred texts and in some stories positively bulges between the lines of the scared pages. Sadly, the preoccupation with the literal factual truth of scripture has become a distraction which has kept too many people from exploring the more-than-literal truth and the wonders of metaphor, allegory, and symbol have been lost to all but the brave few who dare to challenge the lopsided literal approach to truth. So, let’s just give our heads a shake, wise up and start from the beginning.
This story begins in Joppa, which today is known as the cosmopolitan city of Jaffa. Jaffa is a city on the coast of the Mediterranean and when the Acts of the Apostles was written at the turn of the first century, Joppa was every bit as cosmopolitan as Jaffa is today. A first century audience would have heard in the name Joppa a clue to alert them to the fact that the followers of Jesus were venturing beyond the predominately Jewish area of the Roman Empire. In Joppa, the followers of the way would encounter a very gentile society where questions about mixing with non-jews were similar to the questions Catholics and Protestants used to raise in Belfast.
Joppa was the city from which the prophet Jonah set out for Tarshish on his ill-fated journey to escape the will of the ALMIGHTY. And for this reason alone the name Joppa conjured up images of a city on the outer edge or the boundary of the Jewish faith. But I’ll return to the notion of boundaries in a moment.
Now, I’ve told you before that whenever you are dealing with an ancient text, names matter. Just as surely as the name Adam literally means Earth, or Abraham literally means father of nations, or Jesus which comes from Joshua literally means YAHWEH, names are important. YAHWEH which literally means I AM WHO I AM. Everything is in the name. And just in case you forget to pay attention to names,the writer of Acts spells it out for you in both Aramaic and in Greek when he introduces the woman named Tabitha which he tells us is Dorcas in Greek— so let me tell you that Dorcas literally means gazelle.
Gazelle a word that literally comes from an older Arabic word for “LOVE” is the name given to that splendid creature we sometimes call an antelope. Gazelles are very common in the Middle East especially the variety which has become known as the dorcas antelope, which literally means “the love, love.” But wait it gets even better. Because the writer of the book of Acts would have known just as well as his listeners that the mere mention of a dorcas antelope would have conjured up images of religious controversy.
Gazelles you see inhabited a strange sort of boundary when it came to Jewish dietary laws. A gazelle is four-footed cloven-hoofed animal which chews its cud. This puts the gazelle in a category known as “clean” which means that it could be eaten. But because the gazelle is not a domesticated animal, it could be hunted and eaten, but it could not be sacrificed in the temple. Wild animals could not be eaten in connection with any religious rite. The gazelle which inhabits the land on the boundaries of the cities and towns, living on the fringes of civilization was hunted for its meat, and although it was deemed clean and therefore it was permissible to eat a gazelle, a gazelle is also wild and so it needed to be kept well away from any religious ceremony, because a gazelle could not be consecrated.
Now, I realize that I’m running the risk of losing some of you with too much detail, so let me give you a clue here. The early followers of the Jesus were in a quandary as to how to deal with gentile converts. Could they sit down to a meal and eat with the uncircumcised and risk ritual impurity? Could they let the uncircumcised come to the table? In addition to bringing up issues of ritual purity the gazelle would have also provoked images of something, or should I say someone far more crucial to the Jewish listener. I told you before that the word gazelle literally means LOVE.
So, who else was called LOVE? GOD is LOVE right? Well in Jewish art the gazelle is used as a symbol for YAHWEH. But even more interesting than that, the gazelle was also used to illustrate the life-giving aspect of YAHWEH. In a culture where the majority could not read, pictures were used to represent the details of the faith and the life-giving aspect of YAHWEH which is LOVE were depicted by images of the gazelle. Now there’s so much more that I could tell you about the symbol of the Gazelle, but I simply don’t have time and yees’d be tell me to catch me-self on, or worse to give my head a shake.
Suffice it to say that the writer of Acts was determined that his listeners did not fail to see that, and I quote, that “Tabitha—that is Dorcas in Greek” is named for YAWHEH who also inhabits the boundaries, the margins of the Jewish faith. By giving the name in both Aramaic and in Greek the author practically hits us over the head with the fact that this woman symbolizes something far greater than we can even begin to imagine, for she bears the name of YAHWEH who is LOVE.
So, if you need to limit her to being an actual living breathing human being who, if you traveled back in time you could take a picture of her and say “here she is,” then you are going to limit yourself to the literal truth, and you will fail to see the more-than-literal truth that this story is trying to tell us and that my friends is scundering. The author has set his listeners up for a story which expresses more than words can tell. Need I remind you that the literal meaning of metaphor is that which is “beyond words”. Meta means beyond and phor means word, metaphor means to carry beyond the words.
So listen up, you are about to hear a metaphor about Joppa a town on the boundaries of Judaism where Jews and Gentiles mix and the lead character in the story is Tabitha—Dorcas in Greek who is by her very name both Aramaic and Greek the product of the mixing of races and religions, whose very name represents a creature which inhabits the fringes of civilization, and is by nature both clean and unclean, acceptable and yet not acceptable, and whose very name symbolizes YAHWEH who is LOVE.
Clearly this story is so much more-than-literal. So let me give you one more fact to throw into the mix. The antelope has horns and in the Middle East the Dorcas Antelope uses its horns to dig for water. Water is the stuff of life. Indeed, the early followers of Jesus referred to Jesus himself as the Living Water.
Tabitha—Dorcas in Greek is described as a disciple who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. She represents the gentile convert to faith in the Jesus’ Way of being, who at the time inhabited the fringes of the early communities of Followers of the Way. At the very time when Jesus’ Jewish followers were debating the inclusion of the gentiles, Peter is called upon to raise this gentile convert from the dead. To demonstrate her value to the community the townswomen showed Peter (whose name literally means rock, indicating that he is the rock who will serve as the foundation of the community). The women, show Peter, the fruits of Tabitha’s faith. In the various garments which she wove together, Peter sees all the evidence he needs, to weave gentiles and Jews, women and me, slaves and free together.
And so, he tells everyone to go outside, then Peter kneels down and prays. Turning to the body, Peter said, “Tabitha, stand up.” And here the first hearers of this story would have heard the echo of an earlier story in which Jesus uttered the words, “Tilitha cum”. Which actually means “little girl stand up.” And just in case you missed it, the literal meaning of the word which gets translated into English as resurrection also quite literally means “stand up”.
And low and behold Tabitha opens her eyes. Opening her eyes, they would have been catching themselves back in the day, because they all knew that gazelles with eyes open…mean life!DIVINE life! With her eyes open, our text says Tabitha “sat up” but in the Greek the word is the same for as the word for “stand up” or resurrect. DIVINE life is restored to a gentile convert. This story is not about the resurrection of an individual. It is about much more than that. It is about the gift of DIVINE life being extended beyond the boundaries of Jewish religious life.
And just in case you still don’t get it, the writer of Acts tells you in the last line of today’s lesson that, “Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.” Now in case you missed it, Simon was Peter’s name before Jesus gave him the name Peter. And if you still don’t get it, this Simon is described as a leather tanner. Now every self-respecting Jew would have known that contact with a leather tanner makes you ritually impure because tanning leather requires contact with corpses which is a definite no no if you’re an observant Jew.
And so, the writer of Acts sets up his listeners for the next story in Acts, which describes Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and Peter’s dilemma about what the followers of Jesus can and cannot eat, and who they can and cannot eat with. And just in case you’ve forgotten Peter’s vision, suffice it to say that LOVE wins out in the end. LOVE, antelope, gazelle, Tabitha, Dorcas, YAHWEH are all intimately and DIVINELY intertwined to reveal the very nature of our CREATOR who breaks all our boundaries so that we can dwell in LOVE with all our neighbours.
That dear friends is the more-than-literal truth about the raising of Tabitha. As for me, I don’t know if this story actually happened this way, but I do know that this story is absolutely true! God is LOVE and LOVE traverses and triumphs over boundaries. So, catch yourself on, wise up, you wee loves and be the LOVE your mothers raised you up to be.
I am indebted to Rick Strelan’s excellent essay “Tabitha: The GAZELL of Joppa” published in 2019 in the Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture – follow this link for more details: here
These past two years have been challenging in many ways. Today, I’d like to focus on a challenge which in the grand scheme of things, may seem insignificant. For some of us who have chosen to gather in community to celebrate the MYSTERY of the LOVE we call GOD around Word and Sacrament, the challenge of participating in the Sacraments has brought with it some interesting revelations. Technology helped us with the Word part of worship.
Indeed, congregations all over the planet have managed in various ways to traverse the steep learning curve of technology which has empowered them to proclaim the WORD in worship in new and innovative ways. And while two years of worshipping primarily online has provided some interesting revelations about the way in which we experience the WORD in worship,
I’d like us to turn our attention both here in this sanctuary and indeed, out there among those of you participating online, to some of the disturbing revelations about the Sacrament of the Eucharist which have come to light after two long years of abstaining from the Eucharist. I say abstaining because for two years during which we were only able to worship in-person for a brief period last fall, we didn’t celebrate Communion. Even when we returned to in-person gatherings, on March 20th, we didn’t resume the celebration until just 3 weeks ago on Easter Sunday. So, in two years, we, here at Holy Cross have only celebrated Holy Communion twice.
Speaking only for myself, I have to confess that while I desperately missed gathering in-person to worship with this congregation in the flesh, I really didn’t miss celebrating Communion. I know that many worship leaders made different decisions during lockdown and discovered various ways to celebrate Communion over the internet. While we briefly considered using those individual plastic sealed containers of a sip of wine and a thin wafer, the idea of all that packaging, left much to be desired.
And yes, I have absolutely no difficulty understanding that the SPIRIT is not bound to the physicality of our sanctuaries and indeed can work wonders over the internet, I must confess that I just wasn’t feeling the need to give it a try. It wasn’t until Easter Sunday and the challenges of celebrating Communion safely with all the COVID protocols in place, that my own faith in the power of Communion was severely challenged. So, as word reached me this week, of several of our members testing positive for COVID, even though I know that they were infected elsewhere, and that over time we are all going to be infected by OMICRON, I had to ask myself and eventually our Worship Team, should we continue to take the risk of celebrating Communion.
It wasn’t until I allowed myself, to actually listen and hear the words repeated in the anonymous gospel-storyteller’s story of Jesus celebrating breakfast with some of his followers. Writing some seventy years after the life of Jesus, our gospel-storyteller sets a scene in which Jesus, repeats words which speak to me, challenging me to actually taste and see the goodness of the LOVE we call GOD. When speaking to Peter, you remember Peter the friend of Jesus who, when push came to shove, when it really mattered, Peter is the one who betrayed Jesus not once but three times, Jesus sits Peter down by the lake, and not once, not twice, but three times, Jesus puts Peter in his place. In my sacred imagination, I can see the two friends sitting on the lakeshore, and I like to think that Jesus invited the friend he called his Rock to sit upon a rock, and ask not once, not twice, but three times, “Peter, I thought you were my rock, but all things considered, I have to ask, do you love me?” I can see Peter visibly shrivel sitting there remembering what he did and didn’t do or say. “Yes Rabbi, you know I’m your friend.”
It is Jesus’ response which speaks to me now, “Then feed my lambs.” In my sacred imagination, I’m right there on the adjacent rock shrivelling along with Peter, when Jesus asks again, “Do you love me.” I hear the words, “Care for my sheep.” and again I hear Jesus insist, “Feed my sheep.” Yes, I know it’s my imagination speaking to me. Yes, I know I’ve entered the realm of metaphor. You are neither lambs nor sheep and I’m certainly not Peter, and all the New Testament scholars I love and respect, insist that the historical Jesus didn’t actually say these words. Like Peter, I have all sorts of reasons for denying Jesus. Not the least of which is the fact that this world-wide pandemic ain’t over just yet, and I, we together, we have a duty of care, and feeding people remains a risky endeavour.
So, on Friday, I met with our Worship Team and we talked about the challenges of safely celebrating Communion. It was a good conversation, a conversation when I learned that I am not alone in wondering why? So, we tweaked our protocols, and I was encouraged to consider celebrating Communion in one kind, that is to say distributing the bread but not the wine, because passing wine around brings with it safety challenges, and after all, breaking bread together ought to be enough for us to experience the visible tangible means of GOD’s grace. So, we decided, loosely that we would remind one another that the word companionship comes from the French pan for bread, com means with, companions are those who break bread with one another. I confess that I was prepared to leave it at that.
But in my sacred imagination, I kept hearing Jesus say, “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” Not just once, not just twice, not just three times, on and on it went, until finally I crumbled.
As the solid rock of my avoidance crumbled, I finally began to see what I didn’t want it to be revealed.
So, let me confess to you my beloved community, both here in the room and online, the truth is of all the things I have missed these past two years, Communion doesn’t even make the list. Once the truth was revealed to me, after I dried my tears, I had to ask myself, “Why?”. Why haven’t I missed Communion?
Over the course of my life in the Church, the Sacrament of Communion has fed and nourished me in ways I can’t even begin to count. Yes, my understanding of the Sacraments has changed over the years.
Long gone are the notions of Communion as a sombre penitential act of remembering Jesus as a sacrifice for sin. Over the years, I came to understand our Lutheran theology about celebrating the sacrament as a visible, tangible means of GOD’s grace. Not a blood sacrifice but a celebration of the gifts of bread and wine with the understanding that the DIVINE MYSTERY works, in, with, through, and under the visible and the tangible elements so that we can taste and see that our GOD is good.
Over the decades, of celebrating the Eucharist, which literally means “thanksgiving”, I have been nourished, grounded, and sustained by the companionship created over this meal. Yes, as my theology changed, and I gave up the notion that Jesus was a human sacrifice for sin, rejected the idea that humans were once perfect and fell from grace, and indeed fixed my gaze beyond the notion of a personified deity, the words of the sacrament challenged me to find new ways to express our place in the Cosmos. The reality of the DIVINE MYSTERY responsible for setting the Cosmos into being, juxtaposed to a little piece of bread and a tiny taste of wine, did indeed challenge my sacred imagination as I struggled to enter ancient metaphors so that I could taste and see that the MYSTERY which is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also, is indeed good. Let’s just say, our little ritual Communions began to feel all too puny a celebration to carry all that.
The last two weeks of trying to celebrate communion with COVID protocols have left me hungry for better ways to taste and see that the MYSTERY is indeed good. So, with Jesus’ words ringing in my sacred imagination, I did what I usually do when faced with a problem which I cannot resolve. I tried to read my way out of the reality that I haven’t really missed communion. Surely, I’m not the only one, who is struggling with Communion. Surely, somebody wiser than I am, has seen something which I cannot see. So, I scoured my bookshelves, until I came upon a book which actually arrived there just before the first lockdown. At the time, Communion was the last thing on my mind, we had bigger problems to be unravelled. The book is entitled, “Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century” – by R. Alan Street. It sounds very dry. But Jesus kept going on and on in my head, so for the love of Jesus, I began to read, if only to drown out my doubts, screaming in my head, in the guise of Jesus. I reminded myself that those first century followers of Jesus had so much more to worry about and they managed to be nourished by Communion. I might as well learn how they fed one another.
Well, right here on page one, in the very first sentence, I was hooked, when I read this: “…the Lord’s Supper of the first-century CE was an anti-imperial praxis. Whenever early Christians met for a communal meal they saw themselves as participating in subversive non-violent acts against the Roman Empire.” What! Holy Communion, the Eucharist as a subversive non-violent act against the Roman Empire? Well, let me tell you I have devoured this book and it has fed me, even as it has created a hunger in me for more. Pass the bread. More wine please, and while you’re at it send the fish my way, I’m starving, starving I say, famished for some of that old-time religion. But don’t give me any of your comfort food. Just some basic bread, wine, and if you happen to have it some fish would be fine too.
Those first century followers of the Way certainly knew how to throw a supper. Not even our church potlucks come close to the resistance they served up back in the day. Do me a favour, open your historical imaginations, and travel back in time with me to the first century. We only have time for a brief visit. But trust me we will be going back for more and more in the weeks ahead.
So, here we are let’s say at the end of the first century. Jesus was executed by the state as a criminal almost 70 years ago, that’s about 3 and a half generations ago. Much has been said about Jesus. Not much has been written, besides you probably can’t read anyway. The Romans have been making your life a misery and you liked what you’ve heard about Jesus. You’ve joined the struggle and you’re a part of the resistance to the domination of the Empire. It isn’t easy to risk your life but you can’t see any other way to resist than to through your lot in with the followers of Jesus’ Way of being in the world. To keep your strength up you get together, a crime in itself, but you get together with the members of the resistance to participate in a subversive non-violent act against Rome. Rome dominated and kept its citizens in line by any means possible. Those didn’t just include tyranny, brutality, terrorism, and civic events designed to mold their citizens into acquiescence.
One of these civic events was the Roman banquet. Roman banquets were designed to do more than feed the body, they followed a formula which enforced patronage, together with a strict hierarchy. They would begin with a meal, at which only those invited could attend, and were seated according to their place in the Roman power structure. Slaves and women had no place around the table. The meal lasted about ninety minutes, followed by a libation. A libation was a kind of toasting. Wine was poured out for the gods, of which CAESAR was supreme. With raised chalices those in attendance would proclaim, CAESAR IS GOD! The toasting was followed by a three hour symposium. The symposium included storytelling, mostly about the triumphs of Rome, entertainment, music, sport, magic, and jokes. All designed to uphold the values of Rome and solidify one’s place in the Empire.
Now follow me to the home of a prominent follower of the Way, where we are getting together to encourage one another to resist the forces of the Empire. We’re going to take that Roman banquet idea and turn it upside down. First, we shall eat our fill. Remember food insecurity was rampant at this time, people were starving. We are going to pool our resources and everyone regardless of class or wealth is going to eat their fill. Forget about whether you are a slave or free, Jew or a Gentile, man or woman, you have a place at the table, we are all equal at this mean.
Oh, and there will be a libation. But you don’t have to worry about toasting CAESAR! We will raise our chalice and proclaim that Jesus and not Caesar is our GOD! And yes there will be a symposium. Stories will be told. We will sing songs of protest. We will hear from our WISDOMKEEPERS and we will dream together, strategize together, and we will be nourished for the struggle which lies before us.
Now, move from your historical imagination and come with me into your prophetic imagination, the place where we dream dreams about what can be. Imagine if you will, a banquet in which we gather to resist the forces of the empire in which we are hopelessly entwined. A banquet where everyone is equal, everyone has a place at the table. A banquet where the hungry are fed with good food. Yes there will be a libation. We will raise our glasses to proclaim that LOVE is our GOD. We will drink a toast to justice as the way to peace! We will declare that the Earth is our home and not our property. We will toast justice seekers and peace makers and not powerbrokers and warriors. We will declare that generosity and not greed is our way. We will toast all that makes us ONE.
And then the symposium will begin. Stories will be told of resisting our lesser angels, songs of protest will be sung, our WISDOMKEEPERS will reveal truth as they teach us to reverence Creation, care for the Earth and feed everyone who hungers. There will be music. There will be dancing. There will be art and beauty and wonder. We shall all taste and see that the MYSTERY in which we live and move and have our being is GOOD.
Suddenly, my desire to resist is creating hunger-pains, and once again I need to taste and see. I hope that as we continue to follow Jesus Way of being in the world, we can once again learn to taste and see, for life is so very GOOD. I pray that our feasting together will nourish us in our struggle to resist, so that all may know the LOVE which is DIVINITY.
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Tis the season of “resurrection.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned after nearly a quarter of a century of preaching on the subject of resurrection, it’s that when it comes to resurrection, we look for what we have been conditioned to see. Just like Thomas, who had the good sense to doubt the resurrection, most of us have been conditioned to look for the physical resuscitation of a corpse; a bonified, pardon the pun, a bonified, actual physical body, complete with wounds and all. Sadly, far too many of us have been conditioned to look for what we have been conditioned to see instead of what is all around us, if we could only see beyond our conditioning. Perhaps a story will help us move beyond what we think we’re looking for to actual miracle of resurrection. I’ve told this story before, but then haven’t we all heard the story of Thomas, every Easter. The story I want to tell you comes from the Irish author Frank McCourt’s autobiography entitled “Tis”. McCourt was a schoolteacher, and he tells this story about a particular class in which he was challenging the assumptions of his young students. The story begins with a familiar nursery rhyme: “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; All the king’s horses and all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.” McCourt asks his young students to tell him what’s going on in this nursery rhyme. The hands are up like a shot.
“Well, like, this egg falls off the wall and if you study biology or physics, you know you can never put an egg back together again. I mean, like, it’s common sense. McCourt asks: “Who says it’s an egg?”
“Of course, it’s an egg. Everyone knows that.”
“Where does it say it’s an egg?”
McCourt’s story forces me to confess that for most of my life, I believed that Humpty Dumpty was an egg; a magical egg to be sure, with a face, and legs, and hands, a jolly fellow, but an egg none the less. The truth is Humpty Dumpty was not an egg. But let’s just leave Humpty Dumpty up there on the wall for a while, and shift our focus to today’s story, from the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John.
For a very long time, the story of Jesus’ appearance in the upper room where his followers were huddled in fear, conditioned me to focus my attention upon Jesus’ wounds, Thomas’ doubts, and back again to Jesus’ wounds, and then to Thomas’ belief. Occasionally, I was able to hear Jesus say, “Have you believed because you have seen me? For far too long, my conditioning caused me to see this story as the story about casting away doubts and believing in Jesus’ physical resurrection. But there is more going on in this story than just the literal words on the page. However, in order to see more we must try to see our longing for the physical resuscitation of a corpse as the product of generations of conditioning designed to have us believe in a certain way, that is to say to believe in spite of our doubts.
Today, it is Easter Sunday for orthodox Christians. In both Ukraine and in Russia a wounded CHRIST is struggling to rise from death. Today, it doesn’t matter how CHRIST rose nearly 2000 years ago. Today, it only matters that CHRIST rises in us, rises in the people of Ukraine, rises in the people of Russia, rises in people wherever they are, who long for peace. Today, during this season of Easter, our doubts about the possibility of resurrection are not as important as our doubts about the possibility of peace. Today, in the midst of colossal violence, it is long past time for us to see beyond our conditioning about what to believe about resurrection so that we can focus our attention on practicing resurrection.
This story with which we have been conditioned to look at the issues of our doubts about the resurrection itself, was written in the midst of colossal violence, violence which had escalated in the 70 years since the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. This story was written by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John some 70 years after Jesus’ death, some twenty years after the Jewish war with Rome in which the Empire destroyed the Temple, raised most of Jerusalem to the ground, and sent Jews and the followers of Jesus into exile. Our gospel-storyteller wrote his story within a deeply wounded community to provide the much need hope for their own resurrection.
According to this story, a bunch of rag-tag Jesus followers were huddled together in fear. Their beloved leader had been brutally executed by the powers that be and they were terrified that they would be next. Paralyzed by their fear, hiding behind a locked door, something happened which gave them the strength to burst forth from their own tomb and change the world. I believe that the anonymous gospel-storyteller wrote his story the way that he wrote to address the fears of the people of his community. According to the story, paralyzed by their fear, hiding behind a locked door, something happened that gave them the strength to burst forth from their own tomb and change the world. It wasn’t about believing in resurrection it was about practicing resurrection. Ever since they began to practice resurrection, people have been trying to figure out exactly what may have happened. What could have changed these bumbling, terrified, betrayers, abandoners, who seemed to be always getting things wrong, into a bunch of leaders who began a movement that spread throughout the Empire within their own life-times and then based on the power of their witness, spread throughout the world and continues to nourish and sustain millions of people from generation to generation?
Now there are those that insist that it was the power of Jesus having been physically resuscitated from the dead that motivated his followers to change their lives and the lives of millions who have come after them. But we live in the 21st century and we have access to all sorts of information that the generations who have gone before us did not. Our friend, Dom Crossan makes the point that, “it is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” I believe that in order to understand the power of this particular story of resurrection we must move beyond simplistic literal explanations and open ourselves to the more-than-literal symbolic – dare I say it, spiritual understanding of resurrection. It is long past time for us to move beyond arguments about a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body.
Let me remind you that a generation before our anonymous gospel-storyteller wrote his account of Thomas’ doubts, somewhere around the years 50 to 53, the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthian followers of the Way, that such questions about physical resurrection were in fact “stupid”. That Paul didn’t much care about a physical resurrection ought to give us the courage to see the notion of a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse for the late first century development that it was.
So, let us forget about what we have been conditioned to look for in order to see what needs to be seen, today in the midst the violence in which our world seems incapable of forsaking. What can we see in the wounds which are depicted in this story? Jesus suffered the worst of his world’s violence.
Yet the story of Jesus’ Way of being in the world continued to be present among those who sought to live as Jesus lived. Death, not even violent death at the hands of a powerful empire could keep Jesus’ commitment to compassionate resistance to the forces of empire from those who longed for the Shalom of the Reign of GOD which Jesus proclaimed with his life.
The basileia ton THEON, the Empire of GOD, the GOD which Jesus knew as ABBA, a LOVING PARENT, the basileia ton THEON, the Reign of the GOD that IS LOVE, where justice and not violence creates the kind of peace in which everyone has enough to live the abundant life Jesus insisted he came to give to the world. “I have come that you might have life and live it abundantly.”
Abundant life, where everyone has enough to live fully, love extravagantly, and be all that they are created to be, this is the basileia ton THEON, the REIGN of DIVINITY, the Empire of the LOVE which is GOD.
Abundant life is the Shalom we long for, for without justice there can be no peace, and without peace there can only be abundance for some and not for all. Can we now look beyond what we have been conditioned to see, and see the wounded CHRIST standing in the middle of fearful followers, a vision of the impact of violence, saying, SHALOM, “Peace be with you!” Can we look beyond what we have been conditioned to see the ONE wounded by violence bidding us peace?
Yes, I have my doubts about the possibility of SHALOM, especially now as we peer into the abyss which are the horrors of Ukraine, Syria, Myanmar, and countless other places where injustice has bred violence the likes of which seems unstoppable. I don’t much care about silly arguments about Jesus rising from the dead unless those arguments lead us to a place where we ourselves can claim the power of resurrection to create a hunger for SHALOM, a passion for the justice which creates peace. Just like the people in the story, I want to be transformed by the story of Jesus; transformed from someone who cowers in a place of safety, filled with fear and doubts, into a powerful member of a movement to create peace through justice.
We will never know what actually happened two thousand years ago. But we do know that whatever happened it transformed a people hiding from the endless violence into courageous followers of a Way of Being in the world which death could not destroy.
When I read the accounts of those early followers of the way who abandoned the tomb of the upper-room to gather together to build communities of compassion it is clear to me who was raised up by images of resurrection. The followers of Jesus were lifted up from a crouching or cowering position as they boldly proclaimed what they had learned from Jesus. The followers of Jesus stood up and got on with the business which was begun by Jesus. The followers of Jesus began to understand themselves in a whole new way.
The Apostle Paul wrote: “We who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” When followers of Jesus in the first century and in the twenty-first century talk about the resurrection of Christ, we are proclaiming that death did not have the last word in the Jesus story because his followers were raised up to be his body right here, right now. When we say that we believe in the resurrection of the dead, we are proclaiming that no matter how dead someone may appear to be, no matter how dead we may feel, new life is always possible. Practicing resurrection begins when we huddle together refusing to let our fears entomb us. Practicing resurrection happens when we gather to build communities of compassion. Resurrection is not a solitary endeavor. Practicing resurrection requires that we gather sharing our gifts, talents and treasure for the good of all. Practicing resurrection happens when we empower one another to rise.Practicing resurrection happens when we build communities of compassion that live fully, love extravagantly, and empower people to be all that they were created to be.
So, fellow followers of the Way, if Humpty Dumpty wasn’t an egg what was she? Anybody??? What we all missed is what was there all along, Humpty Dumpty you see was a cannon. The nursery rhyme dates back to the English civil war, when the Royalists were being attacked by the Parliamentarians, they put their faith in the size of their cannons, one of them was so large it went by the name Humpty Dumpty, which at the time was a term used to describe fat rich guys. The Royalists placed their biggest cannon on the wall which surrounded the city of Colchester. Somehow the Parliamentarians managed with their smaller cannons or battering rams to shatter the wall and the cannon, Humpty Dumpty came tumbling down, shattered, irreparable. And all the kings horses and all the kings men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Violence, how long will we put our faith in violence? The Parliamentarians victory may have looked like the way to peace, but it was no peace at all, it was as Dom Crossan puts it, just a lull in the violence. History should have taught us by now that that justice and not violence is the way to peace.
Resurrection is not about the physical resuscitation of a corpse. Resurrection is about the wisdom and the courage to proclaim with our lives that Jesus’ vision of the Reign of LOVE continues to rise in us. So, let us see the wounds inflicted by violence, and practice resurrection. Let us be resurrection by practicing resurrection, that is by resisting violence, resisting injustice, so that the Reign of LOVE ushers in the peace we long for the SHALOM which is abundant living. Peace be with you. Shalom dear ones. Shalom.
View the full Worship Video for the Second Sunday of Easter below
What I remember most about Malcolm is that he did not suffer fools gladly. He couldn’t have been much older than I am now when we first began working together. By day, Malcolm was an astounding problem solver. But on evenings and weekends, Malcolm was a super-hero! A justice-seeker, peacemaker and the personification of LOVE itself. Malcolm was a brilliant co-worker. But, if you needed his help at work, you had to catch Malcolm during working hours, because as soon as the clock struck 5, Malcolm would be out the door. He always had places to go and people to see, mountains to move, wrongs to make right, people to save, injustices to oppose, and people to feed. Malcolm, no matter how much you tried to resist his charms, would sweep up any able-bodied person to help him on his epic his quests to right whatever wrongs he encountered. I don’t remember much of what I learned from Malcolm at work, but I can still feel the intensity of his passion, sweeping me up like a whirlwind as he embodied a vision of justice which always took my breath away.
Malcolm and I shared a kind of bleak gallows sense of humour which we put down to our shared British birthplace. When he discovered that as a child, I had been subjected to my father’s collection of recordings of Goon Show, our gallows humour went into overdrive. Malcolm would insist that I play Eccles to his Seagoon. For those of you who were never blessed to hear the Goons, suffice it to say, the Goons taught the Monty Python crew how to do comedy, the way comedy needs to be done. Says I, using the voice of Eccles, to Malcolm who hailed from Aberdeen: “All you hairy Scotsmen, today we’re gonna march north to England!” To which Malcolm would responded with the voice of Neddie Seagoon “But England’s to the south!” “Aye” says I, “We’re gonna march right round the world and sneak up on them!”
Our co-workers thought we were mad, but I loved that old guy, right up until the moment he left us. I remember sitting by his hospital bed as he lay dying, we’d exhausted all the Goon bits we could remember, and the rattle of Malcolm’s breathing warned me that it wouldn’t be long. When all of a sudden, he sat right up in bed and demanded to know what Jesus was all about. Never once, in all the time I’d known him had we ever mentioned Jesus to one another. I’d kept my mouth shut on anything remotely connected with religion simply because every single time anyone else mentioned religion, Malcolm would become incensed. Malcolm was positively vulgar on the subject of religion and I for one didn’t want to risk our friendship by saying anything remotely religious.
“Come on tell me, what was Jesus all about? Quickly, I don’t have much time!” Malcolm pointed to the Easter cards which the nurses had lined up on the windowsill. “There look at them” he’d taken on the voice of Seagoon, “If those cards are anything to go by, then Jesus must have been a bunny rabbit, hopping through a field of daffodils.” Trying with my best Eccles voice, I could only muster the classic Eccles conundrum, “He’s goon but he’s not forgotten.”
Sorry, you’ll just have to Google it because it is Easter after all, and my task here is Malcolm’s question, “What is Jesus all about?”
I believe that Jesus is all about the story; a parable to be exact. I’m not just talking about the parables which Jesus told. I’m talking about the Parable of Jesus. The Parable of Jesus is not about his death, although Jesus does die, but then again, in the Parable, he is dead, but he won’t lie down. The Parable of Jesus is not all about Jesus’ death, nor is it about life after death. The Parable of Jesus is about so much more than individual salvation from some vengeful god. The Parable of Jesus is about the context in which Jesus was born, the oppression under which Jesus lived, and the passion with which Jesus embodied non-violent resistance to the powers of domination, a commitment which Jesus was willing to die in order to teach the world that justice and not violence is the way to the peace we long for.
The Parable of Jesus is a Parable of Resistance. The Parable of Jesus is about resistance to a way of being that is based upon selfishness and greed. The Parable of Jesus is about a vision of a new way of being in which the abundance of Creation is shared by all, so that everyone has enough in order to live their lives. Jesus insisted, “I have come that you might have life and live it abundantly.” Jesus’ understanding that the MYSTERY responsible for creating life is so much more than a tribal deity who favours one tribe over the other. Jesus spoke of this MYSTERY as an ABBA, a PARENT, with which we are ONE. Jesus’ understood this ABBA’s primary concern for the people of the world, all the people of the world, is that we LOVE ONEanother. Jesus took the best of the teachings of his people when he highlighted as the most important rule of their religious teaching that we LOVE one another and added a new twist, spelling out exactly how we are to LOVE one another. In the Parable of Jesus, on the night before Jesus is executed, he gives his followers a New Commandment that we LOVE ONE another in the same way as Jesus’ loved them.
We don’t have to look very far into the Parable of Jesus to see exactly how Jesus loved. The Parable of Jesus contains all sorts of little parables about the way in which Jesus loved without discrimination, the lowest and the least, the outcasts and the sinners, and the powerless, comforting, feeding, healing, eating and drinking with them. As for enemies, the powerful, the self-centered, the wealthy, Jesus called his followers NOT to take up the sword against them, but to lay down their arms, to love them. Jesus urged his followers to live self-less-ly, giving extravagantly, as they learned new ways to LOVE one another.
In the Parable of Jesus, we meet a person willing to sacrifice, to make holy every aspect of his being in order to resist the forces of empire. Jesus steadfastly he resisted violence as a way to resist. Jesus’ whole life proclaims that peace cannot be achieved through violence, peace is born of justice,
justice not just for the rich and powerful, but justice for all. Jesus resisted violence. He resisted the trappings of his fame. Jesus even resisted the temptations of his own power, even in the face of the one thing we humans fear most of all, death.
According to the Parable of Jesus, not even death can kill Jesus’ vision of the Reign of GOD, what Jesus called the basileia ton theon, the Reign of the MYSTERY which Jesus understood as the ABBA, the LOVing Parent. Not even death at the hands of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, could kill Jesus’ vision of the Reign of ABBA, in which justice prevails.
Jesus’ idea of justice did not include revenge. Jesus understood justice to be distributive. Distributive justice ensures that everyone has enough to live life abundantly. After the empire had done its worst, after Jesus was executed for resisting the powers of the Empire, his followers came to understand Jesus teachings, and they too became non-violent resisters who looked to the Parable of Jesus’ resistance to encourage their quest for peace through justice.
But the temptations of empire are powerful, and over time, the all too human fear of death softened Jesus’ followers commitment to resistance. Over time, the followers of Jesus were co-opted by the very temptations Jesus resisted all his life, even unto death. Eventually, Jesus’ resistance was softened, as people returned to the old ways of trying to establish peace through the empire’s violence. As Jesus’ resistance was softened, the people’s vision of Jesus’ ABBA was hardened, indeed the Father became known as a vengeful, punishing parent, who employed threats not unlike the Empire’s torture.
Sadly, the Parable of Jesus’ Resistance, became a quid pro quo with the powers that be. Resist the empire which the church had become and be damned to eternal punishment. NO wonder resistance was forsaken in favour of bunnies and chocolate, as Jesus himself became an opiate which if swallowed produced a kind of euphoria which promised heavenly rewards in some other life-time, allowing the people to forget the creation of heaven here on Earth. Resistance was set aside in favour of acquiescence in the service of the empires created by wealth. The forces of the empires of Rome and the religious authorities may have killed Jesus, but according to the Parable of Jesus, not even death could kill Jesus’ vision of the basileia ton theon. We catch glimpses of Jesus’ vison, here and there, wherever and whenever people resist the temptations of empire. You’ve all seen glimpses of the basileia ton theon, whenever peace breaks out not because of violence, for this is no peace at all, but mearly a lull in the violence. You’ve seen the basilea ton theon when peace is established because justice prevails, when justice and not violence creates the kind of peace where LOVE flourishes.
That’s the Easter part of the Parable of Jesus, the time and place when resurrection happens. When and where the LOVE which Jesus embodied resists the temptations to selfishness, greed, and violence. Those moments when LOVE rises up and people are empowered by their LOVE for one another, to resist injustice, to champion justice for people everywhere. The Parable of Jesus is just a story told by idealistic, religious, fools, when it is fed by those who intoxicated by the temptations of empire. But the Parable of Jesus still holds the power of resurrection within the transforming LOVE which is embodied in the life, the teachings, the death, and the powerful legacy of Jesus’ resistance.
For it is Jesus’ vision of the basileia ton theon, the Reign of ABBA in which the power to be LOVE in the world is resurrected each and every time LOVE is embodied in the world. For the REIGN of the LOVE which is the MYSTERY we call GOD, is already here, in the life of each and every person who resists selfishness, resists greed, resists the hunger for power, resists complacency, resists hatred born of fear, resists me first, resists not with violence but with the quest for justice, not the punitive justice born of our self-centred desire to punish, but the distributive justice of Jesus vision of a world in which everyone has enough to live fully, love extravagantly and be all that we are created to be.
The Parable of Jesus is a powerful parable of resistance which does not end with Jesus’ death. Death does not have the final world in this powerful parable of resistance, because death cannot destroy the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being, precisely because LOVE has being in, with, through, and beyond us. LOVE lives, LOVE dies, and LOVE comes again and again and again.
As the rattle in Malcolm’s chest weakened, his grip on my hand tightened. I could almost see the young man he once was, leaning in close to the wireless so that he could hear every silly word the Goons broadcast. I couldn’t help but smile, which when Malcolm noticed, he asked me what I was smiling about. I told him that the folks in the afterlife weren’t going to know what hit them once he arrived. “So, you think I’m going to Heaven then?” “You don’t believe in Heaven.” I reminded him.
“That’s because I’m not there yet. It will be heaven once I get there.” That’s our Malcolm, “There’s always something that needs doing to make things better for everyone!”
It was standing room only at Malcolm’s funeral. Dozens of people stood up to remind us of Malcolm’s super-powers. Last night as I was remembering my old friend Malcolm, I couldn’t help laughing when I thought of an old line from a long-ago Goon Show. I think it was the character of Bluebottle, who was played by Peter Sellers, who was always being killed off, or as the Goons would have it Bluebottle was always being “deaded”. Each time Bluebottle would be “deaded” he would rise up and go on talking. I can still remember Malcolm saying in his Seagoon voice, “He’s deaded, but he won’t lie down.” Laughing in the face of death is an old Easter tradition because at Easter, death is always the butt of the joke. “He’s “deaded” but he won’t lie down.”
Malcolm’s passion for justice, his visions of making heaven here on Earth, they live on in each and every person that Malcolm ever loved. Jesus’ passion for peace through justice, this LOVE which people encountered in the life and teachings of Jesus could not be conquered by death. LOVE rises again and again and again. On this Easter morning it may appear as if LOVE has died and is buried in the tomb of our stupidity. But I assure you that not even death will have the final word; not death in the Ukraine, or South Africa, or Myanmar, or in the violent streets of corporate greed, or the lonely hovels in which people die unjustly from hunger and disease.
LOVE may indeed be deaded but LOVE won’t lie down for long. LOVE is risen. LOVE is risen indeed. In every act of resistance inspired by the vison of the already and not yet Reign of LOVE. Resistance is the only kind of resurrection we need in order to create the peace we long for.
Death cannot conquer LOVE. Not as long as LOVE is embodied in the world. Every act of LOVE resurrects our hunger for justice and inspires our desire to be LOVE in the world. LOVE even if it is deaded won’t lie down. LOVE never lies down for long. ay we all know the power of LOVE rising in us!
So, the thing about stories, really good stories is that they have a life of their own. I suspect that most of us have heard these parables of loss so many times that it is the many and varied of interpretations of these parables, which tend to stick with us, rather than the details and circumstances under which these particular parables were born and raised. I’m guessing that in vast majority of the interpretations of these parables, the shepherd, the woman, and the father are usually identified as a symbol for the MYSTERY which we call GOD.
But if this MYSTERY really is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also, and we are in GOD and GOD is in us, then every character in every parable you have ever heard is in GOD and GOD is in every character. Now this doesn’t really present much of a problem with the first two parables of loss. We can wrap our heads around GOD embodied in a shepherd, and even GOD embodied as the woman who losses her coin. We do tend to point to those characters in order to personify the MYSTERY. So that it’s not just the characters’ actions which are pointed to as the workings of DIVINITY, but the characters themselves are viewed as stand ins or symbols of GOD Himself or Herself. When we do see ourselves in the story we are usually the lost the lost sheep or the lost coin and we take comfort in the reality that no matter how lost we may become GOD the supernatural being, out there, or up there, will find us. But when we begin to see the DIVINE MYSTERY, the CREATOR of the Cosmos, and try to imagine the ONE WHICH IS the GREAT I AM, WHO I AM, I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE, YAHWEH as so much more than a person, well the idea of a shepherd, or a woman, or even the father who loses his son, these mere personifications begin to lose their ability to symbolize the MYSTERY.
So, today I’m inviting you to stop trying to identify the DIVINE MYSTERY as an individual person in these parables. I also want you to resist making the story all about you. Don’t try to see yourself as a character in the story. You’re not a lost sheep, or a lost coin, or even a lost child. It’s not all about you. Let’s try to focus on what is actually happening in the story.
If we begin with what is actually happening in these parables, we will have to confess that these parables of the lost and the found are simply outrageous. If we fix our gaze upon the surface, we limit the power of these parables to do what parables are designed to do, to turn worlds and lives upside down and inside out. These parables have an air of foolishness about them, if we see them as simple stories told by Jesus about the way a personified god loves us.
Surely, Jesus can’t be pointing to the GREAT I AM, the MYSTERY which we call GOD and saying that GOD is a fool. For: Only a fool…. Would leave ninety-nine sheep to look for one lost sheep. Only a fool…Would leave the ninety-nine unguarded: to wander aimlessly, to be ravaged by some unknown predator, to fall prey to who knows what. Only a fool would leave to search for the stray who might be wounded, damaged, dying, not interested in being rescued. Only a fool…Would risk a reputation as a wise shepherd, a careful guardian of the known and secure, to seek one lone sheep.
Only a fool…Would find. Would restore, would be a shepherd, foolish enough to care enough to save the lost, the wandering, the lonely, the one outside the bounds of the flock. Only a fool…Would sweep and sweep and sweep, leaving her purse unguarded, to search for one lone coin. Only a fool…Would search and look and scour and puzzle, bend and peer, lift and move everything, to find a single coin. Only a fool… Would resist the contentment, the satisfaction of a purse fat with nine shiny, weighty coins. Only a fool… Would rather be relentlessly looking – for one small, lone coin when nine, known and countable, are all that are really needed. A small but secure fortune in hand. Only a fool… Would fret about the loss of a small insignificant coin. Only a fool…Would know the joy, the absolute delight of finding — what really isn’t needed. Only a fool would rejoice with such extravagance. Only a fool would be such a steward as this. Only a fool would welcome home with joy and abandon a wayward child who had used, rejected, dishonoured, and then returned only to try to use them again. Only a fool, would run head-long, open armed to kiss such a wayward fool, extravagantly bestow more household treasures, and expect the faithful to join in the rejoicing.Only a fool, would cajole the self-righteous, indignant child to join the celebration.
So, if Jesus isn’t describing the characteristics of a personified deity, is Jesus actually teaching us how to embody the LOVE which is DIVINITY here in the world? These parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons, point us in a direction of a way of being in the world characterized by foolish and passionate abandon. What is the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as Luke trying to tell his community with these parables? Did Jesus really believe that people ought to forsake everything they have in order to find the one thing they have lost?
Is the anonymous gospel-storyteller really saying that Jesus taught his followers to risk everything they have in order to find the one thing they have lost? Remember how many times these parables must have been told before they were written down. Remember the precarious nature of the lives of the people who first heard these parables. Why did they repeat these stories over and over again? Remember those first gatherings of the people who followed Jesus’ teachings met in secret because they feared for their lives. The occupying Roman forces not only publicly executed their teacher as a warning to any of Jesus’ would be followers, The Roman Empire, crucified as many dissenters as they could catch. Historians tell us that those roads which all lead to Rome, those roads were dotted with thousands of crucifixion sites. Thousands of rotting corpses were left nailed to crosses in order to terrify the masses into submission. The magnitude of loss was positively unbearable.
If we take off our rose coloured glasses, and pick up a pair of lenses permeated with the desire to resist persecution, violence, and the forces of Empire, these parables have the potential to inspire the kind of passion necessary to recover the one thing which is lost, justice. Justice without which there can be no peace. We can only begin to imagine the magnitude of what a conquered, oppressed, suffering people has lost.
But I suspect that justice, the kind of justice which ensures that everyone has enough so that everyone can live in peace, is something worth leaving behind everything you have in order to pursue. I suspect that even offering all you have to a wastrel and a scoundrel is worth a shot if it means finding peace.
I suspect that pulling brothers together who have genuine axes to grind is the kind of recklessness that is worth the risk, if those siblings can learn to work together to pursue justice.
Contemplating the miracle that these parables survived, were told over and over again, written down and preserved by people persecuted by empire, I have to believe that they are more than nice little stories all about how we should live.They have to be more than mere speculation about the character of YAHWEH, casting the CREATOR of ALL that is, was, and ever more shall be as a fool.
Because when you look at the shepherd, the woman, and the father in these parables, they come do come off as reckless fools, unless they are risking all that they have for the sake of something worth risking everything for.
These parables can’t just be about a lamb, or a coin, or even a couple of squabbling children. Nor can I believe that Jesus saw YAHWEH, the GREAT I AM as a fool.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the systems of domination and the pain inflicted by the unjust empires of our world. The reality of the systems in which we are intimately entangled is being played out on our screens. The injustice of it all explodes into our living rooms day after day. My own desire to resist the urge to respond to violence with violence weakens with every report of the injustices perpetrated as innocent lives are lost. I’m in real danger of losing my ability to follow Jesus on what appears to all the world to be the foolish path of non-violent resistance to empire. Not if it means risking all that we have for the sake of Jesus’ vision of peace through justice.
Sometimes, when I manage to muster up my courage and try to view these parables of loss through lenses of resistance, I can begin to feel a kind of reckless abandon welling up in me, inspiring the kind of passion, which tempts me to take leave of my senses, to risk everything for the sake of what is currently being lost. I can also hear the voice of reason condemning me as a fool. None of these parables is the stuff of everyday loss. I don’t think that Jesus, or his followers, or Luke, told these parables in order to teach their listeners about the character of YAHWEH.
Think about it, Jesus can’t have being trying to teach us that the DIVINE MYSTERY was a reckless fool. Nor were they trying to teach us to live as reckless fools. For none of us can do this kind of relentless, reckless abandon constantly. But I can, even now hear these stories told to inspire resistance to the violence and injustice of empire, for the sake of justice and peace. Living lives of reckless abandon is untenable. Jesus’ vision of the BASILEIA ton THEON, the Empire of DIVINITY, is not the world we live in.
The EMPIRE OF DIVINITY is not yet here. But there are times. There are times when … risks must be taken. Times when we must leave all that we have, all that we know, in order to seek, to find and to restore the lost, the abandoned, the wayward, and yes even the self-righteous religious types.
Yes, the shepherd should have been guarding the 99. Yes, the woman should have been content with her 99 coins. Yes, the father should never have trusted his sons with all that he had, and when his lost son showed himself to be untrustworthy, he shouldn’t have been welcomed with open arms, and as for the faithful, self-righteous son, well sometimes justice demands that we abandon the rules, if we are to achieve peace. Sometimes boundaries must be crossed in order to achieve justice.Peace-making requires risk-taking, and the reckless abandonment of some things we hold very dear.
When I can bring myself to read these parables through the lenses of resistance, I can begin to tell these stories as a call to resist. Resist making the characters in these parables all about us. Resist looking for a saviour in these parables who will find us and put everything back together for us. Resist reading into the parables a too small personal shepherd, woman, or father to act the part of a too small recklessly, foolish god. Resist the distractions of all that we have, all our treasures, our land, our homes, all the trappings of the empires in which we are entangled. Resist the empires to which we have lost the justice which has the power to create peace. Resist with reckless abandon, our fear of the very passions which flow from the LOVE which is the MYSTERY which allures us onto the pathways of justice and peace. Resist the illusion that finding what we have lost will be a sweet, harmless, story. Recklessly abandoning the status quo, is never sweet, never harmless.
The BASILEIA ton THEON may not yet be the world we live in, but the BASILEIA ton THEON is already here. They not yet but already here EMPIRE of DIVINITY is here in every stranger who welcomes a refugee, in every aid worker, doctor without borders, in every reckless fool who risks it all for the kind of justice which makes peace.
We don’t have to travel to Europe or Afghanistan, or Syria, or Myanmar to catch a glimpse of the EMPIRE of DIVINITY, for the not yet REIGN of LOVE is already here. You can catch glimpses of this LOVE resisting the violence of domination systems, in every champion of the environment, every compassionate advocate for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. You can see it in the reckless passion of justice-seekers fighting for affordable housing, equitable healthcare, and food security.
Jesus’ vision of peace through justice, what he called the BASILEIA ton THEON, the Empire of GOD, is the already but not yet SHALOM we long to find. It is the vison of the foolish who are prepared to risk it all for the sake of what we have lost, the SHALOM we long for. And each and every time we find what has been lost is a time for celebration. Especially when what was lost is restored.
So, when you catch a glimpse of the REIGN of LOVE, celebrate and as you celebrate remember to invite others into the party. What shalom there will be as SHALOM is restored through justice. When the peace which is lost breaks out and the lost, the forsaken, and the forlorn greet one another with open arms and go into the feast to celebrate, for what once was lost is found. Embrace the HOLY foolishness which lives, in, with, through, and beyond you. Risk it all for the sake of LOVE.
Snow is gently falling outside my window. I can just make out the Sun’s glow through the clouds. It is beautiful. Quieting. Silent. Every now and again a gust of wind sweeps up the fallen snow into a whirlwind reminding me that this morning’s weather forecast warns that in addition to the snow squalls blowing in off the lake, we can expect wind gusts approaching 70 to 80 km per hour. With this winter storm in mind, I can’t help thinking about the goings on farther to the north, in our nation’s capital. When I turn my attention from my front window to my television set, I can see the winds fiercely blowing in Ottawa, as police and protestors alike stomp their feet in that familiar dance designed to keep the blood flowing in the numbness of this cold of winter. For three long weeks, we have watched as a few frustrated, misinformed, angry truckers together with some others who have found community with them, as they occupy a city and render those we have entrusted with the job of maintaining social norms impotent.
If I look beyond the blockade of trucks, I can make out our parliament buildings and remember summer walks and smiling faces as strangers together took delight in the solid structure in which we gladly and yes often cynically place our trust. Suddenly the roar of the wind commands my attention and outside my window all is whiteness. I can’t see through the swirling snow, as the whiteout robs me of any desire to venture outside. I can just make out the impression of a young maple tree standing firm, as the gusts of wind blow so much snow into the air, that I fear the tree might snap or be torn from its roots.
I hear the news announcer as she shifts her focus from Ottawa to Kiev to warn that war seems inevitable. Footage of Russian troops positioned along Ukraine’s boarder followed by the American Vice-President Kamala Harris addressing leaders from around the world who have gathered in Munich, to respond to threats from Russia with threats of economic sanctions and military reinforcements designed to deter with strength and all the might the world cares to muster any incursion into Ukraine. In the cut-out screen below, there’s a view of Ottawa where lines of police are methodically pushing the protestors back, ever so slowly.
I turn off the set and return my focus to my task, a sermon which proclaims good news extracted from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain as it is written by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as Luke. Before we even get to the Gospel assigned for this Sunday, Jesus gives us the beatitudes: “You who are poor are blessed, for the reign of God is yours. You who hunger now are blessed, for you will be filled. You who weep now are blessed, for you will laugh. You are blessed when people hate you, when they scorn and insult you and spurn your name as evil because of the Chosen One. On the day they do so, rejoice and be glad: your reward will be great in heaven, for their ancestors treated the prophets the same way. But woe to you rich, for you are now receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are full, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will weep in your grief. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in the same way.” (Luke 6:17-26)
I can still hear the winds howling outside. And there’s a churning now inside of me as the woes of the world outside will not subside. I want to scream at Jesus: Is that all you’ve got blessings and woes? The memory of an angry Canadian, “Christian nationalist” screaming on behalf of the so-called “Freedom Convey” stifles my own scream. I remember reading about her ranting and raving, as she echoed words she must have learned from those pro-Trump rallies after the 2020 US election. They sounded so familiar. She threatened to blow her truck horn till the walls come tumbling down, promising a daily “Jericho march” around Parliament Hill. Out of my own righteous indignation, I disown that woman. I disown the woman, as a christian, and as a Canadian. With every fiber of my being, I disavow her as my sister. I can hardly bring myself to read the Gospel assigned for this Sunday because I know exactly how it begins and Jesus’ words don’t feel like Good News right now, at this particular moment.
Jesus said: “To you who hear me, I say: love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. When they slap you on one cheek, turn and give them the other; when they take your coat, let them have your shirt as well. Give to all who beg from you. When someone takes what is yours, don’t demand it back. Do to others what you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. If you do good only to those who do good to you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ do as much. If you lend to those you expect to repay you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to other ‘sinners’ expecting to be repaid in full. Love your enemies and do good to them. Lend without expecting repayment, and your reward will be great. You will rightly be called children of the Most Holy, since God is good even to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate, as your loving God is compassionate. Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Do not condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you: a full measure—packed down, shaken together and running over—will be poured into your lap. For the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.” (Luke 6:27-38)
Earlier this week, I had highlighted one verse and written in the margins, “the Gospel in a nutshell.” That verse reads: “Be compassionate, as your loving God is compassionate.” I can feel myself resisting. I don’t want to be compassionate. I do want peace. But I want peace without having to love my enemies. Just clear out the streets of Ottawa and restore order. Threaten Putin with whatever it takes so we don’t have to go to war. But please don’t ask me to LOVE my enemies or be compassionate as my LOVing GOD is compassionate, for I have no idea what compassion looks like in the face of the overwhelming woes of our world. I do know what woe’s look like, and woe betide those who disturb our peace.
There’s another note in the margins, right under the one which reads, “the Gospel in a nutshell,” is the phrase “womb-like”. Womb-like is a very literal translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic words which are translated as “compassionate.” Marcus Borg reminded us that to be compassionate is to be womb-like, to be like a womb.“GOD is like a womb, Jesus says, therefore, you be womb-like.” Borg asks, “What does it mean to be womb-like? and then he answers, “It means to be life-giving, nourishing. It means to feel what a mother feels for the children of her womb: tenderness, willing their well-being, finding her children precious and beautiful. It can also mean a fierceness, for a mother can be fierce when she sees the children of her womb being threatened or treated destructively. Compassion is not just a soft, woozy virtue. It can have passion and fierceness to it as well.”
Borg’s compelling description convicts me. I suspect it may also convict you as well. I wonder what our lives would be like if we who claim to follow Jesus’ Way felt compassion for those we disagree with, for those who make us angry, for our enemies, for all those who disturb our peace. What if we felt the kind of compassion which embodies our WOMB-LIKE GOD’s desire for their wellbeing? Marcus Borg’s words go a long way to reminding me of my own tribal tendencies to settle for the kind of peace which benefits my people. If I am to participate in the evolution of humanity, I must learn not to seek or to settle for this pale imitation of peace. Peace without compassion is no peace at all. Compassionate peace provides the space for all of us to learn to grow into womb-like LOVers of our enemies. In Jesus, we see a life which is the incarnation of this SACRED WOMB-LIKE LOVE.
Jesus understood that peace is achieved by seeking justice, not just for those of our own tribe, but justice for all. Justice is the social dynamic of LOVE. Justice for all tribes, all nations, all races, all genders, justice for those on the left and justice for those on the right.Justice-seeking, peace-making is a Way of being in the world which has the power to transform enemies into LOVers. It is not for the faint of heart, but for the fierce. Not ferocity, which is born of self-interest, but the ferocity born of LOVE, of compassion. The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis defines fierce love this way: “Sometimes love gets a bad rap for being tepid and squishy and co-dependent. Fierce love is the kind of love that acknowledges that we’re inextricably connected to each other. It’s the kind of love that made people wade into the water during Katrina and risk their own bodies to save other people’s lives. It is the kind of love that made a man run into the fire on 9/11 knowing he might not come out.” “I believe” says Jacqui, “ I believe fierce love is hardwired into our DNA. If we can remember it, I think we can heal the world.”Jacqui Lewis understands this fierce LOVE as the kind of motivation which compels us to seek justice for everyone.
Sometimes, when the storms outside are raging, I retreat into the safety which I have built around me, my home, my loved ones, my people, and I content myself with counting my blessings. For I am richly blessed. This brings me to the third note which appears in the margins of my copy of Jesus’ sermon on the plain. The note appears beside Jesus’ blessings and woes. It reads, “not passive”. It comes from the wisdom of theologian Megan McKenna whose exploration of the word “Blessed” disturbs my complacent peace. McKenna points out that “Blessed” is the translation of the word makarioi, used in the Greek New Testament. When we look further back to Jesus’ Aramaic, we find that the original word was ashray. Ashray does not have a passive quality to it at all.Instead, Ashray means “to set yourself on the right way for the right goal; to turn around, to repent.”
McKenna goes on to translate the Aramaic into an interpretation of the beatitudes like no other I have ever heard: From the Aramaic Jesus says, “Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for you shall be satisfied. Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you peacemakers, for you shall be called children of God.” To McKenna this reflects Jesus’ words and teachings much more accurately. She hears Jesus saying: “Get your hands dirty to build a human society for human beings; otherwise, others will torture and murder the poor, the voiceless, and the powerless.” Christianity is not passive but active, energetic, alive, going beyond despair. ‘Get up, go ahead, do something, move,’ Jesus said to his disciples.”
So while the wind blows outside, we can warm ourselves in the safety we have built around us. In the womb-like environments of our homes we can take time to reflect upon our many blessings. But woe to us if we fail to reflect upon those who are being blown about and ravaged by the storms. For they are our sisters and brothers, children of the ONE WOMB in which we live, and move, and have our being. They too are our sisters and brothers, our people, our kin. What pain, what alienation, what frustrations, drives them out to do battle. Can we hear in their anger the source of their pain? Can we begin to see the contours of their wounds? Can we be compassionate as our LOVing GOD is compassionate? What will that compassion look like? Are we wise enough to seek more than the restoration of order? Are we only interested in selfishly settling for a return to the status quo? Do we have the courage to confront our sisters and brothers, our kin, with the fierce LOVE of someone who seeks not to win the battle but as someone who seeks peace, the kind of peace which recognizes the woes of our sisters and brothers and compassionately works to reconcile with our kin by seeking justice? “Get up, go ahead, do something, move.” Jesus said to his disciples. “Be compassionate, as your LOVing GOD is compassionate.”
It is cold out there. The wind is still howling, and that poor little tree out looks like it might just snap. Our kinfolk are suffering, they are alienated, misinformed, and angry. But just as surely as I know that beneath the snow, spring lies waiting to be born, I also know that our suffering kinfolk will not heal without us doing something, without us being compassionate.
May the fierce LOVE of the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being, generate warmth in each of us so that the COMPASSIONATE WISDOM which lived and breathed in Jesus, can live in us as the SPIRIT inspires us to venture out into the world, as justice seeking peace makers. Let us not just huddle together to keep warm. Let us, “Get up, go ahead, do something, move,” Jesus said to his disciples.” Be compassionate, as our LOVing GOD is compassionate. LOVE with the kind of ferocity which acknowledges that we are all intricately connected to one another. For we are ONE, ONE with the LOVE which is DIVINITY, and ONE with the DIVINITY which lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us all. Thanks be to All that Is HOLY!
Yesterday, I travelled out onto the frozen surface of Lake Simcoe. Somehow, these long busy days working in my office at home, while we all do our best to cope with what we hope will be the last tidal wave of this pandemic, somehow this created a longing in me, strong enough to push me out on the ice despite the -23º which threatened to rob me of my breath. So, longing to escape the confines of my cozy isolation, out onto to the ice I trudged, as the cold air sharpened my vision. It didn’t take very long before the many layers of clothing, with which I had hoped to insulate myself from the dangers of the cold, failed to keep me moving very far into the expanse of white snow drifts which glistened as the Sun’s glorious rays danced incapable of warming much of anything but my heart. Standing beneath a clear blue sky, looking out towards the horizon, I tried to breath in some of the vastness which stretched before me. Alas, such a deep breath choked on the frigid air, as if my lungs rejected their own impulse to breathe, lest they themselves freeze as solidly as the lake beneath my feet. A momentary panic began to surface as my mind questioned the wisdom of standing on ice not knowing what lay below. How deep? How solid? How safe?
A quick glace toward the shoreline confirmed that I was well beyond where I would safely swim on a summer day and a strange sort of vertigo began to take hold over me. It was as if my body was teaming up with my mind to convince my spirit to abandon this peculiar excursion. Such a strange dualism to entertain on the surface of a frozen lake, beneath a clear blue sky, staring out at a horizon, I have all too often entertained. Ice and water below me, the Sun shining before me, and behind me the Moon rising, all holding me in the embrace of a Cosmos the likes of which exceeds the farthest horizon of my ability to comprehend.
Imagining the horizons of my ancient ancestors, I could see in my mind’s eye a familiar worldview, a three-tiered universe, complete with an omnipotent god smiling and then frowning down at me. Heaven above the Earth and Hell below, all depending upon a smile or a frown from the omniscient god, Himself confined to sit in judgement in a celestial realm from which He sent His Son, to save creatures of His own creation from their own depravity. I stomped my feet upon the ice in a vain gesture of defiance until my stomping evolved into a dance of freedom, as I gleefully celebrated our liberation from the captivity of a three-tiered universe.
Suddenly, the Cosmos reminded me that freedom from ancient ways of knowing does not mean freedom from REALITY. Indeed, it can mean freedom to BE in ways which affirm REALITY, the REALITY we long to know, the ONE which IS BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also, this LOVE which we call “GOD”. No sooner than I felt the freedom of union with the DIVINE, than it was time to seek the confines of my car to warm up.
All week long, I have been emersed in the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as Luke’s account of Jesus’ first sermon, in which Jesus declares that he has been anointed to bring Good News, and it wasn’t until my own frozen epiphany set me to dancing on ice that I actually noticed that part of the Good News of which Jesus speaks involves the proclamation of “liberty to those held captive!” Listen to the way the anonymous gospel-storyteller recounts Jesus’ words:
“Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and his reputation spread throughout the region. He was teaching in the Galilean synagogues, and all were loud in their praise. Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. Entering the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his habit, Jesus stood up to do the reading. When the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him, he unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: “The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison— to proclaim the year of God’s favour.” Rolling up the scroll, Jesus gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Jesus. Then he said to them, “Today, in your hearing, this scripture passage is fulfilled.”(Luke 4:14-21)
We are told by the gospel-storyteller that after his one-line commentary on the words of Isaiah, Jesus’ hometown congregation were so incensed that they decided to hurl him off a cliff. What could possibly compel Jesus’ friends and neighbours to consider homicide? This question has generated more than a few sermons of its own. That’s the thing with stories, one story, if it is even remotely engaging, that one story will inevitably lead to many more stories. So, I will not presume to answer for Jesus’ hometown congregation’s murderous intentions. I will only attempt to take you where this story took me out there on the ice of Lake Simcoe.
Exposed to the vastness of the Cosmos, it was the ancient story of a Three-tiered Universe that inspired not murderous intentions in me, but rather the euphoria of freedom from captivity to the limitations of our ancestors’ imaginations. Limitations which the evolving nature of our understanding of reality compel us to reject. For “GOD” is not safely ensconced in the Heavens and we do not need saving from our own depravity by a human sacrifice because there simply is no Hell below us. We are free from the captivity of a way of thinking which insists that we believe what our own experience confirms is no way to live in the very reality our ancestors were struggling to fathom. For we have been blessed with the ability to grasp so many more details about the Cosmos in which we live and move and have our being, than our ancestors could ever have imagined. Today, we, ourselves and our neighbours, no longer live captive to the contours of the very tiny universe in which our ancestors confined their thoughts.
Today, like Jesus, we too can proclaim liberty to the captive minds and recovery of sight to those who have been blinded by ancient ways of knowing. The SPIRIT of DIVINITY is within us! The SPIRIT of DIVINITY is within all Creation, permeating all of the Cosmos! The SPIRIT of DIVINITY is BEYOND Creation, BEYOND the Cosmos, even as it is in, and with, and through, all of Creation, all of the Cosmos. Infused, inspired, and incarnating as CHRIST’s body, as LOVE here and now in this place and in this time, we are anointed to this bring Good News to the poor and to free the captives! Free from images and idols created by the inhabitants of a universe of misconceptions, we can abandon lives devoted to a god preoccupied with judging our journey’s end, dispatching us to Heaven or Hell. We are free to live in the abundance of life here and now, in a Cosmos permeated by the DIVINE MYSTERY which is LOVE. Free from misguided struggles to appease the idol god of our design, we are free to see beyond our blind self-centered desire for a life beyond this life, free to see the face of DIVINITY in our neighbours’ face, free to see DIVINITY in the majesty of the Cosmos, and in the beauty of the Earth.
Heaven is ours to create out of the hells we have made. We are free to imagine the grace of the MYSTERY capable of exquisite intricacy, unrelenting intimacy, magnanimous generosity, and evolutionary complexity; a MYSTERY which is the very embodiment of LOVE, the LOVE which is eternally becoming. We are free to seek, to know, and to become this LOVE in which we live, and move, and have our being. Our very freedom from ancient ways of knowing and being sets of a chain-reaction of freedom which can, if we let it, become Good News for the poor, as we finally begin to understand what Jesus knew all along, when Jesus insisted, “I and the ABBA are ONE.” For if Jesus and the ABBA are ONE, the Good News is that you and I and our neighbours, we are ONE with ABBA. I can hear them now, those held captive to by our ancestors’ limited understanding, I can hear them. They may not want to hurl me off a cliff, although some have wished me dead, or at the very least judged and punished by their god of eternal torment.
I can hear them tut tutting at the audacity of my taking such liberties with the Gospel. How dare I flirt with new ways of understanding REALITY, new discoveries about the Cosmos, new theories about the nature of human consciousness? How dare I posit a GOD who is LOVE? How dare I claim freedom from the old-man—in the sky-god only to embrace half-baked notions of a MYSTERY which is called LOVE, as if LOVE is the answer? How double-dog dare I? Well, with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek let me blame it on a dog.
After warming myself on my car’s heating vent, I caught sight of sundog begin to emerge as the Sun was still setting. I fumbled for my phone and hopped out into the frigid air desperate to capture a photograph which has always eluded me. I failed to capture the sunset. Instead, I was blessed by two, I don’t know if they were my brothers or my sisters or one of each. I only know that they appeared to follow in my footsteps in the snow as they ventured out to the place where the Cosmos had made itself known to me. Our kinship warmed me as I imagined their delight at our Sun’s sensuous self-giving display as it set. They must have seen me gazing at them, or at least I like to imagine they did. So, I waved and was gifted by their own energetic response.
There we stood, we three kindred creatures, waving together as ONE, held in a vast Cosmos touched by the MYSTERY which is the LOVE which permeates ALL that IS, including us, for we are ONE, ONE with DIVINITY. We are free to embrace this LOVE, to walk in this LOVE, and to be this LOVE. This, dear ones, is Good News indeed! Now, today, let us become Good News for the poor, let us embrace our freedom to be LOVE in the world! Let us be LOVE. Today!
Standing on a hilltop in a cemetery, equipped only with words carefully selected to comfort the bereaved, shivering so fiercely that I feared our collective shivering was powerful enough to set off a chain-reaction which might topple the tombstones which flanked us, I paused to catch my breath and wondered what force could have enticed us out into the frigid air. Minus 25º Celsius and I have no idea what the windchill factor was. I only knew the layers of clothing I’d wrapped myself in were not going to save my scalp from frostbite, not now that I had removed my hat out of respect for the deceased. The tiny frail widow, wrapped in a blanket shivered with such force that I began to fear for her life. The casket before us twinkled as the Sun brightly shone and I wondered if it might be warmer inside its highly polished veneer. It wasn’t until my carefully chosen, mostly familiar words, ceased and I invited the gentle, kind, bereaved woman to speak that I fully understood the power of the force which compelled us onto that frigid hilltop cemetery. With one sentence, the grieving widow said it all when she spoke haltingly to her beloved, “I just want to thank you for loving me.”
LOVE. Only the power of LOVE could have brought us together on that glorious hill to stand shivering in epic cold, to proclaim LOVE’s effervescence. As each ray of the Sun’s light danced across the casket’s veneer, I could see LOVE’s power in all its splendid glory. For not even the coldness of death can defuse LOVE’s ability to sparkle. I confess that words like effervescence and sparkle were inspired by the time I have spent this week studying today’s Gospel reading which is the story given to us by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John. Listen to the story which is often called the Wedding at Cana:
“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.
Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.
Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.”
And they filled them up to the brim.
He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”
So, they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
I love this story! Indeed, in the BC days, you know the before covid days, when we could gather in person, whenever this reading came along, I would bring champagne to serve at communion.
The celebration of the wedding at Cana positively calls out for the popping of corks, and lots of bubbles to tickle your nose. Oh, how I miss those champagne communions. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to pop those corks! I can tell you how very much I look forward to the day when we can gather and celebrate over wine and bread the LOVE which is the MYSTERY, we have come to call God. If you listen with your mind’s ear, I’m sure you can hear the corks a poppin!
What a wonderful way to celebrate what philosopher Beatrice Bruteau calls spondic LOVE. Spondic comes from the Greek word which means “libation” and spondic LOVE is the LOVE which flows in and through the Cosmos pouring into each and every nook and cranny of Creation. Spondic what a splendid word, positively effervescent, sparkly, in the way it depicts LOVE’s ability to bubble up all over the place.
Years ago, I discovered a phrase used by St. Augustine of Hippo when he was attempting to describe the nature of the Trinity. Augustine described the DIVINE MYSTERY as LOVER, BELOVED and LOVE Itself. This age old trinitarian formula captures the effervescent MYSTERY in ways which begin to capture for me the ONE which is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also. At the very core of REALITY is Spondic LOVE which flows and flows and flows. The fifth-century writer Pseudo-Dionysius insisted that, “God is like a sober drunk falling over Godself in a desire to share divine life.”
God is positively drunk with LOVE! Is it any wonder then that when asked what he believed was the meaning of love, Martin Luther King wrote: “Love is the greatest force in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. He who loves is a participant in the being of God.”?
Sadly, far too many of us limit our understanding of the word love to the imperfect love which is all too often settled for in this life, the love which says, “I’ll love you as long as you love me.” Which simply put means my love is contingent on you doing and being exactly the way, I want you to do and be or the kind of love which sees a couple turning inward in their devotion to one another, shutting off the world. This kind of love, this malpractice is then projected onto the MYSTERY we call God as we design a god in our own image, one whose love is based upon our behavior or who leads us to abandon the world. Spondic LOVE is palpable. It flows in, around, and beyond us drawing us into floods of mutuality, drawing us ever closer to the ONE who is in the words of Ilia Delio, the LOVER, BELOVED, and BREATH of LOVE. For we live and move and have our being in the LOVE which is DIVINITY! The kind of LOVE which insists, “I want you to have everything!” It is this kind of LOVE which unites us in our desires for our neighbours! We want them to have everything! Everything they need to be this LOVE in the world. For to be LOVE in the world is to be fully alive, effervescent, bubbling, rising up again and again, to life, to libate. Libation which comes from a beautiful Latin verb which means “to pour as an offering.” LOVE’s spondicity bubbles in us when we embody the LOVE which permeates the Cosmos, when we become LOVE in the world.
Just like the bubbles in champagne, being LOVE in the world is not a linear thing. It doesn’t suddenly happen and then you become LOVE in the world from now on. Like the bubbles this LOVE flows in, with, through, and beyond us, rising here, there, and everywhere. Ours is the task of joining LOVE’s flow. We begin by noticing, recognizing, and naming LOVE where, when, and in whom we see it. Then we trust LOVE’s flow to carry us beyond ourselves and into the lives of our neighbours, ready, willing, and able to be LOVE in their lives, simply because we just can’t help ourselves, we want them to have everything.
Jesus said, “I have come to give you life; life in all its abundance.” or as some translations put it, “I have come that you may have life and live it abundantly!” Live it to the full! Live life until you are drunk on LOVE falling all over yourself with a desire to share DIVINE life.
“I just want to thank you for loving me.” That’s all she had to say. Somehow, the Sun shone more brightly, and standing shivering before the power of LOVE, I could see beyond the casket’s veneer to the life which had been lived so well. Setting aside my carefully chosen words, I spoke from my heart about the LOVE which brought us into the beauty which surrounds us to herald a man whose embodiment of LOVE will never die. When the familiar words had been spoken all our eyes turned to the widow, who summoned all her strength to kneel before the casket just long enough to bestow one last kiss to her BeLOVed. May this LOVE, which is positively SPONDIC bubble and flow in, with, through, and beyond you, filling up every nook and cranny of your days, here in this splendid Creation which is absolutely soaked by the flow of the ONE who is our BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also! Remember this ONE is drunk, falling all over LOVEself in a desire to share DIVINE life! Enjoy the bubbles! Then be that LOVE in the world! LOVE in the name and for the sake of our LOVER, BELOVED, and the BREATH of LOVE. Amen.
A while back, I was having a conversation with a friend that I was very close to during my seminary days. This friend has long since left the church. My friend asked me, “Dawn do you still believe in Jesus?” I remembered all the long conversations in seminary about believing in Jesus and at that very moment I had an epiphany of sorts. I hesitated to answer, because like all epiphanies, I recognized that if I let myself go to the place where my epiphany was pointing me to, I would be in very unfamiliar territory. My friend would not let me off the hook, “It’s a simple question Dawn. Do you still believe in Jesus?”
“No.” I said, and my friend smiled, the way she used to smile when she scored a point against me in some theological debate. My epiphany was shedding light on what could prove to be a painful reality. After all, from where my friend now sits, outside of the church and beyond all the church’s teachings, belief in Jesus is kind of a non-negotiable bottom line for a pastor. From her perspective, I ought to be able to give an unequivocal, “YES” to her question.
“No.” I said it again. “I do not believe in Jesus.”
My friend’s smile seemed to shine brighter than my epiphany. It was as if she was already celebrating my departure from the church. Before she could welcome me to the place where she now stands, outside the church, I said it again. “No, I do not believe in Jesus. But, ……….I do believe Jesus. I believe Jesus. I believe Jesus. I believe what Jesus said. I believe what Jesus said .I believe what Jesus taught. I believe that the way Jesus lived embodies a new way of being human. I believe Jesus when he says, “Do not be afraid.” I believe Jesus when he speaks about the MYSTERY that we call God. I believe Jesus when he insists that justice is worth dying for. I believe Jesus when he risks everything for the sake of his conviction that non-violent resistance is the way to achieve justice. I believe Jesus, the way he lived, the way he died, and the way he lives on in the hearts and minds of all those who follow his way of being human. I believe Jesus. I also believe that it doesn’t matter a whole hill of beans whether or not I or anybody else believes in Jesus. But it makes all the difference in the world and to the world that we believe Jesus, because at the core of who Jesus was and what Jesus taught is LOVE. LOVE God with all your heart, with, all your soul, and with all your mind and LOVE your neighbour as you LOVE yourself; this I believe is a way BEYOND the kind of humanity that is always being consumed by itself. This LOVE moves us in to a new way of being. I believe Jesus’ call to look beyond our selfish needs, our selfish desires, our self-self-centeredness, and to move beyond our fears, to LOVE.
A lot of water has flown under the bridge between believing in Jesus and simply believing Jesus. Now I realize that some people would say that they don’t see much difference between believing in and simply believing. Well that’s where the story of the Wedding at Cana is helpful. You see, so many people see the story about the Wedding at Cana as a miracle story; a story that proves Jesus is who people say he is. You either believe in Jesus or you don’t. You either believe in the fact that Jesus turned actual water into wine, or you don’t. You either believe in miracles or you don’t. Well, I believe the story of the Wedding at Cana, but I do not believe in miracles; at least not the kind of miracles that defy reality. I believe the story about Jesus turning water into wine. But I don’t believe that any water actually turned into wine. I believe the story, but I don’t believe that Jesus was some sort of super-natural being who instantaneously changed water into wine. I believe the story, because the story points to the truth.Continue reading →
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.” Who among us isn’t dreaming of a Christmas just like the ones we used to know? A Christmas without Omicron! If only we could throw away our masks, forget about who is vaccinated and who isn’t and never have to take another rapid test again. I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. Dreaming of a simpler time when all was merry and bright. The very word Christmas has the power to transport us beyond time itself to a place where one Christmas melds into another and our memories adopt a kinder gentler view of what was. Christmas can be, if we let it a Thin Place were the membrane between what is and what can be is stretched so thin that we can see beyond the ordinary to the sacred. I don’t know about you, but I was planning to forget about last Christmas and dash into this coming Christmas with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head. I dreamed of waking up Christmas morning like Ebenezer Scrooge, having survived the ghosts of COVID, to happily sing and dance and greet the new morn, ready to keep Christmas well. Instead, I find myself in danger of descending into a pre-Christmas funk, where I am tempted to abandon my dreams of a Christmas just like the ones I used to know and pulling the covers up over my head and settling into a long winter’s nap until the world returns to a more even keel. Ba humbug! Ba humbug I say! Damn you COVID and damn your evil spawn OMICRON.
Forgive me, I just can’t help it, I’m dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know. I can’t quite hear the melody of White Christmas. There’s another earworm playing in my ear. The song playing now in my head is not what most people would consider Christmas music. It is a song that I remember from my childhood. It is a song my Granda used to sing when he was in his cups. It’s an old, World War II classic made popular by Vera Lynn: When I grow too old to dream I’ll have you to remember When I grow too old to dream Your love will live in my heart So kiss me my sweet And so let us part And when I grow too old to dream That kiss will live in my heart
My Granda could make me weep when he sang that song. I was too young back then to understand the myriad of meaning in this song, but even so, the very idea of being too old to dream, brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps it was just childish of me to have believed that the ability to dream would last as long as life itself. Somehow the very thought of being too old to dream seemed like an impossibility. As I’ve grown older, I can well imagine life without dreaming. Life in the world can shatter dreams and sometimes even rob us of the desire to dream. Over the years I’ve known more than a few people who have given up on their dreams, and others who refuse to waste their time dreaming, and even some who are too weary to even bother dreaming. I understand that in the darkness of this long COVID nightmare many of us are struggling to summon up our collective courage to dream. Or even worse, so many of us aren’t prepared to dream big, as we content ourselves with selfish little dreams. So as Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, let’s look to the Christmas story, and to the myth which has sustained generations of dreamers, to see what we might learn from a dreamers’ dreamer about the power of dreams.
Listen to the Parable of Joseph as it is told by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as Matthew: “Now this is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah happened: When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to have a child in her womb from the HOLY SPIRIT. Joseph her husband was a just man and unwilling to shame her, he wanted to divorce her secretly. But when he deliberated this, suddenly an angel of the MOST HIGH GOD appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, child of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for in her is conceived a child from the HOLY SPIRIT. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this happened to fulfill what had been spoken by the MOST HIGH GOD through the prophet: “Look now! The young woman shall conceive a child in her womb and give birth to a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel,” which translated means, “GOD is with us.” When Joseph got up from sleep, he did as the angel of the MOST HIGH GOD commanded him. He took Mary as his wife, yet did not know her sexually until her birthing of a son and they named him Jesus.”
Across the stage of many a Christmas pageant, this character Joseph whose dreams saved the child whom we long to embrace marches each and every Christmas. Just as the year grows to the apex of darkness, the character of Joseph the dreamer appears in the birth myth which we celebrate as the coming of the LIGHT. Scholars remind us that the character of Jesus’ father, known as Joseph, does not appear in Christian writings until the ninth decade, some 50 to 55 years after the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Joseph’s appearance in the anonymous gospel-storyteller’s beautifully crafted Jewish myth is ever-so brief. Joseph wanders onto the pageant stage in a stumbling and bumbling fashion. The literary character Joseph is well suited to the pageant stage. Generations of little boys in bathrobes that are just long enough to trip them up has embodied this rather comical vision of a father for generations. For who but Joseph would load a woman great with child upon a donkey to set off unprepared, without so much as a hotel reservation, only to find themselves forced to give birth in a stable, without adequate provisions. To our modern eyes Joseph is a bit of a bumbling fool who is hopelessly ill equipped to be a father. Poor Mary. Poor Jesus.
But wait I’m getting ahead of myself. First there was the dream. But then isn’t that just like us, we 21st century audiences, fast-forwarding to the good bits, eager for the heavenly hosts so that we can join in their singing? We are so unlike the first century audiences of this grand literary pageant. Remember, our pageant writer was a Jew, who created his drama for Jewish audiences, audiences eager to dream, audiences sick and tired of the horrors of life in first century Palestine, audiences who were eager to share in the dream of salvation, salvation from their wicked oppressors. Audiences would have heard the name Joseph and known, like all ancient audiences that everything is in the name. Jewish audiences knew their own stories and to their ears the name Joseph foretells the presence of a dreamer. Joseph the hero of old; a dreamer of sorts who was pivotal in saving the Jewish people by engineering their escape from famine by enticing them to safety in Egypt.
Joseph was a character which Jewish audiences would have known so well, standing proudly in the tradition of their ancestors. This founder of the Jewish people, Joseph understood oppression. First the oppression of his older siblings who sold him into slavery. This Joseph whose life is intimately woven around dreams, went on to become an interpreter of dreams. This Joseph who had a habit of being visited by angels in dreams would have been so familiar. This Joseph who after his father dies becomes the protector of his father’s children. This Joseph who finds it in his heart to protect and nurture his wicked siblings. A first century audience would have had no trouble transferring their ancestor Joseph’s characteristics onto the father of Jesus. Angelic visitors would not have surprised these first audiences, any more than Joseph’s eventual flight into Egypt for safety would have; for it is all in the name “Joseph.”
The anonymous gospel storyteller we call Matthew was skilled in the art of mixing the extraordinary stories of his ancestors with the hope of new birth. An unexpected, inconvenient pregnancy, in an occupied land, whose people are longing for a liberator, a saviour. Joseph the dreamer is just the kind of character to safeguard the babe born to realize the dreams of the people. In our dreams we can see visions not of what is but of what might be. In our dreams we can see a more enlightened version of ourselves. In our dreams we can travel beyond our abilities to bear the darkness into the light. But have we grown too old to dream? I wonder?
Cast your minds back to last Christmas when we were dreaming of a vaccine to protect us from COVID. I can see myself standing and shivering on front porches of the homes of loved ones, exchanging Christmas gifts and dreaming of the day when we could go inside to be together. I can see myself weeping for joy right after receiving my first dose of the vaccine we had longed for. Yeah, I know that this Christmas won’t be just like the ones we used to know. But this Christmas, like every Christmas will be a Christmas for dreamers. This Christmas as we gather in small, safe, vaccinated, rapid tested, groups of loved ones, to feast, to celebrate, and to enjoy one another’s company, let’s raise our glasses and toast our dreams for this big, beautiful world of ours. Let us open ourselves to the possibilities which can thrive in the fertile ground of our many blessings.
When I consider the myth of Joseph the dreamer, I can’t help but marvel at Joseph’s role as a refugee displaced by Empire, fleeing danger in order to keep his family safe. The literary character of Joseph symbolizes the millions of refugees who have been displaced by various empires, empires which are tribal, national, or economic. These millions of refugees, like Joseph need to find refuge from the terror inflicted upon them by forces beyond their control. As we celebrate the birth of LOVE 21 centuries ago, can we spare a dream, a really big dream for those who are seeking shelter now. Today, 80 million people around the world have been forced to leave their homes. Each day that number grows by over 44,000. Here in Canada our own government has set a goal of settling 400,000 new immigrants each year. To reach this goal, we need to be welcoming 81,000 new immigrants every year. Unfortunately, the pandemic has cramped our style and this year only 7,800 new immigrants have been landed in Canada. We will have to dream bigger in order to welcome enough families to meet our modest goals. My dream for this year is that you do not settle for small selfish dreams, or dreams limited by our fears. For we are richly blessed. Blessed with homes. Blessed with political and financial privileges. Blessed with vaccines, with boosters, with hospitals, medical insurance, doctors, nurses, scientists, delivery workers, and freedom from the fears which the violence of empire inflicts upon the least among us. Dream of ways to support radical policies of welcome. Dream of ways to welcome new immigrants. Dream of ways to reach out beyond our borders to care for the refugees, the displaced people fleeing violence, oppression, and climate disasters. Dream of ways to live selflessly sharing our many blessings. Let us celebrate LOVE’s birth by opening ourselves to the transformation which is possible when we allow ourselves to dream, to dream big. In the midst of all the uncertainty of this Christmas, let’s muster up the courage to dream big! When I grow too old to dream I’ll have you to remember When I grow too old to dream Your love will live in my heart kiss me my sweet…
I can my Granda singing. This Christmas, it won’t be just like the ones we used to know. But this Christmas we are blessed by LOVE’s birth in us, among us, and beyond us. Let dreams inspired by a newborn babe laying on a bed of straw, open us to the possibilities of LOVE; the LOVE which is DIVINITY. In our visions of LOVE lie the hopes and dreams of all the Earth. It is the LOVE which lives in our hearts that fills our dreams with visions of the LOVE our world longs for.
I remember after a particularly heartfelt rendition by my Granda, I asked him: “Granda when will I be too old for dreaming.” The question took my Granda by surprise and after a long silence, Granda insisted that I wouldn’t be too old to dream until I became the dream itself.
I have come to believe that dream itself is LOVE, the LOVE which is DIVINITY. My dream is that when I grow too old to dream, when you grow too old to dream, we’ll have LOVE to remember, and in that LOVE I will be held, tenderly, compassionately, eternally. In the meantime, dear friends, let’s dream big dreams, big dreams inspired by our many blessings and filled with visions of hope, justice, peace, joy, and in, with, through and beyond us all, the ONE that is God, our LOVER, BELOVED and LOVE itself will flow endlessly. Dream Dear ones. Dream Big. Dream selflessly. Dream well!
A few years ago, as the “Me too!” movement was beginning to take shape, I came across a retelling of the Christmas story which continues to resonate with me. Listen to the way Tanner Gilliland, tells Mary of Nazareth’s story:
“God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth will be stepping down as Supreme Lord of the Universe amid allegations of sexual assault from Mary, the mother of his son.In a guest column of the Jerusalem Times, Mary detailed God’s grooming tactics, exploitation of power dynamics, and physical coercion that ultimately resulted in the birth of their son, Jesus. “I was still just a maiden,” Mary recalled. “I had never been with a man, let alone a deity. Then one day God sent one of his angels to tell me he was going to get me pregnant. This was a huge shock. God is the father of my spirit, so I had never considered that kind of relationship with him. “He tried to flatter me, telling me how favored I was. I was frightened but couldn’t say no. I’ve heard about what God does to people who refuse him. I figured it was safer to just go with it. “Then one night, without any kind of warning or petition for consent, I was overshadowed by the spirit. Nine months later, out came the son of God. You can’t imagine how terrible it is to see everyone celebrating Christmas and not be able to express what really happened.” God, who had been previously unavailable for comment for 2,000 years, issued this statement: “I was a total mess. It’s not easy to micromanage an entire universe with a temper like mine. I did a lot of things I’m not proud of. At the time of the incident, approval ratings were at an all-time low and having a son seemed like my only shot at redemption. It was a terrible thing for me to use my position as Sovereign Creator to coerce Mary like that. Henceforth, I relinquish my position as Lord God Almighty, forfeiting all dominions, principalities, and powers associated with that office. My children are hereby free to govern themselves. Let’s hope they do a better job than I did.” God declined to answer reporters’ questions, but a spokeman did say he plans on spending his new found time on his old passion—gardening.”
Tanner Gilliand’s parable of Mary may leave some people tut-tutting about poor taste. But I would challenge you to think carefully about Mary before you begin to sing the praises of Christianity’s nativity parable. Our traditional ways of heralding Mary’s role in the nativity parable are childish at best and at their worst they leave most inhabitants of the 21st century shaking their heads at the hypocrisy of those of us who claim to follow Jesus. I believe that the ridiculous ways in which we portray Mary, make it impossible for people to take the teachings of Jesus seriously. This coupled with our infantile portrayal of the actions of the DIVINE MYSTERY, have more than a little to do with so many followers of Jesus, walking away in droves from Christianity. So, let’s take a long hard look at Mary’s story, so that the DIVINE MYSTERY is not reduced to our wayward, infantile imaginings. I believe that a closer look at Mary’s story might just resurrect ways of understanding Mary which provide signposts to direct us toward following Jesus in ways which will bust the DIVINE MYSTERY out of the prisons of our miss-rememberings.Continue reading →
Greetings favoured ones! I begin this series with a little annunciation in the style of the Angel Gabriel, “Greetings favoured ones! As Advent begins, we begin our explorations of what I am calling “Parables of DIVINITY.” Parables are stories designed to turn our carefully held ways of being upside-down and inside-out and make us re-think our carefully held assumptions. Advent is the perfect time to take a closer look at some of the parables told by our ancestors about the MYSTERY of the LOVE which is DIVINITY. Now, I am often asked if the parables we tell during Advent are true. By which my questioners usually mean, “Did these parables actually happen the way the bible says they happened?” To which I always respond, “ABSOLUTLY! They are most certainly true!” I then add the words of New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, who would insist, “I don’t know if these things happened the way they are written in the bible. But I do know that they are true.” Our Parables of DIVINITY series begins with a splendid parable in which truth is revealed. It is the kind of truth which has the power to turn our carefully held assumptions inside-out and upside-down. Unfortunately, the radical nature of our first Parable of DIVINITY has been domesticated and simplified, dumbed down, and rendered mundane and inoffensive. Inoffensive that is except for the matter of that tiny little word which is the victim of so many inaccurate translations. If only the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Matthew hadn’t made such a rookie error when he translated the Hebrew in the Book of Isaiah into Greek, we wouldn’t have so much explaining to do. You see whoever this Matthew was, he certainty didn’t pay enough attention when he attempted to use the words of Isaiah to describe Mary of Nazareth. Instead of doing his homework, Matthew relied on the work of previous male translators who mansplained a simple Hebrew noun into Greek which resulted in a young woman named Mary ending up as a perpetual virgin. I kid you not. These gentlemen translators managed to take the Hebrew word for a “young woman” mistranslate it into Greek as “virgin”, and the anonymous guy we call Matthew either never bothered to check his Greek Septuagint, or for reasons of his own, he decided that Mary was a not just a young woman but also a virgin and years later the Church, and I’m talking about the Imperial Church of Rome here, they added the perpetual part and before long, women everywhere have had to deal with the glorification, or the vernation, and objectification of virginity. But I digress. Insane notions tying virginity and motherhood up in a neat bow while tying women up in knots is a subject for another sermon.
What I want to talk about today are two Parables of DIVINITY, which I’m calling “Annunciations from the Margins. “Annunciation” from the Latin verb “annuntiare” which can be translated as “to announce” or “to proclaim” or my favourite translation, “to bring tidings.” Usually during Advent, these tidings are thought of as “tidings of great joy.” But not all tidings are joyous. Especially when those tidings are delivered to people who live in the margins of society. Before we deal with the familiar parable of the Annunciation of the YOUNG WOMAN Mary, I’d like to remind you of the first Annunciation parable in the Bible. Now some of you may think I’m talking about the parable of Hannah which is found in 1st Samuel. Probably because Hannah’s Song finds expression in Mary’s Magnificat. These are parables we’ll get to later in Advent. For now, you’ll have to cast your minds all the way back to the book of Genesis to discover the first Annunciation parable. Genesis 16 to be exact. Listen to this marvelous translation of the parable of the Annunciation of Hagar. You remember Hagar from the story of Sarah and Abraham. Our parable takes place back when Sarah went by the name Sarai. By the way, Sarai is a Hebrew name which translates as “my princess” or as I like to think of Sarah it can also be translated as DININITY’s Princess. As you no doubt remember, Hagar was the woman Abraham turned to when DIVINITY’s Princess could not conceive a child. Like Sarah, Hagar would become the mother of nations. But as our parable begins the women are estranged and Hagar has run away, she’s taken flight. Listen to the Annunciation of Hagar:
“Now the messenger of the ALL-SEEING GOD found Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And the messenger said, “Hagar, slave girl of Sarai, from where have you come and where are you going?” And Hagar said, “From my mistress Sarai am I fleeing.”
The messenger of the INSCRUTABLE GOD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and subject yourself to her.” The messenger of the WELLSPRING OF LIFE said to Hagar, “Greatly will I multiply your seed, so they cannot be counted for multitude.” Then the messenger of the FOUNT OF LIFE said to Hagar, “Look! You are pregnant and shall give birth to a son, and you shall call him Ishmael (meaning GOD hears), for the FAITHFUL ONE has heard of your abuse, He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live in the sight of all his kin.” So, Hagar named the LIVING GOD who spoke to her: “You are El-ro’i”; for she said, “Have I really seen GOD and remained alive after seeing GOD?”
Sometimes I forget that Hagar and not Moses is the first to be heralded by our ancestors for having seen DIVINITY and lived. Hagar a woman living in the margins, in slavery, fearing for her life, flees for her life and she sees DIVNITY and she lives. Hagar the name itself is of Arabic origin and can be translated as “stranger” or “forsaken” or “one who flees”. Remember when reading parables, especially Parables of DIVINITY, pay attention to the names, they will reveal truth to those who listen carefully. Hagar is an Egyptian slave whose position in the household of DIVINITY’s Princess is marginal. The announcement of her pregnancy may or may not be good news. It all depends upon what position you are in, and Hagar’s parable sets her squarely in the margins of the society in which the parable is set. Indeed, it could be said that the character Hagar’s subsequent role as mother of the nations of Islamic people continues to set Hagar and her descendants in the margins of many of the communities in which we live.