My “WHY?” Shattered my idol and my eyes were opened to a new reality. I’m talking about THE great big existential WHY? – a sermon for Lent 4A – John 9:1-41

Listen to the sermon here

Their baby was stillborn. Their pain was unbearable and so they asked, “Why?”

Her husband went out for his regular run; something he did every morning as part of his effort to stay healthy so that he would live long and prosper. Her husband was run over by a car and was dead by the time she arrived at the hospital.  To this day she asks, “Why?”

She was raped. The pain of violation refuses to leave her even after nine long years, during which her marriage fell apart. She could not and she cannot stop asking, “Why?”

On Friday, I watched a news briefing about the massive famine that encompasses much of Africa. Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Ethiopia are suffering from the ravages of starvation. More than 20 million people, many of them children are about to starve to death; 20 million people. It is the largest humanitarian crisis in the history of the United Nations. As I watched the horrific footage from the comfort of my living-room, all my being asked the question, “Why?”

This “Why?” was and is so much more than all the other Whys. This aching “Why?” is not the same as the other Whys. The Why that groans in me, that cries out for an answer is not: Why are babies still-born? Why do accidents happen?  Why is there so much violence? Why are millions of people, so many of them children, starving to death? These whys we can seek and find answers to. The Why that groans in me, is the Why that has haunted our ancestors for generations. I’m talking about THE great big existential WHY?

Why does God allow some people to suffer while others escape suffering? There must be a reason that you and I were born. There’s got to be a reason that we were born here and not in Africa. There simply must be a reason that some of us escape suffering while others of us can’t seem to catch a break. Why? Why God? Why? Nearly two-thousand years have passed and still this great big Why screams out from the deepest darkest places of our being. Why?

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I even prayed like a child. I prayed to God to save me and mine from all sorts of suffering. I believed that God heard my prayers and that God saved me and mine. But when I grew up, I put away my childish notions as I began to see some of my dear ones suffer. I saw the suffering but I refused to see what the suffering did to my carefully held beliefs about the god I chose to worship. My faith blinded me to the idol that I had created. Out of the stories handed down to us from our ancestors I, like so many of the members of my tribe, I had carefully constructed an idol which I believed was worthy of my worship; an all-powerful, all knowing god, whose wisdom was more powerful than my reasoning; who loved me beyond measure and just as surely loved all those dying babies and suffering victims.  Mine was not to reason why. Mine was but to trust and obey. The “big guy in the sky” would work it all out in the end. In the sweet by and by all would be revealed; no more blindness, no more doubt. In the meantime, all we could wonder, “Why?”  as long as we didn’t let our questions draw our attention from the idol we chose to worship. Blind faith was the only answer that could keep our attention firmly at the feet of the god of our creation.

Then one day a child died; a child I knew and loved, a child who had suffered most of her short little life and I was overwhelmed by the “Why?” that screamed out from the depths of my being. I, we had put all our faith in the omni god, this omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god, the all-powerful, everywhere, and all knowing god that we willed into being, confident that by worshiping our idol, our precious little one would not be subjected to such suffering. When she died, the idol of my worship died with her. I was blind but now I see the folly of worshipping a god of my own making. My omni idol, had all the answers. No mystery, just reassurances.  Nothing beyond my ability to imagine or conceive. Like the Pharisees before me, I could not see beyond the parameters of the Law and the traditions handed down to me. But once my eyes had been opened, my vision changed and I could no longer see the way I once saw. My WHY? Shattered my idol and my eyes were opened to a new reality. Where once I could only see death as an enemy to be conquered, the death of one so sweet, so dearly loved, revealed to me the precious beauty of life. My eyes were opened to the reality of death as a part of life, the part that makes life so very precious. It took a long time, and more questions than I can begin to recall, but slowly, I began to see the contours of a MYSTERY beyond my wildest imaginings.

There is no sin in blindness. Blindness can be a safe haven from the tremendous MYSTERY that lies at the very heart of all that IS. But there is beauty beyond the darkness. Beyond the shattered pieces of our idolatry Beyond the horizon of our limited views, there is an EMBRACE the likes of which the mystics longed for; an EMBRACE that comes from the Source of all that IS, the great I AM of which our ancestors insisted permeated all that IS. An EMBRACE that is so much more that we can ever begin to express, and yet an EMBRACE whose contours stretch beyond the heavens to permeate all of life.

This MYSTERY that some of us call God, is the LOVE that is the ground and source of all being; the RELATIONSHIP that touches every life and lures us into being more than we dreamed possible. This MYSTERY may shatter our idols, but it also compels us toward a faith that opens the eyes of the blind to possibilities that deepen life by deepening relationship in ways that broaden our vision so that we too can become all that we are created to be. This MYSTERY invites all our WHYs. This MYSTERY is powerful enough to walk with us and all our questions into the dark clouds of unknowing that make life so very precious.  This MYSTERY does not demand blind faith. This MYSTERY opens our eyes to the beauty of becoming, over and over again, ONE with the MYSTERIES of LIFE.

These days, the great big WHY continues to overwhelm me and I confess that I am so very grateful to be overwhelmed because every time I am blinded by the idols of my own creation, Jesus comes along, heals my blindness, and disturbs me with visions that lead me Beyond my wildest imaginings. WHY? I do not know the answer. But I can see a way Beyond the WHYs a way that does not deny the pain or the beauty of the quest, a way that deepens and expands the beauty of the journey, a way that compels me toward the MYSTERY that is the LOVE some of us call God.

That LOVE empowers us to reach out in love to those whose whys overwhelm them; those who are grieving, those who desperately trying to recover from violence, and to do what is necessary to feed those who are starving. May your WHYs open your eyes so that you too can see BEYOND the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also, to the MYSTERY that is LOVE.  Amen.

St. Patrick’s Day Blessings: The Inner Landscape: John O’Donohue

Blessing for Love pastordawnOn this St. Patrick’s Day it is fitting to receive a blessing from a grand Irishman whose writing reaches into my soul. Followers of this blog know that John O’Donohue is one of my favourite sages. I am indebted to a follower of the blog for sending me this podcast of Krista Tripett’s interview of John O’Donohue recorded shortly before his death in 2008. O’Donohue’s words continue to open my soul.

Treat yourself to a listen:

Tickled By the Racy Svetlana; Otherwise Known as the Woman Evangelist Who Rocked Jesus’ World! – a sermon on John 4:1-42 – Lent 3A

TickledThere’s a commercial currently running on the TV and each time it comes on, I can’t help myself, it makes me smile and if I let myself, it makes me laugh. It’s a collection of scenes in which lovely little babies laugh. They laugh and they laugh and they laugh and before you know it you’re hooked and you just can’t help yourself you are laughing too. Laughter is a great tonic! Laughter is good for the soul! And yet, for some unknown reason we tend to exclude laughter from our religious life. Religion is serious business and so we don’t laugh much in worship. There’s a quote from St. Teresa of Avila that served as a warning sign for me as I was preparing this sermon. “NOT YET TICKLED” writes St. Teresa, “How did those priests ever get so serious and preach all that gloom? I don’t think God tickled them yet. Beloved—hurry.” The thought of being tickled by God is delightfully refreshing.

I must confess that I don’t spend much time laughing with God. Listen to this quote from the writings of St. Teresa: “Just these two words God spoke changed my life, “Enjoy Me.” “What a burden I thought I was to carry—a crucifix, as did Christ. “Love” which is Teresa’s name for God. “Love once said to me, ‘I know a song would you like to hear it?’ And laughter came from every brick in the street and from every pore in the sky. After a night of prayer, God changed my life when God sang, “Enjoy Me.” Enjoy Me. What a different place the world would be if we could only hear God beseeching us, “Enjoy Me.”

We are a serious lot we Christians. Duty, responsibility, guilt, and consternation have left us precious little time to “Enjoy!” We’ve got things to do, stuff to learn, values to instill and standards to uphold, so we’ve put enjoyment on the back-burner. After all, God is far too high and mighty to be trifling with, we daren’t laugh in the presence of our God. And yet, God continues to tickle us. Over and over again, with the most absurd wonders, and we can’t help ourselves, but smile. Creation is so full of laughs. Life is so funny! And church, I mean, whenever I think of the ridiculous things we get up to in church, well its enough to make you laugh until you cry. So to those of you who insist upon personifying our Creator,  don’t you try to tell me that the Creator of all that is or ever shall be, the one who is responsible for creating humour itself, doesn’t just roar with laughter at the stuff that we get up to. So, isn’t it just possible that when it comes to laughing babies, God has plenty of scope for delighting in us? Surely, laughter is one of the most sublime forms of prayer? We ought to lighten up and enjoy our time with God. Cause lord knows, serious people are all well and good but who wants to spend time with a bunch of folks who can’t enjoy a joke.

So with that said, let’s turn to this mornings Gospel reading. This story is a real tickler! But in order to get the jokes, you’ve got to know some of the stuff the insiders knew. It’s a bit like trying to understand British humour, sometimes you don’t quite get the joke, if you don’t know something about life in Britain. The Gospel of John is full of stories that play on the local humour of Palestine in the first century. This story, about the Woman at the Well is full of double en-ton-dras. Indeed, this story is so outrageous that when the powers that be were sitting around deciding which books would make it into the New Testament, The Gospel of John almost didn’t make the cut. This story was far too racy and I mean racy in both senses of the word, this story was about race and it was far too risqué for the likeings of the religious authorities who were functioning as the thought police for the early church. So, sit back and allow yourselves to be tickled as I let you in on the jokes. Continue reading

What term of endearment do you use when you whisper sweet nothings in the ear of this God that you love? a sermon on John 3:1-17 – Lent 2A

Listen to the sermon here

Way back when I first began the formal process of becoming a pastor, the church committee responsible for helping people become pastors, recommended that I get a “spiritual director.” Among the many pieces of paper that the candidacy committee gave me, included both a definition of what a “spiritual director” is and who I might approach to be my “spiritual director”.

I remember three things about the church’s recommendation:

  1. A spiritual director walks with, guides, encourages and challenges people to deepen their relationship with the divine.
  2. A spiritual director is someone whose wisdom is derived from their own deep relationship with the divine together coupled with formal theological education.
  3. The spiritual director is someone in whom the candidate for the ministry of Word and Sacrament can place their trust.

Although, I was blessed to know several people that that I trusted who might be able to walk with me, guide, me encourage me, there was only one person who I could trust to challenge me; I mean really challenge me. The problem was, I wasn’t actually sure if Henry’s theological education was quite what the church had in mind. Nevertheless, I decided to ignore that particular detail as I proceeded to invite Henry to serve as my “spiritual director”.

I had met Henry years earlier when we both were working for a package tour operator. Henry was responsible for graphic design and we worked together to produce some pretty snazzy travel brochures. At the time, I thought Henry was a little odd. He was older than everyone in the office. Henry came from Brooklyn and looked very much like the stereo-typical  Jewish rabbi. I’m talking full black beard, black clothes, and a yarmulke. Turned out, Henry looked like a typical Jewish rabbi because he was a Jewish rabbi. Henry was working as a graphic designer to put food on the table for his family while he took a long-deserved break from serving as the director of a Jewish Yeshiva. Henry and I became fast friends.

Ours was a strange sort of friendship. Most of our conversations comprised of a series of questions without answers. I’d ask Henry a question, to which Henry would respond with an even deeper question, which would inspire and even deeper question with which I would be compelled to respond; it was kinda like dancing with ideas. Years later Henry would teach me that our dancing was actually an ancient form of the Jewish art of pilpul used by Talmudic scholars to get to the very heart of the sacred mysteries.  It took me years to realize that Henry had become my spiritual director long before I ever asked him to formerly take on the role.

It turned out that Henry had studied at one of the best rabbinical schools in New York and was an accredited to be a “spiritual director”. Somehow, despite the urging of the church to select from their list of suggestions, I managed to get my candidacy committee to approve Henry as my spiritual director. To this day, I think the committee members over-looked the fact that Henry is Jewish, only because Henry offered to serve as my spiritual director without me having to pay him the going rate, which back then would have cost me way more than I could afford. As it turned out, Henry’s direction was priceless. So, many of the treasures that Henry shared with me continue to shape and direct me to this very day. Continue reading

Poor Old Nicodemus – Doomed to Play the Fool: a sermon on John 3:1-17, Lent 2A

fool

As preacher, I attempted to join Nicodemus in playing the fool. The sermon is a playful attempt to poke at our dogmas, much the way a jester plays the fool poking fun to reveal what is hidden.

You can listen to a version of this sermon  here

Poor old Nicodemus, like so many literary devices this character is at the mercy of his author, doomed to play the fool; in Nicodemus’ case, a fool whose image of reality needs to be reborn. The unknown author of the gospel we call John imbues his priestly character with all the foibles of the powerful: “A certain Pharisee named Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, came to Jesus at night.”

Under cover of darkness the truth of the matter will be revealed as Jesus’ embodiment of the Divine reduces this powerful fool to the role of a gestating infant lying helpless in a mother’s womb, longing for life, unable to see beyond the darkness of his sheltered state.

Only the perilous journey into the light will restore Nicodemus’ sight; a journey the reluctant Nicodemus is loath to undertake.

Has he not already survived this perilous journey toward the light?

Is he not already privy to the wisdom afforded the powerful from their lofty positions of authority? He cannot go back there and do it all over again.

What could be worth all that misery, all that gasping for air, the danger of the passage, the crushing weight of innocence struggling for the wisdom of life, daring to breath deeply of the unknown, learning to trust, opening oneself to adventure, flailing and failing, weep and wetting oneself, fearing and trusting, weeping, crying, relying on the tenderness of others to supply your needs, making all those mistakes, not knowing who are what to trust, wondering where and how to be.

Rabbi, teacher, we know who you are and from whence you come?

We’ve seen the signs.

No one can do what you do unless, unless you have access to the power of the very One we seek to know; unless the power of the God we claim as HOLY, Holy, Holy, unless the power of all powers flows through you.

Flattery is the currency of the powerful and so the author of the gospel we call John imbues his literary device with the power to fawn and pose the questions, which lie in our very own hearts.

For we too want to know just who this Jesus character is?

Does the power of the One we seek flow through Jesus.

“The truth of the matter is, unless one is born again, one cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Continue reading

What a Joke: These Stories Never Actually Happened! – a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent – Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11

Eve & AdamI am indebted to the exegetical work of John Holbert for the insights into Hebrew humour!

Each year as Lent approaches, I find myself flirting with the idea of giving up Lent for Lent. Lent is just too much work. For centuries, during Lent the church has emphasized so many concepts that seem alien to the 21st century mind. Each year during Lent preachers are required to undertake the unenviable task of unpacking unpopular, seemingly antiquated concepts in an effort to encourage the contemporary churchgoer to entertain the equally antiquated rituals of Lent. I mean Christmas and Easter might attract a few more people to our sanctuary, but how do you attract people with talk about repentance or fasting? Just look at our readings for this morning. Temptation is the order for toady. Eve and Adam succumbing to temptation, the Apostle Paul prattling on, heaping condemnation upon the first parents for having given in to temptation, and then Jesus himself resisting temptation from non-other than the Devil. Not exactly cheery stuff designed to bring comfort on a cold damp winter morning, where apart from the time change, there are very few signs of a longed for spring.

But Lent has arrived and so we must tuck into this dish of temptation hoping that it will reveal some hint of the promise of what lays beyond our long Lenten journey as we travel toward Easter’s resurrection joy. But these are not easy readings to unpack.

I could begin by warning against taking these texts literally. But you have heard warnings against taking the text literally and I know that you understand that the story about Eve and Adam is just a story. It never really happened. Most of you, even though you might be tempted to think that Jesus literally went out into the wilderness and was tempted by the Devil, most of you have long since realized that the Devil doesn’t actually exist. If you’re still tempted to believe that this story actually happened, well, the fact that in the story itself, Jesus goes out into the desert all by himself ought to at least make you pause to ask, who wrote this story down, if there was nobody there but Jesus and the Devil?

These stories are just that, they are stories. In the words of Marcus Borg, “The events in these stories never actually happened. But the events in these stories are always happening.” Let me say that again, lest there be any doubt: They never actually happened, but they are always happening. That’s what makes these stories such great stories. The stuff in these stories is always happening over and over again. Temptation is the stuff of our lives. Each and every one of us, each and every day struggles with temptation, each and every one of us and all of us together as humanity. This grand human experiment that we are caught up in requires that we all struggle with temptation. Continue reading

Shrove Tuesday – Such Frivolity!

ShroveTuesdaylrShrove-Tuesday, at whose entrance in the morning all the whole kingdom is inquiet, but by that time the clocke strikes eleven, which (by the help of a knavish sexton) is commonly before nine, then there is a bell rung, cal’d the Pancake-bell, the sound whereof makes thousands of people distracted, and forgetful either of manners or humanitie; then there is a thing called wheaten floure, which the cookes do mingle with water, eggs, spice, and other tragical, magical inchantments, and then they put it by little and little into a frying pan of boiling suet, where it makes a confused dismal hissing, (like the Lernean Snakes in the reeds of Acheron, Stix, or Phlegeton) until at last, by the skill of the Cooke, it is transformed into the forme of a Flip-Jack, cal’d a Pancake, which ominous incantation the ignorant people doe devoure very greedily.  John Taylor, English poet (August 24, 1580 – 1654)

Shrove comes from the old English word shrive = to shrive is to be absolvedshrove following confession.  Those who have received absolution are the shriven.  The priest who dose the shriving is the shriver. The shriven would feast using up all the foods that were avoided during Lent.

The practice of feasting is not complete without revelry and merrymaking. Many of the rules of acceptable behaviour are  set aside so as to ensure that a “wild time” is had by all:

  • Men dressed as women and women dressed as men (Prussia 15th century)
  • Football was played with wild abandon in the streets to ensure that windows were broken and gardens disturbed
  • Dancing in long meandering lines through the streets was encouraged
  • Church clipping:  clasping hands and surrounding the church
  • Jokes were told
  • Magic usually forbidden was preformed
  • Skipping (usually forbidden) was encouraged with up to ten people skipping together using the same rope (considered scandalous at other times of the year)
  • Fortune telling was allowed
  • Dancing was encouraged on church property!
  • Children were encouraged to mock their elders!
  • Tricks were played on members of the clergy.
  • Clergy decked in all their finery engaged in races.
  • Little boys and girls went from house to house knocking on doors and then running away.
  • Water was poured over the heads of officials.
  • Unspeakable things were done to chickens.
  • Eggs were tossed.

Pagan Roots:  the grand battle between Winter and Spring

  • Masks were worn to scare Winter away
  • the pancake is the symbol of the sun
  • music and revelry frightens Winter and Welcomes Spring
  • Church bells were rung at odd times to confuse Winter
  • Skipping made the earth more fertile
  • Boys and girls were encouraged to sneak away together so that matches might become inevitable.
  • Sledding down snowy slopes on Shrove Tuesday encourages the land to be fertile.

Did you know?

  • The faithful once believed that it was advantageous to hang one’s laundry out on Shrove Tuesday because chances were that the laundress having just received absolution, hanging laundry in a town full of folks who had just received absolution was sure to mean that the whites would dry whiter than white!
  • Certain works were forbidden on Shrove Tuesday: mending, sewing, hair combing, rope twisting and grindstone milling. Disobeying these bans will bring about summer storms, winds will rip off roofs, chicken will scratch in gardens, meat will have worms and fingers will swell.
  • Carnival = fare well to carni = meat

Transfiguration Sermons

transfigurationSermons for Transfiguration Sunday:

Beyond the Veil: a story of Transfiguration here

LOVE Transforms here

Looking Back at the Way Forward here

You Have the Power to Transfigure the Face of God here

Transfiguration Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song here

 

Preparing to Preach on Jesus’ Teaching on Non-Violence: Matthew 5:38-48

In the Gospel According to Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount provides a distillation of the teachings of Jesus; teachings Jesus lived for, teachings that eventually made Jesus so dangerous to the oppressive Roman Empire that they executed him as an enemy of the state. The very heart of the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ teaching on non-violence.  I can think of no better way to begin my own preparations to preach on this crucial text than to look to the work of the great Walter Wink.  I will always be indebted to this amazing teacher for all that I have learned and continue to learn from him. The videos below comprise the various parts of a lecture that Wink offered on the subject of Jesus’ teaching on Non-Violence. For anyone who aspires to follow Jesus this lecture is a must see. Wink’s books are well worn friends that I have often thumbed through to find more than a nugget or two to enable me to teach anew something that I have long since come to know as a result of Wink’s excellent work! His enlightening trilogy: Naming the Powers, Engaging the Powers, and The Powers that Be along with Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way should be at every preacher’s fingertips as we proclaim Jesus’ radical way of being in the world.  Follow this link to a sermon based on these resources.

We do not grieve like those with no hope. – a sermon for Epiphany 5A

hope-we-do-not-greive-pastordawn-com-pages-copy

Readings included: Mary Oliver, Swan: Poems and Prose Poems
1 Thessalonians 4:13 & Matthew 5:13-20
Listen to the sermon here

Like the poet Mary Oliver, “Sometimes I grow weary of the days, with all their fits and starts. I want to climb some old gray mountains, slowly, taking the rest of my lifetime to do it, resting often, sleeping under the pines or, above them, on the unclothed rocks. I want to see how many stars are still in the sky that we have smothered for years now, a century at least. I want to look back at everything, forgiving it all, and peaceful, knowing the last thing there is to know. All that urgency! Not what the earth is about! How silent the trees, their poetry being of themselves only. I want to take slow steps, and think appropriate thoughts. In ten thousand years, maybe, a piece of the mountain will fall.”

It has been a crazy few weeks; weeks in which the unthinkable has become the norm. We had a few months to prepare ourselves for the inauguration of a leader that most of us had allowed our minds to relegate to the level of a cartoon character. We allowed the swooping waves of hair above the orange hue to help us laugh our way into believing that this fool would be controlled by wiser heads. Then in swooped a darker, more menacing character to firmly place white-supremacy clearly within ear-shot of a man all too willing to abandon common decency in favor of wild conspiracy theories. As tragic as the travel ban is/was/maybe who knows, just thank your lucky stars you’re not the one trying to decide if your skin is the right colour to grant you safe passage while the question of your eligibility is decided in the courts. As distressing as it is to contemplate the individual hardships of refugees, there was some consolation in the reality that we here in Canada are not like them.

We are not Americans. Their troubles may impact our lives in various ways, but we are not like them. We are a welcoming people. We are a multicultural culture. We are a peaceful nation. We are a sane people; sane enough to recognize the need for sensible gun laws. We are not a violent people. We welcome refugees. We “tolerate” people of all faiths and of no faith.   The noise coming from the south, was just that, chatter, that we can turn off, tune out, or shut down any time we “grow weary of all their fits and starts.” “We can wander outside, to see how many stars are still in the sky.” We know in our heart of hearts, “All that urgency!” it is “not what the earth is about.

From sea, to sea, to sea, we feel safe, some might say, smug, in our assurance that the “universe is unfolding as it should.” So, we did our best to put the travel ban into perspective. We trusted that wiser courts would prevail. We resolved to grin and bear it. “Have a nice day.” we said.

“Have a nice day.” And then, it all went horribly wrong. Our nice day turned into tragedy and the unthinkable act of a deluded young man wrenched us from our delusions of immunity from the madness that threatens to encroach on our notions of our treasured reality. It can happen here. It can happen here. It can happen here. It can’t happen here. It can’t happen here. It can’t happen here. Not in Canada. Not here. It’s too much. I can’t even… Continue reading

Jesus, Gandhi, and MLK – A Very Salty Trio: a sermon for Epiphany 5A

Gandhi on Sermon on the Mt copy

Rereading this sermon from 2014, I am struck by the power of Jesus, Gandhi, and MLK’s saltiness to address our current need for seasoning! In the wake of the tragedy at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City and 45’s racist travel ban, we must heed Jesus call to be salt! Sunday’s readings included Matthew 5:1-12, “What Jesus Means to Me by Mahatma Gandhi (found here) and Matthew 5:13-16. The full text of the Sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can be found here. 

Listen to the sermon here:

Like most people my age, I remember the days when families had only one television set and when I was just a kid, it was a black and white television. When I was eleven or twelve, we got one of those new-fangled colour TV sets. Back then kids functioned as remote controls; Mom and Dad decided what we watched. How else would I have seen all those grainy black and white documentaries? My parents were hooked on history and as a result my brother and I were introduced to some pretty incredible characters by way of those old grainy black and white films Many of the documentaries were about the majesty of the British Empire that dominated much of the world in those old grainy days. I can still remember being impressed by a little man, wearing what looked like a diaper and causing quite a commotion wandering around Britain and talking about home rule. I remember how excited my father was when the film showed this little fellow Gandhi talking to some striking Welsh miners, encouraging them in their fight against the mine-owners. It was the beginning of a long love affair with a giant of a man.

Back then, I loved reading biographies so the next time I was in the library I picked up three biographies about Gandhi and I’ve continued to read and watch whatever I can get my hands on about the life and teachings of Mohandis K. Gandhi. It was reading about Gandhi that caused me to take my first serious look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Up until then, I didn’t know much about the teachings of Jesus. We didn’t go to church, so what I knew about Jesus I’d picked up by osmosis; growing up in a Christian culture meant, I knew who Jesus was, but very little of what he taught. But reading about Gandhi, I discovered just how much of an influence Jesus had been on Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. I knew that Gandhi’s methods had brought the British Empire to its knees, so I began to wonder about Jesus’ methods. You’ve got to remember when I was a kid, the Vietnam war was raging and the world was under constant threat of mutual annihilation as the American and Soviet empires threatened to blow us all into oblivion. Non-violence was more than just an intriguing idea; back then non-violence sounded like a life-line.

And so it was, that my interest in the life and teachings of a non-violent revolutionary from India, sent me scurrying to find the little Bible that I’d received as a gift from the Gideons when I was in grade five so that I could read Jesus’ sermon on the mount. I’d read that Gandhi had said that, if all he knew of Christianity was the Sermon on the Mount he himself would be a Christian. I had been told that we were Christians, but other than Christmas and Easter, I had no real evidence of my Christianity.

It has been said that Gandhi read both the Sermon on the Mount and Chapter Two of the Bhagavad Gita every day. He is reported to have said that “Much of what passes for Christianity today is a negation of the sermon on the Mount.” Gandhi asked, “Isn’t it is more important to do what Jesus wants us to do than to call him “Lord, Lord?”

As a faithful Hindu, Gandhi was unwilling to accept Christian dogma, but in Jesus, Gandhi recognized a great prophet; a prophet who pointed beyond himself to a world in which non-violence was more than just a dream, non-violence was necessary in order that men and women could live together in peace in order that they might live in union with God. In the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi discovered something that those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus so often miss or deny. The church, the very institution that Jesus’ teachings gave rise to, has for centuries left the salt out of Jesus’ teachings and offered up a flavorless dogmatic dish aimed at pleasing the palates of the powers of Empire to which it has been tied for centuries. As a result, the followers of Jesus all too often forget Jesus call to be the salt of the earth. Sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of the treasures we possess. Continue reading

Bat Qol – The Daughter of a Sound: Hearing the Word Utter Our Name

Preparing to Preach on Jesus’ Baptism

BAT QOL pastordawnEach year, I begin my preparations for preaching on the Baptism of Jesus with this video in which  Heather Murray Elkins tells her story, “The Secret of Our Baptism.” Elkins opens us to a new way of hearing the Bat Col, the Daughter of a Sound, the Voice of the Divine, the Word, who speaks in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. Matthew 3:13-17

It’s time to reclaim religion: Rabbi Sharon Brous

sharon-brous“At a moment when the world seems to be spinning out of control, religion might feel irrelevant — or like part of the problem. But Rabbi Sharon Brous believes we can reinvent religion to meet the needs of modern life. In this impassioned talk, Brous shares four principles of a revitalized religious practice and offers faith of all kinds as a hopeful counter-narrative to the numbing realities of violence, extremism and pessimism.”

 

The Birth of Jesus Is Not Very Original, Just a Birth Story Fit For An Ancient Hero

star-eastSome have said that the birth of Jesus is the most amazing birth story ever told. Jesus birth narrative heralded the arrival of a child who was praised as the Son of God, the Saviour of the World who was said to be the personification of peace on earth; God incarnate; fully divine and fully human. Not everyone agrees that this is the most amazing birth story ever told. Indeed, the story of Jesus birth can’t even claim to be unique.  Some claim that Jesus’ birth story is just one of a long line of birth stories. Jesus’ birth story, some claim, is only considered to be unique because it’s our story; a story we tell over and over at the expense of other birth stories that are just as great. Well it’s really not all that difficult to Google  “greatest birth story ever told”, select one or two of the greats and put them together to expose Jesus’ birth story as one in a line of ancient birth stories. Allow me to demonstrate.

Among the ancients, some insisted that the story Alexander the Great’s birth was weladat-alexander-mathaf-beirut
the greatest story every told. Alexander the Great’s birth story is truly one of the greats. He was, after all the, son of a Queen and a god and a king. His mother, Olympias was a Queen, betrothed to Philip of Macedonia. The night before they were married, Queen Olympias dreamed that a thunderbolt fell upon her body, which kindled a great fire, whose divided flames dispersed themselves all around her, and then as if by magic they were extinguished. Philip dreamed that he sealed up his Queen’s lady parts with a seal, which bore the impression of a lion. The high priests who interpreted the dream warned Philip not to even entertain the idea of consummating the marriage because one wouldn’t go to the trouble of sealing up something that was empty. So Queen Olympias must already be with child, who would undoubtedly be a boy with the courage of a lion. If that wasn’t enough to put Philip off he found a serpent lying beside Queen Olympias as se slept, which was said to have abated his passion. Later the oracle of Apollo at Delphi went on to explain that this was no ordinary serpent, no this was the incarnation of the God Zeus. The day that Alexander the Great was born, one of the Seven Wonders of the World burnt to the ground. The temple of the goddess Artemis in Ephesus was the home of the Goddess Artemis who was said to have been attending to the birth of Alexander at the time. Alexander the Great was heralded as the Son of God and Saviour of the World and as one of the greatest warriors the world has ever known, he went on to conquer a good portion of the planet. Continue reading

Joseph and the Shady Ladies: The Revealing Story of Emmanuel – Matthew 1:18-24

emmanuel with us

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent: all around us the world is hustling and bustling toward Christmas. With less and less time devoted to the telling of the Christmas story, perhaps we in the Church might consider changing the lectionary so as to provide more opportunities to engage the birth narrative in Matthew. Advent 3 is a perfect opportunity to substitute two readings into the lectionary. Here’s what happened when we tried this:

Readings Matthew 1:1-17 and Matthew 1:18-24

Listen to the sermon here

It has been said that the shortest distance between humanity and the truth is a story.[1] I would add that,  the truth we find in a story teaches about our humanity. So, as we seek to embrace our humanity we would do well to pay close attention to the stories we tell. The unknown writer of the Gospel according to Matthew had a great story to tell and in order to get to the truth of who and what the man Jesus was, he chose a particular way to tell the story so that all those who heard the story would know the truth of who Jesus is in the grand scheme of humanity’s story. Sadly over the centuries that have elapsed since this story was first told have seen the tellers and listeners of this story haggle over the truth. Some have forgotten the power of story to bridge the gap between humanity and truth, and they have insisted that the truth will be found in the absolute accuracy of each and every detail.  Fortunately, many more have remembered that stories are just that, they are stories and while we know that events did not actually happen in they way they are told, they happen just that way all the time.

So, as we begin in the beginning of the Gospel, the Good News according to Matthew, let me remind you that we know that the story of Jesus birth did not happen the way it is told in the story, and we know that birth is always happening this way. For the writer of the Gospel according to Matthew was a skilled storyteller and he wrapped the story of Jesus of Nazareth in the stories of his ancestors. Written in the style of his own ancestors the gospel-writer begins his story, with the same words that every one of his listeners would have remembered from the sacred book of Genesis which begins, “In the beginning”. A sort of once upon a time, if you will, the gospel-writer begins with, the genesis of Jesus the Messiah and then proceeds to connect Jesus to the ancestors of the Jewish faith, will making sure that the truth of Jesus’ connection to those outside the faith will also be made clear.

The gospel-writer’s inclusion of the women who Bishop John Shelby has dubbed the “shady ladies” would have alerted Jewish listeners that Jesus is a different kind of Messiah; a Messiah who will transcend race, creed, or clan. Rahab, who was a Canaanite; a foreigner, was known as the mother of Israel for saving Joshua in Canaan, just happened to run a brothel there. Tamar, also a foreigner, was married to Judah’s son who according to Genesis is killed by God, and as was the custom his younger brother married her to ensure that his older brother’s name would be carried on. When that son dies, Tamar is left a childless widow, a fate worse than death in a patriarchal culture.  Tamar is known for impersonating a prostitute to trick Judah into knowing her, in the biblical sense of the verb to know, so that her father-in-law could impregnate her. Continue reading

Dorothy Day: I will never call you a saint!

DorothyDay poor Jesus in DisguiseDorothy Day is a shero of mine! But I will never call her a saint! The tradition of commemorating saints on the day of their death makes today a day for celebrating Dorothy Day! But, Dorothy Day objected, “Don’t call me a saint! I don’t want to be dismissed so easily!”

Dorothy Day died in 1980, at the age of 83. She was one of the greatest religious figures of the century, and one of the most paradoxical. She was a Catholic and she was an anarchist. She condemned poverty and she advocated against it. She founded the Catholic Worker, a loose aggregation of ”houses of hospitality,” communal farms, newspapers and round-table discussions for ”further clarification of thought” — and called her memoirs ”The Long Loneliness.” The movement was wary of authority, yet revered her as its leader.Dorothy actions

When she died, a multitude came down to the old dwelling off the Bowery to pay their respects, the way people had come to Catholic Worker houses for soup ever since the Depression. There were Catholic Workers, social workers, migrant workers, the unemployed; addicts, alcoholics, anarchists; Protestants, Jews and agnostics; the devout and the strident and the curious, there to see what a saint looked like. 

On this day, I celebrate the life and witness of Dorothy Day a shero, a Christian mystic with all the attributes of a saint!

REPENT! TURN AROUND! REPENT! Become the Prophet Crying For the Wilderness! – a sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent when John the Baptist Cries

BCsunsetI didn’t know it at the time, but I actually met John the Baptist when I was fifteen years old. She didn’t look much like you’d imagine John the Baptist would look, but she had that same crazy intensity, that same focus on the fact that we’d better change our ways, we’d better repent, and start doing things differently or we’d be in real serious trouble. Lola was my friend Valerie’s mother and she simply couldn’t stop going on and on about the environment and how we were destroy the earth. At the time, I remember thinking she was a bit of a nut-case and on more than one occasion I wished she’d just shut up about it. I was just a kid, and the earth was just something I took for granted.  The earth was just there to provide for our needs. I couldn’t believe how much Lola went on and on about all the stuff we humans were doing to destroy the earth. I just wished she’d leave us along to get on with things, I couldn’t abide her incessant nonsense about how we were going to destroy the planet.  All her feeble little attempts to be kind to the earth, made me seriously question her sanity.

I tolerated Lola not just because she was my friend’s mother, but I didn’t really understand her until one day when the three of us were travelling together. We were coming home from church. I had only been going to church for a few months.  I was trying hard to understand this whole God thing. So, I went to church a lot.  My friend Valerie had persuaded me to start going to church with her and family had become like my second family as they supported me during my first attempts to explore the mysterious world into which I had begun to feel pulled. As we drove home from church, I was feeling a little glum. Try as I might, I couldn’t really understand this church thing; all that singing and praying didn’t really help me to feel closer to God. Mostly I just liked how people at church treated each other.  I liked how they went out of their way to help me feel at home. Whether or not God was there, well I really wasn’t sure. 

Anyway, we were driving along the road.  It was a partly over-cast day on the west coast of British Columbia, just a few clouds.  You could see the mountains off in the distance. We were chatting back and forth when all of a sudden Lola pulled the car over to the far side of the road, switched off the engine and got out.  Valerie followed her mother out of the car, so I figured I had better do the same.  Val and her mother scampered down from the road and onto the beach.  When they reached the water’s edge, they stopped and just looked off into the distance.  Apart from a tanker-ship making its way across the horizon, I couldn’t see much of anything. Lola had the most amazing expression on her face.  She positively glowed with happiness.  Valerie wore a similar expression.  I must have looked somewhat puzzled because Val smiled at me and said,  “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?”  This only confused me more.  What were they looking at that had made them stop the car, scamper down the bank and stand there at the water’s edge on a cold autumn evening?  Continue reading

What Needs to Die So that Christ May Be Born In You? a sermon for Advent 1A

window4This sermon was preached at Holy Cross Lutheran November 28, 2010, sadly racism continues to live on in ways that threaten so many lives and the question of this sermon seems even more urgent today. The readings included Isaiah 2:1-5, “Amazing Peace” by Maya Angelou, and Matthew 24:36-44, during the sermon I read from the Qur’an Sura 19:1-30 which you can find by following the link in the body of the sermon.

While I was studying for an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia, I worked as a volunteer women’s center. Because I was studying the religions of the world, women who were being persecuted as a result of religious belief were often referred to me.

I’d been working with a young woman who was being abused by her father and brothers because they felt that she was adopting Canadian ways and thereby abandoning Islam.  I remember visiting her in the hospital emergency room after her brothers had beaten her nearly to death. She told me that the last thing her brother said to her before tossing her out of the back of a van, was that she should consider herself lucky that they had talked their father into letting them beat her, instead of doing what he had ordered in the first place which was to kill her. I sat at her bedside wondering how a brother could do such a thing to his sister. I decided that they must be religious fanatics and I wondered how any religion could drive a father to seek the death of his own daughter.

The next morning I didn’t feel much like going to my Religious Studies Methodology Seminar. The Seminar was comprised of 7 students from various faith traditions along with 4 atheists and 3 agnostics. Together we studied the various methods of studying religion. We were about to embark on the phenomenological approach to the study of religion. “The Phenomenology of Religion” is a fancy academic way of describing the study of actual religious experiences of the divine. As we stumbled to our seats the professor announced that he would be dividing us into groups of two and he wanted us to learn all that we could about our partner’s religious experience. We would have two weeks to come up with a 1,000 words describing on the phenomenology of our partner’s religious life. I was paired with an Imam who was studying Western approaches to religion prior to taking up a position in a local mosque. Ibrahim was a recent immigrant from Pakistan. But he might as well have been from Mars as far as I was concerned. On that day of all days, Muslim men were not exactly my favorite characters. Continue reading

Home in the Love We Call God – a sermon for Jesus the Christ Sunday- Luke 15

prodigalRather than the recent church tradition of celebrating the Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, on the last Sunday of the church year, we at Holy Cross celebrate our complex relationship with Jesus the Christ. readings include the parables of the lost from Luke 15:1-32. 

Listen to the sermon here

A number of years ago, I’d only been doing this job for a couple of years, immediately after a worship service, I went over to the hospital to visit one of you. I was all decked out in my Sunday best, so I very much looked the part of a pastor. Even though, I still felt more than a little like an impostor. I’ve been at this for over sixteen years now and sometimes I still feel like I have so much to learn before I’ll feel like a real pastor. But it was Sunday and even though the collar around my neck often felt like it might choke the life out of me, it proclaimed to everyone at the hospital that I was there in my professional capacity. I enjoyed a very pleasant visit with one of the seasoned members of this congregation who went out of their way to ensure that we both enjoyed the visit.

As I was leaving the floor a woman beckoned me over to the visitors’ lounge, “Could I please help her.” I sat down beside her and listened to her tale. When you’re wearing a clergy collar people presume all sorts of things about who you are. This distraught young woman presumed that I was a competent professional who could accomplish what she could not. She told me that her father from whom she’d been estranged for many years was dying and needed a priest. They’d called both the Roman Catholic churches in town and none of the priests would be available for a few hours. She was afraid that that might be too late for her father and wondered if I was willing to administer the last rites.

I hesitated. The young woman presumed my hesitation was because I was obviously not a Roman Catholic priest. She asked me, “Protestants do have last rites don’t they?”

I refrained from telling her that since Vatican Two Roman Catholics no longer have last rites. Instead I simply told her what I had been trained to tell her during my scant few months of training as a hospital chaplain. Which was that I’d be happy to spend some time with her father. The young woman persisted, “Can you give my Dad the last rites? Please!”

I nodded and asked her for a few details about her Dad. Armed with only some basic details and the fear that I was in way over my head, we entered the room and the daughter announced to her father that this nice Lutheran priest had come to give him the last rites.

With that, the young woman slipped out of the room and I was left with a man not much older than myself, who looked very much worse the wear.

I introduced myself and explained that none of the local Roman Catholic priests were available for a few hours and that I would be happy to stay with him until one of the priests arrived.

“You’re a priest?” the man in the bed looked unconvinced.

I assured him that I was indeed a priest although in the Lutheran church we call priests pastors. I was babbling. I do that when I’m nervous.

He told me that he’d never met a priest who was a woman. He’d met lots of priests who acted like old women, but never a priest who was actually a woman. He reached out and took my hand, “Can you hear my confession?” Continue reading

Jesus Remember Me When You Come Into Your Kin-dom – a sermon for the last Sunday of the Church Year

rememberTraditionally the festival of Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. At Holy Cross we celebrate Jesus the Christ Sunday. This sermon explores our complicated relationship with the Jesus we meet upon the cross who shared our human desire to transcend death.  

Listen to the sermon here:

She had no family.  She lived alone. For the purposes of this sermon I will call her Sophia. Sophia the Greek word for wisdom. I became her pastor because she knew somebody who used to be a member here and when the doctors told her that she was dying she thought she ought to have a pastor. I was summoned to her bedside. I was afraid. I had been told that she only had a few weeks before the cancer would take her. To be present to a stranger when they are so close to death is a daunting task. No time for gentle hello’s, or warming up to one another, just a long, painful and sometimes awkward good-bye.

I went to Sophia’s bedside every day. Some days, when she was able, the questions just tumbled out of her. She wanted to know what I believed. No pat answers or trite platitudes if you please, just the facts. I liked her no-nonsense approach even though I knew that the meager facts that I possessed might not sustain us on our journey. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she’d spent a great deal of time in the church. Her parents saw to it that she was raised in the church, but a lifetime of tragedy and heartache had lead her far away from the faith she’d grown up with.  But as death drew near she longed for the certainty of her youth.  

She’d like to believe. It would be nice to think that there would be a place for her, not exactly heaven per se but someplace heavenly, perhaps like Paris in the springtime. She so loved Paris in the springtime, if only heaven were full of cafés, or patisseries where she could while away the hours talking with others who appreciate the finer things of life.

Life, would there be life beyond death? She’d like to believe so.

One morning, I stopped by Eduard’s bakery on Main Street and picked out the most European pastries I could find, then I swung by Starbuck’s and had them grind some fresh beans. As I brewed the coffee in Sophia’s kitchen, the aroma wafted up the stairs and she shouted down and asked me to heat up some milk so that we could have lattes. It was as heavenly a breakfast as we could muster and our conversation took us back to Paris and a springtime before I was born when Sophia was young and beautiful and the men fell at her feet.

Some of her stories actually made me blush. We laughed and laughed and laughed until we cried. After Paris, we travelled to London by way of some excellent fish n’ chips and a few glasses of cider. It was cold and wet in London and Sophia managed to complete her nursing studies even though a certain young man begged her to give up work and come and be his love. Over sausages and beer, we travelled to Hamburg where Sophia fell in love with an orphanage full of refugee children. By the time our conversations took us to India, Sophia was too ill for a curry so we sipped tea as we wept over her stories of poverty and disease. Continue reading