Beneath the Surface: What difference does it make how we interpret this little story? – a sermon for Pentecost 10A – Matthew 14:22-33 and 1 Kings19:9-18

After a splendid month-long vacation, I have returned to work as two mad men toss rhetoric into the ether that is designed to to strike fear of a nuclear holocaust into the hearts of people everywhere. Looking at  Sunday’s readings:  1 Kings 19:9-18 in which Elijah hears the still small voice of God and Matthew 14:22-33 in which Jesus walks on water. Somehow, this sermon that I preached three years ago seems appropriate to repost so as to encourage us all to look beneath the surface of what we see, hear, and read! Shalom… 

Listen to the sermon here:

There’s a Zen Buddhist story about three monks, who decided to practice meditation together. So, they went to a quiet place at the side of a lake and closed their eyes and began to concentrate. Then suddenly, the first monk stood up and said, “I forgot my prayer mat.” Miraculously the monk stepped onto the water in front of him and walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. He returned his fellow monks just the way he had gone; striding upon the water. When he sat back down, the second monk stood up and said, “I forgot to bring my prayer mat.” Miraculously the second monk stepped onto the water in front of him and he tow walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. When the second monk returned to his fellow monks he too returned striding upon the water.  The third monk had watched the first two monks very carefully and he decided that this must be some sort of test. So, he stood up and loudly declared: “Is your learning so superior to mine? I think not!  I too can match any feat you two can perform!” With that the young monk rushed to the water’s edge so that he too could walk upon the water. The young monk promptly fell into the deep water. Surprised and annoyed, the young monk climbed out and promptly tried again, and again he sank into the deep water. Over and over again, he dragged himself to up on the bank, shook himself off, and confidently set out to walk upon the water and over and over again he promptly sank into the deep water as the other two monks watched from the shore. After a while the second monk turned to the first monk and said, “Do you think we should tell him where the stones are?” 

Looking upon the sea of interpretations of the Gospel according to Matthew’s story of walking upon the waters of the Sea of Galilee, makes me feel like that young monk who continues to sink each time he tries to find his way across the lake. Centuries of interpretations of this text seem to come to the same conclusion; a conclusion which insists that we set forth in faith and that if we keep our eyes firmly fixed upon Jesus we will defy all the odds; a conclusion that leaves the vast majority of us lingering on the shore because we know that like Peter we too have precious little faith that we or even Jesus for that matter can defy the laws of nature. Traditional interpretations of this text continue to rely upon us leaving our understanding of the way the planet actually works, suspending rational thought, and setting off knowing that neither we nor Jesus are or were super-natural beings. Traditional interpretations set us up for failure and threaten to sink our faith. Fortunately, there are other monks, many more monks than simply two to guide us. So, let me draw your attention to two of those monks because I believe that these two monks tell us were the stones are so that we can navigate the waters, even in the midst of whatever storms may come. One of those many monks is the ancient theologian known simply as Origen of Alexandria who lived from about 185 to 254 and who left behind a body of work which provided the Church with a way of approaching the texts of Scripture which nourished the lives of believers for generations. Indeed, Origen’s approach to scripture only fell out of fashion among protestants in the last 200 years or so. To put a long story short, Origen believed and taught, as have generations of theologians since Origen that the stories in Scripture have various layers of meaning. The first layer is the literal meaning, or surface meaning which is designed by the writers to reach those who are uninitiated or uneducated about the ways in which the sacred texts function. Beyond the literal meaning lay a deeper meaning, indeed Origen taught that beyond the simple literal meaning of the biblical the seeker of wisdom would find layers of deeper meaning. For centuries, the Church followed Origen’s views of scripture teaching the simple literal meaning to the masses while reserving the deeper layers of meaning for the initiated often referring to these deeper layers of meaning as the mysteries. While the masses were busy getting on with life, the religious professionals dug deeper and deeper into the mysteries eventually creating a church hierarchy that firmly divided the uninitiated from the enlightened. Obviously, I’m giving you the abbreviated version of this long and complicated story that goes much deeper; I am if you will simply pointing you toward a stone that lies below the surface of the water upon which we seek to walk. Hidden beneath is a method of exploring scripture that relies on symbols, myth, illusion and most important of all, allegory.

Origen and generations of theologian who came after him understood that the stories of scripture had many, many layers and relied on symbolic and allegoric methods to touch our imagination and inspire in us a way of being in the world. Sadly, perhaps in the beginning out for expediency’s sake, but eventually to preserve its own power over the masses the Church began to rely more and more on the simple literal meaning of the text. Indeed, the church reserved the mysteries to such an extent that it can be said that the hierarchy by and large hid the deeper layers of the text so well that even some members of the hierarchy forgot about the symbolic and allegorical methods of interpreting the scriptures. The hidden mysteries might well have remained hidden if it had not been for the fact that so many other mysteries have been uncovered by humanity regarding the natural world. Human knowledge has expanded by leaps and bounds and you and I live in a world where information is at our finger tips; most of us carry devices in our pockets which can unlock more mysteries that we can keep track of in the recesses of our memories. The reality is that these little devices can now unlock the deeper mysteries that the church once kept hidden for the initiated. The insights gleamed from historians, theologians, and clergy which once remained tucked away in the halls of academic institutions or in seminary libraries, are now available to one and all. Every line of scripture every jot and tittle have been carefully examined and re-examined and we know have so many interpretations that no-one of us can claim to be an expert in the field. We are all once again simply seekers of meaning. But there are a few of us who have dedicated their lives to the study of the deeper meanings and we here at Holy Cross have had the privilege of one who has come to be know the as one of the leading New Testament Scholars in the world and it is Dom Crossan who I’d like to point to as our second monk on the bank who has the power to point us toward a stone beneath the surface that might just enable us to find our way upon the sea so that we too might walk on water toward this character Jesus. Continue reading

Relinquish White Privilege: Rev. Jordan Cantwell, Moderator of the United Church of Canada, passionately preached to the National Convention of the ELCIC

The closing worship of Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada’s National Convention was richly blessed by the Rev. Jordan Cantwell, the Moderator of the United Church of Canada! Rev. Cantwell’s presence throughout the convention enriched us in ways that I am still unpacking. Take some time to listen to this passionate preacher and be challenged by her call to relinquish white privilege. 

Erotic Playfulness: Our Bodies are Sacred Instruments Designed to Play in the Sacred Dance of Desire: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, Pentecost 5A

“What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the market place. ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance. We sang you a dirge, but you wouldn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. ’Wisdom will be vindicated by her actions.”

Wisdom will be vindicated by her deeds.  In Jesus’ words, we can here the dim echoes of a time gone by.  Long before Jesus came there was a character who called out in the marketplaces.   You can read about her in the Old Testament books of Proverbs and Job, in the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus.  What students of the Bible call the “Wisdom literature” is full of stories about a character who so many people have never heard of. In the book of Proverbs, she claims to have been there when God was busy with creation and she declares:  “When God set the heavens in place, I was present, when God drew a ring on the surface of the deep, when God fixed the clouds above, when God fixed fast the wells of the deep, when God assigned the sea its limits…when God established the foundations of the earth, I was by God’s side, a master craftswoman. Delighting God day after day, ever at play by God’s side, at play everywhere in God’s domain, delighting to be with the children of humanity.”   

Who is this master craftswoman?  Job insists that, “we have heard reports of her”. But, “God alone has traced her path and found out where she lives.” The writer of Ecclesiasticus admonishes the reader to: “court her with all your soul, and with all your might keep her ways; go after her and seek her; she will reveal herself to you; once you hold her, do not let her go.  For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.” In the Wisdom of Solomon, she is described as ” quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her. She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, image of God’s goodness. Although alone, she can do all things; herself unchanging she makes all things new. In each generation, she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets.”

You may not know who she is, but Jesus certainly did. Tales of her deeds were popular in Jesus’ day. Jesus, a student of the scriptures who was referred to as a rabbi, would certainly have known who this heroine of the scriptures was. In the ancient Hebrew texts of the Wisdom Literature she is called “CHOKMAH.”  In the ancient Greek translations of these texts she is called “SOPHIA.” In our English translations of these texts she is simply known as “wisdom.” The ancient Hebrew and Greek languages were written without punctuation. There were no spaces between the words.  Until long after Jesus’ day there were only capital letters.  Upper and lower case letters were not used. Unlike our system were personal names begin with capital and are followed with lower case letters, ancient texts consist of lines of unbroken capitals. Words do not have spaces between them and so translating these texts into English is tricky. This is just one of the reasons why Sophia’s story has remained hidden from most of us.  When you read the texts that describe wisdom, it is clear that they are, at the very least, speaking about wisdom as though wisdom were a person.  Sophia is wisdom personified. Sophia is spoken of as being around from the beginning–before creation. She was with Yahweh at the time of creation; creation couldn’t happen without her presence.  Other biblical passages show her coming to be with humanity, reaching out to people to be in relationship with them.  She walks through the streets, calling out to people, trying to get them to listen–to follow her.   She’s also a welcoming hostess inviting people to her table, a bountiful provider of food, the source of all good things.  She is the way to life abundant. She is also a trickster and play is one of the ways she gets things done. You may not have heard of her, but when Jesus speaks to the people about children calling to one another in the marketplaces, the people would have remembered Sophia standing in the marketplaces and calling the people out to dance. But the people refused to join in Sophia’s playful dance. Sophia’s reputation for playfulness led the people to refuse her invitation. Jesus who came eating and drinking, called out to the people. But his reputation led the people to label him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!

Jesus declares:  “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance”. Jesus harkens back to the images of Sophia in the Scriptures and insists that, “wisdom will be vindicated by her deeds.” Sophia’s reputation as a trickster who accomplishes great deeds through play and Jesus’ reputation as a glutton and a drunkard who comes to the world eating and drinking aren’t usually emphasized by those who tout their religion in the public square.

I can honestly say I have never heard of members of the religious right taking to the airwaves to encourage society to eat, drink, and be merry. And yet, this stuff is in the Bible. The Bible describes playfulness as an important part of the God in whose image we are created. All too often those of us who profess to follow Jesus, refuse to hear Jesus: ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance.”

Jesus is calling us out to play. Yes, I know it is summer and I just go out to the lake and splash and play in the water. I can’t help myself. I just want to let Jesus’ words take me back to the words of Sophia, so that we can play together in the words of the scriptures.

In the Bible, it is Sophia who is first given the task of calling God’s people out to play, and that playfulness goes way beyond dancing. Despite the church’s attempts to contain and or constrain our playfulness Jesus continues to call us out to play!

On this glorious summer Sunday, on a weekend when it is meet right and salutary to celebrate, we can listen to the tune Jesus is piping and we can dance for joy for we are wondrously and gloriously made. Weekends are not the only things designed for play, we are. In the books of the Old Testament that are known as Wisdom Literature, it is made very clear that our bodies are blessings given by God so that we might delight in them. Playfulness, includes exploring the pleasures that one body can give to another body. There’s a little book in the Bible called that we call the Song of Solomon, but that for centuries was simply known as the Song of Songs and there you will find words that can make televangelists positively apoplectic.  “Look, there my love stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me:  ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. Let my love kiss me with kisses on the mouth!”

How did this get into the Bible? The Song of Solomon, or as it is sometimes called, the Song of Songs is surely the most erotic book of the Bible. This erotic song of songs is a long poem in which a woman, “Black and beautiful,” and a man, “radiant and ruddy,” speak the language of desire, cataloguing every inch of each other’s body, every smell and every taste. The radiant young man declares to his lover, “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.” and she tells anyone who will listen that,  “His cheeks are like beds of spices, yielding fragrance. His lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh,” He responds by exclaiming that her, “two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. I am my beloved’s” she exults, “and his desire is for me.”

The Song of Songs is a song about desire, and so it is also a song about the pain of separation, of missed meetings, and of absence. “O that his left hand were under my head,” the woman sings with palpable yearning, “and that his right hand embraced me!” and when her lover knocked on her door and she hesitated for a moment to open it, the woman speaks some of the sexist lines in any literature.

“My beloved thrust his hand into the opening and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt.” When she opens the door, however, he is gone, and she heads out into the city to search for him. “I implore you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love.”

I know, I know, enough already.  This is a church! Surely eroticism doesn’t belong within the sacred walls of a sanctuary! How did this erotic love poem make it into the Bible? No one knows for sure. But scores of interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have found in it the song of human yearning for God and God’s desire to be in intimate relationship with humanity. The Song of Songs is read at the festival of the Passover as a reminder that God delivered Israel from slavery not only because God was bound by the covenant to do so, but also because God loved the people of Israel and desired goodness for them. The ancient Christian writer Bernard of Clarvaux wrote more than eighty sermons on the Song without even making it past the third chapter. According to Clarvaux the poem provided a means by which the individual believer could come into intimate relationship with God. Like all great poetry, the Song of Songs can easily sustain a wide range of interpretations.   But it resists being read only as a spiritual text about human beings and God. Clairvaux warned young monks and nuns not to read it until their faith matured, because of the sexual feelings it is able to inspire. Continue reading

Canada: Not the Promised Land – But a Land Full of Promise – a sermon in celebration of Canada

Readings for Canada Day weekend: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 72:1-8a; Matthew 5:43-48

Listen to the sermon here

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number and there became a great nation, mighty and populous.”  So, mighty and so populous that some of our ancestors wandered all the way to Northern Ireland. As a child in Belfast a long time ago, longer than I care to remember, so long  ago that life was very different than it is now. Life in Belfast during the sixties was simple. We didn’t have much. Life was simple and basic and so many of the things that we take for granted, simply didn’t exist back then.  Looking back on it now, I suppose you could say that we were poor. The truth is, we may indeed have been poor but I never knew it. Back then “the troubles” were reigniting in Northern Ireland as protestants and Roman Catholics began to slip back into their old violent ways. Looking back, I realize that the poverty and violence of Belfast in the 1960’s made it a tough place to raise a family. So, it makes sense that my family would leave Belfast as what today we would call refugees, fleeing both economic hardships as well as the threat of violence. But as a child in neither knew nor understood the realities of our migration. Nevertheless, arriving in Canada was just like arriving in the “Promised Land.”

On this Canada Day weekend, I can still vividly remember my first full day in Canada, even though it happened so very long ago. My Mother, my brother, and I arrived at the old Malton Airport. I don’t have any actual memories of walking across the tarmac, but legend has it that it was snowing on what should have been a spring day.  I do have memories of my very first car-ride. I can still see the massive 1957 Plymoth.  It was the first car my family ever owned and it had these huge fins at the back that were taller than I was at the time. The back seat was positively enormous and riding back there, I was thoroughly convince that my Dad had struck it rich in Canada. 

We pulled into the parking lot of the tallest building I had ever seen and Dad announced that we were home.  He pointed out a balcony way up on the fourth floor and said that this was our flat.Then we climbed aboard an elevator. I had never been in an elevator before and I was amazed at the skill with which my father took charge of the controls. When the door magically slide open, we walked down a long hallway to arrive at our front door.  I can still see the gold numbers on the door, “407”. We must be rich indeed, if we had good on our front door. I could hardly believe my eyes when Dad opened the door.  I remember the shiny wood floors, the brand new furniture, and the big TV set.

 As we toured the rest of the apartment, I simply couldn’t speak. This new home looked nothing like the homes I was used to.  What’s more inside the kitchen stood a sparkling white refrigerator. I had never seen such a thing. All I remember is that this refrigerator had magic powers that allowed us to keep food cold. Visions of ice-cream must have danced through my head.  Just imagine the marvelous ability to be able to keep ice-cream in your very own kitchen. No more walking to the corner shop or waiting for the ice-cream man to pass by.Ice-cream right there as cold as you like in your very own home. It blew my tiny little mind!

You can’t imagine how rich I though we had become. Especially when off we went on my very first trip to a grocery store.  A grocery store, not a shop or a market, but a grocery store in Canada, is a very magical place.  I can still remember playing with my brother on the magic entrance to the grocery store.  We had never before seen automatic doors and we were delighted to step over and over again on the magic mat that caused the doors to open. Then there was the big cart that people in Canada used to pile all their groceries in.   People in Canada bought so much food that they needed a cart to carry it all out to their cars so that they could fill their marvelous refrigerators up to the brim. It must have blown my Mom’s mind to think that she would no longer have to shop every day, but could actually shop once a week because we had a fridge to store everything in.

I have this vague memory of standing in front of boxes and boxes of cereal. I had never seen so many boxes of cereal.  So much choice.  I remember choosing a box with a bear on the package…it was a cartoon bear… but it was a bear, I couldn’t wait to see a real bear.  Canada, I thought must be full of bears. Perhaps the sugar pops, would make me strong enough to stand in front of a bear? I remember watching a square box of ice-cream travel down a magic counter and later watching as it was loaded into the massive boot of our massive car, and finally as it was placed in our very own freezer. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice-cream came out of that box. It was delicious.  I remember several times, sneaking into the kitchen and opening up the fridge and then peering into the freezer to see if any of the ice-cream was leaking out of the box. Wonder of wonders, in Canada people are so rich that they can keep ice-cream for days and days and days in their very own homes.  Canada is just like I imagined heaven to be. Canada was, to that little girl that I was way back then, Heaven here on earth.

Canada is an amazing land. I am not the first refugee, and I certainly won’t be the last refugee to discover that Canada is more lovely than the Promised Land of any wandering migrants dreams. The wealth of our land surpasses the wildest dreams of most of the people on this planet. We have been richly blessed. Listen to the words of Deuteronomy, they might just as well have been written for us:  “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.  You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that God has given you.”

Welcome to the promised land!  Look around you.   Rejoice and be glad for God has been gracious to you. Praise God for the bounty, which God has laid before us. Don’t let it be said of you, “that none of them was found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner”.  Let it be said that, “we shall eat our fill and bless our God for the good land that God has given us. Take care that you do not forget God.  When we have eaten our fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when our wealth has multiplied, our silver and our gold is multiplied, and all that we have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting God, who brought us out of the great and terrible wilderness.” Do not let us say to ourselves, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember God, for it is God who gives you power to get wealth, so that God may confirm God’s covenant that God swore to our ancestors, as God is doing today.”

Alas, like our ancestors, we too are like wandering Arameans,  for just like every other immigrant who ever came upon the beauty of a land not their own, we did not wander into an empty land. We are migrants, settlers, colonizers. Looking around this room, I think it is safe to say that, regardless of whether it was us our or our ancestors, our people, our tribe, took this land from the indigenous in habitants of this land. Our ancestors may have believed that they had a god-given right to this land. But the texts we revere as sacred cannot disguise the reality of the crimes that were committed when our forbearers took this land from the peoples and nations that had inhabited this land for centuries before any Europeans every dreamed that Turtle Island existed.  We are setters in this land, descendants of colonizers, our wealth came and continues to come at great cost to the indigenous peoples of this land that we love.

We come from a long tradition that looks back upon our ancestors as wandering Arameans who when they arrived at what they believed to be their Promised Land, they believed that their god was providing them with all the blessings they needed to thrive as a nation. The reality is that those wandering Arameans were settlers and colonizers in the land of Canaan. The Canaanites lost their land to the Israelites and the tragedy of colonization still reverberates down to this very day as Israelis and Palestinians fight over the blessings of the Promised Land.

As the celebrations of “Canada 150” fade, perhaps we can turn our attention to the many blessings of this land. Perhaps we can finally begin to move beyond the sins of our fathers and mothers, and set aside our own sins of omission. Perhaps we can begin to hear the words of the One we profess to follow and learn to love one another in ways that do not put one another into categories of native and non-native, indigenous and settler, colonizer and colonized, neighbour and enemy, but rather sisters and brothers in a land rich with promise.  We have relied for too long on the ravages of our past which trained us well to be colonizers. Surely, it is time for us to set aside our childish ways, and look not to the tribalism of our past but rather to the sense of blessedness that called upon our ancestors to remember that we have been blessed to be a blessing.  Surely, we can begin the next 150 years by finding ways to be a blessing to our sisters and brothers who have suffered the perils of colonization. If Canada is to grow out of our childish churlish ways, we will need to learn from our indigenous sisters and brothers so that together we can cherish this land where the abundance of the earth provides so much promise that all who live here can find peace together.

Canada is not the Promised Land given to us by God so that we can gather up all the milk and honey. Canada is a land filled with promise; a land of nations of indigenous peoples and settlers have many blessings to share with the world. Before the promise of Canada can be realized, it is time for us to clean-up the mess of “Canada 150” by atoning for the sins of our mothers and fathers as well as our sins of omission. We can do that by ensuring that our all our sisters and brothers have access to the milk and honey.  We can do that by learning from our indigenous sisters and brothers how to live in harmony with the land, how to respect the blessings of Turtle Island, how to share the blessings in ways that ensure that this great land continues to thrive.  We can do that by repairing the damage that has been done while ensuring that every child feels as richly blessed as we do. Only when everyone of us is free to embrace with dignity the promise of this great land will we truly begin to embrace the blessedness that abounds all around us in ways that will be a blessing to the world.

 May we all learn to look beyond “Canada 150”, so that together we can see our blessedness not as our own, but as god-given so that we might be a blessing to others. We have been richly blessed.  And, to those to whom much has been given, much is expected. We have been blessed to be a blessing. The party is over, let the clean-up begin. Set your minds upon the ways in which you might embrace your blessings so as to be a blessing to others. Let it be so. Amen.

“Canada 150” Spitting in the Face of Indigenous Sisters and Brothers – a sermon in preparation for the celebrations

Readings:  Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Acts 2:44-46; Matthew 5:21-26

Listen to the sermon here

According to the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Matthew, Jesus said, “But I tell you that everyone who is angry with sister or brother is subject to judgment; anyone who says to sister or brother, ‘I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin; and anyone who vilifies them with name-calling will be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”

“Gehenna” a valley outside of Jerusalem where people burned their garbage. Gehenna a filthy stinking kind of place where, in the heat of the day, fires consumed the trash of the city. Gehenna a loathsome place that looms large in our collective imaginations as the mythical hell that haunts our culture, tormenting so us with nightmares of our own making.

“Anyone who says to sister or brother, “I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin” – the Sanhedrin – the people’s court – a place where society judges our actions, “anyone who vilifies” a sister or brother, with name-calling bill be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”

What is this doing in the Bible? Where is the Good News? Why did our ancestors in the faith preserve this particular piece of storytelling? “Anyone who says to a sister or brother, ‘I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”? What is the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Matthew trying to tell us? “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your sister or brother has a grudge against you, leave your gift there at the altar. Go to be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift. Lose no time in settling with your opponents—do so while still on the way to the courthouse with them. Otherwise your opponents may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the bailiff, who will through you into prison. I warn you, you won’t get out until you have paid the last penny.”

I suspect that the anonymous gospel storyteller, that we call Matthew, knew a great deal about the kind of disputes that may have inspired Jesus to want to cast members of his own tribe upon the dung-heap of his society.  Remember, Jesus own people were colonizers in the land of Palestine. Colonizers all too often resort to spitting, both metaphorically and quite literally in the eyes of the people that they are colonizing. So, I can well imagine the kinds of disputes that would have been rampant in a land of Palestine that had been colonized over and over again. Jesus’ own tribe, the Jewish people, had colonized the Canaanites. In Jesus’ day, the first inhabitants along with the Jewish colonizers were in turn colonized by the Romans. Inter-tribal disputes were a dime, or should I say, a shekel a dozen. I can well imagine that there was a lot of spitting going on.

Land claims; we here in Canada suffer under the delusion that we are the only ones who must deal with complications over who owns the land. But this kind of tribal turmoil has been going on since long before the Hebrews wandered off into the wilderness of the desert and found themselves dreaming of a Promised Land. One person’s promised land is another person’s home. It seems to me that the only way to justify driving a fellow human-being off their homeland is to dehumanize them. Human history is filled with examples of one group of humans moving in on another group of humans and it usually begins with one human deciding that the other human is less of a human than they are. Colonizers, by definition, dehumanize the colonized. Dehumanizing others, inspires the kind of contempt that allows some of us to spit in the faces of others of us.

First century Palestine, like 21st century Palestine afforded all sorts of people the opportunity to spit in the faces of all sorts of people. When you scratch the surface of all the spitting you can usually discover some sort of dispute over land. We humans suffer from the original sin of believing that we can actually own the land; as if the land is ours and ours alone. And yet, every tribe in every land, has an innate sense that the land comes to us as pure gift from the Creator of the land. This Creator of land, however our particular tribe imagines this Creator, is the ONE we look to as the ultimate owner of the land. But we humans have this ugly snake that lives deep down inside us, that fills our heads with delusions of grandeur, that deceive us into believing that we and we alone are the ones who are wise enough to occupy a particular place in a particular time. Oh, we humans are very adept at dressing up our naked aggression, but there hasn’t been a fig leaf made that can disguise our hubris. And so, we spit in the face of those who reflect our nakedness back to us.

This particular allegory of Jesus insisting that such contempt will lead us all to the rotting, smoldering, garage heap that haunts our deepest nightmares, is not a particularly cheery tale for a Sunday morning. These verses from our sacred scripture don’t get much airplay in our sacred spaces. You don’t often hear about the dire consequences of our contempt for one another. Oh, sure we know that these verses are there, but we’d rather forget about them, and we certainly don’t want to be reminded of Gehenna on a summer Sunday. Which brings me full circle to what I want to remind us of on this particular summer Sunday. For like these uncomfortable verses of scripture that remind each of us of the contempt that slithers about in the dark places of our psyche, there’s a particular kind of contempt that most of us don’t particularly want to be reminded of at this particular time of the year. As our nation prepares to celebrate “Canada 150,” none of us want to think about the many ways our celebrations are spitting in the face of our sisters and brothers, who continue to suffer from the realities of the colonization which continues to benefit each of us as settlers in these lands that we love.

“Canada 150,” as if our various tribes’ appearance in these lands, marks the starting point of Canada. 12 to 15 thousand years, that’s how long the experts insist indigenous peoples had lived upon the lands we call Canada. Indigenous: “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place” As opposed to, settlers who colonized, these lands, displacing the indigenous by whatever means necessary so that our peoples could become the masters of these lands. Our ancestors, the original colonizers, brought diseases that wiped out whole nations of peoples. Our ancestors, the original settlers, inspired by contempt for the First Nations of these lands, drove millions off their various homelands. Our ancestors, came in waves, to settle these lands and over generations adopted tactics designed to rid these lands of “Indians”.

But just like our sacred scriptures that warn against the folly of spitting in the face of our opponents, the colonization of these lands happened a long time ago. We’d rather forget about all that and move on. The trouble is we settlers keep spitting in the faces of our indigenous sisters and brothers. And for those of us, who believe that we are not like our ancestors, the reality that our government is spending half-a-billion dollars this year to celebrate “Canada 150” while 134 indigenous communities do not have safe drinking water — well if that is not spiting in the face of our sisters and brothers, I’m not sure that we setters will ever understand what the anonymous gospel story teller that we call Matthew was trying to tell us, let alone what Jesus lived and died for.

Listen to the words of our Metis sister, Christi Belcourt as she reacts to the spit that has landed on her face.

“Canada,

I can cite for you

150

Lists of the dead

150 languages no longer spoken

150 rivers poisoned

150 Indigenous children taken into care last month

150 Indigenous communities without water

150 grieving in a hotel in Winnipeg

150 times a million lies

told to our faces

to steal our lands.

Canada,

I can cite for you

150

Forms of resistance

150 battles to the death

150 water warriors walking

150 naming ceremonies

150 ways we shake the ground with dance and song

150 tattooed expressions of sovereignty

150 times 2 million days faces were painted

with earth of this land.

Canada,

I can cite for you 

150

Summers coming of resurgence

150 thousand babies birthed in ceremonies

150 thousand status cards burned

150 thousand youth marching for water

150 thousand children with braids and feathers in their hair

150 thousand Indigenous words being spoken without English

150 summers coming 

of Mother Earth calling out to our hearts

150 summers coming

where you too, will finally come to understand

the power and spirit of these lands and waters

as our ancestors have known and have been trying to tell you for 500 years.”

Christi Belcourt is calling upon you and I to recognize that our “Canada 150” celebrations are in fact a celebration of 150 years of colonization. Perhaps it is time for us to really hear the words of our own sacred scriptures: “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your sister or brother has a grudge against you, leave your gift there at the altar.Go to be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift. Lose no time in settling with your opponents—do so while still on the way to the courthouse with them. Otherwise your opponents may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the bailiff, who will through you into prison. I warn you, you won’t get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Justice, real justice would extract a high price from those of us who continue to enjoy the benefits of 150 years of colonization. Fortunately, our indigenous sisters and brothers are not insisting upon an eye-for-an-eye kind of justice. Our indigenous sisters and brothers are inviting us to sit down with them to work together to find a way forward upon these lands that we all love. They are inviting us to do what the members of our Christian tribe have done since the first followers of the way began to chart a path in the wilderness of their own colonial nightmare. Our ancestors in the faith gathered together and in the words of the Acts of the Apostles: “Those who believed lived together, shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods, sharing the proceeds with one another as each had need. They met in the Temple and they broke bread together in their homes every day. With joyful and sincere hearts, they took their meals in common, praising God and winning the approval of all the people.”

Our indigenous sisters and brothers are inviting us to sit down together to break bread with one another, so that we can find ways to share the blessings of these lands that we love. We are being invited to share in a process that is embodied in the smudging ceremony that purifies the space to permit the sacred energy that exists between peoples to lead us forward in peace.

So, during the days of celebration, let us open ourselves to the possibilities of peace among the lovers of these lands. Let us remember twelve to fifteen thousand years of history on these lands, and let us honour all those who have gone before us, all those who will come after us, by learning to live in harmony with our sisters and brothers upon these lands that we call Canada.

 

 

 

“I Pray God, Rid Me of God” – sermons for Trinity Sunday

Eckhart rid me of GodMeister Eckhart’s fervent plea: “I pray God, rid me of God” becomes a sort of mantra for me whenever the task of contemplating the Trinity rolls around on the liturgical calendar. Once again, I have failed to have the foresight to book my holidays so as to avoid the task of preaching on this festival of the church, so I find myself plumbing previous sermons in search of a way through the quagmire of doctrines which threaten to overcome even the most dedicated of preachers. I offer them here to my fellow preachers as my way of saying, “I pray God, rid me of God!!!” Shalom

click on the sermon title

While Preachers Dutifully Ponder the Doctrine of the Trinity,

Our Congregations Shrink???

 

“Trinity: Image of the Community that is God” Desmond Tutu

The Athanasian Creed and an Unholy Trinity

Wolf Blitzer Learned that there are Indeed Atheists in Fox-holes

Poor Old Nicodemus – Doomed to Play the Fool – John 3:1-17

While Preachers Dutifully Ponder the Doctrine of the Trinity, Our Congregations Shrink???

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday.  In anticipation, preachers all over the world are dutifully pondering the Doctrine of the Trinity desperately searching for something to say to encourage their congregations.

Preachers will trot out tired old clichés conjuring up images of triangles, shamrocks around, or point to H20’s ability to appear as water, ice, or steam while still maintaining it’s unified essence. Or have you heard the one about the 3 blind men and the elephant in the room. That old chestnut is trotted out by many a desperate preacher struggling to put flesh on the doctrine of the trinity. But for the life of me I can’t see how 1 blind man touching the elephant’s trunk and presuming that there is a tree in the room, while a second blind man catching wind of the elephant’s ear is convinced that there is some sort of giant fan in the room, while a third man grabs hold of the tail and is sure that he has hold of a rope, helps you to conclude that just because they’re all sharing a room with an elephant you can now confess that God is indeed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever amen. But all sorts of mental gymnastics will be exercised in the vain attempt to make some sort of sense of the doctrine of the Trinity!

On Trinity Sundays, mindful of the fact that trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity usually leads to heresy: dusty theological books that have not seen the light of day since last Trinity Sunday have been poured over to ensure that the formula’s learned in seminary are repeated correctly and heresy scrupulously avoided. The imaginative among us have attempted to baffle our congregations with our theological intellect, the pragmatic among us have attempted to baffle our congregations with something akin to BS, while the desperate among us have simply tried to survive the Trinity Sunday hoping against hope that no one will notice that we haven’t a clue what we’re talking about.

Perhaps only dear old Dr. Martin Luther possessed the theological integrity sufficient to save a preacher from the perils of preaching on Trinity Sunday. So, before I launch, forth, let me remind you what the instigator of the Reformation had to say on the subject of the Trinity. Martin Luther warned that: “To deny the Trinity is to risk our salvation; to try and explain the Trinity is to risk our sanity.”

I will confess that Martin Luther had much more at stake, literally at stake, than I do, because the truth is that for centuries the punishment for heresy would have found many an ancient preacher burned at the stake. But while the death penalty for heresy has been lifted, the risk to one’s sanity remains. Continue reading

Mary and Elizabeth: Visitation or Escape?

rape victimsMay 31st is the day the Church commemorates “The Visitation” the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth  as it is recorded in the Gospel According to Luke 1:39-56. Since reading Jane Schalberg’s “The Illegitimacy of Jesus”, I can’t help but wonder if Mary’s visited her cousin Elizabeth or escaped to her cousin Elizabeth seeking protection for the crime of being raped in a culture that all too often blamed the victim.  Historians estimate that Mary may have been all of twelve years old when she became pregnant. There is ample evidence in the New Testament accounts of Mary’s story that suggest that she may indeed have been raped.  So rather than sweep the possibility under the rug, on this the Feast of the Visitation, I’m reposting a sermon I preached a few years ago during Advent.  I do so because women young and old continue to be raped and to this day, are forced to flee from the accusations and persecutions of cultures that continue to blame the victim. What follows is a written approximation of the sermon which in addition to Jane Schalberg is also indebted to John Shelby Spong’s “Born of a Woman” and “Jesus for the Non Religious” along with John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg’s “The First Christmas”.

Sadly, one doesn’t have to travel too far into the past to arrive at the time when women’s voices were not heard. Indeed, in the Lutheran church, it was only a few short decades ago.  For most of us that time is within our own lifetime. For generations, men have told our sacred stories. Men have decided which stories made it into the canon of Sacred Scriptures. Men have interpreted the stories that were allowed to be told. Men have translated, taught, and commented upon those stories from pulpits, in universities, in seminaries, in commentaries and in the public square. Continue reading

The Ascension Never Actually Happened – Ascension is Always Happening

Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus

The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is a church festival that I have always chosen to ignore. The ancient tradition that has Jesus floating up into the clouds stretches the credibility of the church to such an extent that I’ve always assumed that the less said about the Ascension the better. But I was challenged by a parishioner to try to make some sense out of the Ascension story so that 21st century Christians would not have to check their brains at the door should they happen upon a congregation that still celebrated the day. What follows is a transcript of my attempt to leave behind the miraculous Jesus in order to be better able to welcome the human Jesus down from the clouds. I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong together with Clay Nelson of St Matthew-in-the-city for their liberating insights.  

Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have not celebrated Ascension Sunday. But as this particular Ascension Sunday follows so closely after Jack Spong’s visit with us, I thought that it was about time that rather than avoid the Ascension, I’d like to try to confront it.

Jack has been telling his anti-Ascension story for quite a few years now. Just in case you’ve never heard it or have forgotten it, let me remind you. It seems that Jack was speaking with Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. Jack says that Carl Sagan once told him  “if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”

With that said, let me just say, that the Ascension never actually happened. It is not an historical event. If a tourist with a video camera had been there in Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing. 

I know what the Nicene Creed says, “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures. And so, as I do not understand the Bible literally, neither do I understand the Nicene Creed to be a literal interpretation of the faith. Like all creeds the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds are snapshots of theology as it was at a particular time in history.

We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. I know that the universe is infinite.  I also know about gravity. I also know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus had helium flowing through his veins.  I’ve flown around the world, and I can tell you that there is no heaven above the clouds. So, I can say with confidence that:  The very present Jesus of resurrection faith did not literally elevate into heaven while his disciples looked on.

The writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts are one and the same person. The same writer wrote the Gospel according to Luke to tell the story of the life of Jesus and the Book of Acts to tell the story of the Holy Spirit at work in the followers of Jesus.  Although we don’t know who the author was, we do know that he was not an historian. Neither Luke nor Acts are historical accounts. They are both addressed to a character named Theopholus. Theopholus is  Greek for lover of God. The books are addressed to the lovers of God, that’s you and me and the author makes it clear that he has written these books so that we, the lovers of God, can believe and have faith.  The books were written somewhere near the end of the first century. Somewhere between 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus.  Perhaps between 80 and 95 of this Common Era.

The important question for most biblical scholars is not whether the Ascension actually happened but rather, what did the Ascension mean to the author in his context. And to that question we might add a more pressing question: Given what the Ascension meant in the first century, does it continue to have any relevance for those of us who live in the 21st century?

I believe that the followers of Jesus experiences of Jesus the man were so overwhelming that they saw in him the human face of God. I also believe that in very powerful ways the followers of Jesus continued to experience Jesus presence.

Those powerful experiences of Jesus after his death were so intense that they defied description. Given that Jesus was now dead and gone, yet his presence still seemed to be with them, the followers of Jesus used the Hebrew story of Elijah and Elisha to construct a belief about the Spirit of Jesus continuing to be powerfully among them.

By the time the writer of Luke and Acts got around to writing these stories down, there were different versions of the story being passed around in the early church. The writer of Luke/Acts paints a picture of a re-formed bodily Jesus going up into the heavens in the Ascension and a windy, fiery Spirit coming down at Pentecost. The writer uses powerful familiar Hebrew images to portray the experiences of Jesus’ followers after his death.

In order for us to move beyond the literal and beyond the historical and even beyond the metaphorical meaning to arrive at the meaning that the story of the Ascension can have for us today in this time and in this place, I’d like to tell you two stories that I heard about from a preacher who serves an Anglican parish in Auckland, New Zealand. Clay Nelson is a friend of Jack Spong who tells great stories.  The first story is an actual, literal, historically accurate Ascension story followed by a metaphorical Ascension story.

The literal historical Ascension story took place in 1982. But it the story that actually began some twenty years earlier when Larry Walters was just 13 years old and he saw weather balloons hanging from the ceiling of an Army & Navy surplus store. It was then that Larry knew that some day he would be carried up to the heavens by balloons. Sure enough when he was 33 years old, on July 2nd 1982, Larry Walters tied 42 helium-filled balloons to a lawn chair in the backyard of his girlfriend’s house in San Pedro, California. With the help of his friends, Larry secured himself into the lawn chair that was anchored to the bumper of a friend’s car, by two nylon tethers. Larry packed several sandwiches and a six-pack of Miller Lite and loaded his pellet gun so that he could pop a few balloons when he was ready to come down. His goal was to sail across the desert and hopefully make it to the Rocky Mountains in a few days.

But things didn’t quite work out for Larry. When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair the second one snapped, launching Larry into the skies above Los Angeles. Instead of leveling off at about 30 feet as he’d planned, Larry rose to 16,000 feet and at that height Larry couldn’t risk shooting any of the balloons.    So he stayed up there drifting cold and frightened for more than 14 hours when he found himself in the primary flight approach corridor for LAX.

Legend has it that a Pan Am pilot was the first to spot Larry and quickly radioed the tower telling them that he’d just passed a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. The Federal Aviation Administration was not amused. Larry started shooting out the balloons to start his descent but accidentally dropped the gun. After drifting for a couple of hours he eventually landed in a Long Beach neighbourhood entangled in some power lines. Larry survived without any serious injuries.

Now that is an historically accurate ascension story. It’s a funny story and a true story, but it is not a life changing story. But Larry did inspire a wonderful Australian movie, called Danny Deckchair, which is untrue, is in fact full of truth. Now when a New Zealander recommends an Australian movie, I take notice, so yesterday I watched Danny Deckchair and I do believe that it is a modern metaphorical interpretation of the Ascension.

The movie’s hero, Danny, is a bored labourer who drives a cement mixer. Danny is an unlikely Christ figure whose story is similar to Larry’s. Danny ascends from his backyard in Sydney during a barbecue and lands less than gracefully in a small town in the Australian outback. By this act of departure and arrival everything changes not only for Danny, but also for those he left behind and those he meets in the outback. Danny’s unique departure inspires those at home to take risks of their own: to live life more boldly, to act on their dreams, to become all they can be.

In acting out his dream, Danny finds new confidence and becomes the source of inspiration and affirmation for the townsfolk in the outback who used to see themselves as backwater hicks, but now see the importance of their actions in the life of their town. Everyone is transformed by Danny’s ascension. New Life and love accompany his resurrection.

The writer of Luke/Acts two versions of Jesus’ Ascension are not true like Larry’s lift off but are true like Danny Deckchair.  While the event certainly did not happen in a literal way, the story does attempt to capture the quality of a real man whose coming and going in their lives changed them forever.  The writer of Luke/Acts Ascension story is not so miraculous after all. The Ascension story is about the joy the disciples felt about the ongoing ever so real presence of Jesus after his death. The God they saw in Jesus they found in themselves. In Jesus’ departure they discovered that they could love as wastefully as he did.  They could live abundantly as Jesus did. They could heal and reconcile just as Jesus did.  With Jesus pointing the way they had found God and while Jesus was gone, the God that Jesus pointed to was everywhere, even in them.

If we are to move beyond the literal, beyond the historical, beyond the metaphorical to the life-changing meaning of the stories that have been handed down to us, we may just have to give up our tenacious hold upon the notion of Jesus as some sort of miracle worker who defies the laws of gravity, and time and space.

If we are to engage the stories about Jesus in a way that allows those stories to intersect with our lives we will have to embrace Jesus’ humanity. My Kiwi colleague Clay Nelson puts it like this:  “If your faith is sustained by a miraculous understanding of Jesus that has to ignore what you know about the real world, then let me ask you: Is it a faith that can sustain you in the real world?             Eventually this world of advancing scientific knowledge, that no longer requires a personal God to create, heal and sustain life will make the God we have had irrelevant, if it hasn’t already. I think God would rather be dead than irrelevant.             And if God is irrelevant, Jesus, who has been portrayed by the author of Luke/Acts and the church as the incarnation of this God, will suffer the same fate. If he hasn’t already.”

Nelson reminds us that Jesus was human and the human Jesus does not suffer the fate of an irrelevant god.. “The human Jesus, instead of only showing us God in all God’s glory, also shows us in all of ours. This Jesus becomes a window through which we can glimpse the mystery of love and life and being we are all called into. This Jesus through his radical love of even his enemies invites us into that mystery that surrounds us and is part of our very being.  This Jesus becomes the doorway through which I’m willing to walk into that mystery. For this mystery, I am willing to die to have new life. Mystery makes sense to me, the miraculous doesn’t. The mysterious Jesus inspires me and calls me to new levels of being. The miraculous Jesus helps me as much as telling a child that Santa comes down chimneys. The mysterious Jesus sustains my faith.  The miraculous Jesus impedes my faith.”

Like my Kiwi colleague Clay, I no longer need to believe in a miraculous Jesus in order to experience the mysterious Christ who lives and breathes in with and through Christ’s body here and now.

The writer of Luke/Acts is preparing his audience of God lovers for the arrival on the scene of the very Spirit of God that lived and breathed in with and through Jesus.

So, as we approach the celebration of Pentecost, may you find in these stories handed down to us by our ancestors in the faith an inkling of the powerful presence that Jesus’ first followers experienced after Jesus had left them.

May the joy they felt at the realization that the God they saw in Jesus they now found in themselves. May the realizations that those first followers experienced in Jesus’ departure, when they discovered they could love as extravagantly as Jesus did, that they could live as abundantly as Jesus did. That they could bring about healing and reconciliation just as Jesus did. 

May these realizations live and breath and have their being in you. May you know the joy of seeing Jesus point the way, the joy of finding God, may you know the God Christ points to who is everywhere, even in you. May you love as extravagantly as Jesus loved. May you live as abundantly as Jesus lived.             May you be Christ’s Body here and now, in this place in this time!

Read about the real Lawn-chair Larry here

Breasted ONE – a Mothers’ Day sermon – John 14:1-14

Readings: Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation; Revelations of Love, by Julian of Norwich Chapter 26; John 14:1-14

Listen to the sermon here

A Buddhist fascinated with Christianity and a Christian fascinated with Buddhism meet on the bonnie banks: a sermon on the Road to Emmaus

Read Luke 24:13-35 here

Listen to the sermon here

My twenty-year-old self, my Australian traveling companion, two Swiss women, an American, a German, a Bahamian, and a Japanese guy, where hiking on “the bonnie, bonnie, banks of Loch Lomond.”  We were a strange lot, gathered together by chance. Each of us backpacking our way through Europe in search of adventure. “By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes, Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond.” We met on the train to Fort William and we were headed on foot to the Youth Hostel at Rowardennan on the shores of Loch Lomond.

I haven’t been back in a while, and expect that it has changed more than a wee bit since the late 70’s. But back then there was only a single cart lane to Rowardennan, so we didn’t see any cars, on our long hike. Most of us were caught up in our own thoughts, or too tired from our travels, to make conversation. But not the Japanese guy, who simply wouldn’t shut up. He was positively annoying. There we were on “yon bonnie banks” leaning into the beauty that surrounded us, longing to be swept away by the majesty of it all, and this guy couldn’t keep his mouth shut long enough for us to escape in to the wonder of our surroundings.

I kept hoping that he’d “take the high road” so I could “take the low road” and we’d “never meet again on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.” But alas, we were stuck with each other. I tried lagging behind the others, humming softly to myself. But Japanese guy, he saw this as some sort of invitation to hang back for a one-on-one conversation. His questions didn’t let up.

“Where was I from?” “How long had I been backpacking?” “Why did I choose Scotland?” “Was Scotland what I thought it would be?”

On and on went the questions and when my abrupt answers didn’t clue him into the fact that I didn’t feel like talking, I decided to resort what little of Robbie Burns that I could remember. Placing my finger to my lips, to shush him, I summoned up the bard:

“The wee birdies sing and the wild flowers spring

And in sunshine the waters are sleeping

But the broken heart it kens na second spring again

And the woeful may cease from their greetin’.”

Not even Burns sung badly out of tune, could silence Japanese guy. So, I ran to catch up with our companions so that they too could share in the conversation.

When we finally arrived at the Hostel, we all spent the evening avoiding Japanese guy. The next morning we were all reunited over breakfast and it turned out that we all had the same plan to climb Ben Lomond. For those of you who “dinnie kin,” a Ben is what the Scottish call a mountain. Ben Lomond is just under a 1,000 meters about a dozen kilometers to the top. We were young and the Hostel Manager assured us that we could get to the top in about five hours, have enough time for a quick lunch, and then hike back down to the hostel in time for dinner. Great a dozen hours with Japanese guy, who by now we were calling by his real name, Ichiro. Continue reading

Emmaus is Nowhere because Emmaus is Everywhere: a sermon on Luke 24 – Easter 3A

Road to EmmausThis sermon was inspired on my own journey to Emmaus where in the space of the same afternoon I heard a stranger declare: “Christianity is dead!” and Karen Armstrong’s now famous TED talk about her call for a world Charter for Compassion.

Has anybody here ever been to Emmaus? Which one? According to the latest issue of Biblical Archeology there are at least nine possible locations that are candidates for the Biblical town of Emmaus. Historians tell us that there is no record of any village called Emmaus in any other ancient source. We simply don’t know where Emmaus might have been. Tradition, tells us that it might have been a place just a few hours walk from Jerusalem. New Testament scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest that Emmaus is nowhere. Emmaus is nowhere precisely because Emmaus is everywhere. Each and every one of us has at one time, or indeed for some of us, many times, traveled along the road to Emmaus.

I know that I have been on the road to Emmaus most of my life. I’ve had lots of company on the Road to Emmaus. I’ve had many conversations along the way discussing, with anyone who’d care to accompany me, the ifs, ands, and buts of Christianity, of religion, and indeed of life. If you haven’t traveled down the road to Emmaus you must be very skilled in the fine art of turning off your brain and if you check you just might discover that your heart isn’t actually beating.

It’s so easy to imagine, those two characters striding down the Road to Emmaus that we can almost hear them talking, maybe even arguing about what happened. What on earth were they to make of all this! Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah. Jesus was the One who had come to liberate Israel, to free the people from oppression. Jesus was the One who was supposed to draw the people back to God, restore the relationship between God and God’s people. Now Jesus was gone, and what had changed? Now, Jesus was gone, and the Roman Empire was still oppressing them, still inflicting such pain and hardship, still killing them. Was it all a mistake? Was it all a lie? Had they been fooled by some kind of cruel hoax—were they wrong to put their hopes in this man from Nazareth? They had trusted Jesus believed in Jesus, followed Jesus. Their lives had been changed. They had seen the lives of others changed and they had expected even greater changes to come. Jesus had confronted corrupt powers. Jesus had charmed great crowds. Jews and Gentiles alike responded to the truth of Jesus’ teaching. Rich and poor had come to Jesus, believing in Jesus’ healing power. But Jesus had been shamed, and ridiculed, and humiliated, and crucified and now Jesus was dead. Well, was Jesus dead? Some said they’d seen Jesus, alive! Not that Jesus had survived the crucifixion by some miracle of strength, but that Jesus had risen from the dead. They seemed so totally convinced by their own experience…were they confused by their own grief? Were they delirious? Had they loved this Jesus so much—invested so much hope in Jesus life and leadership—that they simply could not let him go? And what did ‘resurrection” mean? Apparently it was not the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus wasn’t revived to resume his former life; to take up his broken body until the day he might die again. No, somehow this was some new mode of being that seemed to be spiritual to some and yet real to others. And, if Jesus were risen from the dead, what would be the point of all that? What was the point to a Messiah—to a presumed political and religious leader—if Jesus wasn’t able to lead people here on earth? How could Jesus restore Israel when he had so easily been defeated by a handful of Roman guards? How could he bring release to the captives, how could he bring justice for the poor, how could Jesus advocate for the widows and the homeless? How could Jesus call people to account for all the ways they had strayed from God’s intent, now? What good could come from some kind of spiritual ghost? We can hear these two friends wrestling with each other and with their own hearts on the road that day! Continue reading

Christ Appeared on the Road to Emmaus and I Almost Didn’t Recognize Her – a sermon for Easter 3A – Luke 24:36b-48

emergencyMy most memorable journey on the road to Emmaus was taken behind the wheel of a 1981 Oldsmobile, Cutlass, Brougham. I loved that car. It was a thing of beauty. It was a gift from my home congregation so that I could travel back and forth across the country to and from seminary. Despite its propensity to guzzle gas it was the perfect combination of power and elegance. It had the most amazingly plush interior with every imaginable power amenity of its day. It handled like a dream and even though I loved driving that car, neither it nor I faired well on our journey on the road to Emmaus. Five weeks into my Clinical training at the Grand River Hospital and I’d just completed one of the toughest weeks of my life when I set off for Emmaus. Clinical Pastoral Education is what the Church calls it but seminary students have other names for it, like boot camp, torture or hell. Twelve weeks of on the job training in a busy hospital combined with daily psychotherapy, group sessions, and sleep deprivation. It’s all designed to help seminarians put two years of academic study into practice before sending them off on a yearlong internship. Ask most pastors about their Clinical Pastoral Education and they’re likely to sit you down and tell you story after story about how intense an experience it was. Many of my colleagues will tell you that it almost broke them into little pieces, or that it almost destroyed their faith, or that they didn’t think they’d survive, or how they never thought that it was possible to be that scared or insecure for that many hours every day. Boot camp, torture, or hell, it all depended on whether or not you were able to get any sleep or if the demons you faced on the wards managed to destroy whatever self-confidence you might be able to muster.

The week before I set off on the road to Emmaus, wasn’t as bad as all that. I felt like I was just beginning to get the hang of things. I thought that the worst might be over. I’d managed to conquer my fear of being called Chaplain and being expected to help people who were sick, in pain, in distress, or dying. Why that week I’d even managed to help one or two of my patients. Those nagging doubts that haunted me during the first month of Clinical training were beginning to fade. It was becoming easier to believe that God was there in the midst of all the turmoil. I thought that maybe just maybe I could do the job and the terror wasn’t quite so intense when my pager went off. I remember saying to a colleague that maybe we’d be able to get through our Clinical training without coming up against the inevitable crisis of the faith that so many of our fellow students had warned us about. I wasn’t even nervous about having pulled the short straw for the long-weekend shift. 72 hours as the on-call emergency chaplain for the entire hospital. I felt like I was ready; that with God’s help, I could face anything that came my way.

I wasn’t particularly nervous when my pager went off and I calmly dialed the operator who announced that there’d been an MVA and six patients were on route; two of them were vital signs absent. MVA – Multiple vehicle accident. Vital signs absent = that usually means dead, but only a doctor can actually pronounce death so patients without vital signs are transported to the hospital before being pronounced dead. Continue reading

Can the ways in which we tell the stories of resurrection transform us into followers of Jesus who embody a way of being in the world that can nourish, ground, and sustain the kind of peace that the world yearns for?

resurrectionA sermon for the
Second Sunday of Easter

Our first reading was the traditional gospel story for the Second Sunday of Easter in which we heard the story of Doubting Thomas for John 20:19-31. This was followed by a video in which Richard Holloway retells the story of Peter’s denial and the encounter between the resurrected Jesus and Peter. You can view the video here . This was followed by the gospel reading from John 21:15-20 You can listen to the sermon here

A long time ago my father was in a car accident. His hand was crushed in the accident and despite the doctors’ best efforts it wouldn’t heal properly. So, several months after the accident the doctors amputated one of my father’s fingers. When my father was still recovering from the surgery, my niece Sarah was just a baby. To this day, I believe it was the joy that only a first grandchild can bring that got my father through those painful weeks after the surgery. Now it just so happens that a few years before my Dad lost his finger, my sister-in-law’s father also lost one of his fingers in an accident at work. So, both of Sarah’s grandfathers were missing the forefinger of their right hands.

Now, I never really thought much about this bizarre coincidence until one day, when Sarah was about three years old, and I introduced her to a friend of mine called Ernie. Now Ernie loved children and so he tried his best to make friends with Sarah, but she was going through one of those shy stages and so Ernie couldn’t make any headway at all. In desperation, he explained to Sarah that he had a granddaughter just the same age as she was and that one of his favorite things in the whole world was being a grandfather.  But Ernie’s announcement didn’t impress Sarah one single bit. In fact, little Sarah put her hands on her hips and declared that Ernie couldn’t be anybody’s granddad at all. At this point I decided to give Ernie a hand and so I assured Sarah that Ernie was indeed a granddad, in fact, not only did Ernie have a granddaughter that was the same age as Sarah he also had a little grandson who had just been born. Well this was the final straw for Sarah, she told me in no uncertain terms that Ernie couldn’t be anybody’s granddad because Ernie had too many fingers. For Sarah, at the tender age of three, because both of her grandfathers only three fingers on their right hand, then surely all grandfathers must have only three fingers on their right hand.

Based upon the available physical evidence Sarah came to the only possible conclusion. The idea that a grandfather could be somebody who had ten fingers was unimaginable. All too often, we restrict our vision of the person in front of us based upon our past experiences of that person or indeed, our past experiences of people like that person. Our inability to envision what someone might be, or become, can have tragic consequences.  It’s bad enough when we limit our vision of someone based on their physical appearance, or physical challenges, but when we insist upon limiting our vision of someone based on that person’s past behavior, we run the risk of limiting what just might be possible. Continue reading

Easter: 50 Days to Practice Resurrection!

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

resurrection

A few years ago on the Second Sunday of Easter, I tried something new for me at the time: introducing a video clip into the sermon! You can view the video within the written text of the sermon below or listen to the audio version provided. I am indebted to the work of James Rowe Adams for much of the New Testament Scholarship in this sermon.

The Scripture texts were John chapter 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35

Audio Version of the Sermon click here

Practicing Resurrection

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!

So, Christ is Risen!  So What???

What can it possibly mean to you and to me, that a rag-tag bunch of Jesus’ followers gathered together in an upper-room and talked about their experiences of Jesus and decided that not even death could extinguish the life that they experienced in Jesus? What difference does it make to you or to I that Christ is risen?

The truth is that it can make absolutely no difference what so ever. Now there are a whole lot of people who will tell you that the important thing about resurrection is that you believe it. Those same folks absolutely love the story of doubting Thomas. And so every year on the second Sunday of Easter we read the story of doubting Thomas as a kind of inoculation against Thomas’ disease.

I sometimes think that the designers of the lectionary were trying to build up our resistance to doubt. Having problems believing in resurrection, well don’t do what Thomas did, don’t doubt, because you’ll be proven wrong. Jesus is alive, the wounds in his hands proved that to Doubting Thomas, so have no doubt about it the resurrection happened!  Believe in the resurrection!

The trouble with believing in stuff is that it belief can make absolutely no difference what so ever. I can believe in justice for all, but unless I’m prepared to seek justice, to be fair, or to resist injustice, it makes absolutely no difference what so ever. You can shout, “Christ is risen!” all you want but unless you are willing to live it, the resurrection means very little at all.

In order to live the resurrection you have to begin practicing resurrection. In order to practice something, you have to know what it looks like, what it sounds like, or what it feels like.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to show you what resurrection looks like in the flesh. Then I remembered a video that’s been doing the rounds on the internet, so I want you to watch this modern miracle of resurrection.

WATCH THE VIDEO CLIP FROM:  Alive Inside

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!

2000 years ago 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 that gave them the strength to burst forth from their own tomb and change the world.

Ever since they began to practice resurrection, people have been trying to figure out exactly what 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 through out 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. Most of us, myself included, are not swayed by arguments about a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body. But I can tell you without a doubt that I do believe in resurrection and I know that Christ is risen and I also know that the same power that the early followers of Jesus used to change the world is available to you and to me.  And now more than ever the world needs us to start using that power. It’s long past time for us to start practicing resurrection.

So, if they weren’t talking about a physical resuscitation when they spoke of Jesus’ resurrection, what did the early followers of Jesus actually mean when they spoke of Jesus having been raised from the dead? During the first century many Jews had adopted a vision of the future that dealt with the prevailing question of the day:  “How could a just God allow his people to suffer endlessly at the hands of their enemies?” Or as Dom Crossan puts it:   When was God going to clean up the world so that justice could prevail? Continue reading

Every grave, every tomb, every corpse is empty! – a sermon for Lent 5A – John 11:1-45

 I have an old copy of a sermon by John Claypool, entitled “Easter and the Fear of Death” 1997. Whenever the story of Lazarus comes up in the lectionary, I dig out the old typewritten manuscript and once again discover the brilliance of Claypool’s work. I have played with Claypool’s words once before in  a sermon, but this year the laughter it evokes compelled me to once again explore the possibilities of Claypool’s work.  You can listen to the sermon here

“Jesus wept.”

“Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.”

“Lazarus come out!”

“Unbind him and let him go.”

These phrases echo down through the centuries into my being, opening me to the mysteries of our existence.  For who among us has not wept when confronted by the death of a loved one? Who among us has not been halted in our tracks by the reality of death? Who among us have not gone over and over again come to the tomb, greatly disturbed?

Greatly disturbed, the Greek text could also be  accurately translated as  “groaned inwardly“ or “deeply physically moved”; as if his whole being groaned in pain. Who among us has not come to the tomb of a loved one, greatly disturbed? Death looms large in our imaginations. Death calls our very existence into question. Death moves us to tears. The Greek text often translated ever so briefly as, Jesus wept can also be translated as, “Jesus began to weep.” Who among us has not known the pain of beginning to weep, beginning to grieve, beginning the process that moves us beyond the concerns of this life, into the darkness of the tomb; the tomb in which our deepest darkest fears disturb us to the very core of our being? In each of our lives the pain of loss has moved us into the deepest and darkest of places, where weeping and groaning has disturbed us, shaken us, and moved us to begin to weep tears that feel like the shall never end.

This morning, I invite you to enter the darkness that permeates the mystery of death so that we might feel the contours of our fears. I invite you to gaze upon this photograph of a doorway into the darkness and imagine yourself wrapped in the mystery that is your own death. They say, you know the experts, the psychologists, the psychiatrists, the anthropologists, the spiritual advisors, the soothsayers, the priests and preachers, they say that death, or own death, inspires the kind of fear in us that inspires all our fears. Death, the mystery of not knowing, the fear of not being, this fear inspires all our fears. The fear of non-being, of ending, of what lies beyond our ending, this fear gives birth to all our fears. The fear that there won’t be enough time, gives rise to the fear that there won’t be enough love, enough experience, enough stuff, enough joy, which circles back to enough love, enough time, enough being.

These fears circle back to our ultimate fear that there won’t there won’t be enough time, these ever encircling fears wrap themselves around our being like the ancient bands of a burial cloth, binding us, wrapping us up in circles of fear that constrict our life.  For who among us has not worried about whether or not there’s going to be enough life, enough love for us? Continue reading

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.

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