During these first few months of my retirement from parish ministry, questions about ‘the Church’s’ survival continue to be asked of me. After 23 years of approaching such questions from the perspective of professional leadership in a mainline denomination, I grew weary of speculating on the future, even as I recognized that as a member of the clergy, it was my job to participate in the generation of hope for the future of the church. I expected that my retirement would put an end to dealing with such questions. However, people continue to ask me, with renewed vigour, “Can will, or indeed should ‘the Church’ survive?” It is as if my questioners expect that my newfound freedom will allow me to respond with some newly discovered candour that will push me to speak some hidden truths which will reveal to them the way forward. Alas, although my retirement does afford me different perspectives, I have yet to discover a talent for soothsaying. Fortunately, my candour remains intact. So, from various different perspectives, some of them new and some of them not so new, let me respond as I was trained to do, with hope: “Yes, I do hope the church will survive!” and “No, I hope the church will not survive!”
For far too many selfish reasons, I do hope that the church will survive. But for the sake of LOVE, not only do I hope the church does not survive, I believe that the church should not survive.Believing, as I do, that the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call “GOD” is LOVE, I am convinced that whatever our concept of church is, surely church ought to be the embodiment of that LOVE. Or, at the very least, church ought to be about the work of empowering its members to embody LOVE in the world. Sadly, much of what passes for church fails to either embody LOVE or to engender LOVE in the world. So, because the church has at the very least inspired hope in me, I hope that the church does not survive. My hope for the church’s demise is buttressed by my faith in resurrection which encourages me to imagine what new kind of church might rise up out of the death throes of ‘the Church’.
After more than two decades of leadership in the church, the best definition of the DIVINE MYSTERY which I can proclaim with confidence is that GOD is LOVE and that LOVE is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also. We must look BEYOND Church in order to participate in the birth of a church which concerns itself with embodying LOVE, while it empowers its members to be the BODY of LOVE in the world. So, it is the resurrection of LOVE upon which I hope to fix my gaze as I peer BEYOND Church to explore some of the contours of the BODY of LOVE. I hope you’ll join me as together we explore the possibilities of LOVE’s resurrection among and beyond us.
Over the course of the coming months, I will be posting BEYOND Church. It is my hope to look with compassion upon the death of what we know as ‘the Church’ confidant in LOVE’s power to resurrect something worthy of the LOVE which is BEYOND, the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also; something BEYOND Church, something in which the MYSTERY which is our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself might find expression, in, with, through, and beyond us.
Preaching on Trinity Sunday is not a task I am going to miss. Over the years, I have made no secret of my distaste for this particular festival of the church year. I am not alone among preachers, when it comes to Trinity Sunday. Trinity is one of those Church Doctrines that defies logic and the best advice, I’ve ever read about preaching on Trinity Sunday is to book this particular Sunday off or call in sick. In twenty-three years, I’ve never called in sick, but I confess to having booked Trinity Sunday off on a few occasions. Alas, this is my last Sunday in the parish and calling in sick wasn’t an option.
So, rather than fall into the trap of trying to explain the Trinity, let me tell you a story, which my Belfast Buddy, Pete Rollins is fond of telling, which captures some of how I feel about the miss-communication which is happening in so many pulpits as preachers are compelled to try to express the inexpressible. According to Pete, there was a Jewish community which had sought sanctuary from danger that was granted refuge in property of the Roman Catholic Church in Vatican City.
The authorities thought the Jewish community would only be there for a few months, but after several years had passed, several priests appeal to the Pope urging him to tell the Jewish community that they would have to leave and find refuge somewhere else. The Pope is reluctant to evict the Jews.
Quite rightly the Pope insists, that to simply evict them isn’t very neighbourly. So, the Pope comes up with a plan. He instructs the Priests to summon the Chief Rabbi, for a debate. The Pope insists that if he wins the theological debate, the Jewish community will have to leave, if the Chief Rabbi wins, they can stay. Adding to the tension around the debate is the reality that the Roman Catholics and the Jewish community do not speak the same language, so the debate has to be conducted without words. A theological debate without words; just signs and symbols. So, the Jewish community enters St. Paul’s Cathedral, with all its ornate signs and symbols. The Chief Rabbi, with the entire Jewish community, walks up to the Pope who is surrounded by priests, bishops, and cardinals. The Pope begins by holding up three fingers. Immediately, the Chief Rabbi holds up one finger. Then the Pope starts to wave round and round above his head. The Chief Rabbi, without hesitating, takes his finger and points down to the ground. The Pope appears a little on edge, almost like he thinks he’s losing the debate. The Pope goes up to an incredibly ornate altar, and moves in close on this diamond encrusted chalice and he pours wine into this diamond encrusted chalice, he takes a single wafer, and the Pope holds this symbols in front of the Chief Rabbi. And the Rabbi, as if he already knew this was going to happen, reaches down into a brown, crumpled, paper bag, and takes out an apple, the Rabbi takes a bite and then he and his community leave the cathedral.
So, the priests, bishops, and cardinals gather round the Pope, and begin to ask, “What happened? Who won the debate?” The Pope says, “Well I tell you what. The Rabbi won fair and square. That guy had an answer for everything. First, I held up three fingers and said, “God is three, a Trinity. And our Rabbi friend held up one finger and said, “God is ONE, a Unity.” So, I pointed up to the heavens and said “God is transcendent. God is above and looking down on all of Creation.” And my Rabbi friend, pointed to the Earth and said, “Ah, transcendence is immanent. God is in the grit and grime of the world.” So, then I brought the wine and the wafer, the body and blood of CHRIST the second Adam.And our Jewish friend, as if he knew I was going to do that, reached into a bag, pulls out an apple and takes a bite to remind me of the first Adam.”
At that moment, the Jewish community gathered around the Chief Rabbi, asking him to explain what happened. The Rabbi begins by telling his community that it was a nightmare, terrible, terrible. First of all the Pope said, “You’ve got three days to leave.” And I’m like, “No way. Not one of us is going to leave.” So, then the Pope says, “Right we’re going to round you all up.” I said, not likely, we’re staying rooted to the ground, we’re not budging. And the Jewish community, got even closer to their Chief Rabbi, as they anxiously asked, “Then what happened? Do we have to leave, or what? The Rabbi answered, “That’s the most frustrating part, because right then, we broke for lunch.”
So, as preachers all over the world, do their level best to express the inexpressible, I suggest we move on to my other task for this particular Sunday and that is for me to bid farewell to my role as your pastor. I simply don’t have words to express the inexpressible emotions which are careening around inside of me today. Fortunately, the Gospel reading assigned for this Trinity Sunday, actually, quite literally comes to us from the section in the part of the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as John’s account of what the church calls Jesus’ farewell discourse. The gospel-storyteller goes on for several chapters. Only a few lines of which are assigned for today. Listen to the Gospel to part of the way Jesus is reported to have said farewell:
“I have much more to tell you, but you can’t bear to hear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all truth. She won’t speak on her own initiative; rather, she’ll speak only what she hears, and she’ll announce to you things that are yet to come. In doing this, the Spirit will give glory to me, for she will take what is mine and reveal it to you. Everything that Abba God has belongs to me. This is why I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and reveal it to you.” This is the GOSPEL of CHRIST.
Ah, Dear ones, I do indeed have so very much more to tell you. I suspect that you can’t bear to hear it now. I know I can’t bear to tell it now. You see, I’m from Belfast and in Belfast we have a special way to say Goodbye. It is known as the “Irish Good-bye” The way an Irish Good-bye works is, we wait until the farewell celebrations, get to the part where the drinks are flowing, and the stories are being told, and while people’s attention is held by the story, we slip out while nobody notices. That way there’s no tears. Unfortunately, a while back, when I told a friend whose advice I value, of my plan to avoid the tears, she reminded me of something, I’ve said, over and over again, during my ministry, and that is that some things, some people are worth crying over. So, there’ll be no Irish Good-bye today.
So, before I fill up, and am reduced to a babbling, soggy, mess, for you my dears are definitely, worth crying over, let me end my ministry with you as began my ministry with you. tell you a few wee snippets from a couple of stories. Open up your bulletins, where a couple of pages in, right under the Gospel, where it says, Irish Goodbye followed by a question mark. For our ONLINE friends, the picture we’re looking at should be on the screen right now. Do you see that Bunny? That bedraggled creature is my granddaughter Evelyn’s Bunny, I think BUNNY is a boy, but I really can’t remember, because Evie’s bunny is simply called ‘BUNNY”, so she could be a girl. Let’s just say BUNNY is non-binary, BUNNY’s pronouns are “they, them, their”. Now, I hope that you can see from this small picture, just how worn out BUNNY is. Evie is seven years old and BUNNY has been with her for seven years. BUNNY arrived all pristine and new, full of lovely fur, which my darling Evie loved off BUNNY. Every last piece of fur has been loved off. Over the years BUNNY’s legs and arms have been loved right of their body and sown right back on again. BUNNY’s nose has been rubbed off and their ears are frayed and tattered. That’s what seven years of love has done to BUNNY; I can only imagine the state they will be in after twenty-three years.
Twenty-three years and three months ago, I was welcomed into this family, and given the privilege of serving as your pastor. I arrived before I was ordained, and you saw to it that the church ordained me and together with all the folks of Holy Cross, some here, and some who have moved on before me, you have loved me and more importantly, you have taught me how to love you. I can still remember, way back in my seminary days, in our Christian Doctrine class, where I failed to learn how to explain the Trinity, our professor Dr. Bob Kelly, reassuring us wanna-be pastors, not to sweat the doctrine, because being a pastor was about one thing and one thing only, our job is in the words of wise old Dr. Bob, to LOVE them. LOVE our parishioners. At the time, I thought there must be more too it than that.
I didn’t realize that LOVE was so much more than I knew at the time. You see Dr. Bob didn’t tell us to comfort you, to reassure you, to agree with you, or to simply love you. Dr. Bob insisted that the job of a pastor is to LOVE the people with whom we serve. I’m a bit dim, because when he said “love” I saw hearts and flowers, and I wasn’t sure I was up to the lovie dovie parts of this job. It has taken me decades to understand just a small part of what it means to be LOVE in your congregation.
For God is LOVE and LOVE is DIVINITY, the LOVE which Dr. Bob was talking about is in and of itself inexpressible. Being LOVE in a congregation, includes, the lovie dovie aspects of LOVE, I’m still learning that part, so I’m grateful that LOVE also includes, challenging one another, disturbing one another, pushing one another, leading one another, helping one another, crying with one another, questioning one another, tolerating one another, appreciating one another, embracing one another, having one another’s backs.
Which brings me back to BUNNY, bedraggled, worse for ware BUNNY. Go back to your bulletins and turn the pages to a couple of pictures. You’ll see a photograph of well-loved BUNNY and then you will see WELL LOVED BUNNY and BACK-UP BUNNY. BACK-UP BUNNY came into Evelyn’s life round about the time BUNNY became indispensable. A very wise person in Evie’s life realized that if something terrible ever happened and for whatever reason BUNNY couldn’t be there for Evelyn, then BACK-UP BUNNY would have to be there. Now you can see that BACK-UP BUNNY has managed to do their job while keeping their fur on, but even BACK-UP BUNNY is a little worn around the edges.
Evelyn has so much LOVE to give. So, before I stretch these metaphorical bunnies beyond their ability to carry us beyond themselves to the truth which I am trying to communicate to you, let me just say, that over the years, sometimes, I have played the role of BUNNY and you have been my BACK-UPS. Sometimes, I have taken on the role of BACK-UP while you have been BUNNY.
I don’t mind confessing that two-years of lockdown, have left me wondering if my hair, or my arms, and legs are going to fall off. But all the while, whether it was struggling to make the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada a fully inclusive Church, receiving death threats at the parsonage, or being disciplined by the Eastern Synod, or welcoming renowned speakers to Newmarket, having the audacity to ordain Lionel, or to welcome Tom to Team ministry, or all the questions and challenges of progressive theology, or being locked down for two years, this bedraggled, worn, out, old BUNNY of a pastor, has felt the LOVE. You my dear ones, you have had my back. You have had my back. I hope that over the years, when you have been worn out, you have also felt the LOVE as I have done my best to have your backs. This being LOVE in the world, is not comforting, it is not easy, and it is not safe. But over the years, we have had our moments of sanctuary from the world, here in this place, and online, and those moments of sanctuary have nourished, grounded, and sustained us for the challenges of being LOVE in the world. I have so much more to learn about being LOVE, LOVE in the church, LOVE beyond the church, LOVE in the world.
But as I leave you, I want you to know that you have taught me well, you’ve LOVED off some of my rough edges, and even though I may be worn, I am also excited and hopeful. New chapters are about to unfold for me, for Carol, and for all of you. After a long rest, I hope to get some of my colour back, and I may even grow some new fur. There’s still so much more that I want to learn about being LOVE. My hope is that you too will continue to get your colour back as you continue to come back from lockdown, some new fur is called for. I suspect colourful things will once again begin to appear from Holy Cross as you discover new ways to be LOVE in the world. I trust our friends Online to gain some colour as well.
I look forward to all these new chapters unfolding as we learn new ways to be LOVE. So, there will be no “Irish Goodbye” because as I will keep saying, some things, some people are worth crying over. I have no words. I have only LOVE, the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being. The LOVE which will continue to nourish ground and sustain us as we continue to find new ways to be that LOVE in the world. I can’t begin to express the inexpressible, the inexpressible gift and gifts of LOVE which you have been.So, let me end this not so Irish Goodbye, with an Irish Blessing,which I have adapted from the words of another Irish friend of mine, Padraig O’Tauma, whose words of Benediction come close to expressing my emotions:
What I remember most about Malcolm is that he did not suffer fools gladly. He couldn’t have been much older than I am now when we first began working together. By day, Malcolm was an astounding problem solver. But on evenings and weekends, Malcolm was a super-hero! A justice-seeker, peacemaker and the personification of LOVE itself. Malcolm was a brilliant co-worker. But, if you needed his help at work, you had to catch Malcolm during working hours, because as soon as the clock struck 5, Malcolm would be out the door. He always had places to go and people to see, mountains to move, wrongs to make right, people to save, injustices to oppose, and people to feed. Malcolm, no matter how much you tried to resist his charms, would sweep up any able-bodied person to help him on his epic his quests to right whatever wrongs he encountered. I don’t remember much of what I learned from Malcolm at work, but I can still feel the intensity of his passion, sweeping me up like a whirlwind as he embodied a vision of justice which always took my breath away.
Malcolm and I shared a kind of bleak gallows sense of humour which we put down to our shared British birthplace. When he discovered that as a child, I had been subjected to my father’s collection of recordings of Goon Show, our gallows humour went into overdrive. Malcolm would insist that I play Eccles to his Seagoon. For those of you who were never blessed to hear the Goons, suffice it to say, the Goons taught the Monty Python crew how to do comedy, the way comedy needs to be done. Says I, using the voice of Eccles, to Malcolm who hailed from Aberdeen: “All you hairy Scotsmen, today we’re gonna march north to England!” To which Malcolm would responded with the voice of Neddie Seagoon “But England’s to the south!” “Aye” says I, “We’re gonna march right round the world and sneak up on them!”
Our co-workers thought we were mad, but I loved that old guy, right up until the moment he left us. I remember sitting by his hospital bed as he lay dying, we’d exhausted all the Goon bits we could remember, and the rattle of Malcolm’s breathing warned me that it wouldn’t be long. When all of a sudden, he sat right up in bed and demanded to know what Jesus was all about. Never once, in all the time I’d known him had we ever mentioned Jesus to one another. I’d kept my mouth shut on anything remotely connected with religion simply because every single time anyone else mentioned religion, Malcolm would become incensed. Malcolm was positively vulgar on the subject of religion and I for one didn’t want to risk our friendship by saying anything remotely religious.
“Come on tell me, what was Jesus all about? Quickly, I don’t have much time!” Malcolm pointed to the Easter cards which the nurses had lined up on the windowsill. “There look at them” he’d taken on the voice of Seagoon, “If those cards are anything to go by, then Jesus must have been a bunny rabbit, hopping through a field of daffodils.” Trying with my best Eccles voice, I could only muster the classic Eccles conundrum, “He’s goon but he’s not forgotten.”
Sorry, you’ll just have to Google it because it is Easter after all, and my task here is Malcolm’s question, “What is Jesus all about?”
I believe that Jesus is all about the story; a parable to be exact. I’m not just talking about the parables which Jesus told. I’m talking about the Parable of Jesus. The Parable of Jesus is not about his death, although Jesus does die, but then again, in the Parable, he is dead, but he won’t lie down. The Parable of Jesus is not all about Jesus’ death, nor is it about life after death. The Parable of Jesus is about so much more than individual salvation from some vengeful god. The Parable of Jesus is about the context in which Jesus was born, the oppression under which Jesus lived, and the passion with which Jesus embodied non-violent resistance to the powers of domination, a commitment which Jesus was willing to die in order to teach the world that justice and not violence is the way to the peace we long for.
The Parable of Jesus is a Parable of Resistance. The Parable of Jesus is about resistance to a way of being that is based upon selfishness and greed. The Parable of Jesus is about a vision of a new way of being in which the abundance of Creation is shared by all, so that everyone has enough in order to live their lives. Jesus insisted, “I have come that you might have life and live it abundantly.” Jesus’ understanding that the MYSTERY responsible for creating life is so much more than a tribal deity who favours one tribe over the other. Jesus spoke of this MYSTERY as an ABBA, a PARENT, with which we are ONE. Jesus’ understood this ABBA’s primary concern for the people of the world, all the people of the world, is that we LOVE ONEanother. Jesus took the best of the teachings of his people when he highlighted as the most important rule of their religious teaching that we LOVE one another and added a new twist, spelling out exactly how we are to LOVE one another. In the Parable of Jesus, on the night before Jesus is executed, he gives his followers a New Commandment that we LOVE ONE another in the same way as Jesus’ loved them.
We don’t have to look very far into the Parable of Jesus to see exactly how Jesus loved. The Parable of Jesus contains all sorts of little parables about the way in which Jesus loved without discrimination, the lowest and the least, the outcasts and the sinners, and the powerless, comforting, feeding, healing, eating and drinking with them. As for enemies, the powerful, the self-centered, the wealthy, Jesus called his followers NOT to take up the sword against them, but to lay down their arms, to love them. Jesus urged his followers to live self-less-ly, giving extravagantly, as they learned new ways to LOVE one another.
In the Parable of Jesus, we meet a person willing to sacrifice, to make holy every aspect of his being in order to resist the forces of empire. Jesus steadfastly he resisted violence as a way to resist. Jesus’ whole life proclaims that peace cannot be achieved through violence, peace is born of justice,
justice not just for the rich and powerful, but justice for all. Jesus resisted violence. He resisted the trappings of his fame. Jesus even resisted the temptations of his own power, even in the face of the one thing we humans fear most of all, death.
According to the Parable of Jesus, not even death can kill Jesus’ vision of the Reign of GOD, what Jesus called the basileia ton theon, the Reign of the MYSTERY which Jesus understood as the ABBA, the LOVing Parent. Not even death at the hands of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, could kill Jesus’ vision of the Reign of ABBA, in which justice prevails.
Jesus’ idea of justice did not include revenge. Jesus understood justice to be distributive. Distributive justice ensures that everyone has enough to live life abundantly. After the empire had done its worst, after Jesus was executed for resisting the powers of the Empire, his followers came to understand Jesus teachings, and they too became non-violent resisters who looked to the Parable of Jesus’ resistance to encourage their quest for peace through justice.
But the temptations of empire are powerful, and over time, the all too human fear of death softened Jesus’ followers commitment to resistance. Over time, the followers of Jesus were co-opted by the very temptations Jesus resisted all his life, even unto death. Eventually, Jesus’ resistance was softened, as people returned to the old ways of trying to establish peace through the empire’s violence. As Jesus’ resistance was softened, the people’s vision of Jesus’ ABBA was hardened, indeed the Father became known as a vengeful, punishing parent, who employed threats not unlike the Empire’s torture.
Sadly, the Parable of Jesus’ Resistance, became a quid pro quo with the powers that be. Resist the empire which the church had become and be damned to eternal punishment. NO wonder resistance was forsaken in favour of bunnies and chocolate, as Jesus himself became an opiate which if swallowed produced a kind of euphoria which promised heavenly rewards in some other life-time, allowing the people to forget the creation of heaven here on Earth. Resistance was set aside in favour of acquiescence in the service of the empires created by wealth. The forces of the empires of Rome and the religious authorities may have killed Jesus, but according to the Parable of Jesus, not even death could kill Jesus’ vision of the basileia ton theon. We catch glimpses of Jesus’ vison, here and there, wherever and whenever people resist the temptations of empire. You’ve all seen glimpses of the basileia ton theon, whenever peace breaks out not because of violence, for this is no peace at all, but mearly a lull in the violence. You’ve seen the basilea ton theon when peace is established because justice prevails, when justice and not violence creates the kind of peace where LOVE flourishes.
That’s the Easter part of the Parable of Jesus, the time and place when resurrection happens. When and where the LOVE which Jesus embodied resists the temptations to selfishness, greed, and violence. Those moments when LOVE rises up and people are empowered by their LOVE for one another, to resist injustice, to champion justice for people everywhere. The Parable of Jesus is just a story told by idealistic, religious, fools, when it is fed by those who intoxicated by the temptations of empire. But the Parable of Jesus still holds the power of resurrection within the transforming LOVE which is embodied in the life, the teachings, the death, and the powerful legacy of Jesus’ resistance.
For it is Jesus’ vision of the basileia ton theon, the Reign of ABBA in which the power to be LOVE in the world is resurrected each and every time LOVE is embodied in the world. For the REIGN of the LOVE which is the MYSTERY we call GOD, is already here, in the life of each and every person who resists selfishness, resists greed, resists the hunger for power, resists complacency, resists hatred born of fear, resists me first, resists not with violence but with the quest for justice, not the punitive justice born of our self-centred desire to punish, but the distributive justice of Jesus vision of a world in which everyone has enough to live fully, love extravagantly and be all that we are created to be.
The Parable of Jesus is a powerful parable of resistance which does not end with Jesus’ death. Death does not have the final world in this powerful parable of resistance, because death cannot destroy the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being, precisely because LOVE has being in, with, through, and beyond us. LOVE lives, LOVE dies, and LOVE comes again and again and again.
As the rattle in Malcolm’s chest weakened, his grip on my hand tightened. I could almost see the young man he once was, leaning in close to the wireless so that he could hear every silly word the Goons broadcast. I couldn’t help but smile, which when Malcolm noticed, he asked me what I was smiling about. I told him that the folks in the afterlife weren’t going to know what hit them once he arrived. “So, you think I’m going to Heaven then?” “You don’t believe in Heaven.” I reminded him.
“That’s because I’m not there yet. It will be heaven once I get there.” That’s our Malcolm, “There’s always something that needs doing to make things better for everyone!”
It was standing room only at Malcolm’s funeral. Dozens of people stood up to remind us of Malcolm’s super-powers. Last night as I was remembering my old friend Malcolm, I couldn’t help laughing when I thought of an old line from a long-ago Goon Show. I think it was the character of Bluebottle, who was played by Peter Sellers, who was always being killed off, or as the Goons would have it Bluebottle was always being “deaded”. Each time Bluebottle would be “deaded” he would rise up and go on talking. I can still remember Malcolm saying in his Seagoon voice, “He’s deaded, but he won’t lie down.” Laughing in the face of death is an old Easter tradition because at Easter, death is always the butt of the joke. “He’s “deaded” but he won’t lie down.”
Malcolm’s passion for justice, his visions of making heaven here on Earth, they live on in each and every person that Malcolm ever loved. Jesus’ passion for peace through justice, this LOVE which people encountered in the life and teachings of Jesus could not be conquered by death. LOVE rises again and again and again. On this Easter morning it may appear as if LOVE has died and is buried in the tomb of our stupidity. But I assure you that not even death will have the final word; not death in the Ukraine, or South Africa, or Myanmar, or in the violent streets of corporate greed, or the lonely hovels in which people die unjustly from hunger and disease.
LOVE may indeed be deaded but LOVE won’t lie down for long. LOVE is risen. LOVE is risen indeed. In every act of resistance inspired by the vison of the already and not yet Reign of LOVE. Resistance is the only kind of resurrection we need in order to create the peace we long for.
Death cannot conquer LOVE. Not as long as LOVE is embodied in the world. Every act of LOVE resurrects our hunger for justice and inspires our desire to be LOVE in the world. LOVE even if it is deaded won’t lie down. LOVE never lies down for long. ay we all know the power of LOVE rising in us!
Earlier this morning, a child was baptized. I do not know all the details of his baptism. But let me tell you what I do know. Little Lev was born on March 10. Little Lev was baptized this morning, on the one-month anniversary of his birth. Little Lev’s baptism took place at Saints Peter & Paul Garrison, Catholic Church in Lviv, Ukraine. Little Lev is our brother in CHRIST, as are the proud members of his family who paused as they were leaving the Church, just long enough to speak to a Canadian reporter, who up to this point had been interviewing Father Stephan Sus about his work in Lviv. In the midst of the chaos, which is Ukraine, Father Stephan spoke about life. Five funerals yesterday, a wedding and a baptism this morning. Father Stephan is from Kiev, where he hopes to return soon.
But for now, he is busy, tending to the needs of our sisters and brothers in CHRIST. Father Stephan spoke about the ways in which life continues even in the face of what he described as “the evil of our enemies” who “want to destroy the people” who “want to destroy the peace of Ukraine.”
Father Stephan described his work helping to “receive migrants to Lviv” having coffee with mourners, tending the cemetery, providing meals for those in need, comfort to the wounded. Father Stephan spoke about continuing with what he called, “existing life here during the war.” Existing life, like Little Lev’s baptism. He reminded us that “children are being born and couples are getting married.” He said, “we are trying to live because we understand that to be alive is to be strong to fight this evil which wants to destroy life.” Father Stephan is our brother in CHRIST.
This is not the sermon I wrote to preach this morning, not on this particular Palm Sunday. For the past two years, our Holy Week commemorations have seen us locked down inside our homes. We have waited a long time to be able to gather here in this place, to return to “normal” if you will. Much has changed over the past two years. Today, we are living a new kind of normal. We have grown accustomed to the changing realities of COVID and the divisions various public health precautions have inspired among us. Our new normal has been shattered this past month by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the shock of the daily images of destruction and slaughter which invade our screens each and every day, even that is becoming normal. I confess, my own desire to look away from the daily bombardments to shield myself from the images of blurred out bodies lying in the once suburban streets, which look very much like our streets. This has become routine, a kind of normal for us. So, I try to limit my exposure to the news in order to preserve my own mental health. I check in each morning. It has become a bit of a routine. I turn on the news. I allow the horror to touch me, just for bit, and then I move on with my day. War in Ukraine has found its way into our normal routines.
Today, marks the beginning of a break in our normal routines as we embark upon the week which we call Holy. For centuries, Christians have marked Holy Week by tracing Jesus of Nazareth’s journey to Jerusalem, bearing witness to the events which lead up to Jesus’ execution. We begin today with the joyous celebration of Jesus entry into Jerusalem, knowing that it will lead his, betrayal, his arrest, torture, his trial, and his execution. So, here we are bearing witness to a parade which happened nearly 2000 years ago. A parade in which our brother in CHRIST, Jesus of Nazareth publicly demonstrated against what New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan calls the incredible “drag of normalcy.” Life in the first century had its own sense of normal. Jerusalem had been occupied by the Romans for decades, and the routine cruelties of Empire were normal. The celebration of the Passover happened against the backdrop of this oppression. The Empire demonstrated its power by exerting additional hardships during a time when pilgrims flocked to the city to commemorate the pass over, where their ancestors were delivered from yet another oppressor. Rome’s military might was on full display.
It was also normal for some people to rebel against the status quo. So, the religious authorities, they flexed their own muscles in order to keep the people in line. All in all, it was a normal kind of celebration, despite the violence of Empire. Even though in their heart of hearts the people longed for a messiah to save them from their oppression. A messiah the likes of King David, who would ride in with majesty and strength to put down their oppressors and lead them to victory. And along comes Jesus, moseying into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. No military might. Resisting the temptations of violence and yet still turning the heads of the crowd if only for a moment. And we all know how it will end. Rome will do what empires always do, they will crush Jesus, make an example of him. Jesus will become an instrument of their terrorism. The people Jesus longed to awaken to a new way of being will not just turn their heads away, they will join in the crushing because Jesus threatens their own status quo. How dare he expect them to change their ways now! The have spent their lives accommodating the evils of empire. They’ve made their peace with violence; they have put their faith in power, in strength, and in might. Soon, so very soon, they too will cheer on the executioners, the powers that be. Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!
It’s perfectly normal. Totally expected. Over and over again the strong, the powerful, the violent, stomp all over the weak, the powerless, the idealistic dreamers, who dream of a different way of being in the world. So, why are we here? Why do we choose to bear witness to a parade which demonstrated that resistance to violence is a dead end? Why do we still talk about resisting violence when we know that it leads to death? I expect that we are here for all sorts of reasons, many of them quite normal under the circumstances. Some of us are here looking for company as we navigate our new normal. Some of us are here out of a sense of longing for the way things used to be. Some of us are here just because it’s Sunday and that’s what you do on Sundays. But I hope that in each of us, deep down, we are also here because we are sick and tired of normal. I hope that somewhere inside each of us there is pent-up desire for a messiah, a saviour, who will hear our Hosannas and save us from the incredible drag of normalcy.
I hope that some of us are here to access hope for a new way of being in the world! A way that resists that pull into the normalcy of violence. I hope that the reality that even though the powers that be threw everything they had at Jesus, perpetrated the worst kind of violence upon him that is humanly possible, even though Jesus died up there on that bloody cross, death did not have the final word. Jesus’ dream of peace through justice, of a world where everyone has enough, and greed is replaced with generosity, and shalom becomes a reality, Jesus’ dream never died. Death did not and will not have the final word. The hope for resurrection is waiting to burst forth.
This morning, our little baby brother, Lev was baptized into this hope. In the midst of all the violence, our brother Father Stephan, spoke about the support the Ukrainian people feel from the people of Canada, from North America and from Europe. It would be perfectly normal for us to turn our backs, to walk away, to get on with our lives. Especially, when the pundits keep telling us that it is only a matter of time, Russia will win this war. They have the military advantages.
Our brother, Father Stephan spoke this morning about his sadness yesterday at the five funerals for those who did not survive the violence. Father Stephen insisted that, “despite the sadness, we are living as a people who still have hope. We are not hopeless,” he went on, “but those who live with hope, hope in victory, hope that we will continue our life, hope that we will stop the war. Every funeral for us,” he said, “but also a moment for sadness and also a moment for hope. We are as a faithful people, in providing these funerals, we hope that one day we will meet our friends, our guys, our military, in the heaven we would together be. But now, during the funeral we are feeling responsibility that we have to follow their example and do all these good things which they show by their life, defending our country, defending the people, and dignity of human beings, the people in this war.”
A perfectly normal thing for a priest to say. I felt myself slipping back into the myth of redemptive violence, longing for some of that military might. But then my brother Stephan became the voice of hope, when he insisted, “We never stop to repeat that our hero’s never die. It means that they are living forever. Why because they never stopped to love, they laid down their lives to love this world, to love the people, to love their neighbours, and I think against all this hate, and evil which we see in the faces of our enemies, we are trying to be a people who are ready to love.”
Ready to love against all this hate, and evil. Father Stephan’s words ring out as the answer to our Hossannas. For we are the messiah. The LOVE which is DIVINITY lives and moves and has being, in, with, through, and beyond us. As for the faces of our enemies, Jesus’ dream that we can see in the faces of our enemies that they too are our sisters and brothers in CHRIST, this dream is our hope for resurrection.
Today, we can see the cross on the horizon, and there will be many more crosses ahead. There will be more violence, and more death. This is the normal state of affairs in our world. But this morning our little brother Lev was baptized into the Body of Christ. This morning, in Russia little sisters and brothers were also baptized. We do not live as ones without hope. Let the hosannas of our little sisters and brothers, friends and foe alike, let their hosannas ring in our ears and move our hearts to be LOVE in the world.
LOVE is not yet the normal way of being in the world. There are crosses which must be endured.
But death has not and will not have the final word. For we live in hope. Our hope lies in the not yet and already here Reign of LOVE in which justice and not violence is the way to peace. We live in hope by living lives, unafraid to be messiahs, bearing LOVE as we encounter the crosses of this world.
There are many crosses in sight and many more crosses beyond our sight, but there are many, many, many, more resurrections ahead. Resurrection will happen each and every time LOVE is brought to life in the world, in the tending of the sick, harboring of the homeless, healing the wounded, and seeking justice for the oppressed, and most of all in loving our neighbours and most of all in learning to love our enemies. This is the work of messiahs. Responding to hosannas, wherever and whenever we hear people crying out for LOVE. Let us be that LOVE in the world. Here and now. Amen.
I think her name was Anna. It’s difficult for me to remember her name because most people simply referred to her by her nickname. Of course, we never actually called her by that to her face because it was a nickname based upon the way she smelled. I knew her back in the 80s. We ran into each other at various different protest rallies or in meetings of advocacy groups. She part of many of the groups that I belonged to. Anna was an old hippie long before there were old hippies. She always wore sandals, a colourful peasant dress, and her long grey hair tied up in a bun on the very top of her head. Despite her funky attire, Anna wore a kind of elegance which allowed her to waft into any room and immediately command everyone’s attention. She was an absolute powerhouse, determined to seek justice for the oppressed whether they be members of First Nations, or women struggling for equal pay, the homeless seeking shelter, or banning the bomb. I remember going to my very first Earth Day rally, not because I was concerned about the environment back then in the 80s, but simply because Anna badgered a bunch of us into going with her. Anna never shut up about her many causes. So, much so that people would scatter when they knew was Anna coming into a room, lest she shame us into working for justice for this or that group of people who needed our advocacy.
To this day, I’m guessing that like me, everyone else who knew her was as afraid of Anna. Fortunately, we always knew when Anna was coming simply because her smell arrived long before she did. It also lingered long after she had left. Hence Anna’s nickname. As I say, I never did call her by her nickname to her face, nor did I ever hear anyone else use that name in her presence. But when her smell indicated that she was about to sweep into the room, or after we were left basking in her scent long after she had departed, that is when we used Anna’s nickname. To us, Anna was not so affectionately known as Coco. When I first heard “Coco”, I didn’t understand. Until, an old gentleman quietly explained, “Coco as in Coco Chanel.” My blank uncomprehending stare encouraged him to go on to explain that Anna’s unmistakable smell came from her liberal application of Chanel No.5. I didn’t know much about perfume back then. I still don’t know much about perfume. But one thing I did know is that Chanel No5 was and still is expensive. The only reason I knew this is because of all those cheap perfume bottles, I would buy to give to my mother and to my aunties. Chanel No.5 was way out of my price-range. I usually went for the larger bottles, The less expensive perfumes. You know the gift sets where you got bang for your buck – a big bottle of Yardley, with some dusting power thrown in for good measure. Those small bottles of Chanel No.5 couldn’t fool me.
I remember thinking at the time how odd it was for the ever-frugal Anna to buy such an expensive perfume. I’m mean, Anna was into recycling things long-before recycling was a thing. She never bought anything new. Everything was always on the cheap. For Anna to be wasting her money on expensive little bottles of perfume which she liberally splashed all over herself, well it just didn’t make sense. Especially, when she was always complaining about how she couldn’t afford to get her hair cut. And what about all those causes she was always collecting money for? Surely, her money would be better spent fighting for justice, all those she could never shut up about. “Coco” was our way of making fun of Anna’s extravagance.
Coco’s extravagance is one of the reasons I love the Parable of Jesus’ Anointing as it is recorded by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call John. The way John tells this parable, it takes place six days before Jesus’ last celebration of the Passover. John puts it like this, “Jesus went to Bethany, the village of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they gave a banquet in Jesus’ honour, at which Martha served. Lazarus was one of those at the table. Mary brought a pound of costly ointment, pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus, piping them with her hair. The house was full of the scent of the ointment. Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples—the one who was to betray Jesus—protested. “Why wasn’t this ointment sold? It could have brought nearly a year’s wages, and the money been given to poor people!” Judas didn’t say this because he was concerned for poor people, but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the common fund and would help himself to it. So Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You have poor people with you always. But you won’t always have me.””
Thanks to Coco, this parable and the word extravagance are intimately entwined. Extravagance in the face of danger and poverty. Of all the stories that this anonymous gospel-storyteller could have told about Jesus, why did he tell this one, and why did he tell it the way that he told it? What is the storyteller trying to tell us about the character of Jesus? I’ve studied this passage for decades and I’m still surprised at how full and lush, how extravagant the details of this story are. I’m also aware that most of those lush and oh so extravagant details are all too often lost on 21st century ears.
We are not first century Jews, so the pungency of this particular extravagance can all too easily elude us. There are details that first century Jews would have been overcome by. Details that we need to sniff out if we want to smell the pungent aroma of the spikenard that oozes, soothes, and anoints the feet of the one we claim to follow. This story has but a dozen sentences, but each and every sentence positively oozes with details; details which can open us to a kind of extravagance of our own.
Six days before the Passover. Every first century Jew would have understood that six days before the Passover, the biggest festival of the year, the roads and pathways would have been crowded with people heading to Jerusalem to celebrate. Jesus too would have been on his way to Jerusalem; Jerusalem, each and every one of the anonymous gospel-storyteller’s listeners would have known all too well what happened in Jerusalem. They like us, knew exactly what kind of execution awaited the political troublemaker, the justice seeking radical Jesus. Bethany, a small town just outside of Jerusalem, six days before the Passover and we all know that Jesus will not be passed over. Jesus will be just like a lamb to the slaughter when the Romans are done with him. There will be no Exodus for Jesus, no blood upon the lintels to save him. Six days before Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, the village of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.
Lazarus, with his sisters Martha and Mary are the only three people in the bible who earn the distinction of being named as people, “Jesus loved.” Lazarus, the rumors where ripe about Jesus raising Lazarus from the tomb. “There they gave a banquet in Jesus’ honour, at which Martha served.” Martha served; they would have heard of Martha’s service before. But do not think of housework here, the Greek word, dioconia is used here. At the end of the first century, the Greek word dioconia is a technical term used to refer to church leadership. Martha at the end of the first century would have been a name that the storyteller’s listeners would have been familiar with because Martha was a leader among the followers of the Way. Martha presided at the Passover, the Passover Meal the most important Jewish religious ritual of the first century. Mary brought a pound of costly ointment, pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair. Mary one of the three people in named in the bible as being loved by Jesus. Mary of Bethany, Jesus’ beloved, the woman the gospel-storyteller’s listeners would have remembered because Jesus praised her for concerning herself with Jesus’ teaching. Mary a student, a disciple of Jesus, interrupts the most important Jewish ritual of the year with a pound of costly ointment; a point of pure nard; spikenard, incredibly expensive, a whole year’s wages in the first century. Pungent, the smell would have been over-powering. All eyes on Mary; a woman, her hair down, first-century listeners would have had something to say about a woman in the company of men, with her hair down. She lets her hair down, no honourable woman would do such a thing, and with the pungent smell of expensive spikenard permeating the room, Mary proceeds to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. His feet, she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet. His feet, that would have sent tongues to waggin. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word for a man’s feet is often used as a euphemism for another, part of a man’s anatomy which, even now, modesty prevents me from mentioning in church. Those first century listeners would have been wondering, his feet, does this storyteller mean Jesus’ feet, or does he mean his feet? You know what I’m talking about??? “Feet.” A woman who Jesus loves, pours a year’s worth of wages, over Jesus’ feet, and then has the audacity to wipe the oil with her hair. Wait a just a minute, you mean to tell us, that she anointed Jesus’ feet with oil, his feet, in the middle of a religious ritual, his head maybe, people do that for kings, but not the feet. Only the dead have their feet anointed with oil.
What is this gospel-storyteller trying to tell us about Jesus? “The house was full of the scent of the ointment.” Nard is not the only thing which smells here. Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples—the one who was to betray Jesus—Judas protested. Judas Iscariot, by the end of the first century the very mention of Judas Iscariot would have raised the hackles of any audience who knew of the execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans, the Romans who had by the end of the first century, executed tens of thousands in Palestine, destroyed the Temple, burnt Jerusalem to the ground, and sent each and every Jew into exile. The name Judas Iscariot had in just a few sort decades become synonymous with the word “betrayer.”
Whether or not Judas Iscariot ever existed, or was simply, as our fiend Jack Spong taught me, simply a literary character designed to stand in for every betrayer who has every betrayed, you can be sure that the gospel-storyteller’s audience would have perked up at the mere mention of the name Judas. Just imagine the audacity of this character, selling Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver, and here he is protesting the use of a costly ointment as if he cares about the poor.
“Why wasn’t this ointment sold? It could have brought nearly a year’s wages, and the money given to the poor.” Even the gospel-storyteller can’t keep up the pretense when he adds: “Judas didn’t say this because he was concerned for poor people, but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the common fund and would help himself to it.” All these centuries later, we can hear them sniggering, Judas worried about the poor; indeed, pull the other one.
It is at this point that the anonymous gospel-storyteller, shows just what kind of storyteller he or she was when she/or he has Jesus say, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.”
We know that Jesus is about to die, and Mary is doing what needs to be done, the problem is not the ritual, the problem is the extravagance of the ritual. “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.” Here’s the rub, pardon the pun. The gospel storyteller has Jesus, Jesus of all people say:
“You have the poor people with you always. But you won’t have me.” Jesus, the champion of the poor, can he really be saying don’t worry about the poor because the poor aren’t going away. Of course not!!!
Jesus was, is, and forever shall be a Jew. The anonymous gospel-storyteller was Jewish. The first-century audiences would have been Jewish, or God-fearers, who were Jew’s in all but circumcision; the few Gentiles in the group would have been schooled in the Hebrew scriptures. What our 21st century ears rarely hear is the echo of the scriptures which would have sounded loudly and clearly in the minds of our first century ancestors. Remember, Jews learned their scriptures by heart. They could recite the words of Deuteronomy in the same way we can recite the words of commercial jingles.
So, hear what they would have heard, when the heard the words, “You have the poor with you always.” Hear the words of the 15th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy:
“If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that YAHWEH is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near.”and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing: your neighbor might cry to YAHWEH against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account YAHWEH will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Now hear again, the words of Jesus the Jewish rabbi: “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not have me with you always.” Surely, we all know exactly what to do about the poor, enough said, take care of the poor. We know what we need to do about the poor. But do we know what to do with Jesus? There’s the rub. How do we deal with Jesus?
What are we to do about Jesus? Poverty and extravagance, two realities. What are we who claim to follow Jesus to do about poverty and extravagance?Injustice and extravagance? War and extravagance? Resistance and extravagance?Justice seeking and peace making and extravagance?
Well, I can tell you what were not supposed to do. We are not supposed to deal with the poor as if we don’t have enough to help the poor. All too often, we act as if we are poor ourselves, as if we can’t afford to help. We are among the wealthiest people on the planet and still we worry about whether or not we can afford to help the poor. We earn more than our ancestors could ever dream of earning, we have more than our forebears ever had, and still we want to pay less tax, and spend less money for the common good. We live as if we scarcely have enough to get by let alone to help a neighbour or to follow Jesus into the streets to feed the hungry, and to heal the sick. We have all been trained to worry and to be conservative, and to act like tomorrow it will all be taken from us. It is not in us to be extravagant. And yet, just look at the extravagance in Creation. Every single time I see a flower, I’m blown away by Creation’s extravagance, just one variety of flower would have been amazing, half a dozen varieties of flowers would have been wondrous, but the sheer number of varieties and colours is positively extravagant.
We are surrounded by such beautiful pungent extravagant examples of the wealth of nature. Yes, we are called to be good stewards of all our many blessings. But we are also called to breathe deeply and feel the soothing healing balm which our blessings are. Yes, the poor will always be with us. But we know what we are supposed to do about the poor. So, let’s take care of the poor. We have more than enough to take care of everyone’s needs. We can well afford to welcome the refugees.
We also have more than enough to breathe deeply of our blessings and be extravagant. Extravagant with the poor and extravagant with all those, who like Jesus won’t always be with us. Life is not only precious. Life is short.
I remember a potluck picnic on the beach. It was after a long protest march, for a cause I have long since forgotten. Anna and I were sitting on a log, staring out at the sun which was just beginning to set. We had just finished an extravagant meal, people were milling around sipping wine and strategizing about how to achieve justice for whoever or whatever cause urgently needed our attention next. Anna leaned over to me as she pointed to the others, “They think I don’t know what they say about me”
I didn’t have the courage to respond. Anna stood up, smiled down at me, untied her long grey hair, and proceed to take off her clothes. Standing there, stark naked, Anna the wise old hippie, shook her head. “Remember” she said to me, and to me alone, “life is too short to worry about what people think of you! I may just be Coco to them. But I am also Anna bathed in the scent of a woman who understands what it means to be alive. So, Coco I am, and Coco I shall be!”
Anna began to twirl around and around, a kind of dance which she accompanied with a beautiful litany of thanksgiving for: “the beauty of the sun, the majesty of the ocean, the sweet smell of salt in the air, the gentle breezes kissing our skin, the shortness of our life, the splendor of wisdom, and the freedom to enjoy it all!”
Anna’s twirling stopped and she leaned down, kissed my cheek, and gently said, “Enjoy it all. Enjoy it all. Life is very short. Remember, we don’t have much time and that’s as good a reason as any to enjoy it all!” Then she straightened up, offered her naked breasts to the gentle breezes, and shouted to the others: “This Coco is going for a swim. Who’s with me?” With that, Coco turned toward the setting sun and led us all into the embrace of Creation.
Enjoy it all. Enjoy it all. Life is very short. We don’t have much time and that’s as good a reason as any to enjoy it all! All the extravagant blessings showered upon us! Enjoy! Then be about the work of justice-seeking and peace-making. Then give as extravagantly as you have been given. Enjoy!
The images of the horrific war in Ukraine together with the prescribed readings for this second Sunday in LENT have me thinking about tribalism. My first temptation was to ignore the first reading from Genesis. I was not planning to include it in our worship because we have all born witness to far too much bloodshed as our sisters and brothers of Ukraine are relentlessly attacked, killed, and wounded by our sisters and brothers of Russia. This week, I have heard the word unimaginable uttered by pundits and friends alike and each time it is expressed I want to scream, “this bloodshed is all too imaginable! Indeed, this bloodshed is part of the foundational imaginings of our very own tribes. We need not look farther than the Book of Genesis to soak ourselves in our own bloodthirsty imaginings!”
The story which will be read in worship services of most mainline Christian church this very Sunday is a foundational myth about the patriarch of the world’s three powerful religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Our foundational myth from the 15th chapter of the Book of Genesis, goes like this: the word of YAHWEH came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram! I AM your shield; I will make your reward very great.” Abram said, “But my Sovereign, My God, what good are these blessings to me, so long as Sarai and I will die in disgrace? My only heir is a foreigner who lives in my household, Eliezer of Damascus. Since you have given me no offspring,” Abram continued, “An attendant in my house will be my heir.” Then the word of YAHWEH came to Abram and said, “This person will not be your heir. Your heir will be of your own flesh and blood.” Then God took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can! As many as that, you will have for descendants.” Abram believed YAHWEH and God accounted it to Abram as righteousness. YAHWEH the said to Abram, “I AM YAHWEH who brought you from UR of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession.” Abram asked, “Sovereign God, how am I to know that I will possess it?” God answered Abram, Bring me a heifer, a goat, and a ram, each three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”Abram brought all of these, cut them in half, and place each half opposite the other—except the birds, which he did not cut up. Birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. As the sun was about to set, a trance fell over Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him. When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking brazier and a flaming torch appeared, which passed between the halves of the sacrifices. On that day YAHWEH made this covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates: the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadomonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephaim, the Aorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18)
Here ends the reading. This is not the Gospel. Not because it is the first reading. But because it is not good news for anyone at all. There’s something about those bloodied, split, rotting carcasses which sealed the deal between God and Abraham that makes me wonder about the nature of the god we have projected into the heavens and ask: “Have we evolved at all?”
This foundational myth portrays the MYSTERY which we call “GOD” as a god who promises to “His” “Chosen People” a deal which reduces this god to little more than a churlish player in humanity’s game of tribal rivalry. I am aware that in the evolution of humanity tribalism has often served us well. I would even go so far as to agree that tribalism continues to serve us well.
New people to meet can be exciting or it can be frightening. Taking comfort with your own people is wonderful. But taking too much pride in your own kind is dangerous. One minute you’re cheering for your team the next minute you’re hurling insults at the other guy and one too many insults and the next thing you know you’re at war. A little tribalism is a good thing, but how much tribalism is too much? Tribalism is a basic human survival instinct. Tribalism is lodged deep within our psyches. It has been from the very beginning of time. Tribalism is part of our primordial selves. Tapping into this basic human instinct can mean the difference between survival and death. Tribal thinking exists on almost every level of human life, from the international to the local, from the congregation to the denomination, from the denomination to the religion. Attack a human on any level and that human will resort to instinctive behaviour. When threatened humans have two basic instincts, fight or flight and the choice between the two often comes down to tribalism. If you have enough people to back you, you’ll probably choose to fight. Not enough people and you’ll probably choose flight.
Humankind has evolved a great deal over the centuries, but we haven’t evolved very far from our basic instincts. You don’t have to scratch a fan too deeply to find the primitive tribal mentality. Tribalism is seen in the way we portray our rivals. Sporting competition is all well and good, but when tribalism is carried to its worst possible conclusion, wars beak out. Tribal feeling is then exacerbated in times of war, and tribal propaganda is used to dehumanize our enemies to make it easier to hate or to kill without any qualms of conscience. We don’t kill human beings in war; our victims are not someone’s child, spouse, or parent. No one kills either, the Huns, the Krauts, the Japs, the Nips, the VC, the insurgents, the fanatics, the fascists, or the terrorists. Of late, we have begun to hear our Russian sisters and brothers described as monsters.
There is within us all a basic, dominant, intrinsic fear of those tribes different from our own, a predisposition to be on guard against them, to reject them, to attack and even to kill them. This tribal tradition arises out of our deep-seated survival mentality, and it feeds something at the heart of our insecure humanity. We are tribal people to our core.
Far more than we will consciously admit, the religions of the world including Christianity rise out of and sustain our tribal thinking.Religions are all too often, very deep expressions of a tribal mentality which worships a tribal god. Our foundational myth, is the story of Abram a wandering Aramaean, who is about to become the father of many nations.
Abram has a vision; a vision in which his god promises to give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky if Abram only promises to worship YAHWEH as his only god. To seal the promise YAHWEH enacts an ancient tribal custom, common in Mesopotamia. Centuries ago, in the days of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, custom dictated the appropriate manner in which a bargain was to be sealed. When two parties entered into an agreement, a covenant, they would take a bunch of good-sized animals, slaughter them, sever them into halves, clear a path between the pieces, and require that each partner to the agreement walk between them as a sort of self-curse. Kind of like: “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” By passing through the severed bodies of the animals, each partner says, in effect, “May the same thing happen to me if I do not keep my word.”
The whole thing sounds so very barbaric to our modern ears. But this story is part of the foundation of the narrative which begins the narrative of YAHWEH’s covenant with the self-described “chosen people.” The last two verses of this story are not usually read in church. The crafters of our lectionary leave them out; perhaps because they are so very offensive. But I would argue that we must include them because it is important for us to remember that tribalism permeates our foundation myths.
“When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking brazier and a flaming torch appeared, which passed between the halves of the sacrifices. On that day YAHWEH made this covenant with Abram: To your descendants I give this land, from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates: the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanite, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”
The Promised Land, the land which this image of the DIVINE promised to the chosen people was not some vacant lot somewhere, waiting for inhabitants to come and enjoy the bounty of milk and honey which flowed there. The Promised Land was inhabited by many tribes; tribes who worshipped other gods. And there have been wars and rumours of wars in the Promised Land from that day to this. The image of YAHWEH painted by this story is not a particularly glorious one if you are anything other than the Chosen People. The Kenizzites the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephiam, the Amorites, the Canaanite, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites, rue the day YAHWEH chose the descendants of Abram over them.
This image of a tribal god is offensive to our modern ears. We much prefer the more evolved image of God which Jesus paints in the gospel text for this Sunday. “Jerusalem, O, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird collects her babies under her wings—yet you refuse me! “ (Luke 13:13-35)
This MOTHER-HEN-GOD is a far cry from the YAHWEH of Genesis. Sadly, this MOTHER-HEN-GOD is rarely imagined, let alone embodied by Christianity. Except perhaps when Christians, resort to a kind of “my tribe is better than your tribe” kind of one-upmanship which points to Jesus’ portrayal of the ABBA as a kinder gentler version of Judaism’s violent GOD. Forgetting all the while that Jesus is, was, and ever more shall be Jewish. Not to mention the fact that this Jewish Jesus is hailed by the vast majority of Christians to be the blood sacrifice sent to appease their very own image of the DIVINITY, as a scapegoating, Father willing to send his own beloved son to be murdered. Not to mention the part about this particular tribal image of the DIVINE goes on to insist that every tribe must believe in their version of events, or their very own Father God will toss them into the fires of Hell where they will be burn in torment for all eternity. This all out rejection of the MOTHER-HEN-GOD must be maintained at all costs in order to ensure obedience to the tribal hierarchy, the domination system which so many churches embody.
Don’t. I know that right about now, you are tempted to point to some other tribe of Christians and condemn them. Those ones not us are the churches which cling to primitive theologies while absolving your very own tribe’s theology of any error. The temptation to see only the best in ourselves while condemning the worst in others is in and of itself indicative of a kind of tribal mentality which does not serve humanity well.Tribalism may well have been an asset in the human struggle to survive during our early evolutionary development. But there is a primitive dark side of tribalism which feeds on our fear and stunts our evolution. Unless these destructive aspects of tribalism are transcended, a deeper more compassionate, peaceful, humanity cannot be realized. We cannot transcend what we fail to recognize.
At this moment in our collective history, it is possible to recognize the role of tribalism in the war Russia is inflicting upon the people of Ukraine. Even as Putin insists that Kiev is the birthplace of Russia, he can also insist that Russia acts with impunity because the Ukrainians have deviated from his own Russian tribal narrative which sees Ukraine moving toward western notions of democracy. This threat to Putin’s tribal insistence upon compliance is further acerbated by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s perceived defiance of the Russian Orthodox Church’s claim of authority.
Religious, political, economic, ethnic, cultural, and military expressions of one tribe verses the religious, political, economic, ethnic, cultural, and military expressions of another tribe propel the whole world toward the possibility of the kind of violence which is propagated on the threat of mutual inhalation. As our worst fears escalate our desire for peace, we in the West are quick to recognize an affinity with the religious, political, economic, ethnic, and cultural expressions of the Ukrainian people. So, we quickly mobilize everything we deem to be safe for us to mobilize in order to offer comfort and support to Ukraine, while never once recognizing the ways in which our own tribal instincts have been aroused.
While I’d like to believe that we, you know our tribe, we Westerners, especially we Western Christians, and most especially we progressive christians, we have risen above our tribal instincts. But then I remember the reality of the plight of the woman of Afghanistan which has slipped from our radar, and it causes me to tremble. My trembling increases when I realize my very own failure to express any tangible aid or comfort to the starving millions, who face even more dire consequences as the result of this war.
What is it about those tribes which fails to compel me to weep in the way the fleeing Ukrainians can? I must confess that I am racist. I do not want to be racist. But I can find no other explanation to our current reality than the racism which inevitably flows out of tribalism. And so I tremble. Just like the words of that old American spiritual, which we sing every Good Friday. I tremble, because once again, over and over again, LOVE is crucified by tribalism.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that we should not be consumed by the plight of our Ukrainian sisters and brothers. We should celebrate the tribalism in us which evokes kinship and compassion. We should do everything in our power to provide aid and comfort to our Ukrainian sisters and brothers.
What I am saying is that we should also do everything in our power to provide aid and comfort to our Afghani, our African, our Syrian, our sisters and brothers in Myanmar, and yes everything we can to provide aid and comfort to our Russian sisters and brothers. I’m not there yet. I still hesitate at the thought of providing aid and comfort to the enemy. I have much to learn about what LOVE for our enemies looks like. But if humanity has any hope at all of becoming all that we are created to be, we must learn that it is not either this tribe or the other tribe.
Escaping our destructive tribal mentalities and the inherent racism which flows from tribalism is not an either-or equation. Being LOVE in the world calls us into a both-and equation as we struggle to LOVE our enemies in ways which benefit this tribe as well as that tribe. Transcending the destructive racism which flows from tribalism cannot begin until we confront the racism which we do not want to see in ourselves.Once recognized we can begin to transform our behaviours and be about the task of being LOVE in the world.
The three world religions which look to Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar as the founders of our faith, bear a special responsibility to transcend our tribalism; for Judaism, Christianity, and Islamic religions undergird the very tribalisms which rely on the acquiesce of our religious institutions. Our primitive images of the CREATOR continue pose an imminent danger to our planet as tribes and nations parade around the world proclaiming with their lives that our god is bigger than your god. Sadly, our collective images of the MYSTERY we call GOD have failed to represent the CREATOR of all we hold dear in ways which foster peace. Recognition of our failures is the only way we can begin to transcend the destructive aspects of our various tribal practices. Each of us must begin where we are, in our own tribe, embodying what our tribal allegiances proclaim: that the CREATOR of all that is and ever shall be, the MYSTERY we call GOD, according to the revelations we hold dear, is BEAUTY, JUSTICE, and LOVE.
So, if you feel a particular kinship affinity for the people of Ukraine, you must embody the BEAUTY, JUSTICE, and LOVE which has been revealed to you in the life, teachings, and death of Jesus by doing whatever you can to provide aid and comfort to the people of Ukraine. Celebrate the aspects of tribalism which contributes to our evolution as humans, the tribalism which allures us into UNITY. Empathize with the victims of this war and then do something, anything, and everything you can, for we are richly blessed. As our Jewish sisters and brothers believe, teach, and embody, we are blessed to be a blessing.
As you embody LOVE for those who have evoked this strong tribal affinity in you, challenge yourself. Ask yourself, why these and not those. Recognize the destructive aspects of tribalism which motivate you.Challenge yourself to see and then transcend the racism which flows out of our tribalism. I’m learning that the only thing worse than a racist is a person who fails or refuses to see the racism which lives in them. The destructive aspects of tribalism which foster racism in us do not serve humanity. They only serve our fear while creating even more indifference and violence.
We who are privileged to live in safety must challenge ourselves to transcend the racism which motivates both our indifference and our compassion by challenging ourselves to also provide aid and comfort to a tribe we feel no affinity for. We must empathize with the victims of war, all wars, and then we must do something, anything, everything we are able for them, those others, the ones we feel little or no affinity for. For we are richly blessed and as our Islamic sisters and brothers proclaim with their almsgiving, charity is pleasing to the DIVINE, for the DIVINE is charitable. Charity comes from the word which means LOVE.
LOVE is of the DIVINE, so be LOVE, for you are made of the DIVINE. You don’t have to do it all, but you do have to do something. We are called to be LOVE in the world, LOVE to the members of every tribe, every nation, clan, and people. We are blessed to evolve into the embodiment of the MOTHER-HEN-GOD embracing, enfolding, tut tutting, cluck clucking, as we gather together the of the children of the DIVINE to provide aid and comfort to every tribe and nation.
So, you LOVEly chickadees, grow a pair. Wings that is. The HOLY Wings which will embrace every tribe and nation in LOVE. Be that LOVE in the world.
View the full Worship Service for the Second Sunday in Lent below
In the wilderness of these days, I find myself tempted to retreat from the world around me. The pandemic has trained me too well in the arts of isolation. Hunkering down in the safety of my home, venturing out into the world only when it is absolutely necessary, is a skill we have learned all too well. These past two years, so many of us have been privileged enough to enroll in a sort of master class in avoidance. Home-schooling in the protection afforded to us by accident of our birth. Even when we do venture out into the world we are protected by masks, vaccines, and the sure and certain knowledge that if the worst happens there will be doctors, nurses, medicines, and medical systems to restore us to our splendid isolation. A few weeks ago, we were filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation about lifting of the restrictions which have for the most part protected us from this virus. Then as if we needed reminding, angry truckers, together with some other really, really, angry people choose to vent their collective anger for all the world to see. Hootin and a hollering for weeks on end, not even the frigid cold of our nation’s capital could disperse them from the media which only seemed to feed their anger and inspire our weary citizenry to shrug in a collective sort of “meeeh,” as we did little more than will them to go home. And then, in typical Canadian style, we moaned only a little when our liberties were suspended as collective police forces joined together to shoo the angry people from the streets so that so that the rest of us could, as we are wont to say, “Have a nice day.” We thought, at last, we can get back to the business of returning to normal life. Spring became the object of our longing, as we anticipated our return to the way things used to be. And then, as if on que, the drums began to beat. Louder and louder the drumbeat of war reverberated strongly enough to disturb our foray back into the world.
As news of a madman’s quest for more invaded our splendid isolation, we began frantically doomscrolling. A habit we have picked up during the worst of the pandemic, when we scrolled and surfed our way through the endless bad news of infections and death. Consumed by this wilderness of war’s ability to excite while eroding our mental health, the temptation to fast from the news rises in me, threatening to send me scurrying into a retreat from life in the world. The bombs continue to explode. Women and children are fleeing for their lives while partners, fathers and sons are called up to resist. Buildings shatter. Children die. World leaders stumble and mumble their way across our screens offering little hope and even less wisdom. Nobody knows what to do, except hunker down for a long, protracted war.
It took the arrival of Ash Wednesday, with its annual reminder of our mortality, to move me beyond my longing for life to return to normal with the realization that life has never been normal. Human life is always lived in the shadow of death. So, tempted as I am to retreat into the all too familiar comfort of splendid isolation to fast from life in the world, the knowledge that I am dust and to dust I shall return confirms in me that, as WAR rages, this LENT is NOT the time for fasting! Life is far too precious to be squandered by giving into the temptation to retreat from life.
There is a hibiscus in my kitchen bursting forth into bloom, reminding me that spring will come. Spring will come even to Ukraine. For now, we must bear witness in this wartime wilderness to the reality that spring will come. So, it is fitting that on this First Sunday of Lent, the gospel which is offered to us is the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as Luke’s version of Jesus sojourn in the wilderness. As always, the gospel is found beyond the words on the page, for the story is a metaphor – meta meaning beyond and phor meaning words. This story of Jesus sojourn in the wilderness, where he encounters his own temptations, is a metaphor, in which the gospel, the good news is revealed beyond the words.
“Jesus returned from the Jordan filled with the HOLY SPIRIT, and she led him into the desert for forty days, where he was tempted by the devil. Jesus ate nothing during that time, at the end of which he was famished. The devil said to Jesus, “If you are GOD’s OWN, command this stone to turn into bread.”
Jesus answered, “Scripture has it, “We don’t live on bread alone.’”
Then the devil took Jesus up higher and showed him all the nations of the world in a single instant.
The devil said, “I’ll give you all the power and the glory of these nations; the power has be given to me and I can give it to whomever I wish. Prostrate yourself in homage before me, and it will all be yours.”
In reply, Jesus said, “Scripture has it: ‘You will worship the MOST HIGH GOD; GOD alone will you adore.’”
Then the devil led Jesus to Jerusalem, set him up on the parapet of the Temple and said, “If you are GOD’s OWN, throw yourself down from here, for scripture has it, ‘GOD will tell the angels to take care of you; with their hands they’ll support you, that you may never stumble on a stone.’”
Jesus said to the devil in reply, “It also says, ‘Do not put GOD to the test.’”
When the devil had finished all this tempting, Jesus was left alone. The devil awaited another opportunity. Luke 4:1-13
This is the Gospel we are given with which to contend with our wilderness on this the first Sunday in Lent, the eleventh day of war in Europe.I am tempted to see the personification of evil in this story, not as the devil, but as Putin. Even though I know that the Devil, or Satan, they are mere personifications of the evil which lives with in me, within all of us. I long to point to those who are inflicting war on our sisters and brothers in Ukraine and to point to their actions as satanic, so that I don’t have to contend with the evil which lives in me. The evil which inspires me to return violence with violence.
Lately, I have come to understand evil not as some external force, but rather as the product of my own innate instinct for survival; an instinct which has served our species well in the process of evolution. When I reflect upon the teachings of Jesus, I can see his revolutionary understanding that our instinct for survival has taken us about as far is it can. Jesus understood that violence begets even more violence. Even though he himself was tempted by his own demons to given in to his baser instincts in order to acquire riches, power, and glory, Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness revealed to him that such sacrilege was not the way to achieve what he understood to be the basilea ton theon, the kin-dom of DIVINITY, the Realm of the DIVINE, the place where justice and not violence is the means to achieve peace. Tempted to sacrilege. Now, by sacrilege I mean sacrilege as it is defined by John Philip Newell, “to try to take possession of the sacred to us it for one’s own ends rather than to reverence the sacred.”Our temptation to sacrilege is an evil which will fail to bring in the basilea ton theon, the Realm of the DIVINE, where justice is the way to peace. Our evolution is contingent upon our ability to co-operate, to come together for the good of the whole. Without cooperation our species cannot survive. The kin-dom of DIVINITY will only be ushered in when we resist our desire to possess the sacred for ourselves and learn to reverence the sacred, which is a fancy way of saying that justice for all is the only way to peace.
I confess that the sacrilege upon sacrilege which is being heaped upon the people of Ukraine tempts me to despair. I despair for the lives being wasted. I despair for the unnecessary suffering. I despair that this violence will lead to a massive escalation of violence. And when I finish despairing for others, I despair for myself. For what can I possibility do to resist this violence? How can I possibly enjoy the easing of pandemic restrictions when my sisters and brothers are facing such peril? How can I even entertain the joys of Spring when children are suffering so? How can I begin to taste the feast that life is, when so many lives are being lost? My despair tempts me to retreat from the world, return to my splendid isolation, pull the covers over my head and just weep. It is all I can do to remember that human life is always lived in the shadow of death. From dust we can and to dust we shall return.
In that dusty desert all those centuries ago, I wonder if Jesus’ was tempted to despair. Then I remember what Jesus did when he confronted his own demons. Jesus resisted the temptation to take what was sacred, his one beautiful life and use it for himself. Jesus resisted the temptation to sacrilege and reverenced his life by living. Living a life of resistance during the first century, under the oppressive violence of the Roman Empire was not easy. The challenges of ushering in the basilea ton theon, the Ki-ndom of DIVINITY, the life of embodying justice by being LOVE in the world, by resisting violence and reverencing life, these are the challenges of evolving into the peace we long for. Co-operation, coming together for the sake of the whole has never been easy and I suspect that in our lifetimes it may become even more difficult. But if peace truly is what we long for, there is no way to peace except the kind of justice which fosters co-operation among, people, tribes, and nations. It is a daunting task. A task that no single one of us can achieve. That’s the point. There is work which needs doing and we are the only ones who can do it and we can only do it together.
Peace is our life’s work! As WAR rages, this LENT is NOT the time for fasting! We must feast on LIFE! We have been hunkering down long enough. Spring is coming. We must leave the isolation of our despair. We must feast on life! Here and now, in this moment in time, we are called to spring forth into the fullness of life. Remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. In the meantime, there is LIFE to be LIVED. Each and every glorious day living moment by moment, not spiraling off into despair for our future. Living in this moment, this is our daily bread. We cannot hide away from the world any more than Jesus could hide away in the desert. We must bear witness to this war and to the suffering of our world. But we must not give in to despair’s temptations. This is no time to fast from LIFE. This is the time to resist the temptations of the evil which exists in us and in our neighbours. We must resist, each one of us must do what we can, whenever we can, as often as we can, in all the ways we are able. We can begin by resisting the temptation to hide from what is happening in the world. We need to strike a balance between doomscrolling and bearing witness to our neighbours suffering. This is the least that we can do. But there is more, so much more that we can do. We can embody the LOVE which is DIVINITY by living fully, LOVing extravagantly, and being all that we were created to be.
I remember years ago, when I was first learning about Lent, our pastor encouraged us to, “Fast, Pray, Give.” Fast Pray Give! So, if you must fast, fast from despair. If you pray, pray with your whole self, roll up your sleeves and let your actions be your prayer. And for the sake of our world LIVE. LIVE fully, LOVing extravagantly, being all that you were created to be. Life has never been normal. We always have and we always will live our lives in the shadow of death. This makes LIFE all lives SACRED, and we reverence our lives by embodying LOVE with all of who we are. This means living each and every precious moment which is offered as pure gift to us, for this is our daily bread, given to nourish us for the work, the challenges, the joys and the sorrows of being LOVE in the world.
Spring is about to burst forth in all its glory, here and in Ukraine. Let us reverence the sacredness of our Ukrainian sisters’ and brothers’ suffering by bearing witness, and resisting sacrilege wherever, however, and whenever we can. It will not be easy to follow Jesus to our Jerusalem. Living fully is never easy. But along the way even Jesus feasted, rejoiced, as he lived fully. I have no idea what springtime looked like in first-century Palestine. But I am absolutely convinced that Jesus would have embraced the beauty of the lilies of the field as they burst forth in splendour. Just as surely as I am convinced that we must not fast from the splendour of this one beautiful life with which each of us is blessed with.
Now more than ever we must feast, pray, and give. Feast on life, Pray with your lives, and Give extravagantly. As war rages, do not fast from life. Now is the time to resist our temptation to despair. Now is the time to Spring Forth into our one blessed, glorious, gift of LIFE, as we do what we can, when we can, however we can, as often as we can, let us do the things which make for peace in our world. Spring Forth to embrace the beauty of the lilies of the field, or the splendour of a blooming hibiscus as it springs forth to remind us to: Live fully, LOVE extravagantly. And be all that we were created to be. Let it be so among us. Let it be so. Amen.
Snow is gently falling outside my window. I can just make out the Sun’s glow through the clouds. It is beautiful. Quieting. Silent. Every now and again a gust of wind sweeps up the fallen snow into a whirlwind reminding me that this morning’s weather forecast warns that in addition to the snow squalls blowing in off the lake, we can expect wind gusts approaching 70 to 80 km per hour. With this winter storm in mind, I can’t help thinking about the goings on farther to the north, in our nation’s capital. When I turn my attention from my front window to my television set, I can see the winds fiercely blowing in Ottawa, as police and protestors alike stomp their feet in that familiar dance designed to keep the blood flowing in the numbness of this cold of winter. For three long weeks, we have watched as a few frustrated, misinformed, angry truckers together with some others who have found community with them, as they occupy a city and render those we have entrusted with the job of maintaining social norms impotent.
If I look beyond the blockade of trucks, I can make out our parliament buildings and remember summer walks and smiling faces as strangers together took delight in the solid structure in which we gladly and yes often cynically place our trust. Suddenly the roar of the wind commands my attention and outside my window all is whiteness. I can’t see through the swirling snow, as the whiteout robs me of any desire to venture outside. I can just make out the impression of a young maple tree standing firm, as the gusts of wind blow so much snow into the air, that I fear the tree might snap or be torn from its roots.
I hear the news announcer as she shifts her focus from Ottawa to Kiev to warn that war seems inevitable. Footage of Russian troops positioned along Ukraine’s boarder followed by the American Vice-President Kamala Harris addressing leaders from around the world who have gathered in Munich, to respond to threats from Russia with threats of economic sanctions and military reinforcements designed to deter with strength and all the might the world cares to muster any incursion into Ukraine. In the cut-out screen below, there’s a view of Ottawa where lines of police are methodically pushing the protestors back, ever so slowly.
I turn off the set and return my focus to my task, a sermon which proclaims good news extracted from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain as it is written by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as Luke. Before we even get to the Gospel assigned for this Sunday, Jesus gives us the beatitudes: “You who are poor are blessed, for the reign of God is yours. You who hunger now are blessed, for you will be filled. You who weep now are blessed, for you will laugh. You are blessed when people hate you, when they scorn and insult you and spurn your name as evil because of the Chosen One. On the day they do so, rejoice and be glad: your reward will be great in heaven, for their ancestors treated the prophets the same way. But woe to you rich, for you are now receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are full, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will weep in your grief. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in the same way.” (Luke 6:17-26)
I can still hear the winds howling outside. And there’s a churning now inside of me as the woes of the world outside will not subside. I want to scream at Jesus: Is that all you’ve got blessings and woes? The memory of an angry Canadian, “Christian nationalist” screaming on behalf of the so-called “Freedom Convey” stifles my own scream. I remember reading about her ranting and raving, as she echoed words she must have learned from those pro-Trump rallies after the 2020 US election. They sounded so familiar. She threatened to blow her truck horn till the walls come tumbling down, promising a daily “Jericho march” around Parliament Hill. Out of my own righteous indignation, I disown that woman. I disown the woman, as a christian, and as a Canadian. With every fiber of my being, I disavow her as my sister. I can hardly bring myself to read the Gospel assigned for this Sunday because I know exactly how it begins and Jesus’ words don’t feel like Good News right now, at this particular moment.
Jesus said: “To you who hear me, I say: love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. When they slap you on one cheek, turn and give them the other; when they take your coat, let them have your shirt as well. Give to all who beg from you. When someone takes what is yours, don’t demand it back. Do to others what you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. If you do good only to those who do good to you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ do as much. If you lend to those you expect to repay you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to other ‘sinners’ expecting to be repaid in full. Love your enemies and do good to them. Lend without expecting repayment, and your reward will be great. You will rightly be called children of the Most Holy, since God is good even to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate, as your loving God is compassionate. Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Do not condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you: a full measure—packed down, shaken together and running over—will be poured into your lap. For the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.” (Luke 6:27-38)
Earlier this week, I had highlighted one verse and written in the margins, “the Gospel in a nutshell.” That verse reads: “Be compassionate, as your loving God is compassionate.” I can feel myself resisting. I don’t want to be compassionate. I do want peace. But I want peace without having to love my enemies. Just clear out the streets of Ottawa and restore order. Threaten Putin with whatever it takes so we don’t have to go to war. But please don’t ask me to LOVE my enemies or be compassionate as my LOVing GOD is compassionate, for I have no idea what compassion looks like in the face of the overwhelming woes of our world. I do know what woe’s look like, and woe betide those who disturb our peace.
There’s another note in the margins, right under the one which reads, “the Gospel in a nutshell,” is the phrase “womb-like”. Womb-like is a very literal translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic words which are translated as “compassionate.” Marcus Borg reminded us that to be compassionate is to be womb-like, to be like a womb.“GOD is like a womb, Jesus says, therefore, you be womb-like.” Borg asks, “What does it mean to be womb-like? and then he answers, “It means to be life-giving, nourishing. It means to feel what a mother feels for the children of her womb: tenderness, willing their well-being, finding her children precious and beautiful. It can also mean a fierceness, for a mother can be fierce when she sees the children of her womb being threatened or treated destructively. Compassion is not just a soft, woozy virtue. It can have passion and fierceness to it as well.”
Borg’s compelling description convicts me. I suspect it may also convict you as well. I wonder what our lives would be like if we who claim to follow Jesus’ Way felt compassion for those we disagree with, for those who make us angry, for our enemies, for all those who disturb our peace. What if we felt the kind of compassion which embodies our WOMB-LIKE GOD’s desire for their wellbeing? Marcus Borg’s words go a long way to reminding me of my own tribal tendencies to settle for the kind of peace which benefits my people. If I am to participate in the evolution of humanity, I must learn not to seek or to settle for this pale imitation of peace. Peace without compassion is no peace at all. Compassionate peace provides the space for all of us to learn to grow into womb-like LOVers of our enemies. In Jesus, we see a life which is the incarnation of this SACRED WOMB-LIKE LOVE.
Jesus understood that peace is achieved by seeking justice, not just for those of our own tribe, but justice for all. Justice is the social dynamic of LOVE. Justice for all tribes, all nations, all races, all genders, justice for those on the left and justice for those on the right.Justice-seeking, peace-making is a Way of being in the world which has the power to transform enemies into LOVers. It is not for the faint of heart, but for the fierce. Not ferocity, which is born of self-interest, but the ferocity born of LOVE, of compassion. The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis defines fierce love this way: “Sometimes love gets a bad rap for being tepid and squishy and co-dependent. Fierce love is the kind of love that acknowledges that we’re inextricably connected to each other. It’s the kind of love that made people wade into the water during Katrina and risk their own bodies to save other people’s lives. It is the kind of love that made a man run into the fire on 9/11 knowing he might not come out.” “I believe” says Jacqui, “ I believe fierce love is hardwired into our DNA. If we can remember it, I think we can heal the world.”Jacqui Lewis understands this fierce LOVE as the kind of motivation which compels us to seek justice for everyone.
Sometimes, when the storms outside are raging, I retreat into the safety which I have built around me, my home, my loved ones, my people, and I content myself with counting my blessings. For I am richly blessed. This brings me to the third note which appears in the margins of my copy of Jesus’ sermon on the plain. The note appears beside Jesus’ blessings and woes. It reads, “not passive”. It comes from the wisdom of theologian Megan McKenna whose exploration of the word “Blessed” disturbs my complacent peace. McKenna points out that “Blessed” is the translation of the word makarioi, used in the Greek New Testament. When we look further back to Jesus’ Aramaic, we find that the original word was ashray. Ashray does not have a passive quality to it at all.Instead, Ashray means “to set yourself on the right way for the right goal; to turn around, to repent.”
McKenna goes on to translate the Aramaic into an interpretation of the beatitudes like no other I have ever heard: From the Aramaic Jesus says, “Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for you shall be satisfied. Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you peacemakers, for you shall be called children of God.” To McKenna this reflects Jesus’ words and teachings much more accurately. She hears Jesus saying: “Get your hands dirty to build a human society for human beings; otherwise, others will torture and murder the poor, the voiceless, and the powerless.” Christianity is not passive but active, energetic, alive, going beyond despair. ‘Get up, go ahead, do something, move,’ Jesus said to his disciples.”
So while the wind blows outside, we can warm ourselves in the safety we have built around us. In the womb-like environments of our homes we can take time to reflect upon our many blessings. But woe to us if we fail to reflect upon those who are being blown about and ravaged by the storms. For they are our sisters and brothers, children of the ONE WOMB in which we live, and move, and have our being. They too are our sisters and brothers, our people, our kin. What pain, what alienation, what frustrations, drives them out to do battle. Can we hear in their anger the source of their pain? Can we begin to see the contours of their wounds? Can we be compassionate as our LOVing GOD is compassionate? What will that compassion look like? Are we wise enough to seek more than the restoration of order? Are we only interested in selfishly settling for a return to the status quo? Do we have the courage to confront our sisters and brothers, our kin, with the fierce LOVE of someone who seeks not to win the battle but as someone who seeks peace, the kind of peace which recognizes the woes of our sisters and brothers and compassionately works to reconcile with our kin by seeking justice? “Get up, go ahead, do something, move.” Jesus said to his disciples. “Be compassionate, as your LOVing GOD is compassionate.”
It is cold out there. The wind is still howling, and that poor little tree out looks like it might just snap. Our kinfolk are suffering, they are alienated, misinformed, and angry. But just as surely as I know that beneath the snow, spring lies waiting to be born, I also know that our suffering kinfolk will not heal without us doing something, without us being compassionate.
May the fierce LOVE of the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being, generate warmth in each of us so that the COMPASSIONATE WISDOM which lived and breathed in Jesus, can live in us as the SPIRIT inspires us to venture out into the world, as justice seeking peace makers. Let us not just huddle together to keep warm. Let us, “Get up, go ahead, do something, move,” Jesus said to his disciples.” Be compassionate, as our LOVing GOD is compassionate. LOVE with the kind of ferocity which acknowledges that we are all intricately connected to one another. For we are ONE, ONE with the LOVE which is DIVINITY, and ONE with the DIVINITY which lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us all. Thanks be to All that Is HOLY!
I can’t begin to tell you how often well-meaning and not so well-meaning “Christians” quote to me the 15thchapter of Paul’s first letter to the followers of Jesus’ Way in Corinth. I say quote to be polite, which is generally not the way these “Christians” impart these words of Scripture to me. Some will hurl the text at me in ways which communicate their anger, their disgust, and in some cases their hatred of me. While others deliver the words in boldface type punctuated with lots of exclamation points. So, when I was preparing for this worship service, I confess I was tempted to leave out the reading from 1st Corinthians 15 which is prescribed for this particular Sunday by the Revised Common Lectionary. But then I looked at the readings assigned for next Sunday and discovered that, yet another section of 1st Corinthians 15 is included. So, rather than side-step the subject of resurrection, I decided to include both readings today. Even though I know full well that by doing so, I will undoubtedly open myself up to the wrath of those who would have me confess and repent the error of my ways.
So, let me get to the point, so that those who like nothing better than to use the Bible to bludgeon anyone who dares to stray from their narrow understanding of the text, they can simply hit ALL CAPS in their keyboards, without having to read any further. Let me say it right up front: “Yes, I do deny the resurrection!” I deny the resurrection. Furthermore, I suspect that you do to.
In my sacred imagination, I can see the Apostle Paul smiling and nodding. You see Paul was skilled in the ancient art of rhetoric and would recognize my own rhetoric for what it is. Inflammatory rhetoric is a method of speaking designed to capture the attention of those upon whom it is inflicted. Listen for yourself to the skilled rhetorician Paul, who employs the tactic well in the reading assigned for this Sunday, by the powers behind the Church’s Revised Common Lectionary. Paul addresses the squabbling Followers of the Way in Corinth this way: “Tell me, if we proclaim that CHRIST was raised from the dead, how is it that some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead then not even CHRIST has been raised. And if CHRIST has not been raised, then all of our preaching has been meaningless—and everything you’ve believed has been just as meaningless. Indeed, we are shown to be false witnesses of God, for we solemnly swore that God raised Christ from the dead—which did not happen if in fact the dead are not raised. Because if the dead are not raised, then Christ is not raised, and if Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ are the deadest of the dead. If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiful of all the human race. But as it is, Christ has in fact been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Ah Paul, you sure know what you’re doing! Rile em up! Get their attention and then, deliver your point! Your rhetoric is sublime! I take my hat off to the master. Alas Paul, if you’d been there when the Church was cutting up your letters to be delivered in snippets on Sunday mornings, I can only imagine what you might have said, when they decided to cut you off in mid-stream. Why they decided to cut your off before you made your point, well that’s a sermon for another day. My point is Paul was just warming up. But if all you hear is, this reading, then surely, my denial of the resurrection numbers me among, as Paul would say, “the most pitiful of all the human race.”
So, let’s skip ahead to next weeks reading, when Paul makes his point. Listen carefully. You don’t want to miss Paul when he’s worked himself up to his point. Ready: “Perhaps some will ask, “How are the dead to be raised up? What kind of body will they have?” What a stupid question! The seed you sow does not germinate unless it dies. When you sow, you do not sow the full-blown plant but a kernel of wheat or some other grain. Then it is given the body designed for it—with each kind of seed getting its own kind of body. Not all flesh is the same. Human beings have one kind, animals have another, birds another, and fish another. Then there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. Heavenly bodies have a beauty of their own, and earthly bodies have a beauty of their own. The sun has one kind of brightness, the moon another, and the stars another. And star differs from star in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is a perishable body, what is raised is incorruptible. What is sown is ignoble, what is raised is glorious. Weakness is sown, strength is raised up. A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up. If there is a natural body, then there is also a spiritual body.”
There’s more, lots more, but let’s just stop and catch ou breath. “Perhaps someone will ask, “How are the dead to be raised up? What kind of body will they have?” What a stupid question!” My oh, my, oh my… In my sacred imagination, I can see Paul sitting up from his letter writing and nodding as if to say, “there that out to stop those endless arguments about the resuscitation of a corpse.”
Alas, the power of Paul’s rhetoric has waned over the centuries. The irony of having Paul’s rhetoric used as a bludgeon by those who insist on a physical resuscitation of Jesus corpse, well the irony is lost on most Bible thumping fundamentalists who have engaged me with their own brand of humourless rhetoric.
Let me attempt to be kinder than the Apostle, whose willingness to call his opponents “stupid”, I do not share. The Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the followers of Jesus’ Way in Corinth, about 20 years after Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. Scholars tell us that the letter was written between the years 53 and 57. That’s at least 20 years before the Gospel according to Mark, 30 to 40 years before the gospels according to Matthew and Luke and probably nearly 50 years before the Gospel according to John. The writings of the Apostle Paul contain the earliest writings that we have on the subject of the Resurrection. Paul’s understanding of resurrection was good enough for those early followers of Jesus’ way. Paul’s description of resurrection does not conflict with our 21st century inability to accept the suspension of the natural order of the Cosmos.
The Apostle Paul denies that Jesus’ resurrection was an actual physical resurrection. As a Pharisee, Paul believed in the resurrection of the dead and certainly he believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But as for our question about an actual physical body, Paul insists that this is simply a stupid question. For heaven’s sake, when you sow a seed into the ground and it bursts forth into new life, that new life doesn’t come in the form of a seed, it comes to life as a plant! Not all bodies are the same! The Apostle Paul did not need there to be an actual physical resuscitation of a corpse in order to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. To ask the question of whether the resurrection is true, and to mean by this that only a resurrected corpse constitutes such proof, is to impose the standards of the modern mind upon a pre-scientific culture of myth and magic.
The dualism of body and soul was a Greek idea, for the Jews there could be no resurrection without a resurrection of the body. After all, could one rise without a body to rise in? What we refer to as the soul was a foreign concept to first century Jews. So the question about the kind of body the risen Jesus had was, as Paul puts it, quite simply, stupid. “There are heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies.” Not all bodies are the same. The question of a physical body makes no sense to the ancients. Christ was alive to those early followers.
Paul insists that there are natural bodies, which he equates with earthly bodies what we would call physical bodies and there are spiritual bodies which Paul equates with heavenly bodies. According to Paul, the earthly body; the physical body must die in order for the heavenly or the spiritual body to be born. “A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up.” The spiritual resurrection which Paul describes gave birth to Christianity, within the Jewish context. It wasn’t until Christianity moved beyond Judaism that it came into direct conflict with the Greek understanding of reality, which insisted upon the dualism of body and soul. Faced with the task of communicating the gospel, the early followers of the risen Christ, began to articulate experiences of the risen Christ in ways that the Greek influenced Roman Empire could understand giving rise (pardon the pun), giving rise to the question of a physical resurrection.
At this point, we would do well to remember that CHRIST is not Jesus last name. Jesus existed within time whereas the CHRIST exists in and beyond time. Theologian Richard Rohr reminds us that “the CHRIST is the Christian code word for REALITY. Jesus reveals CHRIST. Resurrection is a statement of how reality works. Physics teaches us that nothing dies, everything is transformed. Jesus, the archetypal human, in which DIVINITY is embodied, confirms that human life, does not die, but is resurrected, transformed.
OK, if you’ve stuck with me this far, you are probably beginning to wonder how exactly you, or I deny the resurrection. You would be correct to conclude that I do believe in resurrection. I like the Apostle Paul, do not believe in the resuscitation of a corpse. So, how is it that I deny the resurrection. Well, I deny the resurrection in the very same way as I suspect you deny the resurrection. My friend and radical theologian Peter Rollin says it much better than I ever could. Pete said it this way, and I couldn’t agree with him more: “I deny the resurrection of CHRIST every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of CHRIST when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and the oppressed. Every time I do not serve my neighbour, every time I walk away from the poor. I deny the resurrection every time I participate in an unjust system. However,” Pete goes on, “there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm the resurrection when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, I affirm the resurrection when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, I affirm the resurrection, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed. I affirm the resurrection each and every time I look into your eyes and see the face of CHRIST.”
Pete’s words remind me over and over, and over again that Jesus lived and died embodying the CHRIST which is the DIVINE LOVE which rises in with through and beyond you and I, again, and again, and again.
Yes! I do deny the resurrection and I’m guessing that you do too! So, I’m trusting that it doesn’t much matter whether or not you or I or anyone believes or doesn’t believe in the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse. What a stupid argument. What matters is that LOVE rises. The LOVE which is the SACRED MYSTERY which is the LOVE that we call “GOD”.
By the way, there’s much more in Chapter 15 of Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus’ Way in Corinth. I proclaim these words from Paul’s conclusion to the chapter at every funeral I have ever presided over. When all the rhetoric is said, and done, I lean in close to the beloved ones who have gathered, and I proclaim the same truth which Paul proclaimed, and the science of REALITY confirms to us: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?””
Let us affirm the resurrection by living as Jesus lived, embodying the LOVE which IS the DIVINE MYSTERY. Let LOVE live in, us, through us, and beyond us, for now as always, LOVE lives, LOVE dies, and LOVE rises, again, and again, and again. Thanks be to ALL that is HOLY! Amen.
At Holy Cross, our Advent will take us a different path this year. We will not be locked down like last year, so in-person gatherings will be possible. Alleluia! We will also continue to offer pre-recorded videos online. Our path will see us travel not along the route usually mapped out by the Revised Common Lectionary but on a new route. A route provided by the work of the Hebrew Bible Scholar and Episcopal priest Wilda C. Gafney in her newly published “A WOMEN’S LECTIONARY FOR THE WHOLE CHURCH”. Our readings will be loosely based on Gafney’s suggestions and the translations of scripture will be hers. I have chosen themes which will function as signposts along our way. These weekly signposts will guide our exploration of the PARABLES of DIVINITY which have nourished generations of Advent travellers.
The other day, someone asked me, “Do you believe in miracles?” To which I quickly, without much thought, emphatically replied, “Of course I believe in miracles!” My questioner couldn’t have been satisfied with my answer, because he went on to insist that I couldn’t possibly believe in miracles because he had it on good authority that I didn’t believe that Jesus could raise people from the dead. After a long list of things my questioner, insisted that he had it on good authority that I didn’t believe in, my inquisitor concluded that as a progressive christian pastor, I couldn’t possibly believe in miracles. This mini-inquisition concluded when I assured my inquisitor that I do indeed believe in miracles, but perhaps not the same miracles as he believed in.
The particular miracle in question, is the miracle described in the gospel story assigned for this All Saints’ Sunday. My inquisitor was doing his best to get me to confess that Jesus of Nazareth possessed the super-natural ability to raise the dead. He seemed fixated on forcing me to recant any notion which I might have about the nature of reality. The proof of my doctrinal errors, were, in the not so humble opinion of my inquisitor to be found in the gospel story about the raising of Lazarus. “DO YOU OR DON’T YOU BELIEVE THAT JESUS RAISED LAZARUS FROM THE DEAD?” he shouted at me in all caps, as our email correspondence disintegrated into his failed attempt to have me take leave of my senses.Continue reading →
Metanoia is one of my favorite words in all of Scripture. Metanoia is also one of the first words out of Jesus’ mouth. In the very first chapter of the first gospel written sometime after the year 70, by the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we know as Mark, the story of Jesus begins with the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordon, followed by a brief allusion to Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness.
In all of this, the anonymous-gospel-storyteller’s Jesus remains silent, speaking not a word until the verse 15thverse of the first chapter, where we are told that John has been arrested and Jesus appeared in Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God. Listen to the first account of the first words out of Jesus’ mouth, when Jesus’ proclaimed: “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Metanoia, and believe this Good News!” That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Jesus’ first words, according to the first of the four anonymous gospel accounts. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth, “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Metanoia, and believe this Good News!”
After giving us this first proclamation of Jesus, the anonymous-gospel-storyteller immediately moves the story on by taking Jesus for a walk down by the Sea of Galilee in search of some fishers to whom Jesus speaks his next words, “Follow me!” and you know how the rest of the story goes.
Sadly, very few of us seem to pay much attention to the first words out of Jesus’ mouth. “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Metanoia, and believe this Good News!” Metanoia. Such a beautiful word. Such a monumental beginning. Metanoia if only we could hear the blessing Jesus offered humanity, with this wondrous commandment, metanoia. Sadly, this magnificent commandment metanoia has been abused over the centuries. Tragically, translators have for far too long, offered us a severely limited translation of metanoia; a translation which fails to capture the richness or the beauty of metanoia.
For far too long, far too many of us have been stuck in our ways, the very ways from which Jesus was trying to set people free. We have been stuck in our ways but the little, limiting, restrictive, incomplete, dare I say, ugly translation of the word metanoia. Repent. Repent, I say. Repent! Repent, look it up. Worse yet, Google it. Repent, let me quote Google for you, Repent means, “to feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin.” Google even uses it in a sentence: “the priest urged his listeners to repent.” Can it be that the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were: “feel or express sincere regret or remorse”? Well, I’m sure that there are all sorts of people who believe that we must repent if we want to follow Jesus. But as for me, I’m not buying it.
Did you ever notice how very often the little English word “repent” is followed by a dire warning designed to inspire fear? Repent or else something terrible is going to happen to you! The number of times the little word “repent” is used to inspire fear and trembling in the name of Jesus, makes me wonder why so many of Jesus’ would-be followers have forgotten Jesus’ instructions about fear itself. Why is it that so many Christians are so well versed in the Ten Commandments, or the Greatest Commandment but so very few of us are as well versed in the top commandment? By top commandment, I mean the commandment most often cited in our sacred Scriptures. The commandment, “Do not be afraid,” appears 366 times in the Bible. As they say in Ireland, “366 times that’s once for every day of the year and once for no reason at all.” “Do not be afraid.” In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Testament, we hear first the voice of the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call, “God,” say it again and again, and then Jesus says over and over again, “Do not be afraid.”Continue reading →
Here we are again. How did we end up here again? As I listened to a politician, his head adorned in a neatly wrapped Sikh pagri, insist that “this is our Canada!” my own heart sank. For I too, have spoken my own objections, along the lines of: “This is not our Canada.” As my head fell in shame, this politician used these words: “The reality is, this is our Canada. This is our Canada! Our Canada is a place where 215 little kids were found dead in an unmarked grave. Our Canada is a place where you can’t walk down the streets if you wear a hajib because you will be killed. This is our Canada. We can’t deny it. We can’t reject that because it does no one any good. The reality is our Canada is a place of racism, of violence, of genocide of indigenous peoples, and our Canada is a place where Muslims aren’t safe. They aren’t safe,” he said. “They aren’t safe. Muslims are not safe in this country.” Whether you agree with his politics or not, Jagmeet Singh’s indictment begs the question: How did we get here? Why are the seeds of racism and hatred flourishing in our land, and in the lands of our neighbours? The stark realities are clear, even if the sources of the infestation remain hidden, buried beneath our carefully held illusions of our own innocence.
They were out for their daily, evening stroll. A close loving family, coping with lockdown, by strolling the streets of their own neighbourhood. Taking in the sights. Reviewing their day. Telling their stories. Anticipating tomorrow and the tomorrows after that. He, he is a deranged young man whose mental illness is fertile ground for the seeds of hatred scattered across our land, growing within our communities such noxious weeds, that our efforts to root them out fail over and over again.
We can no longer deny that the seeds of racism and hatred are growing at a pace which threatens to choke our long-ago dreams of a multicultural paradise. We dreamed that dream. We spoke pretty words. We invited newcomers into our land. We planted our seeds and we hoped for the best. But we failed somehow, not enough water? not the right fertilizers? or perhaps, too much neglect, and indifference?
As you can probably tell from my hack-handed metaphors, I’m not much of a gardener. Like many of my fellow Canadians, I’ve smugly looked askance at the racial turmoil in our American neighbours’ land, and I haven’t paid enough attention to what’s happening in my own backyard. I am, however, a theologian and a student of religions. I know that the very word Islam translates into English as peace and that the Qur’an teaches that “PEACE” is one of the names of ALLAH. I know that our indigenous sisters and brothers teach that all people should live in harmony with the nature and all that nature contains. I know that our Jewish sisters and brothers gifted us with the commandment to “love our neighbours as we love ourselves.” I know that Sikh communities hold values which extol an egalitarian vision of community in which men and women, and members of all social groups are equally respected. I know that our Hindu sisters and brothers hold dear the doctrine of ahimsa, which means to foster respect for all living things and includes the practice of non-violence. I also know that our sisters and brothers of no particular faith at all, understand the values of living without fear, in lands where all people are free to live peacefully.
So, why are the seeds of racism, and hatred flourishing in so many lands? Especially, when so many splendid gardeners have planted so many good seeds upon the land? I may not be much of a gardener, but one thing I have learned, is speed with which weeds can grow to make a mess of any garden. Fear and our self-centered quest for survival are spreading unchecked within us and around us. Fear of the “other,” fear that “they” “those people” are somehow a threat to “us,” a threat to “our ways,” a threat to “our lifestyles,” our very survival, these fear as irrational as it has become, this fear is fertilizing the seeds of racism and hatred which are growing like weeds.
So, if “this is our Canada” what are we to do? The Qur’an teaches us that our CREATOR created us all “out of one single soul, created, out of like nature, the mate, and from them twain scattered like seeds countless men and women.”
In the Qur’an you will find these words: “O humanity! Indeed, WE created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may ˹get to˺ know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of ALLAH is the most righteous among you. ALLAH is truly ALL-KNOWING, ALL-AWARE.”
The Christian mystic Julian of Norwich provides a way of seeing our sisters and brothers of all faiths and of no particular faith at all, Julian insists that, “we are not just made by God, we are made of God.” The very nature of the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call God, is in the DNA of all. We are all sacred, all holy, all DIVINE, created as ONE by the ONE in whom we all live, and move, and have our being. When we begin to see the DIVINE MYSTERY, which is the LOVE we call God, in ALL, we need not fear “the other” for we are ONE in the LOVE which made us.
I can already hear some of you ask, “That’s all well and good, but what are we to do to? How do we tend to this blessed garden?” There are weeds growing everywhere and fear is on the rise. I do wish I was a better gardener. All I can say is that LOVE casts out fear and if we can eliminate the fear, then the noxious weeds of racism and hatred will wither and die.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, what does this LOVE look like, how do we apply this LOVE to our beloved garden? Well, dear ones, I suspect that some of our gardening skills have lain dormant for far too long. It is long past time for us to be LOVE in the world. The next time you see a woman wearing the hijab or a man wearing a turban, put yourself in their place and ask yourself, what you would want if you were them. This is what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself.
A smile, I know it’s difficult right now to smile when we are wearing masks, so smile with your eyes and say, “Hello. Good to see you!” or “Salaam Alaikum.” If you don’t have friends from different religions and cultures, ask yourself why and begin to make some overtures to strangers. Put yourself outside your own comfort zone. Take some risks. Make some mistakes. Learn new ways of being human from humans who do things differently that you do. Take a course in another religious tradition. Make a friend. Be a friend. Commit outrageous acts of kindness. Be recklessly hospitable.
Foolishly generous. Listen and learn. Stand in solidarity. Grieve with those who are grieving. Try to understand the pain of those who have been wounded. Give up some of your privilege, lord knows, most of us have way more than our fair share. Be LOVE in the world by planting some seeds and then tending those seeds and watching them grow.
Jesus compared the Kin’dom of DIVINITY, the Family of the DIVINE to “a mustard seed, which people plant in the soil: it is the smallest of the Earth’s seeds, yet once it is sown, it springs up to become the largest of shrubs, with branches big enough for the birds of the sky to build nests in the shade.”
A little boy is lying in a hospital bed, and he is in pain. Let us plant seeds and tend this garden in Fayez’s name, trusting that we are ALL ONE, ONE in the LOVE, which is our CREATOR, ONE in the LOVE which is the MYSTERY we call God. Amen.