YAHWEH said to Moses: “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Memories, stories, imaginings, myths, wonderings, and glimpses are the stuff of truth. Even though I was only a child, I have very vivid memories of my very first trip on an airplane. We lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland and we were moving to Canada. I was terrified and fascinated all at the same time. I don’t know where I heard them first, but words like “frozen,” “north,” “wolves,” “igloos”, and “Eskimos” filled my imagination. I have a vague memory of being told that there wouldn’t be any Eskimos where we were going.
I remember the excitement and the fear about flying up in the sky, higher than the clouds. We’d be so high that we’d be able to look down at the clouds. I just couldn’t wait. I was going up, up into heaven. Visions of angels sitting on clouds, maybe, just maybe I’d catch a glimpse of Jesus playing with all the little children. I never dreamed that I’d see God. God would be clothed in a cloud and if God peaked out I’d hide. I didn’t want to see God. God was way too scary. I wanted to stay well clear of God. God was a scary guy, so scary that you’d probably drop down dead if you saw God. Maybe I shouldn’t look down on the clouds, just incase I caught a glimpse of God, because then I’d never make it back down from heaven. And then, I’d never get to see the Eskimos that I just knew were waiting for me down in Canada!
It wasn’t easy being up there in the sky for the very first time. I couldn’t take my eyes off that little porthole. Even though I knew somewhere deep down inside that I wasn’t really looking out at heaven, I just couldn’t help wondering what was really out there. I remember thinking that maybe just maybe there were angels dancing on those clouds, invisible angels, cause I knew that you became invisible when you died. God was pretty much invisible most of the time. Continue reading →
Then Jesus spoke to them again in parables. He said, “The kindom of heaven is like this: there was a ruler who prepared a feast for the wedding of the family’s heir; but when the ruler sent out workers to summon the invited guests, they wouldn’t come. The ruler sent other workers, telling them to say to the guests, ‘I have prepared this feast for you. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding.’ But they took no notice; one went off to his farm, another to her business, and the rest seized the workers, attacked them brutally and killed them. The ruler was furious and dispatched troops who destroyed those murderers and burned their town. Then the ruler said to the workers, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but the guests I invited don’t deserve the honour. Go out to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find.’ The workers went out into the streets and collected everyone they met, good and bad alike, until the hall was filled with guests. The ruler, however, came in to see the company at table and noticed one guest who was not dressed for a wedding. ‘My friend,’ said the ruler, ‘why are you here without a wedding garment?’ But the guest was silent. Then the ruler said to the attendants, ‘Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew 22:1-14
Is this the Gospel of Christ? In Lutheran, Anglican, United, Roman Catholic and other mainline denominations this text will be read and in those congregations the preacher will conclude the reading with a proclamation declaring that this is, “The Gospel of Christ!” or “The Gospel of the Lord!” to which the people will declare “Praise to you O Christ!” But I ask you: “Is this the Gospel of Christ?” “Wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Is this the Gospel of Christ?
I must confess that when I realized that this text is the one assigned for this, the very Sunday when we are about to begin our “visioning process,” my heart sank. This gospel reading comes around every three years and I’ve always managed to be on vacation when that happens, so I’ve never actually had to preach this particular gospel text. I was sorely tempted to change our gospel reading to something more in keeping with the task that lies before us this afternoon. This text is hardly conducive to creating a new 21st century vision of what our church might become. “Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many are called but few are chosen.”
Throw him out into the darkness for the crime of being badly dressed? What kind of vision is this for us, here, today? Are we not a progressive congregation? Do we not pride ourselves on being an inclusive community? “Many are called but few are chosen.” Is this the “Gospel of Christ?” “Praise to you O Christ!” I don’t think so.Continue reading →
About a dozen years ago, I traveled to Vancouver to attend an educational conference for Lutheran Mission Pastors. Most of the conference was spent inside a stuffy meeting room. But one afternoon about forty of us were loaded onto a school bus and we traveled down to the east-side of Vancouver to spend some time with Pastor Brian Heinrich, who ran the Lutheran Urban Ministry Society. I doubt that many of you have ever or will ever visit the downtown east side of Vancouver. Lutheran Urban Ministry was located near the corner of Main and Hastings in one of the poorest areas in all of Canada. It was the sort of place where forty Lutheran pastors stuck out like a sore thumb. At the time the downtown east-side was one of the roughest neighborhoods in Canada. This was before Olympic developers gentrified the neighbourhood.
As we arrived, I noticed the discomfort that was written all over the faces of my fellow clergy. Although I’d travelled to the eastside many times and even lived for a few months in a cheap apartment on the edge of the eastside, my journeys in the eastside were usually quick, with as few stops as I could manage, so that I could avoid the unpleasant sights and sounds that you encounter in places were poverty literally fills the air. Knowing that we were scheduled to spend the day in the eastside made me long for the mountaintops that I could see stretching up to the sky across the river. I could feel the same discomfort that was written on the faces of my colleagues take hold of my own face.
On the steps of the church, a young man was shooting up. In the alley next to the church, very young men and women were offering their bodies for sale. Inside the church we were greeted by several of Pastor Brian’s parishioners. Before we could get inside the sanctuary, a very smelly man extended a filthy hand in friendship. When I took his hand he grinned at me with his two remaining teeth and told me his name was David and that I should make myself at home. Eventually, Pastor Brian introduced us to about a half a dozen of his parishioners. All of them wore their poverty with a welcoming smile. Because the sight of forty Lutheran Pastors being guided around the neighborhood on a tour might have shaken up the local inhabitants, we were divided up into small groups and assigned guides. That’s how I met a woman, for the purposes of this sermon I’ll call, Gracie. Continue reading →
This week, as I was thinking about Homecoming Sunday, I couldn’t help remembering all the various places I that I have called home. To say that we moved around a lot when I was a kid would be a massive understatement. Sometimes, it felt like every time I got comfortable enough to think of a place as home we were on the move. I was always the new kid in school. Being the new kid is not a pleasant experience. The stress of a new school, the confusion of unfamiliar ways, and strange kids to get to know could be unbearable at times. To this day, the pain of homesickness that all that moving around created in me can still move me to tears. Moving from house to house, country to country, school to school, classroom to classroom, was traumatizing. I suppose the stress of trying to find my way in new places together with the fear of meeting new people is what inspired a recurring nightmare that can still invade my dreams.
The nightmare was always the same. I was always breathless from running away from some frightening experience. I would arrive at what I believed to be the front door of my home. The door was the only thing that ever changed in the dream. Sometimes, it was a blue door, sometimes a red door, sometimes a green door, sometimes a brown door, but somehow, I always knew that beyond this door I would find relief from the pressures of the newness in which I found myself. Beyond the door, no matter what the colour, beyond the door, I would be safe. All I needed to do was open the door and I would be home.
We were latch-key kids. For those of you too young or too privileged to remember, latch-key kinds were kids whose mothers worked. So, we fended for ourselves when we got home from school. So that we wouldn’t lose them, we carried the keys to our home on chains around our necks. In my stress induced nightmares, I would arrive breathless at my new front door, take the key from around my neck, so that I could let myself into the safety of my home, only to discover that the key never fit into the lock because the key that I carried was always the key to the last house that I had lived in. Upon discovering that I was locked out of my home, I would wake-up in a cold sweat terrified of what the next day might bring me.
This recurring nightmare fed my longing for the home of my dreams. Looking back on my younger self, I can almost feel the ache of that longing that I can only describe to you as a kind of homesickness – homesickness for the kind of home that I never really had. The kind of home I longed for was a place where I was safe and secure from all my deepest fears, a place I could count on to always be there, full of people who would love me and keep me safe.
So, this week as I was working on this Homecoming sermon I felt something of that old homesickness that haunted my childhood nightmares. The longing that I felt for the safety of the home of my dreams was accentuated by the fact that in addition to this being Homecoming Sunday it is also the Third Sunday of the Season of Creation that focusses up the Wilderness. The task of combining Homecoming Sunday with Wilderness Sunday is daunting to say the least. Try as I might, every idea I had about celebrating the beauty of the wilderness, was spoiled by the reality of what is happening in wildernesses all over the planet. Creation is groaning under the weight of generations of abuse. Wildernesses around the world are on fire.
This summer my beloved British Columbia is on track to set an all-time record for wild fires as more than one million-one-hundred-and-ninety-three-thousand hectares have burned across the province. Records are also being broken in the Northwest Territories and vast portions of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Northern Ontario are on fire even as I speak. In the United States 5.8 million acres of land has been scorched by infernos. Enormous fires are also burning in Italy, Romania, Portugal, and Serbia. Spurred on by temperatures that have caused the media to name the current heat-wave in Europe: “Lucifer.”
In Ireland, my old homeland, this they have experienced 75 percent less rainfall than normal and for the first time in generations the Irish are also battling forest fires. Wildfires are burning in large swaths across Brazil. Earlier this year the fires in South Africa, New Zealand, and Chile caused some commentators to speculate that Hell may have sprung a leak. Scientists are warning us that the infernos of 2017 are just the beginning and we should expect more and more as the effects of climate change continue to disrupt the planet we call home.
If only the fires were all we have to worry about. While record droughts spark fires, record breaking storms are dumping epic amounts of water and millions of acres have been flooded in Texas and Florida, the Caribbean, Mumbai, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and China. This very morning floods are only beginning to recede in Vietnam, the Philippines, Croatia, Cameroon, and Sierra Leon. The earth is groaning and humanity’s anxieties are rising almost as high as the floodwaters. I can feel the stress as we gather for Homecoming looking for safety in the presence of one another, longing for relief from the fear that is inspired by all we know about the disasters that are wreaking havoc on our planet. It’s almost as if we have arrived breathless at our own front door desperate to get in so that we can feel at home, so that we can relax and take refuge from the storms in this sanctuary. The groaning of the Earth, the turmoil of our planet is almost more than we can bear. We are so tempted to hunker down in the familiar patterns of old so that we can fortify ourselves in the safety we find within the walls we have built. But, look closely and I think I you will see that we have the wrong keys hanging around our necks. Can our old keys save us from all that haunts us or are they the keys to houses we must move beyond?
A long time ago, when the stress in my life was almost more than I could bear, I told a friend of mine that I wasn’t sleeping very well because every time I drifted off to sleep my old recurring nightmare was there to meet me. I couldn’t bear standing in front of that door not being able to get in because I had the wrong key. The friend I told, was someone I’ve told you about before. Henry Myair is a Jewish Rabbi that I met years ago when we were both working in the travel business. Henry is a wise man whose many kindnesses have touched me in ways that continue to bless me to this day. After asking me a few questions about my recurring nightmare Henry suggested that I try summoning up my nightmare as a “daymare.” I’d never heard of a “daymare” before, so it took a while for Henry to convince me that I should try to walk around inside my nightmare in the middle of the day to see what I might discover. I agreed to venture into my fears, on the condition that Henry would come with me into my “daymare.”
We began by talking a little about the various anxieties that were creating my stress. It didn’t take long for us to arrive at a very large, imposing, black, door. I reached for the key that hung around my neck and just like always that key didn’t fit. Henry invited me to toss the key away. After all, that key belonged to my old home and so, it wasn’t the key I needed. I protested that I was so homesick that maybe I should just try to find the door that the key fitted into. Maybe if I found the right door, I’d finally be able to go home.
Then Henry asked me a question that tipped me over the edge, “Where are you when you have your nightmares?”
At first I didn’t understand, “I’m running away.” I almost pleaded to Henry.
“No, That’s not the question. The question is not what is happening in your nightmare.
The question is: When you are actually dreaming your nightmare, where are you?”
I still didn’t get it. So, Henry offered me an answer. “You are at home in your own bed. You are already home. You are already safe. Now, look around, see if you can find a window. Resist the temptation to hide away. Go to the window and look outside. What can you see? Now look at the door. You don’t need that old key to get into your home, you are already there, you are already safe. Open the door, open the door and go outside.
As I peered through the window I saw a hallway full of people. The people were carrying back-packs and books. I imagined that the hallway was a school. Henry encouraged me to dream may way out through the door so that I could look around. I dreamed I was walking onto the campus of a university. My nightmare became my daymare and my daymare became my dream.
Sometimes, when fear rises in me, I long for a home that never really existed and the old nightmare returns. But now I know that the door in my nightmare opens both ways and I don’t need the key around my neck because I’m already home, I’m already safe. I can take comfort from the familiarity of my home and the LOVE that dwells in and around my home, comfort that gives me the strength to go outside.
Dear friends, look around, we are home, we are safe. We don’t need to escape our anxieties about what is happening in the world. We are home, we are safe. We can share our fears trusting that the LOVE that dwells among us is strong enough to hold us. Look around and take comfort from the LOVE that dwells among us and draw strength from the familiar surroundings. Know that you are home. Know that you are safe. Safe even if we do have some old keys hanging around our necks; keys that no longer work their magic. Take strength from one another, give one another the courage to set those keys aside and look out through the windows. What can we see out there? Remember you are already home. You are already safe.
The LOVE that dwells among us also dwells beyond us, beyond the doors and walls that we have built. The LOVE that soothes us here at home, that same LOVE also calls us out into the world.
What can we see out there? What dreams are waiting to be dreamt? The nightmares exist and they are frightening. But in the bright light of day, we can see that we are already home, we already safe. The Love that dwells among us also dwells beyond us.
Together, let us have the courage to experience the realities of our daymares, so that we can dream dreams that will carry us out into the world out there. Let us dream beyond our fears. Let us dream into the LOVE that is God.
This interactive sermon is the third in a series of sermons responding to the question “Who Do You Say I AM?” Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 here
The sermon is divided into two sections and the audio includes the readings as well as the songs. you can listen to the sermon here
“Jesus IS?” Section ONE: Questioning
We cannot un-know what we have learned. In the past one-hundred years biblical scholarship has exploded. In the halls of academia, in the seminaries of mainline denominations the quest for knowledge about Jesus has born so very much fruit. Now thanks to the explosions of the information age, information that was once reserved to the carefully initiated, is available to everyone. Wander into your local bookstore, or turn on your computer and you will discover more information than any one person could ever digest on the subject of Jesus. And yet, despite more than 2000 years of scholarship, theologizing, speculating, preaching, and teaching, the question, put on the lips of Jesus by the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Matthew, remains a daunting question to answer.
“Who do you say that I AM?” This is a question designed by the storyteller to evoke a response from the listener. “Who do you say that I AM?” Our individual responses to this question are tinged by all that we have been taught, by our families, by the church, by the culture in which we live, by the communities to which we belong, by the books we have read, the movies we have seen, the documentaries we have watched, the lectures we have listened to. Those of us who have stayed behind in the church, long after the vast majority of the population have left, we have been trying to answer questions about Jesus have learned so much about Jesus. But rather than help us answer the question, what we think we know about Jesus, has left us tong tied.
“Who do you say that I AM?” The way in which we answer questions about the identity of Jesus matters in a world where so many of the answers that have already been offered continue to misrepresent the man who lies at the heart of Christianity. These days, what passes for Christianity often stands in direct opposition to the teachings of the man Christians profess to follow. The idol worshipped by millions depicts Jesus as a super-hero God, sent to die as a blood sacrifice for sin. This idol has co-opted the story of Jesus the man who steadfastly refused to take up violence against his enemies. Worshippers of this idol seek the companionship of a personal saviour, sacrificed violently for their personal sin, while they turn their backs upon Jesus’ the man’s personal quest for peace through justice for all. Worshippers of this idol follow a saviour who encourages them in their personal quest for happiness in this world and the next. All too often, this personal quest for happiness, results in the oppression and suffering of others, requiring the followers of this idol to embrace violence.
“Who do you say that I AM?” The way in which we answer this question has implications for the way in which we live in the world. “Who do you say that I AM?” – a human, a seeker of justice committed to non-violent resistance to oppressive systems, willing to give everything to achieve peace, peace for all. A teacher offering insights into a way of being in the world that embodies LOVE. Or a super-human, blood-sacrifice, who demands obedience and conviction to a carefully crafted story designed to ensure that your tribe wins the battle to create a new world order, where your tribe wins not only in this life but in the next. “Who do you say that I AM?”
Section Two: Imagining
“Who do you say that I AM?” Before we can say who Jesus is, we must imagine who Jesus was. David Steindl-Rast reminds us that, “religions start from mysticism. There is no other way to start a religion.” Steindl-Rast compares this mystical experience “to a volcano that gushes forth…and then…the magma flows down the sides of the mountain and cools off. And when it reaches the bottom, it’s just rocks. You’d never guess that there was fire in it. So after a couple of hundred years, or two thousand years or more, what was once alive is dead rock. Doctrine becomes doctrinaire. Morals become moralistic. Ritual becomes ritualistic. What do we do with it? We have to push through the crust and go to the fire that’s within it.”
The fire that sparked Christianity is Jesus. The red-hot experience of the living breathing Jesus, bubbled up out of out of the mountain that Judaism had become. Like red hot lava Jesus flowed through the towns and villages of first century Palestine sparking a revolution that has long since cooled. We are the inheritors of the dead rock formations that lie scattered about us. If we are ever to push through the crust to experience the fire that lies within, we will need to have the courage to shatter the idol of Jesus that Christianity has fashioned out of the rock. That means imagining who Jesus was when the fire ignited so that we can determine who Jesus is, here and now, in this place and in this time.
“Who do you say that I AM?” Let’s begin where it always begins in ancient literature, let’s begin with the name. The name given to the experience of whatever it is that lies at the very source of reality. YAHWEH – I AM WHO I AM. The ancient name given by the Hebrew people to their experience of the Divine. I AM – from the verb to be… God – IS
The question put on the lips of Jesus by the anonymous gospel storyteller we call Matthew “Who do you say that I AM?” echo’s the very I AM that this same Jesus depicts in a whole new way. It is all in the name. Sadly, we’ve missed the fullness meaning of Jesus’ name. Jesus was known by two names in the ancient world. Can anybody tell me what those names were? ……Yeshua ben Yosef …. Yeshua bar abba … Joshua = God is Gracious or God Saves
Yeshua ben Yosef = Joshua son of Joseph
Yeshua bar abba = Joshua son of abba the name Jesus used for God
Joshua – salvation a man or a god
There in lies the question – Jesus divine or human?
“Who do you say that I AM?”
Last Sunday I talked about how the Creeds have shaped us. The Apostle’s and the Nicene Creeds were created in the 4th century after the life of Yeshua ben Yosef, or Yeshua bar Abba by the powers of the Roman Empire to ensure that there would be a consistent view of Yeshua throughout the emerging church. That consistent view served the Empire well and went a long way to solidify the idol of Jesus Christ that continues to pervade our culture. So, let’s set aside the creeds for a moment and respond to the questions of Jesus’ identity in ways that give us a glimmer of the fire that gave birth to a way of being in the world.
On Monday the world will mark the sixteenth anniversary of 911. Much has happened since that day that changed our world. Sadly, much has stayed the same. This Sunday the Gospel reading for those congregations following the Revised Standard Lectionary comes from Matthew 18:21-35 and is all about forgiveness. Looking back on the sermons that I have preached on this particular text, I discovered that on the first anniversary of 911 the same reading came around to challenge preachers and their listeners. Reading that old sermon, I was struck by how very little we have learned over the years. My theology has changed considerably over the years and so the way in which I speak about the work of the Divine in the world has also change. But, replace some the names like Sadam Husain, Taliban, and El Queada with ISIS or ISEL, or Hamas, or Assad, or Kim Jong Un, and the world’s willingness to use violence seems almost inevitable. What has not changed for those of us who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth is the challenge to change our ways and seek peace. So, I post this old sermon here, in the hope that some of the echoes of our past might enlighten our present with a desire to work for peace.
I seriously considered quitting my job this week. It’s been a tough week and I’ve gotta tell you, that by the time Friday rolled around, I felt like handing in my notice. I was sick and tired of my boss’s holy than thou attitude and I didn’t want to work for Jesus any more. You see all week long I’ve had this gospel lesson rolling around in my head. This is a lousy week to try and write a sermon on mercy and forgiveness. Images of towers crumbling, family members weeping and American politicians calling for an escalation of the war against terrorism, aren’t exactly conducive to thoughts about mercy and forgiveness. On any other week, I could write a sermon proclaiming the goodness of God’s grace and reminding you how much we owe God. On any other week, I could come up with a story about the colossal debt we owe our God and how dramatically God has wiped the slate clean. On any other week, I could write a sermon urging you to look with compassion and mercy on those who are in your debt. On any other week, I could proclaim the good news of God’s mercy and point to the many ways that we have sinned and count up the many times God has forgiven us and urge you to be just as forgiving to those who have sinned against you. On any other week, I could do my job. But this week Jesus’ words about forgiving not once, not twice, not three times, not even seven times but forgiving those who have sinned against us seventy-seven times is more than I can bare.Continue reading →
Part Two of this exploration of Jesus’ identity includes three reflections interspersed throughout the liturgy. The audio picks up the liturgy as the congregation is remembering our old friend Jesus by singing an old hymn that evokes our personal histories with the character Jesus. You can listen to the songs as well as the reflections here
Reflection 1: Remembering.
Can any of you remember the first hymn you ever learned? (responses)
“Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.”
What about the first prayer you ever learned?
“Now I lay me down to sleep.”
“Come, Lord Jesus.” graces
“The Lord’s Prayer”
For those of you who were raised in the Lutheran Church, think back to your confirmation classes, do you remember learning the Creeds? I never went to church until I was 15. I was considered too old for confirmation class. So, I received private instruction from my pastor. I remember weeks and weeks spent learning both the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. Remembering those creeds still influences the way I respond to the question that the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call “Matthew” puts on the lips of Jesus: “Who do you say that I AM.”
I remember, a few years back, when Emily Eastwood was helping us in our struggle to move the wider church to be more inclusive. Emily, insisted that the only way to reach out to those on the other side of the argument was to tell our story. Stories have the power to move us. Stories well-told can move us beyond the boundaries we have set for ourselves. So, Emily encouraged each of us to learn how to tell our own stories. Emily taught us to be able to tell our stories about being gay, or knowing someone who is gay, or about changing our minds about homosexuality. Emily, insisted that we needed to be able to tell our stories in about 3 minutes. We were encouraged to seek out folks who we suspected might be among those who were working to limit the roles that LGBTQ folks in the church. In just 3 minutes, our personal stories were told. These stories humanized the issues that divided us and indeed divided the church. Putting a face on the pain made the issues that we were debating, more than just theological, they made them real, immediate, and personal. By moving out beyond the boundaries established by doctrine we could touch the pain caused by doctrine.
Remembering all those weeks of learning the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which were designed by their 3rd and 4th century authors to answer, once and for all, all the questions surrounding the identity of the man we call Jesus, I can’t help but see the young woman that I was, reciting week after week, year after year, the doctrinal response to this pivotal question. For years, no for decades, my answer to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say I AM?” was bound up in my belief that the Creeds had answered the question: “Who do you say I AM?” All you need to do is remember and believe.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Or the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit
and the virgin Mary
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate’
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
I remember trusting and believing the answer to all my questions was Jesus. I remember trusting and believing that Jesus Christ is the only Son of God who came down from heaven, suffered, died and was buried. I remember believing that Jesus died for my sins. I remember believing that because God was gracious HE sent Jesus to die so that I might live. I remember believing that this grace of God was all I needed to understand who Jesus was and is. I remember believing that Jesus’ death upon the cross was necessary so that I could live forever. I remember believing that I knew exactly who Jesus was. I remember knowing without the shadow of a doubt that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
I remember eagerly eating the Body of Christ and drinking the Blood of Christ trusting that: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
I remember knowing who I knew Jesus was. I also remember my doubts. I remember worrying about the character of a God that I knew, because I am Lutheran after all, I knew God’s grace. But I could not, no matter how hard I tried, reconcile the notion of a loving and gracious God, with a God who could devise a plan to save me, that included the crucifixion of God’s beloved Son. I remember my doubts. Doubts squashed by doctrine.
I remember the very day that my dear pastor, the same pastor who had taught me the Creeds, dear Pastor Ernst invited me to join a Bible Study. Some of you may remember the old, Word and Witness program. Three years of intensive study of the Bible. A study based on the materials that seminaries were teaching prospective pastors. Pastor Ernst said I was too young for the program, but he thought I might just like to give it a try. Once again, I was the only one in the class. I remember well the day I learned the Jesus may not have said all the words that were clearly printed in red in my bible.
I remember the day I learned that the writers of the gospels were not actually Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; not actually eye-witnesses to the life of Jesus. I remember the questions that began to flow freely from my lips. I remember the freedom of asking questions that were beyond the carefully set boundaries of the Creeds. I remember the freedom.Continue reading →
I am indebted to John Philip Newell’s book “The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings” for inspiring this sermon. The Season of Creation is a relatively new addition to the Church calender and the first and Gospel readings are those prescribed for Forest Sunday: Genesis 2:4b-23 and John 3:1-16. The contemporary reading is from John Philip Newell. The Scripture readings were taken from ‘the inclusive bible: The First Egalitarian Translation” which opens a new way of understanding both the Genesis story and the Gospel According to John simply by using more inclusive literal translations of the Hebrew and Greek. You can find all three readings here
The Season of Creation is a very recent addition to the Church Calendar. We first observed it, here at Holy Cross, just two years ago. So, this is the first opportunity we have had to observe Forest Sunday. It seems odd to me that in a country like Canada where the forests are so vast and have such a huge impact on the history of this nation, that up until just a few short years ago, did not set aside a day dedicated to the celebration of our forests. Indeed, that churches around the world, should have failed until recently to set aside a season dedicated to the celebration of Creation is not just astounding, but dare I say it, sinful.
So, I’d like to begin this sermon by summoning up visions of my favorite forest. Now, I’m well aware that there are hundreds of brilliant forests in these parts, but it won’t come as a surprise to many of you that my favorite forest is located on the West Coast.
This particular forest is special not only to me, but it also stands tall in the annals of Canadian forests; indeed, it stands out among the forests of the world. It is located just north of West Vancouver and I’ve been walking in this forest since I was a teenager. This deep, dark, rich, rain-forest is one of the few old-growth forests in Canada and many of the trees are over 600 years old. This particular forest has managed to survive uncut thanks to the erection of a lighthouse in 1875 on Point Atkinson. The authorities wanted to ensure a dark back-drop for the lighthouse so they banned logging in the area and the city of West-Vancouver has set the forest aside with the creation of Lighthouse Park.
My first trip to Lighthouse Park, I was but a child, taken there by my father for a family outing. I remember a dark, wet, gentle hike down to the water’s edge, followed by a half-hour’s uphill climb back to the parking lot, where my mother waited with our picnic lunch, of sandwiches and hot tea. Later, when I was old enough to drive myself, there were so many dark, wet, gentle hikes in this forest cathedral where I often retreated to for solace from the trials and tribulations of finding my way in the world.
Over the years, I have often returned to this living cathedral where the Douglas Firs and Red Cedars are hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of years old and looking up to see just how far they stretch toward the sky, makes you dizzy. I still remember the first time I took Carol into the depths of this sacred place. The sheer pleasure of seeing someone you love overwhelmed by the splendor of some of the biggest and oldest trees on the planet, was match only by the deep silences that are possible in such a place. It is without a doubt a thin place a place where the boundary between what is known and what lies beyond the know is so thin that you can feel the presence of the One who is both the source of all that is and who is Beyond all that is.
In this thin place, I have laid down burdens, wept, laughed, shouted, cried, rejoiced, slept, breathed deeply of the earth and lost my breath trudging up the dark, damp, fecund trails. In this thin place, this forest cathedral I have worshiped the source of all that is, been mesmerized by that which is beyond all that is, and been emptied of concerns, trials, tribulations and filled with joy, hope, peace and love. In this thin place, this forest cathedral, over and over again, I have been born anew. In this forest cathedral, and in so many forest cathedrals, I have come to understand what Julian of Norwich meant when she said that, “we are not just made by God, we are made of God.” for in these sacred thin places, in these forest cathedrals, in the sheer beauty and the magnitude of life that abounds from deep within the forest floors, up through the steadfast trunks to the skyward canopies, the One who is the Source of All this is also the One who is the Source of My Being.
But these thin places are not for the faint of heart. Over the years, I have made various pilgrimages to Lighthouse Park, only to find a sign erected warning those who dare to enter that a bear has been sighted in the area. Sometimes the authorities have posted a sign that because of the threat of a dangerous bear in the area that park is closed to all hikers. When I was younger, and much more foolish, I ignored those signs and ventured into the deep, dark forest despite the warnings. The sense of danger was palpable and added to the intensity of the experience of this dangerous wilderness. But the wisdom gained over the decades has of late caused me to heed the warning signs and so from time to time Carol and I have travelled to Lighthouse Park filled with anticipation only to be thwarted by a warning sign.
It seems appropriate somehow that a Thin Place should be so subject to warning signs. I’ve told you before about Rudolf Otto’s definition of God, whom he calls the Numinous. Otto defines the numinous in Latin with the words, “Mysterium, Tremendum, et Facinam” the One whose is the Source of all being is mysterious, tremendous and fascinating. Mysterious yes. Tremendous, literally makes you tremble, yes. But even though you tremble in fear in the presence of such great mysterious, you just can’t help but be fascinated by the One who is the source and ground of your being.Continue reading →
The feast day of Augustine of Hippo is a good time to recall what St. Augustine had to say on the literal meaning of Genesis: “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.” (from Augustine’s commentary on Genesis: “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” (translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J.; two volumes; Newman Press, New York, 1982; pages 42-43 of Volume 1)
What a beautiful August morning this is! Refreshed by a month-long vacation, I returned to work on Wednesday, eager to engage today’s Gospel story of Jesus walking upon the water. I began work on the sermon for today, convinced that together we would be able to engage the text from our perspective as a “progressive Christian” community. Bearing in mind that summer Sundays require a light touch because most of us are busy enjoying ourselves and few of us are interested in anything that might interrupt our summertime vibe. So, even though the orange fellow down below our border issued an asinine incendiary threat that raised the world’s blood pressure, I decided not to lean into the fear-mongering that various news media were dabbling in. I selected some hymns for us to sing that would allow us to lightly touch our desire for peace on this summer morning and I began to prepare a little story that would help us to see that it matters how we approach the biblical stories; especially the stories in which Jesus engages in miracles like walking on water. So, I do have a gentle sermon designed to encourage us all to be the kind of Christians who look beneath the surface of this story to see beyond the miracles so that we can begin to understand the man that Jesus was rather than the super-hero that Christ has become.
I’d love to be able to preach that sermon to you on this beautiful summer’s day. However, as I look beyond the words of this morning’s Gospel reading, I can’t help but see a vision of Christ walking upon troubled waters and beckoning us to venture out upon those same troubled waters. Just like the Apostle Peter, I too feel like those very waters will swallow me up and I will drown. The waters are deep, they are murky, and I am afraid that we cannot cross over and yet, Christ continues to beckon: “Do not worry, it is me! Do not be afraid! Come!”
Well those are not the exact words that I heard. The embodiment of Christ that beckons me this morning came to me not in a vision, but rather, as invocations nowadays are won’t to do, via social media. Some of you will remember Kelly Fryer. Kelly was the second speaker in our very first year of our Re-Thinking Christianity speaker series. Kelly spent a weekend with us encouraging us as we began to look beyond the church to explore new ways of being Christians in the 21st century. Yesterday, Kelly waded into troubled waters and issued this challenge to preachers everywhere when she wrote: “If you are a white pastor and you pray for “healing and unity” this weekend but you don’t name the sin of racism that infects this nation, lead your people in an act of contrition and cry out for justice like an everflowing stream, you need to write your resignation letter first thing Monday morning.”
I thought I might be able to avoid stepping out into these troubled waters, because after all Kelly lives south of the border and the infection that she was talking about is south of the border. But suddenly my summer craft, was tossed about in the waves, which had been raised by the fierce winds. At about three in the morning, “Jesus came walking toward me on the lake.” Just as I had resolved to stick with my gentle approach, I noticed that our National Bishop Susan Johnson had tweeted out: “Dear #myELCIC now more than ever, we need to speak out against and work to end racism.” I felt the murky waters rising all around me as I sank deeper and deeper into the murky waters that threaten our peaceful summer excursion. Jesus said: “Come!”
So, let’s get out of our boat to walk on the water toward Jesus. But I warn you that once we dip our toes into the murky water we will begin to drown in the words, words, and more words, words like: “Fire and fury!” “Locked and loaded!” the words of Donald J. Trump Murky words like: “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un, …the bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary—including war—to stop evil.” these are the words of the Rev. Robert Jeffress – who is touted as #45’s favorite pastor.
But wait, even if you can manage to stay afloat and keep walking toward Jesus with images of mushroom cloud’s dancing in your heads, there are more words from the orange man who holds a nuclear arsenal in his tiny little hands: “We have many options for Venezuela. And by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option.”
Now, just like Peter who got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus, we see how strong the wind is and we too are frightened. Our souls cry out, “Save me!” “Save us!” “Save us all.”
Peering through the image of mushroom cloud, it becomes more and more difficult to see Jesus and we long to scramble back into the safety of our boat and speed back to the tranquility of our summer. Let’s just sing some hymns and say a few prayers. If only the waters would stay calm…
A colleague who was struggling to write his sermon sent me these words in the wee hours, it is a message that was tweeted out from by Traci Blackmon as she worshipped at an interfaith gathering at St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville on Friday night: “They are coming for the church! Police all around. They won’t let us go outside. Y’all these KKK are marching with torches!”
Yesterday, as film footage flooded the news media, I struggled to make out the words begin chanted by angry white men. “Blood and Soil” “Blood and Soil” I struggled to comprehend until an explanation was offered by an incredulous journalist: “Blut und Boden” “Blut und Boden” “Blood and Soil. Blood and Soil.” Words from what I believed was a bygone era. “Blut und Boden” a Nazi slogan first chanted in 1926 to emphasize the relationship between true Aryans and a rural life, because Hitler himself believed that true Germans came from the soil. Suddenly, the weight of Blood and Soil was too much to bear upon the murky waters that threaten to drown us all. “They are coming for the church! Police all around. They won’t let us go outside. Y’all these KKK are marching with torches!”
“Wait a minute,” I can hear some of you say. “We are not them. The waters are not nearly as murky up here. We can still see Jesus. We just need to put one foot in front of the other and show our southern cousins how it is done.”
If only it were that simple. But dear friends this boat of ours has far too many holes in it that have been plastered over too many times and the waters upon which we sail are just as murky. As long as children in this country languish in poverty, because of the colour of their skin, on Aboriginal lands bereft of safe drinking water we cannot claim the moral high ground. As long as, the very mention of “Black Lives Matter Toronto,” evokes an ambivalent response from us, we cannot claim that systemic racism does not inhabit our treasured institutions. As long as, we can continue to close our eyes to the sale of military hardware to Saudi Arabia, or ignore the civilian casualties in Arab nations, we cannot claim that we care about brown or beige lives; especially if they happen to be Muslim. As long as, we fail to confess our own white privilege we cannot claim that we are part of the solution.
For years and years, I believed that my status as a woman together with my status as a lesbian, shielded me from the charge of white privilege. After all, I belong to two groups who suffer from discrimination. But when I examine my life, the reality of my white privilege screams out to me from the depths of who I am. As s child, the government of Canada paid my airfare and the airfare of my family so that we could immigrate from Belfast to Canada. The government paid for me to come here at the very same time as the government was tearing children from the arms of indigenous parents and forcing those children to suffer the abuses of residential schools. My white privilege allowed me to grow and thrive in Canada despite the realities of the discrimination of women and LGBTQ folk in this country. As long as, far too many of us fail to face up to the realities of the privileges we enjoy as a result of our race, the horrors of the murdered and missing indigenous women of this land that we love, will continue be swept under the carpet of our nation’s denial.Continue reading →
On this quiet summer morning, I arise to find the airwaves clamouring with the sound of Tweets. As news of war and rumours of war penetrates my consciousness and awaken me to the surreal clamouring of madmen who hold the power of life and death in the grasp of their tiny hands, it is so very tempting to give in to the cynicism of the talking heads. While our hearts grieve for our broken world, let us remember that while we cannot control the actions of others, we can, however, control the way we react to the actions of others. Let us not fall into temptation. Let us live in hope. Let us pause in the gentleness of this summer morning to turn our being toward the dream of peace. Shalom, Salam, Santi, Pax, Udo, Santi, Axsti, Salmu, Sith, Paix, Peace….Let us open ourselves to the sound of the still, small voice, the Daughter of a Sound, the Bat Qol who calls us Beyond the Beyond and Beyond that also toward the Deep Peace….
Two videos which present John Philip Newell’s interpretation of the Celtic prayer for Deep Peace
“What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the market place. ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance. We sang you a dirge, but you wouldn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. ’Wisdom will be vindicated by her actions.”
Wisdom will be vindicated by her deeds. In Jesus’ words, we can here the dim echoes of a time gone by. Long before Jesus came there was a character who called out in the marketplaces. You can read about her in the Old Testament books of Proverbs and Job, in the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus. What students of the Bible call the “Wisdom literature” is full of stories about a character who so many people have never heard of. In the book of Proverbs, she claims to have been there when God was busy with creation and she declares: “When God set the heavens in place, I was present, when God drew a ring on the surface of the deep, when God fixed the clouds above, when God fixed fast the wells of the deep, when God assigned the sea its limits…when God established the foundations of the earth, I was by God’s side, a master craftswoman. Delighting God day after day, ever at play by God’s side, at play everywhere in God’s domain, delighting to be with the children of humanity.”
Who is this master craftswoman? Job insists that, “we have heard reports of her”. But, “God alone has traced her path and found out where she lives.” The writer of Ecclesiasticus admonishes the reader to: “court her with all your soul, and with all your might keep her ways; go after her and seek her; she will reveal herself to you; once you hold her, do not let her go. For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.” In the Wisdom of Solomon, she is described as ” quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her. She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, image of God’s goodness. Although alone, she can do all things; herself unchanging she makes all things new. In each generation, she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets.”
You may not know who she is, but Jesus certainly did. Tales of her deeds were popular in Jesus’ day. Jesus, a student of the scriptures who was referred to as a rabbi, would certainly have known who this heroine of the scriptures was. In the ancient Hebrew texts of the Wisdom Literature she is called “CHOKMAH.” In the ancient Greek translations of these texts she is called “SOPHIA.” In our English translations of these texts she is simply known as “wisdom.” The ancient Hebrew and Greek languages were written without punctuation. There were no spaces between the words. Until long after Jesus’ day there were only capital letters. Upper and lower case letters were not used. Unlike our system were personal names begin with capital and are followed with lower case letters, ancient texts consist of lines of unbroken capitals. Words do not have spaces between them and so translating these texts into English is tricky. This is just one of the reasons why Sophia’s story has remained hidden from most of us. When you read the texts that describe wisdom, it is clear that they are, at the very least, speaking about wisdom as though wisdom were a person. Sophia is wisdom personified. Sophia is spoken of as being around from the beginning–before creation. She was with Yahweh at the time of creation; creation couldn’t happen without her presence. Other biblical passages show her coming to be with humanity, reaching out to people to be in relationship with them. She walks through the streets, calling out to people, trying to get them to listen–to follow her. She’s also a welcoming hostess inviting people to her table, a bountiful provider of food, the source of all good things. She is the way to life abundant. She is also a trickster and play is one of the ways she gets things done. You may not have heard of her, but when Jesus speaks to the people about children calling to one another in the marketplaces, the people would have remembered Sophia standing in the marketplaces and calling the people out to dance. But the people refused to join in Sophia’s playful dance. Sophia’s reputation for playfulness led the people to refuse her invitation. Jesus who came eating and drinking, called out to the people. But his reputation led the people to label him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!
Jesus declares: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance”. Jesus harkens back to the images of Sophia in the Scriptures and insists that, “wisdom will be vindicated by her deeds.” Sophia’s reputation as a trickster who accomplishes great deeds through play and Jesus’ reputation as a glutton and a drunkard who comes to the world eating and drinking aren’t usually emphasized by those who tout their religion in the public square.
I can honestly say I have never heard of members of the religious right taking to the airwaves to encourage society to eat, drink, and be merry. And yet, this stuff is in the Bible. The Bible describes playfulness as an important part of the God in whose image we are created. All too often those of us who profess to follow Jesus, refuse to hear Jesus: ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance.”
Jesus is calling us out to play. Yes, I know it is summer and I just go out to the lake and splash and play in the water. I can’t help myself. I just want to let Jesus’ words take me back to the words of Sophia, so that we can play together in the words of the scriptures.
In the Bible, it is Sophia who is first given the task of calling God’s people out to play, and that playfulness goes way beyond dancing. Despite the church’s attempts to contain and or constrain our playfulness Jesus continues to call us out to play!
On this glorious summer Sunday, on a weekend when it is meet right and salutary to celebrate, we can listen to the tune Jesus is piping and we can dance for joy for we are wondrously and gloriously made. Weekends are not the only things designed for play, we are. In the books of the Old Testament that are known as Wisdom Literature, it is made very clear that our bodies are blessings given by God so that we might delight in them. Playfulness, includes exploring the pleasures that one body can give to another body. There’s a little book in the Bible called that we call the Song of Solomon, but that for centuries was simply known as the Song of Songs and there you will find words that can make televangelists positively apoplectic. “Look, there my love stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. Let my love kiss me with kisses on the mouth!”
How did this get into the Bible? The Song of Solomon, or as it is sometimes called, the Song of Songs is surely the most erotic book of the Bible. This erotic song of songs is a long poem in which a woman, “Black and beautiful,” and a man, “radiant and ruddy,” speak the language of desire, cataloguing every inch of each other’s body, every smell and every taste. The radiant young man declares to his lover, “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.” and she tells anyone who will listen that, “His cheeks are like beds of spices, yielding fragrance. His lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh,” He responds by exclaiming that her, “two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. I am my beloved’s” she exults, “and his desire is for me.”
The Song of Songs is a song about desire, and so it is also a song about the pain of separation, of missed meetings, and of absence. “O that his left hand were under my head,” the woman sings with palpable yearning, “and that his right hand embraced me!” and when her lover knocked on her door and she hesitated for a moment to open it, the woman speaks some of the sexist lines in any literature.
“My beloved thrust his hand into the opening and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt.” When she opens the door, however, he is gone, and she heads out into the city to search for him. “I implore you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love.”
I know, I know, enough already. This is a church! Surely eroticism doesn’t belong within the sacred walls of a sanctuary! How did this erotic love poem make it into the Bible? No one knows for sure. But scores of interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have found in it the song of human yearning for God and God’s desire to be in intimate relationship with humanity. The Song of Songs is read at the festival of the Passover as a reminder that God delivered Israel from slavery not only because God was bound by the covenant to do so, but also because God loved the people of Israel and desired goodness for them. The ancient Christian writer Bernard of Clarvaux wrote more than eighty sermons on the Song without even making it past the third chapter. According to Clarvaux the poem provided a means by which the individual believer could come into intimate relationship with God. Like all great poetry, the Song of Songs can easily sustain a wide range of interpretations. But it resists being read only as a spiritual text about human beings and God. Clairvaux warned young monks and nuns not to read it until their faith matured, because of the sexual feelings it is able to inspire.Continue reading →
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number and there became a great nation, mighty and populous.” So, mighty and so populous that some of our ancestors wandered all the way to Northern Ireland. As a child in Belfast a long time ago, longer than I care to remember, so long ago that life was very different than it is now. Life in Belfast during the sixties was simple. We didn’t have much. Life was simple and basic and so many of the things that we take for granted, simply didn’t exist back then. Looking back on it now, I suppose you could say that we were poor. The truth is, we may indeed have been poor but I never knew it. Back then “the troubles” were reigniting in Northern Ireland as protestants and Roman Catholics began to slip back into their old violent ways. Looking back, I realize that the poverty and violence of Belfast in the 1960’s made it a tough place to raise a family. So, it makes sense that my family would leave Belfast as what today we would call refugees, fleeing both economic hardships as well as the threat of violence. But as a child in neither knew nor understood the realities of our migration. Nevertheless, arriving in Canada was just like arriving in the “Promised Land.”
On this Canada Day weekend, I can still vividly remember my first full day in Canada, even though it happened so very long ago. My Mother, my brother, and I arrived at the old Malton Airport. I don’t have any actual memories of walking across the tarmac, but legend has it that it was snowing on what should have been a spring day. I do have memories of my very first car-ride. I can still see the massive 1957 Plymoth. It was the first car my family ever owned and it had these huge fins at the back that were taller than I was at the time. The back seat was positively enormous and riding back there, I was thoroughly convince that my Dad had struck it rich in Canada.
We pulled into the parking lot of the tallest building I had ever seen and Dad announced that we were home. He pointed out a balcony way up on the fourth floor and said that this was our flat.Then we climbed aboard an elevator. I had never been in an elevator before and I was amazed at the skill with which my father took charge of the controls. When the door magically slide open, we walked down a long hallway to arrive at our front door. I can still see the gold numbers on the door, “407”. We must be rich indeed, if we had good on our front door. I could hardly believe my eyes when Dad opened the door. I remember the shiny wood floors, the brand new furniture, and the big TV set.
As we toured the rest of the apartment, I simply couldn’t speak. This new home looked nothing like the homes I was used to. What’s more inside the kitchen stood a sparkling white refrigerator. I had never seen such a thing. All I remember is that this refrigerator had magic powers that allowed us to keep food cold. Visions of ice-cream must have danced through my head. Just imagine the marvelous ability to be able to keep ice-cream in your very own kitchen. No more walking to the corner shop or waiting for the ice-cream man to pass by.Ice-cream right there as cold as you like in your very own home. It blew my tiny little mind!
You can’t imagine how rich I though we had become. Especially when off we went on my very first trip to a grocery store. A grocery store, not a shop or a market, but a grocery store in Canada, is a very magical place. I can still remember playing with my brother on the magic entrance to the grocery store. We had never before seen automatic doors and we were delighted to step over and over again on the magic mat that caused the doors to open. Then there was the big cart that people in Canada used to pile all their groceries in. People in Canada bought so much food that they needed a cart to carry it all out to their cars so that they could fill their marvelous refrigerators up to the brim. It must have blown my Mom’s mind to think that she would no longer have to shop every day, but could actually shop once a week because we had a fridge to store everything in.
I have this vague memory of standing in front of boxes and boxes of cereal. I had never seen so many boxes of cereal. So much choice. I remember choosing a box with a bear on the package…it was a cartoon bear… but it was a bear, I couldn’t wait to see a real bear. Canada, I thought must be full of bears. Perhaps the sugar pops, would make me strong enough to stand in front of a bear? I remember watching a square box of ice-cream travel down a magic counter and later watching as it was loaded into the massive boot of our massive car, and finally as it was placed in our very own freezer. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice-cream came out of that box. It was delicious. I remember several times, sneaking into the kitchen and opening up the fridge and then peering into the freezer to see if any of the ice-cream was leaking out of the box. Wonder of wonders, in Canada people are so rich that they can keep ice-cream for days and days and days in their very own homes. Canada is just like I imagined heaven to be. Canada was, to that little girl that I was way back then, Heaven here on earth.
Canada is an amazing land. I am not the first refugee, and I certainly won’t be the last refugee to discover that Canada is more lovely than the Promised Land of any wandering migrants dreams. The wealth of our land surpasses the wildest dreams of most of the people on this planet. We have been richly blessed. Listen to the words of Deuteronomy, they might just as well have been written for us: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that God has given you.”
Welcome to the promised land! Look around you. Rejoice and be glad for God has been gracious to you. Praise God for the bounty, which God has laid before us. Don’t let it be said of you, “that none of them was found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner”. Let it be said that, “we shall eat our fill and bless our God for the good land that God has given us. Take care that you do not forget God. When we have eaten our fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when our wealth has multiplied, our silver and our gold is multiplied, and all that we have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting God, who brought us out of the great and terrible wilderness.” Do not let us say to ourselves, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember God, for it is God who gives you power to get wealth, so that God may confirm God’s covenant that God swore to our ancestors, as God is doing today.”
Alas, like our ancestors, we too are like wandering Arameans, for just like every other immigrant who ever came upon the beauty of a land not their own, we did not wander into an empty land. We are migrants, settlers, colonizers. Looking around this room, I think it is safe to say that, regardless of whether it was us our or our ancestors, our people, our tribe, took this land from the indigenous in habitants of this land. Our ancestors may have believed that they had a god-given right to this land. But the texts we revere as sacred cannot disguise the reality of the crimes that were committed when our forbearers took this land from the peoples and nations that had inhabited this land for centuries before any Europeans every dreamed that Turtle Island existed. We are setters in this land, descendants of colonizers, our wealth came and continues to come at great cost to the indigenous peoples of this land that we love.
We come from a long tradition that looks back upon our ancestors as wandering Arameans who when they arrived at what they believed to be their Promised Land, they believed that their god was providing them with all the blessings they needed to thrive as a nation. The reality is that those wandering Arameans were settlers and colonizers in the land of Canaan. The Canaanites lost their land to the Israelites and the tragedy of colonization still reverberates down to this very day as Israelis and Palestinians fight over the blessings of the Promised Land.
As the celebrations of “Canada 150” fade, perhaps we can turn our attention to the many blessings of this land. Perhaps we can finally begin to move beyond the sins of our fathers and mothers, and set aside our own sins of omission. Perhaps we can begin to hear the words of the One we profess to follow and learn to love one another in ways that do not put one another into categories of native and non-native, indigenous and settler, colonizer and colonized, neighbour and enemy, but rather sisters and brothers in a land rich with promise. We have relied for too long on the ravages of our past which trained us well to be colonizers. Surely, it is time for us to set aside our childish ways, and look not to the tribalism of our past but rather to the sense of blessedness that called upon our ancestors to remember that we have been blessed to be a blessing. Surely, we can begin the next 150 years by finding ways to be a blessing to our sisters and brothers who have suffered the perils of colonization. If Canada is to grow out of our childish churlish ways, we will need to learn from our indigenous sisters and brothers so that together we can cherish this land where the abundance of the earth provides so much promise that all who live here can find peace together.
Canada is not the Promised Land given to us by God so that we can gather up all the milk and honey. Canada is a land filled with promise; a land of nations of indigenous peoples and settlers have many blessings to share with the world. Before the promise of Canada can be realized, it is time for us to clean-up the mess of “Canada 150” by atoning for the sins of our mothers and fathers as well as our sins of omission. We can do that by ensuring that our all our sisters and brothers have access to the milk and honey. We can do that by learning from our indigenous sisters and brothers how to live in harmony with the land, how to respect the blessings of Turtle Island, how to share the blessings in ways that ensure that this great land continues to thrive. We can do that by repairing the damage that has been done while ensuring that every child feels as richly blessed as we do. Only when everyone of us is free to embrace with dignity the promise of this great land will we truly begin to embrace the blessedness that abounds all around us in ways that will be a blessing to the world.
May we all learn to look beyond “Canada 150”, so that together we can see our blessedness not as our own, but as god-given so that we might be a blessing to others. We have been richly blessed. And, to those to whom much has been given, much is expected. We have been blessed to be a blessing. The party is over, let the clean-up begin. Set your minds upon the ways in which you might embrace your blessings so as to be a blessing to others. Let it be so. Amen.
According to the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Matthew, Jesus said, “But I tell you that everyone who is angry with sister or brother is subject to judgment; anyone who says to sister or brother, ‘I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin; and anyone who vilifies them with name-calling will be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”
“Gehenna” a valley outside of Jerusalem where people burned their garbage. Gehenna a filthy stinking kind of place where, in the heat of the day, fires consumed the trash of the city. Gehenna a loathsome place that looms large in our collective imaginations as the mythical hell that haunts our culture, tormenting so us with nightmares of our own making.
“Anyone who says to sister or brother, “I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin” – the Sanhedrin – the people’s court – a place where society judges our actions, “anyone who vilifies” a sister or brother, with name-calling bill be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”
What is this doing in the Bible? Where is the Good News? Why did our ancestors in the faith preserve this particular piece of storytelling? “Anyone who says to a sister or brother, ‘I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”? What is the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Matthew trying to tell us? “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your sister or brother has a grudge against you, leave your gift there at the altar. Go to be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift. Lose no time in settling with your opponents—do so while still on the way to the courthouse with them. Otherwise your opponents may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the bailiff, who will through you into prison. I warn you, you won’t get out until you have paid the last penny.”
I suspect that the anonymous gospel storyteller, that we call Matthew, knew a great deal about the kind of disputes that may have inspired Jesus to want to cast members of his own tribe upon the dung-heap of his society. Remember, Jesus own people were colonizers in the land of Palestine. Colonizers all too often resort to spitting, both metaphorically and quite literally in the eyes of the people that they are colonizing. So, I can well imagine the kinds of disputes that would have been rampant in a land of Palestine that had been colonized over and over again. Jesus’ own tribe, the Jewish people, had colonized the Canaanites. In Jesus’ day, the first inhabitants along with the Jewish colonizers were in turn colonized by the Romans. Inter-tribal disputes were a dime, or should I say, a shekel a dozen. I can well imagine that there was a lot of spitting going on.
Land claims; we here in Canada suffer under the delusion that we are the only ones who must deal with complications over who owns the land. But this kind of tribal turmoil has been going on since long before the Hebrews wandered off into the wilderness of the desert and found themselves dreaming of a Promised Land. One person’s promised land is another person’s home. It seems to me that the only way to justify driving a fellow human-being off their homeland is to dehumanize them. Human history is filled with examples of one group of humans moving in on another group of humans and it usually begins with one human deciding that the other human is less of a human than they are. Colonizers, by definition, dehumanize the colonized. Dehumanizing others, inspires the kind of contempt that allows some of us to spit in the faces of others of us.
First century Palestine, like 21st century Palestine afforded all sorts of people the opportunity to spit in the faces of all sorts of people. When you scratch the surface of all the spitting you can usually discover some sort of dispute over land. We humans suffer from the original sin of believing that we can actually own the land; as if the land is ours and ours alone. And yet, every tribe in every land, has an innate sense that the land comes to us as pure gift from the Creator of the land. This Creator of land, however our particular tribe imagines this Creator, is the ONE we look to as the ultimate owner of the land. But we humans have this ugly snake that lives deep down inside us, that fills our heads with delusions of grandeur, that deceive us into believing that we and we alone are the ones who are wise enough to occupy a particular place in a particular time. Oh, we humans are very adept at dressing up our naked aggression, but there hasn’t been a fig leaf made that can disguise our hubris. And so, we spit in the face of those who reflect our nakedness back to us.
This particular allegory of Jesus insisting that such contempt will lead us all to the rotting, smoldering, garage heap that haunts our deepest nightmares, is not a particularly cheery tale for a Sunday morning. These verses from our sacred scripture don’t get much airplay in our sacred spaces. You don’t often hear about the dire consequences of our contempt for one another. Oh, sure we know that these verses are there, but we’d rather forget about them, and we certainly don’t want to be reminded of Gehenna on a summer Sunday. Which brings me full circle to what I want to remind us of on this particular summer Sunday. For like these uncomfortable verses of scripture that remind each of us of the contempt that slithers about in the dark places of our psyche, there’s a particular kind of contempt that most of us don’t particularly want to be reminded of at this particular time of the year. As our nation prepares to celebrate “Canada 150,” none of us want to think about the many ways our celebrations are spitting in the face of our sisters and brothers, who continue to suffer from the realities of the colonization which continues to benefit each of us as settlers in these lands that we love.
“Canada 150,” as if our various tribes’ appearance in these lands, marks the starting point of Canada. 12 to 15 thousand years, that’s how long the experts insist indigenous peoples had lived upon the lands we call Canada. Indigenous: “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place” As opposed to, settlers who colonized, these lands, displacing the indigenous by whatever means necessary so that our peoples could become the masters of these lands. Our ancestors, the original colonizers, brought diseases that wiped out whole nations of peoples. Our ancestors, the original settlers, inspired by contempt for the First Nations of these lands, drove millions off their various homelands. Our ancestors, came in waves, to settle these lands and over generations adopted tactics designed to rid these lands of “Indians”.
But just like our sacred scriptures that warn against the folly of spitting in the face of our opponents, the colonization of these lands happened a long time ago. We’d rather forget about all that and move on. The trouble is we settlers keep spitting in the faces of our indigenous sisters and brothers. And for those of us, who believe that we are not like our ancestors, the reality that our government is spending half-a-billion dollars this year to celebrate “Canada 150” while 134 indigenous communities do not have safe drinking water — well if that is not spiting in the face of our sisters and brothers, I’m not sure that we setters will ever understand what the anonymous gospel story teller that we call Matthew was trying to tell us, let alone what Jesus lived and died for.
Listen to the words of our Metis sister, Christi Belcourt as she reacts to the spit that has landed on her face.
I can cite for you
Lists of the dead
150 languages no longer spoken
150 rivers poisoned
150 Indigenous children taken into care last month
150 Indigenous communities without water
150 grieving in a hotel in Winnipeg
150 times a million lies
told to our faces
to steal our lands.
I can cite for you
Forms of resistance
150 battles to the death
150 water warriors walking
150 naming ceremonies
150 ways we shake the ground with dance and song
150 tattooed expressions of sovereignty
150 times 2 million days faces were painted
with earth of this land.
I can cite for you
Summers coming of resurgence
150 thousand babies birthed in ceremonies
150 thousand status cards burned
150 thousand youth marching for water
150 thousand children with braids and feathers in their hair
150 thousand Indigenous words being spoken without English
150 summers coming
of Mother Earth calling out to our hearts
150 summers coming
where you too, will finally come to understand
the power and spirit of these lands and waters
as our ancestors have known and have been trying to tell you for 500 years.”
Christi Belcourt is calling upon you and I to recognize that our “Canada 150” celebrations are in fact a celebration of 150 years of colonization. Perhaps it is time for us to really hear the words of our own sacred scriptures: “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your sister or brother has a grudge against you, leave your gift there at the altar.Go to be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift. Lose no time in settling with your opponents—do so while still on the way to the courthouse with them. Otherwise your opponents may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the bailiff, who will through you into prison. I warn you, you won’t get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Justice, real justice would extract a high price from those of us who continue to enjoy the benefits of 150 years of colonization. Fortunately, our indigenous sisters and brothers are not insisting upon an eye-for-an-eye kind of justice. Our indigenous sisters and brothers are inviting us to sit down with them to work together to find a way forward upon these lands that we all love. They are inviting us to do what the members of our Christian tribe have done since the first followers of the way began to chart a path in the wilderness of their own colonial nightmare. Our ancestors in the faith gathered together and in the words of the Acts of the Apostles: “Those who believed lived together, shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods, sharing the proceeds with one another as each had need. They met in the Temple and they broke bread together in their homes every day. With joyful and sincere hearts, they took their meals in common, praising God and winning the approval of all the people.”
Our indigenous sisters and brothers are inviting us to sit down together to break bread with one another, so that we can find ways to share the blessings of these lands that we love. We are being invited to share in a process that is embodied in the smudging ceremony that purifies the space to permit the sacred energy that exists between peoples to lead us forward in peace.
So, during the days of celebration, let us open ourselves to the possibilities of peace among the lovers of these lands. Let us remember twelve to fifteen thousand years of history on these lands, and let us honour all those who have gone before us, all those who will come after us, by learning to live in harmony with our sisters and brothers upon these lands that we call Canada.
Once again, Holy Cross will the honour of hosting York Region’s Pride Fest worship. Last year’s service took place the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, and so we did our best to be both sanctuary and celebration. You can read the sermon below. Join us this Sunday for PrideFest Worship!
I have a vague memory of wandering into a large sandpit. Four or five children were playing in the dirt with Tonka toys. I couldn’t have been more than five years old. I was enthralled by this big yellow grader. A kid younger than me, was using the grader to make roads so that these big yellow Tonka dump-trucks could make their way to a small kid-made hill, where another kid had a big Tonka machine that I would later learn was a front-end-loader. This kid was moving the earth. I knew then and there that these boys were having way more fun than the little girls pushing dolls in toy strollers. I wanted a Tonka toy!
The outrage created by such a harmless desire is writ large in my memories. I learned from a very young age not to express my desires. The fear of expressing myself kept me locked inside of myself. The first time I nearly managed to free myself happened in a gay-bar in Vancouver. Now of course, I didn’t go a gay-bar because I was gay. I went to a gay-bar because my friend John is Gay and he’d never been able to must up the courage to go to a gay-bar. So, I went to a gay-bar to support my friend. The name of the club was “Faces” and I was scared to death that my face might be recognized and someone might get the wrong idea about me. I mean, heaven-forbid someone might think that I am gay. I loved Faces. I hated the music—it was the Disco era. But the atmosphere. Guys I knew, just being themselves. People dancing. Lots of freedom. And no fear. I danced with women. I danced with men. They didn’t care if I was straight or gay. They only really cared if I was smiling. They cared about my happiness and they cared about my safety. That club was a sanctuary. Unless you’ve ever had to be careful about who you love, unless you’ve ever had to refrain from holding your lover’s hand because you are afraid, not of what people might think, but what people might do, unless you’ve ever lived in fear because of who you are and who you desire, or who you love, it is difficult to understand the sanctuary of the clubs. Gay-bars, gay-clubs, are sanctuaries. Safe havens. Sanctuary from the fears of a hostile world. Safe from oppression or persecution. Sanctuaries where Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Questioning people can freely be who they are created to be. Sacred places.
Long before I knew who I was gay, the queer community that I met in the clubs, embraced me with the kind of welcome I never experienced in the sanctuaries of any church. The violation of the sanctity of Pulse in Orlando is an attack on a community of people who thought that they were safe. Tragically, 103 people were shot. 49 murdered, 53 wounded, 6 of the wounded are in critical condition fighting for their lives. We’ve all heard the horror stories of young people enjoying the sanctity of the Pulse club, only to have their lives shattered by hails of bullets. Barely did we have time to grieve before the pundits began haggling over what label to apply to the perpetrator of such carnage. Hate-crime or terrorism, homophobe or repressed homo-sexual, mental illness or radical jihadist, any way you slice this unholy mess, the dead and wounded paid with their blood and their lives for the world’s inability to move beyond our tribal instincts.
The rhetoric has penetrated our tears. As we grieve, we are assaulted with words and images that move us to despair the reality that even as homophobia wanes Islamophobia is on the rise. In the midst of our grieving, the lunatic running for the highest office on the planet, as he rants about visions of what might have been if only Pulse patrons had taken advantage of their second amendment rights and pulled out guns of their own and fired back at their deranged assailant. Describing his vision of carnage as and I quote, “a beautiful thing”, it is difficult to distinguish his words from the ravings of the evangelical nut-jobs who have the audacity to voice their own brand of hate-speech as they insist that these horrendous deaths may indeed be a blessing; because Lord knows that such lives are an abomination.
Just when the stench of such rhetoric becomes unbearable we are reminded of the gunman’s father who suggests that his son should have left the punishment of gays to God. If only, one religious nut-job could cancel out the other. But they cannot. The distinction between deranged religious ravings and hate-speech has all but disappeared. And just when you think the pundits have done their worst, the reality that one persecuted minority is being asked to take up the task of persecuting another persecuted community, as the victims of homophobia are encouraged to practice Islamophobia.
Rid me of the idiots who forget that neither the Bible nor the Qur’an is free from hate-speech. Yes, Islam has prevented interpretations that encourage hatred and murder, but so does the bible. When it comes to hating the members of LGBTQ communities Jews, Christians, and Muslims have a great deal to answer for. When we shake our heads as religious fanatics quote the Quran we must not forget that we too have our fanatics. We must not forget to put the fanatics into context.
In 2015, a Pew Research poll found that 42 percent of Muslim Americans supported same-sex marriage, compared with 55 percent for the overall population. To put this in context, in the U.S. Muslim support for gay marriage today is roughly equivalent to the level of support expressed by the total population as recently as 2010. Islamophobia clouds our vision of our Muslim sisters and brothers who are struggling to move beyond the constraints of our history. We can encourage our sisters and brothers or we can give into our fears and embrace policies and practices that will wall us of, separate and divide us. Sadly, the politics of division and hatred sells and so the media is drawn, toward politicians who are all too willing to cater to our darkest fears and religious mouth-pieces that give voice to our worst selves.
As hatred begets hatred, our tears well up and I find myself haunted by the images of God created by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions that have given birth to doctrines that have demonized, stigmatized, ostracized, and inspired hatred, violence, and the slaughter of LGBTQ people for centuries. My heart aches so much so that in the words of the sixteenth century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart: “I pray God, rid me of God.”
Our images of the ONE who IS the Source of All That IS must change. That angry, manipulative, vengeful, violent, super-natural, God up there in the sky is not the Sacred Reality that we experience as LOVE. “God is LOVE.” Even the three monotheistic religions that have shaped the Western world share this insight. God IS LOVE. Almost every religion shares a version of the great commandment to LOVE our neighbours as we love ourselves. So prevalent is this religious edict that it known the world over by the religious and non-religious as “the Golden Rule.” God is LOVE. The one of whom we are all made is LOVE. We live and move and have our being in LOVE. And still the influence of that old Sky God continues to haunt us as we stumble around in this latest nightmare. The LOVE that we call God is Beyond our ability to capture with words or images. This LOVE that we call God lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us. That old sky-god is at its best just an educational tool to help us begin to understand that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves. At his, and I do mean his, worst that old sky-god is nothing more than an idol whose worship leaves us isolated in our various tribes — calling upon the power of our idol to ensure the safety and supremacy of our tribe and let all the other tribes be damned.
I pray God, rid me of God. Let me move beyond images and ideas that fall short of the LOVE that called us into being. As we learn more and more about what it means to be human, as we understand and express our humanity in new and diverse ways, it is time for us to look toward the source of our humanity in ways that honour all of who we are. Can the Creator of all this really be as small and petty as we have been lead to believe by those who cannot even begin to deal with the reality of all this? Our images of our Creator have been severely limited by what we once thought it meant to be human. Our ideas about God have been severely limited by what we once thought was true about the universe. As we move beyond simplistic notions of what it means to be human, can we not also move beyond simplistic notions about the Creator of all that IS.
No religion can continue to claim that it has the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The word religion literally means, reconnection. Religion by definition is about the very things that reconnect us. How can something that is supposed to be about our connections to that which is so much more than we are, together with our connections to one another and our connections to creation, have locked us in to such separation from ourselves?
What if we began to take seriously our human urges for connection; to explore our desire to connect with something bigger than ourselves, to explore our connections as human beings, connections to our Creator, connections to one another, connections to creation herself? I pray God, rid me of God. Rid me of images of god that fail to express the LOVE that IS God. Rid me of images of god that are too small, too petty, too tribal, too violent, too judgmental, to infantile, to encompass the reality of the LOVE that IS God. Rid me of the jealous god of our ancestors. Rid me of the old man up there in heaven who likes nothing better than to listen to my pleas for mercy. Rid me of the bearded bloke who sits upon the thrown of judgement. Rid me of the vengeful, nightmarish Father who is portrayed as demanding a blood-sacrifice. Rid me of God. So that I might begin to discover the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being. The ONE generations of Jews, Christians, Muslims and a whole host of other religious peoples, together with people who claim no religion have experienced as the LOVE that lies at the very heart of reality. This ONE that we call God, who is beyond, the beyond and beyond that also.
Let us discover anew, this LOVE that we call God, so that we can fall in love all over again, with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind; and for the love of God, please don’t leave our minds out of this equation. Let us fall in love with this LOVE that we call god, so that we can discover our all over again how to love ourselves and begin to love our neighbours in the same way. Let us begin to create images of this LOVE that we call God that will provide sanctuary for all the beautifully diverse expressions of humanity, so that the dancing and celebration over what it means to be human can begin again. Let all our words about the God create images of God in which all God’s children can find sanctuary, knowing that they are beautiful expressions of their Creator, created by LOVE for love. Let our images of God empower us to be LOVE in the world. Amen.
So, today is Picnic Sunday and Trinity Sunday all rolled into one. As your preacher, on Trinity Sunday my job, is to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to you. As a Lutheran preacher, I have been trained to go to our creeds in order to explore what our forbearers have traditionally confessed to be true about the nature of the Trinity. And on Picnic Sunday, my job on is to preach a short sermon so that we can move on to enjoying our picnic. I wish for all our sakes that I was that good a preacher. If I could explain the Trinity to you, I would but I cannot, so I will do my best to keep it short. As for the creeds confessed by the Lutheran Church, well I haven’t been able to profess my faith using our traditional creeds for a long time now. I can say however, that: Martin Luther himself wasn’t able to explain the Trinity even though he wrote volumes and volumes on the subject. The concept of the Trinity is an ancient tradition that attempts to make sense of the Mystery that we call God. God is a Mystery, and mysteries by definition, are in and of themselves unexplainable.
So, let me tell you a story. It’s a story right out of the last chapter of John Shelby Spong’s book “A New Christianity for a New World.” The chapter is entitled: “The Courage to Move Into the Future”. In it Jack tells the story of a student he had at Harvard, who was pursuing a Master of Divinity Degree; that’s the degree you need to be a pastor in a mainline denomination like ours. Kathrin Ford, like many women who have taken on the task of preparing themselves for a career in the church, was struggling with the constraints of a patriarchal institution that the church has become and was wondering if the church, as she had experienced it, would ever be open to the direction she felt compelled to travel.
Jack describes the experience of being in class listening to her preach a sermon like this: “She stood before us quite still, quite silent, then she began. Slowly at first, she painted with words the picture of a town facing a major flood. The rains came with such relentlessness and over such a long period of time that the river rose dangerously. The people formed sandbag brigades to protect the things they valued. The sandbag walls rose, but the floodwaters rose faster. Soon water covered their fields, drowning first the wheat, then the canola, then the onions. The people, seeking safety inside their homes, watched with a sense of helplessness as their livelihoods were destroyed before their eyes. They wanted to flee, but their roots were too deeply planted; they were so totally attached to the values enshrined in their farms and town that they felt they could not leave. Still the river kept rising. It now covered the first floor of their homes. As they watched their family photographs—symbols of their past—curl up and float away on the water, they felt they were losing the very meaning of their lives. Soon their physical sustenance was so endangered: the floodwaters covering their town began to seep into the ground, contaminating their ground-water.
Their homes were becoming unlivable. If they stayed in this place, they would surely die. Yet something powerful and relentless inside themselves continued to urge them to remain where they were. Rationally they knew they had to leave, but emotionally they were immobilized.
Katie Ford described this scene with evocative images that kept her classmates raptly attentive. Yet they had no idea where she was going with the image or this theme, nor did Jack. Then with all of them caught up in her symbolic description of a killing flood, she began to speak the words of the Christian creed, beginning with the phrase, “I believe in God, the Father almighty.” This creed, she said, like that flooded town, “has become for me an unlivable place.” She then described the history of creedal formation. The creeds were “a response to debate,” she said, “designed to tell who was an insider in the Christian faith and who was not. A creed is a border-maker,” she added, fashioning her developing definition.
No Christian creed is “a full statement of faith,” she continued. It is only the Christian community’s ecclesiastical “response to arguments.” All the undebated issues, she said, have been left out. That is why in the creeds “there is no mention of love, no mention of the teachings of Jesus, no mention of the kingdom of God being present in our bodies and souls, no mention of God as the ground of life.”
The creeds have fallen on us, she asserted, like the rain over the centuries. They have been repeated endlessly, shaping our minds and our souls to the point where we cannot think of God outside the forms they affirm, or the boxes they create. They have permeated our land, shaped our values and yes, even entered the intimate assumptions of our living space. “Drop by Drop,” she said, our religion, as it come to be embodied in our creeds, has given us “a profoundly dangerous doctrine of God.” It has covered our fields, she said, and destroyed the very crops that Christians are supposed to harvest as their livelihood. It has contaminated our groundwater. “We have been drinking in the Father God our whole life.” “This creed,” she argued, “has, like that flood, rendered our traditional religious dwelling places no longer habitable.”
Yet this creed, and the definitions that arise from it, are so powerfully present in our emotions that even when we judge it to be a destructive document that is killing our very souls, still it whispers, “You cannot leave. You will be lost if you wander. You must stay where you are.” But we cannot stay. The price is too high. These creeds have given us a God, she said, “Who caused the death of his son, the damnation of disbelievers, the subordination of women, the bloody massacre of the crusades, the terror of judgment, the wrath toward homosexuals, the justification of slavery.”
She went on to delineate that God of history: “The Father almighty God embodied in the creeds is a deity who chooses some of the world’s children while rejecting others. He is the father who needs a blood sacrifice, the father of wrath, the father of patriarchal marriage, the father of male ordination and female submission, the father of heterosexual privilege, the father of literal and spiritual slavery.”
She examined and dismissed the ways various church people have tried to address the “unlivability” of the creeds, the no-longer-belivable quality of the Father God as traditionally defined. Some do it, she said, by nibbling or tinkering around the edges of reform. Making God-language less masculine and more inclusive is a positive step, she conceded, but it does not go deep enough.
The real issue, she continued, “is that God is not a person. God is not a being. God is Being itself.” There was stunned silence in the room as Katie drove her conclusion home. This God, who is “Being itself, is not the father of life,” she countered. “This god is life.” Our creeds, she concluded, have now made it impossible for us Christians to continue to live in the place to which these creeds have taken us.”
This story mirrors my own dilemma. These are exciting times in which to live in the church. I believe that we are living smack dab in the middle of a reformation. I’m not alone in that belief. Reformations may be exciting but they are not the most comfortable places to be. I confess that there are days when I long for the Blessed Assurance of a bygone era. But the rains began to fall a long time ago and the waters have been rising and it’s time to go. The Church, this old boat might have sprung a leak or two, and there are quite a few souls who’ve felt the need to abandon ship. But she can still float and I believe that it’s up to those of us who are still aboard not to scuttle her, but to begin to bail her out. Fortunately, there’s still enough of us left and if we start bailing know we just might be able to through enough water over-board to get us where we need to go.Continue reading →
Meister Eckhart’s fervent plea: “I pray God, rid me of God” becomes a sort of mantra for me whenever the task of contemplating the Trinity rolls around on the liturgical calendar. Once again, I have failed to have the foresight to book my holidays so as to avoid the task of preaching on this festival of the church, so I find myself plumbing previous sermons in search of a way through the quagmire of doctrines which threaten to overcome even the most dedicated of preachers. I offer them here to my fellow preachers as my way of saying, “I pray God, rid me of God!!!” Shalom
I cannot begin to explain to you what happened on that day in Jerusalem, without explaining to you who I am. My name is Mary and I come from the village of Magdala. You may know me as Mary Magdalene. But you have no idea who I am. There are many stories that have been told about me. Some of the things that have been said about me make my head spin. Over the years, thanks to the twisted interpretations of the men in the church that I helped to give birth to, I have gained quite a reputation for being a prostitute, a whore, an adulterer. Now I will lay claim to being a sinner and God knows I have had my share of demons, but prostitution, adultery, whore, where do people get these ideas? It seems that all you need to do is use the words sinner and woman in the same sentence and all some people can think about is sex.
Read your bibles and you will discover that, people have made me out to be something that I am not. It does not say anywhere in the New Testament that I, Mary of Magdala was ever a prostitute, the New Testament doesn’t say that, the men of the Church did that. The New Testament simply says I was a sinner who just happened to come from the city. If you insist on calling me a prostitute based on this evidence, that says more about you than it does about me.
You see, I come from a good family in Magdala. Magdala is a wealthy city on the Sea of Galilee, just south of Capernaum. My family made a lot of money in the fishing industry in Magdala. While I was growing up I lacked nothing. But I was not happy. I was sick. I would sit around the house moping and complaining and make everyone miserable. I was so distraught. Often, I was so upset that I pulled out my own hair. Sometimes I would be so excited that people couldn’t stop me from talking. I ran up all sorts of bills in the market place which my parents had to pay. I was always cooking up some mad scheme or other. I would rant and rave at the slightest provocation. From time to time I would become ill and stay in bed for weeks on end. I knew something was terribly wrong and nothing seemed to ease my anxieties. I was a prisoner inside my own mind. Then I met Jesus. Continue reading →
Pentecost Sunday is a day for stories about the nearness of God. So we begin with the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11:1-9, then make our way to the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Luke’s story of the early followers of Jesus’ encounter with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21, and then the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call John’s story of Jesus’ insistence that he and God are one, before rounding off with Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s excellent children’s book God In Between.
There’s a children’s Book that I love. I won’t tell you the name of the book because the book’s title is also the book’s ultimate meaning. I will tell you that the book is written by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who just happens to be the second woman to be ordained as a rabbi back in 1974. She is also the first rabbi to become a mother. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso brings the wisdom she has learned as a rabbi to her children’s books. As the Christian celebration of Pentecost is intimately tied to the Jewish festival of Shavout, when the Jewish people read the Book of Ruth, it seems fitting to read to you from the book of a Jewish Rabbi. Shandy Eisenberg Sasso’s story begins:
“Once there was a town at the foot of a hill with no roads and almost no windows.
Without roads the people of the town had nowhere to go, and they wondered what was on the other side of the hill.
Whenever they tried to leave their homes, they would sneeze through tall tangled weeds, tumble into deep holes and trip over rocks as large as watermelons.
Without windows they would sleep late into the day, and they often wondered when the sun turned night into morning.
Their houses were closed up like boxes sealed with tape.
They could never look out and their neighbours could never look in.
Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. Birthday celebrations lend themselves to the telling of stories. So, we begin with a parable by the radical theologian Peter Rollins. So, sit back and try to imagine that you live not at the beginning of the 21st century but at the middle of the 21st century; say about 2050. The world has changed quite a bit. “It seems that in the future laws will be passed declaring that all those who follow the teachings of Jesus are subversive. Churches have been banned and to be a follower of Jesus is illegal. You have just been accused of being a believer. You’ve been arrested, and dragged before a court. You have been under clandestine surveillance for some time now, and so the prosecution has been able to build up quite a case against you. They begin the trial by offering the judge dozens of photographs that show you attending underground church meetings, speaking at religious events, and participating in various prayer and worship services. After this, they present a selection of items that have been confiscated from your home: religious books that you own, worship CDs, and other Christian artifacts. Then they step up the pace by displaying many of the poems, pieces of prose, and journal entries that you had lovingly written concerning your faith. Finally, in closing, the prosecution offers your Bible to the judge. This is a well-worn book with scribbles, notes, drawings, and underlinings throughout, evidence, if it were needed, that you had read and reread this sacred text many times. Throughout the case you have been sitting silently in fear and trembling. You know deep in your heart that with the large body of evidence that has been amassed by the prosecution you face the possibility of a long imprisonment or even execution. At various times throughout the proceedings you have lost all the confidence and have been on the verge of standing up and denying Christ. But while this thought has plagued your mind throughout the trial, you resist the temptation and remain focused.
Once the prosecution has finished presenting their case the judge proceeds to ask if you have anything to add, but you remain silent and resolute, terrified that if you open your mouth, even for a moment, you might deny the charges made against you. Like Christ you remain silent before your accusers. In response you are led outside to wait as the judge ponders your case. The hours pass slowly as you sit under guard in the foyer waiting to be summoned back. Eventually a young man in uniform appears and leads you into the courtroom so that you may hear the verdict and receive word of your punishment. Once you have been seated in the dock the judge, a harsh and unyielding man, enters the room, stands before you, looks deep into your eyes and begins to speak. “On the charges that have been brought forward I find the accused not guilty.”
“Not guilty?” your heart freezes. Then, in a split second, the fear and terror that had moments before threatened to strip your resolve are swallowed up by confusion and rage. Despite the surroundings, you stand defiantly before the judge and demand that he give an account concerning why you are innocent of the charges in light of the evidence. “What evidence?” asks the judge in shock.
“What about the poems and prose that I wrote?” you ask. “They simply show that you think of yourself as a poet, nothing more.” “But what about the services I spoke at, the times I wept in church and the long, sleepless nights of prayer?” “Evidence that you are a good speaker and an actor, nothing more,” replied the judge. “It is obvious that you deluded those around you, and perhaps at times you even deluded yourself, but this foolishness is not enough to convict you in a court of law.” “But this is madness!” you shout. “It would seem that no evidence would convince you!” “Not so,” replies the judge as if informing you of a great long-forgotten secret. “The court is indifferent toward your Bible reading and church attendance; it has no concern for worship with words and a pen. Continue to develop your theology, and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world. We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christlike endeavor to create a better world. So, until you live as Christ and Christ’s followers did, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then, my friend, you are no enemy of ours.” “
Rollins insists that this parable is true right here and right now. We don’t have to imagine a world were Christianity is illegal for this parable to be true. Rollins insists that: “If you or I were really to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, would we not sooner or later, find ourselves being dragged before the authorities? If we were really to live a life that reflected the subversive and radical message of love that gives a voice to the voiceless and a place to those who are displaced, if we were really to stand up against systemic oppression perpetrated by those in power, then would we not find ourselves on the wrong side of the lawmakers?”Continue reading →