Persistent Woman: Mother Earth – Luke 18:1-8, Genesis 32:22-31

Our worship took a different form as we listened to the cries of Mother Earth using some clips from the documentary Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. Turns out that Mother Earth is a persistent woman which we discovered when we wrestled with the SACRED ONE.  Two reflections instead of a sermon. You can follow along with the bulletin found here

Reflection: Luke 18:1-8

When we expand our image of the DIVINE MYSTERY that we call “God”, God becomes so much more than a far off distant super-hero, waiting around to grant our wishes. Everything is in God and God is in everything. But God is more than the sum of everything. It hurts our brain to imagine the infinite vastness of the MYSTERY and so we create stories to help us to know aspects of the DIVINE.

Jesus told a parable that has become known as the “Parable of the Unjust Judge”. The parable is actually about a “Persistent Woman.” As we listen to the parable I’d like you to imagine this persistent women is the personification of our Mother the Earth and the unjust judge, well that’s you and I, we are the unjust judge.

Reflection:  Genesis 32:22-31

When we expand our image of the DIVINE MYSTERY that we call “God”, God becomes so much more than a far off distant super-hero, waiting around to grant our wishes. Everything is in God and God is in everything. But God is more than the sum of everything. It hurts our brain to imagine the infinite vastness of the MYSTERY and so we create stories to help us to know aspects of the DIVINE.

Some say that Jacob wrestled with an angel; an angel is the word that means a messenger from God. Some say that Jacob wrestled not with an angel, a mere messenger from God, but with God herself. Some say, the Earth is in God and God is in the Earth. Some say, that the Earth is God’s body. Surely, we can all agree that the Earth is sacred.

The sacred Earth is crying out to us. Each one of us must wrestle with this sacred messenger; with the DIVINE ONE of which we are also a part. Wrestling with the sacred is never easy. Not everyone is up to the task. Many will simply roll over in the night, hoping that the sacred messengers, or the DIVINE ONE herself, will simply go away and leave us alone. Some will no doubt find themselves overwhelmed by the messenger, overwhelmed by the immensity of the task of wrestling with such an infinite complexity. Others will resign themselves to their apparent insignificance and accept the paralysis which comes in the darkness.

I’m reminded of a story about Martin Luther who when asked what he would do if word came from an angel, a messenger from God that the world was about to end. Legend has it that Luther insisted that if he was convinced that the world was about to come to an end that he would plant a tree.

Plant a tree. Such defiance, such hope, such faith in the future, gifts such as these are what every wrestler needs so that they may engage the DIVINE.

Wrestling with the sacred will exhaust us, frustrate us, wear us out and maybe even leave us wounded. The reality of this sacred wrestling is that it will forever change us.

May you be blessed in the darkness by Messengers to wrestle with.

May the wounds of the struggle change you in ways you can scarcely begin to imagine.

Like our ancestor Jacob, may you see the face of God and live.

May we all see the DIVINE ONE, in the sacredness of the Earth, and live together in the shalom, the peace that comes when all God’s creatures hobble away from their careless ways of being, forever changed by the blessing of our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE HERSELF. Amen.

God in the Guise of a Pleading Widow a Sermon on Luke 18:1-8

Like a Pleading WidowAi Weiwei’s exhibit “According to What? at the Art Gallery of Ontario inspired me to look beyond traditional interpretations of Jesus’ parable of the Pleading Widow to see our role as the unjust judge. The gentle breath of a newborn granddaughter enabled me to hear the DIVINE ONE persistently pleading for justice. Read the sermon manuscript below or Listen to the sermon here:  

I spent time exploring the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is a powerfully, disturbing, fascinating and compelling exhibit that I know will stay with me for years to come. Ai Weiwei is, according to the AGO’s description, “an artist with a very new kind of visibility. He has transcended his artwork to become a worldly figure who, for many, symbolizes the assertion of freedom of expression against great odds. Using the fame and recognition garnered by his art, Ai Weiwei has taken on issues that could not be raised publically in China.” The exhibit provides a unique window into a part of the world that continues to remain impenetrable.

Ai Weiwei and I are the same age but it is as if our worlds are light-years apart. I first became aware of his work during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Ai is responsible for the spectacular design of the Beijing Olympic Stadium that has become known as the Bird’s Nest. With his conception of the Bird’s Nest Ai hoped to represent freedom. He saw the Olympics as a splendid opportunity to demonstrate that China was opening up after decades of seclusion with a dismantling of the barriers erected by successive totalitarian régimes. Sadly, Ai’s dreams were dashed as the stadium was constructed and the Chinese government resorted to old methods to drive the poor from their homes in order to build on Olympic sites.

On the opening day of the Olympics, Ai wrote this about his of his decision to boycott the events: “Today China and the world will meet again. People will see that the planet is now smaller than at any time in history, that mankind should bid farewell to arrogance and indifference, to ignorance and discrimination, and understand that we share the same small piece of land. It will be a time to rediscover each other, to share what is good in life, to look each other in the eye and link all 10 fingers. The colourful festival is a time not just for celebration, but also for peace and friendship. To rediscover our future, we should say goodbye to our past. We must bid farewell to autocracy. Whatever shape it takes, whatever justification it gives, authoritarian government always ends up trampling on equality, denying justice and stealing happiness and laughter from the people.

We should also leave behind discrimination, because it is narrow-minded and ignorant, denies contact and warmth; and corrodes mankind’s belief that we can better ourselves. The only way to avoid misunderstanding, war and bloodshed is to defend freedom of expression and to communicate with sincerity, concern and good intentions.

The “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, which I helped to conceive, is designed to embody the Olympic spirit of “fair competition”. It tells people that freedom is possible but needs fairness, courage and strength. Following the same principles, I will stay away from the opening ceremony, because I believe the freedom of choice is the basis of fair competition. It is the right I cherish most. If we want it to be, today can be a moment of courage, hope and passion. This day will test our faith in the human race, and our determination to build a better future.”

The Chinese government has not reacted kindly to Ai’s public descent and he has felt the weight of their abuse. He remains under house arrest and was not allowed to travel to Toronto for the opening of his exhibit. It is only, Ai’s world renown as an artist and public dissident that protects him from the ultimate fate of so many Chinese dissidents.  Ai Weiwei’s courage in speaking out against injustice over and over again, has robbed him of his liberty and put his life in grave danger and yet he continues to publically protest the abuses of his overlords. Ai’s testimony, expressed in his art, speaks volumes to the world and even tough his protests fall on what appear to be the deaf ears of a régime that continues to oppress the people of China, one wonders how long these unjust judges will be able to resist his persistent pleas for justice. Continue reading

Wrestling With the Almighty: Locating Our Very Selves in the Sacred Story – a sermon on Genesis 32:3-31

Godbotherers

For those of you preaching on the text from Genesis 32:3-31:

You may not be able to tell from looking at me. But let me assure you that you are looking at someone who used to be a champion wrestler. Believe it or not, my wrestling skills actually helped me rise to the level of a world champion wrestler. Well, perhaps I should qualify that statement. When I was an amateur wrestler, I was a world-class champion wrestler. But like so many athletes, when my status changed from amateur to professional, I lost my championship status and although I still qualify as a professional wrestler, and I like to see myself as a champion, I’m no longer what you would call world-class.

Like many professional wrestlers my career began when I was but a child. Growing up I had a very clear advantage as I developed my wrestling skills. You see having a brother who was just 18 months younger than me meant that I had ample opportunities to hone my wrestling skills. My brother and I were always at it. I’ve got to say that even though we shared the same weight class for most of our childhood, when it came to world class wrestling holds, I had him beat. I had this wicked arm-hold sleeper, and that together with my full Nelson followed by a knee-arm press, was guaranteed to have my brother screaming uncle and agreeing to be my obedient servant until in no time at all. For years I reigned as the champion of our little world! I was unbeatable. My brother didn’t stand a chance. My reign as world champion would have continued if it weren’t for the abrupt ending of my amateur status.

One morning when I was about 13 and my brother was 9 and a half, we were going at it,  and to his credit my bother had me in an ingenious hold. Somehow, he’d managed to secure me with what we professional wrestlers call an arm bar. That’s where you’re opponent wrenches your arm behind your back and applies just enough pressure to cause pain, but not enough to break anything. But just when Alan was approaching the point of no return, I managed with a feat of superhuman strength to rise up, twist around and swing for all I was worth and connect with what I though must be my brothers chest. I expected that such a thrust would have released my arm from Alan’s iron grip. But he still had me. I was about to hit him again, when for no apparent reason Alan released me from his grip. In an instant I wiggled free, spun around and connected with what I figured would be a fatal blow. Just before my blow connected with it’s victim, I realized that I was doomed.

Continue reading

Whose Persistence? Preparing to Preach on the Parable of the Pleading Widow

pleading widowLooking back on a sermon I preached twelve years ago on this week’s readings from Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8, I am struck by how much my own images of the DIVINE ONE we call “God” have changed and yet remain oddly similar. The intervening years have afforded me the opportunities to begin to leave behind notions of an anthropomorphic God who intervenes in our lives. As I have embraced the writings of progressive and evolutionary theologians, I have struggled to understand and articulate DIVINITY’s nature from the perspective of panentheism (everything is in God). There are those who suggest that this is a departure from the Christian tradition. Yet looking back, I am beginning to see this movement as a natural progression of the tradition. Indeed, so much of what I have always loved about Lutheran theology has freed me to explore this path. So, I offer this old sermon as a snapshot of my own pathway toward new visions of the Divine. I trust that my early efforts to move beyond the notion of God as the “unjust judge” will move some to begin to see God in, with, and through all those who persistently plead for justice. 

What little I know about the art of wrestling I learned from my brother Alan. He and I are just eighteen months apart in age and together we participated in many a wrestling match. All too often one or the other of us would be bothering the other and before we knew it we were rolling around on the floor wrestling. I’ll have you know that up until the age of about twelve I was quite a good wrestler. Up to that point I usually managed to hold my brother to the ground and with my knees firmly pinning his arms I would be able to get my brother to agree to my point of view. But my brother’s adolescent growth spurt put an end to my winning streak. Just as soon as my brother was big enough to pin me to the ground I decided to stop bothering him. Bothering my brother became dangerous and I had to give it up in order to save my dignity. Continue reading

Gratitude for the Great Fullness of Life Is Only the Beginning – Thanksgiving

A couple of years ago, I began experiencing chest pains, nausea, and cold sweats. As these are signs of a heart-attack, I went up to the local walk-in clinic and soon there-after I found myself sitting in the emergency room. The doctors and nurses were convinced that I was in the midst of what they now refer to as a “heart event”. While awaiting some further tests, my mind raced to all the worst possible scenarios that I could imagine. Fear was my over-riding emotion. Fear that my heart was failing. Fear that decades of not putting my health first was catching up with me. Fear of what my future might hold. Fear of impending medical procedures. Fear of not being able to work, to pay our bills, especially our mortgage. Fear of turning into some sort of invalid. Fear that my future was being taken out of my control. Fear that I was getting old long before I expected to.

There is nothing like an emergency room to strike fear into your heart, especially when the pain that drove you there is throbbing in your chest. So, by the time I’d spent several hours enduring various tests, I thought I was ready for anything. That is until a young doctor who looked like he was about twelve years old walked into my cubicle. A part of me wanted to ask this child-doctor to go find a grown-up doctor, because this was serious business and I wanted to talk to an adult. Fortunately, I managed to suppress my ageism.  You cannot even begin to imagine my delight when the child-doctor pronounced his diagnosis. Gallbladder. No heart-attack. A severe gallbladder attack. These kinds of attacks are quite common in people who have recently managed to lose weight.  My reward for loosing 50 pounds was an afternoon in the emergency room.

I couldn’t believe my luck. I begin thanking everyone and everything for my extremely good fortune. Thanks be to God. Thanks be to medical science. Thanks be to my heart. Thanks be to the child-doctor! Thanks be for the opportunity to do better in the future. Thanks be for a future! I wept with joy! A gallbladder attack is a wonderful thing. A gallbladder attack is not a heart attack. I could go home. I could go back to work. I could pay the mortgage.

All my worst fears were gone. I would take this as a warning to never ever take anything for granted. When I went outside, everything looked so beautiful. It was as if I had awakened from a nightmare. I was so very grateful that I promised myself never again to take my health for granted, never again to take life for granted, never again to forget what a precious gift life is. From now on, I was going to pay attention to the wonders of this amazing gift of life. Continue reading

Faith: A little dab’ll do ya! – Luke 17:5-10 – World Communion Sunday

Today all over the world, churches of all sorts of denominations will gather to celebrate communion. World Communion Sunday is an opportunity to embrace the embodiment of the infinite variety that exists in within the communities of our fellow Followers of the Way.  Today, we uphold the reality that no matter how communion is celebrated we Followers of the Way are all companions. For to be a companion is to literally share bread together. The word companion is made up of two Latin words, “com which means “with or together” and “panis” which means “bread”. To break bread together is to be a companion.

Humans began engaging in the sacred act of breaking bread together generations before Jesus embraced the sacred act of sharing a meal together to strengthen the bonds of companionship among his followers.

How many of you remember the very first time you participated in the companionship of communion? I suspect that for many of us are of an age where we can remember when are communion practices were less inclusive than they are today.  For several generations many mainline denominations tried to limit communion to those who had been “properly” instructed in the “meaning” of communion. In Lutheran churches children often had to wait until after they were Confirmed in order to be welcomed at the table. Back then, Communion wasn’t so much celebrated as it was endured as a sort of ritual reward for penance. Fortunately, we have come a long way from the somber communion rites of the past. But, I suspect that many of us still carry the residue of less than life-affirming theologies that taught us to view Communion as a sort of ritual that needs to be endured as a way to remember a “blood sacrifice”, a kind of quid pro quo for our sinfulness.

I can still remember my very first communion. It was, for all sorts of reasons, a life changing experience. Fortunately, for me my first Communion was free from the trappings of penitence. There was little or no thought of a blood sacrifice for sin. You see, my first Communion happened by way of what some would call an oversite or an accident, but I think of as a grace-filled DIVINE blessing.

As I’ve told you before, I did not grow up in the Church. My family’s experiences in Belfast had shown us the worst that the Church can offer and so, my brother and I were never encouraged to go anywhere near a Church of any kind. We were baptized as infants as a kind of insurance policy and I never darkened the doorway of a church until I was fifteen years old. I was an incredibly lonely teenager. I had spent my childhood moving from place to place, country to country, school to school; always on the move. I learned very early not to make friends with people because if you make friends it is so much more painful when you have to move away.

Longing and loneliness were predominant emotions that characterized the deep homesickness of my younger self.  Looking back to my younger self, I can see a little girl who was homesick for a home she never really knew because when you move about as much as we did, no place ever feels like home. Eventually all you can feel is this deep longing for something you cannot quite name. So, one day, at the tender age of fifteen, a new acquaintance that I was tempted to turn into a friendship, invited me to come to church with her. Continue reading

You Are More Powerful Than You Think – Cosmos Sunday – Psalm 139

In our ongoing celebration of the Season of Creation, today we shift our focus to the Cosmos. Usually, the word “cosmos” conjures up starry images of far distant constellations. Staring out into space can make us feel small and insignificant. But on this Cosmos Sunday, I’d like us to move us from our usual perspective of the cosmos. Perspective is a powerful tool, especially when we contemplate our place in the cosmos. You see the word “cosmos” refers to the entire universe, every dimension of time and space, spiritual and material. The cosmos includes the glittering galaxies that are so distant that we must peer at them through sophisticated giant telescopes as well as the deep domains within each minute molecule which we can only peer at through the lenses of sophisticated giant microscopes.

In addition to the material dimension of universes, the cosmos also includes the dimensions of time, our imaginations and of the spirit. Take a cube of sugar for example. Scientists tell us that you could fit the entire human race into the volume of single sugar cube; that’s right all 7 billion of us in a single tiny sugar cube. Something about the emptiness of matter that is beyond my intellectual ability to comprehend.

The cosmos is both infinitely large and infinity small. None of our telescopes and none of our microscopes can actually capture the vastness of the infinitely large nor the infinitely small, we must rely on our imaginations for this perspective on the cosmos. Staring out in the night sky can make you feel very small. Looking around the Earth, which is in and of itself a small planet can make you feel small and insignificant. But as the psalmist insists, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. The Hebrew word that is translated as fearfully can also be translated as awesome. Your very being is so very wonderful that it inspires awe. Awe and wonder are the very first religious impulses. Congratulations, for you are awesome, tremendous, wonderful. And yet, so often we can only see ourselves as small in relation to the cosmos; small and insignificant, small and powerless.

I remember, once long ago, when I was feeling so very small, insignificant and powerless. I was only ten years old. My Grandfather had a way of belittling people that was crushing. Granda had been taunting me over something I had said. The adults had been talking about war in the Middle East. The year was 1967, the year of the Six-Day War. I was just ten and didn’t understand the details of what was happening. But I did understand the drills we went through at school. Those of you of a certain age may remember hiding under your desk as we practiced what we would need to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Somehow our wooden desks were supposed to offer us some sort of protection. It was madness. A kind of madness that all of us, even the adults in the room all bought into. Continue reading

Entertaining Angels: Hebrews 13:1-3

Hebrews 13Readings:  Luke 14:1,7-14; Mechthild of Magdeburg’s “The Flowing Light of the Godhead”; Hebrews 13:1-3

Listen to the sermon here:

I am often reminded of the fact that one of the most basic parts of my job of being a pastor is pointing out the sacred. Most of what I do revolves around noticing when we are in the presence of the HOLY, the MYSTERY, the ONE who is so much more that we are, the LOVE that lies at the heart of all that IS. My job is to point to the sacred ONENESS, the LOVE that many call GOD and say “there,” or “here,” or “now,” “don’t miss IT.” All too often we find ourselves in the company of angels, messengers of the LOVE that IS God, and we don’t even notice it.
For the most part we humans can’t quite grasp the magnitude of the MYSTERY that lies at the very heart of reality and so we do what humans always do: we personify this ONEness, or we use symbols and metaphors to indicate the presence of the sacred in our midst, and we tell stories. Stories that include burning bushes, ladders into the sacred realm, shepherds, lost coins, all sorts of symbols and metaphors that point to the ONE who IS. We have told some of those stories so often that the REALITY of the MYSTERY that these stories were created to bring down to earth, seems ever so distant and far away, lost in the mists of time. The REALITY that so many call God has been cast out there far away beyond our reach. So, week after week, I try to bring the stories, symbols and metaphors a little closer to the world that we inhabit so that you might be able to see in your own stories the angels that you have entertained without even knowing it. 
In October of 1977, when I was twenty years old. I was young and adventurous. With a rail pass in my hand, a back pack slung over my shoulders and several hundred dollars worth of American Express Travellers cheques in my pocket, I boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, bound for Athens, Greece. I was tired. Several months of back-packing in Northern Europe had left me weary. In just five days my rail-pass would expire, so I decided to head for Greece, where the living is easy, where the warm sun, blue skies and equally blue waters held the promise of rest and relaxation.
As the train made its way through the Alps, I remembered a similar trip which I had made the year before and I tried to calculate whether my remaining funds would allow me to return to the village of Chania on the island of Crete. I knew that on Crete I could find work. So, I planned to mix a lot of rest and relaxation with just a little work and try to live out the winter on the Mediterranean. As the train rattled through Austria, towards what was then called Yugoslavia, it began to get dark. I was disappointed that my journey through Yugoslavia would be completed in darkness. I remembered my previous journey, by car, through Yugoslavia and how at the time, I had marvelled at the diversity of this strange little country. I remembered men and women driving oxen as they ploughed their fields in much the same way as their ancestors had done. I also remembered my surprise at entering the ultra modern city of Belgrade; the showcase of what was then Tito’s communist regime.I fell asleep pondering the sharp differences between the lives of the poor people in the villages who appeared to live without any modern conveniences at all and the lives of those who inhabited the city of Belgrade with its towering sky-scrapers and streets filled with automobiles. Several centuries seemed to co-exist in Yugoslavia.
I was awakened from my dreams by the sound of people shuffling to find their papers as the train conductor instructed us to get our passports and visas ready for customs inspection. When the Yugoslavian custom officials, with their rifles over their shoulders boarded our train they were preceded by men guided by vicious looking German shepherds. Even though I knew that I had all the right papers and that my back pack contained nothing more offensive than some dirty laundry, the sight of the dogs, guns, and uniformed officials struck fear into my heart. I nervously handed over my precious passport to an official who looked younger than my twenty years. He carefully read over the Visa which I had obtained in Zurich the day before; a visa that I could not read because it was written in an unfamiliar language and an unfamiliar alphabet.The young man handed my passport over to an older official and before I knew what was happening, I was being escorted off the train. I was shaking so badly that the young men on either side of me had to hold me up. I am not sure that my feet even touched the ground. After a long lonely wait in a drab windowless room, a woman entered. In broken English she told me that my visa was not in order. I gathered from what she was trying unsuccessfully to explain to me, that my passport contained the visa from my previous visit to Yugoslavia, but was missing an official exit stamp. She demanded to know why there was no exit stamp in my passport. Needless to say, I could not explain. I told her that I had only spent a little over a week in Yugoslavia the year before and then gone on to Greece. I told her that I didn’t know that an exit stamp was necessary and that I couldn’t understand why the Yugoslavian consulate would have issued my current visa if my paper work was not in order. She kept insisting that I needed an exit stamp. After several fruitless attempts to try and get her to tell me what I was supposed to do, I found myself in a small room. Its only window was reinforced with bars.
In the darkness of a Yugoslavian holding cell, I sat down and I began to cry. I cried like I have never cried before or since. I was terrified and my sobbing was uncontrollable. After a while I became conscious of a sound that did not come from me. “Susssssssssh.”
I realized that I was not alone in the darkness. Someone else was in the room with me. In the shadows, I could make out the shape of a woman. My sobbing began to subside as she continued, “Shussssssh.” The woman began to pace back and forth in our tiny room and gradually her shusssh turned into humming. She hummed unfamiliar tunes that somehow managed to calm me. Occasionally her humming would turn to singing. She sang softly and quietly and my sobbing began to ease.
In the shadows I could not tell how old she was. Her hair was long, dark and curly. She wore a plain cotton dress, ankle socks and a beaten up pair of shoes, whose laces flapped back and forth as she paced. It took only a few hours for my travelling companion to contact the British Embassy, sort out the mess and secure my freedom. The sunlight was just beginning to find its way into our room when my captor arrived to release me. As I left, I took a close look at my roommate. I smiled, hoping that she would understand my smile as gratitude for her kindness. Her tender sounds had calmed me and helped me through one of the darkest nights of my life. She returned my smile and added a wave of her own. Then the guard roughly escorted me out into the bright lights of the customs house.
Before I boarded a train that would take me safely out of Yugoslavia, I thought that perhaps I should try to help my roommate. Maybe I should try to find out why she was being detained. Perhaps I should try to help her get out. But this was not a place that welcomed questions and the warm sun of Greece beckoned me. And so, I boarded the train and I left. My few hours of captivity – I chalked up to just one more adventure on the road and I rarely thought of my room-mate again. Continue reading

So Bent Out of Shape are We! Stand Up and See Beyond the “war on terror!” – a sermon on Luke 13:10-17

salaam alaikumOver and over again as I have explored the stories handed down to us by our ancestors, I have been struck by the significance of names in ancient literature. The ancient writers used names as a tool to reveal important details. A character’s name in a story can be used to remind us of other characters in other stories that also carried that name, or a character’s name can be taken from a word that has significant meaning.  We can use the names of biblical characters to explore deeper meanings within the stories. We would do well to pay attention to the names of biblical characters. The lack of a name is just as important as any given name. I believe that there’s a reason that the anonymous gospel storyteller we call Luke failed to give a name to the woman we find bent over in chapter. The writer we call Luke can be very deliberate about names when he wants to be. I believe that the storyteller wants us to see this woman as our very selves.

So, let’s play along shall we? Stand up. Stand up and bend over. Please, if you are able stand up and lean over 45 degrees. I want you to have a sense of the woman’s predicament. For a few moments, just a few moments I want you to feel the strain on your back, and the burden on your shoulders that that woman felt for 18 years. I want you to look and see how being bent limits your vision. See how your perspective is shorter. Stooping, you cannot easily look into the faces of those around you, you can’t be on the same level with anyone, you can’t see the whole church. It’s not so easy to look toward the horizon to see a glorious sunrise or sunset. Vistas of God’s wondrous works on earth are restricted. So bent out of shape, how could you ever gaze into the awesome stars at night.

Listen to the story one more time: Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled here for eighteen years. How many of us arrive on the Sabbath with spirits that have crippled us? She was bent and quite unable to stand up straight. She was bent….in Greek the word is “kyphotic.” She was a kyphotic woman. The word kyphotic literally translates as bent together or bent with. It is as if this woman is bent in on herself. It’s a picture of someone who has not only borne the yoke but who really owns it in her very body. She is not just a woman with an infirmity but the Scripture says, with the spirit of an infirmity. Whatever it was that had bent her, whatever emotional or physical burden she had borne, the Scripture suggests, ultimately became part of her until her very body was confirmed to its image. There is nothing she can do now to help herself out of the spiritual pretzel her life has become. Each of us knows this infirmity intimately. At one time or other, over and over again, we have all experienced this infirmity in our lives and in our bones.* (Jana Childers “The Kyphoptic Woman” 2005)

Each of us have been bent with the burdens of our relationships, our jobs, our finances, or our health and sometimes even our lovelessness. We have all been this woman who is bent out of shape by her burdens. We have all been bent in on ourselves. But today, I want to take the image of this woman a few steps further to see what she reveals about our culture.

Okay, you can sit down now. Sit back and relax as I tell you the story of two communions; two communions that are not limited in time or space to the actual communions that they reveal. The first communion is indeed my first communion. I was just 15 years old and I’d only just begun to attend church. It was a small Lutheran church and back then they only celebrated communion a few times a year. I wasn’t prepared for communion. I’d only been attending church for a few weeks and I had no idea what it was all about. I still remember wondering what I should do. I was leaning toward just sitting where I was and waiting until after the service so that I could ask the pastor for an appointment to talk to him about what I needed to do in order to make sure that I was prepared properly to go to the table. That’s when my friend’s mother Lola leaned over and asked me if I wanted to go up for communion with them. I whispered that I’d never been to communion before. She smiled and took my hand and said that’s okay, you’re welcome at the table. I didn’t see any table and I was sure that I was missing something. So, I stood there with my hand in hers and listened very carefully as the Pastor told the story,  “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and gave thanks; broke it and gave it to his disciples saying: Take and eat; this is my body, given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me. Again after supper, he took the cup gave thanks and gave it for all to drink….” Continue reading

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

Eckhart rid me of GodMeister Eckhart’s fervent plea: “I pray God, rid me of God” becomes a sort of mantra for me whenever the task of contemplating the Trinity rolls around on the liturgical calendar.  Happily, I so not have to worry about the Trinity this coming Sunday as we shall celebrate Pride Sunday at Holy Cross.  I do not have to wade through the quagmire of doctrines which threaten to overcome even the most dedicated of preachers. I offer some previous Trinity sermons to my fellow preachers as my way of saying, “I pray God, rid me of God!!!” Shalom…

click on the sermon title

If I Could Explain the Trinity to you, I would, but I cannot.

I’m not that good a preacher!

While Preachers Dutifully Ponder the Doctrine of the Trinity,

Our Congregations Shrink???

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

The Athanasian Creed and an Unholy Trinity

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

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

Like Nicodemus we have blinders on! Our focus upon preserving the church gets in the way of our rebirth!

Pentecost Sunday Sermons

Dream Dreams

God In Between

The Spirit in Our Midst

Pentecost: a Human Phenomenon

Beyond Tribalism – Preaching a 21st Century Pentecost

Celebrating Pentecost in the 21st Century

Pentecost Tongues Aflame with the Prayer attributed to Jesus

Global Engagement, Chaos Theory, the Butterfly Effect and a New Pentecost

 

 

One In God – a sermon for Easter 7C

made of God Julian pastorDawn copy I am indebted to John Shelby Spong’s “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic and John Philip Newell’s “Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings” for insights beyond my own imaginings.

Listen to the sermon here

When I was just a kid, my mother would ask me a question that would be the beginning of a conversation, a routine of sorts that comes out of my Mom’s own childhood in Northern Ireland. The routine goes something like this. Mom would ask me: “How much do you love me?” and I would answer as I’d been taught to answer: “A big bag of sugar!” To which my Mom would reply, “I love you more, I love you two bags of sugar!” To which I would reply, that I loved my Mom, “Five big bags of sugar!”

Over the years I’ve met lots of people from Belfast who measure love in bags of sugar. As near as I can tell this loving conversation has something to do with sugar’s ability to make all things sweet and the fact that over the generations sugar was in short supply because most people simply couldn’t afford to buy sugar. I’ve also been told that during and after the two World Wars sugar was rationed, so a big bag of sugar was more sugar than most people ever saw. Sugar was a much sought after satisfying treat, that was essential to a happy life, so measuring love in bags of sugar is something that to this day, my great-nieces and nephews still learn from their elders. But these days even children know that sugar isn’t what it used to be. We all know too well the dangers of a big bag of sugar. Sugar in large quantities is bad for us! Loving someone today, often means limiting their sugar intake. I suspect that expressing love in terms of bags of sugar will soon go the way of Ring-around-the-rosie…while children still sing it they have no idea that it is all about the black plague that saw millions of children fall to their death…. Love measured in bags of sugar, like packets full of posey, is a thing of the past…vaguely remembered by only a few. Given a few generations and our ways of expressing things, like language changes over time.
Take for example our way of expressing the DIVINE the SOURCE of ALL that IS and all that Ever Shall BE, the names we give to the ONE who is responsible for our Creation, the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being, the ONE we call “God,” has been known by many names over the centuries. The earliest name for the ONE credited with our Creation is quite simply “El”…”El” is if you will, the generic name for “God” El a word found in both the Ancient Sumerian and Canaanite languages translates as, god. In the ancient manuscripts of what we know call the Hebrew Scriptures, but our parents called the Old Testament, the earliest expression used for the God we were raised to worship is, El Shaddai, which is all too often incorrectly translated into English as “God Almighty,” but which quite literally translates into english as “breasted one” or the more accurate translation, “She Who Has Breasts”.

Continue reading

Lonely, Yet Not Alone – John 14:23-29, Easter 6C

This morning, I want to talk to you about an epidemic that is rampant in our world. This epidemic is growing at such an alarming rate that governments all over the world are scrambling to address the pervasive suffering that this epidemic is causing in people of all ages, all races, all classes, all faiths; this epidemic does not discriminate, every one of us is susceptible to the devastating consequences of this epidemic. Any ideas about what governments are calling this quickly growing epidemic? Loneliness. Loneliness or as some experts refer to it, social isolation is growing in leaps and bounds all over the place.

All of us have known the pain of loneliness. Some of us also know that loneliness can have a detrimental impact on a person’s mental health. Loneliness causes increased rates of depression, anxiety, and irritability. Research now shows that loneliness can also be physically harmful. Loneliness is linked to potentially life-shortening health issues like, high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity. Some experts have gone as far as to argue that being lonely for a prolonged period of time is more harmful to a person’s health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. One of the most socially isolating aspects of loneliness comes from the social stigma that surrounds loneliness. We simply don’t talk about our loneliness. This social stigma often prevents people from seeking help. “People think if they admit they are lonely it means people don’t want to be with them.” People just don’t want to admit that they are lonely.

Loneliness is a global problem. In the United Kingdom the situation has become so serious that the government has appointed a loneliness minister to address the issue. In Canada, studies have found that one in five Canadians identify as being lonely. One in five of us suffer from the shame and the fear that come from being lonely.

Watch the Lonely Bench

I can’t help but marvel at Sukhkaran’s courage. I know that I would not have had the courage to sit down on the Lonely Bench. At his age I would have been too afraid that if I sat down on that bench, nobody would have come to sit beside me. We moved around so much when I was a kid. I was always the new kid in class. Every year a new school. Sometimes more than one new school in a year. As a child, I had intimate knowledge of loneliness. All too often I felt the pain of social isolation, of not belonging. I cried so many tears because of the pain that consumed me because I had little or no connection to the strangers into whose midst I stumbled in and out of.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I finally found my people. I was fifteen, when I found my tribe when I happened upon a Lutheran youth group which lead me into the church. Finding my people, my tribe and finding a place to belong in church, made my life a lot better. But even a sense that I actually belonged somewhere didn’t end my loneliness. Even the church can be an incredibly lonely place. Continue reading

Wonderfully Made, Ever-Evolving Humans in an Ever-Changing Cosmos – a sermon for Easter 6C – John 14:23-29

Love Julian bw

Listen to the sermon here

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace.  Don’t let your hearts be distressed; don’t be fearful.” What exactly is this peace that Jesus gives?  The his letter to the church at Philippi the  Apostle Paul described the peace of God as the peace that surpasses all understanding. Is this the same peace that Jesus offers, this peace that surpasses understanding? It reminds me of a story I heard years ago about a little girl who went to Vacation Bible School.  Her favourite thing about Vacation Bible School was the singing, and her favourite song was, “I’ve God the Joy in My Heart”.  It’s the kind of song that can very easily become an ear worm. “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy,  Down in my heart (where?)  Down in my heart (where?)  Down in my heart  Down in my heart to stay.”  But for this little girl it was the second verses that stuck with her.  When she got home her parents were surprised and amused to hear their little girl, sing the second verse with such gusto.  Do you remember the second verse? I’ve got the peace that passes understanding down in my heart, (where?”)  Down in my heart (where?)  Down in my heart  Down in my heart to stay.” Except this little girl kept singing over and over again:  “I’ve got a piece of pastor’s understanding down in my heart, down in my heart (where)”

The reason that that particular ear worm won’t leave me alone, is the “where” part of these lyrics.  I’ve got the love of Jesus, Love of Jesus down in my heart, down in my heart, “where” down in my heart, where, down in my heart to stay. When we hear down in my heart we tend to think of emotions, and feelings. But the heart hasn’t always been thought of as the source of feelings and emotions. Way back in the 4th century BCE…the Greek philosopher Aristotle identified the heart as the seat of intelligence. Observing that the heart is the first organ formed in the embryo of chick’s eggs, Aristotle surmised that the heart must be vital for life itself and life meant that which makes us human, our ability to think. All the other organs simply existed to serve the heart. Indeed the ancient’s didn’t really know what brains were, except for being the mushy part encased in the skull, which they surmised must have some sort of role akin to the lungs, and served only to cool the heart.

In Jesus day, the brain was viewed as the location of the soul; the place were spirits came together. The heart was where the real thinking happened.  It wasn’t until late in the 17th century that the seat of intelligence moved to our brains. So, I find it mildly amusing that Christian children should be taught that they “have the peace that passes understanding down in their hearts, where, down in their hearts to stay.”

Okay, I know I just made an impossible intellectual jump there, but hear me out. This peace that surpasses understanding, this peace that Jesus offers “is not like the world’s peace.”   Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be distressed; don’t be fearful.”  In other words, “Don’t let your mind be troubled, there is nothing to fear.” 

These days, the world tells us to be afraid, to be very afraid. For the most part, the logic of the world wins out, and we are sore afraid.  We worry about everything. We are afraid of stuff our ancestors never even thought about. Some of us are so afraid that our own images in the mirror make us worry about going outside where others might see us. The advertising industry has convinced us to be afraid of our own humanity, our smells, our oily skin and hair, all ingeniously designed to keep us healthy and happy, have now become something we are so afraid of that we spend billions and billions of dollars each year to keep them at bay.

If our own image isn’t enough to frighten us into staying indoors, then the news media has us so afraid of all the monsters that lie in wait to do the most horrendous things to us. This despite the fact that crime is lower than it has ever been and we are safer than people have ever been in all of history. We are so afraid that we refuse to let children play, even though children are safer than they were back in the bygone days of our very own youth. Child abductions are lower than they were in the 1950s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s ex cetera, ex cetera, you get the picture.

We are obsessed with our own safety. If you don’t believe me just try to open up a bottle of pills, between the childproof caps and the tamperproof packaging you almost need an engineering degree together with a strong pair of hands just to get into the bottle. Every package comes complete with its own set of warnings.

Safety helmets, don’t get me started on safety helmets, we have helmets for all sorts of activities, but don’t worry because most kids never get the chance to use their bicycle helmets, because we are too afraid to let them go outside to play.

And what about the stock market?  Back in the day, most people never even knew what the stock market was, nowadays we spend countless hours afraid that the markets will crash and we’ll loose all of our money. Money! We are so afraid that we simply won’t have enough money, this despite the fact that most of us have more money and more stuff than most of our ancestors could have ever dreamed of having.  I don’t know about you but I come from hearty peasant stock: workers, miners down in the pits on my fathers side, and industrial workers on my mothers side, poor working folk who rarely enjoyed a luxury in their lives.  But at least they didn’t have all the fears that we have.  Oh they had fears, don’t get me wrong, but they quelled their fears with the sure and certain faith that it would all come out in the end.  All they had to do was read their bibles and pray ever day.  They had the peace that passes understanding down in their hearts. Down in their hearts to stay.

We have the news media, reporters telling us each and every day to be afraid, to be very afraid.  Terrorists, climate change, child abductors, predators, scammers, floods, wars and rumours of wars.  Be afraid, be very afraid. Oh, and by the way, God is dead. Jesus can’t and won’t save you.  So be afraid. The Buddha can’t save you either, and forget about Mohammed, and all the rest of those religious folk who promised you the sun, the moon and the stars.  And while we’re at it, what about those endless movies that portray the horrors of falling in love, and the pain of loss? We are doomed I tell you doomed. So, be afraid, be very afraid.  Use your heads, think about it, there is no hope, hope is an illusion. We are all going to die. Once you are dead, you are dead, that’s it, over done, nada. 

So, be afraid, exercise, exercise, get healthy, don’t eat that, be afraid it’s the only way to live longer, be afraid,  take this pill and eat this food, and run, run, as fast as you can, be afraid.  Use your head, its a big bad world out there and you need to be afraid, oh by the way, try this, buy this, use this, put your money here, build a wall, build a very big wall, keep them out, you know the ones, the big bad scary people who want to come here and take all your stuff, be afraid, be very afraid.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace.  Don’t let your hearts be distressed; don’t be fearful. ‘

So what is it that Jesus offers when he says,  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace. Don’t let your hearts be distressed; don’t be fearful.” ? 

I believe that there can be no peace in the world as long as we are afraid. Fear makes us forget who we are and whose we are. Fear makes us forget that we are richly blessed. Fear makes us forget that we live in relative safety. Fear makes us forget what we believe. Fear makes us forget who and what we love. Fear makes us forget to think. Fear makes us forget to breathe.  I also believe that the memory of who we are calms our fear and that this is the only hope we have of ever finding any peace in the world. 

When I am afraid, I mean really afraid, I often forget who I am.  The person that I am, is not angry, or greedy, or violent. But given enough anxiety, fear or terror, and I will react angrily.  Take away the familiar, push me beyond my comfort zone, expose me to strange and foreign ways, and I will become anxious. Threaten me with poverty and my fear of poverty will inspire me to be greedy.  Threaten me or the ones I love with violence, and my fear of losing my life or my loved ones will embolden me to resort to violence.

When the ground beneath our feet begins to shift it can cause us to forget who we are and unless we take a deep breath, we might just forget the SPIRIT that dwells in with, through, and beyond us.  Jesus believed and taught a new way of being in the world. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Jesus understood himself to be intimately related to the very SOURCE of his BEING. Where others had looked to the source of their being and seen a CREATOR to be feared and obeyed, Jesus looked to the source of his being and saw a CREATOR who takes delight in creation; a CREATOR so intimately connected with creation that it is impossible to see where creation ends and the CREATOR begins.  I and the CREATOR are ONE.

Our GOD dwells in the midst of us.  If we breathe deeply and feel the rhythm of the ONE who breathes in us we can begin to remember who we are. I am convinced that the peace we so long for in this world will only be realized when we find peace in ourselves.  We are wonderfully made.  Ever evolving humans in an ever changing cosmos. As conscious beings we are an integral part of a magnificent creation, the source of which flows, in, with, through, and beyond us.  Embracing the mysteries of creation need not involve being afraid of the unknown.

Jesus taught a way of being that encompassed the SOURCE of our BEING as part of the ONENESS of all creation, and encouraged us to embrace the peace that this knowledge brings.  When we are grounded in who and what we were created to be, it quells our fear and we are better able to respond to the fears of others in ways that will help them to remember who they are.  

Fear is the enemy of peace.  Jesus knew this. Why else was he constantly telling people not to be afraid?  Have no fear is Jesus’ mantra. There’s so much more I could say about our fears. 

I could go on and on about the ways in which fear separates us from ourselves, from one another and from our CREATOR. I could tell you all about the definition of sin as that which separates us from ourselves, from one another and from GOD. But I’m afraid that that would take to long and as being afraid is the very thing that I want to avoid, let me just give you a little peace.  So, Sit up, take a long slow breath….let it out….

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to take a long slow breath when you are afraid? Panting, gasping, sometimes even holding your breath all have more in common with fear than breathing deeply. Perhaps our bodies really do know best because when we do breathe deeply it has a calming effect. Pay attention to your breathing. Really, I mean it pay attention to your breathing. Take a few moments, right here and right now and just breathe.

In and out. Don’t try to moderate your breath.  Don’t try to slow it down and breathe more deeply. Just breathe……. Notice each breathe…. Your body knows exactly what you need.  Opening ourselves to the rhythm of our own breathing opens us to the reality of our ONENESS with every creature that has ever breathed, in and out the very same air down through the centuries. In and out, the SPIRIT of the SOURCE of our very BEING, flows in, with, through, and beyond us.  We are an intricate part of something bigger than we can even begin to imagine.

So, the next time the anxiety and fear threatens to make you forget who you are, breathe, notice each breath, and slowly you will begin to remember who you are. Slowly, you will feel the presence of the ONE who lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond you. Knowing who we are, will begin to free us from fear and enable us to free others from fear and before we know it peace will be breaking out in, with, through, and beyond us.   Let it be so, dear ones, let it be so. Amen.

Embracing Our FULL HUMANITY – The Gospel of Mary

Readings from the Gospel of Mary here

The year was 1998. I was in my final year of seminary. I took a course from a visiting New Testament Scholar, who shall remain nameless, to protect not his innocence, but because it is bad form to speak ill of our elders. Suffice it to say that this professor had achieved some renown as a New Testament Scholar, so I was eager to learn from his wisdom. This professor lived up to his reputation. He was brilliant and he was demanding. I learned a great deal from him. During a class on the women of the New Testament, I recorded a conversation between the professor and myself. The conversation impressed me so much that I included it in my Master’s Thesis. It went like this…

He just said it for the third time!  “Harlots!”

He keeps calling them “harlots”, while I rack my brains to come up with one harlot.  Then he points to the text and his charges become clearer, he says,

“she is a “prostitute!”

My carefully reigned in anger is unleashed.   “Where?  Where?  Where? Show me where it says this woman is a prostitute!”

As he refers to the Gospel text and insists that, “It is there, right there in the text”, I want to scream, I want to cry, I want to wipe the bemused expression from his face. I want to rub his nose in the damned text. Instead, I begin the uneasy process of reigning in my anger.  I slow my speech, I try to erase the tremor from my voice, and I ask him to, “Show me, show me where it says this woman is a prostitute.”

He consults his text and says, “a woman in the city who was a sinner.”

“A sinner not a prostitute.”  I respond.

He insists, “Yes a prostitute.”

“Where?” I ask.

Again, he insists, “A woman who was a sinner.”

I demanded to know, “Where does it say she was a prostitute?”

He insists, “The author means that she was a prostitute.”

I lose control, “How do you know?  What words does the author use to say that this woman was a prostitute? Show me in the text where it says she was a prostitute?”

He still doesn’t get it,“What do you mean? It is clear that this woman was a prostitute.”

Once again, I push, “Show me.  Show me where?”

He continues to say, “She was a woman from the city who was a sinner.”

I know that the text says that, so I implore him to tell me, “The Greek… What does the Greek say?”

He replies, “amartolos”.

I push, “Does that mean prostitute?”

We both know that it does not.

 He replies, “Sinner. But the context clearly shows that she was a prostitute.”

Still pushing I ask him to “Show me. Show me how the narrative says this woman was a prostitute. Show me where it says her sins were sexual. Show me where it says so in the narrative.”

He says, “It’s clear.”

Clearly, we disagree, so I try again, “Clear to you.  Show me. Show me!”

As he fumbles through the pages, I offer him a way out, “Okay.  Even if I concede the point that her sins were sexual, show me where it says that these sexual sins were nothing more than lust or adultery, show me where it says that she was a prostitute.  For Christ’s sake! Show me!”

He couldn’t show me.  It’s simply not there.

Nowhere in the New Testament does it ever say in Greek, or in English that Mary of Magdala is a prostitute. But over and over again scholars, theologians, popes, preachers, and dramatists, have continued to cast Mary of Magdala as a prostitute. In the years that have transpired since that day in seminary, when a visiting New Testament scholar insisted that “the context clearly shows that she was a prostitute,” I have delighted in being able to participate in the phenomenon of that I like to call, the resurrection of Mary the Migdal as the first Apostle. Migdal is a Hebrew word for tower and some scholars suggest that this was actually Mary’s title. Mary the Tower – perhaps because she was tall, but more likely because her authority as an Apostle “towered” above the authority of the apostles who abandoned Jesus. Continue reading

Mothers’ Day Angst – sermons for a day not included in the liturgical calendar!

True Mother Julian of NorwichMothers’ Day is not on the church’s liturgical calendar and yet the statisticians tell us that church attendance on Mothers’ Day is surpassed only by Christmas and Easter. Worship leaders who fail to mark the importance of this day do so at their peril; the same kind of peril that compels so many reluctant offspring to accompany their mothers to church. However, a simple liturgical nod in the direction of mothers or an over-the-top sentimental sermon all too often fails to capture the magnitude of the day’s significance in the history of women.  Planning the liturgy is challenging enough, but writing the sermon is a challenge which promises to keep me toiling away into the dark hours of this coming Saturday. So, for my colleagues who share a similar plight: below you will find links to previous attempts to commemorate this day of days. Feel free to share your efforts with me in the comments section. Please! I need all the help you can offer!!! click on the links below for previous Mothers’ Day sermons:

Enough for Everyone

Breasted ONE

Sophia/Wisdom

MOTHERS’ DAY – Peace is the Way

Preaching on Mothers’ Day – Don’t Compromise

Another Option for Mothers’ Day: Bring Many Names

SHE Who Dwells Among Us – A Mothers’ Day Sermon

Arise on this Mothers’ Day: a sermon

ONE in GOD – a sermon

 

“Resurrection: Not a One-Time Miracle” – Richard Rohr

richard rohr

Can the ways in which we tell the stories of resurrection transform us into followers of Jesus who embody a way of being in the world that can nourish, ground, and sustain the kind of peace that the world yearns for? In responding to this question, our understanding of the Christ all too often restricts the way in which we tell our stories of resurrection. Richard Rohr’s sermon preached at All Saint’s in Pasadena follows readings from Acts 5:27-32 and John 20:19-31 and pushes us to broaden our visions of the risen Christ. 

Oh Me of Little Faith: reflecting upon Doubting Thomas

leap of doubt pastorDawnIt happens every year as Doubting Thomas makes his Easter appearance. It’s a kind of resurrection of a glimmer of the faith that I long to recall in my flesh. I harken back to the time when I could embrace those wounds as proof. Oh how that faith comforted me. Resurrecting the memory of Thomas, who for years functioned as a trusted hero in my scant faith, now sends me into the dream of belief as the answer in and of itself; a kind of innocence that once gone is never forgotten. My nostalgia for my faith in belief will pass. But for just a moment or two, I pause to embrace the wounds, waiting for my doubts to open me to the evolving reality of now.  Jump!!!

Nickel Creek – A Doubting Thomas

Saudade: through the absence we feel the presence. – Easter Sermon

This time last year I was in Belfast. Many of you know that I lived in Belfast when I was a child. When I visit Belfast, I always stay in the part of the city that is known as the Cathedral District. From there you easily get around to most of the attractions that Belfast has to offer. Sure, there are plenty of tourist attractions in the Cathedral District but the real attractions are the pubs in this splendid part of Belfast. Trust me I’ve walked, some would say crawled, to some of the best pubs in Belfast. Which is not surprising because you see, I do come from a long line of pub-crawlers. My Grandad was a legendary pub-crawler. Grandda loved a wee dander about, as long as that dander took him to either a pub to the dogs. Fortunately, for Grandda there was always a pub at or near the dog racing tracks. So, when I wander the streets of Belfast city, I do so haunted by images of my Grandda all done up in his best, walking with such purpose and determination at first and then with a little less of a sense of direction as he crawled the pubs. Grandda has been dead for almost 40 years but in Belfast I can still see him in all his old haunts. So, when I’m in Belfast, every pub I go into, I enter with expectation and  I wonder what it must have been like when me Grandda came in here. Sometimes I actually see my me Grandda. I know he is long dead and gone. I know that he can’t possibly be there. But I can’t help myself, the feelings are so overwhelming.

We don’t really have a word in the English language that captures the emotion that I feel when I walk the streets of Belfast. There is a word that I learned a long time ago, it is a Portuguese word: “saudade.” Saudade doesn’t actually translate into English. The best translation of saudade that I have ever come across is, the presence of an absence….the presence through absence. It doesn’t appear to make any sense. How can you experience presence through absence? Something is either present or it is absent. And yet, if you speak to anyone who has ever lost someone they love and they will tell you that that person’s absence is so intense that they can actually feel them, right here, deep inside.

When a mother loses a child, the pain of that absence is so intense that she can feel the child she carried in her belly right here, inside. When a lover loses their beloved, the pain of that loss is so intense that the lost love is felt here, right her deep inside. When someone we love is gone, they are still here. We see them here there and everywhere. We catch glimpses of them on the streets. Sometimes we shake our heads knowing that what we see can’t be real, and yet we know it’s real. A loved one’s absence can be very present. Saudade, through the absence we feel a presence. Saudade.

Now I suspect that some of you are thinking and why wouldn’t you, it is Easter after all, so some of you are thinking,  “Aha, I get it…this is this progressive preacher’s way of explaining the resurrection.” Pretty good ha??? Well know, there might have been a time when I would have tried to explain the anonymous gospel-story-tellers’ accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. I am after all a progressive Christian pastor, and you are all enlightened 21 century people, with a pretty clear understanding of reality. There may be one or two of you who believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead. But I’m guessing that most of us don’t hang our Christianity on the concept of the physical resuscitation of a corpse.

As for this preacher, I’m with the Apostle Paul when it comes to the resurrection. Questions about the nature of the resurrection were annoying to Paul. So much so that the Apostle Paul used pretty strong language in his letter to the church at Corinth, Perhaps someone will ask, “How are the dead to be raised up? What kind of body will they have?  What a stupid question!” Like the Apostle Paul, my faith in the reality of resurrection does not hinge on the physical resuscitation of a corpse. “The sun has one kind of brightness, the moon another, and the stars another. And star differs from star in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is a perishable body, what is raised is incorruptible. What is sown is ignoble, what is raised is glorious. Weakness is sown, strength is raised up. A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up. If there is a natural body, then there is also a spiritual body.” So says the earliest explanation we have of Jesus’ resurrection.

Saudade is not my way of trying to explain the stories of Jesus resurrection. Saudade is my way of describing what it feels like to be a progressive Christian during Holy Week. After abandoning the notion that the DIVINE source of all that IS is actually some sort of far-away person in the heavens, who orchestrated the life and the execution of a person purported to be “His only begotten Son, begotten not made,” via an execution so vile that we shouldn’t even begin to contemplate it lest we tremble, tremble, tremble; well once you come out of the closet as a 21stcentury progressive Christian, Holy Week is like a saudade festival! Continue reading

Each Maundy Thursday we must peer beyond Passover lambs and scapegoats if we are to catch a glimpse the LOVE that we call God

Every Sunday I stand at the altar and preside over a mystery. A mystery that has its roots in the events we remember this Holy Thursday.  On Maundy Thursday, we gather together to contemplate MYSTERY. We know what will happen tomorrow as Good Friday plunges us into darkness. So is it any wonder that we cannot fully comprehend this MYSTERY.

The various gospel writers have created a record of Jesus’ last evening that is filled with bittersweet images. Our mystery begins with the foreshadowing of what is to come as we hear the name Judas Iscariot. Judas, son of Simon, is perhaps the most trusted of Jesus’ disciples, after all Judas is the one who is trusted with the financial resources of this struggling little group. Even though we know Judas’ role in this unfolding mystery, we must remember that Judas is among those who Jesus loved to the end. But long before the silver changes hands, we already know enough to dread the betrayal.

Our mystery continues with the tender intimacy of a teacher washing the dirty feet of his beloved bumbling students, as Jesus breaks the bonds of decorum to demonstrate the fierce tenderness of loving service. The image of Jesus washing the feet of his followers still seems undignified all these centuries later. So, is it any wonder that the intimacy of Jesus’ tenderness is more than Simon Peter can bear? In order to get beyond their inhibitions, Jesus must spell it out for them.  “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Sovereign —and you are right, for that is what I AM. So, if I, your Sovereign and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you and example.” Jesus has washed their feet; all their feet, even Judas and the talk of betrayal continues as Jesus returns to the meal.

The writer of the Gospel of John does not record the details of the breaking of the bread or the passing of the cup. These details are recorded by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians and by the writers of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke: “on the night he was betrayed, our Savior Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, saying, “This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper, he took the cup and said, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do it in remembrance of me.  For every time, you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim Jesus’ death until Christ comes.” Week after week, year after year, generation after generation, century after century Christian priests have presided over ritual communions using what have become known as the words of institution. In remembrance of Jesus we eat and drink. The body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ. And therein lies the mystery. The mystery of communion. Sometimes the meal has transforming power, nourishing power, restorative, profound power. At other times the meal is just one more religious ritual carried out by rote, experienced without feeling, or impact. Sometimes the meal seems foreign to us, almost alien, perhaps even barbaric. Continue reading