The Plague and the Printing Press to the Pandemic and the Internet: Always Reforming!

Semper Reformanda, Always Reforming! This tired old phrase is trotted out each Reformation Sunday by preachers like myself to encourage our listeners to embrace the need for the reformation of the Church to continue. However, appealing it may sound, Semper Reformanda, to be always reforming, is not a task which is often embraced by the Church. Take for example preachers: we who are called to earnestly exhort our listeners to be about the task of reforming the Church, we preachers, we all too often fail to reform our own preaching, especially when it comes to Reformation Sunday. A quick review of some of my sermons and my colleagues sermons  written for this occasion, reveal a tendency to narrow our focus upon the story, or the legend, perhaps dare I say it, myth that on October 31, 1517, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and launched, “THE Reformation.” We proclaim the central thesis of Dr. Luther’s theology, that we are justified not by church rules or doctrine, but rather, we are saved by the grace of God, by faith in Christ, then we all sing a few verses of the good doctor’s “A Mighty Fortress” and give thanks that we have been set free from the errors of the Church’s past and move quickly onto next week’s celebration of All Saints. Alas, our annual, protestant reformation rituals, are in and of themselves designed to free us from the burden of always reforming! So, on this Reformation Sunday, I would like to embrace the Reformation tradition of preaching a loud “semper reformanda” by giving thanks that on this Reformation Sunday, the church’s pandemic predicament makes it impossible for the church to do anything but reform. In the words of the wise Dr. Luther, “Here we stand. For we can do no other.”

Here I stand in an empty sanctuary, for we can do no other! Ten months ago, this sanctuary was effectively shut down and I have been leading worship from my home to your home. Remaining physically distant is what LOVE-ing our neighbour looks like in 2020. So, here I stand!  Alone, preaching into the camera on my phone, trusting that the miracles of technology will bring us together. What I wouldn’t give to see this sanctuary filled with your smiling faces. I miss you all and my longing for the traditions of old is only accentuated by the reality that we are headed into what promises to be a long, dark, and difficult winter. There is no end in sight. So, we must content ourselves with our hopes and dreams of a vaccine to cure what ails us. Or do we?

I know that many of us are blessed with the wherewithal to hunker down in our homes and sit this winter out, as we wait for the scientists to do their magic. If you’re watching this on a screen, you like me are among the wealthiest people on the planet and while we are not immune to COVID, we are insulated in ways that the poor, the dispossessed, the oppressed, and the homeless can only dream of. So, if we are careful, follow all the rules, and forgo some the pleasures we used to take for granted, we stand a pretty good chance of survival. Well today on this strange Reformation Sunday, I am here as your preacher, to proclaim that survival is not enough. I want us to consider the possibility, indeed the hope that we can do so much more than simply survive this pandemic. I stand here today to encourage us all to consider the hope which comes from semper reformanda; the hope found when we truly engage in the process of always reforming.

I believe that our Lutheran heritage will stand us in good stead if we manage to shift our gaze from the legend of Martin Luther’s mythical nailing of his 95 Theses upon the doors of the Church, to focus our attention upon the all too real events which took place in Luther’s actual life some ten years after his initial challenge to reform. So, let’s shift our gaze some ten years beyond the legendary events of 1517 to the summer of 1527, when the plague came knocking on all the doors of the people of Wittenberg. The black plague, unlike COVID-19, was an epidemic not a pandemic. One of the basic differences between an epidemic and a pandemic is that it is possible to travel your way out of an epidemic to find some place where the plague is not. For even though, the epidemic known as The Black Death, covered most of Europe, killing over 25% of the population, it was possible for people to escape the cities and towns ravaged by the plague. Indeed, Martin Luther’s wealthy patrons urged him to leave Wittenberg for the relative safety of a country estate. Luther refused, insisting that his calling as a pastor, required him to exercise his love for his neighbours by remaining in the city to minister to the needs of the sick and the dying.

As summer turned to autumn, Luther despaired for the safety of his pregnant wife Katy, Luther’s infant son, became ill. Indecently, it is said that Luther’s dire worries about the lives of his wife, son, and unborn child provided the impetus for the words of the reformation hymn “A Mighty Fortress.”  Luther could have safely sat out the ravages which the plague visited on Wittenberg, but he chose instead to engage the circumstances in which he and his neighbours found themselves. He did so not just by staying put, Luther used the latest technology available to reach out beyond himself and those he cared about to address and engage the reality in which his whole world was languishing.

Just ten years earlier, Luther’s 95 Thesis had travelled the length and breadth of Europe thanks to the ability of the newly invented printing press to produce new-fangled ways of communicating information, ideas, and even the Bible itself. The world went from scribes hand producing one Bible a year, to printing presses which could produce a Bible in a day. The printing press’ impact on the daily lives of millions was astounding.

The exponential increase of the availability of books radically changed the power dynamic of the Church. But it was the printing of short tracts which radically changed the political impact of theologians in the town square. In addition to changing the Church, Martin Luther’s embrace of this new technology changed the world. During the depths of the plague’s ravaging of Wittenberg, Luther took advantage of the power of the printing press to produce a short tract in the newest format, that was all the rage of the day. It was known in German as “flugschriften” “flying writings” in English we would say, “flyer.” These new-fangled fliers functioned as the “twitter” feeds of the Reformation.

On the subject of the plague Luther wrote this: “Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together (as previously indicated) so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another … Use medicine; (wrote Luther) take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbour does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? … I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it.

I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence …

(Luther wrote) If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when a neighbour’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die … ” [1]

While references to the devil may not sit well today, I dare say Luther’s flyer is as prescient today, perhaps even more so than the millions of tweets which we are bombarded with every minute of every day. Back in April, when we were learning to live in lock-down, Bill Gates the creator of Microsoft and one of the world’s gazillionaires, was interviewed about the lasting effects of this pandemic. Gates pointed to the reality that in a matter of weeks the world embraced technologies which under normal circumstances would have taken at least fifteen years for us to embrace. Well I remember April like it was yesterday, and I can tell you that those first few weeks of lock-down saw churches all over Christendom and indeed temples and mosques all over the planet, scrambling to embrace newfangled technologies to get the Word out. I suspect that just like the church, many of you also found yourself on screens and devices, waving at loved ones, meeting with work colleagues, or even raising a glass to toast with a Happy Birthday greeting. Scrambling to get worship services online became the bane of my existence. Martin Luther himself, who was famous for his ability to swear, would have blushed at my language as I struggled to navigate new technology. Faith leaders all over the planet continue to swap stories with one another about of the horrors of trying to render and upload videos. I know we’ll all be able to laugh about this someday, but until then, let me warn you not to expect good pastoral care whilst your pastor is fighting with her computer. My point is, this pandemic as horrendous as it is, has revealed some difficult truths which will forever change the world, particularly the Church. For the foreseeable future, our sanctuaries will remain empty, and we will rely more and more upon technology to enable us to continue to be LOVE in the world. The sad truth is, in-person worship, just like the status quo before COVID, was not working. The Church was dying and those of us who remain in the Church refused to change our ways, believing somehow if we just did it better and flasher, happier and clappier, we might just be able to attract the lost generations who have long since deserted our sanctuaries.

The good news dear friends, is that the current crisis invites us into a liminal space, a thin place if you will; a place where the veil between the everyday status quo and the sacred extra-ordinary falls away and we can see things that we were once hidden from us. Today, the Church stands on the precipice of a new era. Like Luther of old, who inspired centuries of cries for semper reformanda – to always be reforming, we today have the opportunity to reform the church in ways which will speak to generations to come. But just like Luther, who used the printing press as a means to proclaim a reformed theology, we too must embrace the internet, not to proclaim the status quo theology that wasn’t working anyway, but to proclaim a reformed theology.

Tinkering on the surface and learning new technologies will not save the church. The power of the Luther’s call for reformation came from new ways of understanding Creation itself, together with new ways of understanding what it means to be human. If our reformation today is to have any power at all, it will require the church and all who sail in her, not to rely upon Luther’s way of understanding reality. We cannot simply move the deck chairs on this titanic which the church has become and expect the church not to sink.

There are gaping holes in the hull which we ignore at our peril. We must have the courage to build upon Luther’s insights as together, we learn new ways to express new understandings of what it means to be human here and now in Creation today. We must dare to learn to understand reality in ways which would have dumbfounded and possibly even offended Luther himself.

So, here I stand, in 2020, in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, for I can do no other, but to proclaim the need to be always reforming. For the church can do no other. We cannot go back to the way things were, any more than Luther himself could go back to life before he discovered his freedom as a Christian. Whether we like it or not, our world has changed and continues to change. The church has changed, being LOVE in the world has changed too, and it must continue to change. Just imagine the wonders we shall be able to embrace to help us to LOVE our neighbour!

These are exciting times and they are also terrifying times. But each and every day, we are free to embrace possibilities which once seemed unthinkable as we embrace new ways to be LOVE in the world. Now more than ever we need one another, so that together we can empower greater LOVE! We dear friends, we are richly blessed. Let us take courage from the blessings of our great heritage, let us seek wisdom from the blessings of heritages unlike our own, and let us be inspired by the ingenious insights of scientists,  philosophers, theologians, poets and artists so that we can learn new ways to embody the LOVE our world so desperately needs so that we can heal the wounds of Creation. Semper Reformanda! Always be reforming! Thanks be to all that is Holy. Amen.

[1] From Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1968), 43:119-138.)

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GOD’s Backside Passes By Our COVID Regulated Wilderness – Exodus 33

Yesterday, I while on my way to preside at a wedding, my mind kept wandering away from the imminent nuptials toward the vivid autumn colours and all that they foretell. I love autumn. I’m fond of saying that autumn is my favorite colour. But as I drew closer to my destination, thoughts of the passing of autumn into winter saddened me as I thought about how this wedding would unfold. Here in this region we are about to go back into lockdown, so this wedding was a wedding like no other wedding, I have ever been part of. As we hastily drew up plans for the event, we joked about our new reality and the challenges which have become all too real during this pandemic. Only a handful of guests would gather outside, in the back yard of the parents of the bride. Masks would be mandatory, and we would be required to keep our distance. The realization that this couple was just one of many couples whose weddings have been postponed or curtailed or carried out under strict social distancing regulations began to lower my mood. So, returned my focus to the vivid autumn vistas which lined my route. As my mind soaked up the beauty, it also began to wander toward the reality that these bursts of colour mean that the leaves are about to die. Soon they will all fall, just as the snow will begin to fall. Winter is coming.

Winter is coming and it shall be a winter like no other we have ever experienced. For in addition to the hardships which winter inevitably brings to this part of the world, the increased presence of the coronavirus will force us into the kind of hibernation which this past spring’s lockdown only hinted at. As my mood began to spiral down into the deeps of the wilderness into which we will soon find ourselves, I couldn’t help wondering, in the words of the psalmist in the old King James version, “from whence cometh our help?” I know the psalmist provides the answer, “My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” But I have long since given up the notion that the DIVINE MYSTERY which the interpreters of the King James Version of the Bible called, “LORD” was waiting around to magically solve all our problems.

During these intense days filled with the challenges of living and dying during a pandemic, those of us who spend our lives wrestling with questions about the mystery and meaning of life, find ourselves, like most people in a new kind of wilderness. In my line of work, talk of mystery, meaning, and wilderness often sends us scurrying back to the sacred stories which weave their way in and out, over and under, the meaning we try to make about the deepest MYSTERY of life. The Bible is full of stories which touch the deepest MYSTERY of life. The ancients knew that eternal truths are best communicated through story, and so we plumb the depths of the scriptures’ parables, myths, and similes to discover our reality.  

Memories, stories, imaginings, myths, wonderings, and glimpses, these are the stuff of truth.  We human creatures, we just can’t help wondering. How did we get here?  Who made us? Why were we made? Why are we here? Where are we going? We humans can’t seem to help wondering, what’s it all about? From days of old, we’ve been sitting around campfires weaving tales about how we came to be, and what it’s all about; speculating on the nature of our CREATOR. Story after story has been told; stories which weave in and out between our experience and our wonderings; what’s real, what’s not, what’s true and what are we imagining? The best stories, the ones which capture our imagination and stimulate our wonderings, those stories were told over and over again. Handed down from one generation to the next. Some stories were so profound that they just had to be written down.

They were elevated to the realm of the sacred and these stories, these wonderings, took on the quality of myth. Sacred truth, so precious that over the years some of us have sought to defend these stories with our very lives. Others have built their world around these sacred truths, found their identities between the lines of their imaginings. Still others have feared the very wonderings which birthed these sacred myths. So afraid have they become, that they have tried to insist that these sacred truths aren’t even ours, but rather the DIVINE ramblings of our GOD, who whispered into the ears of scribes who jotted them down word for word, in the Kings English no less, holding between their lines not only sacred truths, but perfectly preserved history. So treasured are these sacred truths that some of us even claim that between their line lie the for-telling of our future. So treasured are these sacred truths that the questioning of even the slightest detail has the power to set one tribe or nation against another tribe or nation.

From the storytellers of old to the recesses of our imaginations the character Moses has cast a spell on generations of wanderers and wonderers. Let me remind you of once such story handed down from one generation to another, which is embedded in our psyche and contributes to our identity?

It’s a story of Moses, Moses who wanted to see GOD in all GOD’s glory. Moses who’d been talking with GOD for years, who’d staked his whole life, and the lives of his kinfolk, the lives of his people on the conversations he had had with this god of his. Moses wanted to actually see GOD, in all GOD’s glory.

Who could blame Moses? Wandering out there in the wilderness, trying to juggle the needs of a people lost and wandering, hoping against hope that there was a land of milk and honey out there somewhere, anywhere. Moses had the stone tablets, yes. GOD’s law written in stone a gift for this people who’d followed him out into the wilderness. Imagine: they followed Moses out into the wilderness all because Moses had heard GOD speak to him. Right there from out of the flames of a burning bush GOD called out to Moses. The god of Moses’ ancestors spoke, and a promise was born, the promise of liberation from slavery, of deliverance from oppression. The promise of a land; a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Such a promise required more than just the ramblings of a burning bush; such a promise required a name. Who was this god?

Moses said to Moses’ god, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?”

From that burning bush came the sacred name GOD said to Moses, “YAHWEH. I AM WHO I AM. YAHWEH. I SHALL BE WHO I SHALL BE.” YAHWEH the sacred name of GOD, so sacred that Moses and his people would never utter it. So sacred that even after they’d told their stories for generations, they’d proclaim the name of GOD with only a silence; a long pause where people could breathe the name within themselves. So sacred that when it came time to write down the sacred stories, they didn’t write the whole name of GOD. Just the consonants were enough to evoke the sacred name. Over the generations, the people forgot how to breathe the name of GOD, and so the scribes, hinted at the vowels so that the breath of GOD continued to emanate from GOD’s people. But as the tribes fought over the details of the story, the sacred code of silence failed to evoke the breath of God. Even though, from the burning bush GOD was said to have declared, “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations,” the peoples of God forgot the sacred name. So, the scribes replaced the sacred code with bold capital letters which included vowels and once again the name YAHWEH was heard when the sacred stories were told. YAHWEH, I AM WHO, I AM or I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.

That says it all, our GOD IS. GOD WILL BE. NOW and FOREVER. This ought to be enough. But wouldn’t you like more? Is it any wonder that Moses asked for just a little more? And so, one day, Moses gave it a whirl: come on, just once show me. “Show me your glory, I pray.”  And the MIGHTY ONE said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the HOLY NAME, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. “But,” said the MIGHTY ONE, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”  

And the MIGHTY ONE continued, “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 see.”

And so, Moses caught but a glimpse of YAWEH’s backside. Just a glimpse mind you. But isn’t that how it always is. Just a glimpse, a glimpse of God here and there. For our GOD WILL BE, WHO GOD WILL BE. And we must let the glimpse be enough, but oh those glimpses.

When I arrived at the backyard location, I was greeted by masked faces laughing and joking their way through last minute preparations. My own somber contemplations were dispersed by the task at hand. Proud parents and delighted siblings opened me to their sense of expectation, while beaming sunshine, stirred hope in this happy gathering in ways that only LOVE can. Once the bride and groom took their place in the midst of the LOVE which lives and breathes in every one of us who was gathered to bear witness to their promises, all our worries about the future slipped away as we celebrated LOVE’s triumph. Later, as we raised a glass to the happy couple, the wind rustled, and leaves fell, and I caught a glimpse of the DIVINE MYSTERY.

Even though I’m not so sure I’d live to tell the tale, I’d still love to see the face of GOD. But for now, I’ll settle for a glimpse of GOD’s backside. For now, all we’ll see is a glimpse of God’s glory. But oh, those glimpses. Once you catch a glimpse, you’ll never forget it. Remember the glimpses.

There, look can you see a glimpse of the DIVINE ONE? There, in the eyes of your beloved. The first time you knew you were in love and there in your beloved eyes, you saw but a glimpse of the DIVINE. Or standing there holding that beautiful child for the very first time, gazing into the wonder which you held in your arms, there was but a glimpse of the DIVINE. Look down onto the page, between the lines of that poem which told your whole life in just a few lines, there’s the hand of GOD.

Look, look there she goes, she just learned to ride it all by herself, she’s growing up so quickly, do you see right there behind her, there in the shadows watching her, if you look closely you see the arms of GOD in your own arms, waiting to catch her. Look at him he thinks he knows it all, there he goes with the keys to your car, in the screech of tires can you hear it, it’s the sound of GOD trying to catch up with him, trying with all your might to keep him safe; for you are the arms of GOD.

Look carefully as you watch the news, see the researchers, the doctors, nurses, and caregivers in all their efforts is the wisdom and the compassion of the LOVE which IS GOD, working in, with, through and beyond the many hands which will see us through.

Listen carefully can you hear it? It’s ever so faint, the rattle of her last breaths makes it hard to hear but if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the breath of the ONE breathing alongside her as you breathe with her, as she breathes her last breath; for you are the breath of YAHWEH. And as you struggle to comprehend, wondering how you can ever find a way to say good-bye; good-bye Grandma, good-bye Grandpa, good-bye Mom, good-bye Dad, good-bye my love, if you lean back you will feel them, there, there they the arms of the MYSTERY holding you both in the LOVE which is GOD.

Look there, GOD is in that smile, the smile that says I’ve known you so long and yes I still love you even if you drive me nuts, there in the gleam in your lover’s eyes, you will see the DIVINE MYSTERY which IS LOVE? Gaze out into the vivid autumn colours, there dashing by, through the trees, trudging up into the hills, hiking over the mountains, if you look closely, you’ll see GOD’s backside passing by even now in this very wilderness of this pandemic.

There’s truth in our stories, sacred truth; truth in our myths, in our wonderings, our musings and our longings. Between the lines, beyond the page, in, with, through and under the words, there’s truth in questions and questions in truth, and through it all dances the DIVINE MYSERY, the LOVE which we call GOD. Even in the midst of these challenging times, if you open your eyes and look around, you’ll catch a glimpse of the LOVE which is YAHWEH; whose backside is more beautiful than words can say. Words may fail us, but we will keep trying to describe this wonder, this beauty, this magnificence of YAHWEH’s glory. That’s just the kind of creatures we are.

So, proclaim GOD’s glory! Delight in the knowledge that all our wonderings pale in comparison to YAHWEH’s splendor. Trust the MYSTERY of the LOVE which we call GOD, who even now passes in, with, through, and amongst us giving us a glimpse of YAHWEH’s ever so beautiful backside. Amen. Alleluia! Amen!

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To Whom Shall We Go to Say Thank-you? – Thanksgiving Sunday sermons

Follow the links for previous sermons:

Reckless Generosity a sermon with a Monty Python flair!

Who IS God? – Not One, Not Two – inspired by Garrison Keillor & Joan Chittister

Brussel Sprouts, Ebola, and Thanksgiving – seeking the ONE who IS

To Whom Shall We Go to Say Thank-you

After You Move Beyond Personifying God?

Over the course of the past nine years a group of little people have come into my life. Lovely little people who call me Gran. There are seven of them and participating in their little lives is a source of such great joy. Each stage of their development is a wonder to behold. I particularly enjoy watching their parents as they attempt to teach these little darlings the things that they need to know about being human. One of the first things that we teach little humans is the fine art of saying thank-you. It takes a fair amount of repetition to teach a child to say thank-you. Over and over again, after giving them exactly what they want, we ask, “Can you say thank-you?” and the little darlings repeat the words “Thank-you.” Sometimes all we have to do is ask the question: “What do you say?” in order to hear the words “Thank-you” uttered in such a delightful way as to inspire us to praise them as such good little girls and boys.

Expressing gratitude is a skill that all tiny little people must learn in order to develop into well-rounded human beings. Indeed, scientists insist that being grateful is a prerequisite of happiness. Happy humans it seems, are humans who embody gratitude. But there is more to gratitude than simply saying thank-you. I remember learning that gratitude includes more than simply expressing our thanks. It happened when I was about sixteen and actually noticed the beauty of a sunset and for the first time I realized that I was part of something so much bigger than myself. I know I must have seen the sunset before, but this time I actually saw the sun set. We were driving down the road, my friend Valerie and I were riding in a car driven by her mother, Lola. It was a partly over-cast day on the west coast of British Columbia.  Just a few clouds.  You could see the mountains off in the distance. We were chatting back and forth when all of a sudden, Lola pulled the car over to the far side of the road, switched off the engine and got out. Valerie followed her mother out of the car, so I figured I had better do the same. Val and her mother scampered down from the road and onto the beach. When they reached the water’s edge, they stopped and  just looked off into the distance. Apart from a tanker-ship making its way across the horizon, I couldn’t see much of anything. Lola had the most amazing expression on her face. She positively glowed with happiness. Valerie wore a similar expression. I must have looked somewhat puzzled because Val smiled at me and said “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?” This only confused me more. What were they looking at that had made them stop the car, scamper down the bank and stand there at the water’s edge on a cold autumn evening. 

These happy, glowing, smiling people made me nervous. There they stood grinning from ear to ear.  What were they on? And then, I saw it. For the first time in my life, I saw it.  It had been there before. But I had never really seen it before. The sky was amazing.  The colours were overwhelming. It almost didn’t look real. It looked like someone must have painted it that way. It was magnificent. A work of art. The most beautiful thing I have ever seen. If you’ve never seen a late October, Pacific Coast Sunset before, you’ve missed one of the great wonders of the world. Neither Emily Carr’s paintings nor picture perfect post cards do a western sunset justice.          

Believe it or not, even though I had been living on the west coast for about four years, at that point I had never before really noticed just how beautiful a sunset could be. No one in my experience had ever taken the time to stop and look at one. No one had ever pointed one out to me before. I would never have dreamed of stopping a car and getting out to watch as the sun put on a show while setting. So, I stood there.  Overwhelmed by it all. Amazed at just how beautiful it was. Wondering just who or what could be responsible for such a spectacular thing as this. Before long my thoughts drifted to the Creator. Actually noticing a magnificent sunset was the beginning of a journey beyond myself as the reality that I am part of something so much bigger than myself continues to permeate my being.

Back then, I expressed my gratitude by very much the same way as my grandchildren are being taught to express their gratitude, simply by saying “Thank-you”. The object of the Thank-you being God. At the time, God was an old bloke up there in the sky somewhere. As my images of God changed over the years, my Thank-you’s continued to be expressed to my ever-changing images of God. But I must confess, that it was a whole lot easier to say thank-you to God when God was some big guy up there, out there somewhere? It was so much easier when I thought of God as “Father” or even as “Mother” to express my gratitude by simply mimicking the behaviour that I’d been taught as a child, “Can you say “Thank-you” Oh yes indeed I can say thank-you. “God is great, God is God, let us thank him for our food. By his hand we must be fed, Give us Lord Our Daily Bread.” Continue reading

Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth: Is this the Gospel of CHRIST? – Matthew 22:1-14

Fortunately, this Sunday is Thanksgiving in Canada, so I do not have to preach on this troublesome text. However, for those of you who are struggling with this text, I post this sermon preached six years ago.

Listen to the sermon here

 

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

Being LOVE in Toxic Soup??? coping with Trump’s toxicity!

My oh my, what a toxic week this has been. The bilious rhetoric went off the scale this week when the most-watched debate in history transmitted ignorance and hatred around the world like poison.  I know that there may be some of you who did not watch the presidential debate for all sorts of really good reasons, not the least of which may be your desire not to be infected by the toxic politics of our neighbours to the south. However, unlike wearing a mask, which offers the best protection we have in this pandemic, not watching the debate on Tuesday night offered little protection from the fumes of the toxic soup which is being cooked up by our neighbours.

I myself, I breathed far too deeply as the fumes from the bubbling orange cauldron travelled through various media into my home. I am ashamed to confess that the steam from this toxic soup nourished my own dark side. I did not know how dangerously infected I had become until the media brought the news that the most powerful person on the planet had tested positive for the coronavirus. I simply couldn’t help myself. Try as I might, the darker side of my nature positively bubbled up with glee, as smug retorts collided upon the tip of my tongue. “That’ll teach that arrogant, orange, idiot!” This was one of the kinder retorts that I will confess in this context. I shall leave you to imagine the more colourful thoughts, words, images and desires which sprang to mind as I smugly anticipated a fellow human being’s demise and gleefully rejoiced in my “I told you so!s”. I know that I can trust you to come up with more than a few dark thoughts of your own, some harsh words, and some smug images as well, because we’ve been swimming around together in this toxic soup for years now, waiting for the orange fellow who holds the nuclear football to receive his comeuppance.

It took more time than I care to admit for my kinder, gentler self to begin to choke on the bile being generated by my darker self. May all that is HOLY forgive me, but it sure isn’t easy to be LOVE in the world. As we flail about in this hate-filled toxic soup which feeds our baser instincts, it is difficult to remember those things which nourish, ground, and sustain us as the LOVERs we are created to be. Continue reading

The RIVER of LIFE

Whenever I sit down by a riverside, memories of other trips to other riversides tend to meander through my mind, flowing here and there, as images of my younger self reveal the long and winding, twists and turns of this river of life, and I can’t help but reach out to pat that little girl, or young woman, that I once was on the head and tell her to relax and go with the flow. I remember as if it were yesterday, standing by a riverside, holding onto a brand new fishing rod, hoping against hope that I would be able to somehow catch a fish. I had come well prepared and yet not prepared at all for what I was about to encounter. Earlier in the week my Father had presented my brother and I with our first fishing rods. Throughout the week, Dad had instructed us in the fine art of casting our lines. Instead of hooks, Dad had tied little rubber weights to the end of our lines. Over and over again we practiced, releasing our thumbs from the levers on our reels at just the right moment so as to send the line way out beyond us onto the grass. I could hardly sleep the night before our first fishing trip. I worried that I wouldn’t have the courage to impale a wiggling worm on my hook. I wondered which one of us, me or my younger brother, which one of us would manage to impale ourselves with a barbed hook. I can almost see the little girl that I once was tossing and turning on the top bunk as she hoped against hope that she would catch a fish, but not just any fish, this little girl longed to hook a really big fish, a fish to impress her Dad. No one told that little girl, that fishing is a waiting game which requires the kind of patience which few children can muster. I can see that little girl staring at a little red and white float, waiting for movement, determined that at any moment a fish, a really big fist was going to come along.

There were many riverbanks, and lots of fish were landed, some were big, some were small. All of them were interesting. Not beautiful really, but interesting. Personally, I liked catching the small fish, or at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. The small fist could be released back into the river to fight another day. Eventually, other things captured my attention. Dragon flies, darting here and there, birds singing, grasses blowing in the breeze, there was so much to discover down by the riverside. Dad was the purveyor of wisdom, explaining every mystery until that little girl began to tire of life on shore.

Eventually, I gave up fishing in favour of diving in. I can see that little girl splashing about in the water, laughing and giggling as I played for hours and hours in the river. I remember once, trying to stand still as the river’s swift current threatened to topple me over. I wondered where the river might take me if I failed to keep my balance. And just as that little girl is about to topple over, the image of a confident young woman emerges from the depths and she rolls over on her back and begins to float upon the water, and I can remember staring up at the clouds content just to be me, on a summer’s day so long ago. As the summer’s day gives way to evening, I see a less confident image of myself, sitting on a riverbank staring up as the sun sets wondering and wondering, filled with questions about how and why, longing to fish out of the river, or the sky, the answers to my endless questions.

I wonder when I stopped looking to the rivers, or to the sky, or the oceans, or the mountains and all the creatures who live upon the Earth so that I might find the answers to my questions. I can’t quite pinpoint the moment when I stopped fishing for answers in Creation and began fishing in libraries. One after another, each book caught me rather than me catching them, but still fishing none the less for answers. Sometimes the books would give way to the wisdom of teachers, scholars, mentors, and folks whose faith was stronger than mine. Hoping against hope, that this one, or the next one would provide answers to the MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of reality.

Looking back at this long meandering journey, I can’t help but see that I’ve been fishing for answers my whole life long. Whether its fishing or studying, I’m still that little girl, longing to capture the really BIG FISH, the ONE which IS the SOURCE of ALL, the ONE who is MYSTERY. I wish I had tapped myself on the head a long time ago and told myself to relax. There’s no need to catch a fish, or follow the trail of some creature. There’s no need to harvest knowledge from books, or seek wisdom from the wise ones. Just go with the flow, let the river take you.

I remember once a long time ago watching a fish flounder on the shore, desperately trying to stay alive, when the wind drove the current on shore, and suddenly the fish was carried back into the river. The salvation of that fish brought tears to my eyes as I longed to be able to simply be carried away like that. For the fish lived and had its being in water; water flowed in and around and through the fish. The answers to the MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of reality are all around us. For as our ancestor Paul said some 2,000 years ago, the MYSTERY, the ONE Paul called, “God.” is “the ONE in whom we live, and breathe, and move and have our being.”

So, as I pat the little girl, or the young woman, that I once was on the head, I hope that the person I continue to become will have the faith to go with the flow of this RIVER OF LIFE, this MYSTERY in whom we live and move and have our being. And when from time to time, the current runs swiftly, I hope that the person I am continuing to become will have the WISDOM to remember that the RIVER itself flows in, with, through, and beyond me and that I find the courage to drink deeply from this LIVING WATER which is the MYSTERY at the very core of who we are: BELOVED children of the ONE who IS.

The next time you find yourself down by the riverside, splash about a bit. Life in the river is far more exciting and life-giving than any of the answers you might be able to capture. So, splash about and play in the ONE who IS, our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF, the ONE in, which, we, live, and move and have our being, the ONE who lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us, now and forever. Amen.

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Finding Home in this Pandemic Wilderness?

Not all homecomings work out the way we hoped. I remember once, a long time ago, when I was just 20 years old, my homecoming turned out to be a bit of a bust. I’d been travelling for months, using the UK as my home base, when I began experiencing pain in my foot. Because I had been doing some strenuous hiking in the Scottish Highlands, the doctors assumed that I had something known as a hiker’s fracture. So they put my foot in a cast and told me to take it easy for six weeks. Well the cast didn’t last for more than a week, when my foot became so swollen that I had to rush back to the doctor to beg him to take it off. One look at my foot and the doctor, quickly cut the cast off and just as quickly sent me for x-rays. I can still see the doctor’s face looking so very serious as he told me that my foot was not fractured and then he paused, during which time, I assumed that he would tell me that my foot was broken. Never in a million years did my young self imagine what would come next. The x-rays revealed a tumour, and after several more tests it was determined that the tumour was surrounded by a massive hemangioma. I would need surgery in order to remove both the tumour and the hemangioma. Only after the surgery would they be able to determine if the tumour was cancerous or benign. Did I mention that I was only twenty and far from home? All I wanted to do was rush back to my family. Home was the only thing on my mind, when the doctor’s voice interrupted my thoughts by saying, “I don’t think you understand my dear. You need surgery now, right away.”

I thanked the doctor for his concern and left his office to begin the long process of going home. It was the middle of December and most of the fights which I could afford, were fully booked by Christmas travellers.  It wasn’t easy, but less than a week after learning that my own foot was threatening to change my life, I boarded a plane to rush back home to my family. On the long plane ride back to Vancouver, I dreamed of what it would be like to be back.

But there was just one thing that my dreams of home couldn’t conjure up and that was the reality that during my absence, my parents had moved to a new house. The home which I left behind was no more. My parents had moved to a town about ten miles from where they had been living, the house, the home that I knew was no more. It had only been a matter of months, but in that short time, so much had changed, not only could I not return to my familiar home, I could no longer be the carefree young woman that I was when I left home.

When you fly from London to Vancouver, you don’t fly directly from east to west. You take more of a northwest by southwest route over the North Pole. To this day, I can still remember looking out that tiny little window and wondering what lay below our flightpath. Miles and miles, and miles of frozen sea, and snow-covered lands. Looking back through my mind’s eye, I can see now that I was in a wilderness of fear. For just as soon as that plane landed, the reality of my existence would change in ways which truly frightened me.

That airplane was a kind of portal from one world into another, a liminal space or as the ancient Celts called it a Thin Place; a place in which the barriers between the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being fall away and we are opened to the reality of DIVINITY which lives and moves in, with, through and beyond us.

Back then, I still imagined God as some sort of supreme being who managed the world from some lofty place somewhere. I had no doubt whatsoever that this interfering deity had placed the tumor in my foot for some divine purpose and that my task was to figure out what it was that this god was trying to teach me. These days, my imaginings of the DIVINE MYSTERY no longer include images of a manipulative, interfering, supreme being, who stoops so low as to place tumours anywhere in Creation. So, looking back my questions surrounding my frightening homecoming are not about what some grand puppeteer in the sky was trying to teach me, but rather, what it is that I can learn from my long ago experiences which can shed light upon what is happening all around us. For there have been moments during the past six months when I have longed to go home to the world we knew before the pandemic sent us all scurrying into the wilderness of fear into which the whole world has found itself confined to.

It has been six months since we gathered together in the sanctuary and I have been leading worship from my home while the internet transmits this new reality into your homes. I can’t tell you how very much, I’d love to spend this Homecoming Sunday in the shared home of our sanctuary. But even if by some miracle, we could go back, I suspect that such a homecoming would be very much like my long-ago homecoming. I remember walking into my parents’ living room in their new home, and while there was so much that was familiar, everything felt so very different. Not only was I in a different house; I was different, changed by all that had and was happening. Continue reading

Getting to the Root of Our Dominion Over Creation: Genesis 1:27-28

From Coast to Coast to Coast, we Canadians live upon a land which far exceeds the blessings many of our ancestors could only long for. In addition to the milk and honey of our ancestors’ dreams, this land is rich in blessings more numerous than all the words in all the languages spoken by this land’s diverse inhabitants. I suspect that those of you who call other lands “home” are also blessed with a similar love for your land. We only have to close our eyes to see the images of the beauty of the land we love simply because it is home. Walking upon the land, the ground beneath our feet holds promises passed down from generation to generation. Memories of landscapes long changed by human hands, haunt our visions of ever-expanding settlements. In addition to being overwhelmed by the vast beauty and majesty of the land, our eyes weep and our bodies shudder at gaping wounds, and ugly scares which threaten to pierce our over-inflated egos and challenge the wisdom of our imbedded delusions of grandeur. Standing upon the Earth, with its vast, majestic lands, how did we ever become so enamored of our species domineering posture of self-importance? There is an arrogance to our Western posture which threatens the land.

Years ago, when my family immigrated to this land which I call home, it was known as the DOMINION of CANADA. That word “dominion” sticks in my throat, like a bile which threatens to make me wretch. While it has been a long time since this land was viewed as the DOMINION of CANADA, this land we love continues, like many lands, to suffer the pain of the dominion we inheritors of the Genesis myth continue to claim as our place in the order of Creation.

Listen to these words taken from one of the Creation myths found in the book of Genesis. I’m using the New Revised Standard Vision because it is a familiar translation of Genesis chapter 1, verses 27 & 28: the NRSV translates the Hebrew text like this:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”             Here endth the reading…or does it?

In one of the most treasured Creation myths of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cultures, humans are placed as the crowns in the jewels of Creation. For two millennia, the dominant Christian culture has interpreted this myth to endow the right of “dominion over” every living thing that moves upon the Earth; indeed, over the Earth itself. Creation is ours to rule over. We have dominion over Creation.

“Dominion” the word comes from the Latin word dominium which means “lordship” or “right of ownership” from the word dominus which means “lord”.  Humans, male and female, for that is how “He” the “LORD GOD” created them in this particular Creation Myth, Humans are “lords of every living thing” we have dominion over Creation and we are to subdue the Earth, and multiply. Is it any wonder then that we are so very quick to consume the bounty of the Earth? It is as if we see ourselves as lords and ladies exercising our god-given right to tax the Earth and all her Creatures. One look at a “man-made” (sic) machine, excavating a mountaintop, confirms our “dominion” our “lordship” as we ravenously devour the land, so that we can gobble up the Earth’s resources.

Creation myths function as a kind of compass which orients a culture’s place in the world. But what if our Creation myths, or rather, Western Christianity’s translations and interpretations of our Creation myths went askew somehow? Perhaps instead of a compass our Creation myths are functioning as weights around our necks, millstones if you will, which continue to unbalance us? I believe that our notions of “dominion” continue to function as such a millstone and that we must cast off this weight if we are to have any hope of restoring our balance. Let me begin to lighten the load by looking back to our Creation myth to see if we can discover the roots of our delusions of “dominion”.

For centuries, the Hebrew word “radah” has been translated as “dominion” but when we go back to the roots of our myth we actually, quite literally discover a “root”. The Hebrew word, “radah” means “a point high up on the root of a plant.” When gardeners who pull up weeds encounter the radah the discover where the strength of the plant is. The radah of the root is the centre of the plant’s strength. The radah helps the plant say firmly in the ground when the winds come. What happens to the meaning of our Creation myth when we begin to understand the strength of a new translation? Continue reading

“The Turd Nearly Always Comes Before the Birth” – Forest Sunday

On this Forest Sunday, I would like to tell you about the forest which has become part of who I am. 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 all 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, rainforest is one of the few remaining old-growth forests in Canada. Many of the trees are over 600 years old. This particular forest has managed to survive uncut thanks to the building of a lighthouse in 1875 on Point Atkinson. The authorities wanted to ensure a dark backdrop 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.

On my first trip to Lighthouse Park, I was just thirteen, 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 salmon 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, of years old. Looking up to see just how far they stretch toward the sky, makes you dizzy. I vividly remember the first time I took my wife Carol into the depths of this sacred place. The sheer pleasure of seeing someone you love overwhelmed by the splendour of some of the biggest and oldest trees on the planet, was matched only by the deep silences which are possible in such a place.

The Coast Salish, First Nation people, of the Squamish tribe named this sacred place: Sk’iwitsut which means “turning point”. It is without a doubt a Thin Place which has the power to turn your world inside out; a place where the boundary between what is known and what lies beyond the known 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.

I have been mesmerized by that which is beyond all that is, and I have been emptied of concerns, trials, and tribulations and in turn, 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 which abounds from deep within the forest floors, up through the steadfast trunks to the skyward canopies, the ONE who is the SOURCE of ALL, 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 which announces that because of the threat of a dangerous bear in the area, the 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. 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. The definition of DIVINE MYSTERY, developed out of the work of Rudolf Otto names the MYSTERY we call God as the NUMINOUS. Otto defines the NUMINOUS in Latin with the words, “Mysterium, Tremendum,” and over the decades others have added the Latin et Facinam;” for the ONE who is the SOURCE of ALL BEING is mysterious, tremendous, and fascinating. Mysterious yes. Tremendous, actually makes you tremble, yes. But even though you tremble with fear and awe in the presence of such great MYSTERY, you just can’t help but be fascinated by the ONE who is the source and ground of your BEING as you are opened to the LOVE which IS, DIVINITY. When you reach down to the rich earth on the forest floor, the mysterious process of rebirth can be touched as millions of years of decay, provide the nutrients necessary to give centuries of life to the ancient rain forest, which in turn gives life not only to the creatures which live within the forest, but breathes life into the very air we breathe during the magnificent processes which literally cleans the air.

During these endless months, when we have been unable to worship in our church building, I have often allowed my mind to wander the deep, rich, fecund pathways of Sk’iwitsut, the Turning Point, known as Lighthouse Park, precisely because of the power of this Thin Place to give birth to life out of decay. Before the pandemic, the christian church was on life support. I don’t want to give you the statistics here because most of us have seen for ourselves the evidence of the church gasping for breath as the life drains from our sanctuaries.

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Labour Day: some thoughts about Work: a job? a profession? or LOVE made visible!

Labour Day weekend marks a milestone in my life. You see 26 years ago, after a driving about 4,000 kilometres, all the way from Vancouver, I arrived in Waterloo, Ontario, just in time for the long Labour Day weekend. I didn’t know anyone in Waterloo. I didn’t have a place to live. But on the Tuesday after Labour Day, I was scheduled to report to Waterloo Lutheran Seminary to begin orientation for what would be a four year masters of Divinity program. In the course of that long ago Labour Day weekend, I found a place to live, unpacked all the belongings that I’d been able to stuff in to my old 84 Oldsmobile, and discovered that in Ontario, milk comes out of in plastic bags. You have no idea how mystified I was wondering just how those plastic bags functioned as an appropriate container for milk. I actually remember standing in the grocery store wondering what people here in Ontario did once they’d opened the plastic bag. Visions of milk spilling everywhere caused me to well up with such a feeling of homesickness. Since then, Labour Day Weekends have been strange combination of nostalgia for what once was and excitement for what is yet to be.
I came to Ontario in the midst of a transition. I’d just completed a 4 year undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and I was about to begin Seminary. Both my undergraduate and my masters degree would qualify me to be a pastor. After a years in the travel industry working as both a tour wholesaler and an accountant, I wanted something more out of my work; I wanted something more than just a job I wanted a profession. Religion, Christianity, the Church, the inner workings of reality, books, studying, teaching, deep conversations, these things were and are expressions of my passion. Travel Brochures, numbers, spread-sheets, office politics, sales-figures, the day to day commute into the city, these things represented a means of making money to pay the bills. Don’t get me wrong, my work in the travel industry was usually interesting, sometimes challenging and often quite satisfying. But it had nothing what so ever to do with passion.I viewed my work as a job. What I wanted was a profession. I was caught up in a way of seeing that divided work into categories of meaningful and meaningless. I was incapable of seeing the sacred in my work. Despite the fact that I worked with interesting, beautiful, people and was privileged enough to enjoy the world in ways that some people can only dream of, I couldn’t see meaning in my work.
I was for all intents and purposes an arrogant snob.I was raised in a culture and in a time when education, and fancy letters after one’s name, meant that your work was more important and therefore more meaningful than the work of folks who didn’t have a professional calling. Not surprisingly, I am a product of my experience. I was raised by British working-class parents who struggled to ensure that I had access to the kind of educational opportunities that would result in more than just a job. Their dreams and visions were of having their children become “someone”. A job was something anyone could get. A career was something special. A career meant that you were someone who was involved in something more; a career meant that you were a professional. Even the word job is designed to put the worker in their place. Job comes from the word “jobbe” which describes piece work. A person who does a job is like a cog in a wheel of a much larger machine, who preforms a task that is often disconnected from the end product. A profession is defined as a vocation, a calling that requires specialized educational training. I was tired of functioning in a job and I felt called to a profession in which I could put my own particular passions to work. It took me a long time to understand that a profession could also be just a job and that a job could indeed be the expression of one’s passion.
While I was busy judging the quality of particular occupations, I failed to see the inherent dignity of work itself. The legacy of the class system that divided us into tribes based on the money our work could generate leaves many of us with the miss-guided notion that work is simply a means to an end. All too often we direct our attention to the end and judge the work by how much the worker is able to accumulate. How big is your pile of money? That becomes the point of our work. We express the value of our work in the size of our homes, our cars, the vacations we take, the clothes we wear, the toys we play with. The object of our work becomes the pile. How high can we build our towers? What mark can we leave upon the earth?

Seabright Farmhouse

Years ago, when I was working as a volunteer at a retreat centre, I remember the most satisfying work that I did as a volunteer, was not serving as a board member, not even when I was elected Treasurer and controlled the purse strings of the organization. No! The most satisfying work that I ever did at the retreat centre, which was such a big part of my life for so many years, a place I loved, and worked hard to make a success, the place where my passions all came together, the place where I worked night and day at after putting in long hours at my job, the most satisfying work I did at the retreat centre was scrubbing the floors.
You see the main building of the retreat centre was an old farmhouse. The kitchen had an old and ugly linoleum floor. That floor had seen so much traffic that the the pattern was worn off in places. I remember getting up before sunrise, or wandering in late in the evening, to get down on my hands and knees and scrub that floor because it was a job best done when no one was around. First, I’d scrub it with a scrub brush and Comet; you know that old fashioned abrasive powder. Then I’d have to rinse it with hot water and a cloth. Then after it dried, I’d wax it. It wasn’t a very big kitchen, but it took a couple of hours to do it right. Yet, even when it was finished, that old linoleum wasn’t really up to much. But it was clean. You could have eaten off that floor.

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The DIVINE Expression of BEING ITSELF – Exodus 3:1-15

It has been said that the shortest distance between humanity and the truth is a story. I believe that it stands to reason that a good story, a really good story has the power to reveal truth about the MYSTERY which we call God. So, let me tell you a good story. It is a story which I have told many times because like all good stories it is worth repeating. The first time I heard this story was from a seminary professor. Since then I’ve heard this story attributed to Marcus Borg he attributes it to Parker Palmer. Like many good truth revealing stories, its origins are somewhat elusive.

This story is about a little girl. She was four years old and her Mom is expecting a baby and Mom tells this little girl that the baby is coming to them as a gift from God and that this gift from God will be a new member of their little family. Sure enough, the baby arrives. A boy is born. The parents are a little bit worried because everyone knows that nobody knows how a 4-year-old will react, especially as an only child, to having a new baby in the house. So, they’re reading their parenting books and they’re trying to figure out ways to assimilate this new person into their family without having their little 4-year-old suddenly feel shunted to the side.

Well it turns out that this little 4-year-old has an unusual request; a request which her parents don’t know quite how to deal with. For some unknown reason the little girl keeps asking for some time alone with her new baby brother. The parents are a little worried because they’ve heard horror stories about what 4 year-olds can do to newborn babies. They don’t want to leave this child alone with their precious newborn. Then they remember the baby monitor and they figure they’ll set this baby monitor up so they can listen from a distance and know what’s happening.

Once everything is carefully set up, the little girl goes into the bedroom and her parents hear the footsteps of their daughter going over to the crib. The parents are very, very nervous. Then their little girl leans into the newborn’s crib and they hear her say to her new baby brother,  “Tell me about God. I have almost forgotten. Tell me about God.  I have almost forgotten.”

This coming Tuesday, churches all over the world will begin a monthlong celebration of the Season of Creation. From Sept. 1st, which is the Day of Creation until St. Francis Sunday on October 4th our awe and wonder at the beauty of Creation will be given voice in our worship celebrations.

The Season of Creation is a relatively new liturgical season, born out of our response to the concerns of so many of us about the plight of CREATION under the weight of human contempt and abuse of the Earth and her creatures. I know that many of you are concerned about the many and various ways in which our ravenous consumption of the bounty of the Earth threaten the wellbeing of CREATION. So, I won’t presume to preach to the choir. Instead, I’d like to look at the many and various ways in which the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call God finds expression in, with, through, and beyond CREATION.

Tell us about God. We have almost forgotten. For far too long, traditional Christianity has emphasized theological responses to our desire to know about God. Lutherans, Anglicans, protestants in general, our traditions have for all intents and purposes divorced the DIVINE from CREATION. Yes, I know that images of a DIVINE “FATHER” are employed to portray the MYSTERY of the ONE who is the SOURCE of ALL REALITY as “THE CREATOR”, but, this image casts the CREATOR off into the distant heavens and relegates the DIVINE to the role of distant observer, occasional interferer, and constant judge. This divorce, like all divorces, has impacted the children in ways which have allowed us to run amuck, forgetting as we do so often to pay attention to the LOVE which gave us birth, continues to nurture us, and in which we continue to live and move and have our being. Continue reading

Who do YOU say Jesus was and IS? – Matthew 16:13-20

“Who do you say that I AM?” Jesus’ question has been preoccupying me for most of my life. Indeed, my professional life requires me to spend hours and hours, week after week, month after month, year after year, and dare I say it, decade after decade, trying to figure out just who I think Jesus was and is. Your very presence here watching this video, suggests to me that you have also tried to figure out who Jesus was and is. From time to time, I suspect that most of us have believed that we had worked it out; that we know just who Jesus is. But Jesus, just like every person we have ever known, and or ever loved, Jesus keeps changing on us.

The Jesus I knew when I was a child was little more than an imaginary friend. “Jesus loves me this I know!” “Yes! Jesus loves me! Yes! Jesus loves me!” not because the bible tells me so, but rather as my friend and biblical scholar Harold Remus always insists, “because my Mommy told me so!” When I was a kid, the knowledge that Jesus loved me, earned Jesus the role of my imaginary friend.

Later, when I was a teen-ager looking for more love than my family could give me, I found my way into the Church and discovered, “What a Friend I have in Jesus! All my sins and griefs to bear!”

The idealism of my youth turned my imaginary friend Jesus into my radical friend Jesus, who understood my passion for justice, and led me into deep friendships with folks who were determined to practice what Jesus preached, as we proudly sought to be the kind of people who, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Sadly though, after 25 years in the church, I found myself as a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, with the keys of the kingdom jangling in my pockets, firmly believing that Jesus was and is, the: “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  It has taken years for me to get to know Jesus as something other than the sacrificial Lamb of God. I stand in a long line of priests and pastors known as the Apostolic Succession.

According to the story, which comes to us from the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we call Matthew, Jesus handed the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter, the “Rock” upon which the Church was founded, and in doing so Jesus handed over the authority to bind and loose in heaven. For generations, this passage has been interpreted by the Church as the establishment of the priesthood. The Apostle Peter is given the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and becomes the first gatekeeper precisely because possession of these keys gives him the power to decide just who will and who won’t be forgiven. Continue reading

If we are to take Jesus’ teachings seriously, we must look beneath the surface!

There’s a Zen Buddhist story about three monks who decided to practice meditation together. So, they went to a quiet place at the side of a lake and closed their eyes and began to concentrate. Then suddenly, the first monk stood up and said, “I forgot my prayer mat.” Miraculously the monk stepped onto the water in front of him and walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. He returned to his fellow monks just the way he had gone; striding upon the water. When he sat back down, the second monk stood up and said, “I forgot to bring my prayer mat.” Miraculously the second monk stepped onto the water in front of him and he two walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. When the second monk returned to his fellow monks, he too returned striding upon the water.

The third monk had watched the first two monks very carefully and he decided that this must be some sort of test. So, he stood up and loudly declared: “Is your learning so superior to mine? I think not! I too can match any feat you two can perform!” With that the young monk rushed to the water’s edge so that he too could walk upon the water. The young monk promptly fell into the deep water. Surprised and annoyed, the young monk climbed out and promptly tried again, and again he sank into the deep water. Over and over again, he dragged himself to up on the bank, shook himself off, and confidently set out to walk upon the water and over and over again he promptly sank into the deep water as the other two monks watched from the shore. After a while the second monk turned to the first monk and said, “Do you think we should tell him where the stones are?”

Looking upon the sea of interpretations of the story about Jesus walking upon the waters of the Sea of Galilee, makes me feel like that young monk who continues to sink each time he tries to find his way across the lake. Centuries of interpretations of this text seem to come to the same conclusion; a conclusion which insists that we set forth in faith and that if we keep our eyes firmly fixed upon Jesus, we will defy all the odds; a conclusion that leaves the vast majority of us lingering on the shore because we know that like Peter, we too have precious little faith that wen or even Jesus for that matter, can defy the laws of nature. Traditional interpretations of this text continue to rely upon us leaving our understanding of the way the planet actually works, suspending rational thought, and setting off knowing that neither we, nor Jesus, are or were super-natural beings. Traditional interpretations set us up for failure and threaten to sink our faith. Fortunately, there are other monks, to guide us. So, let me draw your attention to two of those monks because I believe that these two monks tell us where the stones are, so that we can navigate the waters, even in the midst of whatever storms may come. Continue reading

I am not a Christian! I aspire to be a Christian – Psalm 139

There’s a famous story about Mahatma Gandhi in which, Gandhi has just finished expressing his admiration for the teachings of Jesus and is asked, “Mahatma, if you love Jesus so much, why don’t you become a Christian?” Gandhi is reported to have replied, “My friend, when I meet a Christian, I shall become a Christian.” This story has always caused me to insist that,“I am not a Christian!” When the shock of hearing a Christian pastor say, “I am not a Christian!” begins to settle, I declare that,  “I aspire to be a Christian.”

Part of my refusal to claim that I am already a “Christian” comes from the enormous task of being a Christian, which I believe comes down to following Jesus’ mandate to LOVE; to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. I believe that following Jesus’ takes us on a pathway which can open us to the reality life itself is all about learning how to be LOVE in the world.

Over the years, I have encountered may followers of Jesus, as well as followers of other faiths, and indeed followers of no faith at all,  who have embodied this LOVE which many of us call, “God.” I pray that from time to time, I too have been able to be LOVE in the world. But neither I, nor any of those holy ones, for it is by embodying LOVE that we are “holy,” none of us have arrived as the LOVERs we are created to be, for life is a journey of endless becomings. Continue reading

LOVE, which we call God, IS a STRANGE ATTRACTOR!

Jesus of Nazareth was an obscure poor, brown, Jewish rabbi living in an oppressed part of the Roman Empire, whose death continues to impact the world. His death upon the Empire’s instrument of execution, was relatively unremarkable. Thousands upon thousands of unruly inhabitants of the Empire were executed during Jesus’ lifetime by those charged with the task of establishing and maintaining order by force. To the powers that be, Jesus’ execution was little more than the routine death of a homeless, outcast who spent far too much time creating social unrest. Nothing more than the insignificant death of a troublemaker without influence in the halls of power, who would not or could not moderate his own behavior. An insignificant troublemaker dies, under the rule of law, and yet, the impact continues to reverberate all around the world, nearly 2000 years after it should have been long forgotten.

Late last fall, nobody’s really sure exactly when or to whom it happened, but sometime last fall, a person so obscure that history will fail to name them, someone living in an Empire where order is maintained by force, got sick and died. The impact of that death has kept millions of us all around the world, locked up inside our homes avoiding tiny droplets whose impact upon any one of us could be catastrophic. For months now, I have heard various people, including myself, refer to these strange times which we are living in as “chaotic”.  The very word chaos summons in me visions of Genesis, when the Ruach, the breath of the CREATOR hovered over what in Hebrew is called the tohu va-bohu, the formless void, or the chaos, the RUACH hovers over the tohu va-bohu and calls forth light out of the chaos of darkness. Continue reading

Erotic Playfulness: SOPHIA/WISDOM, a sermon Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

In Jesus’ words, we can hear 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 biblical books of Proverbs, Job, 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 CREATOR was busy creating 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.”   

So, just 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 is. 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. Often in Greek, 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 where personal names begin with capital and are followed with lower case letters, ancient texts consist of lines of unbroken capitals. Often ancient Greek, the words did 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.  Continue reading

Celebrate 50 Years of Pride: sermon

June is Pride month; a month set aside to both celebrate how far we have come and advocate for all those who have not and do not enjoy the freedom to express fully who they are regardless of who they love. But this is a June like no other. We are living in the midst of a world-wide pandemic and whether we are out and proud or still in the closet, all of us queer or straight, we have all been locked down for the better part of the last three months. Closeted away in our respective homes, our fear of COVID-19 has been matched by the horror of the even more insidious infection of racism, a disease which has for centuries infected the hearts and minds of white privileged people and robbed Black, Indigenous and People of Colour of their liberty, dignity, and all too often their very lives. So, as June 28th, the 50th anniversary of the very first Pride Parade drew closer and closer, I wondered how we can celebrate Pride in the midst of so much suffering. Forget the fact that we can’t celebrate with a party, let alone a parade. How do we say, “Happy Pride!” on a day like today.

I must confess that I was sorely tempted to skip any mention of Pride celebrations this year. That is until, I was struck by an ear-worm.  You know those annoying ear-worms, pieces of songs that pop into your heard, over and over again. This particular ear-worm is a song from my misbegotten youth; a popular song which is actually based upon a piece of scripture. Rather than sing my earworm to you, let me share it with you: …..

there you have Psalm 137,  adapted and interpreted, but Psalm 137 indeed. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, Yeah we wept, when we remembered Zion. When the wicked carried us away in captivity Required of us a song Now how shall we sing the LORD’s son in a strange land.”

I know that this is not Babylon, and we haven’t been carried away into captivity by our enemies. But who among us can doubt that so much of what we have taken for granted has changed and right now we are living in a very strange place indeed? So how can we celebrate today of all days, when so many people are suffering? Continue reading

National Indigenous Peoples Day: In this storm, Jesus is not asleep in the back of the boat! We are!

The raging storms are all around us! The tumultuous winds are churning up the waters and tossing us about in treacherous seas. Our small boats are tossed to and fro as massive waves heave us left and right. The roaring winds create upheavals, which leave us cowering in fear, trembling as we struggle to meet each wave which carries with it the potential to destroy the few planks of wood that we have hewn together to carry us upon the ever changing sea, which holds both the promise of sustenance and the threat of oblivion within the darkness of its depths. With each crash upon the hull our fear rises, and the ferocity of the storms intensifies. Frightened, clinging to life as we are tossed from one danger to the next, we cry out into the storm, convinced that only some power more intense, bigger, stronger, beyond our abilities to even imagine, only a power such as this can save us from being swamped in our small boats. We fear that left to our own devices, without the meager security offered by our small boats, we will be overcome by the waves and drown in the very sea that we must rely upon to sustain us.

Racism, poverty, disease, and violence; four winds that howl so ferociously that all we can hear is the sound of people’s fear. As the storms rage all around us, we see the very real possibility that the bottom might just fall out of the small craft we have fashioned to navigate the troubled waters which lie before us. Racism, poverty, disease, and violence; four winds that drive us ever closer to wrecking our small boats. Boats hastily designed without thought to the perils which threaten to consume us, as monsters from below depths below, surface all around us. Continue reading

“The Great Commission” Birthed White Supremacy! – Trinity Sunday sermon

How did we get here? All over the world people are marching in the streets proclaiming, “Black lives matter.” Millions have defied the fear of the corona virus, and taken their lives into their hands to venture out into the streets to protest the systemic racism that permeates institutions all over this planet. Even in Canada, where it takes a colossal effort to turn people out into the streets, even in Canada hundreds of thousands of people have defied public health orders to march against racism.

By now we are all familiar with the recent murders which ignited the powder keg of outrage which continues to propel people into the streets. As horrific as these current murders are, it is not enough for those of us who benefit daily from our white privilege to simply look to the most horrific consequences of racism in order to understand the inherent depths of systemic racism which infect our world. If we are to begin to untangle ourselves from our own participation in the proliferation of racism, we must begin to understand the role of Christianity in the creation and maintenance of white supremacy.  For the same Christianity which gave us these words from Galatians which I just read as today’s Gospel, also gave us the words which are actually prescribed as the Gospel reading for this Trinity Sunday. 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.  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!