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

Jesus’ Resurrection is Extraordinary Precisely Because Anything At All Made It Out of That Bloody Tomb! – an Easter story

Years ago, long before I ever became a pastor, I had a friend who was nearing the end of her life. During my last few visits with her, Clara would ask me over and over again, “Am I going to be alright?” I would always answer her with words designed to assure her that all would be well. Unlike some people I have known since, Clara never asked me what was going to happen to her when she died. Instead she would ask, “Am I going to be alright?” At the time, I thought that she was worried about the pain she might encounter or the fear that she might feel. So, I would assure her that the care that she was getting was the best there is and that the doctors and nurses would make sure that she could manage whatever pain came her way. I also assured her that her loved ones would be there with her, and furthermore I believed that the very source of her being, would be there to embrace her. My friend wasn’t particularly religious, so the words that I’d learned in church to offer as comfort, were not words she wanted to hear. So, I spoke of God, in vague and general terms. Even though back then, I still imagined God as some sort of supernatural being.

The last time I saw my friend Clara, I knew that the end was near. I was feeling woefully inadequate I wasn’t sure how long I could bear to be in the same room with my friend. I remember hearing a rattling sound as she struggled with each breath. My own breath slowed and became quite shallow as if my body was trying to mimic hers. It is a moment in time that lives in my memory not because of the intensity of my feelings at that time, but rather because of the way in which our parallel breathing took me to a place of knowing where the wizened dying body in the bed was transformed into a beautiful young woman. Continue reading

Easter Sermons: LOVE IS – Risen!

click on the links

2018 – LOVE Is Risen! here

2017 – LOVE is Risen! LOVE is Risen Indeed! here

Is God Coming Back to Life here

Easter: Yes, Yes, Yes, Laugh – here 

Easter: The Greatest Story Ever Told – here

I Plead Guilty to Denying the Resurrection – But I aint’ leaving – here

Preparing to Preach on Resurrection: Giving up the notion of a physical resuscitation. here

Approaching Resurrection: What Did Paul Actually Say – here

A Resurrection Story In Memory of Nellie, My Gran – here

Words Will Always Fail Us – here

 

Preparing to Preach on RESURRECTION: Giving up the notion of a physical resuscitation.

resurrectionThis Sunday worship services will begin with the proclamation that: Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed.  Alleluia! Let me follow that proclamation up with a good Lutheran question:“What does this mean?”  What does it mean that Christ is risen? What does resurrection mean? The truth is that there are about as many different explanations of Christ’s resurrection as there are Christians.  And that’s a good thing, because the question of the resurrection is a question that lies at the very heart of Christianity. So, is it any wonder that Christians have been struggling to come to terms with resurrection since the very first rumours that Christ had risen began to circulate. Over the centuries the various responses to the question of resurrection have divided Christians as various camps work out various responses.

For many Christians and non-Christians alike Resurrection is the dividing line. But this is nothing new.  Indeed the drawing of that line can be seen in the earliest Christian writings that we have. The Apostle Paul himself, wrote to the community of followers at Corinth: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then all of our preaching has been meaningless—and everything you’ve believed has been just as meaningless.” There are many believers and non-believers alike who point to these line’s in scripture and say, “Ah ha, there it is, either you believe in the resurrection or you don’t!”
Continue reading

Approaching the Resurrection – What Did Paul Actually Say?

trouble with resurrection

Far too many preachers stumble into the celebration of Easter without doing our homework. Resurrection is a central tenant of the Christian faith and Easter is the primary celebration of resurrection and yet, too many of us fail to open ourselves to current scholarship surrounding the doctrine of resurrection. Questions about the nature of the resurrection ought to send us back to the words of the Apostle Paul. Bernard Brandon Scott is a charter member of the Jesus Seminar. His book “The Trouble with Resurrection” is a must read for those who preach during the Easter Season.

If you are planning to write a sermon or listen to a sermon this Easter, this video provides essential background information about the words of the Apostle Paul on the nature of the resurrection which may surprise you. Scott’s treatment of 1 Cor. 15 provides a new understanding of resurrection which is compelling as well as liberating. For this reason, our Easter worship services ought to include reading from 1 Corinthians 15!!!

 

Good Friday Sermons

Holy Week marks a sharp uptick in visitors to this blog. From comments, messages, and emails I hear from fellow preachers who, like me, are daunted by the task of preparing the Good Friday sermon. That task is even more daunting for those of us who serve progressive communities. My fellow progressive-christian-preachers tell me of the dearth of progressive-christian Good Friday sermons to be found on the internet and encourage me to re-post my own attempts to rise to the occasion. So, here are the links to some of the Good Friday sermons I have preached over the years of my journey with the progressive community which I serve. The people Holy Cross Lutheran Church have over the years provided an invigorating space for me to pursue my questions. They have also provided the resources which make this blog possible. So, if you find the work posted here  of value to you and your community, please consider supporting this ministry of Holy Cross. I rarely solicit donations. But Holy Cross is a small community that continues to give to others in so many ways and your encouragement is greatly appreciated!!! (Holy Cross Lutheran Church, 1035 Wayne Dr., Newmarket, On. L3Y 1N3) Donate via CANADA HELPS click here

Follow the links to Good Friday sermons and feel free to use/adapt/repost

Moving On From the Tragedy of Good Friday click here

2017 I cannot and will not worship a god who demands a blood sacrifice. But the residue of atonement theories still causes me to tremble click here

2016 I’m still working on getting my body out of the tomb in which it was laid all those years ago – reflecting on everyday crucifixions click here

2015 Not Salvation! Solidarity and Transformation click here

2014 God Is Dead? click here

2013 Giving Up the Theories of Atonement in Order to Move Toward an Evolutionary Understanding of Jesus. click here

2012 Good Friday Rituals or Crimes Against Divinity? click here

Preparing to Preach on Good Friday click here

Maundy Thursday Sermons

MAUNDY THURSDAY SERMONS

Two Suppers – Maundy Thursday – A Strange Night

Scuffed Up Reddish Pumps

MAUNDY THURSDAY – When you don’t believe that Jesus was a sacrifice for sin!

We must peer beyond Passover lambs and scapegoats if we are to understand the LOVE that we call God

Jesus and the Black Hole of Our MissRemembering – Palm Sunday

Two images have vied for my attention this week. The first image resembles the shadowy figure on your bulletin cover.  It’s the image of a person sitting atop a donkey heading toward what must be Jerusalem. It’s not surprising that a preacher should be preoccupied with such an image leading up to Palm Sunday. But the second image came as a surprise to me. I suspect that most of you have seen the photograph of the black-hole that was generated by astronomers. At least, I think it was a photograph of a black-hole. The truth is, I’m not really sure. I’m not sure what a black hole is. I can tell you what has been reported. Apparently, eight telescopes across five continents joined together for a project known as the Event Horizon to collect the data that generated the image of the black hole at the center of the galaxy called Messier 87. The blurry orange doughnut shape that has flashed across our various screens and devices, is reported to be a black hole that is 55 million light-years away from Earth. That means that the photograph we’ve all been staring is of what this black-hole looked like 55 million years ago.

Now, I confess that I’ve read several definitions and descriptions of black holes and I’m still not sure exactly what they are. Black holes are created when a star collapses and nothing not even light can escape from a black hole. According to the experts, A black hole is a region of spacetime exhibiting such strong gravitational effects that nothing—not even particles and electromagnetic radiation such as light—can escape from inside it. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass can deform spacetime to form a black hole.” I have no idea what “they” mean when “they” say that, “spacetime” is deformed. I’d never heard of “spacetime” until Wednesday.  But, as this particular black hole is 55 million light years away from here, I don’t plan to worry about what it means to fuse the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time to form a single four-dimensional continuum of “spacetime.”

I confess that when I juxtapose the image of a blackhole with the shadowy image of Jesus riding a donkey, I’m not entirely sure that the image of Jesus can escape from the blackhole into which his story has been tossed. I can’t help imagining the image of Jesus on his donkey moving perilously close to the event horizon of the black hole. The event horizon is the outer ring of that makes the black hole visible. “They” say that, in theory the event horizon is a region in spacetime beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer. In reality, the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem has been warped over time into some sort of theological nightmare that casts us all in a sadomasochistic tragedy of cosmic proportions, that is rapidly losing its ability to affect the average 21stcentury observer.

Attempting to see beyond a miss-remembered Jesus is like looking through the opaque lens of a black hole. Is it any wonder that we have created such dark images of the Divine MYSTERY that we call god when those images are based on our miss-rememberings of the life and death of Jesus?

The Church’s Holy Week commemorations warp Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem with talk of a “sacrifice for sin” that has trained generations to view Jesus’ execution as some sort of cosmic bargain, dreamed up by a maniacal sky-god determined to exact payment for a multitude of sins. This quid-pro-quo view of crucifixion casts the radical, justice-seeking, revolutionary-thinking, subversive Jesus in the role that seems to forsake everything Jesus lived for. Replacing Jesus of Nazareth with a warped image of a suicidal victim of an angry, judgemental, vengeful god who leaves his only begotten son to dangle upon a cross, distorts not only our view of Jesus, but obliterates the image of Jesus’ vision of a loving Abba-God in ways that make it almost impossible to see beyond the blood dripping from the cross upon which Jesus’ was executed by the abuses of empire.

I wonder what Jesus of Nazareth would make of the god we have created from our distorted images. What kind of petty, sadistic god would engineer the birth of, foster the life of, and then engineer the death of a beloved child? Surely such a god is no more than a wicked illusion of our own making. I wonder what Jesus would make of our Holy Week commemorations.  I suspect that if Jesus is anything like the accounts of his life suggest, or his teachings imply, then Jesus would be mortified. I do mean that literally…I think that Jesus would be mortified…mortified which actually means “shamed to death”        … Jesus would be shamed to death by what has become of his life’s passion.  For if Jesus’ was passionate about anything, it was not about dying as some sort of sacrifice; Jesus was passionate about life. Continue reading

Marching to Our Jerusalems – Palm Sunday and Our Passions

The notes used for this sermon can be found here

Palm Sunday Sermons

Marching to our Jerusalems – Palm Sunday and Our Passions

Trading Our Palm Branches for Tomahawk Missiles or White Helmets?

Hosanna! Hosana! Hosana! Yada, Yada, we’ve heard it all before…

Jesus: Human or Divine?

Marching in the Wrong Parades

On Palm Sunday, An Inconvenient Messiah Parades Into our Midst

Jesus Sets Us Free to Save Ourselves

Jesus is still up there on that ass making a mockery of our hopes for a Messiah! 

Amidst the Stink, Be Extravagant for Christ’s Sake – John 12:1-8

anointA sermon for Fifth Sunday of Lent read John 12:1-8 

I got my very first job when I was just ten years old. Our neighbours were going away on holiday and they needed someone to take care of their cat. Now I have never been a cat person. In fact, if the truth be known, I’ve always been sort of afraid of cats.  When I was little I was terrified of them. But as I grew I learned to control my fears and these days I just tend to avoid cats. I don’t really know why, they just give me the creeps. Back when I was ten, cats still had the power to make me very nervous. But our neighbours tempted me with the promise of a dollar a day for ten days. All I had to do was go into their house each day and feed their cat. There was no litter tray to deal with because back then people still had those little trap doors and the cat could go outside whenever it needed to. So, I signed on and each and every day for ten days I mustered up all my courage and I went into the neighbours’ house and I opened a tin of cat food and I filled a dish with water. I did it as quickly and as quietly as I could and in ten days not once did I ever run into that cat. When the neighbours came home they were so delighted with the good job that I had done that they actually gave me a whole dollar as a bonus. Eleven whole dollars, I was wealthy beyond my wildest dreams.  I knew exactly just what I was going to do with that money. You see, Christmas was just a few days away and for the first time in my life I had money to buy Christmas presents! My parents insisted that there was no need for me to buy Christmas presents and they suggested that I should save my money. But I just had to buy presents. To this day I can still remember the joy of hoisting my hard earned cash onto the drugstore counter to purchase my carefully selected merchandise. I can still remember those two amazing gift sets. The first one was for my Dad.  It was manufactured by the Old Spice Company and inside it had a soap on a rope, and a two bottles. One of the bottles contained after-shave and the other something called men’s cologne. I didn’t know what cologne was so I had to ask the saleswoman who explained that it’s what they call perfume for men, and I knew that my Dad just had to have some of that. Now the second gift set was a real bargain it was made by Yardly. I wasn’t fooled by all those tiny bottles of perfume that were so much more expensive.  No, I picked the gift set that had the biggest bottle of perfume. It also had a big container of something that looked like talcum powder but the container said it was actually dusting powder and it came with a little puffy yellow thing for dusting the powder all over your body. I knew that my Mom would just love this. Together the two gift sets cost a just few pennies less than eleven dollars. I don’t think that I have never enjoyed Christmas quite the way I enjoyed that one.

There is something about giving the most extravagant gift that you can afford that brings a special kind of joy to a celebration. Why that Christmas the people that I loved the most in the whole world may have stunk to high heaven, but I dare say my extravagant gift brought them great joy. Maybe that’s why I love this particular gospel story. There’s just something about the outrageous extravagance of Mary’s gift to Jesus that just makes me want to cast caution to the wind and be as extravagant as I can be. A version of this story is told in all four of the gospels. The story is told differently in each of the gospels, sometimes the anointer is Mary of Magdala, sometimes Mary of Bethany and sometimes the women is unnamed, one gospel writer has the woman anoint Jesus head while another account has her anoint his feet. But however the story is told, the act is outrageously extravagant.

The story is so remarkable that each of the Gospel writers include it in their proclamation. So what was it about this event that caused it to be told over and over again and why did they tell it the way in which they told it? The only way to get close to an answer is to fully engage ourselves in the story itself. The anonymous writer of the Gospel we call John wrote his account at the end of the first century, some 60 to seventy years after the event. By this point the story would have been told over and over again, and you know what happens when people tell a story over and over again…It takes on a life of its own. So, for a short time, I want you to set aside your historical hats and simply walk with me into the story to see what we can learn about how people in the year 99 might have heard this story. Continue reading

Revolutionary LOVE – Psalm 139

Following a short video clip of Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., is a reflection addressing the discomfort of loving the MYSTERY. Below the video you will find my notes for the reflection.

  • Who do you see when you look into the mirror?
  • Loving others
  • Loving our enemies or opponents
  • Loving the Earth
  • And thereby LOVING the MYSTERY that we call God
  • That we should dare to LOVE is a miracle in and of itself
  • That we should dare to rise above self-interest or the will to survive in order to LOVE is a miracle
  • But that we should dare to LOVE the MYSTERY that we call God, well the word “miracle” simply cannot capture the reality of our audacity
  • The Creator, the Source of all that IS, WAS, and EVER SHALL BE, this is the ULTIMATE REALITY that we seek to LOVE and be LOVED by
  • I must confess that I am tickled by Bishop Curry’s delightful, playful, joyous approach to the audacious endeavour of LOVE
  • For if this MYSTERY that we call God, is LOVE itself, or as Augustine puts it, God is our LOVER, BELOVED and LOVE HERSELF, then as creatures created in the image of LOVE then being human, actually living into our humanity is all about learning to be LOVE
  • Surely Being LOVE is our most sacred destiny
  • Throughout LENT we have been talking about this sacred purpose this destiny of ours as Revolutionary LOVE
  • Loving Others, Loving Enemies, Loving the Earth, LOVING ourselves, and thereby LOVING the MYSTERY that we call God
  • Earlier this week, someone, I promised this someone, that I wouldn’t name them, but I can tell you that we don’t really need to name them, because I suspect that this someone’s observation has occurred to most of us who have struggled to see the MYSTERY that we call God as something other than a faraway sky-god,
  • You see this someone bemoaned the fact that it is so much more difficult to wrap our arms around the MYSTERY that is LOVE, than it is to relate to the faraway-sky-god, the all-powerful, all-knowing, wish-granting, string-pulling, Father-god who lives, safely up in the heavens.
  • I would have to agree with this someone
  • I confess that there are days when I miss the great-far-away-sky-god
  • So, with the image of the great-far-away-sky-god firmly planted in our minds,
  • I want to ask to listen to a Psalm that has been handed down to us by our ancestors

Continue reading

Just Wave the White Flag of Surrender and Go Into the Party: a Sermon for the Lost – Luke 15 – Lent 4C

prodigalI am indebted to Amy-Jill Levine’s book “short stories by Jesus” and Bernard Brandon Scott’s book “Hear Then the Parable” for challenging me to look beyond the Christian bias of interpreting Jesus’ parables through the lens of the repentance and forgiveness and attempting to hear this story in ways more in keeping with Judaism. 

Following the reading of the three parables of the Lost from Luke 15, we watched the video “Prodigal” before the sermon (text below). You can watch the video below and then listen to the sermon here 

Beautiful.

I love a happy ending.

Who doesn’t love the kind of ending that sees those who are lost found.

Reconciliation is a beautiful thing.

Home, safe in the arms of a loving parent.

Who doesn’t long to be Welcomed.

Embraced.

Held.

Loved.

Reconciled.

Celebrated.

Home. 

We recognize the longing because it resides deep inside the darkest places of who we are, who we will always be; children trying to find our way, children longing to be welcomed, embraced, held, loved, reconciled, celebrated, home. 

Is it any wonder that we love a happy ending.

But this is not the happy ending that we long for because this is not the end of the story.

“A man had two sons…”

Our story does not end with the welcome embrace.

The embrace is just the beginning of our story.

All was not forgotten.

It never is.

The pain of past hurts remains.

That hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation is ongoing.

There is more than one child in this story.

This parent has two children.

Imagine for a moment that you are the elder child.

Obviously you are the wise one, the good one, the one who did the right thing, the one who can be counted upon, trusted, looked up to.

Here we are trying to make our way in the world.

Struggling to take care of things, to pay the bills, to ensure that everything is in its proper place, striving to do the right thing.

We too long for happy endings, to be welcomed,embraced, held, loved, reconciled, celebrated, home. 

What separates us from the irresponsible, spendthrifts, who foolishly waste what they have been given, what separates us from them, is that we have the good sense to keep our noses to the grindstone, to always strive to do the right thing.

And yet, no matter how hard we try, how much we forgo in order to be who we know we ought to be, no matter what success we might achieve, we are in the end, just children, longing to be loved.

So, who could blame us for wanting justice?

We just want what is right.

We need to know that all our efforts are worth at least a sense of order to things.

We’ve all felt the pain of betrayal.

A member of our family, a sister, a brother, or a member of our tribe, a loved one, a friend, who disrupts our world with their needs, their wants, who shatters our sense of right and wrong;

a pain so deep we cannot begin to imagine how we can ever recover.

We long for the happy ending.

We wish we could just find a way to forgive and forget.

But it just seems so very wrong to let go.

And the hard work of healing is more than we can begin to contemplate.

So, we set ourselves apart.

We stand outside of events.

And we have every right to do so.

After all, we did what was right, what was just, what was called for, we have nothing to apologize for.

But there they are, the source of our pain, right there as large as life.

What are we to do?

How are we expected to forgive and forget?

It’s too much.

A man had two sons.

A parent had two children.

A woman had two friends.

A man had two loves.

A person had two people needing to be welcomed, cared for, loved, reconciled.

Our story does not end with the welcome embrace, our story begins with the welcome embrace.

The had work of reconciliation is the story’s next chapter, not the final chapter by any means, just the next in a long line of chapters that will include all sorts of gestures, kindnesses, apologies, starting overs, mistakes, offences, delicate negations, concessions, ultimatums, joys, sorrows, tears, laughter, arguments, and make ups.

The hard work of living together and apart, welcoming and good-byes, embraces and refraining from embracing.

It is called life; life in community with people who share our longing to be welcomed, embraced, held, loved, reconciled, celebrated, home. 

So, here we are.

We can almost hear those white sheets of surrender flapping in the wind.

What are we to do?

There they are standing there embracing one another as if nothing had happened.

Here we stand, knowing how well we have behaved, how right we are.

What are we to do?

Do we go into the party?

What are we to make of the one who has wounded us?

How do we respond to the One who is welcoming our betrayer with a loving embrace?

Does it matter that our betrayer hasn’t truly repented?

Does it matter that they don’t appear to have changed their ways?

What about the injustice?

How do we repair the damage?

What will become of everything we have worked for?

Where will it all end?

The scandal of Jesus’ parable is that we don’t get any answers to these questions.

Just a fatted calf, a party, a bbq if you will.

What are we left to do?

Go in and have lunch.

Set aside our need for repentance and forgiveness and simply enter into the party.

When it comes to families, there are factors other than repentance and forgiveness that hold us together.

The sheep and the coin did not nor could they repent.

But the celebration happened nonetheless,

because the man and the woman were able to rejoice at the finding of the lost and the restoring of wholeness.

Sometimes the one we have lost is right under our nose, sometimes we are the ones who are lost.

Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate what has been found and then work to ensure that what has been found will never be lost again.

Don’t wait until you receive an apology, you may never get one.

Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find forgiveness.

Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.

Instead, go have lunch.

Go celebrate, and invite others to join you.

If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better.

And if not, you still have done what is necessary.

You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation.

You will have opened a second chance for wholeness.

Take advantage of resurrection—it is unlikely to happen often. 

What counts for the family also counts for the world.

So let us go into the party and dance, dance the dance of life, dance the dance of love.

It’s a complicated dance, but once you catch on to the rhythms of the music you’ll figure out the steps, and even if you look a little silly, waving and flapping about, your moves will lighten everyone’s load and help the party to be just that much more enjoyable, for everyone.

The Prodigal: Religion as a Work of Art – Richard Holloway

prodigalIf religion is to move beyond the supernatural, we must begin to see religion as a work of art. Richard Holloway, the former Primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church points to the power of story to explore human discontent as we crawl toward a better humanity. 

The DIVINE Finds Expression In, With, Through, and Beyond Us – a sermon for Lent 3C

It was nearly 20 years ago, and I still remember it as if it were yesterday. I was working as the on-call Chaplain at the Grand River Hospital in Kitchener. I had been paged to the emergency room to attend to a man who had accompanied a patient to the hospital, VSA, the code for Vital Signs Absent. Someone was waiting for me in the Quiet Room. The Quiet Room was a small ten by twelve room, into which loved ones of really serious patients were asked to wait for the worst possible news. They were kept there in the Quiet Room so that they wouldn’t be disturbed, but I suspect that the real reason is so that they wouldn’t disturb the less seriously ill patients.

Inside the Quiet Room sat one of the largest men I have ever met. He was about six-eight, with big broad shoulders. He wore blue jeans and a black leather jacket. He had long black hair and a bushy beard. He could have passed for the head of a biker gang and under normal circumstances, I probably would have been very afraid of this character. I introduced myself as the Chaplain and he just put his head in his hands. Chaplains are not popular people in hospital emergency rooms. People usually expect the worst when the medical profession calls in a chaplain. I took a seat and together we waited. 

Slowly, this big bear of a man began to tell me what had happened. He said, that everything was all his fault; he was to blame. Anne, his partner wouldn’t be in the other room fighting for her life if it wasn’t for him. After years of being on his own, driving truck from one place to another, never really having a home, he had met Anne and she had changed everything. No more long hauls for him. He switched to driving locally. For the first time in a very long time he had a home; a home he and Anne had made together. She’d made him so happy. He loved her so much. Everything was going so well for them.

Why? Why did this have to happen? He knew he shouldn’t have allowed himself to be happy. It was all his fault. If only he hadn’t of stuck around. None of this would have happened.

Quietly, I asked him just what had happened. He explained that he had come home from the store. He’d gone out for a pack of cigarettes. Anne had asked him to quit. He should have quit smoking. When he got back from the corner-store he found Anne lying on the floor. He dialed 911 and started CPR.

They wouldn’t let him stay with her. Could I go and see how she was doing? I headed back to the resuscitation room. They were tidying up. The doctor said she had a massive coronary, she was dead before she got to the hospital, they had just been going through the motions. I waited while the doctor filled in the paperwork and then together, we headed toward the Quiet Room. The doctor didn’t say a word when we arrived, he let his face do all the talking and I watched as a giant of a man fell to pieces.

When he quieted down a little, he told me that Anne was one of the best things in his life and that he should have known better. It was all his fault. If he’d just left her alone she would have been better off. Mutual friends had introduced them just a year ago. He fell for her right away. He should have known it was too good to be true. It was all his fault. It was happening all over again, only this time he should have known better. Through his tears, he asked me, how I could believe in such cruel God. God took his son away from him and now God had taken Anne.       He began to moan, over and over again, crying out for his lost son Billy.

It took about an hour for him to tell me what had happened, some 25 years earlier. His son had been playing with some friends down by the river. They’d made a makeshift raft. Somehow, little Billy had drowned. Just five years old and he was taken away. It was all his fault. If he hadn’t been such a lousy father, Billy wouldn’t have been taken away from him. After Billy died, his marriage fell apart. That was all his fault too. If only he’d been a better husband, a better man, God would have helped them to work it out. But clearly, God was punishing him for all the terrible things he had done in his life.

He should have known better than to take the chance. He just should have known better. If he had just stayed on the road. If he hadn’t tried to make some sort of life with Anne, she’d still be alive. God had really stuck it to him this time. This was his punishment for trying to be happy. He cried softly then. Over and over again crying out the names of Anne and Billy.

I quietly told this big bear of a broken man, that I didn’t believe in the kind of God that he was talking about. The God that I know wouldn’t do something like that. God is not that cruel. I told him that I believed that God wept for his son and for Anne, and that God knew the kind of pain that he was feeling. He just kept on sobbing, telling me that I didn’t understand, insisting that it was all his fault. Looking back, I realize that I was probably trying to convince myself at that moment that God was not some sort of monster. At that very moment I suppose that I felt like God was indeed some sort of monster. How could I have expected to help this man to reconcile the death of his son and his partner with the notion of a loving God? Surely that man was better off believing in a punishing God rather than an absent or capricious God who allowed the innocent to suffer?  The man himself was willing to blame himself rather than to blame God. God, in that man’s mind, was just doing what had to be done, punishing a guilty man. He knew beyond a doubt that he was to blame. His crimes had caused the deaths of his loved ones, not God. Who was I to destroy his worldview? At least his reasoning allowed him to make some sense out of his life.

Who among us has not done the same when calamity strikes, wondering what we have done wrong to deserve our plight?   Who among us at some time or another has not scrutinized our own behaviour, our relationships, our diets, our faith or lack of faith, hunting from some cause to explain our lot in the vain hope that we can find the reason behind our suffering?  We are only human after all, less interested in the truth than in the consequences. What we crave above all else is to grasp for control over the chaos of our lives. Continue reading

Help Me Jesus, Help, Help Me Jesus – in memory of Marlene Healy-Ogden – a story for our Lenten Journey

When I was in high school, I used to have a recurring nightmare. In my nightmare I would be standing in front of my locker staring down at the combination lock, trying desperately to remember the combination. All the books that I needed for class, all the binders that contained my carefully completed homework assignments, as well as the time-table that would tell me which class I was supposed to go to next, were inside my locker. The clock was ticking, the bell was about to ring, I was supposed to be sitting down at a desk somewhere, but I had absolutely no idea where because I couldn’t for the life of me remember the combination for the lock, that dangled before me, keeping me from the stuff I so desperately needed in order to be where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing. I would have this nightmare whenever my anxiety levels where elevated which when I was a teenager, used to happen quite often. The funny thing is, I never forgot my combination and even though the lock is long gone, confined to the garbage of history, I can still tell you my combination:  21,13, 27. You see whenever I find myself feeling totally overwhelmed and anxious, and not knowing what to do; when I know that I am in over my head and I’m almost paralyzed with fear, in order to get myself going again, in order to find the courage to do something, I will often repeat to myself the numbers of my high school locker combination: 21, 13, 27.

I learned this trick on a September morning standing beside a locker located not in my high school, but up on the second floor of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. It was my first day at seminary as a student in the Master of Divinity Program. I was 36 years old; the oldest person in a class of a dozen students. I was standing in front of the locker that had just been assigned to me. It had an all too familiar lock on it. In my hand I held a small piece of paper on which the seminary office staff had written the number and combination of the locker that had been assigned to me. I stood there staring at the combination, and suddenly I was a teenager again, standing terrified in front of a locker, with absolutely no idea what to do next. I was 36 years old for crying out loud, I’d travelled thousands of miles to get to this locker, I was about to embark on a program that I’d been preparing to enter for the previous 4 years as an under-graduate. I’d left a good job, and a good life behind, and I was supposed to be headed to some classroom or other to begin a program that I was convinced I didn’t have what it takes to complete. I’d already met my fellow students and they all looked like children to me. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the faculty discovered that I didn’t really belong at seminary. I remember standing there and wanting with all my heart to run away and hide, I remember praying, “help Jesus, help, help, me Jesus, help, me Jesus, yeah, get me out of here.”

I was terrified, when all of a sudden, a well-dressed woman came up beside me and said, “Can I help you with anything?” From her age and the tailored suit, she was wearing, I assumed that she must be a professor and I knew that I should say something, but I was too afraid that anything I might say, would give me away as someone who really didn’t belong at seminary. So, I just sort of stood there. “I’m Marlene” she said, “It looks like we’re locker neighbours. Just take a deep breath you’re going to be all right. Do you feel like you’re back in high school?” I nodded. “Just breathe” she said. “You can do this.”

“I’m too old for all this.” I said. “Ha” she said, “I’m older than you and I keep waiting for the hook to come and drag me off the stage and outta here. But trust me,” she said, “this is way harder than anything you’ve ever done before, but you can do this, just pretend you’re back in high school and put one foot in front of the other and you’ll be just fine. If you need any help, my name is Marlene, I’m in my second year here, so I should be able to help you.”   Continue reading

St. Patrick’s Day – Faith and Begorrra – John 12:1-8 – a sermon

Faith and Begorra! St. Patrick’s Day fall on a Sunday this year!. Yes, it is also the second Sunday in Lent and and the perfect time to explore Jesus’ use of the image of God as a mother hen, but St. Patrick’s Day provides so many rich opportunities to explore some thirst-quenching images. So I’m reposting this sermon I preached six years ago because the memory of preaching with a Guinness glass in my hand still makes me chuckle.  The best way to fully appreciate this sermon is to pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple, sit back, listen and enjoy a laugh. For those colleagues who are busy searching for sermon ideas for this coming Sunday you can read my attempt to write with a Belfast accent below…you’ll probably need a tipple of some-at to get tru it! Cheers!

Readings:  Numbers 27: 1-11; Acts 13:44-51; John 12:1-8

guinnessbeerOn this particular St. Paddy’s Day, I decided to be somewhat playful and irreverent with a sermon designed encourage folk to think beyond words on a page. The first reading brought the wonderful story of the Daughters of Zelophehad to church and as this reading does not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary it was fun to play withirish these feisty women. The reading from the book of Acts is actually the prescribed reading for the commemoration of St. Patrick and the Gospel text is prescribed for Lent 5C. The Guinness was just for fun! Enjoy.

Listen to the sermon

https://pastordawn.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/st_patricks_sermon.m4a

It’s not every year that St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday. “An so,” and so, that’s a very Irish expression. At least it is in some parts of Ireland. You’ll hear someone use that wee phrase, usually at the end of a sentence. An so…Sometimes they follow it with iy….and so, iy. But not from the part of Ireland that my people are from, sure the never said that. An so… What was I sayin? Sure it’s not every year that St. Paddie’s Day falls on a Sunday. And I don’t think it will every happen again that you’ll get all three lined up together like this, St. Paddie’s Day, Sunday and Holy Cross’ Annual Meeting. And so…. So, let me be tellin ye…Such a grand and glorious day as this, calls for a sermon like no other, an so…

I brought props. Sure St. Paddie had his shamrocks and faith and begorra…an so…I have a book….A book called, “How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe.” By none other than Thomas Cahill, himself. Faith and begorra…did ya ever in all your life hear such a ting as dat??? But that’s not all, I’ve sumtin else…

Take a look at that there??? Sure there’s nothing better on a St. Paddie’s morning than a glass of Guinness….an so… Well you’ll notice that this here particular glass of Guinness, well she’s as empty as Paddie’s pig on market day… An so…for the rest of this wee sermon you just think of me as the preacher who had we tipple before she set about tellin ya what’s what. My glass might be empty, but my heart is full… Full a the devil some may say…or full a the love a Jesus if the truth be told…an so… Where was I? Yeah, sure it’s St. Patrick’s Day and all the world is Irish if only until ya fill there glass. And then faith and begorra…that’s when the truth comes out. That’s when you find out who really saved the world. Now like any good Irish story, we’re gonna wander a bit…so falla me, for like my dear old Nannie used to say, you’d better falla me cause I’m right behind ya. That’s right falla me I’m right behind ya. But that should be no trouble for you lot, cause ya haven’t touched a drop. Yet. And a drop is all you’ll be gettin for have ya seen the size of those Jeesus jiggers;  Why you wouldn’t quench the thirst of the devil’s flees with the wee titch of wine they give ya in dose wee glasses. An so…the Irish and those that want to be Irish well this is a big day indeed. An so… I want to tell us all, exactly how the Irish saved civilization, an, an, I’m gonna tell the truth about St. Patrick himself…an, an, while I’m at it, I wanna take to use about those Daughters of Zolophehad, now there were a bunch of girls if you know what I mean…and speaking about a bunch a girls, while I’m at it I wanna tell ya all about those Marys…Faith and begorra, who’d be havin it?

Sure there’s Mary de Mother of Jesus, and then there’s Mary Jesus’ best friend, you know the girl from over Bethany way…and then there’s that lovely Mary, you know the lovely girl from over there in Magdela who everyone is after confusing with dat other woman, the one the call, Mary who really wasn’t Mary at’al, at’al, at’al… Sure wasn’t she after being healed, her being a sinner from the city and all…Sure there’s more Mary’s in this story, than I have time to be tellin ya about. So, we’ll just leave Mary the mother of Jesus out of it, cause she’s got nothing to do with this really. Unless of course, I loose me, way…and then begorra, I be Jesus, Mary and Joseph, this and Jesus Mary and Joseph that…an so… Were was I ??? I was needin a wee drink that’s where I was…. Continue reading

The Fox is in the Henhouse – a sermon for Lent 2C – Luke 13:31-35

Written 3 years ago, before the fox became the most power person on the planet.

Sadly, it still resonates.

Drawing the connection between the French word “lent” as meaning slow and the historical Lenten practice of fasting, we began our Lenten journey with the suggestion that we adopt a spiritual practice of slowing down for lent by fasting from fast. So, following a delightfully slow start on Monday morning, I read the assigned gospel text for this Sunday and spent some time luxuriating in the study of fables about foxes in henhouses.  The gospel’s description of Jesus describing himself as a mother hen longing to gather up her chicks in the safety of her breast so to protect them from encounters with Herod the fox created images that suggested that we lean into the Mystery that we call God. If as our friend Dom Crossan is fond of saying, Jesus really “is what God looks like in sandals,” then surely the gospel-storyteller’s casting Jesus as someone who compares himself to a mother hen, must tell us something about how Jesus want’s his hearers to understand the nature of God. So, I began thinking about preparing a liturgy devoted to gently leaning into the MYSYERY of God.

Part of my lenten practice of fasting from fasting from fast caused me to shun my regular Monday morning consumption of news media, as most of you know, I’m a bit of a news-aholic and so on my day off, I usually spend way too much time catching up on the news of the world. These days the news tends to send my blood pressure racing so, I avoided my usual media haunts in favour of enjoying a few movies and some exercise.  As the week wore on, I developed a cold and so Wednesday and Thursday were spent drifting in and out of consciousness as I tried to sleep off the effects of fever and congestion. So, imagine my horror when I finally tuned back into the news of the world on Friday. The fox was actually in the hen house. There he was a fox whose sly cunning makes Herod Antapis look tame, attacking a beautiful tender sweet hen, who over and over again wants for nothing more than to gather children as a mother hen collects her babies beneath her wings. Donald John Trump was attacking the Pope! At first, I thought the decongestants that I was taking were causing hallucinations! Talk about foxes in the hen houses!

Herod Antipas wanted nothing more than to be King of the Jews and Trump wants nothing more than to be King of the World! Herod Antipas scandalized the first century and Trump is well on his way to scandalizing the 21st century. Jesus Christ shocked the first century by comparing himself to a hen.

Donald Trump continues to shock this century with the size of his ego. For over a billion Roman Catholics, Pope Francis is Christ’s representative on earth, billions more see him as a religious leader of impeccable credentials, others see him as a kindly old gentleman who is struggling to bring a stodgy religious institution into the 21st century by opening the doors to welcome in the poor and marginalized.  Donald Trump is a narcissist of epic proportions; a real-estate mogul, who despite his three financial bankruptcies has managed to translate his business savvy into reality show ratings that paved the way to a media career which he is currently trying to translate into a political career in his quest for the White House. Responding to a question about the astonishing popularity of Donald Trump, the Pope said something to the effect that “any person who focusses on building walls and not trying to build bridges is not a Christian.” And that audacious fox stopped dead in his tracks just long enough to insist that the Pope is and I quote, “disgraceful”.

Can you blame me for suspecting that I’d taken one too many decongestants?  I turned the TV off lest I discover that aliens were about to land on earth and lock us all up for our own safety. Back in the relative safety of my office I returned to biblical commentaries to read about metaphors for God. What exactly is the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Luke getting at with this particular metaphor?  I mean why a chicken? Why not something more elegant or graceful or majestic; an eagle perhaps, or a lion, or a bear? This are metaphors for God that were good enough for other biblical storytellers, but not for this one. Now I have only ever really had a relationship with one chicken in my life.  I’ve got to say a chicken is the last thing I would want to be compared to let along something I’d compare myself too. If Jesus is comparing himself to a mother hen collecting her babies under her wings, and the gospel-storyteller wants us to think of Jesus as God then is the gospel-storyteller actually asking us to think of God as a mother hen?

Let me tell you about the one chicken I have actually known personally. Her name was Betty, Betty the Broiler. We called her Betty the Broiler because she wasn’t anything much to look at. You see back in the day, when I was helping to run a retreat centre, among the various animals we kept on Seabright Farm were chickens. Seabright chickens to be exact.  Seabright chickens were breed to as ornamental chickens and a flock of seabrights are about as beautiful a flock of chickens as ever adorned a farmyard. For some unknown reason, our flock of seabright chicks came complete with a rather plain looking banti hen that was anything but a seabright, she was a plain white hen which we nicknamed Betty the Broiler on account of how she looked like a generic hen fit for broiling.

But Betty was anything but generic. Betty thought she was human. Right from the start rather than scratch about with the other hens, Betty liked nothing better than to follow the children wherever they went. The kids on the farm loved Betty and because they loved her, they fed her stuff that the average hen never eats; sandwiches, crackers, bananas, berries, ice-cream, Betty’s favourite food was hot dogs. The kids used to squeal with laughter as Betty chased them around the yard demanding that they share their food with her. Well one day, depending on whose telling the story, either one of the dogs on the farm, wanted to share in the food that the kids were eating or a strange dog wandered onto the property to only to attack one of the kids, anyway long story short the kids ran into the farmhouse screaming for help because “a dog tried to kill Betty.” By the time we got to her Betty was gasping on the lawn surrounded by feathers. Her throat had clearly been cut. Betty looked ready for the broiler.

But the children insisted, and so none of the adults had the heart to do what seemed like the kind thing and simply finish her off. Instead against better judgement of the adults, Betty the broiler was rushed to the vet, who even though he thought the so-called adults had taken leave of their senses, agreed to stitch Betty up. The vet had never before tried to rescue a chicken, so when he handed her back to the adults, he suggested that she might be in considerable pain, but rather than prescribe costly drugs, he suggested that we might try alcohol to ease her pain. Continue reading

Bows and Arrows – sermon for Lent 2C

This morning’s sunshine has left me longing for spring. I know that when all is said and done this winter will probably go into the record books as a particularly mild one. But even so, I’ve grown weary of the trappings of winter and I cannot wait for spring to arrive. On Friday I found myself suffering from a case of cabin fever. I’d spent the day working in my office and even though my desk faces a large window, the dull grey hue of the cold, overcast, afternoon made me long for spring, when the sunshine would entice me to open my widow and I’d hear the sounds of the world out there waking up from its long winter nap. From my office window I caught a glimpse of some kids who judging from the time of day, were heading home from school. As they trudged along the sidewalk, the sight of their mother tagging along behind them made me incredibly sad. Those poor kids were being escorted by their mother. How in the world were they ever going to have any adventures with their mother tagging along behind them? I know that the world has changed some since I was a kid, but the adventures that we could have on the way home from school, well let’s just say, what our mothers don’t know can’t hurt them. The kids walking down the street on Friday, were going straight home; something we rarely did. We wandered home from school, and it could take hours to get home. Now I know that some of you may be fond of saying that when we were kids, we had to walk for miles and miles and miles, and it was all uphill and the sidewalks weren’t ploughed back in the day and the snow, well you should have seen it back then it was piled as high as the rooftops and we had to trudge through snow drifts that were taller than we were. Yeah, yeah, kids today, they just don’t know how well off they really are. Or are they?

Kids are escorted home from school and there’s no time for dilly-dallying. I’ve got to say that dilly-dallying on my way home from school was some of the best fun I can remember. After a day spent at school there was nothing quite like the fun we could get up to on our way home. I remember one spring my friends and I spent days and weeks collecting tree branches. We wandered here and there trying to find branches with just the right amount of sap in them to make them supple and pliable. You had to be able to bend them just so and unless they had lots of sap in them, they would snap in two. We needed branches that we could bend into bows and when we found those branches, we collected other branches that we could fashion into arrows. It wasn’t difficult because all of us had jack knives and we would take those branches and with our jack knives we’d sharpen them just so. When we had all our bows and arrows ready, we’d practice shooting arrows. Continue reading

Carcasses Torn Asunder – Do We Really Have to Listen to This In Church? Lent 2C

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 – Musing About Genesis Bloody Carcasses

Genesis 15From time to time, the prescribed readings from the Common Lectionary fill me with dread and despair. Something about those bloodied, split, rotting carcasses that sealed the deal between God and Abraham makes me wonder about the nature of the god we have projected into the heavens and ask: Have we evolved or has God? The story of God’s promises to the “Chosen People” portrays God as a churlish player in humanity’s game of tribal rivalry. While I’d rather not preach on the text from Genesis this Sunday, I know full well that simply reading this text during worship without elaboration, will if folk are paying attention, leave a distasteful oder in the sanctuary  that will surely spoil our appetite for our common meal of body and blood disguised as bread and wine.

The readings for this coming Sunday have me thinking about tribalism. There’s always more than one way to look at things. Tribalism has served us well. New people to meet can be exciting or it can be frightening. Taking comfort with your own people is wonderful, but taking too much pride in your own kind is dangerous. One minute you’re cheering for your team the next minute you’re hurling insults at the other guy and one too many insults and the next thing you know you’re at war. A little tribalism is a good thing, but how much tribalism is too much? Tribalism is a basic human survival instinct. Tribalism is lodged deep within our psyches and has been from the very beginning of time. Tribal is part of our primordial selves. Tapping into this basic human instinct can mean the difference between survival and death.

Tribal thinking exists on almost every level of human life, from the international to the local. Attack a human on any level and that human will resort to instinctive behaviour. When threatened humans have two basic instincts, fight or flight and the choice between the two often comes down to tribalism. If you have enough people to back you, you’ll probably choose to fight. Not enough people and you’ll probably choose flight.

Human kind has evolved a great deal over the centuries but we haven’t evolved very far from our basic instincts. You don’t have to scratch a fan too deeply to find the primitive tribal mentality. Tribalism is seen in the way we portray our rivals. I once heard a Kiwi say, “I root for two teams, New Zealand and whoever is playing Australia.” Sporting competition is all well and good, but when tribalism is carried to its worst possible conclusion, wars beak out. Tribal feeling is then exacerbated in times of war, and tribal propaganda is used to dehumanize our enemies to make it easier to hate or kill without any qualms of conscience.           We don’t kill human beings in war; our victims are not someone’s child, spouse, or parent.  NO, one kills either, the Huns, the Krauts, the Japs, the Nips, the VC, the insurgents, the fanatics or the terrorists.

There is within us all a basic, dominant, intrinsic fear of those tribes different from our own, a predisposition to be on guard against them, to reject them, to attack and even to kill them. This tribal tradition arises out of our deep-seated survival mentality and it feeds something at the heart of our insecure humanity. We are tribal people to our core. Far more than we will consciously admit, the religions of the world including Christianity rise out of and undergird our tribal thinking. Continue reading