The closing worship of Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada’s National Convention was richly blessed by the Rev. Jordan Cantwell, the Moderator of the United Church of Canada! Rev. Cantwell’s presence throughout the convention enriched us in ways that I am still unpacking. Take some time to listen to this passionate preacher and be challenged by her call to relinquish white privilege.
“What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the market place. ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance. We sang you a dirge, but you wouldn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. ’Wisdom will be vindicated by her actions.”
Wisdom will be vindicated by her deeds. In Jesus’ words, we can here the dim echoes of a time gone by. Long before Jesus came there was a character who called out in the marketplaces. You can read about her in the Old Testament books of Proverbs and Job, in the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus. What students of the Bible call the “Wisdom literature” is full of stories about a character who so many people have never heard of. In the book of Proverbs, she claims to have been there when God was busy with creation and she declares: “When God set the heavens in place, I was present, when God drew a ring on the surface of the deep, when God fixed the clouds above, when God fixed fast the wells of the deep, when God assigned the sea its limits…when God established the foundations of the earth, I was by God’s side, a master craftswoman. Delighting God day after day, ever at play by God’s side, at play everywhere in God’s domain, delighting to be with the children of humanity.”
Who is this master craftswoman? Job insists that, “we have heard reports of her”. But, “God alone has traced her path and found out where she lives.” The writer of Ecclesiasticus admonishes the reader to: “court her with all your soul, and with all your might keep her ways; go after her and seek her; she will reveal herself to you; once you hold her, do not let her go. For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.” In the Wisdom of Solomon, she is described as ” quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her. She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, image of God’s goodness. Although alone, she can do all things; herself unchanging she makes all things new. In each generation, she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets.”
You may not know who she is, but Jesus certainly did. Tales of her deeds were popular in Jesus’ day. Jesus, a student of the scriptures who was referred to as a rabbi, would certainly have known who this heroine of the scriptures was. In the ancient Hebrew texts of the Wisdom Literature she is called “CHOKMAH.” In the ancient Greek translations of these texts she is called “SOPHIA.” In our English translations of these texts she is simply known as “wisdom.” The ancient Hebrew and Greek languages were written without punctuation. There were no spaces between the words. Until long after Jesus’ day there were only capital letters. Upper and lower case letters were not used. Unlike our system were personal names begin with capital and are followed with lower case letters, ancient texts consist of lines of unbroken capitals. Words do not have spaces between them and so translating these texts into English is tricky. This is just one of the reasons why Sophia’s story has remained hidden from most of us. When you read the texts that describe wisdom, it is clear that they are, at the very least, speaking about wisdom as though wisdom were a person. Sophia is wisdom personified. Sophia is spoken of as being around from the beginning–before creation. She was with Yahweh at the time of creation; creation couldn’t happen without her presence. Other biblical passages show her coming to be with humanity, reaching out to people to be in relationship with them. She walks through the streets, calling out to people, trying to get them to listen–to follow her. She’s also a welcoming hostess inviting people to her table, a bountiful provider of food, the source of all good things. She is the way to life abundant. She is also a trickster and play is one of the ways she gets things done. You may not have heard of her, but when Jesus speaks to the people about children calling to one another in the marketplaces, the people would have remembered Sophia standing in the marketplaces and calling the people out to dance. But the people refused to join in Sophia’s playful dance. Sophia’s reputation for playfulness led the people to refuse her invitation. Jesus who came eating and drinking, called out to the people. But his reputation led the people to label him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!
Jesus declares: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance”. Jesus harkens back to the images of Sophia in the Scriptures and insists that, “wisdom will be vindicated by her deeds.” Sophia’s reputation as a trickster who accomplishes great deeds through play and Jesus’ reputation as a glutton and a drunkard who comes to the world eating and drinking aren’t usually emphasized by those who tout their religion in the public square.
I can honestly say I have never heard of members of the religious right taking to the airwaves to encourage society to eat, drink, and be merry. And yet, this stuff is in the Bible. The Bible describes playfulness as an important part of the God in whose image we are created. All too often those of us who profess to follow Jesus, refuse to hear Jesus: ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance.”
Jesus is calling us out to play. Yes, I know it is summer and I just go out to the lake and splash and play in the water. I can’t help myself. I just want to let Jesus’ words take me back to the words of Sophia, so that we can play together in the words of the scriptures.
In the Bible, it is Sophia who is first given the task of calling God’s people out to play, and that playfulness goes way beyond dancing. Despite the church’s attempts to contain and or constrain our playfulness Jesus continues to call us out to play!
On this glorious summer Sunday, on a weekend when it is meet right and salutary to celebrate, we can listen to the tune Jesus is piping and we can dance for joy for we are wondrously and gloriously made. Weekends are not the only things designed for play, we are. In the books of the Old Testament that are known as Wisdom Literature, it is made very clear that our bodies are blessings given by God so that we might delight in them. Playfulness, includes exploring the pleasures that one body can give to another body. There’s a little book in the Bible called that we call the Song of Solomon, but that for centuries was simply known as the Song of Songs and there you will find words that can make televangelists positively apoplectic. “Look, there my love stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. Let my love kiss me with kisses on the mouth!”
How did this get into the Bible? The Song of Solomon, or as it is sometimes called, the Song of Songs is surely the most erotic book of the Bible. This erotic song of songs is a long poem in which a woman, “Black and beautiful,” and a man, “radiant and ruddy,” speak the language of desire, cataloguing every inch of each other’s body, every smell and every taste. The radiant young man declares to his lover, “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.” and she tells anyone who will listen that, “His cheeks are like beds of spices, yielding fragrance. His lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh,” He responds by exclaiming that her, “two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. I am my beloved’s” she exults, “and his desire is for me.”
The Song of Songs is a song about desire, and so it is also a song about the pain of separation, of missed meetings, and of absence. “O that his left hand were under my head,” the woman sings with palpable yearning, “and that his right hand embraced me!” and when her lover knocked on her door and she hesitated for a moment to open it, the woman speaks some of the sexist lines in any literature.
“My beloved thrust his hand into the opening and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt.” When she opens the door, however, he is gone, and she heads out into the city to search for him. “I implore you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love.”
I know, I know, enough already. This is a church! Surely eroticism doesn’t belong within the sacred walls of a sanctuary! How did this erotic love poem make it into the Bible? No one knows for sure. But scores of interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have found in it the song of human yearning for God and God’s desire to be in intimate relationship with humanity. The Song of Songs is read at the festival of the Passover as a reminder that God delivered Israel from slavery not only because God was bound by the covenant to do so, but also because God loved the people of Israel and desired goodness for them. The ancient Christian writer Bernard of Clarvaux wrote more than eighty sermons on the Song without even making it past the third chapter. According to Clarvaux the poem provided a means by which the individual believer could come into intimate relationship with God. Like all great poetry, the Song of Songs can easily sustain a wide range of interpretations. But it resists being read only as a spiritual text about human beings and God. Clairvaux warned young monks and nuns not to read it until their faith matured, because of the sexual feelings it is able to inspire. Continue reading
Listen to the sermon here
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number and there became a great nation, mighty and populous.” So, mighty and so populous that some of our ancestors wandered all the way to Northern Ireland. As a child in Belfast a long time ago, longer than I care to remember, so long ago that life was very different than it is now. Life in Belfast during the sixties was simple. We didn’t have much. Life was simple and basic and so many of the things that we take for granted, simply didn’t exist back then. Looking back on it now, I suppose you could say that we were poor. The truth is, we may indeed have been poor but I never knew it. Back then “the troubles” were reigniting in Northern Ireland as protestants and Roman Catholics began to slip back into their old violent ways. Looking back, I realize that the poverty and violence of Belfast in the 1960’s made it a tough place to raise a family. So, it makes sense that my family would leave Belfast as what today we would call refugees, fleeing both economic hardships as well as the threat of violence. But as a child in neither knew nor understood the realities of our migration. Nevertheless, arriving in Canada was just like arriving in the “Promised Land.”
On this Canada Day weekend, I can still vividly remember my first full day in Canada, even though it happened so very long ago. My Mother, my brother, and I arrived at the old Malton Airport. I don’t have any actual memories of walking across the tarmac, but legend has it that it was snowing on what should have been a spring day. I do have memories of my very first car-ride. I can still see the massive 1957 Plymoth. It was the first car my family ever owned and it had these huge fins at the back that were taller than I was at the time. The back seat was positively enormous and riding back there, I was thoroughly convince that my Dad had struck it rich in Canada.
We pulled into the parking lot of the tallest building I had ever seen and Dad announced that we were home. He pointed out a balcony way up on the fourth floor and said that this was our flat.Then we climbed aboard an elevator. I had never been in an elevator before and I was amazed at the skill with which my father took charge of the controls. When the door magically slide open, we walked down a long hallway to arrive at our front door. I can still see the gold numbers on the door, “407”. We must be rich indeed, if we had good on our front door. I could hardly believe my eyes when Dad opened the door. I remember the shiny wood floors, the brand new furniture, and the big TV set.
As we toured the rest of the apartment, I simply couldn’t speak. This new home looked nothing like the homes I was used to. What’s more inside the kitchen stood a sparkling white refrigerator. I had never seen such a thing. All I remember is that this refrigerator had magic powers that allowed us to keep food cold. Visions of ice-cream must have danced through my head. Just imagine the marvelous ability to be able to keep ice-cream in your very own kitchen. No more walking to the corner shop or waiting for the ice-cream man to pass by.Ice-cream right there as cold as you like in your very own home. It blew my tiny little mind!
You can’t imagine how rich I though we had become. Especially when off we went on my very first trip to a grocery store. A grocery store, not a shop or a market, but a grocery store in Canada, is a very magical place. I can still remember playing with my brother on the magic entrance to the grocery store. We had never before seen automatic doors and we were delighted to step over and over again on the magic mat that caused the doors to open. Then there was the big cart that people in Canada used to pile all their groceries in. People in Canada bought so much food that they needed a cart to carry it all out to their cars so that they could fill their marvelous refrigerators up to the brim. It must have blown my Mom’s mind to think that she would no longer have to shop every day, but could actually shop once a week because we had a fridge to store everything in.
I have this vague memory of standing in front of boxes and boxes of cereal. I had never seen so many boxes of cereal. So much choice. I remember choosing a box with a bear on the package…it was a cartoon bear… but it was a bear, I couldn’t wait to see a real bear. Canada, I thought must be full of bears. Perhaps the sugar pops, would make me strong enough to stand in front of a bear? I remember watching a square box of ice-cream travel down a magic counter and later watching as it was loaded into the massive boot of our massive car, and finally as it was placed in our very own freezer. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice-cream came out of that box. It was delicious. I remember several times, sneaking into the kitchen and opening up the fridge and then peering into the freezer to see if any of the ice-cream was leaking out of the box. Wonder of wonders, in Canada people are so rich that they can keep ice-cream for days and days and days in their very own homes. Canada is just like I imagined heaven to be. Canada was, to that little girl that I was way back then, Heaven here on earth.
Canada is an amazing land. I am not the first refugee, and I certainly won’t be the last refugee to discover that Canada is more lovely than the Promised Land of any wandering migrants dreams. The wealth of our land surpasses the wildest dreams of most of the people on this planet. We have been richly blessed. Listen to the words of Deuteronomy, they might just as well have been written for us: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that God has given you.”
Welcome to the promised land! Look around you. Rejoice and be glad for God has been gracious to you. Praise God for the bounty, which God has laid before us. Don’t let it be said of you, “that none of them was found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner”. Let it be said that, “we shall eat our fill and bless our God for the good land that God has given us. Take care that you do not forget God. When we have eaten our fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when our wealth has multiplied, our silver and our gold is multiplied, and all that we have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting God, who brought us out of the great and terrible wilderness.” Do not let us say to ourselves, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember God, for it is God who gives you power to get wealth, so that God may confirm God’s covenant that God swore to our ancestors, as God is doing today.”
Alas, like our ancestors, we too are like wandering Arameans, for just like every other immigrant who ever came upon the beauty of a land not their own, we did not wander into an empty land. We are migrants, settlers, colonizers. Looking around this room, I think it is safe to say that, regardless of whether it was us our or our ancestors, our people, our tribe, took this land from the indigenous in habitants of this land. Our ancestors may have believed that they had a god-given right to this land. But the texts we revere as sacred cannot disguise the reality of the crimes that were committed when our forbearers took this land from the peoples and nations that had inhabited this land for centuries before any Europeans every dreamed that Turtle Island existed. We are setters in this land, descendants of colonizers, our wealth came and continues to come at great cost to the indigenous peoples of this land that we love.
We come from a long tradition that looks back upon our ancestors as wandering Arameans who when they arrived at what they believed to be their Promised Land, they believed that their god was providing them with all the blessings they needed to thrive as a nation. The reality is that those wandering Arameans were settlers and colonizers in the land of Canaan. The Canaanites lost their land to the Israelites and the tragedy of colonization still reverberates down to this very day as Israelis and Palestinians fight over the blessings of the Promised Land.
As the celebrations of “Canada 150” fade, perhaps we can turn our attention to the many blessings of this land. Perhaps we can finally begin to move beyond the sins of our fathers and mothers, and set aside our own sins of omission. Perhaps we can begin to hear the words of the One we profess to follow and learn to love one another in ways that do not put one another into categories of native and non-native, indigenous and settler, colonizer and colonized, neighbour and enemy, but rather sisters and brothers in a land rich with promise. We have relied for too long on the ravages of our past which trained us well to be colonizers. Surely, it is time for us to set aside our childish ways, and look not to the tribalism of our past but rather to the sense of blessedness that called upon our ancestors to remember that we have been blessed to be a blessing. Surely, we can begin the next 150 years by finding ways to be a blessing to our sisters and brothers who have suffered the perils of colonization. If Canada is to grow out of our childish churlish ways, we will need to learn from our indigenous sisters and brothers so that together we can cherish this land where the abundance of the earth provides so much promise that all who live here can find peace together.
Canada is not the Promised Land given to us by God so that we can gather up all the milk and honey. Canada is a land filled with promise; a land of nations of indigenous peoples and settlers have many blessings to share with the world. Before the promise of Canada can be realized, it is time for us to clean-up the mess of “Canada 150” by atoning for the sins of our mothers and fathers as well as our sins of omission. We can do that by ensuring that our all our sisters and brothers have access to the milk and honey. We can do that by learning from our indigenous sisters and brothers how to live in harmony with the land, how to respect the blessings of Turtle Island, how to share the blessings in ways that ensure that this great land continues to thrive. We can do that by repairing the damage that has been done while ensuring that every child feels as richly blessed as we do. Only when everyone of us is free to embrace with dignity the promise of this great land will we truly begin to embrace the blessedness that abounds all around us in ways that will be a blessing to the world.
May we all learn to look beyond “Canada 150”, so that together we can see our blessedness not as our own, but as god-given so that we might be a blessing to others. We have been richly blessed. And, to those to whom much has been given, much is expected. We have been blessed to be a blessing. The party is over, let the clean-up begin. Set your minds upon the ways in which you might embrace your blessings so as to be a blessing to others. Let it be so. Amen.
Readings: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Acts 2:44-46; Matthew 5:21-26
Listen to the sermon here
According to the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Matthew, Jesus said, “But I tell you that everyone who is angry with sister or brother is subject to judgment; anyone who says to sister or brother, ‘I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin; and anyone who vilifies them with name-calling will be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”
“Gehenna” a valley outside of Jerusalem where people burned their garbage. Gehenna a filthy stinking kind of place where, in the heat of the day, fires consumed the trash of the city. Gehenna a loathsome place that looms large in our collective imaginations as the mythical hell that haunts our culture, tormenting so us with nightmares of our own making.
“Anyone who says to sister or brother, “I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin” – the Sanhedrin – the people’s court – a place where society judges our actions, “anyone who vilifies” a sister or brother, with name-calling bill be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”
What is this doing in the Bible? Where is the Good News? Why did our ancestors in the faith preserve this particular piece of storytelling? “Anyone who says to a sister or brother, ‘I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”? What is the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Matthew trying to tell us? “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your sister or brother has a grudge against you, leave your gift there at the altar. Go to be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift. Lose no time in settling with your opponents—do so while still on the way to the courthouse with them. Otherwise your opponents may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the bailiff, who will through you into prison. I warn you, you won’t get out until you have paid the last penny.”
I suspect that the anonymous gospel storyteller, that we call Matthew, knew a great deal about the kind of disputes that may have inspired Jesus to want to cast members of his own tribe upon the dung-heap of his society. Remember, Jesus own people were colonizers in the land of Palestine. Colonizers all too often resort to spitting, both metaphorically and quite literally in the eyes of the people that they are colonizing. So, I can well imagine the kinds of disputes that would have been rampant in a land of Palestine that had been colonized over and over again. Jesus’ own tribe, the Jewish people, had colonized the Canaanites. In Jesus’ day, the first inhabitants along with the Jewish colonizers were in turn colonized by the Romans. Inter-tribal disputes were a dime, or should I say, a shekel a dozen. I can well imagine that there was a lot of spitting going on.
Land claims; we here in Canada suffer under the delusion that we are the only ones who must deal with complications over who owns the land. But this kind of tribal turmoil has been going on since long before the Hebrews wandered off into the wilderness of the desert and found themselves dreaming of a Promised Land. One person’s promised land is another person’s home. It seems to me that the only way to justify driving a fellow human-being off their homeland is to dehumanize them. Human history is filled with examples of one group of humans moving in on another group of humans and it usually begins with one human deciding that the other human is less of a human than they are. Colonizers, by definition, dehumanize the colonized. Dehumanizing others, inspires the kind of contempt that allows some of us to spit in the faces of others of us.
First century Palestine, like 21st century Palestine afforded all sorts of people the opportunity to spit in the faces of all sorts of people. When you scratch the surface of all the spitting you can usually discover some sort of dispute over land. We humans suffer from the original sin of believing that we can actually own the land; as if the land is ours and ours alone. And yet, every tribe in every land, has an innate sense that the land comes to us as pure gift from the Creator of the land. This Creator of land, however our particular tribe imagines this Creator, is the ONE we look to as the ultimate owner of the land. But we humans have this ugly snake that lives deep down inside us, that fills our heads with delusions of grandeur, that deceive us into believing that we and we alone are the ones who are wise enough to occupy a particular place in a particular time. Oh, we humans are very adept at dressing up our naked aggression, but there hasn’t been a fig leaf made that can disguise our hubris. And so, we spit in the face of those who reflect our nakedness back to us.
This particular allegory of Jesus insisting that such contempt will lead us all to the rotting, smoldering, garage heap that haunts our deepest nightmares, is not a particularly cheery tale for a Sunday morning. These verses from our sacred scripture don’t get much airplay in our sacred spaces. You don’t often hear about the dire consequences of our contempt for one another. Oh, sure we know that these verses are there, but we’d rather forget about them, and we certainly don’t want to be reminded of Gehenna on a summer Sunday. Which brings me full circle to what I want to remind us of on this particular summer Sunday. For like these uncomfortable verses of scripture that remind each of us of the contempt that slithers about in the dark places of our psyche, there’s a particular kind of contempt that most of us don’t particularly want to be reminded of at this particular time of the year. As our nation prepares to celebrate “Canada 150,” none of us want to think about the many ways our celebrations are spitting in the face of our sisters and brothers, who continue to suffer from the realities of the colonization which continues to benefit each of us as settlers in these lands that we love.
“Canada 150,” as if our various tribes’ appearance in these lands, marks the starting point of Canada. 12 to 15 thousand years, that’s how long the experts insist indigenous peoples had lived upon the lands we call Canada. Indigenous: “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place” As opposed to, settlers who colonized, these lands, displacing the indigenous by whatever means necessary so that our peoples could become the masters of these lands. Our ancestors, the original colonizers, brought diseases that wiped out whole nations of peoples. Our ancestors, the original settlers, inspired by contempt for the First Nations of these lands, drove millions off their various homelands. Our ancestors, came in waves, to settle these lands and over generations adopted tactics designed to rid these lands of “Indians”.
But just like our sacred scriptures that warn against the folly of spitting in the face of our opponents, the colonization of these lands happened a long time ago. We’d rather forget about all that and move on. The trouble is we settlers keep spitting in the faces of our indigenous sisters and brothers. And for those of us, who believe that we are not like our ancestors, the reality that our government is spending half-a-billion dollars this year to celebrate “Canada 150” while 134 indigenous communities do not have safe drinking water — well if that is not spiting in the face of our sisters and brothers, I’m not sure that we setters will ever understand what the anonymous gospel story teller that we call Matthew was trying to tell us, let alone what Jesus lived and died for.
Listen to the words of our Metis sister, Christi Belcourt as she reacts to the spit that has landed on her face.
I can cite for you
Lists of the dead
150 languages no longer spoken
150 rivers poisoned
150 Indigenous children taken into care last month
150 Indigenous communities without water
150 grieving in a hotel in Winnipeg
150 times a million lies
told to our faces
to steal our lands.
I can cite for you
Forms of resistance
150 battles to the death
150 water warriors walking
150 naming ceremonies
150 ways we shake the ground with dance and song
150 tattooed expressions of sovereignty
150 times 2 million days faces were painted
with earth of this land.
I can cite for you
Summers coming of resurgence
150 thousand babies birthed in ceremonies
150 thousand status cards burned
150 thousand youth marching for water
150 thousand children with braids and feathers in their hair
150 thousand Indigenous words being spoken without English
150 summers coming
of Mother Earth calling out to our hearts
150 summers coming
where you too, will finally come to understand
the power and spirit of these lands and waters
as our ancestors have known and have been trying to tell you for 500 years.”
Christi Belcourt is calling upon you and I to recognize that our “Canada 150” celebrations are in fact a celebration of 150 years of colonization. Perhaps it is time for us to really hear the words of our own sacred scriptures: “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your sister or brother has a grudge against you, leave your gift there at the altar.Go to be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift. Lose no time in settling with your opponents—do so while still on the way to the courthouse with them. Otherwise your opponents may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the bailiff, who will through you into prison. I warn you, you won’t get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Justice, real justice would extract a high price from those of us who continue to enjoy the benefits of 150 years of colonization. Fortunately, our indigenous sisters and brothers are not insisting upon an eye-for-an-eye kind of justice. Our indigenous sisters and brothers are inviting us to sit down with them to work together to find a way forward upon these lands that we all love. They are inviting us to do what the members of our Christian tribe have done since the first followers of the way began to chart a path in the wilderness of their own colonial nightmare. Our ancestors in the faith gathered together and in the words of the Acts of the Apostles: “Those who believed lived together, shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods, sharing the proceeds with one another as each had need. They met in the Temple and they broke bread together in their homes every day. With joyful and sincere hearts, they took their meals in common, praising God and winning the approval of all the people.”
Our indigenous sisters and brothers are inviting us to sit down together to break bread with one another, so that we can find ways to share the blessings of these lands that we love. We are being invited to share in a process that is embodied in the smudging ceremony that purifies the space to permit the sacred energy that exists between peoples to lead us forward in peace.
So, during the days of celebration, let us open ourselves to the possibilities of peace among the lovers of these lands. Let us remember twelve to fifteen thousand years of history on these lands, and let us honour all those who have gone before us, all those who will come after us, by learning to live in harmony with our sisters and brothers upon these lands that we call Canada.
Listen to the sermon here
Earlier this week, I drove down Main Street. Main Street is all dressed up for Pride. On the lampposts, you can see beautiful rainbow banners announcing the York Pride Festival. I must tell you that I was so overcome by the sight of these Pride banners that I had to pull over and have a little cry. The sight of these banners flapping in the wind for all to see may seem totally unremarkable to some people. But to some of us, the sight of those banners moves us beyond words to tears that spring from a very deep place within our soul; tears that reflect so many emotions born of pain, defiance, struggle, isolation, relief, hope, and joy! As I wept, I couldn’t help but marvel at how very much has changed since I first began to become aware of who I am.
I was only ten years old in 1967, when Pierre Trudeau declared that, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” I was too young to understand the news in 1968, when Canada decriminalized homosexual acts. I don’t remember being aware of the Stonewall riots that erupted in 1969. As a teen-ager in the 1970’s, what went on between consenting adults was something seldom talked about. It wasn’t until the early 80’s when the reality of the AID’s epidemic drove conversations about homosexuality into the public square, that I began to pay attention to the cause of gay rights. Living in Vancouver and working in the travel industry, I lost friends, good friends, to a disease that devastated the gay community. Later as I began to allow myself to understand who I am, I remember trying and failing to find the courage to march in Vancouver’s Gay Pride parade. I don’t know what frightened me more, being seen at the parade or seeing myself for who I am. Fear is a long, long way, from pride. So, it took me longer than I care to admit to summon up the courage to participate in the pride parade in 1986. Later as I was preparing myself to become a pastor, I had the very good fortune to fall in love. Falling in LOVE is a very empowering experience. But falling in LOVE in 1997, when your church says things like “love the sinner, hate the sin”, well let’s just say, that when I was called here to Holy Cross in 1999, it wasn’t just fear that kept Carol and I quiet on the subject of our relationship, it was the reality that if I said anything at all, I wouldn’t survive as a pastor for very long. “Don’t ask don’t tell,” was the unofficial policy of the ELCIC. So, you didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell. Newmarket, I was told was a conservative town. Well a lot has changed over the years. Many of us worked for a very long time at considerable cost to change the policies of our government and our church. The benefits of equal marriage in Canada, and full inclusion in the Evangelic Lutheran Church in Canada are life-changing and I confess that there are days when I still feel like pinching myself. “Can it actually be true? Can I actually be married to the woman I love and still be a pastor?”
The relief and the joy of being who I am without fear of persecution, makes me proud not only of who I am, but of who you are, who we are as a community and as a country. My pride runs deep and so it is a joy to see how very far we have come. Sitting in my car weeping, I couldn’t help but marvel at the courage of so many people who paved the way for us. Those banners on Main Street and all the happy pride-goers yesterday, and all of us gathered here today to celebrate, we have so much to be thankful for. But I can’t help remembering a conversation with someone who will remain nameless. This person insisted that she, “loves the gays”, but she just wishes that they wouldn’t make such a big deal out of everything. She just couldn’t approve of gay pride. “I mean really, why do they need to flaunt their sexuality in public the way that they do. Can’t they just keep it to themselves.” This person went on to declare, “I don’t flaunt my heterosexuality in public.”
Well her inability to flaunt her heterosexuality in public was all too clear. Her sexuality was very clearly suffering from her inability to see beyond all the stuff she’d ever been taught about her body;
sadly, I suspect that most of the stuff that had her so tightly wound up she must have learned from the church. For centuries our public institutions, all too often encouraged or justified by the institutional church, confined generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, and straight people in closets so dark that we could none of us see who we are.
One of the blessings that we religious types have is a plethora of metaphors and stories that were created to liberate people from prisons of our own making. One of the stories that I have always loved is this morning’s first reading from the book of Joshua. I can hear that old spiritual, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls come tumbling down,” each and every time some uptight, repressed individual begins to complain about those gay’s and their parades. The very idea of the children of Israel, those ancient Hebrew migrants, persecuted and excluded marching and hollering all around the mighty city of Jericho, with its walls erected to keep the riff raft out, well the metaphor is too perfect. I can see it all now day after day, people making an ungodly racket. The sound of the shofar’s loudly blasting a radical tune. I’ll bet there was dancing and singing and hootin and hollerin. No wonder those walls come a tumblin down.
The scriptures are full of stories created to provide hope to the downtrodden, the oppressed, the persecuted, the suffering, the outcast, even the sinners. Yes, the walls may be tall, the structures that keep you out may be entrenched, but make enough racket and you’ll see those walls crumble. So, today I give thanks to all those rowdy folks who marched in spite of the fact that the walls erected by our society to keep them in the closet seemed insurmountable. Today, I celebrate all the brave pride-goers who brought the walls of injustice down so that we can be all that we are created to be without fear. It has been a long and difficult struggle, and our pride celebrations inspire such joy. So, we sing, we dance, we make noise and yeah, we flaunt our sexuality in public! And I’m guessing that the gay rights movement has liberated more than just the LGBTQ communities. I’m guessing that our straight sisters and brothers have learned a great deal about who they are. I’m pretty sure that liberation and freedom from sexual repression are indeed a blessing that more than just a few of us are grateful for. The reality that we a wonderfully and beautifully made, creatures of mysterious and sublime wonder is a blessing of unfathomable joy.
So today, we celebrate who we are! But with each and every utterance of, the words “Happy Pride!” we cannot forget that our joy is tinged with sadness for all our sisters and brothers around the world who continue to live and die in fear. The Pride movement is still in its infancy.
We have come a long way. But we have miles to go and so many more wall to break down; walls that will require a whole lot of noise before they come tumblin down! We are blessed to live in a place where we can be who we are and love one another without fear of the state. Sadly, there are still places here where some of us are afraid to hold hands. There are places where some of us fear to go. We will need to do a whole lot more marching. We will also need to make a great deal of noise so that our government opens gaps in our walls so that we can provide sanctuary to LGBTQ refugees. We will need to make a great deal more noise so that hate-filled states like Chechnya will stop the killings and Malaysia will stop the public floggings. Those of us who remain in the Church must continue to make a whole lot of noise so that our institutions repent the abuses of our past and stop the abuses that continue to be perpetrated in the name of Jesus. We must do our best to join our voices to the voices of those outside our walls so as to hasten their crumbling. We must open up dialogues and we must tell our stories so that the LOVE that lives in us can inspire hope as it breaks down walls. We must remember that the one whom we profess to follow this Jesus fellow, is the one who said over and over again, “Do not be afraid. Have no fear!” The very one who reached out beyond the confines of the walls established by the structures and institutions of his day, to love his neighbours. The same one who insisted that God is LOVE.
So, as we celebrate today, we do so mindful that there is more noise for us to make and hopeful that as we make that noise together the walls will come tumblin down. Happy Pride everyone! May the LOVE that is God empower all of us to be all that we are created to be.
Once again, Holy Cross will the honour of hosting York Region’s Pride Fest worship. Last year’s service took place the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, and so we did our best to be both sanctuary and celebration. You can read the sermon below. Join us this Sunday for PrideFest Worship!
I have a vague memory of wandering into a large sandpit. Four or five children were playing in the dirt with Tonka toys. I couldn’t have been more than five years old. I was enthralled by this big yellow grader. A kid younger than me, was using the grader to make roads so that these big yellow Tonka dump-trucks could make their way to a small kid-made hill, where another kid had a big Tonka machine that I would later learn was a front-end-loader. This kid was moving the earth. I knew then and there that these boys were having way more fun than the little girls pushing dolls in toy strollers. I wanted a Tonka toy!
The outrage created by such a harmless desire is writ large in my memories. I learned from a very young age not to express my desires. The fear of expressing myself kept me locked inside of myself. The first time I nearly managed to free myself happened in a gay-bar in Vancouver. Now of course, I didn’t go a gay-bar because I was gay. I went to a gay-bar because my friend John is Gay and he’d never been able to must up the courage to go to a gay-bar. So, I went to a gay-bar to support my friend. The name of the club was “Faces” and I was scared to death that my face might be recognized and someone might get the wrong idea about me. I mean, heaven-forbid someone might think that I am gay. I loved Faces. I hated the music—it was the Disco era. But the atmosphere. Guys I knew, just being themselves. People dancing. Lots of freedom. And no fear. I danced with women. I danced with men. They didn’t care if I was straight or gay. They only really cared if I was smiling. They cared about my happiness and they cared about my safety. That club was a sanctuary. Unless you’ve ever had to be careful about who you love, unless you’ve ever had to refrain from holding your lover’s hand because you are afraid, not of what people might think, but what people might do, unless you’ve ever lived in fear because of who you are and who you desire, or who you love, it is difficult to understand the sanctuary of the clubs. Gay-bars, gay-clubs, are sanctuaries. Safe havens. Sanctuary from the fears of a hostile world. Safe from oppression or persecution. Sanctuaries where Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Questioning people can freely be who they are created to be. Sacred places.
Long before I knew who I was gay, the queer community that I met in the clubs, embraced me with the kind of welcome I never experienced in the sanctuaries of any church. The violation of the sanctity of Pulse in Orlando is an attack on a community of people who thought that they were safe. Tragically, 103 people were shot. 49 murdered, 53 wounded, 6 of the wounded are in critical condition fighting for their lives. We’ve all heard the horror stories of young people enjoying the sanctity of the Pulse club, only to have their lives shattered by hails of bullets. Barely did we have time to grieve before the pundits began haggling over what label to apply to the perpetrator of such carnage. Hate-crime or terrorism, homophobe or repressed homo-sexual, mental illness or radical jihadist, any way you slice this unholy mess, the dead and wounded paid with their blood and their lives for the world’s inability to move beyond our tribal instincts.
The rhetoric has penetrated our tears. As we grieve, we are assaulted with words and images that move us to despair the reality that even as homophobia wanes Islamophobia is on the rise. In the midst of our grieving, the lunatic running for the highest office on the planet, as he rants about visions of what might have been if only Pulse patrons had taken advantage of their second amendment rights and pulled out guns of their own and fired back at their deranged assailant. Describing his vision of carnage as and I quote, “a beautiful thing”, it is difficult to distinguish his words from the ravings of the evangelical nut-jobs who have the audacity to voice their own brand of hate-speech as they insist that these horrendous deaths may indeed be a blessing; because Lord knows that such lives are an abomination.
Just when the stench of such rhetoric becomes unbearable we are reminded of the gunman’s father who suggests that his son should have left the punishment of gays to God. If only, one religious nut-job could cancel out the other. But they cannot. The distinction between deranged religious ravings and hate-speech has all but disappeared. And just when you think the pundits have done their worst, the reality that one persecuted minority is being asked to take up the task of persecuting another persecuted community, as the victims of homophobia are encouraged to practice Islamophobia.
Rid me of the idiots who forget that neither the Bible nor the Qur’an is free from hate-speech. Yes, Islam has prevented interpretations that encourage hatred and murder, but so does the bible. When it comes to hating the members of LGBTQ communities Jews, Christians, and Muslims have a great deal to answer for. When we shake our heads as religious fanatics quote the Quran we must not forget that we too have our fanatics. We must not forget to put the fanatics into context.
In 2015, a Pew Research poll found that 42 percent of Muslim Americans supported same-sex marriage, compared with 55 percent for the overall population. To put this in context, in the U.S. Muslim support for gay marriage today is roughly equivalent to the level of support expressed by the total population as recently as 2010. Islamophobia clouds our vision of our Muslim sisters and brothers who are struggling to move beyond the constraints of our history. We can encourage our sisters and brothers or we can give into our fears and embrace policies and practices that will wall us of, separate and divide us. Sadly, the politics of division and hatred sells and so the media is drawn, toward politicians who are all too willing to cater to our darkest fears and religious mouth-pieces that give voice to our worst selves.
As hatred begets hatred, our tears well up and I find myself haunted by the images of God created by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions that have given birth to doctrines that have demonized, stigmatized, ostracized, and inspired hatred, violence, and the slaughter of LGBTQ people for centuries. My heart aches so much so that in the words of the sixteenth century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart: “I pray God, rid me of God.”
Our images of the ONE who IS the Source of All That IS must change. That angry, manipulative, vengeful, violent, super-natural, God up there in the sky is not the Sacred Reality that we experience as LOVE. “God is LOVE.” Even the three monotheistic religions that have shaped the Western world share this insight. God IS LOVE. Almost every religion shares a version of the great commandment to LOVE our neighbours as we love ourselves. So prevalent is this religious edict that it known the world over by the religious and non-religious as “the Golden Rule.” God is LOVE. The one of whom we are all made is LOVE. We live and move and have our being in LOVE. And still the influence of that old Sky God continues to haunt us as we stumble around in this latest nightmare. The LOVE that we call God is Beyond our ability to capture with words or images. This LOVE that we call God lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us. That old sky-god is at its best just an educational tool to help us begin to understand that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves. At his, and I do mean his, worst that old sky-god is nothing more than an idol whose worship leaves us isolated in our various tribes — calling upon the power of our idol to ensure the safety and supremacy of our tribe and let all the other tribes be damned.
I pray God, rid me of God. Let me move beyond images and ideas that fall short of the LOVE that called us into being. As we learn more and more about what it means to be human, as we understand and express our humanity in new and diverse ways, it is time for us to look toward the source of our humanity in ways that honour all of who we are. Can the Creator of all this really be as small and petty as we have been lead to believe by those who cannot even begin to deal with the reality of all this? Our images of our Creator have been severely limited by what we once thought it meant to be human. Our ideas about God have been severely limited by what we once thought was true about the universe. As we move beyond simplistic notions of what it means to be human, can we not also move beyond simplistic notions about the Creator of all that IS.
No religion can continue to claim that it has the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The word religion literally means, reconnection. Religion by definition is about the very things that reconnect us. How can something that is supposed to be about our connections to that which is so much more than we are, together with our connections to one another and our connections to creation, have locked us in to such separation from ourselves?
What if we began to take seriously our human urges for connection; to explore our desire to connect with something bigger than ourselves, to explore our connections as human beings, connections to our Creator, connections to one another, connections to creation herself? I pray God, rid me of God. Rid me of images of god that fail to express the LOVE that IS God. Rid me of images of god that are too small, too petty, too tribal, too violent, too judgmental, to infantile, to encompass the reality of the LOVE that IS God. Rid me of the jealous god of our ancestors. Rid me of the old man up there in heaven who likes nothing better than to listen to my pleas for mercy. Rid me of the bearded bloke who sits upon the thrown of judgement. Rid me of the vengeful, nightmarish Father who is portrayed as demanding a blood-sacrifice. Rid me of God. So that I might begin to discover the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being. The ONE generations of Jews, Christians, Muslims and a whole host of other religious peoples, together with people who claim no religion have experienced as the LOVE that lies at the very heart of reality. This ONE that we call God, who is beyond, the beyond and beyond that also.
Let us discover anew, this LOVE that we call God, so that we can fall in love all over again, with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind; and for the love of God, please don’t leave our minds out of this equation. Let us fall in love with this LOVE that we call god, so that we can discover our all over again how to love ourselves and begin to love our neighbours in the same way. Let us begin to create images of this LOVE that we call God that will provide sanctuary for all the beautifully diverse expressions of humanity, so that the dancing and celebration over what it means to be human can begin again. Let all our words about the God create images of God in which all God’s children can find sanctuary, knowing that they are beautiful expressions of their Creator, created by LOVE for love. Let our images of God empower us to be LOVE in the world. Amen.
Listen to the sermon here
So, today is Picnic Sunday and Trinity Sunday all rolled into one. As your preacher, on Trinity Sunday my job, is to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to you. As a Lutheran preacher, I have been trained to go to our creeds in order to explore what our forbearers have traditionally confessed to be true about the nature of the Trinity. And on Picnic Sunday, my job on is to preach a short sermon so that we can move on to enjoying our picnic. I wish for all our sakes that I was that good a preacher. If I could explain the Trinity to you, I would but I cannot, so I will do my best to keep it short. As for the creeds confessed by the Lutheran Church, well I haven’t been able to profess my faith using our traditional creeds for a long time now. I can say however, that: Martin Luther himself wasn’t able to explain the Trinity even though he wrote volumes and volumes on the subject. The concept of the Trinity is an ancient tradition that attempts to make sense of the Mystery that we call God. God is a Mystery, and mysteries by definition, are in and of themselves unexplainable.
So, let me tell you a story. It’s a story right out of the last chapter of John Shelby Spong’s book “A New Christianity for a New World.” The chapter is entitled: “The Courage to Move Into the Future”. In it Jack tells the story of a student he had at Harvard, who was pursuing a Master of Divinity Degree; that’s the degree you need to be a pastor in a mainline denomination like ours. Kathrin Ford, like many women who have taken on the task of preparing themselves for a career in the church, was struggling with the constraints of a patriarchal institution that the church has become and was wondering if the church, as she had experienced it, would ever be open to the direction she felt compelled to travel.
Jack describes the experience of being in class listening to her preach a sermon like this: “She stood before us quite still, quite silent, then she began. Slowly at first, she painted with words the picture of a town facing a major flood. The rains came with such relentlessness and over such a long period of time that the river rose dangerously. The people formed sandbag brigades to protect the things they valued. The sandbag walls rose, but the floodwaters rose faster. Soon water covered their fields, drowning first the wheat, then the canola, then the onions. The people, seeking safety inside their homes, watched with a sense of helplessness as their livelihoods were destroyed before their eyes. They wanted to flee, but their roots were too deeply planted; they were so totally attached to the values enshrined in their farms and town that they felt they could not leave. Still the river kept rising. It now covered the first floor of their homes. As they watched their family photographs—symbols of their past—curl up and float away on the water, they felt they were losing the very meaning of their lives. Soon their physical sustenance was so endangered: the floodwaters covering their town began to seep into the ground, contaminating their ground-water.
Their homes were becoming unlivable. If they stayed in this place, they would surely die. Yet something powerful and relentless inside themselves continued to urge them to remain where they were. Rationally they knew they had to leave, but emotionally they were immobilized.
Katie Ford described this scene with evocative images that kept her classmates raptly attentive. Yet they had no idea where she was going with the image or this theme, nor did Jack. Then with all of them caught up in her symbolic description of a killing flood, she began to speak the words of the Christian creed, beginning with the phrase, “I believe in God, the Father almighty.” This creed, she said, like that flooded town, “has become for me an unlivable place.” She then described the history of creedal formation. The creeds were “a response to debate,” she said, “designed to tell who was an insider in the Christian faith and who was not. A creed is a border-maker,” she added, fashioning her developing definition.
No Christian creed is “a full statement of faith,” she continued. It is only the Christian community’s ecclesiastical “response to arguments.” All the undebated issues, she said, have been left out. That is why in the creeds “there is no mention of love, no mention of the teachings of Jesus, no mention of the kingdom of God being present in our bodies and souls, no mention of God as the ground of life.”
The creeds have fallen on us, she asserted, like the rain over the centuries. They have been repeated endlessly, shaping our minds and our souls to the point where we cannot think of God outside the forms they affirm, or the boxes they create. They have permeated our land, shaped our values and yes, even entered the intimate assumptions of our living space. “Drop by Drop,” she said, our religion, as it come to be embodied in our creeds, has given us “a profoundly dangerous doctrine of God.” It has covered our fields, she said, and destroyed the very crops that Christians are supposed to harvest as their livelihood. It has contaminated our groundwater. “We have been drinking in the Father God our whole life.” “This creed,” she argued, “has, like that flood, rendered our traditional religious dwelling places no longer habitable.”
Yet this creed, and the definitions that arise from it, are so powerfully present in our emotions that even when we judge it to be a destructive document that is killing our very souls, still it whispers, “You cannot leave. You will be lost if you wander. You must stay where you are.” But we cannot stay. The price is too high. These creeds have given us a God, she said, “Who caused the death of his son, the damnation of disbelievers, the subordination of women, the bloody massacre of the crusades, the terror of judgment, the wrath toward homosexuals, the justification of slavery.”
She went on to delineate that God of history: “The Father almighty God embodied in the creeds is a deity who chooses some of the world’s children while rejecting others. He is the father who needs a blood sacrifice, the father of wrath, the father of patriarchal marriage, the father of male ordination and female submission, the father of heterosexual privilege, the father of literal and spiritual slavery.”
She examined and dismissed the ways various church people have tried to address the “unlivability” of the creeds, the no-longer-belivable quality of the Father God as traditionally defined. Some do it, she said, by nibbling or tinkering around the edges of reform. Making God-language less masculine and more inclusive is a positive step, she conceded, but it does not go deep enough.
The real issue, she continued, “is that God is not a person. God is not a being. God is Being itself.” There was stunned silence in the room as Katie drove her conclusion home. This God, who is “Being itself, is not the father of life,” she countered. “This god is life.” Our creeds, she concluded, have now made it impossible for us Christians to continue to live in the place to which these creeds have taken us.”
This story mirrors my own dilemma. These are exciting times in which to live in the church. I believe that we are living smack dab in the middle of a reformation. I’m not alone in that belief. Reformations may be exciting but they are not the most comfortable places to be. I confess that there are days when I long for the Blessed Assurance of a bygone era. But the rains began to fall a long time ago and the waters have been rising and it’s time to go. The Church, this old boat might have sprung a leak or two, and there are quite a few souls who’ve felt the need to abandon ship. But she can still float and I believe that it’s up to those of us who are still aboard not to scuttle her, but to begin to bail her out. Fortunately, there’s still enough of us left and if we start bailing know we just might be able to through enough water over-board to get us where we need to go. Continue reading
Meister Eckhart’s fervent plea: “I pray God, rid me of God” becomes a sort of mantra for me whenever the task of contemplating the Trinity rolls around on the liturgical calendar. Once again, I have failed to have the foresight to book my holidays so as to avoid the task of preaching on this festival of the church, so I find myself plumbing previous sermons in search of a way through the quagmire of doctrines which threaten to overcome even the most dedicated of preachers. I offer them here to my fellow preachers as my way of saying, “I pray God, rid me of God!!!” Shalom
click on the sermon title
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. In anticipation, preachers all over the world are dutifully pondering the Doctrine of the Trinity desperately searching for something to say to encourage their congregations.
Preachers will trot out tired old clichés conjuring up images of triangles, shamrocks around, or point to H20’s ability to appear as water, ice, or steam while still maintaining it’s unified essence. Or have you heard the one about the 3 blind men and the elephant in the room. That old chestnut is trotted out by many a desperate preacher struggling to put flesh on the doctrine of the trinity. But for the life of me I can’t see how 1 blind man touching the elephant’s trunk and presuming that there is a tree in the room, while a second blind man catching wind of the elephant’s ear is convinced that there is some sort of giant fan in the room, while a third man grabs hold of the tail and is sure that he has hold of a rope, helps you to conclude that just because they’re all sharing a room with an elephant you can now confess that God is indeed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever amen. But all sorts of mental gymnastics will be exercised in the vain attempt to make some sort of sense of the doctrine of the Trinity!
On Trinity Sundays, mindful of the fact that trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity usually leads to heresy: dusty theological books that have not seen the light of day since last Trinity Sunday have been poured over to ensure that the formula’s learned in seminary are repeated correctly and heresy scrupulously avoided. The imaginative among us have attempted to baffle our congregations with our theological intellect, the pragmatic among us have attempted to baffle our congregations with something akin to BS, while the desperate among us have simply tried to survive the Trinity Sunday hoping against hope that no one will notice that we haven’t a clue what we’re talking about.
Perhaps only dear old Dr. Martin Luther possessed the theological integrity sufficient to save a preacher from the perils of preaching on Trinity Sunday. So, before I launch, forth, let me remind you what the instigator of the Reformation had to say on the subject of the Trinity. Martin Luther warned that: “To deny the Trinity is to risk our salvation; to try and explain the Trinity is to risk our sanity.”
I will confess that Martin Luther had much more at stake, literally at stake, than I do, because the truth is that for centuries the punishment for heresy would have found many an ancient preacher burned at the stake. But while the death penalty for heresy has been lifted, the risk to one’s sanity remains. Continue reading
Listen to the sermon here
I cannot begin to explain to you what happened on that day in Jerusalem, without explaining to you who I am. My name is Mary and I come from the village of Magdala. You may know me as Mary Magdalene. But you have no idea who I am. There are many stories that have been told about me. Some of the things that have been said about me make my head spin. Over the years, thanks to the twisted interpretations of the men in the church that I helped to give birth to, I have gained quite a reputation for being a prostitute, a whore, an adulterer. Now I will lay claim to being a sinner and God knows I have had my share of demons, but prostitution, adultery, whore, where do people get these ideas? It seems that all you need to do is use the words sinner and woman in the same sentence and all some people can think about is sex.
Read your bibles and you will discover that, people have made me out to be something that I am not. It does not say anywhere in the New Testament that I, Mary of Magdala was ever a prostitute, the New Testament doesn’t say that, the men of the Church did that. The New Testament simply says I was a sinner who just happened to come from the city. If you insist on calling me a prostitute based on this evidence, that says more about you than it does about me.
You see, I come from a good family in Magdala. Magdala is a wealthy city on the Sea of Galilee, just south of Capernaum. My family made a lot of money in the fishing industry in Magdala. While I was growing up I lacked nothing. But I was not happy. I was sick. I would sit around the house moping and complaining and make everyone miserable. I was so distraught. Often, I was so upset that I pulled out my own hair. Sometimes I would be so excited that people couldn’t stop me from talking. I ran up all sorts of bills in the market place which my parents had to pay. I was always cooking up some mad scheme or other. I would rant and rave at the slightest provocation. From time to time I would become ill and stay in bed for weeks on end. I knew something was terribly wrong and nothing seemed to ease my anxieties. I was a prisoner inside my own mind. Then I met Jesus. Continue reading
May 31st is the day the Church commemorates “The Visitation” the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth as it is recorded in the Gospel According to Luke 1:39-56. Since reading Jane Schalberg’s “The Illegitimacy of Jesus”, I can’t help but wonder if Mary’s visited her cousin Elizabeth or escaped to her cousin Elizabeth seeking protection for the crime of being raped in a culture that all too often blamed the victim. Historians estimate that Mary may have been all of twelve years old when she became pregnant. There is ample evidence in the New Testament accounts of Mary’s story that suggest that she may indeed have been raped. So rather than sweep the possibility under the rug, on this the Feast of the Visitation, I’m reposting a sermon I preached a few years ago during Advent. I do so because women young and old continue to be raped and to this day, are forced to flee from the accusations and persecutions of cultures that continue to blame the victim. What follows is a written approximation of the sermon which in addition to Jane Schalberg is also indebted to John Shelby Spong’s “Born of a Woman” and “Jesus for the Non Religious” along with John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg’s “The First Christmas”.
Sadly, one doesn’t have to travel too far into the past to arrive at the time when women’s voices were not heard. Indeed, in the Lutheran church, it was only a few short decades ago. For most of us that time is within our own lifetime. For generations, men have told our sacred stories. Men have decided which stories made it into the canon of Sacred Scriptures. Men have interpreted the stories that were allowed to be told. Men have translated, taught, and commented upon those stories from pulpits, in universities, in seminaries, in commentaries and in the public square. Continue reading
Pentecost Sunday is a day for stories about the nearness of God. So we begin with the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11:1-9, then make our way to the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Luke’s story of the early followers of Jesus’ encounter with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21, and then the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call John’s story of Jesus’ insistence that he and God are one, before rounding off with Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s excellent children’s book God In Between.
Listen to the sermon here
There’s a children’s Book that I love. I won’t tell you the name of the book because the book’s title is also the book’s ultimate meaning. I will tell you that the book is written by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who just happens to be the second woman to be ordained as a rabbi back in 1974. She is also the first rabbi to become a mother. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso brings the wisdom she has learned as a rabbi to her children’s books. As the Christian celebration of Pentecost is intimately tied to the Jewish festival of Shavout, when the Jewish people read the Book of Ruth, it seems fitting to read to you from the book of a Jewish Rabbi. Shandy Eisenberg Sasso’s story begins:
“Once there was a town at the foot of a hill with no roads and almost no windows.
Without roads the people of the town had nowhere to go, and they wondered what was on the other side of the hill.
Whenever they tried to leave their homes, they would sneeze through tall tangled weeds, tumble into deep holes and trip over rocks as large as watermelons.
Without windows they would sleep late into the day, and they often wondered when the sun turned night into morning.
Their houses were closed up like boxes sealed with tape.
They could never look out and their neighbours could never look in.
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Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. Birthday celebrations lend themselves to the telling of stories. So, we begin with a parable by the radical theologian Peter Rollins. So, sit back and try to imagine that you live not at the beginning of the 21st century but at the middle of the 21st century; say about 2050. The world has changed quite a bit. “It seems that in the future laws will be passed declaring that all those who follow the teachings of Jesus are subversive. Churches have been banned and to be a follower of Jesus is illegal. You have just been accused of being a believer. You’ve been arrested, and dragged before a court. You have been under clandestine surveillance for some time now, and so the prosecution has been able to build up quite a case against you. They begin the trial by offering the judge dozens of photographs that show you attending underground church meetings, speaking at religious events, and participating in various prayer and worship services. After this, they present a selection of items that have been confiscated from your home: religious books that you own, worship CDs, and other Christian artifacts. Then they step up the pace by displaying many of the poems, pieces of prose, and journal entries that you had lovingly written concerning your faith. Finally, in closing, the prosecution offers your Bible to the judge. This is a well-worn book with scribbles, notes, drawings, and underlinings throughout, evidence, if it were needed, that you had read and reread this sacred text many times. Throughout the case you have been sitting silently in fear and trembling. You know deep in your heart that with the large body of evidence that has been amassed by the prosecution you face the possibility of a long imprisonment or even execution. At various times throughout the proceedings you have lost all the confidence and have been on the verge of standing up and denying Christ. But while this thought has plagued your mind throughout the trial, you resist the temptation and remain focused.
Once the prosecution has finished presenting their case the judge proceeds to ask if you have anything to add, but you remain silent and resolute, terrified that if you open your mouth, even for a moment, you might deny the charges made against you. Like Christ you remain silent before your accusers. In response you are led outside to wait as the judge ponders your case. The hours pass slowly as you sit under guard in the foyer waiting to be summoned back. Eventually a young man in uniform appears and leads you into the courtroom so that you may hear the verdict and receive word of your punishment. Once you have been seated in the dock the judge, a harsh and unyielding man, enters the room, stands before you, looks deep into your eyes and begins to speak. “On the charges that have been brought forward I find the accused not guilty.”
“Not guilty?” your heart freezes. Then, in a split second, the fear and terror that had moments before threatened to strip your resolve are swallowed up by confusion and rage. Despite the surroundings, you stand defiantly before the judge and demand that he give an account concerning why you are innocent of the charges in light of the evidence. “What evidence?” asks the judge in shock.
“What about the poems and prose that I wrote?” you ask. “They simply show that you think of yourself as a poet, nothing more.” “But what about the services I spoke at, the times I wept in church and the long, sleepless nights of prayer?” “Evidence that you are a good speaker and an actor, nothing more,” replied the judge. “It is obvious that you deluded those around you, and perhaps at times you even deluded yourself, but this foolishness is not enough to convict you in a court of law.” “But this is madness!” you shout. “It would seem that no evidence would convince you!” “Not so,” replies the judge as if informing you of a great long-forgotten secret. “The court is indifferent toward your Bible reading and church attendance; it has no concern for worship with words and a pen. Continue to develop your theology, and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world. We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christlike endeavor to create a better world. So, until you live as Christ and Christ’s followers did, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then, my friend, you are no enemy of ours.” “
Rollins insists that this parable is true right here and right now. We don’t have to imagine a world were Christianity is illegal for this parable to be true. Rollins insists that: “If you or I were really to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, would we not sooner or later, find ourselves being dragged before the authorities? If we were really to live a life that reflected the subversive and radical message of love that gives a voice to the voiceless and a place to those who are displaced, if we were really to stand up against systemic oppression perpetrated by those in power, then would we not find ourselves on the wrong side of the lawmakers?” Continue reading
Listen to the sermon here
Last Saturday, Carol and I were at a family gathering at which all our grandchildren were present. Saturdays are usually sermon preparation days for me. So, Saturday events can be challenging as I tend to be more than a little distracted because a sermon is never finished until it is preached. I have this habit of going over it and over it in my mind, tweaking and revising. At one point during this gathering, I found myself in a room with my three-year-old granddaughter Audrey. Audrey was chattering away showing me all her toys. My mind clearly was not where it should have been because suddenly Audrey leaned in close, grabbed my face between her two little hands and said, “Excuse me Gran, this is important, I need you to pay attention.” There’s nothing quite like the ire of a three-year-old to bring you to attention. With my head in a vice-grip, Audrey announced with great flourish: “I’m here! I’m right here!”
Suitably chastised, I awoke from my distractions and replied, “I know, I know, there you are Audrey! There you are!”
My darling Audrey released me from her grip and gave me one of her tight, tight, hugs and together we set about exploring all the wonders that surrounded us. Excuse me, this is important, I need you to pay attention. I’m here! I AM right here! Over and over again this week, Audrey’s words have awakened me from my distractions.
“Abba, the hour has come! Glorify your Only Begotten that I may glorify you, through the authority you’ve given me over all humankind, by bestowing eternal life on all those you gave me. And this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent, Jesus, the Messiah.”….“and this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God.”
For years, I thought of eternal life as a quality of time and I confused eternal with everlasting. It is only in the past decade or so that I have understood the real meaning of eternal, is limitless. Limitless, by definition, cannot be time-bound. Limitless has no beginning and no end. Limitless is not a quality of time.
So, if eternal life is not about life everlasting, then what exactly might the gift of eternal life be? One of the qualities that I have come to understand is the limitlessness of grace, which comes to us as an integral part of life. The gift of breath itself is pure grace. Thirteen billion years of evolution have resulted in the cosmos producing human life and each and every breath we breathe is pure gift. We are living breathing, walking, talking, loving, miracles. The breath that flows through us, enlivens us, and empowers us. This breath is the Spirit of all life, that emanates from the One who is the source of our being. The eternal quality of our life, of all our lives is knowing; knowing. To know, is to experience deeply. The ancients understood this as the essence of what it means to be human; to know.
The storyteller we call John, puts into the mouth of Jesus words that I am only beginning to know, to experience deeply. Jesus said, “And this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God.” The words translated from the Greek as “to know” are the same words used in the scriptures to describe the intimacy of love-making. This is eternal life, to know, to make love to God. Eternal life is a quality of living that shares a deep intimacy with the One who is the source of our being. Excuse me, this is important, I need you to pay attention. I’m here! I AM right here! Knowing the presence of the I AM the ONE who IS wakes us from our distractions.
This week as I went about my tasks, I kept hearing, “Excuse me, this is important, I need you to pay attention. I’m here! I AM right here!” Knowing the I AM, is a daunting way to be. As I helped to tend our garden, I was overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the flowers and the birds. The sheer magnitude of creation’s beauty awakened me to the intimacy and wonder of the love-making in which the Source-of-All that IS engages in with Creation all day long. The eternal quality of living draws us into this intimacy, in ways that can inspire such joy.
But this eternal quality of living can also draw us into a LOVE that pierces our hearts. As the reports came in from Manchester, I was overcome with emotion. Little girls not much older than my precious Audrey, caught up in an explosive rage that tears at the very heart of our souls. Memories of walking through Victoria Station, past Manchester Arena flooded my mind, and as the pain and anger rose in me, threatening to move me toward the kind of rage that fosters hatred, suddenly I heard, “Excuse me, this is important, I need you to pay attention. I’m here! I AM right here!”
Beyond the words, I saw an image of the ONE who IS the Source and Ground of Being weeping like a prodigal parent tormented by a wayward son whose twisted sense of life, turned him into a killer. Eternal life is not all sweetness and light. Limitless LOVE demands a kind of attention that opens us to the pain of all those with whom we share this precious gift of life. LOVE-making is a kind of knowing that can break our hearts just as surely as it can cause our hearts to race with a passion for intimacy. To know the Sacred, the Divine ONE is to see LOVE weep, to feel the pain of violence, oppression, and greed.
The temptation is to look away, to protect our fragile hearts, and fill our days with distractions, to flee from eternal life, from this knowing that brings such intensity. Excuse me, this is important, I need you to pay attention. I’m here! I AM right here! I AM here. YAHWEH. I AM WHO AM. I AM here.
This gift of eternal life, this knowing, this love-making, is intense. Such deep intimacy with the ONE who is the Source-of-All-Being is not for the faint of heart. But this intimacy, this Eternal life, makes the flowers smell so very sweet, and the birdsong sound so sublime. Excuse me, this is important, I need you to pay attention. I’m here! I AM right here! I AM here. YAHWEH. I AM WHO AM. I AM here: rejoicing, weeping, longing, singing, dancing, grieving, shouting, playing, living, breathing, waiting, touching, dying, rising, laughing, crying, feeding, loving, in, with, through, and beyond you. I AM here!
To approach intimacy with the One Who Is Was and Every More Shall Be LOVE, is life eternal. To make LOVE with the Sacred, the Divine, the HOLY ONE, is life eternal. Life without limits. Light beyond Light. Light that penetrates our distractions. A light that shines on the beauty and the pain of life; all life with an intimacy that opens us to a way of being that is eternal. I AM here. YAHWEH. I AM WHO AM.
May you know, may you experience deeply,
the power and the intimacy of eternal life,
here and now,
now and always
as you awaken to the LOVE that is God,
our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF.
Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus
The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is a church festival that I have always chosen to ignore. The ancient tradition that has Jesus floating up into the clouds stretches the credibility of the church to such an extent that I’ve always assumed that the less said about the Ascension the better. But I was challenged by a parishioner to try to make some sense out of the Ascension story so that 21st century Christians would not have to check their brains at the door should they happen upon a congregation that still celebrated the day. What follows is a transcript of my attempt to leave behind the miraculous Jesus in order to be better able to welcome the human Jesus down from the clouds. I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong together with Clay Nelson of St Matthew-in-the-city for their liberating insights.
Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have not celebrated Ascension Sunday. But as this particular Ascension Sunday follows so closely after Jack Spong’s visit with us, I thought that it was about time that rather than avoid the Ascension, I’d like to try to confront it.
Jack has been telling his anti-Ascension story for quite a few years now. Just in case you’ve never heard it or have forgotten it, let me remind you. It seems that Jack was speaking with Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. Jack says that Carl Sagan once told him “if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”
With that said, let me just say, that the Ascension never actually happened. It is not an historical event. If a tourist with a video camera had been there in Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing.
I know what the Nicene Creed says, “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures. And so, as I do not understand the Bible literally, neither do I understand the Nicene Creed to be a literal interpretation of the faith. Like all creeds the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds are snapshots of theology as it was at a particular time in history.
We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. I know that the universe is infinite. I also know about gravity. I also know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus had helium flowing through his veins. I’ve flown around the world, and I can tell you that there is no heaven above the clouds. So, I can say with confidence that: The very present Jesus of resurrection faith did not literally elevate into heaven while his disciples looked on.
The writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts are one and the same person. The same writer wrote the Gospel according to Luke to tell the story of the life of Jesus and the Book of Acts to tell the story of the Holy Spirit at work in the followers of Jesus. Although we don’t know who the author was, we do know that he was not an historian. Neither Luke nor Acts are historical accounts. They are both addressed to a character named Theopholus. Theopholus is Greek for lover of God. The books are addressed to the lovers of God, that’s you and me and the author makes it clear that he has written these books so that we, the lovers of God, can believe and have faith. The books were written somewhere near the end of the first century. Somewhere between 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus. Perhaps between 80 and 95 of this Common Era.
The important question for most biblical scholars is not whether the Ascension actually happened but rather, what did the Ascension mean to the author in his context. And to that question we might add a more pressing question: Given what the Ascension meant in the first century, does it continue to have any relevance for those of us who live in the 21st century?
I believe that the followers of Jesus experiences of Jesus the man were so overwhelming that they saw in him the human face of God. I also believe that in very powerful ways the followers of Jesus continued to experience Jesus presence.
Those powerful experiences of Jesus after his death were so intense that they defied description. Given that Jesus was now dead and gone, yet his presence still seemed to be with them, the followers of Jesus used the Hebrew story of Elijah and Elisha to construct a belief about the Spirit of Jesus continuing to be powerfully among them.
By the time the writer of Luke and Acts got around to writing these stories down, there were different versions of the story being passed around in the early church. The writer of Luke/Acts paints a picture of a re-formed bodily Jesus going up into the heavens in the Ascension and a windy, fiery Spirit coming down at Pentecost. The writer uses powerful familiar Hebrew images to portray the experiences of Jesus’ followers after his death.
In order for us to move beyond the literal and beyond the historical and even beyond the metaphorical meaning to arrive at the meaning that the story of the Ascension can have for us today in this time and in this place, I’d like to tell you two stories that I heard about from a preacher who serves an Anglican parish in Auckland, New Zealand. Clay Nelson is a friend of Jack Spong who tells great stories. The first story is an actual, literal, historically accurate Ascension story followed by a metaphorical Ascension story.
The literal historical Ascension story took place in 1982. But it the story that actually began some twenty years earlier when Larry Walters was just 13 years old and he saw weather balloons hanging from the ceiling of an Army & Navy surplus store. It was then that Larry knew that some day he would be carried up to the heavens by balloons. Sure enough when he was 33 years old, on July 2nd 1982, Larry Walters tied 42 helium-filled balloons to a lawn chair in the backyard of his girlfriend’s house in San Pedro, California. With the help of his friends, Larry secured himself into the lawn chair that was anchored to the bumper of a friend’s car, by two nylon tethers. Larry packed several sandwiches and a six-pack of Miller Lite and loaded his pellet gun so that he could pop a few balloons when he was ready to come down. His goal was to sail across the desert and hopefully make it to the Rocky Mountains in a few days.
But things didn’t quite work out for Larry. When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair the second one snapped, launching Larry into the skies above Los Angeles. Instead of leveling off at about 30 feet as he’d planned, Larry rose to 16,000 feet and at that height Larry couldn’t risk shooting any of the balloons. So he stayed up there drifting cold and frightened for more than 14 hours when he found himself in the primary flight approach corridor for LAX.
Legend has it that a Pan Am pilot was the first to spot Larry and quickly radioed the tower telling them that he’d just passed a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. The Federal Aviation Administration was not amused. Larry started shooting out the balloons to start his descent but accidentally dropped the gun. After drifting for a couple of hours he eventually landed in a Long Beach neighbourhood entangled in some power lines. Larry survived without any serious injuries.
Now that is an historically accurate ascension story. It’s a funny story and a true story, but it is not a life changing story. But Larry did inspire a wonderful Australian movie, called Danny Deckchair, which is untrue, is in fact full of truth. Now when a New Zealander recommends an Australian movie, I take notice, so yesterday I watched Danny Deckchair and I do believe that it is a modern metaphorical interpretation of the Ascension.
The movie’s hero, Danny, is a bored labourer who drives a cement mixer. Danny is an unlikely Christ figure whose story is similar to Larry’s. Danny ascends from his backyard in Sydney during a barbecue and lands less than gracefully in a small town in the Australian outback. By this act of departure and arrival everything changes not only for Danny, but also for those he left behind and those he meets in the outback. Danny’s unique departure inspires those at home to take risks of their own: to live life more boldly, to act on their dreams, to become all they can be.
In acting out his dream, Danny finds new confidence and becomes the source of inspiration and affirmation for the townsfolk in the outback who used to see themselves as backwater hicks, but now see the importance of their actions in the life of their town. Everyone is transformed by Danny’s ascension. New Life and love accompany his resurrection.
The writer of Luke/Acts two versions of Jesus’ Ascension are not true like Larry’s lift off but are true like Danny Deckchair. While the event certainly did not happen in a literal way, the story does attempt to capture the quality of a real man whose coming and going in their lives changed them forever. The writer of Luke/Acts Ascension story is not so miraculous after all. The Ascension story is about the joy the disciples felt about the ongoing ever so real presence of Jesus after his death. The God they saw in Jesus they found in themselves. In Jesus’ departure they discovered that they could love as wastefully as he did. They could live abundantly as Jesus did. They could heal and reconcile just as Jesus did. With Jesus pointing the way they had found God and while Jesus was gone, the God that Jesus pointed to was everywhere, even in them.
If we are to move beyond the literal, beyond the historical, beyond the metaphorical to the life-changing meaning of the stories that have been handed down to us, we may just have to give up our tenacious hold upon the notion of Jesus as some sort of miracle worker who defies the laws of gravity, and time and space.
If we are to engage the stories about Jesus in a way that allows those stories to intersect with our lives we will have to embrace Jesus’ humanity. My Kiwi colleague Clay Nelson puts it like this: “If your faith is sustained by a miraculous understanding of Jesus that has to ignore what you know about the real world, then let me ask you: Is it a faith that can sustain you in the real world? Eventually this world of advancing scientific knowledge, that no longer requires a personal God to create, heal and sustain life will make the God we have had irrelevant, if it hasn’t already. I think God would rather be dead than irrelevant. And if God is irrelevant, Jesus, who has been portrayed by the author of Luke/Acts and the church as the incarnation of this God, will suffer the same fate. If he hasn’t already.”
Nelson reminds us that Jesus was human and the human Jesus does not suffer the fate of an irrelevant god.. “The human Jesus, instead of only showing us God in all God’s glory, also shows us in all of ours. This Jesus becomes a window through which we can glimpse the mystery of love and life and being we are all called into. This Jesus through his radical love of even his enemies invites us into that mystery that surrounds us and is part of our very being. This Jesus becomes the doorway through which I’m willing to walk into that mystery. For this mystery, I am willing to die to have new life. Mystery makes sense to me, the miraculous doesn’t. The mysterious Jesus inspires me and calls me to new levels of being. The miraculous Jesus helps me as much as telling a child that Santa comes down chimneys. The mysterious Jesus sustains my faith. The miraculous Jesus impedes my faith.”
Like my Kiwi colleague Clay, I no longer need to believe in a miraculous Jesus in order to experience the mysterious Christ who lives and breathes in with and through Christ’s body here and now.
The writer of Luke/Acts is preparing his audience of God lovers for the arrival on the scene of the very Spirit of God that lived and breathed in with and through Jesus.
So, as we approach the celebration of Pentecost, may you find in these stories handed down to us by our ancestors in the faith an inkling of the powerful presence that Jesus’ first followers experienced after Jesus had left them.
May the joy they felt at the realization that the God they saw in Jesus they now found in themselves. May the realizations that those first followers experienced in Jesus’ departure, when they discovered they could love as extravagantly as Jesus did, that they could live as abundantly as Jesus did. That they could bring about healing and reconciliation just as Jesus did.
May these realizations live and breath and have their being in you. May you know the joy of seeing Jesus point the way, the joy of finding God, may you know the God Christ points to who is everywhere, even in you. May you love as extravagantly as Jesus loved. May you live as abundantly as Jesus lived. May you be Christ’s Body here and now, in this place in this time!
Read about the real Lawn-chair Larry here
This coming Sunday’s first reading from the book of Acts provides an excellent opportunity to explore a vision of God that has all too often been ignored by institutional Christianity. While doctrines of the Trinity abound, the rich tradition of panentheism that permeates the writings of the mystics is neglected. For those of us who are attempting to reconcile all that we are learning about the realities of the cosmos with our visions of the ONE who lies at the very heart of reality, panentheism provides a way of speaking about God that moves us beyond theistic notions of personifications of the deity toward a deeper awareness of the presence of God in all things together with the assurance that everything is in God.
Let me begin by saying, that panentheism is, in and of itself, an evolving term. The term can be found in the works of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, process theologian Alfred North Whithead, and more recently in the work of Juergen Moltmann, Matthew Fox, Philip Clayton and Marcus Borg (for Borg’s ideas about panentheism follow this link). The word itself is made up for three Greek words: pan = all, en = within, theism = god. Panentheism is used to describe God as ONE who is in everything. Panentheism (unlike pantheism) does not stop with the notion that God is in everything, but goes on to posit that everything is God. God is in the universe and God transcends the universe. God is greater than the sum total of the universe. But the universe cannot be separated from God. We are in God and God is in us. God breathes in, with, through, and beyond us.
The term panentheism is proving helpful to Christians in the 21st century who are working to articulate our faith in light of all that we are learning about the universe. It is also invaluable to those of us who have a deep reverence for creation and are seeking ways to live in harmony with creation by treading lightly upon the earth. Panentheism is also a concept present in many faiths and provides us with a common way of speaking together about our Creator. But like all language the term fails to fully capture the nature of the Divine. It is merely a tool to help us think beyond the idols we have created to function as objects of our worship.
The Apostle Paul insisted that God is “the One in whom we live and breath and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) As we look towards the heavens, we see an ever expanding new story of who we are. Just as Paul struggled to find ways to articulate the nature of the Divine to his contemporaries, Christians continue in every age to find ways to articulate the nature of the Divine to each new generation. We do not abandon the wisdom that has been offered by those who have gone before us. But we cannot ignore the wisdom that is being revealed to us here and now in our time and place within the communion of saints.
Whenever we try to articulate what God IS, language fails us. For the most part, the institutional church has defined God with words and expected that members of the institution will confess loyalty to those words. Many of the words, with which the institution has traditionally described God, craft an image of God as a supernatural being up there or out there who is responsible for creation and from time to time interferes in the workings of creation. As we continue to learn more and more about the magnitude of creation, both in time and space, our traditional words about God seem ever more puny. While some respond to our ever-expanding knowledge about creation by attempting to make our notions of God fit into the tight little containers that were crafted by our ancestors, some are seeking new ways to speak of the CREATOR OF ALL THAT IS, WAS OR EVER SHALL BE. Often our attempts are as clumsy and as limited as the attempts of our ancestors. But sometimes, sometimes the likes of Tillich breathes new life into the notions of our ancestors and Paul’s description of our God as “the one in whom we live and move and have our being” becomes for us, as Tillich imagines, “the Ground of our Being”.
Below is a video that I have shown to Confirmation students (ages 12-15) as we begin to explore the great religious questions that have inspired wisdom seekers from the beginning of human consciousness: Who am I? What am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? etc. The responses of young people inspire me! I cannot wait to see what they will reveal to us about the nature of our reality! As you watch this video, I offer you a benediction. It is a blessing that I have adapted with permission from the work of John Shelby Spong.
God is the source of life, so worship God by living,
God is the source of love, so worship God by loving.
God is the ground of being, so worship God by having the courage
to be more fully human; the embodiment of the Divine.
Three years ago, when Acts 17:22-31 last came round in the lectionary, I had the distinct pleasure of baptizing our grand-daughter. This sermon welcomes her to this grand journey of life that we travel as companions. The sermon begins with an adaptation of a creation story by by Dr. Paula Lehman & Rev. Sarah Griffith. the readings were included Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Acts 17:22-31 and John 14:14-21
As nearly as we can figure out, little Audrey’s journey to the baptismal font began some 13.7 billion years ago. Audrey’s journey, like all our journeys began with a bang!
“In the beginning, the energy of silence rested over an infinite horizon of pure nothingness. The silence lasted for billions of years, stretching across eons that the human mind cannot even remotely comprehend. Out of the silence arose the first ripples of sound, vibrations of pure energy that ruptured the tranquil stillness as a single point of raw potential, bearing all matter, all dimension, all energy, and all time: exploding like a massive fireball. It was the greatest explosion of all time! An eruption of infinite energy danced into being. It had a wild and joyful freedom about it, and like a dance it was richly endowed with coherence, elegance, and creativity. The universe continued to expand and cool until the first atoms came into being. The force of gravity joined the cosmic dance; atoms clustered into primordial galaxies. Giant clouds of hydrogen and helium gases gathered into condensed masses, giving birth to stars! Generations of stars were born and died, born and died, and then our own star system, the solar system, was formed from a huge cloud of interstellar dust, enriched by the gifts of all those ancestral stars. Planet Earth condensed out of a cloud that was rich in a diversity of elements. Each atom of carbon, oxygen, silicon, calcium, and sodium had been given during the explosive death of ancient stars. These elements, this stuff of stars, included all the chemical elements necessary for the evolution of carbon-based life. With the appearance of the first bacteria, the cosmic dance reached a more complex level of integration. Molecules clustered together to form living cells! Later came the algae, and then fish began to inhabit the waters! Thence the journey of life on land and in the sky. Insects, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and mammals: all flourished and diversified and elaborated the themes of life. And now it is our time, too. This is our story. The story of our beginning, our cosmology.” (Dr. Paula Lehman & Rev. Sarah Griffith)
This great cosmic journey is bigger that we can even begin to imagine. The vastness of millions, some say billions of galaxies of which we are a part, challenges the abilities of our minds to comprehend. We gather her in this infinitesimal part of the cosmos because we are convinced that at the very heart of the cosmos lies the Reality that we call God. A Reality beyond our abilities to express. This Reality is a MYSTERY that down through the ages, all those who have looked up into the night sky or held a newborn in their arms, have been fascinated and perplexed by. The attempts of all those who have gone before us to comprehend, express, or explain have fallen so far short of capturing the essence of the Being who called all being into existence. How do you express the inexpressible? How do we begin to speak of that which is beyond, the beyond and beyond that also? From the earliest cave drawings, itched in in wonder at the MYSTERY, our ancestors have tried to capture in art, poetry, literature, drama, song, and dance the hints of the Mystery that sustains all life. But all our attempts be they simple sculptors or grand theologies pale in comparison to the Reality we so long to know and understand. As incapable of description as we are, each season of creation sends us back to the drawing board as we attempt to capture the beauty that surrounds us. Each new life that comes into our midst and each parting death causes to wonder and marvel at the complexity of our existence. No one can hold a baby in their arms and not be amazed at the miracle of life. No one can hold a hand as a body breathes it’s last and not wonder how or why and even where or who we might be. At the very heart of all life there is Mystery.
For those of us gathered here in this place the overwhelming evidence of the ages convinces us that the Reality at the heart of the cosmos, the One we call God is LOVE. In response to that LOVE we gather together to in love so that we might also be love; love for each other and love for the world. In the evolving complexity of our cosmos, we see over and over again the miracles and wonders of life spring forth and we can’t help ourselves but respond to the LOVE which sustains all life. From time to time, individuals have appeared who have opened windows into the Reality of the ONE we call God. These individuals live their lives in ways that enlighten us on our journey.
We gather here in this place to remember Jesus of Nazareth a person of wisdom and integrity who lived and loved in ways that opened us to the LOVE of God in ways that inspire us to live fully and love extravagantly so that all may know LOVE. Jesus was confronted by the harsh realities of failed attempts to live beyond love. Born into poverty and oppression, Jesus refused to respond to the cruelty of a world where hatred and greed had taken hold and insisted upon living in ways that might usher in a new Reign of Justice and Peace in a world where military might and violence prevailed. Jesus refused to take up arms against the powers that be, and insisted that peace could only be achieved through justice; for when everyone has enough, enough food, enough shelter, enough justice, enough love, then and only then can there be peace.
Evolution is a difficult and messy business. Humanity does not evolve without error or pain. When we lose sight of the Reality that lies at the heart of our existence, when we fail to love as we have been loved, our journeys and the journeys of those around us become infinitely more difficult. Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest. Our best scientists have warned us not to misinterpret evolution’s natural selection as being about the strong shall survive. More and more we are beginning to understand the role of co-operation on a cellular level as the building blocks upon which a species changes and survives. Modern evolutionary science points to social co-operation as key to survival. Social co-operation is if you’ll allow, akin to a primitive form of love; a building block if you will to LOVE.
It should come as no surprise to any of us who are on this grand journey of life that every major religion in the world has at its core the wisdom that has commonly become known as the Golden Rule: do on to others as you would have them do onto you. Jesus, who was after all a Jewish rabbi, expressed the Golden Rule in terms his Jewish audiences would have understood from their own sacred scriptures: Love God with all your heart, with all strength, with all your mind and love your neighbour as you love yourself. Jesus lived and died for love. The powers that be believed that execution would stifle this love, but Jesus lived so fully and loved so passionately that the love he lived for did not die. And so, we gather here, trusting that the LOVE we have experienced on our journey is akin to the LOVE that lies at the very heart of the cosmos; trusting that in that LOVE we live and move and have our being. And we look at the world around us and see that only justice can bring the kind of peace in which our love can thrive. So, we seek to achieve that peace by ensuring that everyone has enough, enough food, enough shelter, enough work, enough joy, enough love. Like Jesus we seek peace through justice for all. Continue reading
Listen to the sermon here
Mothers’ Day is not on the church’s liturgical calendar and yet the statisticians tell us that church attendance on Mothers’ Day is surpassed only by Christmas and Easter. Worship leaders who fail to mark the importance of this day do so at their peril; the same kind of peril that compels so many reluctant offspring to accompany their mothers to church. However, a simple liturgical nod in the direction of mothers or an over-the-top sentimental sermon all too often fails to capture the magnitude of the day’s significance in the history of women. Planning the liturgy is challenging enough, but writing the sermon is a challenge which promises to keep me toiling away into the dark hours of this coming Saturday. So, for my colleagues who share a similar plight: below you will find links to previous attempts to commemorate this day of days. Feel free to share your efforts with me in the comments section. Please! I need all the help you can offer!!! click on the links below for previous Mothers’ Day sermons:
The Gospel of Thomas 70
1 Peter 2:2-10
He was screaming at me like some kind of lunatic. Clearly, he was furious with me. His face was beet red. He kept jabbing the air in front of my face with his index finger. The veins in his neck were raised and throbbing. He kept going on and on and on and on about how wrong I was. I tried to calm him down, but he could no longer hear anything I was saying. He was so inflamed by my original statement that nothing I could say or do short of falling to my knees and begging his forgiveness for having been so wicked would suffice. So, I just stood there, hoping that eventually he would wear himself out and quiet down long enough for us to agree to disagree. But his enthusiasm for his cause was stronger than I’d anticipated. He knew that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life and that NO ONE, NO ONE, NO matter who they are, or how good they may be,NO ONE COMES TO THE FATHER EXCEPT THORUGH JESUS CHIRST, WHO IS THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AN DTHE LIFE! The sooner I confessed Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and quit trying to figure out ways to get people into heaven through the back door the better off I would be. Furthermore, unless I was willing to confess the error of my ways, then I had no business calling myself a Christian, because I was clearly damned to hell.
I can still see the anger and hatred in my old friend’s face. Anger that seemed so out of place. We were on retreat in the mountains of British Columbia. We had just listened to a sermon about the Many Mansions that God has prepared for the people of the world. Not surprisingly my friend took exception to the preacher’s emphasis on God’s different ways of including the different people of the world into God’s Reign. Over lunch we argued about just what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. NO one comes to the Father except through me.” My friend it seems had all the answers. Those who did not accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior will never be acceptable in the sight of God, they will never be included in the Kingdom of God, for indeed they are damned to hell!
I could not accept that a loving and gracious God could be so cruel. So, I walked away from my friend and his theology. I ignored Jesus’ words about how to get to the Father and focused on God’s many mansions. After all, the Bible is full of contradictions and to some problems you just must admit that there are no answers.
That method worked for me for quite awhile. Then one day, while I was studying for an under-graduate degree in Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia, I was confronted once again by Jesus’ words. Words I believed to be incompatible with the gospel of grace and mercy. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I was studying the history of inter-faith dialogue. Our class was made up of Hindu’s, Muslims, Jews, Taoists, Sikhs, and one lonely Buddhist. Together, we discussed the problems that have happened down through the centuries when people of different faiths encounter one another. One day we were given a particular assignment. We were teamed up with a member of another faith tradition and asked to bring to the table a piece of sacred scripture from our partner’s faith tradition that we found intriguing. Of course, that meant that we had to read the sacred scriptures of another tradition. Continue reading