I am indebted to John Dominic Crossan and Gretta Vosper for the content and the challenges of this sermon.
Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45
In churches all over the world, preachers are hauling Lazarus out of his well-worn tomb. Some preachers will go over the details of this story in an effort to persuade their congregations that Jesus was a miracle worker who could raise the dead. Some preachers will deconstruct the details of this story in an effort to relieve their listeners of the responsibility of believing that Jesus was a miracle worker who could raise the dead. Other preachers will dazzle their congregations with their knowledge of the biblical details, the history of the community that produced the text, the traditional doctrines and dogmas that the church has used to interpret this text and once dazzled by the preacher’s intellect congregations will be set up to prepare themselves for the forth-coming Holy Week. Other preachers will zero in on a particular detail in the text and relate it to something that is going on in the world. I must confess that over the years I have used all of these approaches. Earlier this week, I traveled back to Lazarus’ tomb to sniff around for a sermon that would make some sense of this text in light of what many of us have been studying in the Sunday Morning Adult Education Class and the Wednesday Morning Lenten Study. I had hoped that somewhere between “Painting the Stars’” evolutionary approach and “Atheism for Lent’s” intellectual critique, I would discover a way to dazzle you with a new way of understanding Lazarus, but all I really came up with was, “He stinketh!” So, I pulled out my best sermon on the raising of Lazarus and began to rework it using some of the details I have learned since I last preached on this text. I produced quite an entertaining scholarly sermon with just the right amount of humour to keep you smiling, as I dazzled you with fascinating details about the story and deconstructed what some believe is a miracle so that the story could be of some use to us as we journey through Lent in the 21st century. It’s a pretty good sermon, but I left it on my hard-drive and maybe I’ll preach it some day. But not today. You see, a few of us spent the last few days listening to John Dominic Crossan as he dazzled us with his brilliance which shed such a bright light on the history of the life and times of Jesus that left us all sighing so appreciatively as we realized that what we thought we knew is just peering through a class darkly and there is a totally clear way of approaching this story; a way that will not offend our 21st century intelligence.Continue reading →
Their baby was stillborn. Their pain was unbearable and so they asked, “Why?”
Her husband went out for his regular run; something he did every morning as part of his effort to stay healthy so that he would live long and prosper. Her husband was run over by a car and was dead by the time she arrived at the hospital. To this day she asks, “Why?”
She was raped. The pain of violation refuses to leave her even after nine long years, during which her marriage fell apart. She could not and she cannot stop asking, “Why?”
On Friday, I watched a news briefing about the massive famine that encompasses much of Africa. Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Ethiopia are suffering from the ravages of starvation. More than 20 million people, many of them children are about to starve to death; 20 million people. It is the largest humanitarian crisis in the history of the United Nations. As I watched the horrific footage from the comfort of my living-room, all my being asked the question, “Why?”
This “Why?” was and is so much more than all the other Whys. This aching “Why?” is not the same as the other Whys. The Why that groans in me, that cries out for an answer is not: Why are babies still-born? Why do accidents happen? Why is there so much violence? Why are millions of people, so many of them children, starving to death? These whys we can seek and find answers to. The Why that groans in me, is the Why that has haunted our ancestors for generations. I’m talking about THE great big existential WHY?
Why does God allow some people to suffer while others escape suffering? There must be a reason that you and I were born. There’s got to be a reason that we were born here and not in Africa. There simply must be a reason that some of us escape suffering while others of us can’t seem to catch a break. Why? Why God? Why? Nearly two-thousand years have passed and still this great big Why screams out from the deepest darkest places of our being. Why?
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I even prayed like a child. I prayed to God to save me and mine from all sorts of suffering. I believed that God heard my prayers and that God saved me and mine. But when I grew up, I put away my childish notions as I began to see some of my dear ones suffer. I saw the suffering but I refused to see what the suffering did to my carefully held beliefs about the god I chose to worship. My faith blinded me to the idol that I had created. Out of the stories handed down to us from our ancestors I, like so many of the members of my tribe, I had carefully constructed an idol which I believed was worthy of my worship; an all-powerful, all knowing god, whose wisdom was more powerful than my reasoning; who loved me beyond measure and just as surely loved all those dying babies and suffering victims. Mine was not to reason why. Mine was but to trust and obey. The “big guy in the sky” would work it all out in the end. In the sweet by and by all would be revealed; no more blindness, no more doubt. In the meantime, all we could wonder, “Why?” as long as we didn’t let our questions draw our attention from the idol we chose to worship. Blind faith was the only answer that could keep our attention firmly at the feet of the god of our creation.
Then one day a child died; a child I knew and loved, a child who had suffered most of her short little life and I was overwhelmed by the “Why?” that screamed out from the depths of my being. I, we had put all our faith in the omni god, this omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god, the all-powerful, everywhere, and all knowing god that we willed into being, confident that by worshiping our idol, our precious little one would not be subjected to such suffering. When she died, the idol of my worship died with her. I was blind but now I see the folly of worshipping a god of my own making. My omni idol, had all the answers. No mystery, just reassurances. Nothing beyond my ability to imagine or conceive. Like the Pharisees before me, I could not see beyond the parameters of the Law and the traditions handed down to me. But once my eyes had been opened, my vision changed and I could no longer see the way I once saw. My WHY? Shattered my idol and my eyes were opened to a new reality. Where once I could only see death as an enemy to be conquered, the death of one so sweet, so dearly loved, revealed to me the precious beauty of life. My eyes were opened to the reality of death as a part of life, the part that makes life so very precious. It took a long time, and more questions than I can begin to recall, but slowly, I began to see the contours of a MYSTERY beyond my wildest imaginings.
There is no sin in blindness. Blindness can be a safe haven from the tremendous MYSTERY that lies at the very heart of all that IS. But there is beauty beyond the darkness. Beyond the shattered pieces of our idolatry Beyond the horizon of our limited views, there is an EMBRACE the likes of which the mystics longed for; an EMBRACE that comes from the Source of all that IS, the great I AM of which our ancestors insisted permeated all that IS. An EMBRACE that is so much more that we can ever begin to express, and yet an EMBRACE whose contours stretch beyond the heavens to permeate all of life.
This MYSTERY that some of us call God, is the LOVE that is the ground and source of all being; the RELATIONSHIP that touches every life and lures us into being more than we dreamed possible. This MYSTERY may shatter our idols, but it also compels us toward a faith that opens the eyes of the blind to possibilities that deepen life by deepening relationship in ways that broaden our vision so that we too can become all that we are created to be. This MYSTERY invites all our WHYs. This MYSTERY is powerful enough to walk with us and all our questions into the dark clouds of unknowing that make life so very precious. This MYSTERY does not demand blind faith. This MYSTERY opens our eyes to the beauty of becoming, over and over again, ONE with the MYSTERIES of LIFE.
These days, the great big WHY continues to overwhelm me and I confess that I am so very grateful to be overwhelmed because every time I am blinded by the idols of my own creation, Jesus comes along, heals my blindness, and disturbs me with visions that lead me Beyond my wildest imaginings. WHY? I do not know the answer. But I can see a way Beyond the WHYs a way that does not deny the pain or the beauty of the quest, a way that deepens and expands the beauty of the journey, a way that compels me toward the MYSTERY that is the LOVE some of us call God.
That LOVE empowers us to reach out in love to those whose whys overwhelm them; those who are grieving, those who desperately trying to recover from violence, and to do what is necessary to feed those who are starving. May your WHYs open your eyes so that you too can see BEYOND the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also, to the MYSTERY that is LOVE. Amen.
Watch the video below which was shown in worship after the reading of the Gospel: The Woman at the Well (below) and then listen to the sermon.
You can listen to the sermon audio here:
I did not know her. She had been calling the church for years and I had been responding to her calls for help for, I’d say about three years. But I did not know her. She was just another woman down on her luck who needed help to buy food for her family. She would call, almost every other week and because she did not have transportation, I would drive over to whatever hovel she and her two boys were living in. But I did not know her. She was just another woman who couldn’t seem to get her act together and so she relied on hand-outs from the church to supplement her social assistance. Whenever I went over to wherever it was that she was living, she would always invite me in and I would always agree, but just for a moment, I’d tell her I was very busy and I had other places to go and other people to see. But the truth is, the places where she managed to find shelter always smelled so band and I usually just wanted to be on my way so that I could escape the odors that permeated the filthy apartments in musty basements. Her various homes were so depressing that I could not bear to sit down. She would always offer me tea and I would always politely refuse, claiming that I’d just had a cup, thank-you very much. I did not know her.
I suppose I did not want to know her. Maybe I’ve met too many women just like her. Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe the thought of becoming immersed in the sinkhole of sadness that is her life was just too much to bear. So, I’d just smile and give her a handout. I’d learned a long time ago not to ask too many questions; her problems were more than our meager resources could handle. I’ve been down that road before, so I’d hand over the grocery vouchers and indulge in some small-talk. I did not know her. I did not want to know her.Continue reading →
There’s a commercial currently running on the TV and each time it comes on, I can’t help myself, it makes me smile and if I let myself, it makes me laugh. It’s a collection of scenes in which lovely little babies laugh. They laugh and they laugh and they laugh and before you know it you’re hooked and you just can’t help yourself you are laughing too. Laughter is a great tonic! Laughter is good for the soul! And yet, for some unknown reason we tend to exclude laughter from our religious life. Religion is serious business and so we don’t laugh much in worship. There’s a quote from St. Teresa of Avila that served as a warning sign for me as I was preparing this sermon. “NOT YET TICKLED” writes St. Teresa, “How did those priests ever get so serious and preach all that gloom? I don’t think God tickled them yet. Beloved—hurry.” The thought of being tickled by God is delightfully refreshing.
I must confess that I don’t spend much time laughing with God. Listen to this quote from the writings of St. Teresa: “Just these two words God spoke changed my life, “Enjoy Me.” “What a burden I thought I was to carry—a crucifix, as did Christ. “Love” which is Teresa’s name for God. “Love once said to me, ‘I know a song would you like to hear it?’ And laughter came from every brick in the street and from every pore in the sky. After a night of prayer, God changed my life when God sang, “Enjoy Me.” Enjoy Me. What a different place the world would be if we could only hear God beseeching us, “Enjoy Me.”
We are a serious lot we Christians. Duty, responsibility, guilt, and consternation have left us precious little time to “Enjoy!” We’ve got things to do, stuff to learn, values to instill and standards to uphold, so we’ve put enjoyment on the back-burner. After all, God is far too high and mighty to be trifling with, we daren’t laugh in the presence of our God. And yet, God continues to tickle us. Over and over again, with the most absurd wonders, and we can’t help ourselves, but smile. Creation is so full of laughs. Life is so funny! And church, I mean, whenever I think of the ridiculous things we get up to in church, well its enough to make you laugh until you cry. So to those of you who insist upon personifying our Creator, don’t you try to tell me that the Creator of all that is or ever shall be, the one who is responsible for creating humour itself, doesn’t just roar with laughter at the stuff that we get up to. So, isn’t it just possible that when it comes to laughing babies, God has plenty of scope for delighting in us? Surely, laughter is one of the most sublime forms of prayer? We ought to lighten up and enjoy our time with God. Cause lord knows, serious people are all well and good but who wants to spend time with a bunch of folks who can’t enjoy a joke.
So with that said, let’s turn to this mornings Gospel reading. This story is a real tickler! But in order to get the jokes, you’ve got to know some of the stuff the insiders knew. It’s a bit like trying to understand British humour, sometimes you don’t quite get the joke, if you don’t know something about life in Britain. The Gospel of John is full of stories that play on the local humour of Palestine in the first century. This story, about the Woman at the Well is full of double en-ton-dras. Indeed, this story is so outrageous that when the powers that be were sitting around deciding which books would make it into the New Testament, The Gospel of John almost didn’t make the cut. This story was far too racy and I mean racy in both senses of the word, this story was about race and it was far too risqué for the likeings of the religious authorities who were functioning as the thought police for the early church. So, sit back and allow yourselves to be tickled as I let you in on the jokes. Continue reading →
Way back when I first began the formal process of becoming a pastor, the church committee responsible for helping people become pastors, recommended that I get a “spiritual director.” Among the many pieces of paper that the candidacy committee gave me, included both a definition of what a “spiritual director” is and who I might approach to be my “spiritual director”.
I remember three things about the church’s recommendation:
A spiritual director walks with, guides, encourages and challenges people to deepen their relationship with the divine.
A spiritual director is someone whose wisdom is derived from their own deep relationship with the divine together coupled with formal theological education.
The spiritual director is someone in whom the candidate for the ministry of Word and Sacrament can place their trust.
Although, I was blessed to know several people that that I trusted who might be able to walk with me, guide, me encourage me, there was only one person who I could trust to challenge me; I mean really challenge me. The problem was, I wasn’t actually sure if Henry’s theological education was quite what the church had in mind. Nevertheless, I decided to ignore that particular detail as I proceeded to invite Henry to serve as my “spiritual director”.
I had met Henry years earlier when we both were working for a package tour operator. Henry was responsible for graphic design and we worked together to produce some pretty snazzy travel brochures. At the time, I thought Henry was a little odd. He was older than everyone in the office. Henry came from Brooklyn and looked very much like the stereo-typical Jewish rabbi. I’m talking full black beard, black clothes, and a yarmulke. Turned out, Henry looked like a typical Jewish rabbi because he was a Jewish rabbi. Henry was working as a graphic designer to put food on the table for his family while he took a long-deserved break from serving as the director of a Jewish Yeshiva. Henry and I became fast friends.
Ours was a strange sort of friendship. Most of our conversations comprised of a series of questions without answers. I’d ask Henry a question, to which Henry would respond with an even deeper question, which would inspire and even deeper question with which I would be compelled to respond; it was kinda like dancing with ideas. Years later Henry would teach me that our dancing was actually an ancient form of the Jewish art of pilpul used by Talmudic scholars to get to the very heart of the sacred mysteries. It took me years to realize that Henry had become my spiritual director long before I ever asked him to formerly take on the role.
It turned out that Henry had studied at one of the best rabbinical schools in New York and was an accredited to be a “spiritual director”. Somehow, despite the urging of the church to select from their list of suggestions, I managed to get my candidacy committee to approve Henry as my spiritual director. To this day, I think the committee members over-looked the fact that Henry is Jewish, only because Henry offered to serve as my spiritual director without me having to pay him the going rate, which back then would have cost me way more than I could afford. As it turned out, Henry’s direction was priceless. So, many of the treasures that Henry shared with me continue to shape and direct me to this very day.Continue reading →
Poor old Nicodemus, like so many literary devices this character is at the mercy of his author, doomed to play the fool; in Nicodemus’ case, a fool whose image of reality needs to be reborn. The unknown author of the gospel we call John imbues his priestly character with all the foibles of the powerful: “A certain Pharisee named Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, came to Jesus at night.”
Under cover of darkness the truth of the matter will be revealed as Jesus’ embodiment of the Divine reduces this powerful fool to the role of a gestating infant lying helpless in a mother’s womb, longing for life, unable to see beyond the darkness of his sheltered state.
Only the perilous journey into the light will restore Nicodemus’ sight; a journey the reluctant Nicodemus is loath to undertake.
Has he not already survived this perilous journey toward the light?
Is he not already privy to the wisdom afforded the powerful from their lofty positions of authority? He cannot go back there and do it all over again.
What could be worth all that misery, all that gasping for air, the danger of the passage, the crushing weight of innocence struggling for the wisdom of life, daring to breath deeply of the unknown, learning to trust, opening oneself to adventure, flailing and failing, weep and wetting oneself, fearing and trusting, weeping, crying, relying on the tenderness of others to supply your needs, making all those mistakes, not knowing who are what to trust, wondering where and how to be.
Rabbi, teacher, we know who you are and from whence you come?
We’ve seen the signs.
No one can do what you do unless, unless you have access to the power of the very One we seek to know; unless the power of the God we claim as HOLY, Holy, Holy, unless the power of all powers flows through you.
Flattery is the currency of the powerful and so the author of the gospel we call John imbues his literary device with the power to fawn and pose the questions, which lie in our very own hearts.
For we too want to know just who this Jesus character is?
Does the power of the One we seek flow through Jesus.
“The truth of the matter is, unless one is born again, one cannot see the kingdom of God.”
A long time ago, when I was just a young woman, I think I was about 22 or 23, still young enough to believe that all the answers to all my questions were out there somewhere, just waiting for me to discover. I was a serious young woman full of serious questions, always pondering the meanings of thins – big things like life and death, goodness and evil, love and hate, sickness and health, sin and forgiveness, God and no-god. I truly believed that if I actually applied myself to my questions, I would be able to discover the answers. It was the pursuit of particular answers that lead me into the wilderness of the desert.
Now, it may come as a surprise to some of you, but there are real deserts in British Columbia. You will discover one of those deserts as you travel between Ashcroft down to Merritt. They’ve improved the roads since then, but back in the day that particular route was quite the challenge. Mind you, it didn’t help that I was driving an old beat up 1969 Austin 1100, that had no business being on mountain roads, let alone mountain roads that wound their way through a desert. Now if you don’t know what an Austin 1100 looks like, picture an old Austin Mini; an 1100 is only slightly bigger than an Austin Mini, and my old 1100 was purchased for the grand sum of $300.00. About the only thing this car had going for it was my faith in it to take me places.
On this trip, I had loaded my little car down with all sorts of camping equipment along with several plastic milk jugs that held a gallon of water each, because the car’s radiator had a nasty habit of overheating. The woman that I am know, looks back on the young woman that I was, and I can’t help wondering what possessed me to head out into the desert in that stupid little car. I can almost see myself sitting on the side of the road waiting for the radiator to cool down, so that I could risk loosening the radiator cap, to fill it up with cool water so that I could travel another hour or so, before it over-heated again.
To say that I was young and foolish, would be an understatement. But I was also, adventurous and inquisitive. I had traveled into the wilderness to do some thinking. I needed to find some answers. I had some decisions to make; decisions, that at the time, felt like life and death. I truly believed that some time away by myself would guarantee me the kind of peace and quiet I needed to discover the answers to my questions.
Sitting there, on a rock, hoping against hope, that the 95 degree heat from the blazing sun would be enough to guarantee that any rattle snacks would remain tucked away in some distant shade, I couldn’t believe that I’d been driving for two hours without seeing another car on the road. I was out there in the middle of nowhere, which is exactly where I had intended to be. I had travelled into the wilderness to find a place where there were no distractions, so that I could apply myself to finding an answer that I desperately needed. You see, some stuff had happened in my life; stuff that had lead me to doubt the god that over the years I had come to love.
Looking back, I think that I went out into the wilderness looking for a sign; a sign that God existed. My faith in the God who lives out there somewhere, who from time to time hears my prayer and decides to intervene in my life, my faith in that God, had been fairly strong, right up to the point where some really tough stuff started to happen to some folks I cared a great deal about, and no matter how long or how hard I prayed, the great Sky God that I had been taught to worship, simply refused to show himself. So, I decided to take a page or two out of the bible and follow Jesus right out into the wilderness to see if God would show up. Sitting there on a rock, roasting in the hot sun, as the tumble-weeds tumbled by, I wondered what I would do, if I discovered that God wasn’t really there. What if it was all just wishful thinking? I desperately wanted to meet the god that I’d been taught to believe in to be there in the wilderness. Isn’t that why Jesus wandered out into the wilderness of the desert? Surely, he didn’t go out there to meet the devil? Or did he? Maybe Jesus went out into the wilderness to meet his demons.
Over the years, I’ve learned enough about the anonymous gospel storytellers to know that their stories are more than just history. I’ve learned to read beyond the words that have been handed down to us, to ponder the multi-layered texture of meanings that lie hidden waiting to be discovered. The storytellers’ careful crafting of their tale of Jesus time in the wilderness uses images and illusions that harken back to earlier stories of Moses leading the people of Israel into the wilderness where they spent not 40 days, but 40 years forming themselves into the nation that would go on to inhabit the promised land. In the wilderness, Jesus encountered his own demons. I can well imagine Jesus contemplating his own future and realizing his own desires for power were actual temptations that would distract him from his overriding desire to embody a new way of being in the world. A quest for power would have seen Jesus giving the people what they wanted a leader who could feed them with bread and everything that bread represents, wealth and power; the kind of power that would enable them to fight their Roman oppressors. The temptation to be the kind of messiah that the people wanted was Jesus’ temptation.
In the wilderness, alone with his desires and temptations Jesus fought his personal demons. According to the gospel storytellers, Jesus didn’t conquer his demons, “The Devil awaited another opportunity.” As the storytellers follow Jesus to Jerusalem and beyond, the temptation to forsake the new way of being in the world that Jesus embodied, in favour of being the kind of messiah that the people wanted continues to haunt Jesus. Jesus steadfastly refuses to take the mantle of power that so many would have handed to him the power to form an army the likes of King David, to rise up and violently resist the tyranny of Rome. As tempting as it may have been for Jesus to become the people’s messiah, Jesus summons up the courage to be a new kind of messiah. Jesus chooses to embody a posture of non-violent resistance to evil even though he knows full well that such a posture against the Romans could get him killed. Jesus refuses to give into his fears, trusting that even death cannot defeat the LOVE that he chooses to embody.Continue reading →
Little Crystal was only two and a half years old when she got hopelessly stuck.And when she got stuck she did what all small children do, when they have gotten themselves into a situation that the can’t get out of, little Crystal cried for help. She went into her mother’s study, holding in one hand a family treasure and her other hand couldn’t be seen. Crystal cried out, “Mommy I’m stuck”. Her unseen hand was stuck inside her great-grandmother’s vase. The precious vase had been handed down from her great-grandmother to her grandmother, to her mother. Crystal had always been told that one day the magnificent vase would be hers.
Crystal’s mother tried to move quickly without panicking. She scooped the vase and her little girl up into her arms and carried them to the kitchen sink. She used warm soapy water to try to loosen the toddler’s hand, which was stuck all right. When soap didn’t work she reached for the butter. While greasing her child’s wrist like a cake pan, she asked the obvious “mother question.” “How in the world did you do this, child?” Crystal carefully explained that she had dropped candy down into the vase to see if she could still see it when it was at the very bottom. But she couldn’t see it, so she reached in for her candy and that’s when she got stuck and she couldn’t get her hand back out.
Well, as time passed, the situation became more and more serious. Crystal’s mother called for re-enforcements. She phoned her own mother and told her to get there as fast as she could. A neighbour suggested Vaseline. The apartment manager got out some WD40. Still no luck. It began to seem like the only way to get Crystal’s hand out was to break the family heirloom.
When Grandma finally arrived, both Crystal and her mother were almost hysterical. They were both more than a little relieved to have Grandma’s calming presence. Grandma sat little Crystal on her knee.
Crystal was very upset and still very stuck. Grandma took a good look at the vase that used to sit on her mother’s kitchen table all those years ago. She looked at the miserable look on her grand-daughter’s face, and she said, “Crystal, sweetheart. Your mommy told me that you reached into the vase for candy. Is that right?”
Crystal was a little breathless from all the crying she had been doing and all she could manage was a whimpered, “Mmm hummm.” “Honey, tell grandma the truth now. Do you still have a hold of that candy?” “Mmm humm”. Crystal sobbed. Then Grandma rubbed little Crystal’s back, held her close and gentle, but firmly said: “Let it go, child. Let it go.” Sure enough, the vase slipped off as smooth as silk. (I have searched for the source of this story, without success. I first heard it at a retreat on the West Coast a lifetime ago)
In this fast paced world of ours, I often find myself in little Crystal’s predicament. Surrounded by a treasured family heirloom, desperately clinging to a treasure. My predicament often makes it difficult for me to appreciate the beauty of the heirloom. Letting go isn’t as simple as it sounds. But sometimes letting go is the only way to preserve the integrity of the heirloom. When I think about the church’s practice of public confession, I can see how desperately I have been holding on to candies that no longer satisfy my need for forgiveness. Continue reading →
I swear to you it happens to me every year! It usually happens when the first person asks me what I’m giving up for Lent. When you’re in the line of work that I’m in, I suppose you should just get used to it. But somehow that particular question makes me wish I did something else for a living. People don’t usually mean much by asking the question. At this time of the year, “What are you giving up for Lent?” is sort of like when people ask you, “How are you doing?” They’re not really interested unless you have a pithy answer. I I must confess that over the years, I’ve come up with more than a few pithy answers. Like the time, shortly after I first came to Newmarket to be a pastor and my Mother, who does not observe Lent asked me what I was giving up for Lent and in a feeble attempt to make my Mother laugh, I told her I was giving up drugs and sex for Lent. Things went very quiet on Mom’s end of the phone line. The truth is that the answer I most feel like giving when people ask me what I’m giving up for Lent requires so much time to explain that I rarely answer the question truthfully. But t’is the season for confession, so please forgive me but I’d really, really, really, like to give up Lent for Lent! I mean who among you, woke up this morning and said to yourself, “Oh goodie it’s the first Sunday in Lent! Yippie!!!”
I remember when I first started going to church, I was a teenager, and I don’t mind telling you that my first experience of Lent almost sent me packing. All I heard was that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. All that talk about sin made me feel so guilty and worthless. I was just 15 years old and I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to commit much in the way of sin, and all I kept hearing was repent, repent! The message I received loud and clear during those first few Lents in the church was that I was nothing but a wicked sinner, a worthless worm! Poor, poor, pitiful me! But have no fear, cause Jeeezus can make you better. And all you have to do is give something up for Lent!!! Jeeezus, he’s on his way to be executed on a cross, because of you, so you owe it to Jesus to feel lousy because he’s going to sacrifice everything for you. They’re going to nail him to a cross because of you. You wicked sinner. The least you can do is give something up for Lent.Continue reading →
Traditionally the season of Lent is a mournful time filled with calls to repentance and self-examination as we follow Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted and then on that long march to Jerusalem where the powers that be will have their wicked way with him. Our liturgies take a mournful tone as we lament our woeful human existence, confess our sinfulness, and hear exultations to take up our crosses so that we too can follow Jesus to the bitter end. Over and over again we are asked to remember that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, as we gaze upon the cross remembering that Jesus our savior bled and died as a result of our wicked sinfulness.
Lent is a strange season that harkens back to a forgotten era. Unlike so many of the seasons of the church year it’s not exactly a season that attracts people to church. Not many of you got out of bed this morning and said, “Yippy it’s the first day of Lent. Oh goodie! We get to be reminded that we are sinful, that life is miserable and unless I’m willing to take up my cross and follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha, there’s precious little hope cause we’re all going to die and when the time comes we want Jesus to remember us.”
Now I know that there are some people who just love Lent and I must confess that I like the quieter, more somber tone that our liturgies take. I actually enjoy the opportunity to slow things done and be more reflective in our worship together. I savor the silences and the opportunities to be more contemplative. I love the colour purple with all its vibrant hues and the best part of all is that the beginning of Lent means that spring is just around the corner. What I don’t like about Lent are the signs, symbols, hymns and stories that make it so easy for us to fall back into the 11th century.Continue reading →
On Ash Wednesday, we dare to speak the truth. We speak the truth not in the refreshing light of the morning but in the cold darkness of a winter’s night. We are dust and to dust we shall return. We will die. We are mortal beings and so our lives will end. Our culture has taught us to deny death. Even our funerals have become celebrations of life. But life without the reality of death is lived cheaply, shallowly, in a half-sleep always pushing away and denying reality. So, on Ash Wednesday let us revel in the knowledge that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Revel in this knowledge because it liberates us!
On Ash Wednesday, the realty that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves is born out in the knowledge that we are stardust, elements of the universe molded together over eons, molded together by a force bigger than we can even begin to imagine, a force we call God, whom we have come to know is LOVE. LOVE breathed into the timeless elements and from the dust our ancestors emerged. Each one of us lives and breathes and has our being as a result of the confluence of so many miracles we shall never be able to count. The LOVE who is God lives and breathes in with through and beyond us.
I have only words to describe the brilliant beings that each of you are. The splendor of what has emerged from the dust and what shall return to the dust is magnificent. That magnificence is made all the more spectacular with the knowledge that it is fleeting. The knowledge that we are dust and to dust we shall return liberates us from delusions of grandeur for we know that this spectacular, magnificent, life that we are currently experiencing will end and we shall die. There’s an Irish expression that I have come to love, it translates from the Gaelic into something like: “We’ll be lying down in the earth for about fifteen million years and we have only a short time here; a brief collection of moments. If that isn’t motivation for each and every one of us to live everything that is within us, then perhaps we have already died.
So, much of what passes for life in the 21st century is merely a distraction from the reality that we shall die. Preoccupied by our distractions we forget that we are part of something so much bigger than our minds can grasp. Each one of us was billions and billions and billions of years in the making and each and every molecule of who and what we are will continue to be for billions and billions and billions of years to come.
Who and what we are is beyond our ability to comprehend. We are part of something so much bigger than we can imagine. This small part of that reality this little piece that we call our life is a precious part of reality. If there is a sin that we must all confess, it is the sin of a life unlived. Our overwhelming fear of the unknown causes so many of us to settle for less. We cannot know what or how eternity shall unfold so we settle for something smaller, something more manageable and we live within the confines of what makes us feel safe. We dare not risk the temptation to wonder at the enormous reality of which we are all a part. We dare not begin to imagine how infinitesimal our time in this part of reality shall be. So, we settle for less, less wondering, less imagining, less dreaming, less reality, less life, and yes even less eternity.
On Ash Wednesday, the liberating knowledge that none of the distractions that make us feel safe can separate us from the truth that from dust we came and to dust we shall return, ought to at the very least empower us to live fully, here and now. On Ash Wednesday, we sit with the power of our own death to return us to the dust from whence we came. We spend a few moments mourning the missed opportunities, the failures and the pain and we talk a long, slow, deep, cleansing breath; a breath that reminds us of the first breath, the ruach of which our ancestors spoke, the breath, wind, spirit, that first breathed life into our dust-formed self; the breath, wind, spirit, that breathes even now, in, with, through, and beyond us, and we trust that that breath, wind, spirit, ruach comes from the Reality that lies at the very heart of all that is, the reality that we call God, the reality that we know is LOVE.
In and out we breathe, trusting that the One who is LOVE will breath in, with, through, and beyond us so that when our life here comes to its inevitable end, all that lies Beyond the Beyond, and Beyond that also will receive our dusty selves into the LOVE which is God.
Such freedom. Remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Such liberation. Let us live fully, here and now, savoring each and every moment of this wondrous life. Let us not settle for anything less than the magnitude of each and every moment. For we are dust, molded and shaped by LOVE, for LOVE, and to the dust we shall return. We are part of something so much greater than we can even begin to imagine. We are wonderfully and fearfully made, fit for life, here and now. We shall all die, return to the dust and there are billions and billions and billions of years to come. Our part in those years is a mystery; a mystery beyond our ability to begin to imagine.
Embrace eternity if you dare. Remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return and rejoice in the freedom that the knowledge of our death brings; the freedom to live fully here and now. Let it be so, dear friends. Let it be so!
Readings: Exodus 32:1-6, Matthew 17:1-9. Listen to the sermon here
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week, I found myself studying the transfiguration of Jesus. So much has been written and said about this strange little story given to us by the early followers of Jesus. I was planning to do what I’ve done here on many Transfiguration Sundays and preach to you about the power of myth to open us to new ways of understanding who and what Jesus embodies. Then two things happened on Thursday that transfigured my own images of the transfiguration of Jesus.
Where once my images were shaped by the mythological language used by the crafters of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, the experiences I had on Thursday have transfigured Jesus in ways that reveal the glory of God beyond the pages of scripture and into the realms of the cosmos and beyond. The first thing that happened on Thursday, happened not just to me but to the whole world.
You see on Thursday, NASA, announced, and I quote: “the discovery of seven worlds orbiting a small, cool star some 40 light-years away, all of them in the ballpark of our home planet in terms of their heft (mass) and size (diameter). Three of the planets reside in the “habitable zone” around their star, TRAPPIST-1, where calculations suggest that conditions might be right for liquid water to exist on their surfaces—though follow-up observations are needed to be sure. All seven are early ambassadors of a new generation of planet-hunting targets.”
NASA’s announcement was accompanied by an artist’s rendition of what has taken place. Watch for yourselves…
As I struggled to wrap my brain around the reality of what has been discovered, our little grand-daughters came for a sleepover.Audrey is three and Evelyn is two and together they are a force to be reckoned with. I’d almost forgotten all about Trappist 1 when I found myself leaning over little Evelyn’s travel cot as she began to sing. It took a moment or two before I recognized her tentative little voice attempt to capture the tune. It didn’t take too long for me to join her: “Twinkle, Twinkle, little star how I wonder what you are. Up above the sky so high, Like a diamond in the sky. Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are. In a darkened room, I stroked my granddaughter’s cheek and I was transported to a long-ago darkness that still overwhelms me. The memory of a long-ago night, far, far, far, away, in an alpine meadow at the foot of the Black Tusk mountain, near Whistler. After a long day’s hike up the Black Tusk trail, we’d camped out in Taylor Meadows, a spectacular spot located more than 7,000 feet above sea-level. Twinkle, twinkle, little star, evoked an intense memory of staring into the night sky, mesmerized by the sight of more than my mind could comprehend.
Darkness, darkness, like you never experience near the city. Darkness so deep and so vast. Darkness full of twinkling lights. Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are. Vast, immensities, stretching, beyond, the beyond, and beyond that also. 40 light years from here.Continue reading →
Between the readings we were treated to a performance of Neil Bertram’s “Theory of Relativity” performed by Amelia DePiero, Rachel Miller, Linda Condy, Gary Curran, and Kyle Merrithew, accompanied by Marney Curran. This dynamic piece set the tone for the sermon’s exploration of MYSTERY.
“There is one body and one Spirit,” “The body is one,” “God is the One who gives everyone life, breath-everything.” These words attributed to the Apostle Paul in the New Testament echo an even more ancient notion of Oneness. For thousands and thousands of years, in various cultures and religions, humans have shared an intuitive sense of oneness. Indeed, it could be said that this innate notion that our individual stories are part of something bigger than ourselves lives in each one of us.
My own relationship with this idea of “Oneness” with all that is and ever shall be dates back not to the bible, but rather to some old Trixie Belden mysteries. As a little girl, I remember devouring Trixie Belden mysteries. Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and even the Hardy Boys gave way to Agatha Christie mysteries, followed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries, giving way to John la Carre mysteries of international intrigue. You just can’t beat a good P.D. James murder mystery. These days I don’t have a lot of time for mystery novels so I satisfy my lust for mystery with great British TV dramas. American TV mysteries tend to be too easy to solve. Nobody does murder like the Brits, so whether it’s Midsummer Murders, Broadchurch, Inspector Morse, Wallander, or the latest incarnation of Sherlock, count me in. I like nothing better than a TV mystery that you can’t figure out until the last few minutes of the show when all is revealed. Clever, ingenious, solutions, to devious mysteries that keep you guessing, lead you up various garden paths, and delight you with one wrong turn after another, only to dumbfound you with the final reveal; now that’s entertainment.Continue reading →
This sermon is a departure from my usual style; a teaching sermon, working without a manuscript. Using Keynote various images where projected to assist in setting the context for Jesus teaching on non-violent resistance. My a reflection on the creative and transformational power of love explores the tactics of empires that dehumanize enemies. The two video presentations in the Keynote point to the power of seeing the humanity of our enemies. The audio of the sermon is included below as is the Keynote that accompanied it.
The ideas in this teaching sermon were developed into a sermon on the text that was preached on Remembrance Day and can be read here
Like the poet Mary Oliver, “Sometimes I grow weary of the days, with all their fits and starts. I want to climb some old gray mountains, slowly, taking the rest of my lifetime to do it, resting often, sleeping under the pines or, above them, on the unclothed rocks. I want to see how many stars are still in the sky that we have smothered for years now, a century at least. I want to look back at everything, forgiving it all, and peaceful, knowing the last thing there is to know. All that urgency! Not what the earth is about! How silent the trees, their poetry being of themselves only. I want to take slow steps, and think appropriate thoughts. In ten thousand years, maybe, a piece of the mountain will fall.”
It has been a crazy few weeks; weeks in which the unthinkable has become the norm. We had a few months to prepare ourselves for the inauguration of a leader that most of us had allowed our minds to relegate to the level of a cartoon character. We allowed the swooping waves of hair above the orange hue to help us laugh our way into believing that this fool would be controlled by wiser heads. Then in swooped a darker, more menacing character to firmly place white-supremacy clearly within ear-shot of a man all too willing to abandon common decency in favor of wild conspiracy theories. As tragic as the travel ban is/was/maybe who knows, just thank your lucky stars you’re not the one trying to decide if your skin is the right colour to grant you safe passage while the question of your eligibility is decided in the courts. As distressing as it is to contemplate the individual hardships of refugees, there was some consolation in the reality that we here in Canada are not like them.
We are not Americans. Their troubles may impact our lives in various ways, but we are not like them. We are a welcoming people. We are a multicultural culture. We are a peaceful nation. We are a sane people; sane enough to recognize the need for sensible gun laws. We are not a violent people. We welcome refugees. We “tolerate” people of all faiths and of no faith. The noise coming from the south, was just that, chatter, that we can turn off, tune out, or shut down any time we “grow weary of all their fits and starts.” “We can wander outside, to see how many stars are still in the sky.” We know in our heart of hearts, “All that urgency!” it is “not what the earth is about.
From sea, to sea, to sea, we feel safe, some might say, smug, in our assurance that the “universe is unfolding as it should.” So, we did our best to put the travel ban into perspective. We trusted that wiser courts would prevail. We resolved to grin and bear it. “Have a nice day.” we said.
“Have a nice day.” And then, it all went horribly wrong. Our nice day turned into tragedy and the unthinkable act of a deluded young man wrenched us from our delusions of immunity from the madness that threatens to encroach on our notions of our treasured reality. It can happen here. It can happen here. It can happen here. It can’t happen here. It can’t happen here. It can’t happen here. Not in Canada. Not here. It’s too much. I can’t even…Continue reading →
Readings: Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12. Listen to the sermon here
“In the Far East, the emperor was growing old and knew it was time to choose his successor. Instead of choosing one of his assistants or his children, he decided to do something different.
He called young people in the kingdom together one day. He said, “It is time for me to step down and choose the next emperor. I have decided to choose one of you.” The children were shocked, but the emperor continued. “I am going to give each one of you a seed today – one very special seed. I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from this one seed. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next emperor.”
One boy, named Ling, was there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly, told his mother the story. She helped him get a pot and planting soil, and he planted the seed and watered it, carefully. Every day, he would water it and watch to see if it had grown. After about three weeks, some of the other youths began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow. Ling kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. Three weeks, four weeks, five weeks went by, still nothing. By now, others were talking about their plants, but Ling didn’t have a plant and he felt like a failure. Six months went by — still nothing in Ling’s pot. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Ling didn’t say anything to his friends, however. He just kept waiting for his seed to grow. Continue reading →
The beatitudes, from the Gospel According to Matthew have become so very familiar to us that they have almost lost their ability to touch us. “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Blessed, blessed, blessed, yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, we know, we’ve heard all before. So, tell us something we don’t know.
These twelve verses are from the introduction to what’s known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. A sermon that strikes fear and trembling into the hearts of any preacher worth her salt. I remember hearing that it’s insane to try to preach on Jesus’ sermon, after all it is the greatest sermon ever written. It has been said that preachers shouldn’t even try to preach on this, because it is in and of itself a sermon. We should simply read it and then sit down. Jesus is the preacher; he has said it all. He has said it like no has ever said it before or since. This sermon is the heart of the Christian message. It is what Jesus is all about. Blessed be the name of Jesus. Hallelujah! Pass the bread and wine and we’re ready to face the world as followers of Jesus.Continue reading →
I never in a million years dreamt that I would begin a sermon by quoting not the scriptures but Alice in Wonderland, but…“The time has come” the walrus said, “to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships—and sealing wax—of cabbages and kings”
To say that the last couple of days have been unusually, would be an understatement of epic proportions. Suddenly, it is as if we are all following Alice in Wonderland and together the world has gone through the looking glass and we find ourselves in a strange new world, were up is down and down is up, facts no longer matter, the way forward has a strange orange hue about it, and I can’t quite see a path through to reality. Everywhere I look the darkness appears deeper and darker than I ever imagined possible. Just when I think I have seen a glimmer of light to guide me, the orange hue blinds me with its outrageous, narcissistic, bellicose, outpourings of hubris, designed to lead us all up the garden path. For days, I’ve felt strangely uneasy. I don’t know where to turn, how to feel, or what to do and there is nowhere, I mean nowhere, I can flee to; nowhere to escape the darkness of this strange new world.
As my stomach churned at each outrageous upheaval of basic human decency, and I felt in every fiber of my being the impending dangers, as we all bore witness to the abandonment of common sense, as the Mad Hatter tweeted his demands that we all believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” It is true dear friends, the leader of the so-called free world is a mad hatter who is going to make America great again. Welcome to wonderland, a strange world where a man in a read baseball hat, a thrice bankrupt, reality tv celebrity, comb-over, lives in a world oblivious to reality and we all now live in a wonderland not of our choosing but rather in his peculiar dream; a nightmare in which, just like Alice’s Wonderland we find ourselves falling, spiraling downward into the rabbit hole to a world where, “everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be wat it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”
My memories of the story of Alice’s boat ride down the river are distant and vague, I can’t for the life of me remember how when, or how she emerged from her voyage. These past couple of days, I’ve tried to imagine Jesus walking along the shore calling me to abandon my own small boat. I can just about hear Jesus calling me, “Come follow me.” But I can’t quite seem to imagine where Jesus will lead us. I want to abandon my small boat, but today even the shore looks treacherous.
So, bobbing up and down, my queasiness increases as I struggle to hold down the bile that keeps rising up in me. I thought I was doomed to ceaselessly bobbing up and down in this upside down wonderland, and then I through the light of my own white hot anger, I began to see beyond the topsey-turvey madness that threatens to become our new normal. My anger was inspired by a sermon I did not hear but was directed to by a colleague whose anger was whiter and hotter than my own. It was a sermon delivered on Friday morning by the Reverend Robert Jeffress at a very special worship service attended by the mad-hatter himself. It was the sermon that the orange, self-aggrandizing, braggart, heard immediately before taking the oath of office that would give him the football; I’m talking about “the football” the one that launches not a game but the horrendous destruction of all that we hold dear upon this planet; the nuclear codes were in his possession when the mad hatter was treated to a sermon the likes of which cause me to tremble, tremble, tremble….
According to the Washington Post and I quote:
“The sermon was delivered by Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, who compared Trump to the story of the biblical leader Nehemiah who helped rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its walls after the people of Judah had been exiled from the land of Israel.
Israel had been in bondage for decades, Jeffress explained, and the infrastructure of the country was in shambles, and God did not choose a politician or a priest but chose a builder instead.
The first step of rebuilding the nation, Jeffress said, was the building of a wall around Jerusalem to protect its citizens from enemy attack.
“You see, God is not against building walls,” Jeffress said in his sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in D.C.
Nehemiah, according to the biblical account, completed the project in 52 days. Why was Nehemiah so successful in building the wall and rebuilding the nation?
Jeffress said that Nehemiah refused to allow his critics to distract him, noting how some people still don’t believe Trump will succeed in his agenda.
Nehemiah, Jeffress said, had two antagonists named Sanballat and Tobiah. “They were the mainstream media of their day,” he said.
“They continued to hound and heckle Nehemiah and spread false rumors while he and the Israelites were building the wall.”
He noted that Nehemiah answered his critics by saying: “I’m doing a great work. . . . Why should I stop the work and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). Trump’s work, he said, “is a work far too important to stop and answer your critics.”
Nehemiah faced setbacks, Jeffress noted, including an economic recession, terrorist attacks from enemies and discouragement among the citizens.
“The true measure of a leader is what it takes to stop him,” he said.
“And knowing you, I believe it’s going to take a lot to stop you.”
Jeffress said Trump has assembled an “unbelievably talented group of advisers” and has Vice President-elect Mike Pence by his side, “a great and godly man.”
“Mr. President-elect, I don’t believe we have ever had a president with as many natural gifts as you,” he said.
But, Jeffress said, “we need God’s supernatural power.”
He said Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” resonated with Americans and that “Psalm 33:12 gives us the starting point for making that happen: ‘Blessed — great — is the nation whose God is the Lord.’” Unquote.
JEEZZZES H CHRIST!!! Suddenly, the bile rose in me, only now, I refuse to stifle it. I am angry. I am angry that the scriptures have been transformed into succor for a narcissistic, megalomaniac, whose dreams and visions threaten all that I hold dear. Now I know that there are those among you who might counsel me to calm down. Well that’s just not going to happen. Living in the land of the shadow of death, the light has dawned and I happen to believe that anger, I’m talking about hot, vivid, piercing, anger is the only light that people who are living in darkness have available to them at this moment in time. I ain’t about to calm down. In fact I hope that I can provoke or tap into some of the anger that’s gotta be rising in so many of you right about now. You see, I can hear Jesus call us, and I hope that you too can hear Jesus calling us from the shore to abandon our small boat and follow him.Continue reading →
When I was in my early twenties, I grew weary of sharing space and I decided that I wanted an apartment all to myself, despite the fact that I couldn’t really afford an apartment all to myself. But I was determined and that’s how I ended up living in a very rough neighborhood in the east end of Vancouver. My parents weren’t’ very happy about the neighbourhood and worried about the unsavory characters that lived in the run-down building where I found a spacious one bedroom apartment that I could just about afford. The apartment was just a couple of blocks away from the office where I worked, so I was able to walk to work. I ignored all the warnings of my family and friends and I convinced myself that I could handle anything that came my way.
In my heart of hearts I was rather pleased to be living in such a poor rough and tumble neighbourhood. I was young and foolish and the neighbourhood was exciting. Every Sunday I would make the trip back to my home church in the suburbs. Sometimes I would make a second trip out during the week to attend a Bible study. Like so many young people, I was harsh in my criticisms of the elaborate life-styles of my elders. At bible studies, I was always bringing up the plight of the poor and the oppressed and challenging people to do something. Various members of my own family often accused me of being a bleeding heart liberal. I wore their criticism with a certain amount of pride, convinced that I was living out my beliefs.
Although I walked to work each day, I didn’t know any of my neighbours, until one morning I was surprised by a knock on my apartment door. I wondered how anyone would get past the lock on the front door. So, I peered through the peephole and was relieved when I saw a young woman at my door. I unbolted the door and in swept Brenda. Brenda was all smiles and laughter as she explained that she and her roommates were out of coffee and she wondered if I might be able to lend them some coffee. When I explained that I had just used up the last of my coffee making my own morning brew, Brenda told me not to worry, she and her roommates would be happy to join me. When Brenda returned, she introduced her roommates, Janice and Sue and we all sat down together for our morning coffee. Continue reading →