I am indebted to John Shelby Spong’s “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic and John Philip Newell’s “Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings” for insights beyond my own imaginings.
Over the years I’ve met lots of people from Belfast who measure love in bags of sugar. As near as I can tell this loving conversation has something to do with sugar’s ability to make all things sweet and the fact that over the generations sugar was in short supply because most people simply couldn’t afford to buy sugar. I’ve also been told that during and after the two World Wars sugar was rationed, so a big bag of sugar was more sugar than most people ever saw. Sugar was a much sought after satisfying treat, that was essential to a happy life, so measuring love in bags of sugar is something that to this day, my great-nieces and nephews still learn from their elders. But these days even children know that sugar isn’t what it used to be. We all know too well the dangers of a big bag of sugar. Sugar in large quantities is bad for us! Loving someone today, often means limiting their sugar intake. I suspect that expressing love in terms of bags of sugar will soon go the way of Ring-around-the-rosie…while children still sing it they have no idea that it is all about the black plague that saw millions of children fall to their death…. Love measured in bags of sugar, like packets full of posey, is a thing of the past…vaguely remembered by only a few. Given a few generations and our ways of expressing things, like language changes over time.
Take for example our way of expressing the DIVINE the SOURCE of ALL that IS and all that Ever Shall BE, the names we give to the ONE who is responsible for our Creation, the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being, the ONE we call “God,” has been known by many names over the centuries. The earliest name for the ONE credited with our Creation is quite simply “El”…”El” is if you will, the generic name for “God” El a word found in both the Ancient Sumerian and Canaanite languages translates as, god. In the ancient manuscripts of what we know call the Hebrew Scriptures, but our parents called the Old Testament, the earliest expression used for the God we were raised to worship is, El Shaddai, which is all too often incorrectly translated into English as “God Almighty,” but which quite literally translates into english as “breasted one” or the more accurate translation, “She Who Has Breasts”.
Before I could go to seminary I had to obtain an undergraduate degree. So I enrolled at the University of British Columbia in their religious studies program. In order to obtain a degree in religious studies, we were required to study the religions of the world. My professors and classmates were Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, and together we explored all sorts of religions, both ancient and modern. I remember registering in a course on ecumenism where I expected that we would study the various movements to restore unity to Christianity. We did that, but we also did so much more. We learned that ecumenism is not just about Christian unity. Ecumenism includes inter-faith dialogue.
During the course I was required to write papers on Hindu-Christian dialogue, as well as a paper concerning what was written about Jesus in the Islamic Qur’an. This course introduced me to the reality that unity does not mean uniformity. In his book entitled “Who Needs God”, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: “Religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, a collection of prayers, or a series of rituals. Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can’t change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make a real difference.”
Sadly, over the centuries the religions of the world have shaped the way we see people whose religious practices are different than our own in ways that have made it possible for us to pre-judge our neighbours. Studying the religions of the world broadened my horizons and I actually began to believe that at long last I had escaped the prejudices that were bred into me. Continue reading
This morning, I want to talk to you about an epidemic that is rampant in our world. This epidemic is growing at such an alarming rate that governments all over the world are scrambling to address the pervasive suffering that this epidemic is causing in people of all ages, all races, all classes, all faiths; this epidemic does not discriminate, every one of us is susceptible to the devastating consequences of this epidemic. Any ideas about what governments are calling this quickly growing epidemic? Loneliness. Loneliness or as some experts refer to it, social isolation is growing in leaps and bounds all over the place.
All of us have known the pain of loneliness. Some of us also know that loneliness can have a detrimental impact on a person’s mental health. Loneliness causes increased rates of depression, anxiety, and irritability. Research now shows that loneliness can also be physically harmful. Loneliness is linked to potentially life-shortening health issues like, high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity. Some experts have gone as far as to argue that being lonely for a prolonged period of time is more harmful to a person’s health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. One of the most socially isolating aspects of loneliness comes from the social stigma that surrounds loneliness. We simply don’t talk about our loneliness. This social stigma often prevents people from seeking help. “People think if they admit they are lonely it means people don’t want to be with them.” People just don’t want to admit that they are lonely.
Loneliness is a global problem. In the United Kingdom the situation has become so serious that the government has appointed a loneliness minister to address the issue. In Canada, studies have found that one in five Canadians identify as being lonely. One in five of us suffer from the shame and the fear that come from being lonely.
Watch the Lonely Bench
I can’t help but marvel at Sukhkaran’s courage. I know that I would not have had the courage to sit down on the Lonely Bench. At his age I would have been too afraid that if I sat down on that bench, nobody would have come to sit beside me. We moved around so much when I was a kid. I was always the new kid in class. Every year a new school. Sometimes more than one new school in a year. As a child, I had intimate knowledge of loneliness. All too often I felt the pain of social isolation, of not belonging. I cried so many tears because of the pain that consumed me because I had little or no connection to the strangers into whose midst I stumbled in and out of.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I finally found my people. I was fifteen, when I found my tribe when I happened upon a Lutheran youth group which lead me into the church. Finding my people, my tribe and finding a place to belong in church, made my life a lot better. But even a sense that I actually belonged somewhere didn’t end my loneliness. Even the church can be an incredibly lonely place. Continue reading
Politically Speaking host Dave Szollosy interviewed me and our conversation revolved around the issues relating to how our religion informs our politics. How does a small congregation like Holy Cross do the things it does? “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6) has become a favourite verse of Progressive Christians. Living into this quote education, advocacy, and action provide opportunities for people engage in the work of seeking justice. What do we mean when we call ourselves progressive? What did John Shelby Spong mean when he called Holy Cross, “a jewel in the frozen north?”
Listen to the sermon here
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace. Don’t let your hearts be distressed; don’t be fearful.” What exactly is this peace that Jesus gives? The his letter to the church at Philippi the Apostle Paul described the peace of God as the peace that surpasses all understanding. Is this the same peace that Jesus offers, this peace that surpasses understanding? It reminds me of a story I heard years ago about a little girl who went to Vacation Bible School. Her favourite thing about Vacation Bible School was the singing, and her favourite song was, “I’ve God the Joy in My Heart”. It’s the kind of song that can very easily become an ear worm. “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, Down in my heart (where?) Down in my heart (where?) Down in my heart Down in my heart to stay.” But for this little girl it was the second verses that stuck with her. When she got home her parents were surprised and amused to hear their little girl, sing the second verse with such gusto. Do you remember the second verse? “I’ve got the peace that passes understanding down in my heart, (where?”) Down in my heart (where?) Down in my heart Down in my heart to stay.” Except this little girl kept singing over and over again: “I’ve got a piece of pastor’s understanding down in my heart, down in my heart (where)”
The reason that that particular ear worm won’t leave me alone, is the “where” part of these lyrics. I’ve got the love of Jesus, Love of Jesus down in my heart, down in my heart, “where” down in my heart, where, down in my heart to stay. When we hear down in my heart we tend to think of emotions, and feelings. But the heart hasn’t always been thought of as the source of feelings and emotions. Way back in the 4th century BCE…the Greek philosopher Aristotle identified the heart as the seat of intelligence. Observing that the heart is the first organ formed in the embryo of chick’s eggs, Aristotle surmised that the heart must be vital for life itself and life meant that which makes us human, our ability to think. All the other organs simply existed to serve the heart. Indeed the ancient’s didn’t really know what brains were, except for being the mushy part encased in the skull, which they surmised must have some sort of role akin to the lungs, and served only to cool the heart.
In Jesus day, the brain was viewed as the location of the soul; the place were spirits came together. The heart was where the real thinking happened. It wasn’t until late in the 17th century that the seat of intelligence moved to our brains. So, I find it mildly amusing that Christian children should be taught that they “have the peace that passes understanding down in their hearts, where, down in their hearts to stay.”
Okay, I know I just made an impossible intellectual jump there, but hear me out. This peace that surpasses understanding, this peace that Jesus offers “is not like the world’s peace.” Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be distressed; don’t be fearful.” In other words, “Don’t let your mind be troubled, there is nothing to fear.”
These days, the world tells us to be afraid, to be very afraid. For the most part, the logic of the world wins out, and we are sore afraid. We worry about everything. We are afraid of stuff our ancestors never even thought about. Some of us are so afraid that our own images in the mirror make us worry about going outside where others might see us. The advertising industry has convinced us to be afraid of our own humanity, our smells, our oily skin and hair, all ingeniously designed to keep us healthy and happy, have now become something we are so afraid of that we spend billions and billions of dollars each year to keep them at bay.
If our own image isn’t enough to frighten us into staying indoors, then the news media has us so afraid of all the monsters that lie in wait to do the most horrendous things to us. This despite the fact that crime is lower than it has ever been and we are safer than people have ever been in all of history. We are so afraid that we refuse to let children play, even though children are safer than they were back in the bygone days of our very own youth. Child abductions are lower than they were in the 1950s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s ex cetera, ex cetera, you get the picture.
We are obsessed with our own safety. If you don’t believe me just try to open up a bottle of pills, between the childproof caps and the tamperproof packaging you almost need an engineering degree together with a strong pair of hands just to get into the bottle. Every package comes complete with its own set of warnings.
Safety helmets, don’t get me started on safety helmets, we have helmets for all sorts of activities, but don’t worry because most kids never get the chance to use their bicycle helmets, because we are too afraid to let them go outside to play.
And what about the stock market? Back in the day, most people never even knew what the stock market was, nowadays we spend countless hours afraid that the markets will crash and we’ll loose all of our money. Money! We are so afraid that we simply won’t have enough money, this despite the fact that most of us have more money and more stuff than most of our ancestors could have ever dreamed of having. I don’t know about you but I come from hearty peasant stock: workers, miners down in the pits on my fathers side, and industrial workers on my mothers side, poor working folk who rarely enjoyed a luxury in their lives. But at least they didn’t have all the fears that we have. Oh they had fears, don’t get me wrong, but they quelled their fears with the sure and certain faith that it would all come out in the end. All they had to do was read their bibles and pray ever day. They had the peace that passes understanding down in their hearts. Down in their hearts to stay.
We have the news media, reporters telling us each and every day to be afraid, to be very afraid. Terrorists, climate change, child abductors, predators, scammers, floods, wars and rumours of wars. Be afraid, be very afraid. Oh, and by the way, God is dead. Jesus can’t and won’t save you. So be afraid. The Buddha can’t save you either, and forget about Mohammed, and all the rest of those religious folk who promised you the sun, the moon and the stars. And while we’re at it, what about those endless movies that portray the horrors of falling in love, and the pain of loss? We are doomed I tell you doomed. So, be afraid, be very afraid. Use your heads, think about it, there is no hope, hope is an illusion. We are all going to die. Once you are dead, you are dead, that’s it, over done, nada.
So, be afraid, exercise, exercise, get healthy, don’t eat that, be afraid it’s the only way to live longer, be afraid, take this pill and eat this food, and run, run, as fast as you can, be afraid. Use your head, its a big bad world out there and you need to be afraid, oh by the way, try this, buy this, use this, put your money here, build a wall, build a very big wall, keep them out, you know the ones, the big bad scary people who want to come here and take all your stuff, be afraid, be very afraid.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace. Don’t let your hearts be distressed; don’t be fearful. ‘
So what is it that Jesus offers when he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace. Don’t let your hearts be distressed; don’t be fearful.” ?
I believe that there can be no peace in the world as long as we are afraid. Fear makes us forget who we are and whose we are. Fear makes us forget that we are richly blessed. Fear makes us forget that we live in relative safety. Fear makes us forget what we believe. Fear makes us forget who and what we love. Fear makes us forget to think. Fear makes us forget to breathe. I also believe that the memory of who we are calms our fear and that this is the only hope we have of ever finding any peace in the world.
When I am afraid, I mean really afraid, I often forget who I am. The person that I am, is not angry, or greedy, or violent. But given enough anxiety, fear or terror, and I will react angrily. Take away the familiar, push me beyond my comfort zone, expose me to strange and foreign ways, and I will become anxious. Threaten me with poverty and my fear of poverty will inspire me to be greedy. Threaten me or the ones I love with violence, and my fear of losing my life or my loved ones will embolden me to resort to violence.
When the ground beneath our feet begins to shift it can cause us to forget who we are and unless we take a deep breath, we might just forget the SPIRIT that dwells in with, through, and beyond us. Jesus believed and taught a new way of being in the world. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Jesus understood himself to be intimately related to the very SOURCE of his BEING. Where others had looked to the source of their being and seen a CREATOR to be feared and obeyed, Jesus looked to the source of his being and saw a CREATOR who takes delight in creation; a CREATOR so intimately connected with creation that it is impossible to see where creation ends and the CREATOR begins. I and the CREATOR are ONE.
Our GOD dwells in the midst of us. If we breathe deeply and feel the rhythm of the ONE who breathes in us we can begin to remember who we are. I am convinced that the peace we so long for in this world will only be realized when we find peace in ourselves. We are wonderfully made. Ever evolving humans in an ever changing cosmos. As conscious beings we are an integral part of a magnificent creation, the source of which flows, in, with, through, and beyond us. Embracing the mysteries of creation need not involve being afraid of the unknown.
Jesus taught a way of being that encompassed the SOURCE of our BEING as part of the ONENESS of all creation, and encouraged us to embrace the peace that this knowledge brings. When we are grounded in who and what we were created to be, it quells our fear and we are better able to respond to the fears of others in ways that will help them to remember who they are.
Fear is the enemy of peace. Jesus knew this. Why else was he constantly telling people not to be afraid? Have no fear is Jesus’ mantra. There’s so much more I could say about our fears.
I could go on and on about the ways in which fear separates us from ourselves, from one another and from our CREATOR. I could tell you all about the definition of sin as that which separates us from ourselves, from one another and from GOD. But I’m afraid that that would take to long and as being afraid is the very thing that I want to avoid, let me just give you a little peace. So, Sit up, take a long slow breath….let it out….
Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to take a long slow breath when you are afraid? Panting, gasping, sometimes even holding your breath all have more in common with fear than breathing deeply. Perhaps our bodies really do know best because when we do breathe deeply it has a calming effect. Pay attention to your breathing. Really, I mean it pay attention to your breathing. Take a few moments, right here and right now and just breathe.
In and out. Don’t try to moderate your breath. Don’t try to slow it down and breathe more deeply. Just breathe……. Notice each breathe…. Your body knows exactly what you need. Opening ourselves to the rhythm of our own breathing opens us to the reality of our ONENESS with every creature that has ever breathed, in and out the very same air down through the centuries. In and out, the SPIRIT of the SOURCE of our very BEING, flows in, with, through, and beyond us. We are an intricate part of something bigger than we can even begin to imagine.
So, the next time the anxiety and fear threatens to make you forget who you are, breathe, notice each breath, and slowly you will begin to remember who you are. Slowly, you will feel the presence of the ONE who lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond you. Knowing who we are, will begin to free us from fear and enable us to free others from fear and before we know it peace will be breaking out in, with, through, and beyond us. Let it be so, dear ones, let it be so. Amen.
I have come to believe that our lack of the peace of which Jesus speaks lies at the very heart of the lack of peace in the world. As I grew up I came to know up close and personal the kind of peace my mother longed for. Shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I packed my belongings into a backpack and boarded an airplane in Vancouver for a twelve-hour flight to Amsterdam. I’d been saving for about a year to raise the airfare and the eight hundred dollars in travellers’ cheques that was stuffed into a money belt around my waste. I desperately wanted to see the world and at the time, I actually believed the old tattered book that was stuffed into my daypack that I could indeed see Europe on $5.00 a day. By my reckoning $5.00 a day would buy me 160 days in Europe; just over 5 and a half months. Even if I allowed the odd extravagant day when I might spend $10.00 a day, I might be able to squeeze 5 months out of my $800.00 dollars, which along with my secret weapon should allow me to travel about Europe for at least a year. My secret weapon, was none other than my birth, because as a British citizen I am entitled to work anywhere in the European Common Market. I figured working a few weeks here and there ought to allow me the luxury of travelling about Europe for at least a year at which time I would head back to Vancouver to visit my family and work for a few months in order to head back out on the road, this time maybe to Australia or New Zealand. I had of course informed my friends of my grand plan. But to give my Mother a little peace, I told my parents that I’d probably be gone for between three to six months or so. I was full of bravado as I boarded the plane that would fly overnight over Canada’s vast frozen North to arrive in Amsterdam.
Somewhere after about 8 hours in the air, I began to be afraid; very afraid indeed. What if they didn’t really speak English in Amsterdam? How was I going to find my way to the hotel I had booked? I’d decided that for my first night I’d be better off being a little extravagant, just until I got my bearings straight; besides the week before, I’d learned that the price had gone up at Youth Hostels to $8.00 per night, so, plan of $5.00 a day had been increased to $10.00 a day. So, I’d have to find a work sooner than I’d thought? I’d be out there on my own for a year, exploring all sorts of new place and having all sorts of exciting adventures. I didn’t talk to anyone on the plane. I’m an introvert; a room full of strangers makes me nervous. So a metal tube, hurtling through the air filled with strangers, terrified me. I kept myself to myself and quietly mulled over the fate which awaited me.
By the time the plane landed two hours late in Amsterdam, I was exhausted and terrified. I’d spent 14 hours imagining all sorts of horrible things and I was left hoping that the frightening customs officer would refuse to let me enter Holland and send me home on the next flight. When I finally reached the hotel, they told me I couldn’t check in until the afternoon. My backpack weighed a ton as I walked around the block, afraid to wander too far, encase I got lost, or run over by a cyclist I found a bench and sat down to watch the world go by. I remember getting very, very angry as I sat there on that bench. I mean what in the world were my parents thinking? I was barely eighteen years old, how could they let me go off on my own like this. I mean what did I know about the world? I was probably going to get myself killed? Why didn’t they stop me? What kind of crazy parents did I have? If only they’d talked some sense into me, I would be all alone in a strange place about to meet my fate at the hands of some unknown villain who would make off with my $800.00 and leave me to fend for my self on the streets of Amsterdam. I had never been so frightened in my entire life. So, I decided right there and then, that just as soon as I could check into the hotel, I’d call the airline and book the next flight home. Continue reading
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
Lydia is one of the many mothers of Christianity. Lydia was the first European convert to Christianity. Lydia was the founder of the church at Philippi. The Scriptures tell us that before Paul and Silias proclaimed the Gospel to Lydia, she was a “God Fearer”. God Fearers, was the name given to people who were not Jewish but who were so intrigued with the God that the Jews worshipped that they lived their lives as if they were Jews. Indeed, most God Fearers followed all the Jewish laws except for circumcision. Circumcision, for adult males, living in the first century, when sanitary conditions were primitive and no antibiotics were available could lead to death. So, most male converts to Judaism, were not called Jews but God Fearers. Generally women were given the same designation as their husbands or fathers.
So right from the beginning of the story, Lydia is described in an unconventional way. We are told that Lydia was “a God fearer; a worshipper of God and a dealer in purple.” Now an introduction like that may not seem very unconventional to us but we have to remember that for the writer of the Book of Acts to have described a situation where, Paul and Silias, two strange men in town meet a woman, any woman was in and of itself unconventional. Continue reading
I’d like you to think very carefully about a couple of questions. The questions are simple ones. They are designed to help us form images in our minds; images that might help to shed light on a particular kind of wound. But before I ask the questions, let me give you a definition of the verb that drives both of the questions that I’m going to ask. The verb comes from the Latin verb “tradere” which means to hand over. In English we say betray. The word betray literally means to hand over to an enemy by treachery or fraud. The word betray can also mean to be unfaithful; to violate trust, or to deceive.
So, here’s my first question: Have you ever been betrayed? Think about it very carefully. Has someone ever turned you over to the enemy by treachery or fraud? Has someone ever disappointed you; or been unfaithful to you, or violated your trust, or deceived you? Have you ever been betrayed?
The second question is this: Have you ever betrayed someone? Think about it carefully. Have you ever handed someone over to the enemy? Have you ever let someone down, or been unfaithful, or violated a trust, or deceived someone? Have you ever betrayed someone? Now take those two questions further: Have you ever been betrayed by someone you love? Have you ever betrayed someone you love?
The gospel reading for the fifth Sunday after Easter takes place on the night on which Jesus was betrayed. The night of Jesus’ last supper, a supper that took place after Jesus had humbled himself to kneel at the feet of his followers and bath them. A night on which the enemies of Jesus are plotting outside the dinner party; plotting to do away with Jesus. After washing his disciples’ feet,
Jesus informs them that one of them will betray him. Peter, who is worried that Jesus might be talking about him, leans over and asks Jesus who the betrayer is? Jesus answers: “it is the one whom I give this piece of bread which I have dipped it in the dish.” Jesus dips the bread in the dish and gives it to Judas Iscariot and says, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” No one at the table knew what Jesus was talking about. After receiving the piece of bread, Judas immediately went out. It was night, darkness. When Judas had gone out, Jesus proceeds to give his followers a new commandment. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Why after five weeks of celebrating Christ’s glorious resurrection does the church lectionary take us right back to Maundy Thursday; to the night of Jesus’ betrayal? Why bring up Judas at a time like this? Judas left the table a long time ago. Christ is risen. We are five weeks into the celebration of Easter. Why bring up Judas and his dastardly deed? Now that Judas has done what he has done, surely, he no longer needs to be invited to our celebrations. Once Judas left that table and did what he did everything was different. But the church just won’t let it go. So back to that horrible night we go to the time when Jesus was betrayed. Jesus is about to go to the cross. Jesus is about to reveal to us a LOVE that takes him all the way to the cross. So, Jesus gives his followers a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
“Does this LOVE extend even to Judas, and to all the Judases of this world? Upon hearing Jesus’ new commandment, did any one of the other disciples go out into the night looking for Judas in order to extend that love to him? Did anyone fear for Judas, miss him, or try — even after he brought soldiers to Gethsemane — to bring Judas back, to talk him out of his shame, his anger, his rapidly deepening hell?”[i]
We don’t have the answers those questions. My guess is no one found him, even if someone tried. To this day people are searching for the “real story” about Judas. Judas is still out there, it seems, wandering somewhere in the night, forsaken by every generation of disciples since that ancient Thursday, the night of the new commandment. Every time we gather for Communion, we commemorate Judas and his unforgivable behavior when we speak of the night when Jesus was betrayed. We speak of Judas’ betrayal, but we do not name him. We have not searched for him, and we have not found him. Judas’ place at Christ’s table remains empty. Continue reading
Readings from the Gospel of Mary here
The year was 1998. I was in my final year of seminary. I took a course from a visiting New Testament Scholar, who shall remain nameless, to protect not his innocence, but because it is bad form to speak ill of our elders. Suffice it to say that this professor had achieved some renown as a New Testament Scholar, so I was eager to learn from his wisdom. This professor lived up to his reputation. He was brilliant and he was demanding. I learned a great deal from him. During a class on the women of the New Testament, I recorded a conversation between the professor and myself. The conversation impressed me so much that I included it in my Master’s Thesis. It went like this…
Nowhere in the New Testament does it ever say in Greek, or in English that Mary of Magdala is a prostitute. But over and over again scholars, theologians, popes, preachers, and dramatists, have continued to cast Mary of Magdala as a prostitute. In the years that have transpired since that day in seminary, when a visiting New Testament scholar insisted that “the context clearly shows that she was a prostitute,” I have delighted in being able to participate in the phenomenon of that I like to call, the resurrection of Mary the Migdal as the first Apostle. Migdal is a Hebrew word for tower and some scholars suggest that this was actually Mary’s title. Mary the Tower – perhaps because she was tall, but more likely because her authority as an Apostle “towered” above the authority of the apostles who abandoned Jesus. Continue reading
“Can the ways in which we tell the stories of resurrection transform us into followers of Jesus who embody a way of being in the world that can nourish, ground, and sustain the kind of peace that the world yearns for?” I preached this sermon on the raising of Tabitha years ago, as an attempt to convey the academic essay of New Testament scholar Rick Strelan into the form of a sermon. I believe that it is vital for preachers to convey the wealth of insights that are bandied about in the halls of academia, so that congregations can let go of so many interpretations of scripture that insult their intelligence, so that we can begin to explore the “more-than-literal meaning” (Marcus Borg) of biblical texts. Rick Strelan’s essay appeared in “Biblical Theology Bulletin, May 1, 2009, under the title “Tabitha: the gazelle of Joppa”.
Yesterday, I went for a walk. As I was walking along, minding my own business, a bright light appeared in the sky. The light nearly blinded me and so it took a while for me to figure out what was happening. Suddenly, it was so clear that the light was actually coming from a very large spaceship. I could scarcely believe by eyes. I stood frozen to the spot as the space ship landed in the middle of the road. You’ll never believe what happened after it landed. A couple of little green creatures with giant eyes gout out, took my picture, and then got back in the spaceship and flew off into the farthest reaches of space.
You don’t believe me, do you? You think that I’m making a joke of some sort, or maybe I’ve been working too hard and I’ve finally lost the plot. I know there’s probably nothing that I can say that would convince you that little green men have photographed me. Quite frankly that’s a relief because if you’ll believe that, you’d probably believe anything.
I do find it interesting that you won’t allow yourself to believe that I encountered aliens from another planet, and yet, you’ll suspend your disbelief when I tell you a story from the Bible. Or will you? Take our first lesson from the book of Acts. The miraculous story of how the Apostle Peter raised a disciple named Tabitha from the dead. You all know that when someone is dead, that’s it they are dead. You can pray over them all you want, but they’re never going to sit up, let alone stand up like Tabitha. There’s about as much chance of a person standing up after they’ve actually been dead as there is little green men from outer space landing on the street outside this church.The story of the raising of Tabitha is one of those stories that we wouldn’t believe for a second if it weren’t in the Bible. I suspect that when it comes to stories from the Bible, most of us don’t really believe that they happened exactly the way the Bible says they happened. Or do we?Now maybe you’re the generous type and so you say, “Don’t be too hasty, it could happen if the person wasn’t really dead.” I mean, maybe Tabitha’s friends got it wrong and she just appeared to be dead. The story says that Tabitha died, then her friends washed her body and laid her out in an upper room. Then, since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter, who was in Lydda and they asked Peter to head back to Lydda, which was about 10 miles away. That’s a 20 mile round trip on foot with a walking speed of about 3 miles per hour it would take at least 7 hours. She was definitely dead. According to the story Peter sends everyone out of the room, knelt down and prayed and then said, “Tabitha, stand up!” and she did just that.
The story of the raising of Tabitha is one of those stories that we wouldn’t believe for a second if it weren’t in the Bible. I suspect that when it comes to stories from the Bible, most of us don’t really believe that they happened exactly the way the Bible says they happened. Or do we? Continue reading
A long time ago, I owned a beat-up 1969 Chevy Nova that I paid less than $700 for in the hope that that old car would last long enough to get me through my undergraduate years at the University of British Columbia. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t get around to doing my undergraduate degree until I was 32 years old, when I enrolled in the Religious Studies program at UBC. I was living in a shabby basement apartment, where the rent was cheap, but the parking was non-existent. If I was lucky, I’d find a parking spot in the alley behind my apartment. Walking in that dark alley at night was more than a little scary. Often, as I was hurrying through that dark alley, I would see this old woman who was living rough in a makeshift tent. It wasn’t much of a shelter, just some cardboard held together by old clothes and torn grocery bags.
The old woman and I never spoke to one another. After several weeks of seeing one another in that back-alley, we would quietly nod in recognition of one another. I knew that she belonged in the neighbourhood and she knew that I belonged in the neighbourhood. Neither of us was comfortable in the back alley at night and it seemed almost comforting to see a familiar face, rather than running into some totally unknown stranger.
One morning as I was hurrying off to class, I heard the old woman moaning underneath her makeshift tent. I am ashamed to say that her moans frightened me, and I dashed to my car, unlocked it as quickly as I could, and drove off to the university so that I could continue my study of the religions of the world. The irony was not lost on my and I was ashamed.
I had some brilliant professors at UBC who taught me all sorts of things, but none of those wise professors ever taught me as much as one of my fellow students taught me. My classmate Sannidhi taught me more about religion than any professor. Sannidhi is a Hindu who I suspect has traveled this earth in many incarnations. Sannidhi possessed wisdom beyond his 20 years of age. To this day, some of what I learned from Sannidhi, I continue to try to teach others. It was Sannidhi who taught me the Hindu understanding that all gods are but pale imitations of the ONE God who lies at the very heart of all that IS. It was from Sannidhi that I first learned the Hindu description of the MYSTERY that we call God, that I have come to love above all other descriptions of the DIVINE ONE. I’ve shared this description with you many times: “God is beyond the beyond and beyond that also.”
Despite the difference in our ages and backgrounds or maybe because of them, Sannidhi and I became study partners. Together, we navigated the murky waters of Religious Methodology as we tried our best to move beyond our own religious practices so that we could learn from the religious practices of others. Sannidhi often spoke about his home in India and how he couldn’t wait to show me what India was really like.
One evening I offered Sannidhi a ride home in my car. To this day, I’m not sure whether or not he was teasing me or if he actually was seriously impressed with my old Chevy. I remember him running his hand over its white vinyl roofand making a sort of tutting sound as his head bobbed from side to side and he expressed his admiration for such a fine mode of transport. Driving along, our conversation about the nature and reality of God was so engrossing that I invited Sannidhi to stop off at my place for a cup of tea so that we could continue our conversation. That’s how we ended up talking to the old woman who live lived in the back-alley behind my basement apartment. turns out her name was Joanna. In just a few moments, Sannidhi had learned that she liked milk and just a touch of sugar in her tea. I myself had never dreamed of offering the old woman a cup of tea. Sannidhi never dreamed of not offering her a cup of my tea. Continue reading
Can the ways in which we tell the stories of resurrection transform us into followers of Jesus who embody a way of being in the world that can nourish, ground, and sustain the kind of peace that the world yearns for? In responding to this question, our understanding of the Christ all too often restricts the way in which we tell our stories of resurrection. Richard Rohr’s sermon preached at All Saint’s in Pasadena follows readings from Acts 5:27-32 and John 20:19-31 and pushes us to broaden our visions of the risen Christ.
Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! During the Easter season we punctuate our celebration of resurrection by declaring that, “Christ is risen!” and sometimes I wonder if our liturgical utterances of resurrection are in danger of becoming the last gasps of a Church that is all but dead. Are we who gather in churches on a Sunday morning members of a church that is the living body of the risen Christ or are we mourners at the funeral of a religion that died in the last century because it did not have the stamina for 21st century?
As congregations shrink, churches close, and the few mourners who are left insist upon preserving what’s left of the corpse, the season of Easter, designed to celebrate resurrection, is in danger of becoming the church’s final attempt at denying the corpse of Christianity. Generations to come may look back upon this critical time in the church’s life and pronounce that resurrection itself was the cause of the church’s death. While worshipers remained fixated upon the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse determined to defend the doctrines of the church, the life-blood of the body of Christ slipped away, no longer able to congeal around the idea of a deity so small that “HE” could only be worshipped by those who could narrow their thinking so that it could fit into the boxes created by the need to suspend everything they have learned about the nature of reality.
Gathering around the ancient stories of resurrection, those who sought to save the church could not agree on the treatment necessary to save the church. While some insisted that a good dose of biblical literalism was the only way to save Christianity, others advocated for a more radical treatment, one that took on board all that we have learned about the cosmos and what it means to be human. Still others looked to more nuanced forms of treatment and reached into the long traditions of the church which have always worked wonders in the past; traditions that honoured the human need for reason while they still managed to encompass the unfolding mysteries of the cosmos. While the theologians, priests, laypeople, hierarchy’s, would be evangelists, charlatans, worshippers, seekers, and philosophers, tended to the perceived needs of the church, the members of the Body slipped away to seek nourishment and healing elsewhere; leaving the patient to die a slow and laborious death. Oh there are a faithful few, huddling around the corpse doing their damnedest to resuscitate the corpse of Christianity. But life has long since left the patient. All that is left are the mourners who simply cannot believe that their beloved is dead. But like all deaths, life goes on, and the world scarcely notices all that has been lost. Some of us, hang around, finding solace in one another, remembering the good old days, longing for the future we had hoped to see.
When some folk return from the empty tomb that the church became, to tell us that Christ is not there, that Christ is risen. Dare we even begin to imagine that the one place we expected to find Christ is empty? Can it be true? Can Christ have escaped the empty tomb we call the church? Or, is this just one more idle tale? Continue reading
As the resurrection stories continue, the story Jesus’ encounter on the lakeshore explores forgiveness in ways that open us to our own moments of desperation as we too long to be forgive or to forgive. Richard Holloway, the former Primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church, interprets the story of the resurrection not as an historical tale, but as our own story. Holloway has written of his longing for a humbled and broken church. His own humility and brokenness shines through this video as Holloway embodies his own longing.
Yet, we struggle to find truth in Easter’s familiar stories. Some of us have been shaped by these particular stories. Some of us have built our lives around the truth that others have reported to us about these stories. Some of us have rejected these stories and filed them away with all the other idle tales in which we can find no truth. Some of us have moved on from these stories convinced that there is no longer any truth to be found. Some of us love to hear these stories because they take us back to familiar truths that inspire a nostalgic sense of well-being. Some of us, are determined to wrestle with Easter’s stories until they release all the truth that we can find in, with, and between the lines; truths that call us toward a new way of being, a way of being that we long to embrace.
I myself, I am a wrestler. Like Jacob of old, I wrestle with Easter’ familiar stories determined to get from these ancient tales not just truth, but an inkling of the DIVINE ONE who dwells in, with, through, and beyond all of our stories. Every year, after the excitement of Easter Sunday, the stories of a community locked away in fear come to us. Every year some element of these stories, touches me in ways that open old wounds and awaken familiar fears.
I remember long ago, when I was an intern trying to learn what it is to be a pastor. I’d never been to a visitation at a funeral home before. I remember putting on the uniform of a pastor. Back then, I wore the collar and the black-shirt not so much as someone wears a uniform, but rather as someone who puts on a suit of armor – hoping against hope that the uniform would give me an air of competence and perhaps even hide the fear that so often wells up in me.
I don’t really remember much about that particular funeral home visitation. I couldn’t tell you who it was who had died. I remember being relieved to see a familiar face in the long line up to greet the widow. I remember sticking close to that familiar face trusting that she would show me what was expected of me.
As we waited for our turn to greet the widow of the dead man, I wondered what on earth I could possibly say to ease her pain. Back then, I believed that this was the job of a pastor, to ease the pain. I hadn’t yet learned to be in the pain, to be with, to share in the wounding. Standing and waiting I kept asking myself, “What can be said when a lover dies?” The magnitude of such loss is immense. I don’t think I was the only one in that crowd of mourners who felt ill at ease.
Then suddenly it happened. I was confused as to why it was happening. It was like we were a sea parting as we made way for a woman who strode into our midst with such purpose. People stepped aside, got out of her way and then we all watched as this woman, this widow opened up her arms to embrace the newly widowed woman. Their wounds were not the same except perhaps in their depth. No words were spoken between these widows and yet the magnitude of their touch was a kind of miraculous healing. Continue reading
Looking ahead to Doubting Thomas’ annual appearance, I am reminded that resurrection is not about belief. Resurrection is a way of being in the world. Over the years I have tried serval different approaches to encourage the practice of resurrection. click on the titles below to see
Easter: 50 Days to Practice Resurrection! click here
Humpty Dumpty, Doubting Thomas, and Resurrection click here
Leap of Doubt – How Do We Believe Resurrection? click here
Can the ways in which we tell the stories of resurrection transform us into followers of Jesus who embody a way of being in the world that can nourish, ground, and sustain the kind of peace that the world years for? click here
Practicing Resurrection: Forgiveness click here
This coming Sunday, in churches all over Christendom, worshippers will hear the gospel story of Doubting Thomas. The story of Doubting Thomas is prescribed gospel reading every year for the Sunday after Easter. I’ve never understood why Thomas should hold such a prominent place in our lectionary: I mean, as the stories have been handed down to us, when the chips were down, and Jesus could have used their support, Thomas and the guys deserted Jesus; they left him alone and spread out across the city to hide from the Romans and the religious authorities. According to the anonymous-gospel-story-tellers, it was the two Marys, together with the other women who had financially supported Jesus’ ministry, and who stuck by him to the bitter end. Also according to the anonymous-gospel-story-teller, we know as John, it was Mary, the one they call Magdala who brought back the news that Jesus was not dead, but had risen. Despite the fact that Mary Magdalene was the one chosen to be the Apostle to the Apostles, (the word apostle comes from the Greek for “the one sent”) our lectionary quickly moves on from the empty tomb to the upper room so that we can all once again explore the story of good old, doubting Thomas.
So here, let me honour Mary the Apostle to the Apostles with this my imaginary account of Mary’s story. Remember the power of our imaginations to breathe life into what appears to all the world to be dead.
Shalom. I greet you in the name of our risen Christ. My name is Mary. You may know me as Mary Magdalene. I am not from around here. 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. He was teaching outside of the synagogue. At first, I just stood back in the crowd and listened as he spoke about a new world which God intended to create. It would be a world where the sick are healed and prisoners are set free. I wanted to taste this freedom which Jesus spoke about. I wanted to ask him so many questions. But the crowd pressed in upon him demanding that he tell them more and I was pushed farther away from him. In despair, I turned to leave. Continue reading
On the heels of Peter Rollins visit to our congregation, I preached this Earth Sunday sermon which flows out of Peter’s work. You can listen to Peter’s sermon which is the jumping off point for this Earth Day sermon here
Today, this planet celebrates Earth Day; a time to pause and celebrate the wonders of this planet and to consider the fate of this planet. The church has no day on its calendar to either celebrate the Earth or to pray for the survival of the Earth. Indeed, there are churches in Christendom that actively pray for the demise of the planet, so as to hasten the arrival of Christ. When I preach about the plight of the Earth, I usually point out some ecological disaster and encourage us all to take better care of the planet. While there are plenty of ecological disasters that I could point to that’s not what I’m interested in today, because let’s face it, if you’ve read this far, I’d only be preaching to the choir. We all know that the planet is in grave danger and that we all have a role to play in saving the planet. Today, I want to talk to you about something that lies at the very heart of our abuse not only of the planet but of one another. You see all week; I’ve been haunted by a line from Pete Rollins sermon last week.
Peter was talking about the gift that Christianity has to offer the world a gift that has the potential to move us beyond religion toward a more connected holistic way of being in the world. The line that has been haunting me all week came near the end of Peter’s sermon. It was almost a throwaway line and with Belfast Peter’s accent and the speed with which he speaks, I almost missed it. Peter said that all too often what we see in religion is our desire to have some sort of holy experience; a burning bush experience like Moses. We want to find this place where the Holy is and there always seems to be things getting in the way of our having this holy experience.
There are people getting in the way and structures getting in the way of this burning bush experience. Pete insisted that in the what he described as the Apostle Paul’s conversion of bedazzlement, in this incomprehensible blinding revelation that seems so incomprehensible, so transformative has the power to transform us so that we can see inside of ourselves and we can begin to see that every bush is burning. We can begin to see that the sacred are everywhere; that the persecuted ones are the place of our transformation and our conversion. Continue reading