SERMONS

EASTER SERMONS here

Words Will Always Fail Us – A Resurrection Story: here

Is God Coming Back to Life? here

Jesus’ Resurrection is Extraordinary Precisely Because Anything at All Made it Our of that Bloody Tomb! here

GOOD FRIDAY SERMONS:   here

MAUNDY THURSDAY SERMONS

Two Suppers – Maundy Thursday – A Strange Night

Scuffed Up Reddish Pumps

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

PALM SUNDAY SERMONS:

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

Jesus: Human or Divine?

Marching in the Wrong Parades

On Palm Sunday, An Inconvenient Messiah Parades Into our Midst

Jesus Sets Us Free to Save Ourselves

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

 FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Can These Bones Live?

FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT A

JOHN 9:1-41

OMG: God Is Beyond Cause and Effect

New Vision: Exciting and Terrifying

THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT A

JOHN 4:1-42

To Be LOVE in the World

Tickled By the Racy Svetlana; Otherwise Known as the Woman Evangelist Who Rocked Jesus’ World!

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT A

John 3:1-17

A Little Self-Involved? Try Looking Outward!

Moon-Dancing Bears, Jesus and Nicodemus

Poor Old Nicodemus – Doomed to Play the Fool

BAPTISM OF JESUS

Click on these links for sermons that I have preached on the Baptism of Jesus

A Progressive Christian Wades Into the Waters of Baptism

Baptism A Mystery of Faith

Beloved, Lover, and LOVE Itself

The Baptism of Jesus and the Missing Verses in the Lectionary Gospel Text

Click on these links for resources 

Baptism of Jesus

The Bat Qol – The Daughter of a Sound

Bat Qol – Daughter of a Sound: Hearing the Word Utter Our Name

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Christmas EVE/DAY sermons
Click on these links for some of the sermons I have preached on Christmas Eve

Preaching Christmas Eve in the Wake of New Testament Scholarship
Shattered Angel: an Imperfect Christmas Story
Mary’s Story (also found in Christmas Stories – just scroll down)
Living Nativity
Keeping Christmas Well
The Nativity: A Parable So Simple a Child Can Understand It
The Power of LOVE Who Lives In Us
Cheap, Small, and Plastic: a Christmas Eve Sermon for Progressive Christians
Tell Us About God. We Have Almost Forgotten

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Advent 4B: SERMONS
Here are links to sermons I have preached on Advent 4
Keeping Christmas Well: a Christmas Resurrection Story click here
The Greatest Birth Story Ever??? click here
The Nativity: A Parable So Simple a Child Can Understand It! click here

Mary and Elizabeth: Visitation or Escape click here

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Emmaus is Nowhere because Emmaus is Everywhere:

a sermon for Easter 3A – Luke 24:13-35

This sermon was inspired on my own journey to Emmaus where in the space of the same afternoon I heard a stranger declare: “Christianity is dead!” and Karen Armstrong’s now famous TED talk about her call for a world Charter for Compassion.

Has anybody here ever been to Emmaus? Which one? According to the latest issue of Biblical Archeology there are at least nine possible locations that are candidates for the Biblical town of Emmaus. Historians tell us that there is no record of any village called Emmaus in any other ancient source. We simply don’t know where Emmaus might have been. Tradition, tells us that it might have been a place just a few hours walk from Jerusalem. New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg suggests that Emmaus is nowhere. Emmaus is nowhere precisely because Emmaus is everywhere. Each and every one of us has at one time, or indeed for some of us, many times, traveled along the road to Emmaus.

I know that I have been on the road to Emmaus most of my life. I’ve had lots of company on the Road to Emmaus. I’ve had many conversations along the way discussing, with anyone who’d care to accompany me, the ifs, ands, and buts of Christianity, of religion, and indeed of life. If you haven’t traveled down the road to Emmaus you must be very skilled in the fine art of turning off your brain and if you check you just might discover that your heart isn’t actually beating.

It’s so easy to imagine, those two characters striding down the Road to Emmaus that we can almost hear them talking, maybe even arguing about what happened. What on earth were they to make of all this! Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah. Jesus was the One who had come to liberate Israel, to free the people from oppression. Jesus was the One who was supposed to draw the people back to God, restore the relationship between God and God’s people. Now Jesus was gone, and what had changed? Now, Jesus was gone, and the Roman Empire was still oppressing them, still inflicting such pain and hardship, still killing them. Was it all a mistake? Was it all a lie? Had they been fooled by some kind of cruel hoax—were they wrong to put their hopes in this man from Nazareth? They had trusted Jesus believed in Jesus, followed Jesus. Their lives had been changed. They had seen the lives of others changed and they had expected even greater changes to come. Jesus had confronted corrupt powers. Jesus had charmed great crowds. Jews and Gentiles alike responded to the truth of Jesus’ teaching. Rich and poor had come to Jesus, believing in Jesus’ healing power. But Jesus had been shamed, and ridiculed, and humiliated, and crucified and now Jesus was dead. Well, was Jesus dead? Some said they’d seen Jesus, alive! Not that Jesus had survived the crucifixion by some miracle of strength, but that Jesus had risen from the dead. They seemed so totally convinced by their own experience…were they confused by their own grief? Were they delirious? Had they loved this Jesus so much—invested so much hope in Jesus life and leadership—that they simply could not let him go? And what did ‘resurrection” mean? Apparently it was not the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus wasn’t revived to resume his former life; to take up his broken body until the day he might die again. No, somehow this was some new mode of being that seemed to be spiritual to some and yet real to others. And, if Jesus were risen from the dead, what would be the point of all that? What was the point to a Messiah—to a presumed political and religious leader—if Jesus wasn’t able to lead people here on earth? How could Jesus restore Israel when he had so easily been defeated by a handful of Roman guards? How could he bring release to the captives, how could he bring justice for the poor, how could Jesus advocate for the widows and the homeless? How could Jesus call people to account for all the ways they had strayed from God’s intent, now? What good could come from some kind of spiritual ghost? We can hear these two friends wrestling with each other and with their own hearts on the road that day!

We can imagine the questions they might have had. We can feel the agony they might have experienced. How crushed they must have been to lose their beloved leader, to have witnessed the violence that triumphed over their champion. This story of wrestling with unanswerable questions was written at the turn of the first century, but the wrestling continues in the hearts and minds of so many of us.

What are we to make of the life, death and resurrection stories of Jesus of Nazareth? Just as the first century writer of this story struggled to understand the apparent death of Jesus of Nazareth, many of us are also struggling to understand the apparent death of Christianity. We’ve heard so many reports about the death of Christianity, indeed about the death of God, that it is almost impossible to believe that either can survive. In fact, there are so many reports of the death or the impending death of Christianity that it makes even the most devoted and faithful followers wonder if God is indeed dead. And so, we struggle down the road to Emmaus talking with one another about what it all means. If only someone would appear to us and open our eyes to and cause our hearts to burn with us, and open the scriptures to us. Sure there have been moments of revelation, but on the whole I think it’s safe to say that somewhere along the way, religion itself has been high jacked. God may not be dead, but it appears for all intents and purposes that God may need life support. Certainly, somewhere along the road to Emmaus Christianity has been high-jacked.

While I was traveling along the road to Emmaus, I heard tell of a fellow traveler called Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was a Hindu who studied all the great religions of the world and after completing an exhaustive study of Christianity he came to the conclusion that Christianity was the most compassionate, most loving, most complete form of religion and the best way to encounter the divine, and so he resolved that he would become a Christian. Then he went to church, and in the church he discovered a great chasm between the teachings of Jesus and the way Jesus’ followers actually lived, and so Gandhi resolved to become a Christian just as soon as he actually met a Christian.

As we travel along the road to Emmaus struggling with one another about what to make of it all, there are religious terrorists everywhere along the way; religious terrorists of every kind. There are folks holding on to their sacred scriptures so tightly and insisting that we believe; believe every word! These religious terrorists are only too willing to tell us what it all means and exactly what the scriptures say and how we out to understand absolutely everything just exactly the same way that they understand it. Every once in a while we met a stranger along the way who opens our eyes and we grasp a flicker of recognition. Which only makes the religious terrorists wave their scriptures at us as if their ancient texts were weapons, and so they threaten us with eternal damnation if we do not believe as they believe.

I met a character the other day on the road to Emmaus. Her name is Karen Armstrong; she’s one of the world’s authorities on religion who has written dozens of books on the religions of the world. I learned from her that “belief which we make such a fuss about today is only a very recent religious enthusiasm that surfaced only in the west in about the 17th century.” The word belief itself originally meant, “to love” “to prize” or to “hold dear.” In the 17th century its meaning was narrowed to mean an intellectual ascent to a set of propositions. We get our word creed from the Latin, “Creedo” which means, “I believe.” Armstrong tells us that “’creedo,’ did not mean that ‘I accept’ certain creedal arguments of faith it meant ‘I commit myself.’ Or I engage myself.” Armstrong insists that religion is not about believing things…religion is about behavior. Religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something; you behave in a committed way and then you begin to understand the truths of religion and religious doctrines are meant to be a kind of summons to action; you only understand them when you put them in to practice.

Pride of place in this practice is given to compassion and according to Armstrong, “right across the board in every single one of the major world faiths, compassion: the ability to feel with the other is not only the test of any true religiosity it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims call God or the divine. It is compassion, says the Buddha that brings you into Nirvana. Why? Because in compassion, when we feel with the other, we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and we put another person there. Once we get rid of ego then we are ready to see the divine. Every single one of the major world religions has highlighted, put at the center of its teachings what has become known as the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule: first propounded by Confucius, five centuries before Christ: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” That Confucius said, was the central thread that ran through all his teaching and that his disciples should put into practice all day and every day and the Golden Rule would bring them to the central value that he called Rein: ‘Human heartedness’. This is the central of the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”

Armstrong tells the famous story of the great Rabbi Hillilel the older contemporary teacher of Jesus. A pagan came to the Rabbi Hillel and offered to convert to Judaism if the Rabbi could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. So, Hillel stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. That is the Torah the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” Go and study it was what Hillel said, and in your studies you must make it clear that every single word of the Torah is a commentary on the Golden Rule. The great Rabbi Meier said that, any interpretation of scripture which lead to hatred and disdain or contempt of other people, any people whatsoever was illegitimate.

St Augustine made exactly the same point, Scripture Augustine said, “Scripture teaches nothing but charity and we must not leave, any interpretation of scripture until we have found a compassionate interpretation of it.”

This struggle to find compassion in the scripture is a good dress rehearsal for doing the same ordinary life. We are living in a world where religion has been high jacked. Were terrorists cite Qu’ranic verses to justify their atrocities. Where instead of taking Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies,” “don’t judge others,” we have the spectacle of Christians continuously judging other people; Christians endlessly using scripture as a way of arguing with other people, Christians putting other people down. Throughout the ages religion has been used to oppress others because of human ego and human greed. The great religions, also insisted that you could not and must not confine your compassion to your own group, your own nation, your own religion, you must have concern for everybody; not just love your neighbours, but love your enemies, have compassion for the stranger. “We formed you,” says the Qu’ran, “into tribes and nations so that you may know one another.” But, sadly religious illiteracy has led us to a place where people think that religion is about believing things. We equate faith with believing things. We call religious people believers as if that is the main thing that we do.

Behavior: compassion and the Golden Rule has been supplanted by believing. Religious people have become more concerned with being right rather than behaving with compassion. Religion is failing us at the moment. Any ideology or religion that doesn’t promote a sense of global understanding and global appreciation of each other is failing the test of our time. Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you. We should not treat other nations in ways that we would not want them to treat us and not just nations, or people, but the Environment.

We must treat the earth with the same kind of compassion that you would want from creation; the same kind of compassion you would want from the divine. As we travel this road to Emmaus, it becomes less and less important for us to believe in a certain way and vital that we behave with compassion. God is not dead. God is alive and well. God walks with us on the road. God is our companion on the road. The very word companion comes for the same Latin word that the French get their word “pain,” which means bread. Companion literally means “bread with.” The companion is the one who breaks bread with us. It is in the intimate act of breaking bread, of sharing a meal with someone that we come to know that person. When we meet a stranger on the road, we begin not with believing or not believing what that stranger has to say to us or what that stranger represents to us. We begin with the breaking of the bread. In the breaking of bread with the stranger we will be able to recognize the divine presence that dwells in the stranger and the stranger will be able to recognize the divine presence that dwells in us.

At one of our congregational pub nights, we met a Quaker who kept reminding us about the beauty of Homer’s: The Iliad. The Iliad was for this man who claimed to have given up on religious instructions a sacred text. In the Iliad, Homer tells the story of the ten year war between Greece and Troy and in one incident, Achilles the famous warrior of Greece decides to take his troops out of the war and the entire war effort of the Greeks suffers and in the course of the ensuing chaos Achilles beloved friend Petropolus is killed in combat by one of the Trojan princes: Hector and Achilles goes mad with grief and rage and the quest for revenge. Achilles kills Hector and he mercilessly mutilates the body and he refuses to give the body back to the family, which to the Greeks and Trojans alike meant that Hector’s soul was doomed to wander eternity aimlessly lost. In the darkness of the night Prium the king of Troy, Hector’s father, an old man sneaks into the Greek camp incognito. Prium makes his way to Achilles tent determined to ask Achilles for the body of his son Hector. The Greeks are shocked when the old man takes of his disguise; removes his head-covering and shows himself and Achilles looks at him and thinks of his own father and he starts to weep. Prium looks at Achilles the man who has murdered so many of his sons and he too starts to weep and the sounds of their weeping filled the house. The Greeks believed that to weep together created a bond between people. Achilles takes the body of Hector and hands it ever so tenderly to the father and the two men look at each other and see each other as divine.

Karen Armstrong insists that that is the ethos that is found in all the religious. It is what she describes as religions ability to overcome the horror we feel when we are under threat from a stranger. Religion should help us to over come the horror when we feel that we are under threat by our enemies so that we can begin to appreciate the other. Armstrong reminds us that the word for “holy” in Hebrew is Kadosh which means “separate” or ‘other”. It is the otherness of our enemies that can give intimation of that utterly mysterious transcendence that is God. Armstrong has called forth a movement among the progressives of all the great religions and working with the United Nations, and the likes of Coffee Annan and Desmond Tutu she is calling for those who claim a particular religion to begin to behave with a Compassionate ethos. She is calling for religious moderates and progressives to adopt the Golden Rule as the basis for a world Charter of Compassion. She is insisting that texts that are being abused…need to be denied and we need to be instructed by the need to wrestle compassionate interpretations. Texts of every kind, whether they are from the Bible, the Qu’ran the little Red Book, or a constitution, or a beloved piece of literature or a manifesto; sacred or profane. We must not let destructive, abusive, inflammatory, discriminatory, or hate filled interpretations of any kind stand we must be guided by compassion.

So, as we wander toward Emmaus these rumors of compassion lead us to believe that God is not dead at all, but that God is alive and well and comes to us in the guise of a stranger. With our hearts burning with us as the stranger talks to us on the road, the scriptures are opened to us. It’s time for us to reclaim the Christianity that has been high-jacked and resurrect compassion so that our faith can be a pathway to peace. It’s time for us to reclaim that ancient ability to recognize the divine in the eyes of the stranger, and yes even in the hearts of our enemies. Believing that God is alive is not the point. Behaving like God is alive is the beginning of compassion. For those of us who call ourselves Christian, recognizing Christ, recognizing the divine in the stranger is the pathway to justice, peace, and mercy. Let it be so among us.

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EASTER: Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Laugh, Laugh

When my niece Sarah was born, I was amazed at how quickly I fell in love with her. Just as soon as my brother placed her in my arms, I was consumed with a love so great that I thought my heart would burst. But as great as that love was, as the weeks and months passed and that love grew deeper and deeper. When Sarah was about 11 months old, my best friend gave birth to a daughter and when she placed her child in my arms for the first time, I fell deeply in love with darling little Rebekah. Fortunately, Sarah and Rebekah lived quite a distance away from one another and I was able to carve out enough time to spoil each of them separately and in their own unique ways. In fact, these darling little girls who were the apples of my eye never actually met until one Easter weekend, when Sarah was about 3 years old and Rebekah was almost 2. It was absolutely the worst Easter egg hunt I have ever attended. It was horrible. Every time a paid even the slightest bit of attention to one of those darling girls the other one would fly into a jealous snit. They vied in the most undignified way for my attention all afternoon. If I even so much as smiled at one of them the other one would feel the need to do something, anything to get my attention firmly focused back on them. If I picked one of them up, the other one would begin to moan and complain about something until I put the other one down and picked up the complainer. If one of them found an Easter egg the other would cry until the focus was returned to their quest for an egg. If one of them crawled up on my lap, the other one would try to physically remove that one so that they could crawl up in their place. The parents in attendance just laughed at my predicament and left me to the task of trying to assure my darling little girls that just because I loved one of them didn’t mean that I didn’t love the other.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the jealousy that I bore witness to on that long ago Easter weekend was born of a fear that lives inside each of us. For who among us has not worried about whether or not there’s going to be enough love for us. That fear lies at the very heart of who we are. Child psychologists describe the phenomenon of fear in children as coming in three basic forms: the fear of falling or failing, the fear of loud noises or catastrophe, and the fear of abandonment. They suggest that at the bottom of all these fears is the fear of death. We human’s are a strange lot, driven by our fears to commit the most outrageous acts. So many of us live lives controlled by our fears, and we wrap ourselves up in the fear that there just won’t be enough love for us; or enough success, or enough money, or enough time. So we become jealous of others, and we grab all the success and all the money we can before time runs out. We allow our fears to drive our emotions and so jealousy, greed and eventually hatred drive our actions and poverty, violence and war come to dominate our world. The fear of death is the primal terror that what awaits us at the end of our journey here is nothing but chaos or even judgement or punishment.

The ancient poet Homer, writing centuries before the birth of Christ, put it quite succinctly, Homer said, “Death is that thing that destroys what we call life and who can remove the terror of it.”

What would it be like, do you suppose, if we could lose our fear of death? What if the dark end of the tunnel that awaits every one of us ceased to be something that we dread and avoid? What if we look upon our death as a portal, the beginning of a new adventure? How would loosing the fear of death impact the way we live?

In a sermon years ago, the great Southern preacher, John Claypool talked about a little known play by Eugene O’Neill entitled, “Lazarus Laughed.” In this play, O’Neill gives us a glimpse of the power of life without fear. The play begins, where the Biblical story of Lazarus leaves off presuming that the audience is very familiar with the biblical story. “Lazarus was dead and buried for four whole days when Jesus came to the village of Bethany, had the stone rolled back from the tomb, and gave Lazarus back the gift of life.

As the curtain goes up, Lazarus is seen stumbling out of the dark, blinking into the sunlight. After the grave clothes are taken off of him, Lazarus begins to laugh a gentle, soft laugh; nothing bitter, nothing derisive, an embracing, astonishing, welcoming sound. The very first thing Lazarus does is to embrace Jesus with gratitude. Then Lazarus begins to embrace his sisters Martha and Mary and then the other people who are gathered about in astonishment. Lazarus has a very clear look in his eye, nothing far away. It’s as if he’s seeing the world about him for the very first time. He reaches over and pats the earth very affectionately. He looks up at the sky, at the trees, at the neighbours as if he had never seen them before, as if he is overwhelmed by the incredible all rightness of the way everything is. The very first words Lazarus utters are the words, “Yes, yes, yes,” as if to embrace reality as it is being discovered all over again.

In the play, Lazarus makes his way back to his house and the whole village of Bethany is awash with wonder. Finally somebody gets the courage to ask what was on everybody’s mind. “Lazarus, tell us what it’s like to die. What lies on the other side of this boundary that none of us have crossed?” At that point, Lazarus begins to laugh even more intensely and then he says, “There is no death, really. There is only life. There is only God. There is only incredible joy.” “Death is not the way it appears from this side. Death is not an abyss into which we go into chaos. “Death is a portal through which we move into everlasting growth and everlasting life.”

Then Lazarus says, “The One that meets us there is the same generosity that gave us our lives in the beginning, the One who gave us our birth. Not because we deserved it but because that generous One wanted us to be and therefore there is nothing to fear in the next realm.”

“The grave is as empty as a doorway is empty. It is a portal through which we move into greater and finer life. Therefore, there is nothing to fear. Our great agenda in this part of life is to learn to accept, to learn to trust. We are here to learn to love more fully. There is only life. There is no death.” And with that Lazarus’ laughter began to fill the whole house in which he was staying. Then, Lazarus goes back to his daily tasks, but there is something different. He is calm and not anxious anymore. He is no longer vulnerable to that fear that diminishes the vitality of life. The house where he lives became known as the “house of laughter” and night after night, you would hear singing and dancing. And the spirit of this one who had come back with this message that there is nothing to fear began to spread throughout the whole little village. The quality of work began to rise all over Bethany. People began to live in harmony and more generously with one another. The conflicts of old died down. Joy settled over this whole little community because someone had come back saying that there was finally nothing to fear.

But, not everyone in Bethany was pleased with this turn of events. The Roman authorities were quick to sense that this one who had lost his fear of death was, in fact, a great threat to the kind of control that they liked to maintain. You realize, of course, that the key to intimidation is always that incipient fear of death. The way a tyrant holds someone down is by always suggesting that if they don’t obey then something terrible, like death, would be used against them. One of the cruelest of all the Roman emperors, a man named Caligula, used to say, “Crosses and corpses are so educational. Let the scum see their blood or the blood of some of their kin and it will so cower them in fear that then we can rule them.”

So the Romans were past masters at intimidation and Lazarus represented a real threat.How do you intimidate someone who is no longer afraid of death? In the play, the Roman authorities move in on Lazarus. They tell him to quit laughing. They tell him his house can no longer be the place for parties and all he does is to laugh all the more. He says clearly, “The truth is, there is nothing you can do to me. There is no death. There is only life.”

The Romans were so frustrated that they arrest him. They take him to Caesarea where he appears before a higher official, but he’s not able to do anything with Lazarus. And so, Lazarus is taken all the way to Rome. The play ends as Lazarus stands face to face with the Roman emperor. Here is the man who is allegedly the most powerful of all on the earth. He says to Lazarus, “You have a choice. You will either stop this infernal laughter right this minute or I’m going to have you put to death.” And Lazarus continues to laugh. He says to the emperor, “Go ahead and do what you will. There is no death. There is only life.”

The play ends with a man who is no longer afraid of death actually being more powerful than the one who ruled all of the Roman empire. (John Claypool, “Easter and the Fear of Death” 1997)

Death is that ancient primal fear that that haunts us and drives us. Death is the mystery that drives us to believe that there’s not enough time, to gather enough love, enough money, or enough power and so we jealously grab all we can so that jealousy, greed, and hatred lead us down the pathway to poverty, violence and war. Death is that thing that destroys life. Who can remove the terror of it?

The good news that the tomb is empty is enough for me. I have no need to see or know a risen corpse. I news that the tomb is empty together with the departure of so many people that I have loved and lost to so many tombs has lead me to believe that life is eternal. And sisters and brothers I do mean eternal in the literal sense; for by definition eternal means that which has no beginning and no end. All to often we forget the no beginning part. Our lives are eternal for we are made of stardust; billions of years old are we. Death will not be the end, but a continuation of the connection we already have with one another and with the Divine. Just as Jesus lived and died in, with, and trough God, so to do we. Jesus died into God and so shall we. Death is not the final word.

Death is a very big word, perhaps one of the biggest, words in our vocabulary, but it is not the most important word; love is. When we live in Love who is God, when we die in Love who is God, death is not the final word; love is. I have no idea what lies beyond death; neither does anyone who has ever lived this side of death. I live in the sure and certain knowledge that the grave is empty. As empty as any grave, or urn, or corpse that I have ever stood by. There is absolutely no point seeking the living among the dead. Anyone who has ever sat beside someone who is dying knows this. For at the very moment of death, the living are gone. The corpse that held them is empty. And yet they live.

They live in our hearts, they live in our minds, and if the love we felt was strong, the actually live in our bodies. The more I learn of science, I am beginning to understand that the live in ways that are beyond my comprehension; for physics teaches us that matter can change its shape and composition and that what was there one minute in one form can change in an instant into another form, in ways that we are scarcely beginning to understand. So, I am confident that the grave is empty.

There’s a parable that I’ve told here before, that I sometimes tell at funerals, but I’ve never told it at Easter and I can’t figure out why. It is a modern parable that captures the notion of eternal life. Like all good parables it bears repeating.

“Once upon a time, twin boys were conceived in the same womb. Seconds and minutes and hours passed by as the two dormant lives developed. The spark of life glowed until it fanned fire with the formation of their embryonic brains. And with their simple brains came feeling and with feeling came perception; a perception of surroundings, of each other, and of self. When they perceived the life of the other and their own life, they knew that life was good. And the fetuses laughed and rejoiced, the one saying: “Lucky are we to have been conceived and to have this world.” And the other fetus chimed in, “Blessed be the mother who gave us life and each other.”

Each budded and grew arms and fingers, lean legs and stubby toes. They stretched their lungs and churned and turned in their newfound world. They explored their new world, and in it found the life cord. They found the life cord that gave them life from the precious mother. And so they sang, “How great is the love of the mother that she shares all she has with us.” And they were pleased and they were satisfied with their lot.

But…weeks passed into months, and with the advent of each new month, they noticed that they were…changing. They noticed that they were…growing older. And each began to see a change in themselves and one said: “We are changing. We are growing. What can this mean?”

“It means,” replied the other, “that we are drawing near to our…to our…birth. We are drawing near to our birth.” And then a chill suddenly crept over the two, and they were both afraid. For they knew that birth meant leaving behind their secure world.

They knew that birth meant going beyond what they knew. Said one to the other, “Were it up to me, I would live here forever. I would stay in this womb forever because I know its safe here.”

“We must be born,” said the other. “It has happened to others who were here before us.” For indeed, there was evidence of life there before, evidence that the mother had born others.

“But might not there be life after birth?” said one to the other.

“Well, how can there be life after birth?” cried the other. Have you ever talked to anyone who has been born? Has anyone ever re-entered the womb after birth? No!!!” He fell into despair and in despair, he moaned, “If the purpose of conception and all growth is that it is to be ended in birth, then truly, this life is pointless.

Resigned to despair, the one stabbed the darkness with his unseeing eyes and he clutched his precious life cord to his chest and said: “If this is so, if I must be born, this life is pointless and there must be no mother after all.”

“But there is a mother,” protested the other. “Who else gave us nourishment in our world?”

“Oh, we get our own nourishment from the womb and our world has always been here, if we look hard enough we will be able to figure out how the womb came to be. Besides if there is a mother, where is she? Have you ever seen her? Does she ever talk to you? No. We just invented the mother because it satisfied a need in us. It made us feel secure and happy.”

Thus, while one raved and despaired, the other resigned himself to birth. He placed his hands in the trust of the mother. Well, hours passed into days and days fell into weeks, and it came time. It came time for them to …be born. And both knew that their…birth was at hand. And both feared what they did not know. And as the one was the first to be conceived, so he was the first to be born. The other followed after. And they cried as they were born out into the light. They coughed up fluid, and they gasped the dry air; and when they were sure that they had been born, they opened up their eyes, and they found themselves cradled in the warm love of the mother. They lay open mouthed, awestruck at the beauty of the mother that they had never seen before.” (Henri Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring (Harper: SanFrancisco, 1994), pp. 19-20)

In Christ, God has promised to each of us the gift of eternal life. All of us managed to survive the trip out of the womb. And today, living in God we can be confident that each of us will also survive the trip out of the tomb. Just as Jesus lived in God and died into God and was raised into God, we too shall be raised for life is eternal.

I can believe the miracle that God, who lies at the very heart of reality, transforms caterpillars into butterflies.
I can believe that ugly old bulbs can become beautiful festive flowers.
I can believe that billion-year-old stardust can become human.
I can believe that every grave, every tomb, every corpse is empty.
So, I believe that there is more, so much more, so very much more that I can know or understand. The tomb is empty!
Let the news that Christ is risen calm your fears!
Death has no power over you!
So, laugh!
Laugh to your hearts content, let God hear you laugh!
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, …
Be not afraid….yes….yes…yes….yes….
Peace be with you….yes….yes…yes….
Life is eternal…..yes….yes…yes…yes…
In the reign of God…there is enough love, enough joy, enough happiness, enough kindness, enough food, enough riches, enough time….yes…yes…yes…yes..
Christ is Risen….
Christ is Risen indeed…Alleluia!
There is no death.
There is only life.
Be not afraid.
Peace be with you.
Yes…yes…yes…yes!

Benediction:

 Christ is Risen…

Christ is Risen indeed…Alleluia!
There is no death is not the end.
There is life.
Be not afraid.
Peace be with you.
Yes…yes…yes…yes!
Go ahead and laugh!
For life is eternal.
Rejoice and be glad in it.
All together, let us laugh in, with and through our amazing God,
Creator, Christ, and Spirit One. Amen.
I am indebted to John Claypool’s sermon from back in 1997 for the story of Eugene O’Neill’s play “Lazarus Laughs” and to Henri Nouwen’s “Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring” for the “Parable of the Twins”.

God Is Dead? – Good Friday Sermon April 18, 2014

time-is-god-deadThis Good Friday sermon was born of the theological struggles our congregations has engaged in over the past few years. It mirrors our theological journey. This year members and friends of our congregation engaged in an “Atheism for Lent” study and so the sermon begins with a parable from an atheist critique of Christianity. I am grateful to the members and friends of Holy Cross Lutheran Church for the courage and wisdom they have shared with one another as together we seek to know the unknowable. You can listen to the audio of the sermon or read the manuscript.

Jesus of Nazareth taught using parables. So, in the shadows of the horrors of the cross, let us turn to a parable; not one of Jesus’ parables, but a modern parable. This parable was first told in 1887. It was reprinted in 1969, in the Time Magazine that bore the iconic “Is God Dead?” cover.

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!” As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed.

The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. “Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling – it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”

It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered various churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: “what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”

This parable first printed in 1882, is known as The Parable of the Mad Man.” It was written by Friderich Nietzsche. One of the characteristics of a parable is that it surprises us with a truth that we already know. God is dead and we have killed him!

Over the years, many of us have been taught to believe that the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the death of God. For those who bore witness to the execution of the Jesus it was a pain to incredible to bear. They had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah; the one anointed to be the heir to King David’s throne, the one who would lead them to victory against the oppressive regime of the Romans. All their hopes and dreams for a future free from the injustices of Roman oppression hung upon that dreadful cross.

In the generations that followed, those who heard the stories of Jesus life and death and saw what Jesus friends and followers had seen in him, recognized that in Jesus they had met someone so open to the spirit of God, that in him they could actually see God. Jesus of Nazareth was for his followers the embodiment of God; or as our friend Dom Crossan insists, to the early followers of the Way, Jesus was what God looked like in a pair of sandals.

It didn’t take long for the leaders of this fledgling movement to develop what we now know as the doctrine of the incarnation and so; most of us learned that upon the cross, God sacrificed himself for us. Sure we learned various versions of this doctrine, but as Western Christians we learned that Jesus was a sacrifice for our sin; or that God in Christ died for our sin. Some of us learned that Jesus was a sacrifice because someone needed to be punished for our sinfulness and Jesus being God’s only Son, was the only one special enough, the only one without sin, who could pay the price for us, so that justice or God could be satisfied. Some of us learned this particular theory of atonement in a kinder and gentler way. Some of us learned that yes indeed we are sinful, and that God had every right to demand justice, but that God is so loving and so kind that God was willing to sacrifice God’s self for us.

So, for years, and years and years, we went to church on Good Friday, and we wept; standing in the shadow of the cross we wept, knowing that we are either wicked or fallen creatures, in bondage to sin, who cannot free ourselves, and that upon that cross Christ died to save us from our sinful nature, or that God himself died for us. For generations, Christians have gathered on Good Friday to mourn the death of Jesus, confident that upon the cross God died for us and for our salvation.

As biblical scholarship began to challenge our assumptions and more and more of us began to learn about the history of the events of the execution of Jesus of Nazareth, the various doctrines of atonement began to sound hollow to some, and downright sadomasochistic to many. How could a God whose name is love, demand such an awful price?

Over the past few decades preachers and theologians began to relieve God of the awful blame for this sacrifice as we used what we were learning about the matrix of history that give rise to that cross. So, Good Friday sermons began to turn to the historically based notion that Jesus died upon the cross not as a sacrifice for our sinfulness but as a result of our violent nature. We looked to the death of Jesus of Nazareth to move us beyond violence so that we might begin to achieve our salvation by enacting justice as a means to peace. So, we gathered beneath the shadows of the cross to remember the horrible consequences of our violence and to give thanks for the life and death of Jesus in whom we saw the power of God’s love to put an end to violence. That Jesus was willing to live into God’s love in such powerful ways as to embody that love, and live that love even if it meant dying for that love, opened us to a new way of living in which we too might begin to embody the love of God.

So, where the first mourners saw their hoped for Messiah dying up there on the Cross and generations to come saw the Son of God being sacrificed for sin, or God himself graciously dying on our behalf, for the past few decades many of us have come to church on Good Friday and seen the power of God embodied in a life that would risk everything, even death on a cross, rather than take up arms against another, so that love might be demonstrated to be more powerful than death. Regardless of our theologies, somebody died up there on that cross and so we wept.

Recently, it has become more and more difficult for many of us to come to church on Good Friday; or on any day for that matter. For so many of our neighbours, friends and families, God is indeed dead; killed not upon the cross but sacrificed upon the altars of reality. Some of us have experienced this death of God as our knowledge of the creation has taken us to places our ancestors never dreamed possible. God is dead.

The Father-god, the Sky-god, God the grand puppeteer in the sky, who watches over us like a kindly shepherd, and listens to us, and interferes on our behalf, and judges us, forgives us and longs to welcome us into heaven, but is willing to let us languish in hell if need be. God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth is dead. And so a few of us come to church on Good Friday grieving the loss of the God we had personified, worshipped and adored. But many more of us stay away from church because we just can’t bear to be dragged back into that old, old story because we have long since stopped believing that God is a person up there, or out there, sure we can manage to deal with church on the average Sunday, but all that talk of sacrifice and the images of the blood spilt and the guilt that is inflicted, well Good Friday is just too much. And millions more of us, couldn’t care less because that old guy in the sky has long since died in our hearts and in our minds. God is dead and we have killed him!!! “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

For those of us gathered here in this place, on this particular Good Friday, the death of the personified god is all too familiar. I don’t know about you, but as I look upon the cross today, tears come, because in so many ways I really miss the personified god who used to walk, with me and talk with me, and tell me I was his own. I long to return to the garden alone. I long to embrace the God of grace, the God of love that did indeed save me. So, today, on this Good Friday as I gaze upon the cross, I see what the first followers of Jesus saw, I see the death of the long hoped for Messiah, I see the death of Jesus, the one who sounded like he knew how to save us from oppression and usher in God’s reign of peace through justice.

I also see upon the cross, my own sinful nature. Oh, I don’t believe that I was created or born sinful. I know that I am an evolving creature, incomplete and I look to Jesus to see a way of evolving into a creature who put love above all else. But I can see upon the cross my own incompleteness, and my own willfulness, my own selfishness, and I can also see my own violent urges, and I can see all that multiplied as my sisters and brothers, neighbours, friends and enemies in their incompleteness lash out at one another, or choose greed, hatred and violence over love. So, I look upon the cross and I see the death of Love.

But I also look upon the cross and see the death of the god we have personified and there is pain in that particular death; pain I am only beginning to see the contours of. God is dead; the Father God, the Sky God, the kindly Shepherd that I was counting on to make me lie down in green pastures, is dead. So, on this Good Friday in addition to the horror of Jesus execution, on top of all the suffering of my sisters and brothers, and for the violence that we cannot seem to escape, in addition to all of that I weep for the death of the god we have personified. The Father God, the Sky God, God Almighty is dead and we have killed him; sacrificed him on the altars of reality. Our science, technology, philosophy, history, and our theologies have killed this personified deity that we both feared and adored. The Roman legions have been replaced by Niectzche, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Dom Crossan, Jack Spong and a whole host of others who have hammered nails into the grand puppeteer in the sky. And so, gazing upon the cross, I weep, because we have lost something that we loved so dearly.

We have moved on to a more enlightened understanding of reality that does not include a person up there or out there . God is dead and we have killed him. The pain of that death is almost too much for me to bear. But I look upon that cross knowing that death will not have the final word. Death could not take Jesus from us. We know that despite humanity’s most violent efforts, the cross could not take Jesus from us and that death did not win. Jesus lives.is-god-dead-coming-back-to-life

So, if death could not take Jesus from us, death cannot take God from us. Just
because we have outgrown believing that our personification of God is actually God does not meant that the reality that we personified can be overcome by death. We personify all sorts of things, and just because we stop personifying them doesn’t mean they disappear. We personify hurricanes but whether we think of them as Katrina or Andrew, we cannot destroy them simply by refusing to personify them; the force of a hurricane lives beyond our personification of that force. And while we grieve the loss of our Father, we know that death cannot take God from us anymore than death could hold Jesus captive in the grave. Jesus lives beyond death in ways that his first followers could never have dreamed or imagined.

Our God, the One who lies at the very heart of reality will not be destroyed by the death of our various personifications of God which have always fallen short of who and what God IS. Let our lament of the loss of the one we personified, worshipped, feared and adored, let that lament move us beyond our grief over the loss of the God we thought we knew, so that we can open ourselves to encounters with the One WHO IS WAS AND EVER MORE SHALL BE, the HOLY ONE who lives and moves and has Being in, with, through, and beyond us. Let our lament move us beyond the grave, which will prove to be empty. Gazing upon the cross, we weep for all the pain and sorrow that this evolving life in the world brings. Gazing upon the cross, we weep for the loss of innocence that comes to us all. Gazing upon the cross, we weep for the deaths of all those who came in the name of the ONE who is Love. Gazing upon the cross, we weep to mourn the death of God.

But we do not grieve as ones without hope. For we know that death will not have the final word. We know that when all is said and done, the grave can never, ever keep our God who is Love from us. God is dead for we have killed him. But what is death? We know that in Christ, death is not the end. Our God waits to burst forth from the tomb.

So, let us grieve as ones who have hope. Let us keep watch and wait, wait for the one who is beyond our abilities to imagine. Let us open ourselves to the endless possibilities of the ONE who lives beyond life, beyond death, beyond us. Let us open ourselves trusting that the One who lives beyond us will once again move, in, with, through, and among us as we too live into LOVE. Amen.

Parable of the Madman, Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.]

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Marching in the Wrong Parades – A Palm Sunday Sermon

A sermon preached a few years ago after having reading “The Last Week” by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg and “Jesus for the Non-Religious” by John Shelby Spong. These two books are invaluable tools for anyone presuming to preach during Holy Week!

I love a parade. So, I find the details of the parade on that we celebrate today fascinating. In their book:  The Last Week, New Testament scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, point out that the parade that heralded Jesus entry into Jerusalem wasn’t the largest or most spectacular parade in town during that particular Passover season.

Back then, Jerusalem was a destination hotspot—a tourist town. The city’s population swelled from 40,000 to 200,000 during the holidays and Passover was one of the busiest holidays. Crossan and Borg point out that there were two processions into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. One, we know well and commemorate today with the waving of palm branches. We remember a peasant riding a donkey, accompanied by his peasant followers coming from the north into Jerusalem. 

Also entering Jerusalem at Passover, from the west, was the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Like the Roman governors of Judea before him, Pilate lived in Caesarea by the sea. In other words, Pilate spent most of his time at his beach house. But with crowds of devout Jews flowing into Jerusalem to commemorate their liberation from Egypt, the Roman Governors would put on a display of force, to deter the Jews from getting too exuberant about the possibility of liberation from Rome.  Pilate’s procession was the visible manifestation of Imperial Roman power. Once a year, during the Passover, the Roman procurator moved his headquarters to Jerusalem in a show of strength designed to prevent any outbreaks of insurgency or violent rebellion against Roman rule. Such outbreaks were a constant danger, both because Roman rule imposed real hardship economically on their subject nations, and because, no one likes the foot of a foreign power on their necks. In a show of military force, the second parade included, “cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.”

The sound of “marching feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums” would have had a sobering effect on all those who saw this parade. There would have been no shouts of Hosanna as the powerful Pilate rode astride of his horse, hoping to strike fear into the resentful onlookers.  As Pilate lead a regiment of his own most trusted soldiers into town; as a show of force, he did so with confidence knowing that he was backed up by several battalions of Rome’s finest garrisoned on the west side of Jerusalem ready to flood into the city at Pilate’s command.

The Gospel according to Mark, written some 50 years after the event, tells us that Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was not a spontaneous, slap-dash, spur-or-the-moment event. In fact Mark, the first Gospel to be written, spends more time telling us about the preparations for Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem than about the event itself. It would seem Jesus wanted intentionally to set himself in stark contrast with the other procession coming into town.  According to Mark, the event was a sort of counter-procession, designed to contrast the kingdom of Rome to the dominion of God. According to the first account, Jesus assigned two disciples to the job of acquiring a colt. It’s an odd clandestine mission that Jesus gives to his two disciples. At the entrance of a village, they are told they will see the animal tied up. They are instructed to untie the donkey and bring it back; and if anyone questions their actions, they are to offer the oblique explanation that their master has need of it. Oh, and by the way, the animal has never been ridden before. The disciples do as they are told, find the colt and they are indeed questioned as to why they, two strangers, are making off with someone else’s animal. They bring the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on this unbroken colt and Jesus sat on it.  Jesus simply sat on the back of a previously un-ridden colt.

Now by the time the writer of Luke gets around to telling the story, some 60 or 70 years after the event, the colt is a donkey.

Matthew written 60 or 70 years after the event, can’t seem to decide so that gospel has the disciples bring a donkey and a colt and Jesus sits on them and rides them into Jerusalem. So, is it any wonder that the folks might have been slightly impressed with Jesus’ abilities?  They spread their cloaks on the road and some lay leafy branches on the road. According to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew these are just any old leafy branches.  Luke doesn’t have any branches at all.

By the time you get to the Gospel of John written some 70 to 80 years after the event, the leafy branches are named as branches of palm trees. Now lest you think I’m nit picking, there’s a point to any old branches verses palm branches. Waving palm branches was the way that conquering military leaders were welcomed home from battle. The Gospel of John hints that Jesus is a conquering hero, when the earlier gospels seem to be setting up this particular parade as an ironic antithesis to a military parade.

So, what really happened, all those years ago? Well, our friend Jack Spong seems to think that the followers of Jesus were interpreting their memories of the Jesus experience through the lenses of their own Jewish traditions.  In his  book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, Jack points out that at the time of the Passover there wouldn’t have been any leafy branches about. Jerusalem at that time of year would have had leafless trees. Except of course for the only tree that keeps its leaves; the evergreen of the desert: the palm tree.

Scholars agree that it is entirely possible that the death of Jesus took place not at the time of the Passover, but rather at the festival of Sukkoth, one of the most popular festivals of the Jewish calendar. Sukkoth is the harvest festival. It is also known as the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths. This holiday, which also attracted huge numbers of pilgrims to Jerusalem, would have also required Pilate to exhibit a show of force. It was probably the most popular holiday among the Jews in the first century. There are some very telling features of the festival that suggest that the crucifixion did not actually occur during the Passover.

In the observance of Sukkoth, worshippers processed through Jerusalem and in the temple, waving in their right hands something called a lulab, which was a bunch of leafy branches made of willow, myrtle and palm. As they waved these branches in that procession, the worshippers recited words from Psalm 118, the psalm normally reserved for Sukkoth. Among those words were:  “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord.”  “Save us” in Hebrew is hosianna or hosanna. That phrasing was typically followed with the words: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Jack Spong and a good many other theologians point to the book of the prophet Zechariah. The prophet quoted by the gospel writers when they tell the story of Palm Sunday.  “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!  Lo, your King comes to you; triumphant and victories is he humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.”

Jack, insists that the Gospel writers were trying to make sense out of the crucifixion and did so through the lens of their own Jewish scriptures and traditions. Jesus may well have participated in the festival of Sukkoth before the crucifixion. Those events were spoken of down through the decades until in the hands of the gospel writers, they were reinterpreted to portray Jesus as the messiah, the one the people were waiting for.  Jesus was not just some political rabble-rouser who was executed by the Romans for provoking an insurgency. Jesus is reinterpreted as the longed for Messiah as foretold by the Prophet and the story is reset during the Passover to portray Jesus as the new Moses, sent to deliver his people from the hands of their oppressors.

The historical details are impossible to sort some two centuries after the events. Reading the accounts literally is also impossible; that is unless you are willing to leave your brain out of the equation; and picture Jesus riding a colt and a donkey, both of whom have never been ridden before. What is important is that the gospel writers wanted to give their readers an impression of who Jesus was using words and images that that they would understand because they came straight out of the Jewish scriptures and traditions.  What we must not do is read these stories outside of their own context. To do so is to run the risk, that Christianity has fallen prey to over and over again down through the centuries that has labeled our Jewish brothers and sisters as the killers of Christ and punished them mercilessly.

So, what are we 21st century Christians to do with the Palm Sunday?  Well, it seems to me that no matter how you look at the story of this amazing procession into Jerusalem, you can’t help but see the image of a Jesus who offers us a choice between two parades. The attraction of the power and the might of Pilate’s military parade with all its glory and wonder is still there to tempt us.      The temptation to use force and violence, military might, nuclear deterrence, shock and awe, is still marching its way into the hearts and minds of so many people.

The pathways to glory still beckon. Power and might, greed and violence attract more attention and more converts than the path less traveled: Jesus versus Pilate, the nonviolence of the dominion of God versus the violence of the empire.

Two arrivals, two entrances, two processions—and all too often we find ourselves in the wrong parade. The world is full of parades, or as we might more frequently say, full of “bandwagons.” Sometimes it’s really difficult to know which parade to join, which bandwagon to hop on. It’s so easy and so tempting to join the wrong ones and so hard, sometimes, to get in the right procession.

It’s so easy to simply get caught up in the enthusiasm of the crowds and join the processions which has the loudest brass bands or the most elaborate floats or the greatest number of celebrities or the most charismatic leaders. It’s easy to miss the counter-procession that is taking place on the other side of town—the one where Jesus is riding on a humble donkey, claming a dominion, not by violence, but by courageous loving, serving and accepting his place among the victims of imperial power. In so doing, for those with the eyes of faith to see it, Jesus bears witness to the futility of the world’s kind of power in establishing god’s peace, God’s shalom, and points Christ’s followers to a different way. The dominion of God is nothing remotely like the kingdoms or empires with which we are all too familiar. Power does not come from domination or oppression, but rather flows from love and service. Leadership requires servanthood and grace. Peace is won without sword, and person claims greater value than another. While Pontius Pilate processed into town with a showcase of intimidating muscle and glinting armor astride a noble steed, Jesus processed unarmed, unflanked, on the back of a borrowed burro.

Holy Week reminds us how easily we are distracted and fooled by fancier parades and promises.

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OMG: God Is Beyond Cause and Effect – a sermon for Lent 4A – John 9:1-41

When I was a child, the word God was one of those words that adults either used in vain or in hushed tones. Outbursts of anger always included the word God. Strange and mysterious circumstances often resulted in the word God being used in hushed tones. I remember the very first movie I was ever taken to see. Bambi may have been a Disney movie, but when the shot that killed Bambi’s mother rang out, as far as my mother was concerned, I broke one of the ten commandments when I shouted, “Oh my God.” Mom warned me that when we got home there would be dire consequences for this offence  which confused me to no end, because before the movie began, they did what they always did in back in the 1960’s, they played, “God save the Queen” as we all stood to attention. God’s name been sung out incurred no dire consequences.

When I was little the words of “God save the Queen” mystified me. Not because the words are particularly mystifying, but because I heard them through the ears of a child. “God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen.” I had absolutely no idea what gracious or noble meant, but our Queen, who always managed to cause an argument whenever she was mentioned in Belfast, our Queen was both gracious and noble. “Send her victorious”, that was the queen’s name: “Victorious” “Send her victorious, long to reignoverus.” I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was that the queen did that was so bad that everybody wanted to send her all the way to a place called reignoverus. Whatever it was, this horrible thing, it was so bad that only God could save her. Poor old Victorious.

Words are strange things, capable of transcending time and space. Words are marvellous things, capable of transmitting wondrous ideas. Words are fascinating and I’ve spent most of my life loving words for all the marvellous things that they can teach me. But as a lover of words who makes her living using words to communicate about marvellous things, I know all to well the limitations of words. The Gospel of John, begins with words, they are the same words that the Book of Genesis begins with, “In the Beginning”. In Genesis the words are: “In the beginning God created.” In the Gospel of John the words are: “In the beginning was the Word”. The words in both of those phrases fail to capture the wonders that their authors are trying to express. These words can only hint at the images that lay beyond them. But these words do have the power to give us incredible hints of the wonders they struggle to express. If only we have ears to hear them, and eyes to see. Sadly, some of us never get past the words themselves. We see only what lies upon the surface of these words. All too often, we remain blind to the marvelous images that lie beyond the words. And for those of us who are fortunate to catch a glimpse of those marvelous images, we spend our days trying to find other words and images to reflect the wonders we have seen.

It is no small thing that the writer of the Gospel of John chooses familiar words to begin his attempt to capture the light, which he or she has seen. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was present to God from the beginning. Through the Word all things came into being, and apart from the Word nothing came into being that has come into being. In the Word was life, and that life was humanity’s light—a Light that shines in the darkness, a Light that the darkness cannot overcome” mysterious words about the Word that lies at the very heart of existence. The writer of the Gospel of John isn’t fooling around, this is serious, mysterious business. The writer has something important to say, something that can only be heard if the listeners, or the readers harkens back to the very beginning, something so important that only the Words of Genesis will suffice to convey its magnitude. If you have ears to hear and eyes to see, you will notice the words of Genesis permeating the words of the Gospel as it is recorded in John, words of Genesis carefully designed to help the listener and the hearer to harken back to they mysteries revealed in the words of Genesis.

So, when we hear or read the story about Jesus healing the blind, we would do well to look beyond the surface of the words so that we can see what is being said. There are all sorts of things I could tell you about the collection of words in chapter nine of the Gospel according to John. I could begin by telling you about the way the author groups together the various events into sevens to reflect the seven days of creation. These seven signs that Jesus performs coupled with the seven I AM statements Jesus makes add up to one thing and one thing only in the ancient mind. 7 + 7 = One, just as surely as you have two eyes in your head to see with. Jesus is the One.

There are all sorts of Words in this Gospel according to John that harken back to Genesis, but for now let’s just look at one group of words in particular. In this elaborate tale of this particular sign, Jesus begins by declaring one of the weaver of this tales seven great, “I AM” statements. “I AM the light of the world.” You will remember of course that according to Genesis, God’s first words are? “Let there be light.”

But the weaver of the tale according to John goes one very giant step farther than Genesis. This Jesus you see is not just your garden variety of light. (pardon the pun) This Jesus is the kind of light no darkness can over come. You’ll recall that in the tale told in Genesis, the Creator of all that is, reaches down into the dirt of the earth, grabs a handful of the dust of the earth to create an earth creature. From the dirt of the earth God creates them in God’s image, male and female, these clumps of dirt creatures. God breathes life into the earth so that we might live. So Jesus reaches down into the dirt of the earth, grabs a handful of mud and smears it on the blindness of one of these earth creatures so that we might open our eyes and see.

“I AM the light of the world. Open your eyes and see!” What is it that the weaver of this tale wants us to see in Jesus? Are we to see a miracle, or are we to see beyond the pictures that the words paint, beyond the images of the miraculous to the One who IS the great I AM?

Even as a child staring up at the screen, I knew there was so much more to what I was seeing than meets the eyes. “Oh, My, God.” If Bambi’s mother could die, my Mom could die. “Oh, My, God.” Even in Disney there’s more than meets the eye. So, why is it that when it comes to the words of scripture, we all too often limit our view to what meets our eyes upon the surface of the words. Why do we create an image of God, based on the surface of things? Why do we seem content to be Pharisees? “Who sinned? The one born blind or the parents of the one born blind?” That’s an important question if your image of God is based on what meets the eye. But for those who have eyes to see, there’s so much more than meets the eye. For those of us content with what the eye can see, there needs to be a culprit. Cause and effect need to be identified. So, we create an Insidious Idol to worship as our God. In our idolatry, we insist that this idol of our must exact justice as if it were a commodity to be bartered on the altar of life. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, until the whole world is blind.” And yet in the Gospel according to John, we hear Jesus insist that it’s not about sin.

Let those who have ears listen to the words: “It wasn’t because of anyone’s sin—not this persons’ nor the parents’. Rather, it was to let God’s works shine forth in this person. We must do the deeds of the One who sent me while it is still day—for night is coming, When no one can work. While I Am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Now before you go drawing an image of God that makes people blind so that others can see God. Let me stop you. Let me stop you with the words of Meister Eckhart: “How long will grown men and women in this world keep drawing in their colouring books an image of God that makes them sad?” Surely any God worth worshipping would not be so cruel as to inflict actual physical blindness. Remember this is a story created to shed light. The point is not that that someone was born blind, the point is that we are to give up looking for cause and effect. The point is that our God cannot be imagined as a God of cause and effect. Our God is beyond cause and effect.

The point is that we are to do the work of God here and now; that we are to let the light that is God shine through us. The God of cause and effect demands that we pay up. But how do we pay? The debt has been painted as a vast hole into which we have dug ourselves, so deep that we can never get out. We can’t see the light from the darkness of the pit we are in. Meister Eckhart describes the cause and effect idol that we worship as nothing more than a Merchant, demanding a steep price. He insists: “The masses become shackled; I see how their eyes weep and are desperate—of course they feel desperate—for something, some remedy, that poor soul then feels it needs to be bough.” Says Eckhart: “I find nothing more offensive than a god who could condemn human instincts in us that time in all its wonder have made perfect. Eckhart finds, “nothing more destructive to the well-being of life than to support a god that makes you feel unworthy and in debt to it.” He goes on to imagine, “erecting churches to such a strange god will assure endless wars that commerce loves.” “A god that could frighten is not a god—but an insidious idol and weapon in the hands of the insane.” Eckhart insists that, “A god who talks of sin is worshipped by the infirm.” He claims, “I was once spiritually ill—we all pass through that – but one day the intelligence in my soul cured me.”

Let those with eyes see beyond the surface of the words. Beyond the image, the idol of our own making, beyond the mere cause and effect god, who inhabits our idolatry to the one who is was and ever more shall be, the great I AM. “When I was a child, I thought like a child, I spoke like a child, but the time has come to put away childish things.”

The time has come to open our eyes and to see beyond the surface. To see deep into the heart of the mystery that is our God. Let’s colour outside the lines. Let’s draw an image of God that appears as a result of the beauty that surrounds us. Reach down into creation, grab some of the stuff of the earth, rub it into your eyes if you have to, so that you can see. See that God is God and not the image, the idol of your making, but God, beyond words, beyond images, beyond idols, God is God.

Let there be light. Let the light shine. For in the words of Meister Eckhart: “It is your destiny to see as God sees, to know as God knows to feel as God feels. How is this possible? How?” Open your eyes and see.

Eckhart puts it this way. “the greatest gift God can give is God’s own experience. Every object, every creature, every man, woman, and child has a soul and it is the destiny of all, to know as God knows, to feel as God feels, to Be as God IS.” Open your eyes and see. Stop colouring images of God that are too small. Begin to draw outside the lines. And when your done. Begin again.

God is in the very fabric of creation. So open your eyes, look around, learn and know God. For you will see God in creation, and in God’s creatures. In the faces of your sisters and brothers you will see God It is here and now that we will see and learn and know our God. Let those with eyes see. Let those who have been blind be healed. Let there be light. Let that light shine through you.

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To Be LOVE in the World: a sermon for Lent 3A – John 4:1-42

Readings: Thomas Aquinas “EMBRACE THAT” found here
St. Teresa of Avila “DESIRE YOU” found here
Gospel of John 4:1-42 found here
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:

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Tickled By the Racy Svetlana; Otherwise Known as the Woman Evangelist Who Rocked Jesus’ World! – a sermon Lent 3A on John 4:1-42

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.

But before I begin, let’s take care of a big problem in this story. The writer of the Gospel of John, left out an important detail that makes it difficult to tell this story. Now even though there are more than a few scholars who believe that the writer of the Gospel of John was actually a woman, the truth is we don’t actually know who wrote any of the Gospels. But, based on the stories and the type of Greek with which they are written, scholars have determined that the Gospel of John was written near the end of the first century or the beginning of the second. So, that puts somewhere between the years 90 and 110. Most of the stories included in the Gospel of John were put there to speak to the Christian community that was evolving at the turn of the first century. Life was tough for women during these days, so if this Gospel was written by a woman, you can bet that she would have had to masquerade as a man just to get beyond the seriously vicious and dangerous religious types who would not have stood idly by while a woman told a tale as outrageous as this. But I digress.

Lets get back to the problem of this story. Whoever wove this tale, she neglected to tell us the name of the protagonist. The story teller has left us scrambling for a name and so we call the protagonist, “the woman at the well” or “the Samaritan woman,” and even though as the story unfolds she turns out to be the first evangelist, we never call her “the woman evangelist.” So, I’d like to suggest that we do what the Orthodox Christians have been doing for centuries and make up a name for this woman. In the Orthodox Church she is known as St. Phonitina, which means “bearer of light.” In the Russian Orthodox church she is Svetlana which is Russian for “Light Bearer,” and she is celebrated as equal to the Apostles: Svetlana the First Evangelist. Now that’s a name, but why don’t we just call her Lana for short. Lana makes me think of Lana Turner that vivacious movie star from the 1950’s who positively oozed sex. Lana is a great name for this racy Samaritan woman that Jesus encounters at the well; this racy woman who rocks Jesus world!

Well, well, well, well, well, were do we begin. Jesus was traveling from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north and most self-respecting Jews would have gone the extra miles to avoid Samaria all together, but not Jesus, no, he just had to go into that God forsaken place. Why, every good Jew knew that Samaritans were good for nothing half-breeds! Ever since the majority of the Hebrew people were carried off into captivity, leaving the few Hebrews that were left behind to get mixed up with the locals and before you knew it they were marrying one another and corrupting the true faith, insisting that it was okay to worship God on Mt. Horeb near their capital rather than making the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. So by the time the Hebrews returned from captivity in Babylon, why the Samaritans had adopted so many different ways of worshipping that the two of them just couldn’t get along. Before long, good self-respecting Jews were avoiding Samaritans like the plague. But not Jesus, oh no, he ended up right smack dab in the middle of Samaria in the heat of the noonday sun! And at the site of a well not less.

Now you’ve gotta remember that in Jewish history when a man pays a visit to a well, a woman is sure to appear. Ever since Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac and Rebekah waltzed onto the scene, wells have functioned as a sort of pickup joint for the hero’s of the faith. After all, Jesus doesn’t just end up at any well, no, this is Jacob’s well! Maybe not the same well where Jacob met the lovely and beguiling Rachel and was so moved by her charms that, “Jacob kissed Rachel and wept out loud.” That sure must have been some kiss, because Jacob spent years and years on a quest for more of Rachel’s’ kisses. Who can forget that the great Moses himself, he too, met his true love Zipporah at a well. Surely Jesus would have known the significance of hanging out in such a place, in the heat of the noonday sun. I can tell you that the first time this story was ever told, not a person there would have been surprised that a woman showed up.

O sure, that a woman showed up that late in the day may a have caused a few eyebrows to raise. After all, what kind of a woman does her chores in the heat of the noonday sun? Somebody who clearly wants to be alone that’s who! So there you have it, Jesus the would be messiah shows up at an ancient pickup joint, and a woman who “vants to be alone” shows up; and not just any woman but a woman who belongs to a race that is the sworn enemy of the Jewish people; a Samaritan woman. And Jesus, the would be Messiah, strikes up a conversation with this woman.

Now you and I might not be able to relate to these ancient taboos, because after all, we’re Christians, good upstanding church-going Christians. So, just try to imagine some of our own taboos and you might just begin to understand the scandalous nature of this encounter. Just imagine, if you will the sleaziest bar in town. Forget it! There isn’t a bar sleazy enough in Newmarket. So, head down to the city and imagine some sleazy joint and you look over and who do you see but Stephen Harper (our Prime Minister) and, I don’t know, say, Miley Cyrus. They’re sittin there all cozy like…. chatting like there’s no tomorrow! Whadda ya think Harper’s handlers would think of that?

So, now, back to Jesus and the woman at the well; now their conversation may not seem like very much to you but it is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the New Testament; and what a conversation! Jesus asks this woman for a drink of water. Now, this may not sound like much of a pickup line to you, but back in Jesus’ day this was pretty risqué stuff! According to one respected Jewish scholar, first century custom dictated that if a man asked a woman for a drink of water he was actually asking for a relationship and if the woman gave the man a drink of water then that man and that woman would be bound together for no less than a whole year! If on the other hand, the woman told the man to get the water for himself, then they were never to speak again. Well, not our woman of the well, no our well-woman takes the measure of Jesus, and demands to know: “How is it that you, a Jewish man, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And Jesus answers her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given living water.”

Well, our well-woman has been around the block a time or two and she knows a line when she hears one. She’s come across more than a few men who’ve tried to convince here that they are God’s gift! So, she puts this guy Jesus in his place: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” But Jesus isn’t about to give up, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Well, then, if that’s what he’s offering, our well-woman calls his bluff she says to Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

A little harmless repartee you say? Well I don’t think so! You’re forgetting perhaps that Jesus was a rabbi and rabbi’s in Jesus day just didn’t talk to a woman, any woman in public! Back then, rabbi’s were affectionately known as “the Bleeders” because they often went so far as to cover their eyes in public so as not to even see a woman, and they kept bumping into things and were often covered in bruises. And this wasn’t just any woman, this woman was a Samaritan for heaven’s sake! It was a violation for a Jew to speak with a Samaritan and for a Jewish rabbi it was unthinkable. This woman wasn’t just any Samaritan woman, this woman came to the well in the heat of the day, to avoided the other women of her town. This woman “vanted to be alone” cause she was the talk of the town! Jesus is breaking the socially accepted dividing walls. Our well-woman knows that Jesus is breaking all the rules!

Jesus turns the table on her. No longer are we talking about her giving him a glass of water from the well, now we’re talking about living water. Living water would have been a well known luxury of the day, something that Rabbis had and common folk didn’t; Living water was the common name for oxygenated water prized for its health giving purity, sorta the ancient version of Perrier. Jewish law required the use of Living water for ritual cleansings. This woman was drawing water from a stagnant well and this rabbi Jesus is offering her living water; moving water, the water that was found deep below the reach of the well’s walls. It was the best most refreshing water of all. And this rabbi doesn’t even have a bucket to draw water with.

But before she can even taste this water, Jesus changes the subject. “Go, call your husband, and come back.” Sounds like he’s fishing. “But I have no husband.” Says our well woman. “you are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” Our well-woman says to Jesus, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” Now, stop right there, don’t believe a word you’ve been told about this woman! Sure she’s a woman of the world, sure she’s been around the block a time or two, but don’t go thinking that just because she’s had five husbands, that that makes her some sort of immoral woman. First of all women of her day could not divorce their husbands. Only men could divorce. A WOMAN COULD NOT DIVORCE A MAN. In Semitic cultures, a man could just throw his wife out if she displeased him and then take another wife. Jewish law was just a tad more enlightened than Semitic culture, a husband had to declare three times in public: I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you…before taking another wife. Jewish law then demanded that at the very least a husband had to provide a writ of divorce so that the woman could remarry. Without that option, in a society were women had little or no rights, she would have been in very desperate straits, a divorced woman could try to go back to her family, she could beg, or she could prostitute herself in order to survive. But Jesus doesn’t even say that this woman was divorced, only that she has had five husbands. Perhaps her husbands died. Widows back then were always encouraged to remarry. In fact the Romans went so far as to make it illegal for widowed women to remain single (they wanted children for the Empire). Jesus tells her that the man she is living with is not her husband. Don’t go there! For all we know she may have been living with her father or her brother…Jesus didn’t say a word about sex…but that’s right where most people go with this. “Aha”, they say, “Living in sin was she?” Of course she was living in sin; aren’t we all! Besides, Jesus seems unconcerned about sin in this conversation. He never accuses her, not even once. Nor does he tell her to repent. We have absolutely no evidence that this woman was anything but the most morally upstanding individual. What we do have are a lot of labels and stereotypes. First of all she was a woman alone in public. She was a Samaritan; a member of a different religion. She’d been married a few times. She talked to strange men. Sure, she’s not the type of person that your average rabbi would be striking up a conversation with. But then, Jesus isn’t your average rabbi. Jesus is the kind of Rabbi that pushes the boundaries and tears down walls.

Jesus’ behavior scandalized his own disciples! According to our story, “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” But they didn’t dare to ask why? It’s funny really, when you think about it. These uptight righteous dudes, scandalized by Jesus’ because he dares to fraternize with a woman at a well know pick-up joint. These guys need to lighten up. They need to learn to laugh at themselves. Cause if you don’t laugh you’d cry. Cry at the self-centered, outrageously uptight, rule obsessed nature of their behavior. The story-teller has woven together a tale that pokes fun at the seriousness with which these guys take themselves. It reminds me of all those jokes about rabbis who go into bars. We tend to laugh at jokes that point out how ridiculous we are. But were so busy taking ourselves and our religion seriously that we’ve missed the punch line. Jesus himself, is undone by our vivacious Lana, who waltzed up to the bar and distracted our rabbi with her loveliness and before you know it our rabbi is going home with the lovely Lana. We could all do with a little lightening up. Go on have a little drink, relax, enjoy yourselves. Life is serious enough! We all need to unwind from time to time and just enjoy the absurdities of life, learn to laugh at ourselves.

Laughter works like a tonic. Laughter is good for the soul. So, don’t tense up, when God comes by to tickle you. Relax and let yourself be tickled. Remember the words 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 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.”

Lighten up. Don’t take yourselves so seriously. Smile. Giggle, Laugh!!! Enjoy! Surely laughter emanates from the Spirit who is LOVE.

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A Little Self-Involved? Try Looking Outward!

a sermon for Lent 2A, John 3:1-17

When I was just a kid, I had what can best be described as an adolescent crush on a teacher. Looking back on it now, I’d have to say that I fell head over heels in love with my teacher. It was the kind of love that only a 13 year-old girl could have; so intense and all consuming. I came to believe that this teacher was the wisest, kindest, most interesting person in all the world. This teacher knew more than anyone else, especially my parents. This teacher was cooler, funnier, more daring and definitely more in tune with my life than anyone I had ever met. I was convinced that if I could only be just like this teacher would mean that I too would be cooler, funnier, more daring and definitely more in tune with life. So, like most adolescent girls who are suffering from a crush I became obsessed with this teacher. I was young and I was in love, and like most thirteen year-old’s the I was convinced that the world revolved around me, so I set about pursuing my passion. This teacher taught English, so naturally, I decided that when I grew up I too would teach English. This teacher loved poetry, so I too became passionate about poetry.

One day this teacher announced that we could gain extra-credit if we wanted to enter a local poetry writing contest; and even though I was pretty sure that year I’d be getting a mark that would be somewhat better than an A, I began to write poetry. I was very serious about my poetry writing.  I carried a pad of paper with me everywhere I went, and I began to ruminate about my life. I don’t remember any of those early attempts to wax poetical, but I do remember that each and every one of those poems was about me; me and my life, me and my unrequited love, me and my passion, me and the horrible way that no one paid much attention to me. Me, Me, Me, Me, it was all about me.

As the time drew near for us to submit our poetry to the competition, my teacher announced that there would be a special class after school, so that those of us who were planning to enter the competition could get some feedback on our efforts. So, by the end of the week, I would have to choose one of my great works for feedback. I spent hours pouring over one poem in particular. Tinkering with the words, trying to get things just right. I was so very proud of the final draft. I’d carefully copied it out on to a crisp piece of foolscap. Arranged the letters in the middle of the page so that they looked just so. I could hardly wait for school to be over so that I could rush to see what comments my beloved teacher had placed in the margin. There were barely a handful of us who stayed after school.

Looking back on that scene, we were a nerdy little crew. I was positively breathless as my teacher handed my offering back to me. To this day, I can’t remember a single line of my great work, but I can tell you word for ward what was scribbled in red in the margin of the ever so white foolscap. “A little self-involved, try looking outward.” I was devastated. How could anyone be so cruel? I’d poured my heart out only to have it stomped on by the indifference of truth.

The story of Nicodemus evokes in me the painful memory of that little girl, who star-struck by a gifted teacher, fell hopelessly in love and couldn’t see past her own obsessions to recognize the content of her teacher’s wisdom. Nicodemus was a Pharisee an observant religious man, a member of the powerful Sanhedrin. Something about Jesus was so intriguing to Nicodemus, that he was willing to take the risk of coming to see this rabble-rouser who was causing such a fuss among the people. But as enamored as Nicodemus may have may have been he took the precaution of coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness; for he came to Jesus at night.

The Gospel writer tells us that Nicodemus addressed Jesus with respect: “Rabbi” he said, “Teacher.” Then Nicodemus discloses his own heart, when he says, “We know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can perform the signs and wonders that you do, unless by the power of God.” Nicodemus heaps upon Jesus the kind of praise that many the Pharisee would have coveted for himself. Could Nicodemus have come under cover of darkness because he too wanted to be just like Jesus;  a wonderful teacher capable of great things? Jesus, just like many the wise teacher before him and since him, delivers the blow that teachers all too often must deliver to their ardent admirers, Jesus pushes Nicodemus beyond his child-like ardor, to a vision of a life that is totally transformed. “The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kindom of God.” Or perhaps, “A little self-absorbed, try looking outward.”

Where Nicodemus for his own reasons wants to know how Jesus does it, so that he too can have a little of what Jesus has, so that he too can be a little more like Jesus. After all the power to perform signs and wonders, wouldn’t go amiss for a fellow who is on his way up through the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus can’t see past his own concerns, can’t see the kin-dom of God that this teacher Jesus is trying to push his students to see. “The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kin-dom of God.” You’ve got to see beyond yourself, to the kin-dom, the vision of God for the people of God. It’s not about your religious trappings, or rituals Nicodemus, membership in the Sanhedrin might be just lovely for you, but you need to see beyond all that you’ve poured your heart and soul into for years. You’ve got to be born from above. You’ve got to encounter God. It’s as if you have to be born all over again, start from the very beginning.

Can’t you hear it Nicodemus, it’s the whoosh of the Spirit, blowing where it will? You hear the sound it makes, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. Forget about your life here, follow the Spirit. You’re too wrapped up in your head Nicodemus. You’re a teacher of Israel, and you still don’t understand what it’s all about? It’s not about the law, it’s not about the Sanhedrin, I know that you’ve devoted your whole life to these things, but its not about all that, it’s about the Spirit of God. You’re obsessed with getting it right and it’s not about that. It’s about the Spirit of God blowing where it will, creating a whole new thing a whole new community, a whole new kin-dom of God. Jesus insists:  “The truth of the matter is, we’re talking about what we know:  we’re testifying about what we’ve seen—yet you don’t accept our testimony. If you don’t believe when I tell you about earthly things, how will you believe when I tell you about heavenly things?”

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, Pharisee’s believed in the afterlife and they taught that the way to get there was by following the law. Righteousness was their focus. But Jesus point’s Nicodemus beyond his carefully held views, beyond his obsession with religion and the Law, beyond even his passion for the afterlife. Listen to what I’m teaching Nicodemus, Jesus insists that, “whoever believes that God so loved the world as to send me, that one will not die but have eternal life.” Yes, I come from God, but not to condemn or to judge but to tell you that you will not die but have eternal life.” So, go be about the things God loves, be about the kin-dom of God. Be about the people of God. Be about the living.

Nicodemus wasn’t the first and he certainly wasn’t the last student of religion to be confronted by a beloved teacher urging them to see beyond their own self-absorbed preoccupations to a more abundant life. This challenge has been going on between lovers of wisdom since the beginning of time. In the Adult Class we’ve been looking at the life and writings of John of the Cross, who for all intents and purposes was very much like Nicodemus, seeking the religious life only to discover that it’s not about religion. It’s about life. Indeed, St John’s contemplative life was rudely interrupted by encounters with the Spirit of God and it was as if he was born again. In contemplation, John seeks an encounter with God so that he, John can become a more perfect priest. As he tries to describe and encounter with the object of his passion, whom St John does not refer to as God or the Spirit, but as the Beloved, St. John writes:

“… When there is union of love, the image of the Beloved is so sketched in the will and drawn so vividly, that it is true to say that the Beloved lives in the lover and the lover in the Beloved. Love produces such likeness in this transformation of lovers that one can say each is the other and both are one. The reason is, that in the union and transformation of love, each gives possession of self to the other, and each leaves and exchanges self for the other. Thus each one lives in the other and is the other, and both are one in the transformation of love.”

Moved by such an encounter with his heart’s desire, St John is born again, transformed from a contemplative into one who is capable of seeing beyond himself, to the people, and so begins Johns career as a reformer of the church. St John leaves behind the safety and the sanctity of the religious life in pursuit of the kin-dom of God. St John becomes a lover of what God loves, and is born into the life of a reformer.

It’s powerful stuff this passion for God as a lover. It transforms people into lovers of all that God loves. It turns lives upside down. So be careful what you pray for…you might just encounter the Divine. You might just hear the woosh of the Spirit and if you do you might be turned upside down, as if you’d been born again, and you’ll move beyond your own concerns, and become obsessed with the kin-dom of God.

Free from concerns about the after-life, free to live the abundant life that is yours here and now and obsessed with the idea of encountering your God in and among the people and places God loves, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear the sound of the Spirit blowing where it will. We hear the sound it makes, but we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. But if we allow ourselves to be open to that Spirit, we will encounter the Divine, the Beloved, our God and we will be pointed beyond our obsession with ourselves to the world that God loves and it will be as if we are born again. No longer willing to settle for the religious life, but longing for the Beloved, willing to follow our God, wherever God goes, willing to live fully of this abundant and eternal life that we are blessed with. Free to love all that our Beloved loves. May we all be blessed with such passion! Passion for our Beloved. Passion that forces us to see beyond ourselves. Passion for all that our Beloved loves. Passion for life!

Benediction:                                              Woosh!

Listen and you will hear the sound

of the Spirit blowing were she wills.

Woosh!

Listen and you will hear.

Follow and you will know a passion that will set you free.

Free to love all that our Beloved loves.

May we all be blessed with such passion!

Passion for our Beloved.

Passion that forces us to see beyond ourselves.

Passion for all that our Beloved loves.

Passion for life!

Be born again!

Born again into the

Love of God  V

the peace of Christ

and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

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What a Joke: These Stories Never Actually Happened!

First Sunday in Lent – Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11

I am indebted to the exegetical work of John Halbert

for the insights into Hebrew humour!

Each year as Lent approaches, I find myself flirting with the idea of giving up Lent for Lent. Lent is just too much work. For centuries, during Lent the church has emphasized so many concepts that seem alien to the 21st century mind. Each year during Lent preachers are required to undertake the unenviable task of unpacking unpopular, seemingly antiquated concepts in an effort to encourage the contemporary churchgoer to entertain the equally antiquated rituals of Lent. I mean Christmas and Easter might attract a few more people to our sanctuary, but how do you attract people with talk about repentance or fasting? Just look at our readings for this morning. Temptation is the order for toady. Eve and Adam succumbing to temptation, the Apostle Paul prattling on, heaping condemnation upon the first parents for having given in to temptation, and then Jesus himself resisting temptation from non-other than the Devil. Not exactly cheery stuff designed to bring comfort on a cold damp winter morning, where apart from the time change, there are very few signs of a longed for spring.

But Lent has arrived and so we must tuck into this dish of temptation hoping that it will reveal some hint of the promise of what lays beyond our long Lenten journey as we travel toward Easter’s resurrection joy. But these are not easy readings to unpack.

I could begin by warning against taking these texts literally. But you have heard warnings against taking the text literally and I know that you understand that the story about Eve and Adam is just a story. It never really happened. Most of you, even though you might be tempted to think that Jesus literally went out into the wilderness and was tempted by the Devil, most of you have long since realized that the Devil doesn’t actually exist. If you’re still tempted to believe that this story actually happened, well, the fact that in the story itself, Jesus goes out into the desert all by himself ought to at least make you pause to ask, who wrote this story down, if there was nobody there but Jesus and the Devil?

These stories are just that, they are stories. In the words of Marcus Borg, “The events in these stories never actually happened. But the events in these stories are always happening.” Let me say that again, lest there be any doubt: They never actually happened, but they are always happening. That’s what makes these stories such great stories. The stuff in these stories is always happening over and over again. Temptation is the stuff of our lives. Each and every one of us, each and every day struggles with temptation, each and every one of us and all of us together as humanity. This grand human experiment that we are caught up in requires that we all struggle with temptation.

So if you’ll pardon the pun, let’s begin with Genesis. For far too long know the church and indeed our culture has looked at this familiar tale as if we’ve got it all figured out. But no matter how many times I read this story, I never fail to find some new detail that reveals something about this tale that I’d never grasped before. So, this morning rather than focus on the abusive habits religious types have when it comes to the interpretation of this particular text, I’d like to explore this story as if we’d never ever heard it before. So, forget about “The Fall.” This story is not about the theological concept that humans were created perfect, and would have stayed that way if only Eve hadn’t succumbed to temptation and then tempted Adam to do like wise. Apart from the millennia of misogyny that has resulted from that particular patriarchal reading of the text, its just plain bad theology to suggest that humans were created in some perfect state and that thanks to Jesus we can find our way back into the garden. Our Creator created humans thousands and thousands of years before this story was ever told and humans have been evolving ever since.  We were not created perfect, only to fall from grace and be punished by a vengeful Father, who can’t abide the idea of his creatures growing up, so he kicks them out of the garden, condemning them to a life of hardship and toil, who later relents and demands a blood sacrifice in order to save us from ourselves.

This misinterpretation of Scripture is what comes from a literal reading of the text. So, let’s forget that interpretation and read the text. And because this is the first Sunday in Lent, let’s read the text from the perspective of temptation. Because isn’t that how Lent begins? We gobble up our fat laced pancakes at Mardi Gras, fat Tuesday, because we are meant to fast from such temptations for 40 days, in the hope that our suffering will remind us of Jesus’ suffering. Or we could simply focus on Temptation because that’s what’s going on with Jesus in our gospel reading. So, temptation it is then. For who among us has not been tempted?

Eve and Adam may not have been the first people to walk the earth but these characters certainly bear a striking resemblance to every person who has ever walked this earth. In the Genesis story, the Creator, whose name in Hebrew is El Shaddai, which translated literally means “She Who Has Breasts.” If only the translators would take that literally for a change!

Anyway, El Shaddai, reaches into the dirt, in Hebrew the ‘adamah and creates ‘adam, which literally means earth creature. In Hebrew this play on words is meant to set you up for the punch line, but sadly the joke looses something in the translation and we rarely even see the punch line coming. So, the earth creatures created in the image of the Creator, male and female, these earth creatures, Eve and Adam, are placed in the Garden of Eden, in order that they might garden. Some translations suggest that they are placed in the garden to “till” the earth, but the Hebrew word in the text is often used to mean serve. That changes things, because “till” implies some sort of control, where “serve” makes it clear that they were there to care for the earth. Older translations also translate the Hebrew word for “protect” or “guard” as “keep.” This leaves the impression that as keepers we own the earth, when the Hebrew literally says that we are to protect or guard the earth.

There are lots of lovely details that are lost in our translations. But let’s move on to Temptation.  El Shaddai insists that the earth creatures may eat as much as they like from any of the trees in the garden, except for this one very special tree. Of that tree they may not eat. Now, right away you know this is a set up. Because every body knows that forbidden fruit tastes great. Put a bunch of kids in a room full of toys; tell them they can play with all the toys, except for that shiny one smack dab in the middle of the room. Everyone who has hears to listen, already knows which toy the kids are going straight for. And the ancients weren’t any less intelligent that we are. They knew that the storyteller was setting them up. What they didn’t expect, and how could they in their patriarchal world, how could they expect that the protagonist in this story would not be Adam. Adam just stands there, quiet as a mouse, and as subservient as can be doing what ever Eve tells him to do.

Now the storyteller has the attention of the ancients. There they are in the Garden of Eden, Eve and Adam, and Eve is obviously the power broker here because who does the snake march up to but Eve. Pardon the pun, but it really is all about Eve. Eve and that tree!

Not just any tree, but the tree of knowledge of good and ….what? “Evil” you say, but the Hebrew text doesn’t say evil. The Hebrew text uses the word “ra” which simply means bad, not evil….and in Hebrew the phrase good and bad is simply a way of saying, everything. A literal translation of the Hebrew text would read the tree of knowledge of everything.

So, the Creator God, El Shaddai, who presumably is the possessor of the “knowledge of everything,” wants to be certain that God’s created creature does not seek such vast and intimately divine knowledge. Except if God knows everything, then surely God knows that that’s exactly what the creature is going to go after: knowledge of everything.   That’s what we are, seekers of knowledge. That’s our quest to know everything, to possess the knowledge, to be like God: the ultimate temptation.

What a set up! The storyteller has us right where any storyteller wants their listeners: wanting more. And onto the stage comes the cleverest of all the creator’s creatures, the serpent. But not just any serpent, this one is described as “arum.”

Careful, we’re being set up for another play on words: “arum” is the Hebrew for clever. Not to be confused with “arumin” which means naked. For the cleverness of the snake will confront the nakedness of the earth creatures.

“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?’” The question is both a request for information and a challenge. Eve responds to the challenge by amplifying God’s command. “We may eat of the fruit from all the other trees in the garden. But of the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘Don’t eat it and don’t touch it, or you will die.’” But in the story, God never says “don’t touch it.” The storyteller has Eve add this as if to hint at her desire for that which is forbidden. But the arum serpent, the clever snake, insists: “Die?  You won’t die.  God knows well that on the day that you eat it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing everything!”

Now even we are tempted, for the fruit of that tree holds the promise of divine knowledge; eat it and you will be like God. The woman falls silent, her eyes are fixed on the tree, she is tempted beyond measure. The woman knew that the tree was enticing to the eye and now saw the fruit was good to eat—that it was desirable for the knowledge it could give.  So she took some of its fruit and ate it. She gave some also to the man beside her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were arumin. Not arum – clever, but arumin naked. Now get ready because here comes the punch-line and if you’re not very careful you’ll miss it.

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and make loincloths for themselves.”

The ancients would have been rolling in the aisles. “Fig leaves”  Ha!  What a joke! You’ve got to be kidding me. Have you ever seen a fig leaf? Have you ever touched a fig leaf? Why the mere thought of a fig leaf anywhere near their genitals would have sent the average ancient listener into gales of laughter. What a joke! The ancient Hebrews knew all too well what fig leaves feel like. Talk about rough and prickly! How many of you would ever consider sewing the roughest sandpaper together to use as underwear! Why it’s ridiculous. They sewed what together? Fig leaves indeed! By now the ancient Hebrews would have collapsed into laughter.

But like most plays on words, there’s truth to be found in this pun. The adam, earth creatures, created out of the adamah, the dirt, sees the tree of knowledge of everything as the key to becoming like God and so trying to be arum, clever, they succeed only in exposing their arumin, nakedness and they are reduced to sowing fig leaves together to hide their plight. Scratchy loincloths, guaranteed to irritate them.

That’s the whole point of this little story. When human beings try to become like God, they sew fig leaves together to cover their nakedness, because, as we ought to expect, God is all too right about us. We simply cannot eat of the tree of divine knowledge; it is far too dangerous for us human beings to do so. Whether our fig leaves are nuclear ones or fossil fuel or monetary ones, they remain scratchy fig leaves nonetheless. God made us to serve and protect the great Garden of God. But we would rather control and plunder and take over, forgetting that God is creator and sustainer of all that is and ever shall be and we stand, over and over again, scratching ourselves in our fig leaf loincloths.

Today the earth continues to shake and the alarms continue to sound warnings that the waters may surge. Earthquakes and Tsunamis are evidence that the earth continues to evolve. But the birth pangs of the Earth as painful as they are, are magnified by our desire to know everything. So as reactors threaten to melt down and spew their toxins into the air, the ancient storytellers warning rings in our ears. “You may eat as much as you like from any of the trees of the garden—except the Tree of the Knowledge of Everything. You must not eat from that tree, for on the day you eat from that tree that is the day you will die—yes, die.” And yet we must eat of the tree. For that is who we are. That is who we were created to be: seekers of knowledge, ever evolving.

Life is dangerous. Even Jesus was tempted. In the wilderness Jesus encounters what is described as the diabolos…’ which is the Greek translation for sah-than …the satan  which literally means “the Tempter.”

And the Tempter does what tempters do, diabolos offers Jesus god-like powers, Power to turn stones into bread. Power to rule the world.

Who amongst us could resist such temptation? And yet the storyteller weaves a tale that leaves the clear impression that Jesus could have chosen an easier way, but even though he was tempted, Jesus did not take the easy way. And so we are left to wonder, where the easy way has lead us? Have we succumbed to temptation and chosen what appears to be knowledge of everything, the manipulation of atoms, because it provides what has been hailed as safe, clean, efficient power? Our efforts to cover our nakedness have left us with little more than uncomfortable loincloths, exposed to the elements we remain in all our cleverness, naked.

So, what do we do? Do we stop eating of the tree of knowledge? I think not. For that is who we earth-creatures are, constantly evolving, constantly striving, constantly wanting to be like God; in whose image we were created. So, we will go on partaking of the tree of knowledge, but we must do so aware of the fact that we are not God, aware of our need for God. Aware that our God lives and breathes, in with and through us and so when this task of evolving on this ever evolving earth, becomes dangerous, and our sisters and brothers in this grand enterprise suffer the from the birth pains of creation, we must remember who we are and whose we are and reach out to our fellow gardeners to aid them in their nakedness. Only each time we do, we must stitch together loincloths that are less irritating than the last. We must try again. Mindful of all that we have learned from those who have gone before us, not repeating the mistakes of the past, but striving to do better, evolving, into all that we have been created to be. Trusting that our Creator, El Shaddai, will not leave us alone in the wilderness, for She will nurture us at her Breast, with tenderness and compassion as She weeps at our misfortunes and delights in our growth. For like a good mother, She knows that she can’t do it for us. So, She comforts us when we fail and cheers us on when we succeed. Today, when the evidence of our hubris threatens Her creation, She weeps for us and waits for us to be what She knows we were created to be: servers of the earth and sisters and brothers to one another. Let it be so, El Shaddia.  Let it be.  Amen.

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We Are ONE: an Ash Wednesday Homily

To help remind us that we are stardust, begin with this video: The Call of the Pleiades – Gerald Jay Markoe

When I was a Child, I was afraid of the dark.

When I was a child I was afraid to venture forth from the familiar.

When I was a child I was afraid of loosing people I loved.

When I was young I would look into the night sky afraid that I’d never be able to understand it all.

When I was young, I would look up at the stars afraid that God was just a figment of our wishful imaginations.

When I was young, a pastor smeared ashes upon my forehead and I was afraid because I thought I might die in bondage to sin.

When I was young, I heard the words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” and I was afraid because I knew that I was nothing more than a worthless sinner.

When I was young, I caught sight of my face in the mirror and I was afraid because the ashen cross on my forehead reminded me that soon I would be dead and to dust I would return.

When I first became a pastor, I mixed the ashes and the oil together and I was afraid that the power of the ritual would remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return and I was afraid because I loved you and couldn’t bear to loose you.

When the years passed, and ashen crosses became routine, I began to fear that the power of the ritual would fail to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

When I first became a theologian, I was afraid because I feared that our confessions convicted us of crimes too horrendous to be our own.

When my questions drove me into the wilderness of doubt, I was afraid that the MYSTERY would overwhelm me and even more afraid that in the wilderness I would find no MYSTERY at all.

When I first opened myself to the wilderness that surrounds us, I began to see my fears and I was afraid that I was not worthy of the MYSTERY for which I longed.

When I awakened from my fears, my eyes were clouded by sleepy dust; that strange dried mucus that forms as our tears harden beneath squinting lids that are determined to hide from us the Light we both long for and fear.

When I began to clear the dust from my eyes, it took time before I found the courage to gaze into the night skies to see the millions of bright lights that beckoned me to open myself to the ONE who is MYSTERY.

When I began to feel the embrace of REALITY, I was afraid because I knew that I too am fearfully and wonderfully made capable of reaching out beyond myself to the MYSTERY we call God.

When I began to trust that I too AM the result of the initial bursts of creative energy that brought the universe to birth, I saw in the night skies the light from the dying stars whose dust contains the stuff of life.

When I see the light shining in the darkness, I am beginning to know that we share the light’s energy. The Being that flowed through our ancestors lives and breathes in us.

When I begin to understand that the elements that make up my being are the elements born of stardust, I know that my own molecules have known unimaginable joy, outrageous pain, indescribable beauty, unspeakable suffering, as we journey from dust to dust.

When I consider that we are all One, you and I and the MYSTERY who creates, nourishes and sustains us, we are ONE.   I hear the words that Jesus spoke over and over again: do not be afraid, have no fear, fear not, for I and ABBA are ONE and where once I saw only wormwood and gall, I am beginning to see life and beauty, and love and eternity as we move from stardust, to dust.

To claim that we are stardust is to trust that we are connected to all that is, all that has ever been, and all that shall ever be.

 We are not small. We are not insignificant. We are not just dust. We are intimately ONE with the Source of Being, ONE with Christ, ONE with the Spirit that breathes in all of us; ONE with another, for we are LOVE, and LIGHT, LIFE and DEATH, I and THOU.

Now when I mix the oil and ashes, I sprinkle a few sparkles to remind us that we are not just dust, but stardust, intimately, intricately, interconnected.

 Now the darkness reveals the MYSTERY, the ULTIMATE REALITY, the ONE we call GOD, the ONE who gently beckons us forth into the light of life and the joy of living, trusting that here and now eternity is ours to embrace.

When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark.

I have lived too long under the condemnation constructed by stories that no longer inspire life.

In the starlight, the darkness gives way to eternity.

New stories are born; stories that share the truth of love and life, here and now.

I AM dust, the stuff that stars are made of.

I AM ONE with the LIGHT of LIGHTS, the Source of All Being.

Dust I AM and to dust I shall return; into the MYSTERY; the MYSTERY Who beckons us forth into life, beyond death, asking only that we have no fear, for we were made to embrace eternity.

Remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

For we are divine, One with GOD, now and always. Amen

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Evolution – There’s No Going Back: an Ash Wednesday Homily

We’ve all been there. Driving down the road – distracted by thoughts of this and that, when all of a sudden it happens, a car comes at you out of no where and you slam on the breaks or you quickly swerve to avoid a disaster. You could have been killed. You could have killed someone. Your life or someone else’s life could have been radically changed in an instant. As you pull back into traffic you are ever so conscious of the weight of you foot on the accelerator and you swear that you’ve got to be more careful.  You begin to scold yourself.  What were you thinking? Why weren’t you paying attention? Wake-up you could have been killed.

Welcome to Ash Wednesday. What have you been thinking? Why weren’t you paying attention? Wake-up — you are going to die!!!  Ash Wednesday is your mid-winter wake-up call. Some of you may not need the wake-up call. Some of you know all too well that death is all around us. Some of you have lost someone dear to you. Some of you have felt that fear in the pit of your belly when the doctor suggests a particular test. Traditional Ash Wednesday worship would require us to focus on the brevity of life and remember that none of us will get out of this life alive.  Our ancestors in the faith, entered into a morose season of Lent by via the awesome reminder that they came from dust and soon they shall return to the dust.

Lent was a season of lament and repentance based on a particular understanding of what it means to be human. Since the 11th century most of Christianity has understood the human condition as that of those who have fallen from grace. But we live in a post-modern world. We no longer believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans. We read Genesis not as history but as myth. We understand that humans evolved over millions of years. There was no perfect human condition for us to fall from.

What happens when you reject the theological construct of original sin?  What happens when you embrace the idea that we are fiercely and wonderfully made? What happens when you see humanity as originally blessed?

Once you open up Pandora’s box you can’t just walk back out of the room and pretend that the theory of evolution doesn’t have something to teach us about what it means to be human. If we see our selves as incomplete creations rather than fallen sinful creatures, how then do we deal with our mortality?

Perhaps we can begin to express what it means to be human in terms that reflect our need to evolve in to all that we were created to be. Perhaps the brevity and uncertainty of life can begin to wake us up so that we can seize each and every moment. This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

All that we love and care for is mortal and transitory, but mortality is the very reality that can become the inspiration for celebrate life and to love. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our human condition of mortality. But we should also remember the reality of creation itself is transformed by death and is constantly renewing itself. There is an eternal quality to creation, just as there is an eternal quality to life.

Tonight we embrace the promise that in death we are transformed into a new way of living on in God.Trusting that here and now we are living in God, we delight in the knowledge that in God we share in eternity. We are constantly dying, but we are also constantly living as we reflect God’s vision in the world of the flesh. This day, this moment is eternity for God is here, revealed in the wonders of creation; in the face of our neighbours, in the beauty of the earth, in the magnitude of the universe and in the miracles of sub-atomic particles. Tonight is our wake-up call.

We will not pass this way again. If we’ve been hibernating its time to take a deep breath and let ourselves be filled with the Spirit so that we can live fully, love extravagantly and be all that we were created to be. Yes we are dust, but we are earthly dust, springing forth from a multi-billion-year holy adventure.

Dust is good, after all; it is the place of fecundity, of moist dark soil, and perhaps we are as various scientists are suggesting:  “star-dust” evolving creatures emerging from God’s intergalactic creativity. We are frail, but we are also part of a holy adventure reflecting the love of God over billions of years and in billions of galaxies.

So, how can we fail to rejoice in the colour purple, or pause in wonder at a baby’s birth? How can we fail to enjoy the beauty of a sunset or the splendor of a mountain range? How can we fail to embrace the sorrows that surround us with love? How can we remain deaf to the cries of our neighbours, or the pleas of our enemies? Tonight is our wake-up call?

Life is here for the living. This is eternity; right here, right now!!! Let the ashes we receive be the ashes of transformation; of awakening to the beauty and love of seizing the moment and living it to the fullest.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Let the memory of your incomplete humanity awaken you to the wonders, joys, sorrows, and pain of life.

Let it be said of you that here in this little part of eternity that you lived fully, loved extravagantly and helped humanity evolve into all that God dreamed we can be!             Amen.

An Ash Wednesday Benediction

 Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Let the memory of your incomplete humanity

awaken you to the wonders, joys, sorrows, and pain of life.

Let the ashes you wear be the ashes of transformation;

of awakening to the beauty and love of seizing the moment

and living it to the fullest.

 Let it be said of you that here in this little part of eternity

that you lived fully, loved extravagantly

and helped humanity evolve into all that God dreamed we can be!

 You are fearfully and wonderfully made

In the image of the ONE who is was and ever more shall be

Creator, Christ and Spirit ONE,    AMEN

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Transfiguration: Just An Old-Fashioned Love Song

Truly Madly DeeplyThe mythical stories of Jesus’ transfiguration remind me of old-fashioned love songs. You know the kind of songs that were playing on the radio when you first met, and when you hear them, you are instantly taken back to the days when you first fell in love.  My wife Carol and I we have a love song and whenever our song comes on the radio, well, I swoon. “Truly, Madly, Deeply” by a group called Savage Garden; it doesn’t matter where or when, but if “Truly, Madly, Deeply” begins to play, well we are transported back to those early days. The words of the chorus are particularly appropriate for Transfiguration: “I wanna stand with you on a mountain, I wanna bathe with you in the sea.” Now I won’t go on because the lyrics of this particular love song are embarrassing. But I wanna talk to you about love songs and more particularly about standing on a mountain. How many of you have been to a mountaintop? I’ve been to the mountaintop! It’s so beautiful up there on top of the mountain. You can see forever up there. You can breathe deeply and feel the very Spirit of God breathing in you. It all makes sense up there on the mountaintop! It is so beautiful that you just never want to leave. There is nothing quite like being on top of the world.

I still remember some of my first mountaintop experiences in church. I didn’t begin to attend church until I was fifteen. So, it took me a while to get to the top of the mountain but I can still remember exactly what it felt like. Those trips up to the top of the mountain, the way I felt up there in the clouds, well it’s those mountaintop experiences that kept me coming to the church. It’s the Jesus that I met all those years ago that made me stay. The Jesus that I met all those years ago was simply amazing. I fell in love with Jesus and that love took me to great heights.  The church I attended back then, was a lot like this place. The congregation was small and they loved to sing and they could certainly sing! All our trips up to the mountaintop began with a song. Singing those songs together lifted us up to the mountain and opened us up in ways that let us see Jesus. “And we walked with him and we talked with him, and he told us we were his own and the joy we shared as we tarried there, none other has ever known.” When that congregation sang they could take me to places I’d never dreamed. I knew that there in the midst of all that singing that, “Just as I am without one plea,” “God’s Amazing Grace would save a wretch like me,” and I learned from all that singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and grief to bear,” as each Sunday we washed ourselves “in the blood of the Lamb.”

I didn’t know it then, because I was in the fresh flush of my love affair with Jesus, but those old songs, those old songs molded and shaped me in the faith. I don’t remember the words of the sermons I heard, but I can remember each and every word of those old hymns that we sang. Today, I must confess that as a preacher it saddens me to say it, but it is most certainly true, that people don’t go home humming the sermon. No, no matter how eloquent the preacher, the people will always go home humming they hymns and not the sermon. Those mountaintop experiences that I remember from my early days in the church, each and every single one of those mountaintop experiences were punctuated by hymns. Those old hymns molded and shaped me in the faith. Those old hymns taught me the faith of the generations that went before me, they nurtured my developing faith, and in so very many ways they came to define my faith.

But there’s one hymn in particular that is synonymous with my understanding of the faith back in those days. This particular hymn couldn’t be found in the old Lutheran hymnbook…back then it was the old Red Book…but this hymn couldn’t be found there. This old favorite was only to be found on some faded mimeographed sheets of paper, where it had been lovingly typed. But most of the members of the congregation didn’t need the sheets of paper, because they knew this moldy, oldie by heart. It was in their bones and they sang it in defiance of the pastor who even back then, insisted that there was something not quite right about the theology in this particular hymn. Now I know that many of you didn’t grow up in the Lutheran church, so perhaps you won’t know this particular moldy oldie, but I know that there are probably more than a few of you who can probably still sing it from memory. But you can rest easy. I’m not going to sing it. But I’d like you to have the words of this old hymn in your heads as we try to travel up to the mountaintop because this hymn, like no other exemplifies what I believed back in the day. This hymn molded and shaped my love affair with Jesus. Like any love song, just the sound of the opening bars can take me back to the person I was back in the day, when I first began hanging out up on the top of mountains: 

                        On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,


                        The emblem of suff’ring and shame;


                        And I love that old cross where the dearest and best


                        For a world of lost sinners was slain. 

Refrain:
          So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,                       

                        Till my trophies at last I lay down;


                        I will cling to the old rugged cross,


                        And exchange it some day for a crown.

   

                       Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,


                       Has a wondrous attraction for me;


                       For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above


                       To bear it to dark Calvary.

 

                        In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,


                        A wondrous beauty I see,


                        For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,


                        To pardon and sanctify me.

 

                        To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;


                        Its shame and reproach gladly bear;


                        Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,


                        Where His glory forever I’ll share.

 

Refrain:           So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,


                        Till my trophies at last I lay down;


                        I will cling to the old rugged cross,


                        And exchange it some day for a crown.

There you have it, a snapshot of my teenage theology. An old faded picture of the Jesus that I fell in love with; simpler, time, to be sure. A time when God was in his heaven and all was right with the world. But all the trips down memory lane, all nostalgia in the world can’t get me back there to those mountaintops that I used to love to hang out upon. I just can’t go back there. I know there is no heaven, up there in the sky. I’ve been up there. I’ve flown above the clouds. I know there’s no old bearded man up there in the sky, just waiting for me to say the right prayer so that he can grant my wishes. On a good day, I know that I am fearfully and wonderfully made and not some loathsome sinner. I’ve seen more than enough of life to know that I don’t want to worship any kind of god who demands a blood sacrifice. I’ve been around and seen enough of this old world to know that if there’s ever going to be any peace on earth, then I’ve got to roll up my sleeves and do the hard work of establishing justice in this world of ours. I’ve dabbled just long enough in the sciences to know that this world of ours is amazing and the place where I fell in love with Jesus, well its just not there anymore. The physicists, the anthropologists, the historians, and even the theologians, have torn down all the old familiar places where we used to walk together hand in hand.

I know that Jesus’ trip up to the top of the mountain is a myth. I know that Jesus first followers told the story of Jesus’ transfiguration the way they told it so that people who’d never even met their beloved Jesus would know exactly who Jesus was. The transfiguration of Jesus includes all the elements of a perfect love story. Jesus and his best buddies travel up to the top of a mountain, just like ever other hero of the day, travelled up to the top of a mountain, and when he got there, they had such a great time, it was amazing. The more they walked and talked together the more they knew that there was something incredibly special about Jesus. Jesus was the one they’d been waiting for all their lives, Jesus was the one who could lead them, and just like the leaders of old, just like Moses and Elijah before him, Jesus had what it takes to move them out of the hell they found themselves in. Why it was as if the very spirit of God, shone through Jesus. Just like every sacred story they’d ever heard before, when someone was really in touch with the Divine, why they positively glowed. If you want to know what God looks like in the flesh, well look no further than Jesus. It was amazing, so amazing that they didn’t want to travel back down to earth. Let’s pitch a tent and just stay here.

The myth of Jesus transfiguration is what they call an archetype.  It has all the makings of archetypal mythology. It was designed to tell us something important about the character of our God. If you want to know what divinity looks like in human form, look at Jesus and you will see God. The myth of Jesus’ transfiguration sets us up for the trip back down from the mountain. Up there on the mountaintop, Jesus is transfigured.

Earlier this week I read a definition of transfiguration that said a transfiguration is where something or someone experiences metamorphosis. It went on to say that metamorphosis is what happens when someone or something changes from an immature form to an adult form. Changing from an immature form to an adult form. Sounds like a trip back down to earth to me. What love affair can survive if the lovers are not prepared for their love to change from an immature form to an adult form? What theology can survive if those who cling to it are not prepared to let go so that the theology can grow into an adult form? Believers, lovers, theologians, worshippers, followers, humans, we cannot live and move and have our being, unless we are prepared to grow from immaturity to maturity.

The story of the transfiguration is the story of Jesus’ followers trying to figure out exactly who and what Jesus is. If we want to know who and what Jesus is, we too must be prepared to be transfigured; we too must be prepared to have our faith change from an immature form to an adult form. Like all true myths the myth of transfiguration is not something that is over and done with one telling of the story. Like all true myth the transfiguration must be told over and over again, and experienced over and over again, just as our faith must metamorphosize  over and over again. For as we grow, and learn and experience life, we must be prepared to change. Change is at the heart of who we are as human beings, change is life just as surely as life is change. Even though it sounds appealing to stay up there on the mountaintop with Jesus, frozen in time, just the way he was when we first met, there is so much more to the Christ experience than that old rugged cross can ever express. The more we learn about life, the more we learn about creation, the cosmos, and what it means to be human, the more we can learn about the One who, is was and ever more shall be the Source of all that is, was or ever has been. If we really want to know, to experience the Holy One we call God, we can begin by looking to Jesus, because in Jesus we can see the glory of God in the flesh. In Jesus we can see the face of God shinning brightly. This is the Christ experience, looking to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth where we can see what it means to let the LOVE of God, live and breathe and have it’s being through us. Irenaeus said it way back in the third century; “God became human, so that humans could become God.” In Jesus we can see divinity, so that we too can become divine. For it is in Jesus we can see what it means to be more fully human; to be more fully the image of the divine.

These are exciting times. Our knowledge is exploding and we are learning so much about  creation, the cosmos and what it means to be human and that knowledge is informing our faith. We are beginning to redefine what it means to be more fully human, and we are seeing Divinity in a whole knew light. Historians and theologians are teaching us more than our ancestors ever knew about the life and teachings of Jesus; so much so that the ways in which we are able to experience Christ are opening up and we are experiencing the faith in ways that equip us to be Christs to one another in ways that promise all sorts of new mountaintops. So, we will need new love songs, to tell of our beloved. New travelling songs for those mountain trails. New hymns to inspire courage in us for the trip back down to earth. New anthems to inspire the work of being LOVE in the world. And yes from time to time, we’ll hear those old love songs, and they’ll take us back to the days when we first fell in love, and we’ll sing them with the intensity of lovers, lovers who’ve been together through good times and bad times, lovers who trust one another to be there. Lovers who believe in LOVE and know that no matter how much things change, our LOVE will remain. So, do not be afraid. Transfiguration, metamorphosis, changing is nothing to be feared. For in LOVE all will be well.

You can listen to this sermon here The congregation breathed life into this sermon by singing the Old Rugged Cross a cappella from memory.  It seems that this love song is very much a part of their repertoire as well! 

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You Have the Power to Transfigure the Face of God

mushroom CloudWhen our images of God are tied to the idol of a supernatural sky-dweller who has the power to solve all our problems, despair is sure to follow as our super-hero fails time after time to impress us.

When I was a very little girl, I was absolutely convinced that I had the power to change the mind of God! Confident that I held such power, I never missed an opportunity to exercise it. Now, I’ll grant you that like most children, I was also convinced that the universe itself actually revolved around me, so believing that I was powerful enough to change God’s mind, wasn’t exactly much of a stretch. In fact, when I was a child, it wasn’t all that difficult to change God’s mind. For instance, I could stop God from breaking my mother’s back simply by leaping over a crack in the pavement. “Don’t step on a crack and break your mothers back.” Now, in my young mind the only one powerful enough to crush my mother’s powerful spine, must be God. I also knew that God wasn’t particularly fond of ladders, and that if I refrained from walking under them, God would smile upon me.

I had no idea why black cats, or spilling salt, or breaking mirrors, or opening umbrellas inside, or leaving hats on the bed, or putting new shoes on the table, would annoy God, but I knew enough to avoid doing such things. I was absolutely sure that God would respond positively if I managed to pull a turkey’s wishbone apart in just the right way so that I was left holding a piece larger than the piece my brother was left with.  God also responded well if I knocked on wood, or caught sight of a falling star, or if I crossed my fingers and hoped to die.

I didn’t need to understand why my activities worked to influence the heart and mind of God, I simply knew that they did and would continue to do so just as long as I continued to avoid the necessary evils and indulge in an apple a day, and managed to blow out all the candles on my birthday cakes.

The universe that revolved around me might have been full of all sorts of rules, but it would continue to revolve exactly the way I wanted it to if I managed to placate the old guy up in the sky who was pulling every body else’s strings. I never once considered that that old God in the sky was pulling my strings because I was absolutely confident in my ability to do what was necessary to pull God’s strings.

But as I grew up, I began to learn that despite my best intentions, the universe did not revolve around me. Little by little I learned that I didn’t have what it takes to influence all of the things that were having an impact upon my life. And just as surely as my powers waned, so too did the powers of God.

I can still remember sitting in the back seat of the car and wondering why God despite the fact that I always lifted my feet up each and every time my father drove over a railroad track, my parents simply couldn’t find the money we needed to buy our happiness. Surely God must know that I was doing my part to do what was necessary to make God shine his smile upon my family.

So each and every time God failed to do exactly what I wanted God to do, God’s power was diminished in my eyes. As I grew, I gave up trying to influence God and I took off after God’s son. After all Jesus was far more fun to be around than his old doddering Father. For starters Jesus actually liked children. And Jesus had way better party tricks than his Dad. Jesus could turn water into wine, make the blind see, and the lame walk. And if the cupboard was bare, no need to worry, cause Jesus was even better than my Mom at turning nothing into something. Where Mom could make a meal out of almost nothing, Jesus could make enough to feed 5000. And there was always that trick to beat all tricks, cause in all my young life, I never heard tell of anyone else who ever came back from the dead and brought tons of chocolate with him. I mean that old doddering guy in the sky simply didn’t stand a chance against Jesus. Santa Claus was about the only one who could come close, and everybody knew that Santa would be nothing without Jesus.

So, somewhere along the way, that I had no need to worry about stepping on a cracks, or spilling salt, or dropping forks, because these things were nothing more than superstitions. Besides, who needs to worry about superstitions when you’ve got Jesus for as your friend? My buddy Jesus was all I needed to keep my world on an even keel. So, I walked with him and I talked with him and we were so happy together, until stuff started to happen that made me begin to doubt Jesus ability to change the world.

A few weeks before my eleventh birthday, Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby Kennedy and for the second time in my life, I saw my father cry. I was only six-years old when the shooting of Bobby’s older brother made the adults in my life cry. Their tears changed something in me. I listened more intently to what was going on in the world around me. I needed to know what was happening so that I could do something to change it. A year after Bobby Kennedy was shot, I went to my first protest march. I was just twelve years old, but I knew that Vietnam was wrong and had to be stopped. I believed that my presence together with the presence of hundreds of thousands, could make a difference.

I left my buddy Jesus playing in the garden. I began to listen to the radical Jesus who spoke truth to power and called us to follow him so that we could change the world. As a teenager I knew that we had to end the war in Vietnam and even though the sixties were drawing to a close, and the flower children would soon be trading in their incense and beads so that the could find jobs and climb the corporate ladder, we marched. And when in 1975, the Vietnam war ended in defeat, I actually naively believed that public opinion had caused the powers that be to change their minds.

So, I continued to work for peace, only this time it was nuclear proliferation that we needed to stop. It was somewhere during the Regan years that I gave up the notion of changing the world by marching in the streets.  Iran Contra put an end to my naiveté.  Jesus and I retreated. Literally.  I mean we literally retreated. A few friends and I worked together on a retreat center. Seabright Farm was a Christian retreat centre designed to nourish people who were trying to live their lives in the world. Jesus was our guide. We wanted to live in this complicated world of ours, the way that Jesus might live. So we dedicated ourselves to learning. Learning all we could about Jesus, Christianity, the church, theology, living responsibly, ethically. Our attempts to change the world took on a more modest approach. We set out to change the world, by changing ourselves.

Eventually, my work at Seabright Farm, brought me into seminary, where I suppose I thought I could change the world by changing the church. Along the way, I must confess that over the years I’ve become more than a little jaded and cynical.  There are days when I don’t really believe that anything will ever really change. But there are moments, moments when I actually believe that it’s possible not only to change the world, but to actually change God.  

Transfiguration Sunday is a strange festival in the Church calendar. The story of the Transfiguration is the story of Jesus climbing a mountain with his closest friends. On the mountaintop Jesus has a profound experience. There is a dazzling light, a cloud that overshadowed them, and the cloud terrified them. That same cloud appeared generations earlier and overshadowed one of the fathers of the Jewish people. That same cloud appeared generations later and overshadowed the father of the people of Islam.

As we read of that cloud today, we should do so with the same fear and trembling of our sisters and brothers who over the generations have encountered that cloud. For Transfiguration Sunday may be a festival of the church, but it’s history is steeped in the political and religious intolerance of the world. Before the fifteenth century, only a few Christian communities kept the feast of the Transfiguration. The festival hadn’t caught on like other festivals.

In all of Christendom only a handful of congregations marked the day and we would not be celebrating it today if it weren’t for a terrible battle. On the sixth of August 1456 news was announced in Rome that John Hunyady had defeated the Turks near Belgrade and the bells of churches rang out in celebration of the slaughter of some 50,000  Muslims.   Overjoyed, Pope Callistus ordered the whole church to commemorate the victory against the infidels by celebrating the feast of the Transfiguration.

For generations the church commemorated the battle by celebrating Transfiguration Sunday on August the sixth. Some church’s still celebrate Transfiguration on the sixth of August. However, shortly after the end of World War II protestant churches discretely decided to  move the festival of Transfiguration to the last day of Epiphany. They did so, because of the infamy of August 6. In 1945 a slaughter of a different sort was inflicted on a different people.

On August 6th 1945, someone climbed not a holy mountain, but into the cockpit of a plane—a machine of war. There had been a lull of a week in the fighting between the Allies and Japan. The Allies had a new secret weapon and they wanted to us it with the maximum psychological effect. They had prepared three atomic bombs. On the 16th of July, the first bomb was tested in New Mexico.

As a terrifying cloud rose up from the earth, the father of the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheim quoted from the Hindu Scriptures a line from the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now, I am become death the destroyer of worlds.”  On August 6 the second bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and three days later the third one was dropped on Nagasaki. 150,000 people lay dead. Thousands more died later from the effect of atomic radiation. 75,000 buildings were destroyed. Two cities were devastated. The world will never be the same. The date for the festival of Transfiguration was moved.

The shape of that awful cloud hangs now forever in our sky. If you close your eyes you will see that cloud; rising up from the earth; a mushroom more poisonous than anything created by God. It is the new tree of knowledge of good and evil. We have eaten of its fruit and we shall never be the same.

We live in fear of everything that emanates from that terrible cloud. Is it any wonder that the vision of that cloud was invoked by the leaders of our neighbours to the south as they tried to convince the world to go to war against the people of Iraq. Weapons of mass destruction! Yesterday, the memory of the cloud hung over Iraq. Today, the memory of that cloud is being used to isolate Iran and Korea.

Has the memory of that poisonous cloud obliterated from our minds the memory of another cloud? Do we no longer remember the story of another climb, another light, another voice, another cloud? A story woven by the early followers of Jesus to point their sisters and brothers toward the life and death of Jesus as the new Moses sent as a revelation of God. In this story, Jesus speaks of his departure, that will come soon in Jerusalem. The gospel-writer has Jesus was speak of his death, his destruction by another tree. Do we not meet on Transfiguration Sunday today under the shadow of that tree, to break bread and to proclaim the victory of Christ’s death over every evil, even the total annihilation by human evil?

Friends, I trust that we will be led out of this morass of fear and hatred by a pillar of cloud; a cloud that transformed Moses and a band of refugees in the desert into a people;  a cloud that rested upon Jesus declaring Jesus to be the embodiment of all that God had tried to say for generations; the same cloud that carried on Mohammad into the heavens, leaving behind a people who would take on the name Islam, which itself means peace.

Memories of clouds… Sorry, but I’ve looked at cloud’s from both sides know and like the song says I really don’t know clouds at all. I’m still wondering if its possible to be the people God created us to be? I’d given up wondering whether or not it’s realistic to hope, but rather whether it’s even possible to hope that the world can be changed. The poor will always be with us. Wars will keep breaking out just as surely as the sun rises in the east. Bad things will continue to happen to good people. And just when I think that hope is pointless…that the powerful will always abuse the powerless…just when I’m about ready to join the ranks of those who say live for today and forget about tomorrow…some people half a world away, begin to turn the whole world upside down…and dictators begin to loose their grip…and I begin to wonder, what if? And I feel the hope begin to stir in me.

In his book, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Home for Our Time, Desmond Tutu tells about a transfiguration experience that he will never forget. It occurred when apartheid was still in full swing. Tutu and other church leaders were preparing for a meeting with the prime minister of South Africa to discuss the troubles that were destroying their nation. They met at a theological college that had closed down because of the white government’s racist policies. During a break from the proceedings, Tutu walked into the college’s garden for some quiet time.  In the midst of the garden was a huge wooden cross. As Tutu looked at the barren cross, he realized that it was winter, a time when the grass was pale and dry, a time when almost no one could imagine that in a few short weeks it would be lush, green, and beautiful again.  In a few short weeks, the grass and all the surrounding world would be transfigured. As the archbishop sat there and pondered that, he obtained a new insight into the power of transfiguration, of God’s ability to transform  our world. Tutu concluded that transfiguration means that no one and no situation is “untransfigurable.” The time will eventually come when the whole world will be released from its current bondage and brought to share in the glorious liberty that God intends.

Just over a week ago, many of you followed Jesus out of your comfort zone and down to the Inn From the Cold. You worked very heard to prepare over 200 meals to feed the hungry. But you did so much more than just feeding your neighbours. I believe that you actually achieved a transfiguration of sorts. Shortly before that evening, some of us watched Desmond Tutu talk about the need to change our image of God. I’d like to read back to you the words that Tutu said: The images that we have of God are odd because God—this omnipotent one—is actually weak. As a parent I understand this. You watch your child going wrong and there’s not very much you can do to stop them. You have tried to teach them what is right, but now it is their life and they are mucking it up. There are many moments when you cry for your child, and that’s exactly what happens with God. All of us are God’s children.

I frequently say, I’m so glad I’m not God! Can you imagine having to say, “Bin Laden is my child. Saddam Hussein is my child. George Bush is my child.” Oh!   All of them, including me. Can you imagine what God must have felt watching the Holocaust? Watching Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Watching Rwanda? Can you imagine God watching Darfur?  Imagine God watching Iraq and saying, “These are my children here, and they are killing my other children.  And I can’t do anything because I have said to them, ‘I give you the space to be you and that space enables you to make choices. And I can’t stop you when you make the wrong choices. All I can do is sit here and cry.’” And God cries until God sees beautiful people who care, even if they may not do earth-shattering things.

There is a fantastic story of a so-called colored woman who was driven from her home and ostracized by her family because she had HIV/AIDS. She came to live in a home for people who suffered from the disease, and there were white men there who would help her because she couldn’t do anything herself. She was all skin and bones. They would carry her like a baby and wash her, bathe her, feed her. Then they would put her in front of a television set and hold her. And this was during the apartheid years. I visited this home and said, “What an incredible lesson in loving and compassion and caring.”

It was transfiguring something ugly, letting something beautiful come from a death-making disease. When God sees that, a smile breaks forth on God’s face and God smiles through the tears. It’s like when the sun shines through the rain. The world may never know about these little transfigurations, but these little acts of love are potent.            

They are moving our universe so that it will become the kind of place God wants it to be. And so, yes, you wipe the tears from God’s eyes. And God smiles.” You people have transfigured the face of God on more than a few occasions. By following Jesus out into the world, to reach out to your sisters and brothers, you have transfigured the face of God.” (see the video below for the full context of this quote)

So, on this Transfiguration Sunday, let me remind you of God’s ability to Transform the world precisely because God dwells in with and through you! Do not give up hope:  no one and no situation is “untransfigurable.” The time will eventually come when the whole world will be released from its current bondage and brought to share in the glorious liberty that God intends.  Continue to give hope to the hopeless, reach out and love the world that God loves, and always remember that you have the power to transfigure the face of God!

A Benediction:          Always remember that you have the power

to transfigure the face of God!

You can wipe the tears from God’s eyes.

You can make God smile.

Reach out with love.

Be the compassionate people God created you to be!

Receive the blessing of  God whose love knows no boundaries,

Christ whose peace you embody,

And the Holy Spirit, whose power breathes

in with and through you,

To transfigure the world with love!

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TRANSFIGURATION – Looking Back at the Way Forward

transfigurationFifteen years ago, I travelled to Newmarket to preach for the first time at Holy Cross Lutheran Church.  It was Transfiguration Sunday and I was preaching for Call.  I knew that the following Sunday the Congregation would gather to vote on whether or not to call me as their pastor.  I’ve been serving as the Pastor of Holy Cross for almost fifteen years and over the years the people of Holy Cross have nourished and challenged me and transformed me into a pastor.  What follows is a transcript of the sermon I preached on that long ago Transfiguration Sunday.  Old sermons reveal our old selves.  While my theology has changed over the years and I would not preach this sermon in the same way now,  I treasure the memory of that hopeful candidate for call.  To the people of Holy Cross:  Thank-you for transfiguring me!  Shalom!

When I was a teenager, I was always in a hurry.  I wanted to see and do everything there was to see and do.  When I was nineteen, I knew that I just had to get out there and see what the world had to offer.  So with nothing more than a backpack, a three month Euro-rail pass, and eight-hundred dollars in travellers cheques, I boarded an airplane bound for Amsterdam. 

I was searching for adventure and I was convinced that Europe held the excitement I was looking for. Inside my backpack was the book that would make it all possible.  Europe on Ten Dollars a Day.  I was determined to make my eight-hundred dollars stretch the length and breadth of Europe.  I was going to see and do it all!  It wasn’t easy.  In fact when I look back on it now, it seems like such a lot of hard work.  Up early in the morning sightseeing all day long. Meeting new people.   Fighting my way through the crowds of tourists.  Searching for cheap places to eat and sleep. 

After two months of travelling from one European city to the next, I just couldn’t face one more castle or museum.  I figured that it was time to get away from the cities so I headed for the Alps. After a long train ride from Munich, I arrived in the Swiss town of Interlaken.  There I boarded a coggle train that would take me to the Alpine village of Grunewald.  The train was filled with tourists anxious to fill their rolls of film with pictures of the mountains, but it was overcast and there were no mountains to be seen. 

When I arrived in Grunewald, I was told that the youth hostel was only about three kilometres from the station, so I and several other young backpackers that I had met on the train decided to walk to the hostel.  What we didn’t know was that the hostel was three kilometres straight up the side of a mountain.  As we trudged up the mountain we were embarrassed by the speed with which villagers three times our age passed us by.  Despite our youth, the Swiss were much more adept at climbing than we were. 

When we finally arrived at the hostel there was much complaining about how tired we were. We were exhausted.  Tired of the demands of travelling.  Too tired to be impressed by the fact that here we were, in a Swiss chalet in the middle of the magnificent Alps.  It was only two-o’clock in the afternoon, but we collapsed onto our beds in the dormitory and promptly fell asleep. 

I remember waking before any of the others in the room.  From my bed I could see out the window.  The sky was still overcast.  But, I was too weary to even be bothered that I couldn’t see the mountains.  I lay there blankly staring as the clouds drifted by.  Then something seemed to flash by the window.  Out of nowhere there appeared a magnificent snow-covered mountain peak.  It hit me like a flash and then it was gone.  It happened so fast that I wasn’t sure whether or not I had actually seen the mountain or just imagined it. 

I knew that the Eiger Mountain should be just outside the window behind the clouds.  I had seen pictures of the Eiger in travel brochures.  I had even seen the movie the Eiger Sanction and marvelled as Clint Eastwood navigated the Eiger’s steep slopes.  But had the clouds really opened up or had I just imagined the mountain It was only a moment.  A moment alone.  A moment that lingers still, to this day.  Imagination or reality?  It doesn’t matter.  The effect was the same.  That moment transformed me from a weary traveller into an energetic explorer. 

The disciples had been travelling with Jesus for quite some time.  They had walked the length and breadth of the arid Judean wilderness.  They had listened as Jesus proclaimed that the Reign of God was near. They heard him declare good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed.  They watched as he healed the sick and drove out demons.  They listened as Jesus told parable after parable that threatened to shake up the world as they knew it.  They felt the sting of Jesus’ rebuke when they failed to understand.  And still they followed this itinerate preacher as he trudged through the desert.

They felt the sweltering heat of the mob as crowds pressed in upon them, bringing their sick and lame to Jesus.  They felt the penetrating heat of the religious officials who rebuked him.  The pressure was on Jesus’ followers to produce proof that this Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter’s son, was really who he said he was.

In the middle of all this, Jesus took time out.  Jesus took Peter, James and John and together they left the demands of the anxious crowds behind and they climbed up a high mountain, by themselves.

On top of that high mountain, something hit them with a flash and was gone.   They seemed to come out of nowhere, and before the disciples could focus and draw it all in, they were gone. Was it really Moses, and Elijah too, that they saw there with Jesus? 

They all agreed that they had seen the same thing.  And that voice — or was it thunder?– that exploded from the clouds and left their ears ringing. “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” As they descended the mountain, the voice still echoed in their ears, “Listen to him…listen to him…listen to Jesus.” 

It was only a moment away from the press of the crowds, but it was a moment that would linger in their minds and hearts forever.   A mystical moment.  An intense and vivid encounter with the holiness and radiance of an epiphany.  And the voice from the cloud echoed in the disciples’ ears, Listen.

Breakfast tastes incredibly good when you eat it in a Swiss chalet surrounded by friends you have only just met.  People from all over the world with just two things in common: youth and an incredible thirst for adventure.  There was only one thing for us to do.  We had to get a closer look. 

So about a dozen of us decided to climb to the top of what was called the Oberaletschgletscher  so that we could get a better look at the Eiger. We had been assured by the hostel manager that we could easily walk to the top of the glacier that lay adjacent to the Eiger and from their the view would be magnificent. So right after breakfast we set off; new found fiends from the farthest reaches of the earth.  Canada, South Africa, Tokyo, England, Finland, Australia,  New York and California, and there wasn’t a real climber in the bunch.

The first part of the journey was pleasant enough.  The alpine meadows were delightful and the conversation was playful.   The switch back trail was a bit more of a challenge as our calf muscles began to feel the strain.  But when we reached the cliffs, I wondered if we were up to the challenge.  Before us lay a series of cliffs into which the Swiss had embedded a series of wooden ladders.  My fear of heights began to surface.  But I was determined to give the first cliff a try.  So one by one we began to climb. Each rung of the ladder was a challenge and I resolved never to look down.  As I climbed hand over fist, step by step, I kept my vision firmly fixed on the butt that was up ahead of me and I forced my self up the cliff one rung at a time. 

When all of us had safely negotiated the first ladder, several people suggested that perhaps we were overreaching ourselves. Maybe the Oberaletschgletscher was more of a climb than we could handle. But the keeners in the group encouraged us to go on. 

After we had slowly made our way up about half a dozen ladders, there was more dissension in the ranks.  But we had come this far and so we headed towards the next ladder.  It was a doozy.  We moved ever so slowly.  I resolved that I had had enough.  Once I got to the top of this ladder, I wasn’t going to go any higher.  As I scrambled to the top, I was relieved that my climb at least was over. My legs were a little shaky as I straightened up and took a look around.  It took my breath away.  There we were on top of a plateau opposite the Eiger.  We had made it to the foot of the Oberaletschgletscher. The view was magnificent. I was awe-struck. 

Our once talkative little group was silent as each of us tried to take it all in.  I found a spot of grass and sat down.  The air was fresh and clear, the sun burned bright, and the snow glistened as though it were a sea of diamonds. 

Over-whelmed by the beauty, no one spoke a word.  I wish I could share the wonder of that moment with you.  It was a glimpse of God’s creative power and majesty.  Everywhere I looked I saw the evidence of God’s grace.  It was truly a once in a life-time mountaintop experience.   One of those rare moments when you are totally conscious of the presence of God. One of those moments that has the power to transform you.

In some ways it was easier for Jesus’ followers.  They were given a glimpse of God’s power, majesty and grace that I envy.  God’s glory was revealed to them in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Theirs was a first hand experience.  To them was given a vision.  A vision in which Jesus was transformed and God revealed that this itinerate preacher from Nazareth is indeed the Christ; the one sent to proclaim the Reign of God. They heard the voice that spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”  They heard Jesus declare good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed.  Their vision made it absolutely clear to them just who Jesus was and the voice from the cloud made it absolutely clear just what it was they were supposed to do:  “Listen to him!”

There are days when I wish that it could be just as clear for us.   I wish that we too could see God’s glory revealed just as clearly as Jesus followers did. I wish that we too could have a vision and that a voice would tell us just what to do.  Not many of us will ever have it spelled out so clearly.  But as I remember my own mountaintop experience, I realize that the voice from the cloud continues to rumble and pound and echo down through the centuries and that if we listen we can hear it today. But in order to hear it, we must take the trouble to listen.              To have the mountaintop experience we must first climb the mountain.  Like the followers of Jesus we must set aside the demands of our life in the world and follow Jesus. 

Today, more than ever, we need to leave our work behind, put down our paperbacks, turn off our TVs, shut down our computers, get away from the demands of our lives and listen. Stop and listen to the voice of God.  Take the time, clear our calendars and pause.  Be still and know God.   The disciples were indeed fortunate to have Jesus in their midst.  But we too are fortunate.  God revealed God’s self to the disciples in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  And we can look to the Gospel to hear the Word as it was revealed by Jesus. But God’s revelation didn’t end with Jesus. The revelation of God’s grace continued through the resurrection of Christ.  And by the grace of God, Christ comes to us through our sisters and brothers.  Today the voice continues to echo from the cloud.  God is here, in this place, present with you and with me in worship and in prayer.   God comes to us in Word and in Sacrament.  Be alert and ready to listen. 

Don’t miss an opportunity to see the beauty of creation in the faces of the Creator’s daughters and sons. Be alert and ready to listen.  Don’t miss an opportunity to hear God speak through the Scriptures.  Listen to the prayers.  Listen to the hymns.  Listen to the voice.  Listen.   And remember that listening is not a passive activity.  To listen to someone, really to listen, means to enter into a loving, caring relationship, where our actions are faithful, where what we do comes from what we hear, where we respect and value the insights and ideas of another, where we listen to another’s wisdom and foolishness, to another’s pain and joy.  And when we refuse to listen, the relationship is soon broken.

Listen and hear the voice of God.  God’s Word comes to us with power and with authority.  When Jesus speaks to us through the Gospels, it may come to us as a great revelation, as if spoken for the first time, spoken only to you. Listen to Jesus!  Hear God’s word of grace and comfort and forgiveness.  Hear God’s word of challenge and commitment. Hear God’s word of law and command.              Hear Jesus’ passionate words of love and acceptance spoken clearly to you. Be alert and ready to listen. Be watchful and attentive. Be ready to absorb all the sights and sounds of Gods grace and mercy.

On a mountaintop in Switzerland, the warmth from the sun woke me from my slumber. My eyes tried desperately to adjust to the vivid colours.  Before me stood the Eiger. I looked out across picture post card Switzerland and I marvelled at the glory and majesty of God’s creation. Slowly I became aware of my travelling companions. 

We had gathered together just a few hours earlier.  We came from the farthest reaches of the earth and each of us felt the wonder of the moment.  There on the top of a mountain a rag tag group of travellers was transformed by a glimpse of God’s glory. 

Without words we began to dig around in our daypacks for something to eat.  With little or no preparation we created a feast from what we were able to scrounge together.  Out of one pack came two apples, out of another a crust of bread, an orange, a banana, a few Swiss chocolate bars and even the remains of a bottle of red wine.  In silence we passed around the ingredients of our feast.

I was conscious of God’s presence with us as we enjoyed this holy communion.  Together we held on to the splendour of those moments.  I don’t think that any of us wanted it to end.  God’s glory was revealed at the transfiguration and the disciples received a glimpse of the power and majesty of God.  It was a moment that transformed the disciples forever. 

Glimpses of the divine splendour of God come to each of us in different ways.  These glimpses of Gods power and majesty are not confined to mountaintops.  Some glimpses come to us in a moment of prayer, or through a word of Scripture, or in the midst of music or praise.  Still other glimpses come to us through a tender word from a friend, a gentle touch of a lover, a word of praise from a parent or a grateful look from a child. 

God’s revelation of God’s love comes to us in all sorts of moments.  Be alert and attentive.  Be ready to draw in the moment and make it your own.  Be alert and listen.  Enjoy and be nourished by these moments, because just like the disciples of Jesus we too must come down from the mountain.   Because the one to whom we listen to in these moments is the one who, proclaims that the Reign of God is near.  The one who we listen to has anointed us to bring good news to the poor.  The one who we listen to sends us  to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.  The one whom we listen to nourishes us on the mountaintop and walks with us down into the valleys. The one whom we listen to transforms us into the beloved children of God.   This sisters and brothers is the Gospel of our God.  Amen.

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The Power of Love: a sermon for Epiphany 7A – Matthew 5:38-48

love enemies erlander

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.

Listen to the sermon: 

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We Have Enemies, And So, We Pray: a sermon for Epiphany 7A on Matthew 5:38-48

Since I was thirteen years old, I have borne the mark of my enemy. It’s faded quite a bit over the years, but if I look carefully I can still make out the marks left behind by, let’s call her, Betty Cherie’s teeth.  Way back in the eighth grade Betty Cherie and I fell afoul of one another. I don’t really remember what it was that started the whole thing.  It was one of those grudges that only thirteen-year-old girls can hold onto with any kind of tenacity. All I can remember is that Betty Cherie and I hated each other and the whole school knew it.

One afternoon our rivalry reached the point of war. I still cringe when I remember it. After all I was thirteen and I should have known better. I’d like to say that she started it. But, I honestly don’t remember how we got ourselves to the point were we were to meet each other in the playground to fight it out. Our adolescent duel took place in full view of the student body. We met at high noon, out behind the portables, out of sight from the teachers. It began with two sworn enemies pushing each other around. There was some hair pulling, I think I even got in a punch or two before she bit me.

I was so shocked that someone would actually sink her teeth into my flesh that I just stood there staring at the blood as it oozed out of my wrist. I wasn’t the only one who was shocked.  My allies shouted in disbelief:  Betty Cherie had rabies and someone had better suck the poison out or I was done for.

Well Betty Cherie did not have rabies. I survived. But for the rest of that year, Betty Cherie and I were sworn enemies. I hated her with all the youthful passion I could muster. I remember wishing she was dead. I spoke ill of her whenever and wherever I had the opportunity. I took delight in every misfortune that came her way. I have never in all my life loathed anyone as much as I loathed Betty Cherie. Even though our lives took us in different directions, I carried the memory of Betty with me. Whenever somebody mentioned the word enemy, Betty Cherie would come to mind. Sometimes when I would wonder what ever became of her, I would find comfort in the sure and certain knowledge that justice would have prevailed and Cherie would have gotten her just reward. I imagined all sorts of misfortune befalling her.

Years later, after I had finished my first year at Seminary, I went home to Vancouver to work for the summer. That summer, I worked as an accountant during the week and some Sundays I worked as a supply preacher. I traveled from church to church learning my craft. It was a terrifying way to spend the summer. Mew churches to become aquatinted with and strangers, who I feared must be sitting in judgment of this new preacher who didn’t have a clue what she was doing. One Sunday after I had finished preaching a decidedly mediocre sermon, I noticed that one of the women in the choir was staring at me. From the look on her face, I figured she must have been so confused by my feeble attempts at proclaiming the gospel that she just couldn’t believe that I was for real. It was more than a little unnerving when after the offering I realized that this woman was still staring at me. I resolved not to look her way until after the service was over. But when I was standing in the narthex greeting people as they made their way to the door, I came face to face with the woman from the choir and sure enough, you guessed it:  Betty Cherie extended her hand for me to shake.

As I stuck out my own hand, I looked down at the faded teeth marks on my wrist and prayed that after all these years, she wouldn’t give me away to what was left of the congregation. Cherie just smiled and asked me how I’ve been. I muttered something about life being good to me. We exchanged some pleasantries and then she was gone. Before I left that church I did a little digging and it seems that the dreaded Cherie had done well for herself. It’s Dr. Cherie now.  She’s a very successful veterinarian. Two lovely children and a apparently husband to die for. Well, I have to tell you I spent most of the ride home wondering why on earth God would shower so many blessings upon such a loathsome creature like Betty Cherie. Where was the justice in that? Shortly after my ordination, I received a card in the mail. The postmark was North Vancouver, but there was no return address. Inside the greeting read: “Dawn.  Congratulations on your ordination. The peace of the Lord be with you always. Your friendly old foe Cherie.”

Sometimes we can learn to love an enemy from our childhood. A childhood nemesis can often be transformed into the stuff from which wisdom is earned. Not all of our enemies become faded memories so easily. Some struggles don’t end with the passage of time. When I think about the people who have been described as our enemies; people like Osama bin Laden and the members of Al Qaeda or the Taliban; terrorists who seek to do us harm, these enemies I find it more difficult to love.  So, I pray for them. I pray not to God as if God were some grand-puppeteer in the sky whose mind I want to change so that She will intervene on behalf of the Western World. I pray because as C.S. Lewis put it, “prayer changes me.” The act of prayer has the power to change me; to make me more compassionate toward my enemies and over time to help me to understand what might drive them to seek to do me harm. Motivated by that compassion, prayer can move us to learn to love our enemies by working for peace, so that all our lives can be better.

So, when I hear Jesus say, love your enemies, I can see some hope for learning to love the likes of Betty Cherie or even the odd terrorist. But there are other enemies that are more immediate that I find more difficult to learn to love. The wounds these enemies have inflicted and continue to inflict have not healed and so I have very little interest in learning to love these particular enemies. These enemies would probably be surprised to hear me describe them as such. Some of them are colleagues; most of them are good church folk like your good selves. Each and every one of them believe in their heart of hearts that their actions and attitude toward me are absolutely appropriate and blessed by God. Indeed, if pressed, I’m convinced that these enemies would insist that God is actually on their side.

I have absolutely no doubt that the best of these enemies simply wish that I, and all those like me would simply go away. The worst of these enemies wish that God would simply get on with it and punish me already, so that I would learn the error of my ways and start behaving exactly the way they want me to behave.

I try to tell myself that these enemies are not really bad people, they are just people who believe that they need to fight to ensure that the church stays exactly they way they believe the church should be and so they are doing all that they can do to hold the church to their standards, while I, and others like me have a different vision for the church. We’d like to move the church into this century. And so, while some of us do everything we can to move the church into the world, others do everything they can to hold the church where it is. While some of us struggle to change the rules, others of us struggle to maintain the rules. All the while, each of us struggle to accomplish what we believe God is calling us to do and to be. So while I pray for change to come soon, my enemies pray that the church will hold fast.

I know that there are some who would say that describing people that we disagree with as enemies is a bit harsh and maybe they are right. But when we are wounded over and over again the perpetrators of those wounds must be seen as enemies otherwise we become our own enemy; setting ourselves up for pain; and a kind of masochism takes hold of us that turns us into willing victims. When we can name our abusers as our enemies, we can begin the difficult task of learning to love our enemies. So, when I go to meetings and colleagues move away or shun me; when I gather up my courage to go to conventions where people say all manner of evil things about me and my kind; I try to see these good church folk for exactly what they are: good folk who wish me ill and who are therefore my enemies; enemies who Jesus commands me to love. Fortunately, Jesus never said that I have to learn to like these folks. But I must learn to love them.  And so, I pray.

I pray for all that I am worth. I pray not to some god who is a grand-puppeteer in the sky hoping to change Her mind so that She will tap these enemies on the head and poof just like that they will begin to see things my way, so that at long last we can become friends. No, I pray, trusting that if I continue to pray, I will be changed. Trusting that if I continue to pray, I will find the wisdom to let whatever compassion is in me grow. I pray for my enemies so that I might be changed into a more worthy opponent.  And by more worthy, I hope, I mean a more gracious opponent; a gracious opponent who is capable of forgiving my enemy.  For if we are to have any hope of ever loving our enemies we must begin by forgiving them. Forgiving is difficult work. Forgiving does not come naturally to us.  Our baser instincts prompt us toward retribution and all too often our actions toward our enemies are controlled by our desire to see them punished.

Desmond Tutu, who has suffered at the hands of enemies far more challenging than any of my enemies, insists that we must give up our sugary notions of the difficult work of forgiving, if we are ever to learn to love our enemies.  Tutu put it this way:  “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones is not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

Tutu’s words point to forgiveness as a task not to be entered into lightly. But a task that is necessary if we are to begin the healing that must take place in order that we might be reconciled to one another. Now, we could wait until we are healed before learning to love our enemies, but I believe that Jesus is calling us to a much more radical way of being in the world. For Jesus insists that we love our enemies. Now. Christ, and by Christ I mean the love of Jesus that lives on in us, the incarnation if you will, Christ is calling us to a radical form of resistance. Christ is calling us to love without limits. To love even those who wish us harm.

And so, we pray. We pray not to a grand-puppeteer in the sky, hoping for him to intervene and change our enemies. We pray to the God who dwells among us trusting that the Spirit who lives and breathes in with and through us, will change us.  We pray in the sure and certain hope that we can be transformed and that compassion can be awakened in us. We pray seeking the compassion to love our neighbours. We pray seeking the wisdom to find ways to forgive so that we can be reconciled one to another.  This dear sisters and brothers is the work Christ is calling us to do. This is the transformation that the Spirit empowers in us, that we might become God’s compassionate children, capable of loving even our enemies so that in the world God loves, peace might break out everywhere.

This is a difficult path that we are called to walk. But we do not walk alone. Our God who is the source of all being walks with us and in us and yes even with and in our enemies. God is with us moving us to a deeper compassion, so that we can move beyond our need for the limits of the law. So that we can live as the daughters and sons of God, so that we can work together to see the beauty in one another, the beauty of all those sisters and brothers who like all of us embody God. This work to which we are called is not easy. But the rewards are many. So let us pray without ceasing. Let us pray for friend and foe alike. Let us pray with words and with deeds, trusting that in prayer the creative powers of the Spirit will work in us so that we may evolve into the embodiment of Christ. 

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D.I.V.O.R.C.E. – a sermon for Epiphany 6A

Aquinas purpose

Readings included: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Thomas Aquinas’ “Otherwise the Darkness’ (pictured) and from the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:21-37 

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Jesus, Gandhi, and MLK – A Very Salty Trio: a sermon for Epiphany 5A

This morning’s readings included Matthew 5:1-12, “What Jesus Means to Me by Mahatma Gandhi (found here) and Matthew 5:13-16. The full text of the Sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can be found here. 

Listen to the sermon here:

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More than Just the Be Happy Attitudes: a sermon for Epiphany 4A

jesusThe Beatitudes: Matthew 5:1-12

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The Beatitudes and the Power of One: a sermon for Epiphany 4A – Matthew 5:1-12

sad EckhartMost us us have heard the words from Matthew 5, known as the Beatitudes, so many times that we can recite them from memory. Indeed, the Beatitudes are at the very core of our Christian tradition. But there is a danger in our familiarity with these words because it allows us to distance ourselves from them as we relegate them to some idealized notion of some unattainable goal.

I have studied these words many times and I do not believe that Jesus intended these words to become a prescription for how to be a better Christian. So, I won’t be encouraging anyone to be poor in spirit, to mourn, or to be meek in the hope that they might gain the kindom of heaven, or be comforted, or inherit the earth. While hungering and thirsting for righteousness is in and of itself a good thing, along with being merciful, pure of heart, and peace-making, all of which I heartily encourage. However, these attributes or beatitudes are not a prescription for holiness or wholeness.

So, if Jesus wasn’t prescribing the beatitudes from atop the mountain, what was he doing? Well, there’s an old storytellers’ ploy that I’d suggest in order to better understand Jesus words. The ploy doesn’t have a name, but most of us are very familiar with the trick. It’s the one where you tell an unfamiliar story alongside of a very familiar story in the hope that the unfamiliar story will help to shed some new light on the words of the familiar story. The unfamiliar story is taken from Bryce Courtenay’s autobiographical novel “The Power of One.” * The Power of One was are into a movie about twenty years ago, so the story may be somewhat familiar.

The story begins in the late 1930s, when Bruce is just six years old. Bruce is an English boy living in South Africa. Bruce’s father has been killed by a rogue elephant and his mother has gone into a sanitarium after the killing of the boy’s father. The little boy ends up being raised by his Zulu nanny and because he is six years old and he should go to school,, she ships him off to boarding school. But the boarding school the boy finds himself in is a school for Boer boys, and the Boers and the English hate each other for reasons too long to go into here. Well, when he founds out that he is the only English boy in this Boer boarding school, he begins to have a bed-wetting problem. Night after night in his anxiety and fear, he wets his bed and it is not long before the other boys find out. The other boys are merciless about his bedwetting because they have to drag his mattress out in the morning and put it in the sun, and so the older Boer boys form a kind of “Kangaroo court” and at night they drag him out and they tie strips of rags around his eyes, and then they have a mock trial, with a mock verdict and a mock sentencing, and since the punishment must fit the crime, they make him crouch down on the ground, where they all urinate on the boy. This doesn’t happen once; it happens over and over again. Finally, when there is a break in the school year and the little boy goes home and he falls into the arms of his Zulu nanny, and he cries and he cries and he cries and her cries and he tells her these terrible things that are happening to him at this boarding school. His nanny tells him to hush, that she will put the word out so that the great medicine man Inkosi Indosikazi will come and with one shake of the bleached bones of an ox, he will cure this boy of the terrible problem of his “nightwater.”

Well, the boy waits patiently, and four days later there comes down the dirt road of their farm the larges black Buick that the boy has ever seen and out of the black Buick steps the oldest man the boy has ever seen, clad only in a loin-cloth and with a rug tucked under his arm. The old man walks over to a tree; he puts the rug down. He sits down on the rug. The farm hands have all gathered around in hushed silence at the great medicine mans feet. The old man looks up and he sees the boy and he says, “Boy, come here Boy!”  So the boy sits down on the rug next to the medicine man, and then the medicine man looks up at the farm hands and says, “Bring me five chickens!” So they bring him five chickens and the medicine man takes the first chicken and he grabs it upside the head and he tips it upside-down, and he draws a circle in the dust with the chicken. Then he sticks the beak of the chicken in the middle of the circle and the chicken falls dead asleep. Five times the medicine man does this with five chickens. Then he goes back and he sits down on the rug next to the small boy, and leans over to him for the first time and says, “You see these people here? They think this is magic. It is not magic; it is a trick, and I will show you how to do it.” Then the medicine man looked up at the people and said, “Take these five chickens. Kill them, pluck them, cook them, we will eat them tonight.” The mesmerized farmhands leave with the five chickens. The medicine man leans down a second time to the small boy and says, “Before I teach you the trick with the chickens, there is this unfortunate business of the nightwater.”

Well, the boy’s heart began to sink, but before it could sink too fast the medicine man said, “Close your eyes,” So the boy closed his eyes and the medicine man said, “It is night. The moon of Africa is bright. You are standing on a ledge. Beneath you there are three waterfalls. The first one plunges into a pool; It sweeps over that pool, Plunges into a second pool: It sweeps over that down and plunges into a lake and on the lake there are ten black rocks leading to a beach of whit sand. Do you see it?”

The boy nodded that he did see it, and the medicine man said, “Then hear it!” And there rushed through the boy the sound of water. There was water in his mind and water in his body and water in his heart. There was water on both sides of him. There was water underneath him, water above him and in the thunder and crash of the water that was everywhere came the voice of Inkosi Inkosikazi, the medicine man and it said to the boy, “You are a young warrior. You stand on the ledge above the waterfalls of the night. You have just killed your first lion. You wear a skirt of lion-tails. You are worthy to be in the honour guard of Shaka himself. Now here’s what you must do, my little warrior. You must dive, and when you hit the first pool you will go to the bottom and you will count “3-2-1” on the way up and you will be swept over that pool. You will go to the second pool: you will go to the bottom. You will count “3-2-1” on the way up. You will be swept over into the lake. You will jump on the first black rock and you will count “10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1” to the beach of white sand. Do you understand?”

The boy nodded that he did. The medicine man said, “Then, my little warrior, dive!” and in the imagination of his heart, the boy left the ledge. He hit the first pool, 3-2-1, He was swept over into the second pool, 3-2-1. Then hew was swept over into the lake, “10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1” Until he lay exhausted on the beach of white sand, with the thunder and crash of the water inside him and outside him. Once again, the voice of the medicine man returned. It said, “You have crossed the nightwater. There is nothing more to be feared. If ever you need me, come to the ledge above the waterfalls of the night, and I will be there.” Then the medicine man leaned down to the boy and said, “Open your eyes!” The boy opened his eyes and the medicine man said, “Now, the trick with the chickens.”

The little boy went back to school. He never again wet his bed, but that didn’t stop them. They were Boers; he was English. Night after night they’d drag him out, but they never could make him cry. For when they tied the dirty strips of rags around his eyes he would take three deep breaths, and there he was on the ledge above the waterfalls of the night, the voice of Inkosi Inkosikazi in his ears. It said, “You are a young warrior. You’ve just killed your first lion. You wear a skirt of lion-tials. You are worthy to be in the honour guard of Shaka himself.” It was then he knew that it was his outer-shell that was to be pushed and provoked but inside was his real self, where his tears joined the tears of all the sad peoples of all the earth, to form the three waterfalls of the night.  This is only the beginning of Bruce’s story. The young boy finds that he is more than the things that oppress him. He finds a space within himself that is transcendent and powerful.

To me this story is reminiscent of how Jesus addressed the crowds in what has become known as the sermon on the mount. The Gospel writer tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds he went up onto the mountain, and his disciples drew close and he sat down and began to teach them. How would Jesus teach them? Would he tell them that in the past there was a great tradition that they had lost sight of, a covenant that they must return to? Would he say that in the future, like John the Baptist had said, there was someone coming with a winnowing fork to hit the threshing floor and split the wheat fro the chaff, or someone coming with a torch to burn the earth, or someone coming with an ax to chop the tree? Would he tell them to return to the past. Would he tell them to fear the future? No, Jesus just looked at them, the crowds, everybody, and he just said to them, “Blessed are you,” and he said it to each of them, “You are the salt of the earth, and you are the light of the world.” Jesus looked at them right in the present moment. But he saw more than this blessedness of salt and light. Jesus saw people in trouble, people who were in trouble but didn’t know that they were  more than they knew, people who didn’t know that they were a blessedness, a salt, a light, people who didn’t know there was a space of ledges able the waterfalls of the night in each person. There were poor in spirit. They lacked zest and passion. They had lost the energy to live, and yet he told them that there was still a blessedness in them. That if they tapped into that blessedness,  they could find it again and out of their poverty of spirit they would come into a richness of spirit known as the kin-dom of heaven.

Jesus saw that they were mourning and he said still there’s a blessedness in you even when you’re mourning and when you’re grieving. Even though we may be grieving and often times feels that grief is the whole of who we are, when Jesus saw people in grief, he saw that there was still in them a deeper blessedness that they could tap into, and from that deeper blessedness they could find a space where comfort would come. Sometimes Jesus saw people who were too meek; who lacked assertiveness in life. But even then there was a blessedness that was there that would teach them a way beyond meekness into inheriting the earth. Looking through the eyes of Jesus, we can begin to see beyond our self-proclaimed weaknesses.

Christ-like vision can move things in us that we miss in ourselves. So many things attack us and pull us down. We are many things; we are a series of roles. We are a psychological history. We are a body that may be giving us pleasure, or may be giving us a lot of pain. We find ourselves in the throes of a weak spirit or of mourning. We find ourselves no longer being salt. We find ourselves a light that has gone out and we lose hope and we lose confidence. Our wounds begin to define us. But using Christ-like vision, we can see that there is something deeper—a light that can be rekindled, a salt that will not lose it flavour, a blessedness that has the power to push into every negative situation and bring about newness, possibility, a way beyond the wounds.

We are so many different things. Sometimes we have to consult the vision of someone who is not us, Someone who sees deeply into our lives and can tell us truths that maybe we have forgotten. The Gospels tell us that Zacchaeus, the little man in the tall tree, Zacchaeus learned to see and to love in himself what Jesus saw and loved in him. And that Peter learned to see in himself what Jesus saw and loved in Peter, And Mary Magdalene learned to see and love in herself what Jesus saw and loved in Mary. Perhaps we should do the same thing, because we are more than we know, a blessedness, a salt, a light.

It is this Christ-like vision that is all too often absent from the church. It’s time to put away childish things. We’ve been fixated on an image of God that we created generations ago. We have created a vengeful, vindictive, violent god who gives us rules and regulations to live by that force us to deny our humanity. Its as if we looked into the deepest, darkest worst part of ourselves and projected all our worst stuff onto our image of God and yet over and over again, Jesus’ teaching reveals God to us and low and behold the Christ-like vision of God is full of love and grace. It’s time for us to once and for all stop worshiping the idol we have created and see through the eyes of Christ to God who is love.

We need to stop worshiping the vengeful, vindictive, violent idol we call God. We can begin to see the God who is love when we do justice and love kindness. It’s time for the church to put away its childish ways, and to finally see through the eyes of Christ so that together we can truly celebrate the diversity of God’s creation. It’s time for us to see the blessedness in each us. A blessedness that is diverse and wonderful. It’s time for us to offer all people a vision of who they are created to be. It’s time for the church to get serious about calling the members of the Body of Christ to be all that God created us to be. For each one of us is more than we know.

SPONG swirlI am convinced, dear sisters and brothers, that looking through the eyes of Christ we shall see that each one of us is a ledge above the waterfalls of the night. Blessed are you! For God is the source of our life, so let us worship God by living. God is the source of love, so let us worship god by loving. God is the ground of being, so let us worship God by having the courage To be more fully human; in all our varied and diverse ways of being human, for it is in being fully human that we embody Christ and when we have the courage to be Christ’s for one another, we can do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. Blessed are you. Blessed to be a blessing.

* I stumbled on this by accident while searching for a sermon. While reading a long-since forgotten commentary a book entitled “The Power of One” was mentioned. I just happened to have a copy of a book entitled the Power of One on my shelf. Little did I know, that there are several books bearing this title and my book was not the one referred to in the commentary. That’s how I ended up scouring Bryce Courtenay’s autobiographical novel The Power of One seeking light to shine on the Beatitudes. The art of sermonizing is a precarious one. I suspect that I’m not the first preacher to make this connection, but I may be the first to arrive at the connection by making such a wrong turn. I may never know what light I may have missed had I travelled a different route.

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Following Wherever Christ Leads: a sermon for Epiphany 3A

This afternoon our congregation is hosting a Blanket Exercise designed to help us to listen to the histories of Canada’s First Nations. Our worship was designed to open us so that we might engage in the exercise with open hearts, ears and minds. Our readings included Acts 10:9-16, 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 and Matthew 4:12-13.

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Following Prostitutes and Christ – a sermon for Epiphany 3A – Matthew 4:12-23

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.

Over the course of the next few weeks I ended up entertaining the women from across the hall a lot. Brenda, Janice and Sue spent almost as much time in my apartment as they did in their own. I learned that they worked in the evenings. From the way they dressed, I just assumed that my new friends worked in a bar or a nightclub. It would be several weeks before I realized just how my neighbours made their money. Brenda, Janice and Sue were prostitutes. They worked the streets at night. By the time I realized who my friends were they were already regular visitors to my home. So I decided that rather than act like a prude, I would just pretend that there was nothing unusual about the way my friends made their living. So Sunday after Sunday, I would head out to the suburbs and attend church with my old friends and then return home and together with my new friends, I would cook Sunday dinner and spend the evening swapping stories. I often wondered what my parents or the members of my church would think of my neighbours. In my heart of hearts, I hoped that I would never have to find out. I didn’t want my parents to meet my neighbours and I never mentioned my neighbours to my friends at church.

Brenda, Janice and Sue challenged all my assumptions about prostitutes. Not that we talked much about how they made their living. We talked more about their hopes and dreams than we did about their lifestyle. One afternoon, Sue dropped by and she began to rant and rave. Sue screamed that she was sick and tired of the way people lived. Something had obviously upset her, and I assumed that it had something to do with how Sue made her living. She demanded to know if I had been to the park lately.  I told her that I walked through the park every day on my way to work. Sue demanded to know how I could stand it.  I explained that it wasn’t so bad if you just watched your step.  Sue’s ranting was elevated to a fevered pitch, “Watch your step! How can you walk through there? The place is a mess!”

I agreed that the park wasn’t up to the usual city standards. Sue insisted that something had to be done. I couldn’t quite understand why Sue was so upset and so I decided to go into the park for a closer look. When I got there I noticed the usual amount of garbage strewn about the place. There were several drunks and addicts lingering and some children playing in the playground. It looked like any other park in a run down part of a city. I headed home, convinced that Sue was just having a bad day.

Brenda intercepted me at her front door and informed me that she and Sue had gathered together a few people and they were going to do something about the mess in the park. I was instructed to meet them the following afternoon at the entrance to the playground. The next day, I arrived at the playground before the others. There were about twenty children playing on the dilapidated equipment. I went in, and for the first time, I took a very careful look around. The kids looked ok. They seemed happy enough playing. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Then I reached the sandbox and I saw tow little boys digging in the dirt and my heart sank. From where I was standing I could see three used hypodermic needles. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do and as I stood there, Sue, Brenda, Janice and several familiar faces from the neighbourhood showed up with gloves and bags.

Brenda handed me a pair of gloves and a bag and without comment this unlikely crew of ours began collecting up the used needles, the broken bottles, and the used condoms. As I collected those things that threatened the health of children that I did not know an overwhelming sense of shame washed over me. I had walked through the park every day on my way to work and even though I thought of myself as some sort of do-gooder type, even though I fancied myself as a good, upstanding citizen, I had either failed to see, or refused to see the plight of my neighbours. But not Brenda, not Janice and definitely not Sue.

Brenda, Janice and Sue are women whom society deems as untouchable. They are part of the mass of untouchables who we have judged as somehow unworthy of our consideration.  Oh most of us wouldn’t be harsh in our judgments. We’re good upstanding concerned citizens and we wouldn’t intentionally harm a flea. But intentionally or not, we would ignore them. Our lives are busy and they live in their world and we live in ours and never the twain shall meet.

The trouble is that our failure to notice people whose lives we have so nonchalantly judged lets us ignore all sorts of people whom, although we are far too nice to actually come out and say it, we probably think we are better than.          Oh sure, there are more than a few of us who wouldn’t be so harsh as to judge them. But we’d certainly agree that, there but for the grace of God go we.          We might allow as how, if only the circumstances were better those people might not have gotten into such a mess and tut, tut over the governments lack of action.

Living in the east end of Vancouver, I got to know all sorts of people who where doing whatever it takes to survive. Brenda, Janice and Sue, were making the best of a bad situation. Although their way of surviving might seem offensive so some, they do care about each other and about their neighbours. I learned a great deal from these women about how to see beyond my own nose. They also taught me a good deal about humility. Brenda, Sue and Janice were good friends to me. Like many good friends, I lost touch with them after I left the neighbourhood. But my encounters with Brenda, Sue and Janice changed me. They changed me and they changed a city. You see after that first clean-up, about twice a week, a group of us would show up to clean up the park. Eventually we managed to shame the city into doing the job. It may not seem like much, but in a forgotten part of Vancouver, there was at least one playground that it was safe for some forgotten children to play.

If we are waiting for Jesus to float down on a fluffy could and sashay up to us and say, “Follow me”, well, we’ll be waiting for a very long time. If you’re looking for thunderbolts and clear directions before you get stuck in, you’re going to be waiting for a very long time.  Don’t get me wrong, Christ is calling each and every one of us to come and follow, to roll up our sleeves and get down to the work of ushering in God’s reign of justice and peace. But, Christ doesn’t come to us as a longhaired, bearded guy, from the Galilee. Christ comes to us in guise of our neighbours, calling us to come and see, look over there do you see, look the children aren’t safe.  The children have no safe place to play. Look, look closely and you will see an empty cupboard, there’s nothing for them to eat. Listen, listen and you will hear mothers crying, fathers weeping as silently as they are able.  They’re working as hard as they can, but they just can’t catch a break. They don’t want a hand out. They don’t want to have to ask for help, but they’re at their wits end. While we ask ourselves,  “What can we do?” “How can we help?” “What should we do?” “How can we make a difference?” “Which way should we go?” Our neighbours are calling out to us:  “Here we are.” “Over here.”  “We’re right here.” “Help us.”

Christ is calling to each and every one of us:  “Drop your nets, leave what you are doing. Follow me and I will show you how to help. There’s so much to be done. You won’t believe how long your neighbours have been waiting for you. You can’t begin to imagine how big a difference you can make.” Christ’s call wells up deep inside of us. It’s that uneasy feeling we get when we see injustice. You know the feeling I mean, the one that makes us uncomfortable; the feeling we so often ignore or put off to some other time.  

Christ’s call also comes from “those people;” the people we usually are able to ignore. Don’t wait for the bells and whistles of a heavenly encounter with a guy from Galilee. Look closely and you will see Christ over there, just down the street, and listen carefully and you will hear Christ biding you to come, come and help. Following Christ to usher in the Reign of God is not nearly as complicated as we like to think. It’s as simple as rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in. It’s as simple as reaching out one neighbour at a time and seeing in them the face of Christ.

There’s no time to waste fishing around for the perfect solution to end poverty. Follow Christ and you will find all sorts of opportunities to lift your neighbours, by simply offering a helping hand, or a willing smile, or a listening ear, or a warm meal. Christ is calling us. So come, let’s follow Christ wherever Christ leads. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get stuck in.  Let us help to usher in God’s reign of justice and peace.  Let us begin by noticing and listening to our neighbours.

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Let Freedom Ring Through You! 

Epiphany 2A; John 1:29-42 Jan.19, 2014.  A sermon in celebration of the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A pdf of the worship bulletin here:

The audio includes the Acclamation, sermon and Hymn of the Day:

Listen to the sermon:

https://pastordawn.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/epiphany_2a-mlk.m4a

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Jesus, the Lamb of God Who Takes Away the Sin of the World? It ain’t necessarily so! (a sermon for Epiphany 2A – John 1:29-42)

Looking back upon what I preached the last time John 1:29-42 appeared in the lectionary, I realize just how indebted I am to John Shelby Spong for giving me the words to articulate my own objections to the label attached to Jesus by a late first century writer also known as John. Most if not all of this sermon is derived from Jack Spong’s work. For more details I would refer you to Jesus for the Non-Religious and The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. We at Holy Cross were privileged to have Jack speak to us about both of these books. In fact a year before it was published, Holy Cross was the test audience for the material in The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. This sermon ought to have all sorts of footnotes, but I trust you will forgive me for simply confessing that I can no longer tell were Jack leaves off and I begin. Suffice it to say that this sermon is my feeble attempt to put Jack’s work into the form of a sermon.

When I turn the gospel according to John and read about John the Baptist pointing to Jesus, saying:  “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  I want to scream,  “NO!” I have come to believe that our images of God are far too narrow. As far as I’m concerned most of our ideas about God fall far short of every even beginning to describe who God might be. One thing I’m absolutely certain of is if we can imagine ourselves being more loving, more gracious, or more merciful that our theology suggests that God is, then we had better go back to the drawing-board and think again. The ways in which we have traditionally interpreted the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, paint a picture of a God who is far less loving, gracious or merciful than you or I. Nobody in this room, would demand a blood sacrifice of a lamb, let alone the blood sacrifice of their own child. So, the image of God that is based on this kind of theology must be judged as inadequate to the task of evening beginning to provide us with a glimpse of who our God is.

As we go back to the drawing-board, we ought to take a long hard look at how we arrived at this image in the first place. Thank goodness for the work of our friend Jack Spong who has enabled us to see beyond the literal to the more-than-literal meanings of the various ways in which the followers of Jesus have understood the life and teachings of Jesus. During the years that followed the crucifixion, Jesus’ followers were left wondering what it was all about. How could someone in whom they had seen the fullness of God, be taken from them in such a horrendous way? How could their God allow it?   What were they to do? Over the years that followed, Jesus’ followers looked back at the life, death, and resurrection of Christ through the lens of their own religious experiences. Jesus’ followers were primarily Jewish and so it didn’t take long for the familiar Jewish symbol of the Lamb of God to be applied to Jesus as a way of making some sense out of his death.  Today most Christians associate the symbol of the Lamb of God with the Jewish celebration of Passover.  While the Gospel narratives do indeed locate the time of Jesus death during the celebration of the Passover, and there is indeed a sacrificial lamb involved in the Passover, the actual phrase “the Lamb of God” comes not from the religious rites of Passover, but rather the religious rites of Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement.  Phrases like “the Lamb of God”, “died for our sins” and “washed in the blood of the lamb” can all be found in the religious rites of Yom Kippur. 

On the Day of Atonement the Jewish people participated in rites that brought to mind their alienation from God. The word sin comes from the Hebrew for “missing the mark” and on the day of Atonement, the people would concentrate on all the many and various ways they had missed the mark in their relationship with God. It was a time of fasting and repentance. Repentance simply means to turn around, in this case to turn away from those things that separate one from God and turn towards God, in order to restore the relationship. Forgiveness simply means restoring to wholeness that which is broken. Yom Kippur was a time to be at one with God.

As an ancient people they practiced ancient customs, which are laid out in the Torah, in the book of Leviticus. The Yom Kippur liturgy required the taking of two animals; they could be either goats or lambs, but by the time of Jesus one was to be a lamb and the other a goat. These two animals were taken to the High Priest. The animals were required to be young, healthy males without a spot, or a blemish or a broken bone. Only the best of the best were to be offered. Since human beings were not allowed to enter God’s presence in their alienated state, they sought to gain access to God by offering a perfect offering. Animals were believed to be morally perfect because they did not have the freedom to choose to do evil and so they were seen as a perfect symbol to be offered to God in place of imperfect people. One of the creatures was chosen by lot to be sacrificed. After being slaughtered this lamb of God was placed on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, the spot in the Temple where God was thought to dwell. The blood of the perfect lamb therefore covered the people’s access to God. They went to God only through the blood of the lamb.

The second animal was then brought to the High Priest. Holding its horns and bowing over it, the High priest began to confess the sins of the people. The symbol here was that as the high priest confessed, all the evil inside the people came out and landed on the head and the back of this animal, making it the bearer of their sins. They newly cleansed people celebrated their purity by saying curses on this sin-bearing creature and calling for its death. However, this animal was not killed at Yom Kippur, instead it was run out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people with it. The book of Leviticus calls this creature, “the scapegoat”.

The Apostle Paul as a way to relate the death of Jesus to the people’s hopes and dreams for Jesus used the use of this Yom Kippur symbol. Paul insisted that the death of Jesus was not without meaning, since his death, like the death of the sacrificial lamb, was for our sins. The Gospel according to Mark added to this Yom Kippur connection by interpreting the crucifixion as a “ransom” offered for many.

Jesus like the sacrificial lamb is seen as paying the ransom required and thereby making further punishment unnecessary.  The identification between Jesus and the sacrificial lamb was complete by the time the 4th Gospel was written some 70 years after the crucifixion, when the author of the Gospel of John portrays John the Baptist referring to Jesus with words taken directly from the Yom Kippur liturgy: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the Sins of the World.” It is from these writings that some of the Christian theories of substitutionary atonement have been derived. 

To this day many Christians believe that though you and I deserve to be punished for our sins, that God sent Jesus to absorb that punishment as a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter. The Jewish disciples of Jesus understood the identification of Jesus the symbolic Yom Kippur sacrifice as a symbol of the human yearning to be at one with God. It was their way of saying that the death of Jesus was not a tragedy, but was a free and complete act of human self-giving. In offering his life without the need to protect defend or preserve his selfhood, they were saying that in the death of Jesus they had caught a glimpse of who and what God is. They had experienced in Jesus life fully lived, loving extravagantly, as having given them the courage to be fully themselves, fully human.

The death of Jesus was therefore originally interpreted as an act of ultimate self-giving that greatly enhanced life. The trouble is that over the years the tradition developed that allowed us to loss site of the symbolism as we literalized their interpretation. More and more of our theology portrayed God as having demanded the blood sacrifice of God’s beloved child in payment for the offences we are guilty of. While Jesus goes willingly to his death, God is still the one who requires payment. Which begs the question, why? If God is so great, if God is so full of grace, if God is so merciful, if God is so loving, why can’t God simply do what God demands of us and forgive, not once but 70 x 70, without demanding any sacrifice?

The projection of a literal sacrifice for sin depends upon a pre-Darwinian understanding of creation. So is it any wonder that for those of us who inhabit the 21st it has become almost impossible to continue to literalize the stories our ancestors told and believe that because somebody ate an apple at the beginning of time, we have all been cursed by the very God we are asked to worship as a loving and forgiving parent. Darwin’s theory of evolution helps us to see the Creator’s hand in our evolution as we become more and more fully human.

So, becoming one with God is not about blotting out the stain of original sin, but rather evolving into our fullness as creatures grounded in the Creator and source of our being. This is what I believe it means to imitate Christ. To look upon the cross and see Jesus living fully, loving extravagantly, whole and complete and yes having his life taken from him the very way so many have had their lives taken from them, wrongfully. There I see an image of God, weeping because we have yet to fully evolve into all that God created us to be.

In the portrait painted in the gospels of the cross,  we see a human life so whole that on the cross he can give his life away.  When betrayed Jesus loves the betrayer; when denied and forsaken he loves the deniers and forsakers, when persecuted and killed, he loves his tormentors and killers. The dying Jesus speaks a word of forgiveness to the soldiers who drive the nails.      Jesus speaks a word of encouragement to the thief who is portrayed as penitent. Jesus speaks a word of comfort to his mother in her bereavement.   This is a portrait of what humanity can be when delivered from our survival mentality, complete and whole so that the life, love, and being of God can flow through our life. It was that understanding of Jesus, I believe, that I believe urged his disciples to cry out that, “God was in Christ!”  This is how God becomes human.

Jesus did not die for our sins. Jesus revealed a God who calls and empowers us to step beyond the survival mentality that warps our potential and to become so fully human that God’s love can flow through us to others.

Our theology must expand our images of God. If we can imagine ourselves as being more loving, more gracious, or more forgiving than the portrait of God painted by our theology, then we must recognize our theology for the idolatry that it has become and dare to ask the tough questions trusting that our God is big enough, loving enough, gracious enough to bless us in our quest. Remembering always that, if God is the source of life, we worship God by living. If God is the source of Love, we worship God by loving. If God is the ground of being, we worship God by having the courage to be more fully human; and thus the embodiment of the Divine.

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A Progressive Christian Wades into the Waters of Baptism

A sermon for the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3:13-17

Listen to the sermon here:

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Baptism A Mystery of the Faith: a sermon for the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus

There’s a definition of what it means to be a priest that has always daunted me. A priest it has been said is “a keeper of the mysteries; a keeper of the sacred mysteries of our faith. People often confuse the idea of mystery with the idea of secret. But I can assure you that as a keeper of the mysteries of the faith it is not my job, nor is it any other priest’s job, to keep the mysteries of our faith a secret. Yes, as an ordained pastor, one of my responsibilities is to be a keeper of the mysteries of our faith. As a keeper of the mysteries I am responsible for ensuring that the community I serve holds those mysteries sacred. We do so, by remembering that the reality that we call God works in, with, and through those mysteries. 

Baptism is considered to be one of the mysteries of our faith. Baptism is a sacrament of the church and by definition a sacrament takes ordinary stuff – water – mixes that ordinary stuff with the Word and in the combination of water and the Word you have a tangible means of God’s grace. God’s grace is revealed in the sacrament of Baptism by the act of our gathering together and mixing the stuff of the earth with the Word. We have only two sacraments in the Lutheran church Baptism and Eucharist, and both of those things are sacraments because we gather together take ordinary stuff – bread and wine, or water and mix it with the Word of Jesus the Christ and in the water, the bread and the wine the means of God’s grace is made visible to us.

So, there you have it the technical definition of the sacraments, the mysteries of Baptism and Communion, in which the reality that we call God works in, with, through and under. But like all technical definitions of mysteries, these definitions fail to capture the essence of the mystery that lies at their very heart; the mystery of the reality that we call God. As a keeper of the mysteries, one would think that a priest, a pastor, ought to be able to reveal, by way of definition something of the nature of the reality of the Divine. The truth is I have no real definition to offer you of this reality that we call God. I read once, I wish I could remember where the wisdom of a priest far more skilled than I who declared that he’d given up trying to explain God to anyone because in the end, he said, “I cannot lead you to God, anymore than anyone can lead a fish to water.”

The most important thing I learned in seminary is that “I don’t know is an answer.” The truth is the more we learn the more we know that we don’t know. But this unknowing can be so unsatisfying, precisely because we believe that God is the one in whom we live and breath and have our being, we want to know the very nature of the One who is the ultimate Reality.

Now, if these words haven’t already become so vague that the veil of unknowing has begun to make any tangible means of God’s grace seem invisible and so beyond our grasp, let me leave the theology behind and tell you a story. One thing I do know for sure is that the shortest distance between the questions of what it means to be human and understanding our humanity is a story.

It happened on a Thursday night. All week long I’ve been thinking about what I would say about the Baptism of Jesus and I wasn’t getting very far. It had been a busy week, with lots of things to do as programs around the church geared up after the lull of the holidays.  After teaching Confirmation Class, I arrived home at about 9:30. The house was empty because my wife Carol was off visiting the grandchildren. It had been a long day, and I quickly got into my pajamas, switched on the fireplace, and settled into my recliner in front of the television. The PVR was full of shows for me to watch and the opening scenes of Grey’s Anatomy dragged me into the complications of lives I would never have to minister to and I began to relax. The drama of medical emergencies mixed with the complications of various love affairs pulled me into a world where there was absolutely nothing expected of me and I was loving it right up until the moment that the telephone rang. Modern technology means that the name of the person calling usually appears on right there on the TV screen so that I can decide whether or not I’m going to answer the call. When the phone rang I expected it to be Carol calling to say goodnight, so I’d already pushed the pause button, expecting that after a quick goodnight I could get back to my shows. By the time I realized that there was no name on the TV screen but only a phone number, it was too late and I was already saying hello. The caller was someone I’d heard from only once before. They were already halfway through a very nasty tale of woe when I realized that they were asking me to come out into the cold dark night.

It was a call for help. It was a call that I had every right not to respond to. I mean the caller wasn’t even a member of the congregation. It was late. I was already in my pajamas. I was annoyed. I mean really. Couldn’t this person have called me before I left the church?  What gave them the right to think that I would come out so late, in the dark, for someone I’d only met once before? The audacity. The sheer audacity of such a request was enough to make you scream. Give me a break.

I listened to the caller’s plight with precious little sympathy. I asked her to hold on for a moment so that I could try to think of a way to help. What I really meant was, “Is there anyone in Newmarket that I can disturb at this time of night and ask them to go over and help?”  Some of members have offered to help in this way in the past. Their names went through my mind as I tried to avoid leaving the comfort of my warm snug. It was only the thought of how annoyed I was to be disturbed at such a late hour that kept me from disturbing a member of the congregation. So, I told the caller to hold on and I would be there in about half an hour.

I was cursing to bet the band as I went upstairs to get dressed. The air was positively blue. I was angry. I was going out in the middle of the night. It was ridiculous. Hell, it was dangerous. Yeah, we were going to meet in a public place. But why the expletive, curse, fill in the blank your self, why the ………blanket blank, should I?

I certainly wasn’t going out of love for my neighbour. I was ticked. I was going because it’s my job to go. Sure I knew that I had every right to refuse to go. But if I didn’t go, my shows would be ruined. How could I possible sit there and enjoy my shows when I knew that someone needed my help. If I didn’t go, I knew darn well I wouldn’t get any sleep.

Jesus was getting a real good tongue-lashing as I searched for something to wear. There’s a joke that some of my colleagues and I often share. Not a joke really, but a line that hints at the ridiculous nature of some of the stuff we are expected to do as clergy. All too often, I’ve looked desperately to the heavens and gasped, “The things we do for Jesus!”

I wasn’t going out there into the darkness to embody the love of God, I was going out there to avoid feeling guilty. I had absolutely no altruistic motives what so ever. I just didn’t want to be tossing and turning all night feeling guilty because I had very sensibly refused to go out on a call that I had every right to make wait until morning. I was in a foul mood and this person wasn’t going to get more than the motions from me. I had no compassion to give. I went into the bathroom to splash some cold water on my face and that’s when it happened.

I bent over the sink and something, someone, somehow, penetrated my self-righteous indignation. As I cupped the cold water to splash on my face I remembered a lesson that I’ve taught Sunday School students, Confirmation students and from this very pulpit. I looked down at the water and remembered the instructions of Martin Luther. Every morning, when you rise for your morning ablutions, as you splash the water on your face, do it three times, once in the name of the Father, again in the name of the Son, and a third time in the name of the Holy Spirit and as the cold water hits your face three times remember your baptism.   Remember that you were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Remember who you are. Remember whose you are.

As I watched the water leak from my cupped hands, I began to laugh at my own annoyance.  As I splashed once in the name of my Creator, twice in the name of Jesus the Christ, and a third time in the name of the Spirit that breathes in me, I remembered who I am and whose I am as the water grounded me in the reality of my humanity.

I didn’t stop at three splashes. I went on to three more splashes. I cupped cold water three more times only these three times I did not repeat the words, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. With these three splashes I repeated my name. At our baptism we are named.  And so remembering my baptism I said my name, the way my mother or father used to say it when they were annoyed with me, “Dawn Lesley Hutchings.” One of the strange things about middle names is that apart from legal documents, they are rarely used outside of church. Except when we are in trouble. For when we get into trouble, parents find our middle names very useful indeed. I always knew that I was done for when my mother called out my first and middle name.

To hear Mom call me, “Dawn Lesley” was all it took to strike fear into my heart. I hated to hear my parents call me “Dawn Lesley.” Dawn Lesley was the kid who is always getting into trouble.  To this day, if my mother is annoyed at some part of my behavior all she has to do to indicate her disapproval is to say, “Dawn Lesley” and I am immediately a child, her child.  Even though Dawn Lesley is indeed my “Christian” name, I never would want to hear any kind of god call me Dawn Lesley, cause if I hear that, I’ll just assume that Divinity itself not well pleased with me. What I want the Ultimate Reality to call me, is by the term of endearment that my parents used when they wanted to communicate just how much they loved me. You see my Dad’s Welsh and my Mom is Irish, and for them, the most endearing way to call someone was simply with the word love. Even though, they live thousands of miles away, I can clearly hear them call me, “Love.” On the phone, “It’s how are you love.” Or, “I miss you love.”  “When are you coming home love?” Or, “Don’t worry love.”

There is no more tender way in the world for a parent to refer to their child. Except for boys. My parents rarely called my brother, “Love.” No, they have a different term of endearment for my brother. It too is uniquely British. Where Mom and Dad called me “Love” they called my brother, “Son.” “You okay Son?”  How are you Son?” “Don’t worry Son.” “It will be all right Son.”  “We love you Son.”

So, maybe it’s just my British heritage, but when I read about the Baptism of Jesus, I can’t help but marvel at the fact that when Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism, and the heavens open up, and the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice from heaven is heard to speak, you don’t here that voice say, Jesus name. You don’t hear, “hey everyone this is my boy Jesus; Jesus of Nazareth.” What you hear instead are the words beloved and son, followed by the declaration that a loving parent is well pleased with a beloved son. “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I AM well pleased!”

“SON.” “LOVE” “I AM delighted with you!” What could be better than that?           “SON, LOVE, you please me to no end.” What could be better than to hear the God who is love, call you LOVE?

That’s what happens each and every time someone is baptized. I may have gone into the waters of baptism as Dawn Lesley, but I came up out of those waters as “Love.” Each of you came up out of those same waters as God’s LOVE, God’s beloved with whom God is well pleased.

But it doesn’t end there, not for Jesus, and not for you or me. We come up out of those waters as God’s beloved children, and we have lives to live. Each of us has to lead the life of the beloved. And it doesn’t take very long for us to begin to doubt that we are God’s beloved. Some of us find it increasingly difficult to hear God’s voice. But let me assure you, that just as my parents never tire of calling me LOVE, God never tires of speaking to us. It doesn’t end with our baptism. It may be difficult sometimes to hear, but God continually says to each of us, “You are my beloved daughter.”

“You are my beloved son.”

“I love you with an everlasting love.”

“I have molded you together in the depths of the earth.”

“I have knitted you in your mothers’ womb.”

“I’ve written you name in the palm of my hand and I hold you safe in the shade of my embrace.”

“I hold you.”

“You are mine and I am yours.”

“You belong to me and I belong to you.”

“You are safe where I AM.”

“Don’t be afraid.”

“Trust that you are my beloved.”

“LOVE that is who you truly are.”

One thing that truly mystifies me is that the voice of God is so soft and gentle.          Scripture calls it a “still small voice.” From the Hebrew “bat qol” which translated literally is the “daughter of a sound.” The daughter of a sound is an intimate voice. It comes from a very deep place. It is soft and gentle. Each of us needs to gradually hear that voice. It tells us who we are and whose we are. That still small voice,  that daughter of a sound, is where the spiritual life begins. Our spiritual lives begin by claiming the voice that calls us the beloved. Once we claim that voice the relationship grows.

People ask me all the time, how to go about developing their spirituality. It begins with listening and hearing the voice and claiming what the voice says as our truth. Then we need to live the life of the beloved.

One of the marvelous things about the baptismal rite is that we declare to the baptized that they are ordained to the priesthood we all share. At your baptism each of you were ordained to the priesthood, the priesthood we all share with Christ. We are all keepers of the mysteries of the faith. We are all called to love as we have been loved. That’s the good news.

It was close to midnight when I got home on Thursday night. I hadn’t done very much at all, just offered a listening ear, a drink and a little food. I took far more from our meeting than I gave. I can’t lead anyone to God any more than any of you can lead anyone to God, anymore than we can lead a fish to water. For we are all just like fish in water, each of us live and breathe and have our being in God.

All that we need is to notice: to live fully, breathe deeply and to be all that we can be, for we are LOVE.    

Benediction:

Hear the Daughter of a sound,

the still small voice of our God who says,

Daughter, Son, Love,

You are my beloved.

I love you with an everlasting love.

I’ve written your name in the palm of my hand

And I hold you safe in the shade of my embrace.

You are mine and I am yours.

 

Receive the blessing of our

Love,

Beloved,

and LOVE, now and always. Amen.

 

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Don’t Forget the Mystery of Our Faith! 

Christ Has Died. Christ Is Risen.

Christ Will Come Again, and Again, and Again, and Again…

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas: 

Readings:  John 1:1-9; Thomas 70; Matthew 2:1-12

Listen to the sermon: 

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YOU are the Light of the World: an Epiphany sermon

Maybe it’s because I’ve directed too many Christmas pageants, but when I hear the story of the Magi visiting the baby Jesus, I don’t think of three kings at all. No visions of regal visitors decked out in their finest riding atop camels guided by a star for me. Just memories of little boys, decked out in colourful shiny robes that threaten to trip them up, giggling and roughhousing, with their cardboard crowns askew. Of all the little boy kings that I’ve tried to corral one of them stands out from all the rest. Perhaps I remember him so well because he was so little that we couldn’t have him knell at the manger for fear that he would disappear into the hay and our audience would only see two Wise Guys paying homage. Or maybe it was the speed with which he dashed in and out of the gang of shepherds who threatened to trip him up with their crooks. But I really think it was the ingenious way he solved the problem of his lost gold, that makes little, for the purposes of this sermon let’s call him Jay, stand out from all the other little boy kings.

Little Jay’s mother, like all the mothers of all the kings, was responsible for creating a facsimile of the gift her wise son would bestow on the baby Jesus. Unlike some of the feeble efforts that I’ve seen over the years, Jay’s gift of gold was a cut above the rest. Inside an elaborately carved box that his Dad had picked up on his travels to the Middle East, Jay’s mother had placed upon a bed of statin a carefully created block of wood wrapped in golden gift paper. It positively sparkled.  It must have impressed Jay, because he was forever opening up his box to show his fellow cast-members his treasure. During the dress rehearsal, Jay’s performance was perfect. Jay positively perfected the art of gazing up at the makeshift star that hung above the altar just east of our makeshift manger. When he arrived at the place where the newborn baby Jesus, who just happened to be a little girl that year, Jay strode right up to her mother Mary and opened the box containing his treasure and proudly announced his gift of gold for the new born king. They, whoever they are, say that if the rehearsal doesn’t go well then the performance will be wonderful. So, I was more than a little worried when our dress rehearsal went off so splendidly because that could mean only one thing, and I wasn’t looking forward to a performance where things went wrong. Sure enough, unbeknownst to me, on the morning of his big performance, somewhere between his home and church, Jay lost his golden treasure. All he had was an empty box when he showed up at his father’s pew wailing because all was lost. Jay had no gold to give to the baby Jesus.

This story reminds me of a story that Joan Chittister tells that I’ve told you before but like all good stories it is worth telling over and over again. It’s the story of a Sufi master who was found scratching through the sand in the middle of the road. “What are you doing?” some pilgrims asked the Sufi as they passed. The old Sufi looked up and said, “I’m looking for my treasure. I’ve lost it.” the old man said.  So the pilgrims, good people all dropped to their knees to help. They sifted sand.   They dug under stones. They sweat under the waxing midday sun. Until, finally, hungry, soaking wet and exhausted, one of the travellers asked of the Sufi,      “Sufi, are you sure you lost your treasure here?” And the old man said, “Oh, no. No, I didn’t loose my treasure here,  I lost it over there on the other side of those mountains.”

The pilgrims looked at him with a kind of a growing, creeping despair and said, “Well if you lost it on the other side of the mountains, why in the name of Allah are you searching for it here?” And the old man said, “I’m looking for it here because there is more light here.”

So many of us, find ourselves searching for lost treasures. We have been trained to expect that that which we lost will be exactly where we left it, or at the very least somewhere close to where we left it. We return to the place where we think we last held on to the treasure that made our lives better. The only problem is that all too often our treasure has moved and our hopes of finding it right where we left it are nothing more than vain longings, because that treasure that we lost is no longer where we’d expect to find it. Too many of us gaze up into the sky desperately seeking a star that will shed the light we need to illuminate our problems.

But the light we need, the light that once worked for us, is not to be found up there in the sky, and even if it were to be found in a star, we need more than starlight to illumine our way. We need a more intense light, a brighter light than some far off distant star if we are to find our treasure; the treasure that will enable us to live our lives more fully alive.  So, we must return to the story and shift our gaze from the heavens and look more closely at the Wise Ones who traveled to greet the newborn Christ child. It’s difficult to see past the star. We know this story so very well that it’s almost impossible to find a new way of seeing. Think of most of the nativity scenes you’ve ever seen and there they are three kings, holding three gifts huddled, kneeling, bowing, offering their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I’d always thought of these wise guys selecting their gifts before they left Persia.  I mean they’ve seen a star in the sky, that portends the arrival of a newborn king and they stop what they are doing and leave their lives behind to follow that star.  But what if they came without gifts to give. I’ve done it. We’ve all been there. You arrive at some event or other and you realize that you should have brought a gift. So you look around your car or in your purse and you find something anything to give; finding nothing you might have to pop into the nearest drugstore or grocery store, whatever is open what ever is handy to find something anything to give.

Now three wise guys setting out on a long journey, would of course have brought along some treasures; if only to trade with the locals for necessities. So, what if it went down like this:

They’d arrived, and there he was this beautiful newborn child in which lay the hopes and dreams of a world gone made with violence, greed and lust for power; this little child was the hope of the world.

Touched, moved, overwhelmed by their encounter with the beauty of this child in the midst of the poverty and insanity of the world, they reached into their respective treasures and gave what they had as gifts for the child; generosity born in these wise ones as a result of an encounter with the beauty of a newborn child. Giving the most precious gift they have as a result of being overcome by hope for a future filled with something other than what has always been.

Little Jay was overcome with grief over the loss of his gift of gold. What could he possible do? There was no time to go home and make another gold bullion.  The nativity play would be ruined. All was lost. He’d looked everywhere he’d been. He couldn’t find the treasure he was expected to give. It was not where he had left it.  So, Jay’s Dad did the only thing he could do, he dug down deep into his own treasure to find a gift to give. He opened his wallet and looked at the bills; money, perhaps a few twenties would do the trick; modern gold? And then he saw it; the most precious treasure of all. It was a bit battered from its time spent in his wallet but it was after all his most valuable treasure; so he placed it in Jay’s box so it could be given to the newborn Jesus.

When the time came, Jay bowed regally before the babe and little Emma smiled up at him, as he proudly lifted the lid of his beautifully carved box and offered up the treasure that lay inside. The audience couldn’t see what I saw, but it was a treasure more valuable than gold. For nestled there upon a bed of satin, was a slightly worn photograph of Jay. What gift could be more precious that the gift of one’s self?

We spend too much time looking to the heavens convinced that our treasure lies there waiting to be bestowed upon us by some king in the sky. The truth rests more securely closer than we have ever imagined. Our treasure cannot be found looking up into the heavens. Our treasure lies deep inside of our being. Our treasure lies waiting to be given to a world in need of such treasures, as we have to give.

Shift your gaze from the heavens for the light of the world shines forth from you. Look around you and you will see the Light of the World in your neighbours. You are the light of the world oh people!!! Shine forth, for the world has need of your treasures. You may not be prepared, you may not think your ready, but deep within you lie the treasures this world needs, creation is waiting for you. The most profound words spoken in any nativity pageant are the words, “do not be afraid”….”fear not”.

We’ve spent far too long looking into the heavens for treasure. The light is over here; and here; and here; in you and you and you, and me. There’s a quotation that has often been credited to Nelson Mandela, but it was actually written by activist Marianne Williamson. It speaks to the world’s need of our very selves. Williamson writes:

What holds us back in our lives is our fear.

And sometimes when you take a very close look

you find out that your fears

aren’t exactly what you thought they were.

 Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.

 We ask ourselves,

who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other

people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest

the glory of
 God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,

we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.


As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

So it’s holy work to move past your own fear.

It doesn’t just help you.

It helps the world.

I suspect that Williamson’s words speak to us so profoundly because we’ve all said to ourselves: who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?
Humility is all well and good, except when it gets in the way of generosity so when you hear yourself saying to yourself who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?
Remember to say right back to yourself:  Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Fear not, dear ones. For you are children of God. The treasure you seek to give lies not in the heavens, but here, deep inside. Open yourselves up and give the world the treasures creation needs. You are the light of the world. Shine!  Shine! Shine!

Epiphany Benediction: 

Fear not, dear ones. For you are children of God.

The treasure you seek to give lies not in the heavens,

but here, deep inside.

Open yourselves up

and give the world the treasures creation needs.

You are the light of the world.

Shine!  Shine! Shine!

Let the Light of Christ

the Love of God,

and the power of the Holy Spirit

shine forth in you!

Amen.

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The Journey of the Magi never happened and yet it is always happening.

An Epiphany Sermon, preached in 2008. I had just read “The First Christmas” by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. Our congregation played host to Dom Crossan a month before I wrote this sermon. So, Dom’s insights run through this effort. But the heart of this sermon beats as the result of a sermon preached by Bruce Sanguin a self-proclaimed evolutionary christian who is a United Church Minister (Canadian Memorial Church, Vancouver). I had the privilege of meeting this modern mystic while on sabbatical this summer and his compelling way of unlocking the scriptures using the wealth of the christian tradition together with the insights of modern science and psychology borders upon the poetic. This sermon was anchored by Sanguin’s words (Epiphany 2007). Sermons are a “live” event. So, this manuscript is an approximation of what was actually preached.   

Just five days before Christmas (2008), The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Doctor Rowan Williams, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion started a firestorm.  During a BBC interview, His Grace was quoted to say that the story of the “three wise men is a legend”. The Archbishop was also heard to say that he remained unconvinced that there was indeed a star that led the legendary trio to the birth place of the Christ Child.

If that wasn’t enough to send folks off the deep-end, it has been revealed that the Presiding Bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church The Most Reverend Doctor Katherine Jefferts Schori, who just happens to be the first woman elected primate in Anglican history, has fanned the flames of the fire-storm by sending out what has been judged by some to be an incendiary Christmas card.

I downloaded a copy of the offensive card, so that you could see for yourself. Her Grace’s choice of card has offended the good deacons of Ft Worth Texas who claim that their Primate’s actions defy explanation. As you can see the wise folks depicted on this image look a lot like women. Can you imagine the nerve of the first woman primate! How could she be so bold as to select such an offensive image? Leave it to straight talking Texans to set things straight: for despite the audacity of the Primate, the Texans have pledged to “stand for the traditional expression of the Faith.”

I must confess, that I deliberately chose our opening hymn. I wanted us to sing “We Three Kings” so that the traditional interpretation of this Gospel story would be fresh in your minds. It’s a lovely little song; I’ve been singing it since I was a child. It’s a lovely little song about a lovely little story; a story that’s been embellished over the centuries. A song that conjures up images of Caspar, Melchoir and Balthazar riding atop their camels, following the star to the stable where the baby Jesus lays waiting for their precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh .

But, at the risk of offending our Texas cousins, I’m afraid that I much prefer to imagine the possibility that the magi may have been women, and although I would use the Archbishop of Canterbury’s exact words, I too believe that these events are not historical. And I don’t mind telling you, that despite the efforts of the biblical literalists to pinpoint the star or to determine the identity of the magi, I don’t believe that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew ever intended his readers to take this story literally. But, I do believe that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew did intend for us to take the story seriously. Very seriously indeed. For the writer of the Gospel of Matthew is trying to put into words that which words cannot explain.

The writer is trying to express the wonder that was experienced by those who encountered Jesus of Nazareth; an experience so real, so amazing so life transforming that only the language of parable could hope to capture even a hint of who Jesus was, is and ever more shall be.

The story of the magi’s visit is a parable; and like all parables it is a story that captures a timeless and enduring truth about the human condition. I don’t believe it actually happened. But then I don’t believe that the parables of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, actually happened either, but they couldn’t be more true. 

That’s right, the visit of the magi never happened and yet it ‘s always happening. This wonderful tale of three astrologers scouring the heavens for signs of new happenings on the planet captures the imagination of every generation. You see, we humans are meaning-making creatures eternally searching for the Mystery at the heart of the universe that dignifies and enchants our lives. Human beings just can’t help trying to understanding the meaning of it all. We are constantly trying to understand the how and the why of existence.

But alas the indignity of our modern times lies precisely in our being told that the cosmos—this universe in which we live and move and have our being—is essentially purposeless, without meaning or direction.

There’s this thing that some people call Scientism afoot that threatens our ability to see beyond our noses. Scientism is the religion of those scientists who refuse to concede that the phrase, “I don’t know” is sometimes the only answer that we have. Scientism is science that slips into an ideology of materialism—an ideology of materialism is the idea that every thing and every body is nothing more than the random collision of atoms and molecules. Scientism is the assertion that we and the universe are nothing more than  a cosmic fluke of enormous proportions going nowhere in particular. According to the dictates of scientism: any meaning that we might attribute to our existence is therefore just that—our own arbitrarily generated attributions of purpose to a journey to what is at the end of the day nothing more than the purposeless march of time. Unlike science, that provides for the possibility of a creator, scientism would have us believe, that there is no meaning behind our existence, we simply randomly evolved and we will someday randomly devolve, or dissolve into a pile of dust. (Sanguin)

That’s why I love the parable of the magi’s visit! For these ancient astrologers had their own ways of determining meaning,“the heavens are telling the glory of God, and the earth proclaims God’s handiwork”. A new star appears in the heavens and for those with enchanted hearts, it means that God is on the move—something new is about to happen.  So they chased down the star, to see this thing that God had done.

Unlike our ancestors, we live in a culture in desperate need of enchantment and awe. We are so meaning-starved as citizens of the Western world in the 21st century that we chase after almost any kind of novel spiritual movement.             The pendulum swings from scientific materialism to the latest cult so starved are we for spiritual re-enchantment. In our state of spiritual hunger we’ll accept any morsel from the smorgasbord of new age spirituality. But there are few among us who would take seriously the study of the stars. Apart from a fleeting glance at our own horoscope, we’ve long since given up the notion that there’s any wisdom in astrology.

But what of those modern day magi who study the stars, what wisdom can we gleam from the astronomers of our day who peer into the sky seeking the answers to our riddles? We may no longer care if the moon is in the seventh house or if Jupiter is aligned with mars, and I don’t even know if this is still the dawning of the age of Aquarius, or if we’ve moved on to some other season of the Zodiac, but I’ve heard tell of  black-holes, the death of stars, and light-years.

The sages of our age, the astronomers who seek meaning from the skies are not all so quick to subscribe to the big bang theory of randomness. For they have seen great things in the sky and there are many among this wise folks who insist that the cosmos is infused with meaning and purpose—Indeed, they tell us that  stars and the planetary bodies participate in this journey of cosmic meaning.

Those sages who are engaged in scientific study are not all followers of scientism. The notion of a creator, a first cause, or a driving force, dare we say God, as the power that drives all of existence is seriously explored by the wise folks of academia and science has refused to exclude the possibility. And yet there is the illusion afoot that the followers of science find faith incompatible with the pursuit of meaning. When the truth is that scientism seems to be the choice of those who have given up or forsaken the pursuit of meaning. Science itself would seem to deny scientism!

More and more, scientists, are beginning to speak out and more and more academics are joining the chorus of those who insist that there is indeed a power at work in the large-scale structures of the universe, in the evolutionary unfolding of the planet, and in our own personal and collective lives. To pursue knowledge is to continue the journey of the magi who pursued light, the timeless symbol of knowledge. To follow the light, to go where wisdom and knowledge lead, is to seek the answer to the age old questions: Where do we come from and where are we going?  Why are we here?. You don’t need to be a scientist or an academic to ponder the secrets of existence. Like the magi, we too can seek the light. Just as the magi gazed up at the light in the heavens and followed it to the place where it lead—and found the Christ-child—we too can follow the light in our own lives.

Scientist Brian Swimme has a theory, a theory that coincidently, theologians and priests have been taking about for centuries. Swimme calls his theory the principle of allurement. According to this theory there is a power at work in the universe that works by alluring one body to another, until eventually all bodies are drawn into the very power that provides the force of allurement. (Sanguin)

In simple terms it works like this: five billion years ago, our planet became fascinated by an enormous star, a million times its own size. The earth spends a billion years just hanging out in its orbit in a relationship which physicists actually call adoration. There is something about the star that has the capacity to awaken this planet, and the planet gives this source of allurement its undivided “attention”. When it figures out how to make a chlorophyll molecule, the love affair really begins. Through photosynthesis, the earth, discovered how to convert the sun’s light into the energy required for the procession of life to emerge. This is why the earth found the sun’s presence so alluring. The sun had the capacity to awaken the latent potential of the planet earth to come to life. (Sanguin)The theory of allurement isn’t confined to astronomy, it dips into to theology and from the priest come palaeontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, it borrows the notion of the Omega Point. The Omega Point is the completion and perfection of all creation to which we are being drawn, no-coercively, gently, and in a way that respects our freedom. (Sanguin)

How do we find our way to the Omega Point?  Well that’s the real beauty of this theory, you see it’s described as a completely natural process that kicks in the moment we decide to trust this Power—this power that goes by many names, you and I are bold enough to call this power God, some call it Wisdom, but there are other names. (Sanguin)

The point of the Omega Point, is that all we must do is to follow the way of the Magi and look for the light. Physicists call this quest for the light, “attending to our allurement”. The dynamic of allurement is a powerful force in the psychological make-up of the human being. (Sanguin)

Each of us is drawn by this mysterious force toward what for each of us provides ultimate meaning for our lives. If we resist the force, ignore it, deny it or fight it we loose our way. Like the Magi we must follow the light.

Think of the Christmas presents you were given as a child that charted a course for your life; the lego set for the future engineer, the microscope of the future biologist, Gretsky’s first hockey stick, the artist’s first set of water-colour paints. For me it was the books; those wonderful, marvellous books, that lead me through the words to The Word, and back to words about The Word.

The light shining in the darkness can draw us toward divinity, with books, music, other people, world events, dreams; anything and everything may function as the light. The spiritual journey involves following the light to its source—like the Magi.

God has made it easy to find God. The points of light to guide our feet to the Christ are as numerous as the stars in the sky. The essential skill to hone is the capacity to notice your life.

As you begin to take notice of your life, an enchanting awareness may surface—that there is a Mysterious Power at work weaving together all the various strands of your life into a unique and beautiful symmetry or tapestry.

The next step—after noticing that there is this Light guiding your path—is to set out upon a conscious spiritual journey. Become the Magi. Load up your metaphorical camels and set out across the landscape of your soul to where it is that the light stops. (Sanguin)

Here’s a little secret pearl of wisdom to take with you on your way: There is no single, final destination that we’re ever going to arrive at in our lifetime. Do you think that the Magi’s spiritual journey was over when they arrived at the stable—that they found Christ and then stopped growing spiritually? Don’t you believe it!

Christ is the ever-present light of our lives, beckoning from the many stars that allure us, calling us toward our own divine image and inspiring us to give our lives as an offering so that all of creation may continue to evolve. Evolution is not random; each of us has a unique role to play. But let’s not be naïve. Each of us possesses an inner Herod who doesn’t like that we’re paying homage to any king other than our self. The story of the Magi got this detail exactly correct. Something within us resists God—call it ego if you will—but there is something within us that thinks that it alone deserves gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It does not want to worship or pay homage; it wants to be on the receiving end of both and will go to great lengths to make it happen. It wants to know where the light is leading, not to submit to it, not to give thanks, not to sing praise and be in awe, but rather to scope out it’s rival, in a vain attempt to outshine it, or even destroy it.

Herod is also found in our families, and in our social, political, economic and religious systems. Herod is present as the power of domination. Herod hates the fascination of others unless it is directed toward him. Herod—within and without—refuses to serve any higher power; Herod refuses to fit in, to take his place in grace. Herod will try to rule the show.

But fear not. Your inner Magi is very wise. And just like the parable teaches us, Herod may summon the Magi in an effort to find out where the light is leading.  Herod may pretend to want to offer gifts.  But another light shines upon the Magi. An angel; a messenger speaks to the Magi in a dream, warning them not to cooperate with Herod. The Magi ignore Herod, leave their gifts with the Christ child, and head home by another path.

This is the path of Epiphany, then; the “other” path, the path of spiritual wisdom that trust the light, follows it wherever it may lead, discerns the wily, violent intentions of the inner Herod, and returns home—always home—to the heart of God.

So, you see, the story of the Magi’s journey, never happened, and yet it is always happening. May the light of the world lead you home! Always home—to the heart of God!  Amen.

 

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So this is Christmas: Rachel Weeping!

“A voice was heard in Ramah sobbing and lamenting loudly: it was Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, for they were no more.” Matthew 2:18

Matthew 2:13-23 seems like such an offensive text to be reading so soon after Christmas. And yet, this gospel text, known as the “Slaughter of the Innocents” is indeed the prescribed lesson for the first Sunday of Christmas.  Amid our celebrations, and in the midst of the gospel writer’s account of the birth of Christ, this horrendous story of the slaughter of innocents begs the question:  WHY? It’s Christmas for heaven’s sake! My preaching professor, used to remind us of the first question that we should ask when we are preparing a sermon on a particular text. After reading the text over several times,we were encouraged us to ask the obvious question. “So What?”

So What? Well for this child of the sixties, only one Christmas song comes to mind when I read of the slaughter of the innocents, it’s the one Christmas song that asks the question:    So What? We’ve just celebrated Christmas? So what does this mean? Please listen. “So this is Christmas?”


John Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980. Shot by a deranged fan. And so is it any wonder, the melancholy why in which he sang this song, haunts our Christmases? So, what possible difference can Christmas make? We haven’t even had a chance to finish our celebrations and the news is far from good. Thousands continue to die in Sudan, Palestine is a mess. The people of the Philippians continue to suffer in the aftermath of disaster. Militants in Afghanistan are growing stronger despite the presence of foreign forces, violence and death are the order of the day in Syria where hundreds and thousands have been slaughtered.   Millions have died in Darfur and still the world cannot find a solution so today thousands more will se-come to starvation and genocide. The war on Terror rages on as one side scores points on the other at the cost of human flesh and the word “drone” has taken on a horrific meaning.  AID’s continues to ravage Africa and still we withhold the money and the medicines that could save millions. Hunger continues to claim the lives of the poor despite the fact that we have more than enough food to feed the world. Poverty continues to enslave millions the world over.

And so this is Christmas, and what have we done?

For we are the ones to whom a child was born.

We are the ones to whom a saviour was given.

A saviour who is Christ the Lord.

A saviour sent to provide hope to the world.

And we are the ones in whom Christ lives.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, for God has done great things for us!

Christ lives and breathes in us.

So, we are the ones God has sent to save the world.

So, this is Christmas and what have you done?

Clearly we have work to do!

The work of Christmas has barely begun.

If the slaughter of innocents is to end, we had better get busy.

Rachel is weeping for her children.

And God knows why she weeps.

Rachel weeps because her children are no more.

And Rachel, their mother, refuses to be comforted.

Rachel’s children—our children, yours and mine—born for love and mercy, die from neglect and ugliness and Rachel weeps bitterly. There’s a little book of prayers called: “Children’s Letters to God”. The prayers in that book have the power to make you smile and cry all at once. The very first letter to God in that book reads: “Dear God, in Sunday School they told us what you do. Who does it, God, when you are on vacation?” We may smile, but sometimes it feels as if for all intents and purposes, God is on vacation. For surely God would not stand idly by and allow so many innocents to perish?

Once we broaden our images of God; the source of our being, the One who dwells in us, we can begin to see that the place where we have traditionally located the Divine One changes from up there to in and around here and we can begin to seek God not out there but within and around us. If God is on vacation, it is because we are on vacation. For the Divine one works in, with and through us to sooth the pain caused by violence and greed.

So, let me assure you sisters and brothers, our God is not on vacation. Despite appearances to the contrary, our God is not absent, but God is surely weeping. For in Christ God showed us the way. The Christmas story insists that our God is in-fleshed and dwells among us.  This changes everything. It’s not enough to pray with words expecting some far off deity to change the world. The changing of this world will happen when we begin to live into our full humanity and the sacred nature of our very being shines forth with LOVE. In, with and through us is how the LOVE we call God changes the world.. For we are God’s people on earth; Christ’s body on earth and it is through Christ’s body that God will save the innocents. There’s no time for us to waste feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems. It’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and get busy.

There’s a song that helps me to remember the hope born in Bethlehem. These Hands

 

And so this is Christmas… Rachel weeps.  We’ve been on vacation long enough. Our God has taken on flesh and dwells among us!  It’s time for the work of Christmas to begin again. We are God’s hands!

 

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Tell Us About God. We Have Almost Forgotten: Christmas Eve sermon 2013

Listen to the Christmas Eve sermon  

Christmas Eve sermons are a challenge for any preacher who takes the gathering of folk on a dark and holy night seriously. I am indebted to Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Parker Palmer, Michael Morwood, Matthew Fox, and Michael Dowd for much of the inspiration for this sermon. 

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Keeping Christmas Well: a Christmas Resurrection Story

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

The icy weather is playing havoc with the usual hustle and bustle of the season. Usually, the church’s season of Advent offers a sanctuary from the endless demands of preparation for the big day. Our Christmas traditions, if they are to be maintained, require a great deal in the way of preparation. But there’s one Christmas tradition that I’ve been enjoying since I was a child that requires little or no preparation save for the effort to carve out the time, when time seems to be in short supply. Somehow over the years, I’ve never missed the opportunity to watch the old black and white version of Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. There is of course only one portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge that will do.

Alistair SimIf it’s not Alistair Sim, it’s just not Scrooge.  I usually wait until Christmas Eve to watch the movie. But this year I found the time to read the book and I’ve got to say, there is much in Dickens exploration of Christmas that  I’ve been missing over the years. 

In the words of Charles Dickens:  Ebenezer Scrooge “was as cold and miserly a man as one could ever meet. “He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation on Christmas Eve is nothing short of a miracle. Scrooge was a broken man. Broken, years before the story begins. The women he loved, Belle, broke her engagement to him one Christmas, she tells Ebenezer, “you fear the world too much. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the mast passion, GAIN, engrosses you.”

Belle doesn’t tell us how this fear of the world developed. She doesn’t tell us what Scrooge’s nobler aspirations had been. We don’t know what made Belle fall in love with Scrooge in the first place—but we do know that whatever it is, it is gone now. As the Ghost of Christmas Past moves through Scrooge’s life we catch glimpses of what may have broken him – a distant father, the death of his much loved sister, his exposure to wealth in the first place – but we are never quite told what made Scrooge the man he is at the beginning of Dickens’ tale. All we know is that Scrooge is broken and greed and anger have possessed his very soul. Scrooge’s life was broken. While he had all of the wealth, and then some, that any person might need – he was miserable.

I used to think that A Christmas Carol was the story of Scrooge’s metamorphosis. The scene in the movie were Scrooge realizes that it is Christmas morning and that life doesn’t have to be the way it has always been and he does that wonderful dance and sings: “I don’t know anything!  I never did know anything  all on a Christmas morning!” I always thought of that wonderful dance as the culmination of Scrooge’s metamorphosis, like a butterfly bursting forth from a cocoon. But now I see it for what it really is.  It is a dance of resurrection. For Scrooge was dead. Dead and gazing at his own tombstone, when suddenly, and suddenly for me always indicates the work of the Spirit, suddenly, Scrooge realizes that what he is seeing are only the shadows of things that might be. Suddenly, Scrooge knows “that men’s deeds foreshadow certain ends. But if the deeds be departed from surely the ends will change!” Scrooge is born again and is able to declare with confidence, “I’m not the man I was.” And so, the resurrected Scrooge becomes all that God intended him to be. Scrooge’s past didn’t go away—the hurtful Christmas memory of Belle ending their engagement, all of the ill-spent years somewhere between the party at Fezziwig’s and the visit of the spirits would still be a part of Scrooge’s life, resurrection doesn’t erase the past, but transforms the future, hope becomes part of the resurrected life! And so, Scrooge reborn, becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old City ever knew…and it was always said of Scrooge “that he knew how to keep Christmas well!” Knew how to keep Christmas well. Keeping Christmas well is very different than celebrating Christmas. Keeping Christmas well is about resurrection; resurrection of our very selves. I always thought of that wonderful dance as the culmination of Scrooge’s metamorphosis, like a butterfly bursting forth from a cocoon. Keeping Christmas well is to forget what you have done for other people and to remember what other people have done for you. Keeping Christmas well is to see your neighbours as just as real as you are, and to try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hearts hungry for human connection, for dignity, for love and for joy. Keeping Christmas well is the realization that the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life. Keeping Christmas well means closing your book of complaints against the management of the universe and looking around you for a place where you can accomplish some good. Keeping Christmas well is remembering the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old; it means not worrying so much about how much your friends love you but asking yourself whether you love, honour and care for them enough; it means stepping down from your pedestal long enough to see that you are not the centre of the universe;  it means bearing in mind the things that other people have to bear on their hearts; trying to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you; it means burying your ugly, destructive and selfish motives and nurturing your nobler ones.

Keeping Christmas well includes the realization that your generation is not the last generation; that you have received an astonishing inheritance given by God, that your very next breath of life is pure gift; that all your various abilities and capacities were knit together in your mother’s womb and you had nothing to do with this original blessing, and that the bounty planet earth offers—its beauty and majesty – are both a wondrous blessing and an awesome responsibility; it’s the realization that you have duties to perform as citizens of a free nation in a dangerous world; that matters of war and peace are not just problems for others to solve; that much, if not most, of what goes on in the space around you depends upon your choices and your actions. 

Keeping Christmas well is about being fully alive to all that life has to offer and being gracious in your responses to this amazing grace  and living into all that God created you to be. When you keep Christmas well you are willing to believe that forgiveness is the doorway to a hope-filled future;

that mercy reflects God’s nature; and that love is the most powerful thing in the universes—stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death! Keeping Christmas well is living with the knowledge that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. e Scrooge’s metamorphous began, dancing and singing:  “I don’t know anything, I never did know anything, all on a Christmas morning.”  To keep Christmas well you must first realize that in the grand scheme of things you don’t know anything. For then, in humility, you can see the hope that lies in the manger. The hope of resurrection.

Scrooge knew how to keep Christmas well, may that be said of all of us. And as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us everyone!      

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Cheap, Small, and Plastic: a Christmas Eve Sermon for Progressive Christians

I have been asked to post last year’s Christmas Eve sermon. You can listen to it or read a transcript.  The progressive version of God Rest Ye Progressive Christians appears in the transcript. I searched without success for its source. If you know who wrote it please let me know.

Listen to the sermon


Last night, while suffering from a serious case of writers’ block, panic set in as I desperately struggled to figure out what to say to you all this evening. I’d spent most of the afternoon in my office, reading and re-reading chapters, articles and sermons, searching for a way to express the inexpressible. Christmas Eve is a challenge for a preacher. You all know the story so well that there’s nothing new that I can say.  Then there’s the fact that many of you don’t make it to church all that often, so we preachers kinda want to make our Christmas Eve sermons something special, in the hope that we might just inspire you to come back some Sunday morning. Add to that the fact that we at Holy Cross fall in to a category of Christianity that has been called “progressive” which means that we’re pretty clear on the fact that the Christmas stories in the New Testament  are full of metaphors and symbols that point to various truths about the nature of the MYSTERY we call God, as well as truths about ourselves and our life in the world.

As Progressive Christians living in the 21st century, we are fond of using the best scholarship available as we study the scriptures and so we know that the New Testament stories about the birth of Jesus are not actual historical accounts of the events of Jesus’ birth. So, last night as the panic began to get the better of me, I did what writers do when we are in the midst of a serious block, under the threat of a looming dead-line, I looked for a way to distract myself in the hope that if I gave my brain a rest, something might occur to me. Well by the time I made it back to my computer, I was determined that I’d throw caution to the wind and write a very informative, scholarly sermon which would give you all a progressive Christian view of the nativity. But you can all relax because, thanks to the arrival of an email, you have all been saved from Satan’s power. The email was from a colleague in  Australia for whom the Christmas Eve deadline had already come and gone, so he was feeling more than a little smug about having finished his sermon. His message to me came in the lyric of a song, which I’d love to sing for you. But most of you know that with my singing voice it is better that I just read to you what he wrote:

“God rest ye Progressive Christians, let nothing you dismay.

Remember there’s no evidence that there was a Christmas day.

When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say.

Good tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact;

Good tidings of rea-son and fact.

 

There was no star of Bethlehem; there was no angel song.

There could have been no wise men for the journey was too long.

The stories in the Bible are historical-ly wrong.

Good tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact;

Good tidings of rea-son and fact.

 

Much of our Christmas custom comes from Persia and from Greece.

From solstice celebrations of the ancient Middle East.

We know this so-called holiday is but a pagan feast.

Good tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact;

Good tidings of rea-son and fact.”

Well after singing that over to myself, I shut down my computer and went to bed. I went to sleep longing for the good old simpler days, when my brother Alan and I could enjoy our very own Christmas Eve tradition of watching the old black and white version of A Christmas Carol; the one were Alistair Sim plays Scrooge. I told myself that if I just went to sleep, something would come to me and I’d wake up knowing just what to say to you all on this night of nights. So, I dozed off with Alistair Sim’s Scrooge dancing in my head and singing, “I don’t know anything. I never did know anything. But now I know that I don’t know. All on a Christmas morning.”

It may not have been the ghost of Christmas past who visited me last night, but it certainly was a Christmas from my past. I must have caught a glimpse of it earlier in the day, when the box of Christmas decorations was hauled upstairs. It’s a small thing really. Something I bought to adorn my very first apartment. You see, my first apartment was just a small studio, everything in one little room, so there was no room for a Christmas tree. So, I decided that if I couldn’t fit a tree in there, I might just be able to manage a nativity set. But I didn’t have much money to spare and all the nativity sets I liked were outrageously expensive and then one day I saw it on a store-shelf, a tiny little nativity that I could actually afford. It had been marked down, from $16 to $12.95. From where I was standing it looked like it had been carved out of the finest wood. I knew that I just had to have it. When I reached out to take it off the shelf, I realized that it was actually made of plastic and suddenly the $12.95 price tag seemed way too much to pay for this mass-produced piece of plastic. But the longer I looked at it the more I knew that my little apartment needed it. Would you like to see it?

It may be small. It may just be a cheap imitation, but when I look at it I see all the hopes and dreams of all the years as they are told in the story of stories. No more ghosts visited me in the night, but just like Ebenezer Scrooge, I woke up knowing just what I had to do. You see Scrooge wasn’t the only movie that my brother and I used to watch. Alan was particularly fond of science-fiction movies. Sometimes, when he would manage to convince me to watch one of this movies with him, I would complain after just a few minutes in, that the premise was just too unbelievable; I mean really nothing like that could ever actually happen. Alan would remind me that you don’t have to believe them; you just have to watch them, go with the story, see where it takes you. When you really think about it, many of our best-loved stories never actually happened the way we tell them. Take Scrooge for example; does any one of us actually believe that Ebenezer was really visited by three ghosts?  We know that it is a story that never actually happened the way it has been told to us; and yet it has the power to take us somewhere, to move us as we watch the incredible transformation of old Scrooge and we too are moved to keep Christmas well.

One thing I do know for sure, is that you can tell if a story is any good; if its taking people somewhere, or if its moving them, or transforming them – simply by how often the story is told. Really good stories, like the stories about the birth of Jesus have not only been told over and over again for generations reaching back some 20 centuries, these stories have been told in scared places on holy days. The stories of Jesus’ birth have been elevated to the category of myth. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that myths are not true. On the contrary myths have the power to communicate truth. A myth is only untrue when it is presented as a fact. Myths are so much more than just mere facts because myths have the power to tell us the truth about the deepest mysteries of life. Myths are metaphors about the very stuff of life and they have the power to help us to understand what it means to be human. Joseph Campbell who spent most of his life studying the myths of the world defined myths as metaphors about human life. It may appear that myths only describe great external events like the creation of the world, or the union of the human with the divine, or a miraculous birth, an heroic act, or an against all odds struggle,  or a tragic death or a mysterious resurrection. According to Campbell, myths derive their power to communicate truth because they are really stories about the things that go on inside of us; in here, right now, rather than “out there” somewhere in the distant past.  “Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance.  Deep inside, we long to understand the mysteries of life and relationships both human and divine. On a good day, most of us are functioning at a conscious level and carry around with us baggage that we usually manage to confine to the realm of our unconscious self. Stored within our unconscious self are all our personal memories, our experiences, our desires, our fears, our urges, our compulsions and our deepest longings. Jungian psychologists would tell us that in addition to our personal unconscious self, each of us is also deeply connected to what they call our collective unconscious.  Our collective unconscious is the place where the baggage of the whole human race resides. Carl Jung described the collective unconscious as our “collective closet”. According to Campbell, myths are born in the deepest realm of our collective unconscious.

The actual contents of our myths are different from one culture to another; but some of the same fundamental motifs that deal with the mysteries of birth, life, death, and certain forms of rebirth and renewal run through the great myths of the world. The difficulties with myths occur when we get hung up on believing in them as facts. When we refuse to look beyond the metaphors to see the truth to which they point. It’s kinda like standing in front of a painting. We don’t stand there and ask is this painting true or false?  Did this scene really happen? These kinds of questions miss the whole point of the artist’s work. We need to approach myths in the same way as we approach art. Does this painting touch me? Does this music move me? Does this movie inspire me? How does this work of art change the way I think about life? Great myths like great art move us, touch us, and transform us in the deepest realms of our being.

I believe that the stories about the birth of Jesus have been told over and over again, on holy days, in sacred places for 20 centuries precisely because they tell us something about our God and ourselves that has the power to transform how we live in the world. In the stories of Jesus’ birth we learn that our God is intimately involved with the stuff of life. In the stories of the child born in Bethlehem, we learn that our God is born among us and dwells among us.

And so on this Holy Night: we declare that long ago, a child of questionable parentage was born under very precarious conditions, born to homeless wanderers, in a place fit for animals.  Tonight we declare that this strange birth had cosmic dimensions. The night skies lit up, celestial voices and songs were heard by nearby shepherds; why even the planets aligned themselves so as to attract the attention of far off astrologers. Tonight we proclaim that this child born in poverty, in dangerous times, under such precarious circumstance is also Divine. We have the audacity to proclaim this because of all that we have seen and heard in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The stories told about Jesus’ birth could only become myths because the people who first crafted these stories had experienced the power of the life and witness of the Man Jesus. We know that this Jesus proclaimed a message of justice, love, and peace. We know that Jesus taught a radical new understanding of the nature and character of our God who is LOVE. We know the LOVE of God because Jesus lived that LOVE in his very being. No matter what the people did to Jesus, he loved them. No matter what they said to him, Jesus loved them. Jesus was denied and Jesus loved those who denied him. Jesus was betrayed and Jesus loved those who betrayed him. Jesus was forsaken and Jesus loved those who forsook him. Jesus was tortured and Jesus loved those who tortured him. Jesus was killed and Jesus loved those who killed him. With his life Jesus personified the Love of God. And so, when the people came to tell of this amazing life, they remembered him in the way that their neighbours always remembered exceptional lives and they cast a star in the sky, described an incredible union between the human and the divine, and a birthing filled with challenges, and set the whole thing to music sung by a celestial choir.  Each one of us has a deep desire, a hunger, a longing to be born in a whole new way, and tonight, Christmas Eve, the story of Jesus birth, declares that we can be born to a new level of awareness. For tonight Christ is born in us all.

The stories of Christmas are not about miracles. The stories of Christmas are not concerned with facts or reason. The story of Christmas is about the love of God interacting with human life to create in human life wholeness, the ability to live fully, the capacity to love extravagantly, the courage to be everything that we are capable of being. The story of Jesus birth points us toward the truth that lies in the power of God in Christ that enables us to live and love and to be. Jesus of Nazareth lived a God-filled life, a life committed to love. The power of the myths surrounding the birth of Jesus opens our hearts to the possibilities of living our lives filled with the love of God. Because the truth that the Christmas story points to is the very real possibility that each and every night a child is born is a holy night. The story is so powerful, so true that even a small, cheap, plastic, nativity scene can move us beyond ourselves to the heart of the story where we are too can awaken to the reality of our God who is Love. By embodying the LOVE of God, Jesus of Nazareth changed the world. The stories of the birth of Jesus remind us that we too are called to embody the love of God. We are all born with the power and the potential to touch our world in such a way that it will be a more just and humane place for our having been here. On this holy night, dear sisters and brothers, may Christ be born in us all.

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The Power of Love Who Lives In Us: a Christmas Eve Sermon

A sermon preached on Christmas Eve 2011 

It has been said that the shortest distance between humanity and the truth is a story.[1]  Tonight, as we celebrate the greatest story every told, we also celebrate our own stories. As families gather and festivities progress we will tell our stories to one another; stories that move us to a deeper understanding of who we are; stories that in their own way compliment the greatest story ever told. Every family has them, those little stories that we love to tell one another because they remind us of our deep connections to one another or reveal a truth we treasure in one another. Christmas is a time for stories old and new, stories grand and glorious, happy and sad stories that will cause us to remember, to laugh and to cry.

So, this evening, my story, like the story of Jesus birth, begins with the stories of two pregnant women. The Jesus’ story begins with the stories of Elizabeth and Mary, two cousins who were great with child. My story begins with the news that two of my nieces Ashley and her sister Sheri Lynn, were also pregnant. Ashley was expecting her first child, Sheri Lynn her second. My niece Sheri Lynn’s little girl is my great-niece Isabella.

Isabella is just 3 years old and last month she and her mother, Sheri Lynn, travelled here from Vancouver, so that Isabella could be the flower-girl at my wedding. Before they arrived the story was already being told of Isabella’s response to the news that her Aunt Ashley was going to have a baby and that that baby was going to be a little boy. Isabella proudly announced that her Aunt Ashley’s little boy was going to be her new little brother. Well meaning adults tried to correct Isabella by gently telling her that her Aunt Ashley’s little boy would in fact be her cousin and not her brother. But Isabella insisted that he would be her brother. Various family members tried to convince Isabella that the baby her mommy was expecting would be her little brother or her little sister, but the little boy that her Aunt Ashley was expecting would be her cousin. But no matter how hard or how often they tried to explain it, Isabella went on insisting that her Aunt Ashley’s new baby would be her brother.

One day, while they were visiting, I snapped at the chance to look after Isabella while her mother did some sightseeing. I had some errands to run and it was marvellous to have a little 3 year-old along to help me. It gave me the opportunity to do some great-auntie stuff. And that’s how Isabella and I ended up in the local Christian bookstore trying to find a lightweight nativity set that she would be able to carry home with her on the airplane. I wanted her to learn to tell the greatest story ever told in her own unique way.

After a lot of negotiating, we settled on a rather large cloth nativity set that folded up into a sort of carrier for all the various characters and animals. Once we’d purchased the Nativity set and one or two items that only a 3 year-old could convince me were necessary, we headed out to the car so that Isabella could make fun of my feeble attempts to figure out just how her car-seat worked.

Isabella insisted that we open up the nativity set right away. So as she got herself into her car seat, I struggled to remove Mary, Joseph, a shepherd, some wise guys, a sheep, a donkey, a cow and a little swaddled baby, from the confines of their 21st century packaging.

I don’t know who comes up with such impossible packages. Mary and Joseph almost didn’t make it and Isabella reminded her dear old auntie Dawn that there are some words that good girls are not supposed to say or her Mommy will get really mad. Suitably chastened, I rescued Mary and Joseph and suggested that we put all the characters into the cloth stable until we got home.

Isabella reluctantly agreed to put all the characters away except for the small swaddled baby. Compromise is everything when you are dealing with a 3 year-old. So I warned Isabella not to loose the baby Jesus, and got into the front seat and we headed home.

On the way, Isabella told me her version of the greatest story ever told, which involved Santa Claus following a star, carrying a list, and giving Jesus lots of gold because he was poor and needed some new clothes because his Mom didn’t pack enough in his suit-case when they went to the airport. So Joseph was going to go to the store and buy new pyjamas for Jesus.  So everyone better be good, and watch out or else they won’t get any new pyjamas for Christmas.

Clearly, I had some work to do, but just as I was about to tell Isabella the greatest story ever told, she asked me if Auntie Ashley would have her new baby for Christmas. I told her that she would indeed have her new baby for Christmas. Isabella then told me that she was going to buy some new pyjamas for her new little brother. I was about to remind her that her Auntie Ashley’s new little baby would be her new cousin and not her new brother, when Isabella announced that she has two little brothers. “Auntie Ashley’s little boy and baby Jesus are her brothers.” Who in their right mind would dare argue with that logic?

The truth is that Jesus is indeed Isabella’s brother and so of course her Auntie Ashley’s little boy will indeed be her brother as well. As I was ruminating over this gospel truth, Isabella announced that “all little boys are her brothers and all little girls are her sisters.” Out of the mouths of babes.

We gather here on this Christmas Eve to celebrate the fact that all little boys and girls are brothers and sisters. It is this truth that we discover in the life of the baby born so long ago, and born over and over again each and every day. “In the birth of Jesus we discover a life that embodies the essence of what life itself is all about. The God we meet in Jesus is not some otherworldly creature confined to the upper reaches of our imagination. The God we meet in Jesus is the primal life force that surges through all living things.  This life force comes to self-consciousness in human life and was somehow uniquely seen in the fullness of Jesus whom we call the Christ.  The power of God that we meet in Jesus is expressed as the power of love that always expands the levels of consciousness in which all of us share and into which we evolve as we become more deeply and fully human.[2]

In Jesus we meet a brother who is at one with our God, who embodies the Love of God, who inspires justice and peace among the peoples of God. In Jesus we see a life fully lived, even though he was hated, rejected, betrayed, and killed, his light could not be extinguished. For in Jesus we see a life in which the goal, the dream, the hope of all life is achieved. And even when the darkness of death overwhelmed Jesus, the power of life resurrected Christ, for Christ is life eternal, without beginning, without ending, here and now; it is the secret of creation. It is the goal of human evolution.

Here in the life of Jesus we glimpse the immortal invisible most blessed most glorious almighty life-giving force of this universe in startling completeness in a single person. Women and men tasted the power that is in Christ and they were made whole by it. They entered a new freedom, a new being. They knew resurrection and what it means to live in eternal life now. So they became agents of that power, sharing those gifts from generation to generation, creating and re-creating, transforming, redeeming, making all things new.  They searched for the words to describe the moment when they recognized the fullness of the life force that lived in Jesus. But words failed them, so they lapsed into poetry, into myth, into story and song.

They gave us the story of the birth of the life-force in a person, complete with angelic choruses, befuddled shepherds, virgin birth, and no room at the inn. They told of stars and oriental kings, of gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And they did not forget the pretence of power that threatened the life of every child, so they wove a maniacal king together with a bungling bureaucracy, until swaddling clothes and an empty manger became the refuge of the innocent from the loveless.  And so the greatest story ever told, moves on.

The child born in poverty grows, in our hearts and minds and we too see the power of love in the life of Jesus; we to are inspired to reach out in love by the power of Christ that lives on in each of us.

Isabella’s little brother was born just last week. Little Lincoln arrived with all the fanfare of the 21st century, heralded by emails, facebook posts, digital photographs and phone calls. My family has so much to celebrate as stories of Lincoln’s birth begin to echo down through time. Isabella has a new little brother who just happens to be her cousin. Lincoln will have the best of everything and shall want for nothing and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But on this holy night I can’t help wondering about all of Isabella’s brothers and sisters. What about the brothers and sisters born all over the world this night, where there is no warm welcome? What about the brothers and sisters born all over the world this night, who will have to struggle to survive, because of poverty, injustice or war?

These brothers and sisters beg the question that breathes life into to the greatest story ever told. Our sisters and brothers all over the world need us to be the best that we were created to be, so that God can dwell in, with and through us.   For the Christ child lives in, with and through the love we embody.

Let us make sure that the Christ in whom we meet our God lives on in the love we share with our brothers and sisters. Isabella got it right:  “All baby boys are my brothers.”   “All baby girls are my sisters.” They all need pyjamas, they all need to be nurtured and loved, taught and treasured, freed and empowered and they are all looking to us, their big sisters and brothers, to help make love happen.  God has blessed us everyone… in Christ, God dwells in our lives. May your life story be entwined with the greatest story ever told so that your life can live forever more, and all the world may know the power of the Love of Christ who lives and breathes in, with, and through you.


[1] Anthony de Mello, SJ, One Minute Wisdom, NY: Doubleday, 1986, p.23.

[2] Miriam Williamson, “A Return to Love”

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The Nativity: A Parable So Simple a Child Can Understand It! – a sermon for Advent 4a

Historian and spiritual philosopher, Ian Lawton describes the dilemma of those of us who seek to put a “little reason into the season” this way: “Picture the scene. Mary and Joseph are huddled together in a manger surrounded by farm animals. Joseph is drifting in and out of various dreams. Angels fly in and out of the manger singing songs and bringing earth-shattering messages. Three eastern kings gather around Mary and Joseph with gifts. Out of the window a large star can be seen in the day sky. Two sheep sit beneath the window having a conversation. One says to the other, “I don’t know why you’re being so stubborn. Let me go through this one more time. The virgin is having a baby. They’re naming him Jesus because of a dream. Angels told them that their baby would become the saviour of all humanity. Kings travelled hundreds of miles to find the place of birth like a needle in a haystack because they were led by a giant star moving through the day sky.  Now which part of this are you having trouble believing?” The Christmas story is fantastic in the literal sense of the word.  It is mostly fantasy.  Which parts of it do you have trouble believing?

You’re in good company.  This story is as unlikely as talking sheep. The laws of nature tell us that sheep don’t talk, virgins don’t have babies, stars don’t travel across the day sky and then hang like a blip over one home and angels don’t sing choruses. Even if a reliable source suggested that something happened that broke the laws of nature, you would demand evidence and there is little evidence for the details of the Christmas story outside of the Bible which has contradictory details.  All in all, the Christmas story is highly unlikely. But don’t let details get in the way of a good holiday story, right? If you’re like me, you’re torn between the desire to be true to your common sense that is skeptical and your heart that just wants to let the story be a good story.  The good news is that you can have both. You can question the literal account of the story AND you can enjoy the timeless message of the story. You can put a little reason into the season, and still take a yuletide joyride of inspired meaning. The Christmas story is mostly myth, but the message is real and powerful.”

Since the end of the first century, some 1900 years now, the Christmas story has been told. Lately the church has become a little embarrassed by the way in which this story has been told. All sorts of experts have weighed in to tell us that it could never have happened the way we all remember it. Biblical scholars, historians, theologians, bishops, pastors, professors even scientists have cast doubt on the details of the story of the nativity. But even though we know how impossible some of the details may be we cling to this power of the story.  Despite the wisdom of the experts, regardless of our doubts this story still has the power to stop us in our tracks. No other story or image is more recognizable to people the world over than the Nativity scene of the birth of Jesus. The images of an angel announcing the birth, a virgin responding in faith, a carpenter leading a woman on a donkey to a stable in Bethlehem, cumulating with Mary and Joseph gazing fondly at the baby Jesus, while the shepherds look on and the heavenly host sing their praises, these images are crystal clear to all of us. The story is part of us; it’s in our bones. Every year this story causes our lives to shift from the routine of winter, to marveling at the wonder of it all, as we enter into a sacred time, where families are drawn together, and strangers greet one another with kindness and from near and far the hope of peace on earth is a dream shared by us all.

Now, I know that somewhere in the deepest darkest recesses of our being, or for some of us, just beneath the surface of this dream, the wisdom of the experts causes a shiver to run across our spines as we wonder how the hope for peace on earth can possibly lie with such an unbelievable story. That shiver used to haunt me, until the day I recognized the power of the truth that lies in the story of the birth of Christ. It happened a few years back, when my youngest niece Sheri Lynn was about three years old. I have three nieces and over the years I’ve gained a bit of a reputation as their eccentric auntie. I can’t help myself, my love of stories and books just oozed over into my role as their auntie. And so to mark every occasion in their little lives their dear old Auntie Dawn showered them with books. Before every birthday, every Easter, and every Christmas every special occasion I could be found in the children’s section of the bookstore, scouring the shelves to find the perfect book that told the perfect story. My family used to tease me mercilessly and insist that I ought to get those little girls something they could play with. But only books were good enough for my nieces. So, you can just imagine the collection of books they have that tell the story of the Nativity. My family are not churchgoers, so on Christmas Eve I used to go to the Midnight service before heading over to my brother’s house to spend the night. Well the year that Sheri Lynn was just three, I arrived at my brother’s house at about 1:30 in the morning. My brother and his wife, my parents and my nieces were all safely tucked up in bed. On the dining room table were the remains of the milk and eating the cookies that had been left for some other visitor. I poked my head into the room where my youngest niece was sleeping. Little Sheri was snorting as little ones do when they sleep. In the glow of her nightlight I could see a rather unusual gathering on the floor by the foot of her bed. Standing upright on the floor was a large picture book opened to show a picture of an empty stable above which a star hung in the night sky. Beside the book was a doll’s cradle; inside the cradle was a naked doll covered only in a tea-towel. Sitting proudly with their legs sprayed out as if they were doing the splits were what could only be Mary and Joseph even tough they looked a lot like Barbie and Ken. Surrounding this scene were all sorts of little people, some smurfs, a few princesses all, no doubt, standing in for shepherds and angels. The most wonderful part was that all of God’s animals were there,  not just the donkey, the sheep and the cattle, but giraffes, zebras, horses, pigs, lions, tigers, turtles, alligators, elephants, hippos, bears and even an alligator and a snake. It was just as the prophet Isaiah had foretold a peaceable kingdom were all the animals lived in peace together and where the lion would eat straw with the ox and the wolf and the lamb would lie down together. The great thing about toddlers playing with animals is that in their minds all of the animals can play together. Sheri Lynn knew that the giraffe eats leaves because I saw her holding it up to the Christmas tree so that it could feast.  She knew that the horse and the cow and the sheep and the chickens lived over at the Fisher Price farm and that some of the other animals lived aboard Noah’s ark, and that snakes and alligators could be very scary indeed, but on this night all the animals played together, and all of them gathered together at the baby’s cradle to love and to warm and to care for the child, who lay naked and vulnerable before them. Sheri Lynn had created an image of the Nativity story; an image whose details weren’t exactly correct, but an image that told the truth about all our longings during this most holy season.

So, if your struggling over some of the details of the nativity story, if the experts have left you perplexed, cynical or worried, do not be afraid, for I bring you tidings of great joy. The story is true, every last word of it is true. For this story is a parable and like all parable’s it represents a truth that cannot be fully expressed in words. Like all good parables the truth is not to be found in the details, but rather in the Spirit of God that breathed life into the parable. It’s a parable about so many things, but most of all it is a parable about peace on earth. Now there are many down through the ages that have tried to weave stories of peace on earth, but none so everlasting as this. Yes, some of us would have rather have had a road map or an expert to set us on the path to peace. But alas all the experts have failed in their efforts to guide us. The truth that they impart has been rejected. So once again we are left with this story. A story so simple that even a child can understand it. A story that depicts the truth that was experienced by those who walked and talked loved and learned from Jesus and the truth echoes through the centuries and the message is clear to everyone who has ears to hear. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among all people.” and we are left wondering at the power of a love great enough to triumph over death and we claim a Christmas Truth greater than any of the tradition it inspires: the truth of the mystical longing of the creature for the creator—the finite for the infinite—the human for the divine. It’s a longing that transcends culture, religion, language and custom—a longing that is represented  for us by the baby in the manger—the sudden, amazing and incomprehensible gift of grace: a God who is Emmanuel, God with us.

Yes, we embody the wonder of Christmas in the gifts given, the meals shared, the gathering of family and loved ones. But the greater wonder is that the God who is LOVE dwells in, with and through us; among us as one of us. God moves in, with and through us as we share that love with a world in desperate need of it—a world yearning for “peace on earth, good will among all people”. That shalom—that peace—that unfamiliar hush is the peace on earth I’m praying for this Christmas—the shalom that doesn’t just mean the peace that comes when we’re no longer at war but the shalom that means that all human beings live together at peace with one another and with God, and in right relationship with all of the rest of God’s wondrous creation. Shalom, the Hebrew word for what we might describe as “turning the human race into the human family” —the peace on earth that we, are called to be about as followers of Christ, not just at Christmas but all year long. The truth is that peace is the only way we can insure that  all the three year olds of this world will have an opportunity to play, to learn and to grow. Sheri Lynn is all grown up now. She has a little girl of her own. I am now great old Auntie Dawn, and what I want more than anything is for my great niece and nephew, together with all the children in my life and in yours,  to inherit peace on earth. To accomplish that we will have to go out into this Christmas season and into this New Year and put our faith into action. That means prayers and protests; speaking up and stepping out; offering whenever and wherever possible the Good News of God’s shalom and realizing the truth of the angels chorus. For we are the followers of the one whose birth they herald.

Howard Thurman, a fellow follower of Christ, put it best declaring that:

When the song of the Angel is stilled,

When the Star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and the princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brothers and sisters—

To make music in the heart.

And to radiate the Light of Christ,

every day, in every way,

in all that we do and in all that we say.

The work of Christmas lies before us.

So, dear friends, rejoice and be glad, for unto us a child has been born, a child born some 2000 years ago; a child born just the other day, a child born this very moment, a child has been born who is the Christ; our God Emmanuel who dwells in, with and through us.

(In addition to Ian Lawton, I am indebted to John Dominic Crossan’s insights about parables in “The Power of Parables” as well as his work with Marcus Borg in “The First Christmas” for helping me to see beyond my own desire for reason to the mystery of the birth narratives.)

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Joseph and the Shady Ladies: The Revealing Story of Emmanuel

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent:

Readings Matthew 1:1-17 and Matthew 1:18-24

Listen to the sermon here

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Enough of John the Baptist Already! a sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

In addition to Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew3:1-2, the readings today included Maya Angelou’s poem “His Day Is Done: a Tribute to Nelson Mandela“.  I am indebted to Glynn Cardy for much of this sermon and we are both indebted to John Dominic Crossan and Robert Funk for providing historical perspective. 

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REPENT! TURN AROUND! REPENT! Become the Prophet Crying For the Wilderness!  – a sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent when John the Baptist Cries

I didn’t know it at the time, but I actually met John the Baptist when I was fifteen years old. She didn’t look much like you’d imagine John the Baptist would look, but she had that same crazy intensity, that same focus on the fact that we’d better change our ways, we’d better repent, and start doing things differently or we’d be in real serious trouble. Lola was my friend Valerie’s mother and she simply couldn’t stop going on and on about the environment and how we were destroy the earth. At the time, I remember thinking she was a bit of a nut-case and on more than one occasion I wished she’d just shut up about it. I was just a kid, and the earth was just something I took for granted.  The earth was just there to provide for our needs. I couldn’t believe how much Lola went on and on about all the stuff we humans were doing to destroy the earth. I just wished she’d leave us along to get on with things, I couldn’t abide her incessant nonsense about how we were going to destroy the planet.  All her feeble little attempts to be kind to the earth, made me seriously question her sanity.

I tolerated Lola not just because she was my friend’s mother, but I didn’t really understand her until one day when the three of us were travelling together. We were coming home from church. I had only been going to church for a few months.  I was trying hard to understand this whole God thing. So, I went to church a lot.  My friend Valerie had persuaded me to start going to church with her and family had become like my second family as they supported me during my first attempts to explore the mysterious world into which I had begun to feel pulled. As we drove home from church, I was feeling a little glum. Try as I might, I couldn’t really understand this church thing; all that singing and praying didn’t really help me to feel closer to God. Mostly I just liked how people at church treated each other.  I liked how they went out of their way to help me feel at home. Whether or not God was there, well I really wasn’t sure. 

Anyway, we were driving along the road.  It was a partly over-cast day on the west coast of British Columbia, just a few clouds.  You could see the mountains off in the distance. We were chatting back and forth when all of a sudden Lola pulled the car over to the far side of the road, switched off the engine and got out.  Valerie followed her mother out of the car, so I figured I had better do the same.  Val and her mother scampered down from the road and onto the beach.  When they reached the water’s edge, they stopped and just looked off into the distance.  Apart from a tanker-ship making its way across the horizon, I couldn’t see much of anything. Lola had the most amazing expression on her face.  She positively glowed with happiness.  Valerie wore a similar expression.  I must have looked somewhat puzzled because Val smiled at me and said,  “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?”  This only confused me more.  What were they looking at that had made them stop the car, scamper down the bank and stand there at the water’s edge on a cold autumn evening? 

Maybe my parents were right, these religious types are a little bit weird.  Happy, glowing, smiling people make me nervous. There they stood grinning from ear to ear.  What were they on?  And then, I saw it.  For the first time in my life, I saw it.  It had been there before.  But I had never really seen it before. The sky was amazing.  The colours were overwhelming.  It almost didn’t look real.  It looked like someone must have painted it that way.  It was magnificent, a work of art,  the most beautiful thing I have ever seen!

If you’ve never seen a late October, Pacific Coast Sunset before, you’ve missed one of the great wonders of the world. Neither Emily Carr’s paintings nor picture perfect post cards do a western sunset justice. Believe it or not, even though I had been living on the west coast for about four years, at that point I had never before really noticed just how beautiful a sunset could be.  No one in my experience had ever taken the time to stop and look at one. No one had ever pointed one out to me before.  I would never have dreamed of stopping a car and getting out to watch as the sun put on a show while setting. So I stood there. Overwhelmed by it all.  Amazed at just how beautiful it was. Wondering just who or what could be responsible for such a spectacular thing as this.  Before long my thoughts drifted to the Creator. Suddenly this God, that I had been trying so hard to fathom, was there. Right there.  Not just in the magnificence of the sunset, but right there on the beach.  At that moment, I was just as sure of God’s presence as I was of my own. I remember an overpowering feeling  of gratitude, gratitude for God’s presence, gratitude, because for the first time in all my life I was at home.  I knew that I was home. Home, not because of the place; home not because of the beauty of the sunset, but home because of God’s presence.  That longing that I had always felt; that longing that I have always labelled as homesickness, that over-powering longing was gone.  In that glorious moment, the presence of God, filled my longing and I was at home.

I’m sure that each of you could tell of a similar experience. So many of us have been blessed by the presence of God in creation. So many of us have had our longing for God filled by the wonder and majesty of creation. I suspect that our love of creation comes as a direct result of our relatedness to creation. For like creation and everything in creation we share a common Creator. My own love affair with creation kicked into high gear on the beach gazing at the magnificence of the setting sun and it has grown in intensity over the years. This past summer, Carol and I drove out to Vancouver and I have to say, if you want to renew your love for creation, drive across this magnificent country of ours.

You’ll find yourself absolutely besotted with creation as you fall in love all over again. By the time we reached my beloved Rocky Mountains, it was like some star-crossed lover, who simply couldn’t help herself from bubbling over with excitement. Not even the first rainy day of our trip could dampen my excitement as we drove south from Jasper toward the Columbia Ice fields. I couldn’t wait to gaze upon the grandeur of the glacier that I remembered from so many visits over the years. The rain was falling quite heavily as we pulled into the massive parking lot perfectly situated across from the ice-field. As we climbed the steps toward the viewing station, I couldn’t see much because I’d pulled my hood up over my head to protect me from the rain. When I reached the top and looked across the highway, it took my breath away, the mass of ice that was frozen in my memory, was gone.

I’m not sure if the drops of water falling down my cheeks were raindrops or teardrops, as I stood there frozen by a strange mixture of fear and sadness. In the decades that have passed since I first began to visit the ice-fields back in the 1970’s the ice has been receding at a rate of between 10 and 15 centimeters per decade. 120 centimeters may not seem like a great distance, but couple that with a decrease in the thickness of the ice and it is positively shocking to see the amount of ice that has vanished from view.

jokulsarlon-glacier-lakeTake a look at the iceberg that I asked Andrew to hang. This photograph was taken in a place I visited long ago. It’s a place were icebergs are born. I ended up there back in the days when I was in the travel business and ended up on a cheap Air Iceland flight that was delayed for a week in Reykjavík for a week. Back then Iceland’s airline must have had only two airplanes and when one of them suffered mechanical difficulties you literally had to wait around for them to fix it. It’s one of the reasons that flights were so cheap on Air Iceland.  You simply never knew how long your stopover in Iceland might be. I was trapped there for a week and during that time we decided to explore some of the most amazing geological sites that the earth has to offer. We travelled about 400 kilometers outside of Reykavik to the Jokulsarlon Lagoon; the birthplace of glaciers. It was in this strange lagoon, under an eerie twilight that lasted for the entire duration of my stay in Iceland, that I stud on the hull of a small tourist vessel, staring up at a magnificent glacier. I have no words to describe my terror.

Awe can be frightening at times. Something that big and that beautiful takes your breath away. When you know that you are only seeing a small portion of what is floating before you, you can’t help but hope that your little boat’s captain knows what he is doing as visions of the Titanic float through you mind. It was fascinating to learn about ice calving the majestic way in which icebergs are born as ginormous hunks of ice that would dwarf a skyscraper, break free from the glacier that feeds the Jokulsarlon Lagoon, giving birth to icebergs.

This fall the news that the sea ice is melting at an unprecedented rate seemed to barely register on our radar screens. Let me read to you from one of the worlds most respected newspapers,  the Guardian dated Sept. 14th 2012:

Sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk to its smallest extent ever recorded, smashing the previous record minimum and prompting warnings of accelerated climate change. Satellite images show that the rapid summer melt has reduced the area of frozen sea to less than 3.5 million square kilometres this week – less than half the area typically occupied four decades ago. Arctic sea ice cover has been shrinking since the 1970s when it averaged around 8m sq km a year, but such a dramatic collapse in ice cover in one year is highly unusual. A record low in 2007 of 4.17m sq km was broken on 27 August 2012; further melting has since amounted to more than 500,000 sq km.

Scientists predicted on Friday that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer months within 20 years, leading to possibly major climate impacts. “I am surprised. This is an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing. The trends all show less ice and thinner ice,” said Julienne Stroeve, a research scientist with the NSIDC. The shrinking of the ice cap was interpreted by environment groups as a signal of long-term global warming caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. A study published in July in the journal Environmental Research Letters, that compared model projections with observations, estimated that the radical decline in Arctic sea ice has been between 70-95% due to human activities.

“We are on the edge of one of the most significant moments in environmental history as sea ice heads towards a new record low. The loss of sea ice will be devastating, raising global temperatures that will impact on our ability to grow food and causing extreme weather around the world,” Sea ice experts on Friday said they were surprised by the collapse because weather conditions were not especially conducive to a major melt this year. The ice is now believed to be much thinner than it used to be and easier to melt.  Arctic sea ice follows an annual cycle of melting through the warm summer months and refreezing in the winter. The sea ice plays a critical role in regulating climate, acting as a giant mirror that reflects much of the Sun’s energy, helping to cool the Earth.

David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF-UK, said: “The disappearance of Arctic ice is the most visible warning sign of the need to tackle climate change and ensure we have a world fit to pass on to the next generation. The sheer scale of ice loss is shocking and unprecedented. This alarm call from the Arctic needs to reverberate across Whitehall and boardrooms. We can all take action to cut carbon emissions and move towards a 100% renewable economy.” Ed Davey, the UK climate and energy secretary, said: “These findings highlight the urgency for the international community to act. We understand that Arctic sea-ice decline has accelerated over recent years as global warming continues to increase Arctic temperatures at a faster rate than the global average.

Canadian scientists said this week that the record melt this year could lead to a cold winter in the UK and Europe, as the heat in the Arctic water will be released into the atmosphere this autumn, potentially affecting the all-important jet stream. While the science is still developing in this area, the Met Office said in May that the reduction in Arctic sea ice was contributing in part to the colder, drier winters the UK has been experiencing in recent years.”

Take a look at this iceberg from Jokulsarlon.  It’s beautiful.  It’s awesome.  It is terrifying.  A voice crying in the wilderness.  Creation is weeping.  Prophets of doom are annoying and we’d all just like them to go away. We can argue about what’s causing this. We can argue about who’s to blame and what to do. But until the whole world repents, the end is near. To repent simply means to turn around, to change course, to do things differently.     Creation is weeping. This planet, this sacred gift is weeping, groaning, sobbing, and we can scarcely spare the time to notice.  If we do notice, we run the risk of being overwhelmed by the magnitude and the complexity of the problem. So, we turn away afraid to look, lest we are moved to change.  Prepare a way for our God!  “Not today, I have places to go, people to see, things to do.”  Prepare a way for our God! “O please, it’s too expensive, too difficult, too much to expect, not today, not now, maybe later.”  Repent!  Turn around. A voice is crying in the wilderness. Hell, the wilderness is crying. We should be weeping; our sobs should be gut-wrenching as we try to absorb the magnitude of creation’s pain.

I remember when I was a kid, there was this commercial where this native jesus weeping planetAmerican is trying to cope with the destruction being caused by pollution, and the closing scene of the commercial you see the Native American looking out over the land and a single tear gently falls down his cheek. That image is one of the reasons I included the graphic in our bulletin that depicts an image of Jesus gazing at the planet and if you look closely you will see a tear streaming down the Jesus’ face. How many tears have you wept for creation? Why aren’t we sobbing uncontrollably? If the beauty of nature can cause us to stop in our tracks and elicit joy in us, why have we become so numb to the pain of the earth?

Today, on this the second Sunday in Advent when churches all over the earth hear the cries of the prophet John the Baptist to prepare the way of our God, I don’t want us to simply hear the cries from the wilderness as a call to repent. Yes we need to turn around. Yes repentance is called for. But this Advent, when the wilderness itself is crying, I want us to do more than heed the cries of the wild, annoying prophet, I want us to become the prophet. In response to the cries of our suffering planet, this Advent, like no other, is the time for us to become John the Baptists. We need to be annoying. We need to shout, to scream, to tear at the very heart of our neighbours, our families our friends and we need to cry repent.  Turn around! We might even have to say, “the end is near!!!”

Prepare the way for our God. Become the prophet!!! Be the voice crying not just from the wilderness, but on behalf of the wilderness! Be as annoying as you need to be. Shout as loudly as you are able. Repent! I say, Repent!!!! For God’s sake, repent!

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Has A Progressive Thief Stolen Advent and Christmas?  A sermon for Advent One

o come o comeSometimes it feels like a progressive thief has stolen Advent and Christmas from us!  Sometimes being a progressive Christian is about as sad as being a who down in Who-ville; why sometimes I even miss old Santa Claus himself and in my nostalgic haze, I long for a simpler time and faith! How are we supposed to celebrate Advent and look forward to the coming of Christ, when some of the best stories of the season never actually happened they way we’ve been lead to believe?

Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5, “Amazing Peace” by Maya Angelou, Matthew 24:36-44

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What Needs to Die So that Christ May Be Born In You? a sermon for Advent 1A

window4This sermon was preached at Holy Cross Lutheran November 28, 2010. The readings included Isaiah 2:1-5, “Amazing Peace” by Maya Angelou, and Matthew 24:36-44, during the sermon I read from the Qur’an Sura 19:1-30 which you can find by following the link in the body of the sermon.

While I was studying for an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia, I worked as a volunteer women’s center. Because I was studying the religions of the world, women who were being persecuted as a result of religious belief were often referred to me.

I’d been working with a young woman who was being abused by her father and brothers because they felt that she was adopting Canadian ways and thereby abandoning Islam.  I remember visiting her in the hospital emergency room after her brothers had beaten her nearly to death. She told me that the last thing her brother said to her before tossing her out of the back of a van, was that she should consider herself lucky that they had talked their father into letting them beat her, instead of doing what he had ordered in the first place which was to kill her. I sat at her bedside wondering how a brother could do such a thing to his sister. I decided that they must be religious fanatics and I wondered how any religion could drive a father to seek the death of his own daughter.

The next morning I didn’t feel much like going to my Religious Studies Methodology Seminar. The Seminar was comprised of 7 students from various faith traditions along with 4 atheists and 3 agnostics. Together we studied the various methods of studying religion. We were about to embark on the phenomenological approach to the study of religion. “The Phenomenology of Religion” is a fancy academic way of describing the study of actual religious experiences of the divine. As we stumbled to our seats the professor announced that he would be dividing us into groups of two and he wanted us to learn all that we could about our partner’s religious experience. We would have two weeks to come up with a 1,000 words describing on the phenomenology of our partner’s religious life. I was paired with an Imam who was studying Western approaches to religion prior to taking up a position in a local mosque. Ibrahim was a recent immigrant from Pakistan. But he might as well have been from Mars as far as I was concerned. On that day of all days, Muslim men were not exactly my favorite characters.

I had decided that any religion that could land a woman in the emergency room simply because she refused to wear a veil and wanted to choose who she dated, well that religion was misogynist and so I wanted nothing to do with Ibrahim. As it turned out, Ibrahim wanted nothing to do with me. He explained to the professor that as a point of honour he could not meet privately with a woman, so we would be unable to study together. Our professor, who also happened to be a Jewish Rabbi, simply told us to work it out. So Ibrahim and I agreed to meet at his home where we could be chaperoned by his wife.

I had studied Islam, and believed that I had an enlightened view of Islam. But if the truth be told, I didn’t trust Ibrahim precisely because he was a Muslim Imam. I imagined that he was by the very nature of his vocation conservative. I determined that as an Imam he must be responsible for the subjugation of women. I was full of anger toward him, which for the sake of the Methodology credit, I would have to suppress. After Ibrahim’s wife Fatima had served us tea, she asked if I minded if she took notes. I assumed that she was doing so on Ibrahim’s behalf, so I agreed provided she’d supply me with a copy as well. Ibrahim was fascinated with the idea that after I received my Religious Studies degree, I planned to attend seminary so that I could become a cleric. He smiled and told me that he dreamed of the day when Fatima could put her PhD to good use and become an Imam in her own right. Clearly my assumptions about Ibrahim were wrong, but I remained suspicious.

Over the course of the next two weeks and long after our assignment was turned in, I was a regular visitor to Ibrahim and Fatima’s home. While we studied together at UBC, both Fatima and Ibrahim served as my tutors and guided me through the honors’ class in Islam. Later Fatima, who is a marvelous Torah scholar, helped me study for my Judaism finals. When it looked like I was going to fail Ancient Greek for the second time, Ibrahim came to my rescue, helping me to learn the intricacies of Greek grammar. In return, I helped Ibrahim sort through the intricacies of Ancient and Medieval Christian heresies. Together the three of us we managed to get through a course in 20th Century cults that required fieldwork in a wacky New Age centre that served up all sorts of magic mushrooms that were guaranteed to provide you with the most astonishing phenomenological data.

Our friendship was hard won. Each of us had barriers to overcome, suspicions to lay to rest, prejudices to unravel and misconceptions to un-learn. Fortunately we had Jesus in common. It was over long discussions about Jesus that we were able to see that what we had in common was far more precious than what divided us.

It began on that first visit when Fatima suggested that a paper that she had written on Jesus in Islam might be a place for Ibrahim and I to begin. I knew nothing about what Islam thought about Jesus, so I agreed that it would be as good a place as any to begin. Fatima corrected me, she didn’t mean that we should begin with what Islam thought about Jesus, but rather that we should talk about the role of Jesus in Islam.  She suggested that we begin by studying the stories about Jesus in the Quran.

There are stories about Jesus in the Quran? Well, as I’d never read these stories, I agreed that we should begin there. So from the Quran, we began to read the story of the of  Jesus’ birth.

Reading from the section of the Quran entitled “Mary” – read here:  Sura 19:1-30

From Ibrahim and Fatima I learned that in Islam Jesus is revered as a prophet who is filled with the spirit of God. Indeed one cannot practice Islam and not revere Jesus as a prophet. I learned that in Islam, God raised Jesus up to be with God, and with God Jesus has been exalted among the prophets.

I also learned of the wisdom of Islam.  I learned of the great Islamic schools and libraries that preserved the knowledge that was destroyed in the west during the dark ages. It was  the great Muslim scholars that preserved the philosophic teachings of ancient Greece after the fall of Rome. The church declared these philosophies to be heretical and attempted to destroy them. It is thanks to Muslim Scholars that the Greek notion of democracy was preserved and indeed the classical wisdom of the west was preserved in Arabic and rediscovered during the Renaissance from Arabs who had migrated to Western Europe. From Ibrahim, I learned of the rise of women in Islamic culture. I learned that like Christianity and all the great religions of the world, Islam has its fundamentalists and even its fanatics. I learned that like Christian leaders, Islamic leaders were rediscovering metaphoric understandings of the Quran. In Ibrahim and Fatima I came to know that we are fellow “people of the book” and together we revere the Scriptures:  the Torah, the prophets, the Gospels and the Quran. But before I learned to love Ibrahim and Fatima, I had to let some things inside me die.

Earlier this week some of us gathered here to listen to Sister Joan Chittister talk about Spirituality and Culture. Chittister said something that resonates with me on this Advent Sunday. On this day when we hear Jesus speak of the end of an age. Chittister said that, “Every age that is dying is simply a new age coming to life.” So I can’t help wondering what age is it that needs to die so that a new age can be born? Or more precisely, what needs to die in us, so that a new age can be born? Is it time to let our fear and prejudices die so that trust and friendship can be born? Or are we content to let the terrorists win?   For if the goal of a terrorist is to inflict terror, then the terrorists have indeed won. For now we are not only afraid of the terrorists. We are also afraid of our own authorities, who in the name of security will pat you down in ways you never imagined would be necessary, ways that would make your grandma blush, right before she reached for her umbrella to hit someone upside the head. But not even old women, or nursing women, or indeed the wounded are safe from the intrusion of security officials who are just doing their job, when they ask to see that prosthetic breast from a cancer survivor, or when the alarms go off because that bionic hip replacement has been detected. We are afraid.

We are very afraid, as endless arguments in the media suggest that we begin to profile on the basis of race and subject every Muslim male to an exhaustive search as if the terrorists don’t already know how to apply the necessary make-up to transform themselves into blond-haired Scandinavians .The terrorists have won because they have learned how to play on our fear. So as the fear rises we forget who we are, as we become people who resemble the horrors of history who were also just doing their job. We forget all that we hold in common with those who have been judged to be the others. As we demonize the others we loose sight of our neighbours and we miss opportunities to love them. And so remembering the Prophet Jesus, the one we call Messiah, I know that it is time to let this age of religious intolerance die so that a new age of peace might be born.

On this first Sunday of Advent, when we are called by the One who proclaimed the hope of a world were peace and justice are the ordinary realities of life; the One who reminded us that the time has come for nations to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; so that one nations will not raise the sword against another, and never again will they train for war.

On this the first Sunday of Advent which is dedicated to the hope of peace on earth and goodwill to all, on this Sunday we would do well to ask ourselves: What needs to die in us so that  a new age can be born? Chittister reminds us that “Nothing we do changes the past. But Everything we do changes the future.”

So I ask you are you content to spend your life looking over your shoulder and reacting to the past? Or are you willing to let suspicion die so that trust can be born?  What kind of future are we going to shape? A future based on fear, prejudice and hatred?  Or a future based on hope, hope for justice and peace?

When I think of what needed to die in me in order that friendship might be born, I can’t help wondering how I could have been so arrogant as to believe that I am not prejudice. That was the first thing that needed to die…..the notion that I’m an enlightened person who treats everyone equally. I have learned that none of us are free from prejudice. So, we need to constantly examine our hearts to see where we have hardened them to the needs of our neighbours. Each of us has carefully drawn boundaries that we must be prepared to erase over and over again.

I also had to let the arrogance of comparing our best to their worst die in order that I might see that a religion is not the sum of its worst practitioners. We must be prepared to add it’s very best and it’s mediocre to the equation. For if we were to judge Christianity by the sum of its worst practitioners we’d end up like Christopher Hitchens, left with no choice but to condemn Christianity and declare that God is dead. Just this week past week, here in Toronto Hitchens was able to convince an audience by a margin of 2 to one, which had gathered to hear him debate Tony Blair. Tony Blair was unable to convince the majority and so the resolution:  that religion is a force for good in the world failed. Hitchens who is himself dying of cancer is adept at adding up the excesses of Christianity and indeed the excesses of all religions,  to arrive at his conclusion that religion is poison and that God is a delusion. If all you do is add up the excesses of religion, then I too would have to agree with Hitchens and join him in his quest to ensure the death of God.

Religion is not the sum of its excesses. When we add to the equation the beauty and the wondrous experiences of those adherents to the religions of the world who have acted out of the compassion that all the great faiths strive for, we can’t help but continue to long for the inspiration of the Divine to empower us in the ways of compassion.  Yes there are aspects of our old notions of the Divine that will have to die in order for this current age to pass away.

If the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed is to come to be, then the current age will have to end. For justice and peace to become a reality in the world, we will have to let old fears and prejudices die in us. If the nations are to beat their swords into plowshares, and learn war no more, it will have to begin with us. So, I ask you to examine your own hearts to see what fears and prejudices need to die in you, so that Christ can be born anew in your heart. Martin Luther said that each and every year we needed to make our hearts into mangers to cradle the Christ child. Meister Eckheart insisted that it really didn’t matter if Mary gave birth to Jesus all those years ago, if the birth of Christ does not also take place now in you.

What needs to die in you to make room for the Christ child to be born anew? What needs to die in you so that you might become the bearers of compassion to the world? Are you ready to love your neighbours?

Both Ibrahim and Fatima became regular volunteers at the help-center. Ibrahim was particularly good at helping Muslim women overcome the excesses of their Muslim fathers and brothers as they struggled to live together in the west. I remember one young Muslim woman who was reluctant to talk to an Imam until the day her father arranged a marriage for her. She was so desperate that she was willing to speak to an Imam in the hope that he might be able to convince her father to relent. Ibrahim wasn’t able to convince the young woman’s father. So, he and Fatima decided to break the golden rule of the Crisis Clinic and they took the young woman into their own home after her family threw her out. Ibrahim and Fatima work very heard to bring Islam into the 21st century. We will also have to work very hard to bring Christianity into the 21st century. In this week’s bulletin, I included two poems by John van de Larr. I encourage you to use them in the coming weeks to help you to dream beyond your fear. I’d like to conclude with one of those poems. It is entitled:  An Incredible Hope:

We imagine a world where peace and justice
   
     are the ordinary realities of life;

We dream of a planet where giving and sharing

    are second nature to all people;

We envision an earth where joy and celebration

    fill the news and our lives;

It may seem like a delusion,

    but we have an incredible hope!


We hope in the One who has come:

    who proclaimed such a world,

        and who gave his life for it;

We hope in the One who is always coming:

    surprising us with the presence,
 
        and the restoring work, of God;

We hope in the One who will come:

    in every age, to every generation,

        until this dream has come true.


We have an incredible hope, O God,
    and we praise you for it!

 Amen.






Sisters and brothers in Christ, let such hope be born in us.  So that all the world may know Shalom, Peace, Salaam.

Benediction:                                            Let fear die.
Let compassion be born anew.
Let old hatreds die.
Let love be born anew.
            Let the idol of God that confines
     this age to the power of the sword
die.
So that Christ can be born anew.
Let this age pass away,
Let justice and peace be born!
Let the hope of God,  V
the love of Christ
and the power of the Holy Spirit
be born in you.  Amen.     

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Jesus Remember Me: a sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday
Reign of Christ Sunday November 24 2013
Jesus Remember Me When You Come Into Your Kin-dom
Readings: Psalm 46, Meister Eckhart and Luke 23:33-43

THE WIND WILL SHOW ITS KINDNESS Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

A person
born blind can easily
deny the magnificence of a vast landscape.
One can easily deny all the wonders that one cannot touch,
smell, taste, or hear.
But one day the wind will show its kindness
and remove the tiny patches that cover your eyes,
and you will see God more clearly
than you have ever seen
yourself.
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The Curtain Has Been Torn and The Temple Lies in Ruins: Luke 21:5-19 a sermon

Our readings today were from Isaiah 65:17-25, Dietrich Bonheoffer’s “Letters from Prison, and Luke 21:5-19

A pdf of the worship bulletin which includes the Bonhoeffer reading can be found here (designed to be printed double-sided, landscape legal paper and folded into a booklet)

Pentecost 26C Nov 17 2013 

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Lest We Forget Who We Are and Whose We Are:
Followers of Jesus’ Ways of Non-Violent Resistance

Lest we forget” is a phrase that has become synonymous with Remembrance Day. Sadly, our Remembrance Day commemorations have become disconnected from our history and the vast majority of those of us who observe Remembrance Day have forgotten its origins. Our collective amnesia about the phrase, “Lest we forget” is a case in point. I have always assumed that the phrase was coined to encourage the world not to forget those who have served, fought and in too many cases died to protect our freedoms. While the phrase’s attachment to Remembrance Day has served as a call to collective remembrance, it was coined for a far more humbling purpose than to honour the fallen heroes of foreign wars. The phrase, “Lest we forget” was coined by the great poet laureate of the British Empire Rudyard Kipling, in his daunting poem, “Recessional” written to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Kipling’s poem was a sobering call to humility at a time when the British people were basking in the glory of Empire. Recessional served as a reminder that the sun might never set on the British Empire, but God was still in God’s heaven and thus, the sun rises upon the evil as well as the good. Kipling warned those drunk on the excesses of Empire that God was sovereign and not the British people.

The entire poem is addressed to God as a prayer, and serves as a call to the Empire’s powerful Victorians to remember their place.

God of our fathers, known of old—

Lord of our far-flung battle line—

Beneath whose awful hand we hold

Dominion over palm and pine—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

The tumult and the shouting dies—

The Captains and the Kings depart—

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

An humble and a contrite heart.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

Far-called our navies melt away—

On dune and headland sinks the fire—

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose

Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—

Such boastings as the Gentiles use,

Or lesser breeds without the Law—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

 

For heathen heart that puts her trust

In reeking tube and iron shard—

All valiant dust that builds on dust,

And guarding calls not Thee to guard.

For frantic boast and foolish word,

Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!   Amen.

Amongst the pomp and circumstance of this solemn day, it is all to easy for those of us who aspire to be Christians, to forget who we are and whose we are. For we are a people who follow a man whose life was given to the cause of non-violence; a man who resisted the temptation to fight even in the face of the most brutal occupation army that the world had seen in first century. Jesus of Nazareth refused to take up arms against cruel oppression. Jesus proclaimed a radical new response to violence.

Jesus’ insistence upon non-violent resistance in the face of evil was not just something he taught or proclaimed, it was something Jesus lived. Even on the dark night when armed soldiers came for him, when he knew that to be taken would inevitably lead to his execution, Jesus refused to take up arms to defend himself. When, one of his followers drew a sword to defend him, Jesus insisted that his ally put down his weapon, insisting that  “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.”

Contrary to what some would have you believe, Jesus death was not the act of a lamb going meekly to the slaughter, but rather the act of one who embodied his own teachings. Jesus said, “You’ve heard the commandment, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”. But I tell you, offer no resistance when you are confronted with violence. When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer the other. If anyone wants to sue you for your shirt, hand over your coat as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go two miles. Give to those who beg from you.  And don’t turn your back on those who want to borrow from you. You have heard it said, “Love your neighbour—but hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. This will prove that you are children of God. For God makes the sun rises on bad and good alike; God’s rain falls on the just and the unjust. If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that?”

“Lest we forget”, Jesus did far more than preach non-violence, Jesus lived it even onto death.  Sadly, most of us who claim to follow Jesus have all too often found Jesus way too difficult and we have drawn our swords, unwilling to embody a non-violent response to violence, lest we too be called upon to follow Jesus even onto death. Generations upon generations of followers have been confronted by perpetrators of oppression and seen one of two choices available to them, either draw the sword and fight, or put away the sword and submit.  But there is a third way. The way that Jesus taught; the way of non-violent resistance.

All too often, the various translations of the gospel texts have failed to communicate what is clearly written in the Greek. Indeed, King James, who authorized one of the translation that has served a vast majority of armies for generations, was so disturbed by what was written in New Testament Greek, that he insisted that the words be translated in such a way that those whom he wished to oppress would hear exactly what he wanted them to hear and submit. It’s complicate, but suffice it to say, the Presbyterians we’re giving King James trouble in the north, and the King wanted them to submit to turn the other cheek, and so he ordered that the Greek word “antistenia” be translated as “resist not”.  So, the King James version, reads: “That you resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

The problem with this translation is that it does not adequately communicate the meaning of the text. The term antistenia was in the first century a technical term for the way in which the Roman legions fought in battle. Anti stenia means to stand against, to line up; to adopt the military stance, weapons drawn, shield up ready to march against the foe. A more accurate translation would read something like, you shall not take up arms against evil.

Well, what should you do? Jesus makes it very clear. If someone “smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Most of us have been taught that the act of turning the other cheek is the meek act of a pacifist, but if we lived in the first century under the occupation of the Roman Empire, we would understand this as an act of resistance.  Jesus’ followers would have had first hand experience of being cuffed by the backhand of their oppressors.  Walter Wink explains: “The typical options in the face of this violence were cowering submission or violent retaliation, which likely would have been suicidal. To maintain one’s position and offer one’s left cheek creates in the cultural and political context of the time a dilemma for the oppressor. By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand: his nose is in the way… The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.  This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship … By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying, “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I won’t take it anymore.”

Jesus goes on to offer other creative techniques of non-violent resistance designed to create trouble for the Roman oppressors. New Testament scholar Walter Wink offers a detailed analysis of Jesus teachings on non-violent resistance in his book “The Powers that Be” and I highly recommend it to those who are serious about following Jesus. Because those of us who aspire to be Christians, need to know what Jesus was talking about when he urged his followers to go the extra mile. We have held too long to the notion that there are only two choices open to us when we come face to face with violence; either we take up arms and fight or we passively submit.

But Jesus offered a third way. The way of creative non-violent resistance may be the road less travelled, but it is most certainly a road that has led to victory.

In the recent years, many have chosen, non-violence and managed to defeat their enemies. Mahatmas Gandhi used non-violent resistance to defeat the British. In Denmark, thousands of Danes resisted their Nazi occupiers without using violence and saved the lives of thousands of Jews and used a general strike to thwart the expansion of the occupation. Rosa Parks began a movement of non-violent resistance to the viscous oppression of African Americans and set of a series of non-violent actions: bus boycotts, lunch-counter sit ins, and peaceful marches that changed a nation. Poland’s Solidarity movement ended a totalitarian regimes oppressive hold and began a movement that saw the end of Soviet hold on Poland. In the Philippines, in 1986, 200,000 people turned out on the streets that led to the ouster of the dictator Marcos. In Czechoslovakia in 1989, non-violent protest against the communist government, saw half a million people in the streets of Prague and the ensuing general strike that forced the government to relinquish its power. In 2000, Serbia coordinated widespread non-cooperation brought the regime of Slovadan Milosevic to a stand-still and forced the dictator to step down. In 2003, protests against a civil war in Liberia by thousands of women whose creativity saw them withhold sexual relations from their male counterparts.  When the women occupied the site of the stalled peace talks, the warlords eventually agreed to end the violence. Burma, in 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks turned out in the streets and emboldened the people to demand the release of On Son Sue Chi. 

I could go on. But let me end with the most recent act of non-violent resistance. It is said that a child shall lead them. Well, the Taliban is a formidable, viscous, enemy that we and our allies have take up arms against. Our military efforts and the military might of the most powerful nation the world has ever known have failed to defeat the Taliban who continue to terrorize their own people. Yet the resistance of one little girl, one very brave little girl who is willing to stand against the viciousness of her  oppressors has inspired a movement that has the potential to bring this mad-men to their knees. Malala Yousafzai refused to submit and not even the Taliban’s bullets have been able to stifle her witness. Thousands and soon millions of people all over the world have been moved to action. Her father claims that Malala has drawn “with her sacred blood, a clear line between barbarity and human civilization. Malala stands for peace, education, freedom of thought and freedom of expression, her refusal to submit is not passive, but defiant and embodies human dignity, tolerance, and pluralism. Malala’s actions and her father’s words are an indictment of those of us who through our hands up in the air and claim that there is nothing to be done, except to take up arms and because we have lost our appetite for the military interventions, we burry our heads in the sand and hope that the news won’t reach us or touch us.

Lest we forget, who we are and whose we are, we are the ones who claim to follow Jesus. Jesus is the one who was willing to embody his teachings of non-violent resistance in the face of oppression, even onto death. We enjoy the privileges of those who fought and died so that we could live in freedom. Burying our heads in the sand is tantamount to declaring that they died in vain.

Lest we forget, there is a way, it is the road less travelled but it is the way that Jesus walked, and it is a pathway open to us, if we but dare to walk with Christ. Canadians have a proud history of peacekeeping; a history that we seem to have abandoned. What would it mean for us to remember our own best traditions? What would it look like for us to return to the role for which we became known? What does a 21st century peacekeeper look like? What will it cost us to be keepers of the peace? Are we prepared to embody for all the world the role of non-violent resistance? Even on to death? Or are we going to leave that work to children? What can we do to help? What must we do to help?

I don’t have any easy answers, but on this day, when we remember the courage and commitment of our ancestors, should we not also look to the future and dream new dreams. Lest we forget who we are and whose we are, are we prepared to be about the work of loving our enemies? Do we still aspire to the task of being a Christian? Do we have the courage to follow Jesus?

 The tumult and the shouting dies—

The Captains and the Kings depart—

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

An humble and a contrite heart.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

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All Saints – Giving thanks for the Divine in One-another!

All Saints’ Day is a day for remembering.  The word saint simply means “holy”. In the New Testament, all those who believe and were baptized were referred to as saints. It wasn’t until round about the third century that the church began using the word saint to refer to those who had been martyred for the faith. Over time these martyred saints were held up for veneration and people used to pray to them to intercede on their behalf. I’m not going to go into all of the institutional abuses that led Martin Luther and the later reformers to abolish the veneration of the saints. Except to say, that while the Reformation put an end to the veneration of the saints in the protestant churches, it did not abolish the concept of sainthood.

Within the mainline protestant denominations, we use the term in much the same way as it was used in the New Testament to describe the faithful. We talk about the communion of saints to describe all the faithful who have gone before us who now rest in God, together with all the living who walk in faith. So today as we celebrate the saints, we give thanks for all the faithful those living and those who have gone before us.

Today, I remember and rejoice as I give thanks and praise to God for the witness of St. Joyce of Belfast. St. Joyce who in her own way taught her children to love God and to pray always. And so today, I give thanks and praise to God for the life and witness of St. Joyce of Belfast, my Mom, who was the first to teach me the Lord’s Prayer, and who puts flesh on Christ’s command that we love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

Today I remember and give thanks for the life and witness of St. John of Wales, whose life in the church as a choir-boy was followed by long years of self-exile and whose keen wit and lack of patience with hypocrisy instilled in me a desire for honesty and integrity in the articulation and living of the faith. I give thanks for St. John, my Dad, whose open heart has stretched his discerning mind and enabled many to see the humour in this God-given life we live.

Today, I remember and rejoice as I give thanks and praise to God for the witness of St. Valerie of Ladner. St. Valerie so loved and feared God that she dared to reach out and invite a wayward soul to come and worship God. St. Valerie sang God’s praise, rejoiced in the communion of saints and helped a young friend find a home in God’s holy church. And so toady, I give thanks and praise to God for the life and witness of St. Valerie, my high school friend, who was the first to invite me to come and worship God.

Today, I remember and rejoice as I give thanks and praise to God for the witness of St. Wilton of Lunenburg. St. Wilton loved God all the days of his life and served God with gladness and distinction. St. Wilton went far beyond his call as pastor, he opened up the scriptures to those who eagerly sought the truth of God’s Word with love and dedication and he went on to inspire a diligence to scholarship that nurtured the faith of so many young people. And so today, I give thanks and praise to God for the life and witness of St. Wilton, my first pastor, who taught me to be uncompromising in my study of the scriptures, and steadfast in my love for God.

Today, I remember and rejoice as I give thanks and praise to God for the witness of St. Lola of Washington. St. Lola whose appreciation for God’s grace overflowed in her love for the world. St. Lola whose desire to share God’s grace and truth, led her to give of her time and talent to the care and redemption of so many young seekers. St. Lola whose love for God’s creation inspired her to teach so many of us to give thanks to God for all that God has made. And so today, I give thanks and praise to God for the life and witness of St. Lola, my mentor in the faith, who taught me to love as I have been loved.

Today, I remember and rejoice as I give thanks and praise to God for the life and witness of St. Fritz of Chicago. St. Fritz whose dedication to the Word of God was displayed in all he did. St. Fritz who opened so many minds to the beauty of God’s ways, who taught, inspired and entertained as he sought to reveal  the wonders of God’s unimaginable grace. St. Fritz who taught me that no question is unaskable for it is God who blessed us with minds and who bids us to use them in our love for God and for one another. And so today, I give thanks and praise to God for the witness of St. Fritz, my friend, who was the first to call me to the ordained ministry of Word and sacrament.

Today, I remember and rejoice as I give thanks and praise to God, for the life and witness of St.s Sharon and Irene of Pt. Roberts, St. Ellen of Lonsdale, St.s Jerry and Daniel of Minnesota, St. Nancy of Seattle, St. Anne of Vancouver, St. Donald of UBC, St.s  Carol, John, Eduard, and Donna of Waterloo, and for the great cloud of witness both living and dead who have testified to God’s love in my life.

Toady, I give thanks and praise to God for the cloud of witnesses who gather to worship God and to love one another in the parish I serve. I give thanks for all the glorious saints of Holy Cross who have nourished, challenged and helped me to grow in Christ.

Today, I encourage each and every one of you, to remember and rejoice, as you give thanks to God for the great cloud of witnesses who have been a blessing to you; who have revealed God’s love to you; who have taught you God’s holy Word of truth; who have loved you, nourished you, challenged you and inspired you to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind and to love your neighbours as you love yourself.

Who are the saints in your life? Think about the saints who revealed God’s love to you. Remember and rejoice for by their love, they taught you God’s Word, and taught you to celebrate God’s grace. Remember and rejoice in the saints of God, who are responsible for having passed the gifts of faith on to each of us. Saints who you may never read about in the church history books, but saints who by their life and witness managed to reveal a measure of God’s amazing grace to the world.

These saints of God who are so dear to us and so precious to God, are just ordinary folks who in the course of seeking to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, in striving to love God with all their heart, soul, and mind, they ended up touching our lives in ways that changed us and had a profound effect on who we are today.

Today is a day for remembering and rejoicing in the communion of saints. Today is a day for giving thanks to God for their lives and for the witnesses that they have been and are in our lives. But today is also a day for looking around us to discover our own place in the communion of the saints. Take just a moment to think about how people will remember and give thanks for your sainthood. Whose faith have you nourished? Whose faith will you nourish? How will you nourish people in the faith? What role are you prepared to play in the Communion of Saints?

 

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SEMPER REFORMANDA: Always Reforming

Today’s Reformation Sunday Liturgy followed the theme Semper Reformanda: Always Reforming! The sermon looked at various protests of the ongoing reformation, including Luther’s 95 Theses, (here) John Shelby Spong’s Twelve Theses, (here) Matthew Fox’s 95 Thesis for the 21st Century, (here) Holy Cross’ Mission Statement (here) and Holy Cross’ Statement of Welcome (here).

Listen to the sermon here:

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God in the Guise of a Pleading Widow a Sermon on Luke 18:1-8

Ai Weiwei’s exhibit “According to What? at the Art Gallery of Ontario inspired me to look beyond traditional interpretations of Jesus’ parable of the Pleading Widow to see our role as the unjust judge. The gentle breath of a newborn granddaughter enabled me to hear God persistently pleading for justice.

Listen to the sermon here:  

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Whose Persistence? Preparing to Preach on the Parable of the Pleading Widow

pleading widowLooking back on a sermon I preached six years ago on this week’s readings from Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8, I am struck by how much my own images of the Divine One we call God have changed and yet remain oddly similar. The intervening years have afforded me the opportunities to begin to leave behind notions of an anthropomorphic God who intervenes in our lives. As I have embraced the writings of progressive and evolutionary theologians, I have struggled to understand and articulate God’s nature from the perspective of panentheism (everything is in God). There are those who suggest that this is a departure from the Christian tradition. Yet looking back, I am beginning to see this movement as a natural progression of the tradition. Indeed, so much of what I have always loved about Lutheran theology has freed me to explore this path. So, I offer this old sermon as a snapshot of my own pathway toward new visions of the Divine. I trust that my early efforts to move beyond the notion of God as the “unjust judge” will move some to begin to see God in, with, and through all those who persistently plead for justice. 

What little I know about the art of wrestling I learned from my brother Alan. He and I are just eighteen months apart in age and together we participated in many a wrestling match. All too often one or the other of us would be bothering the other and before we knew it we were rolling around on the floor wrestling. I’ll have you know that up until the age of about twelve I was quite a good wrestler. Up to that point I usually managed to hold my brother to the ground and with my knees firmly pinning his arms I would be able to get my brother to agree to my point of view. But my brother’s adolescent growth spurt put an end to my winning streak. Just as soon as my brother was big enough to pin me to the ground I decided to stop bothering him. Bothering my brother became dangerous and I had to give it up in order to save my dignity.

Perhaps all the bothering I persisted in with my younger brother was just preparation for my eventual vocation. You see where we come from, there’s a common nickname for people in my profession we’re jokingly known as God-botherers. In Belfast, ministers, priests, and pastors are all lumped in together and collectively we make up the ranks of those whose business it is to bother God. We bother God on behalf of others and we do it morning, noon and night; we bother God with both public and private prayers; we bother God with the problems of our parishioners, the problems of the world and with problems of our own making. We God bothers never seem to give up. But then if you look at Jesus’ parable of the pleading widow who is rewarded by the unjust judge for her persistence then surely God who is just will look with favor upon those of us whose business it is to bother God.

I must confess that I was tempted to use the children’s sermon to encourage the children to be persistent and to never give up because who knows what they could achieve if they only keep on asking, and asking, and asking, and asking. Surely if even an unjust judge relents under the persistent pleading of the widow, just imagine how much more a parent who loves their child might be willing to do if that child just keeps on and on and on and on.

Does the average interpretation of this parable disturb you as much as it disturbs me? The normal interpretation of this parable is to say that just as the unjust judge heard the widow because of her persistence, and not because of the merits of her case, so too God will hear us if we persist in our requests. So we should persist in our requests and God will give in, like the unjust judge who gave into the widow’s requests, even though he had no fear of God and no respect for anyone, he gave in just because the widow kept bothering him. But take it from me, a professional God botherer, you can be as persistent as you like, but persistence doesn’t always get you what you want. God doesn’t always answer my prayers and I’m pretty sure God doesn’t always answer your prayers either.

Now I know that some of you are going to say, wait a minute God always answers, it’s just that sometimes God says no! Well according to this parable we ought to be able to wear God down if we just keep asking.  So, what about those ardent prayers out there who have been knocking on God’s doors until their knuckles bleed begging and pleading for mercy, if this parable is to be believed then surely even an unjust God would have heard them by know?

If God is just and persistence in prayer is the answer then why can’t all those pleading persistent parents wrestle healing out of God for their children. Mothers and fathers pray day and night and beautiful children still die every day. To those who insist that some deaths are God’s will and we just have to learn to accept that,

I for one will never accept that, a just God desires anything but goodness for God’s children. God doesn’t kill children. Disease kills children, wars kill children, violence kills children, mistakes kill children and accidents kill children. So, why doesn’t God intervene? I pray for peace and justice all the time.  I pray for healing all the time. I’ve been bothering God for years and I’m still waiting for peace to break out. I’m still waiting for the hungry to be fed. I’m still waiting for justice and mercy to prevail.  I’m still waiting for children to be safe and for an end to suffering. I’m still waiting for the weeping to stop.  And on those dark nights when it seems as though the world is so full of hate, and greed, and violence and suffering threatens to overwhelm me I get so angry with God’s indifference and neglect that I’d be more than willing to go a few rounds with God.  There are nights when the darkness is so overwhelming and my heart is so grieved that I’m sure I could summon up the strength try to pin God down. I’d be willing to wrestle with God, if I thought I could wrestle a few blessings out of God. Maybe that’s why our Scripture lesson from Genesis has always been one of my favourite pieces of Scripture. I can’t help but cheer Jacob on. No matter how much of a rascal Jacob may be, I still want Jacob to win that match.

Even though my own wrestling career was only a short one, I did learn a thing or two about wrestling and it seems to me that there are a couple of problems with the wrestling match that takes place between Jacob and God. You see according to the Scripture it is God that starts the wrestling match and it is God that tries to finish the match with a blow that is below the belt. So why does God pick a fight with Jacob? I mean Jacob may have been a liar and a trickster; he may have cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance and conned his father Isaac into blessing him, but Jacob is older and wiser now and he’s doing exactly what God has told him to do, he’s heading home, he’s going to face the music and try to make amends with his brother. So why does God pick a fight with Jacob and why does God try to end that fight with a low blow that leaves Jacob permanently crippled?

Perhaps God was afraid that Jacob was weakening in his resolve to face up to the mess he’d made of things. Jacob is returning to the scene of his crimes when he is told that Esau is on his way to meet him; on his way with a force of 400 men. Perhaps Jacob is having second thoughts and God has no other choice than to wrestle with Jacob. So, this “ish” shows up in the dark night of Jacob’s soul. “Ish” is a Hebrew word that can be translated as, “the man” or “the angel” or even as “God. “

All night long they wrestled and at daybreak it becomes clear that the ish cannot prevail against Jacob and so the ish strikes Jacob on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint. But Jacob still did not give up and he continued to wrestle with the ish. Then the ish said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”  But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And so, the ish, blesses Jacob with a new name and says to Jacob, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Jacob asks the ish, “Please tell me your name?” But the ish said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And then the ish blessed Jacob.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Why did God bother Jacob like that? I believe that God bothered Jacob for the very same reason that God bothers us. Jesus’ parables are not always as simple as they first appear. Don’t you think it’s a bit strange to identify God with the unjust judge: to identify God with someone who has no concern for justice? Isn’t it a bit strange to suggest an understanding of this parable that insists that prayer petitions are answered simply because of our nagging God into action and that God acts without any concern for the content of the petitions themselves? Who could be bothered to worship such a God?

I believe that there is more to this parable. You see Jesus has this habit of turning our understanding of God upside down and if we look closely at this parable you might just see Jesus turning things over. Think about it, how many times in the Bible have you read a story in which God identifies with or sticks up for the widows and the orphans? Jesus himself was constantly encouraging his followers to care for widows and orphans.

So, what happens if instead of identifying God as the unjust judge we identify God as the widow? I believe that it is us who fill the role of the unjust judge who neither fears God or respects people. It’s more than likely that we are the ones dominated by our egos and generally looking for what is in it for us. We are really stubborn in our self-seeking. But God is persistent in love for us. God is the hound of heaven who wears us down, like the widow, by persistently pursuing us. Eventually, we waver and sometimes we let God enter our lives and guide us to do the right thing.

God is persistent in trying to break down our defenses. God is the one who is bothering us. God is the one who takes the initiative. As long as we insist as seeing prayer flowing only from us we are missing the point. Prayer is communication between God and us. Prayer isn’t just about our requests offered up to God so that God can do our bidding. Prayer is about relationship.  And every once in a while just as my brother and I liked to bother one another, God just can’t resist bothering us.

From time to time, I’m sure that God has no choice left but to try to wrestle us to the ground and pin us down. It’s our task to try to figure out what God is trying to tell us when we wrestle with events in our lives.

We wrestle to find meaning, to find purpose and the struggle is often intense. Sometimes we may not know the reason we are forced into the struggle. Understanding and listening don’t always come easily for us. It’s often hard for us to see the hand of God at work in the struggle. We stumble in the dark, just as Jacob is left alone in the night to wrestle.  As for the low blows, will I’m sure God knows what God is doing.  For often it is the wounds and the scars that we receive in the struggles that remind us of the pain and enable us to be better at tending the pain of others.  After one of those long periods of darkness it is only in the final outcome that we realize that we have been touched by God.

When I think of those days when my brother and I liked nothing better than to bother one another, and just how much fun we had wrestling around, I can’t help but marvel at the fact that our God bothers with us, and is willing to wrestle with us.

As for those unanswered prayers…………..well I heard a story the on the West Wing of all places. It seems that there was this devout Christian who lived directly in the path of a storm.  And the civil authorities issued a flood warning and told all the residents to evacuate. Well the devote Christian prayed and prayed and decided that because he was on such good terms with God that God would save him from the flood, if only he would have faith. So when the sheriff came by on patrol he tried to convince the devout Christian to evacuate…but the fellow said, “no, no, I have faith and God will save me. Well the storm came and the river rose beyond its banks and the flood waters flowed dangerously close to the fellows house, and the National Guard came by in a row boat and tried to convince him to evacuate but he told them, “no, no, I have faith and God will save me.”  Well eventually the fellow’s house was flooded and the fellow had to climb up on his roof and a news helicopter saw him trapped up there and they tried to help him evacuate, but the devout Christian just waved the helicopter on and said don’t worry I am a Christian and I have faith and God will save me. Well finally the house was swept away in the flood and the man couldn’t hold on any longer and he drowned. Well when the man arrived at the pearly gates St Peter was really surprised and told him that they certainly weren’t expecting to see him there for quite some time. Well the devout Christian was very upset and he demanded an audience with the almighty and so St. Peter ushered him into the Holy of Holies and the fellow started ranting and raving at God. Well God didn’t take too kindly to the fellows complaints and let him know in no uncertain terms that God was sick and tired of this fellows ingratitude after all God had heard his prayers and God had sent the sheriff in a squad car, the national guard in a boat and the news media in a helicopter all to save him and still this fellow couldn’t get up off his duff and do something.

God doesn’t send bad things our way. God is not some kind of cosmic puppeteer up in the sky sending us trials and tribulations to build our character. God doesn’t send bad things our way anymore than God kills innocent children. The bad things that come our way come as a result of humanities abuse of God’s precious gift of freedom. God does not wish us harm, God wants only what is good.

But when bad things come our way as a result of the brokenness of creation, our God does promise to be with us in the struggle. Prayer doesn’t consist merely of us reciting our wish list. Prayer is about conversation and conversation involves listening as well as talking. Prayer is about relationship and relationship requires action. It is not enough to pray for God’s reign. It’s not enough to pray for justice and peace.   It’s not enough to pray for an end to hunger. It’s not enough to nag God with our requests.  God is calling us to get up off our duffs and do something. God will provide the necessary.

Like the pleading widow, our God cries out to us for justice. Like the widow our God continues to pursue us. Prayer provides God with the means to enter our lives so that God can challenge us to change the world. Like the pleading widow, Our God persistently cries out for justice trusting that eventually we will hear God’s pleas and begin to cry out for justice with both our words and our deeds. And yes we ought to be persistent in our prayer so that our prayers can become more than just words and we can be about the work of ushering in God’s reign of justice and peace. The struggle will be intense; be prepared to wrestle with God but do so with the assurance that in the end we will receive God’s blessing. For we will see God face to face, and yet our life will be preserved. So continue to bother God and continue to be bothered by God and together with God we will ensure all our prayers are answered and God’s grace shall prevail.

My task this Sunday is to see where locating the Divine in the position of the persistent pleader will lead me. What does it mean to pray trusting that we are not separate from God but in God? Knowing that we are in God, how will we move to enact prayer?

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THANKSGIVING: Not One, Not Two

I AM the bread of lifeA sermon on Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and John 6:25-35 inspired by Garrison Keillor and Joan Chittister; two of the best storytellers I know.

Listen to the sermon:

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Reckless Generosity – a Sermon for Thanksgiving

Gratitude Generosity

When I was a kid, the adults in my life were very fond of telling me how grateful I ought to be because things were so much harder back when they were kids. I’m sure most of us can remember being told by our elders just how tough times were when they were back in the day. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and just about every adult I knew must have grown up poor. Why if I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say,  “When I was a kid we were so poor that…..” well I’d have a whole lot of nickels.

Today, when I hear the words, “We were so poor that…”  I brace myself for an outrageous claim like…. We were so poor that we couldn’t afford Kraft Dinner. Kraft Dinner, you were lucky, we were so poor that we couldn’t afford dinner,  all we had was a cup of cold tea without milk or sugar. Cup of Tea, we were so poor that we only had filthy cracked teacups. Filthy cracked teacups, that’s nothing we were so poor that we couldn’t afford teacups, we used to have to drink our tea out of a rolled up newspaper.  That’s nothing we were so poor that all we could we couldn’t afford newspapers so we had to suck our tea from a damp cloth.

Someone always chimes in with, “Well we might have been poor, but you know we were happy in those days. That’s right money can’t buy happiness. We used to live in a tiny house, with holes in the roof.  “House?  You were the lucky ones we were so poor that we had to live in one room, all 126 of us, with no furniture.  Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of falling!  Ha!  You were lucky to have a room! We used to have to live in a corridor! Ohhh we were so poor we used to dream of living in a corridor! A corridor would have been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We were woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us!!!   Rubbish tip, you were lucky, we were so poor that we lived in a hole in the ground covered by a piece of tarp, but it was a palace to us…especially after we were evicted from our hole in the ground and we had to go live in a lake. Lake, you were lucky to have a lake, there were a 160 of us living in a small cardboard box in the middle of the road. Cardboard, we were so poor we lived for three months in a brown paper back in a septic tank.  We used to have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down in the mines for 14 hours a day, week in week out.  We had to get up out of that cardboard box at three o’clock in the morning and lick the road clean with our tongues.    In case you didn’t recognize it, that was my interpretation of a classic Monty Python sketch, simply called the “We were so poor sketch”. (watch the video below)

The truth is, that when I was a kid, money came and went.  When I look back on it, I suppose we were sometimes poor. Sometimes we had money and sometimes we didn’t.   My parents were very good and stretching a dollar. To this day, I remember when we first moved out to Vancouver and money was really tight. We had to do everything we could to stretch the few dollars that we had. I remember picking blackberries that summer; buckets and buckets of blackberries. from which my mother made jars and jars of blackberry jam. It was probably the best blackberry jam I have ever tasted. But if the truth be told, I have never eaten blackberry jam since that first year in Vancouver all those years ago. You see we ate so much blackberry jam that I got sick of it.

Every morning there was blackberry jam for breakfast, and then in the lunches we took to school, there would be blackberry jam sandwiches. Some days, I would get lucky and I’d be able to persuade a classmate to trade their sandwiches for mine. But soon they too got sick of blackberry sandwiches. I can still remember my mother telling my brother and I how lucky we were because when she was a kid the war had only just ended and they were still rationing sugar, so they didn’t have any jam, and no butter either, why they were lucky if they got dry bread and drippings.

Thanksgiving is a time for counting blessings. Sometimes, when we look back into the past we see hard times, or lean times, and we tend to wax poetic about how great life was even though we didn’t have much money. We can become down right poetic about the good old days when we were younger and poorer and our lack of funds actually left us happier than we sometimes are now that we have moved up the ladder and have the more that we once dreamed of. There is a real danger in romanticizing poverty, when all too many people who are in poverty have no hope of ever escaping it. Moving up the ladder out of poverty is much more difficult today than it was a generation ago.

The truth is that for most of us, the hard times that we remember, were just that hard-times; and even when money was tight, we still expected that the future would be bright. We might have had to walk miles and miles to school, up hills, and down dales, backwards in the snow; but we were going to school. We may have had to eat blackberries day after day, but at least we were eating.

We are the wealthy ones on this planet. We live lives that are beyond the wildest dreams of 90 percent of the people who share this planet with us. We are richly blessed. We are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of most of the generations who celebrated Thanksgivings before us. We have much to be thankful for! Yet, when I remember the poverty of the majority of the people on this planet, all too often I begin to feel not gratitude, but guilt.

It’s difficult to sing God’s praise for all the wealth and beauty that I enjoy, when so many people have so little wealth and an almost no beauty in their lives. Yet hear we sit, wealthy, privileged, Canadians, surrounded by so much beauty and one thing I know for sure, is that we must sing our alleluias for the beauty of creation, the joy of life, and they magnitude of our blessings. Gratitude is the only hopeful response to all our wealth. Until we learn to sing our own alleluias for our wealth, guilt will give way to fear and fear to greed.

We have all experienced those pangs of guilt that come with the knowledge of our wealth and our neighbours’ poverty. Most of us have become accustomed to living with the guilt. Some of us deny the guilt, while others simply suppress it. All too many of us live in fear of becoming impoverished.

I mean, what happens when the poor rise up and say they are not going to take it any more. Well they might just come a knocking at our doors and then there won’t be enough to go around and pretty soon the pile of money that I have will begin to dwindle.

We have all known the fear of what might happen if we lost everything. We’ve all been taught that we have earn as much as we can and save as much as we can or we’ll be doomed to an impoverished life, dependent upon the government for handouts. Our guilt and fears about wealth cause us to entangle our very security up with wealth. In order to feel secure we need money. How much is enough?  Well you never know, so prudence becomes greed as we amass more and more, so that we don’t have to be afraid.  But imagine for a moment what might happen if we were to focus more on our gratitude than on our guilt or our fears. What might we become if we remembered to sing alleluias for our wealth?

Joan Chittister tells a wonderful story about how one might go about proclaiming an alleluia of money. Sister Joan was attending an international conference in Asia on the status of women. Most of the participants were women she describes as “well-funded activist types or official observers. They were all there to professionally analyze various women’s issues around the world, especially of the needs of women in developing countries. They were busy discussing all sorts of issues that kept women everywhere in some kind of bondage to a money-driven world.  At the gathering, these professional women called for more education for girls, more equality through government legislation, more birth control training, better health-care programs, and most importantly more participation of women at all levels of the political process. It was a good conference and every one was very sincere. But it was what happened on the margins of the conference that moved Sister Joan.

As the conference was drawing to a close, a leader of one of the small group workshops, passed a piece of paper around and asked that everyone write their e-mail address on the sheet so that they could all stay in contact and support one another in their work. One of the participants; a woman named Rose, was a Kenyan pastor of a Presbyterian church in Africa. When the sheet of paper came to her, she simply filled in her name and passed it on. The woman next to Rose passed the paper back to her and pointed out that she had neglected to put her email address on the form. Rose answered quietly:  “I don’t have email where I am.  It is too expensive for us. And when I can use it, it is too slow to be reliable.”

When Sister Joan and her colleague were getting into a cab to leave, her colleague said that she couldn’t leave without first seeing Rose. She asked Sister Joan to wait and rushed back into the hotel saying that she had promised to give something to Rose.  Later as they were waiting to check in for their flight, Sister Joan asked her colleague, what she had given to Rose. Her friend answered that she had given Rose her credit card. “Your credit card?” Sister Joan gasped.

“Why in heaven’s name would you give Rose your credit card?”

Her friend answered quietly, “So she can pay for her email every month.”

“The answer was a clear one.  An alleluia for wealth has little or nothing to do with money at all. It has something to do with the way we deal with money, with what we do with it; with the manner in which we do it, with the reasons for which we do it.  That women’s conference would, in the long run, be very good for a lot of women. The credit card would make life better for at least one of them immediately. It demonstrated in a great and glaring way the difference between talking about doing great things and doing what you can while you wait to do even more.

Clearly, the purpose of wealth is not security. The purpose of wealth is reckless generosity, the kind of generosity that sings of the lavish love of God;  the kind of generosity that rekindles hope on dark days, the kind of generosity that reminds us that God dwells in, with, and through us, and that we are Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath.  The purpose of wealth is reckless generosity.  Our alleluias of gratitude free us from guilt and fear when they are embodied in you and and we become God’s Body, Christ’s hands; and the Spirit’s breath. Reckless generosity creates in holy hearts a freedom of spirit that takes a person on their way rejoicing and scattering possibility as we go.

We need to sing Alleluia’s for our wealth because wealth can be sacred, wealth can be holy. Sister Joan insists that, “the only security that holy wealth, looks for is the fruit of the good business practices that it takes to keep on making enough money to give it away to those who need it more.” “Most of all, holy wealth brings in its wake the kind of simplicity that makes wealth a commodity to be shared rather than a product to be flaunted.”

Sister Joan describes the wealthiest family she knows as a family that lives in a small cul-de-sac on the edge of the city in a modest house. No great wrought iron gates. No Olympic swimming pool in the backyard. No private plane at the airport. Nothing but a lifetime of philanthropy and good works, both private and public, both known and unknown, both great and small. It is the kind of wealth amassed to make the world a better place for all of us. We all have much to learn about giving away what hard work, privilege and inheritance have given us. Sometimes the overwhelming needs of our neighbours makes it  difficult for us to know where to begin. But begin we must.

Thanksgiving, when we pause to focus on our gratitude is a great time to begin to sing our alleluia’s for our wealth. Alleluias that have the power to become reckless generosity. So, on Friday, I remembered all those blackberry sandwiches that we ate back when money was tight. Sandwiches that stopped us from believing that we were poor. And I used some of my wealth to buy some jam; jarfuls of jam. A big bag full of all sorts of flavours of jam. Strawberry, raspberry, lemon, grape, and blueberry jam. Not a single jar of blackberry but every other flavour they had on the shelf in the grocery story. And I took that big bag full of jam down to the Food Panty. I know that jam is full of sugar and some say it’s not good for you. I know that they’d probably rather have cash. But there’s nothing quite like toast with jam slathered all over it. 

I also know that generosity is about more than placating my on fond memories of what it means to be poor. So, I’ve put a check in the offering plate so someone who actually is poor can buy what they actually need later in the week. But jam is it is just the kind of sweet reckless generosity that Thanksgiving is for.

Looking around me, I know that each of you have the power to be reckless in your generosity.The good news is that we don’t need to worry about tomorrow. There will be plenty as long as each of us  has the courage to let our alleluias become reckless generosity.

So let yourselves go. Our wealth has the power to enable us to do more than we are.

If we but trust the Spirit to inspire in us the kind of reckless generosity that transforms us into Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath.

Can I get an Alleluia???  Alleluia!!!

Benediction:

Let us become the recklessly generous people

we were created to be.

For we are:

 Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath.

Do not worry about your life.

Do not be afraid for the future.

Let us use our wealth to do

what we can while we wait to do even more.

 Let our alleluias become reckless generosity!

Let us be

Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath

now and forever. Amen.

This sermon was inspired by Monty Python’s “We were so poor that…” sketch also known as the Four Yorkshiremen, and Joan Chittister’s book Uncommon Gratitude.

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Ubuntu: A Person Is A Person Through Other Persons

colemansSermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost:

Luke 17:5-10 – October 6, 2013

Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed

I am indebted to Peter Rollins for his modern parable “Finding Faith” found in his book The Orthodox Heretic

Listen to the sermon here: 

Watch Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu

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Hell Is Here On Earth – a sermon for Pentecost 19C on Luke 16:19-31

1 percentI moved out of my parent’s house when I was quite young and like most young people I didn’t have much money so I lived in some pretty weird places. I once shared a house with a bunch of people that I met working in the travel industry. I didn’t know them very well when I first moved in but as the months dragged on, I got to know some of them better than I would have liked. There were five of us living in a four-bedroom house about a block from Spanish Banks in Vancouver. The house’s proximity to the beach made up for some of my roommates’ shortcomings and the rent was cheap.  So, even though I didn’t like the idea, I didn’t kick up much of a fuss when one of my roommates brought home a puppy.

Now there are those people who would argue that all puppies are cute, I just don’t happen to be one of them. Besides this thing was a Doberman and I don’t care if it was cute, I don’t like Dobermans. I was trying to convince my roommate David that he couldn’t possibly keep a Doberman in our house, when two of my other roommates showed up and quickly became besotted with the creature. One of my roommates when so far as to insist that the puppy was the cutest thing she had ever seen and that we simply had to keep it. While she was hugging and kissing the puppy, David got quite annoyed and pulled the puppy away from her and insisted that this dog was not going to be a pet. He declared that we needed this dog to grow up and be a guard dog, and if that was going to happen then we needed to start treating this dog as we meant to continue.

I had no intention of sharing a house with a Doberman, let a lone a guy who wanted to have one as a guard dog, so I started looking for another place to live. Before I moved out of that house, I had the unfortunate opportunity to watch David as he tried to train his puppy. First of all, David had to give the dog a name and it had to be a name that would instill fear into people, so that’s how the puppy ended up with a name like Vader as in Darth Vader.  None of us were supposed to cuddle the dog or pat the dog or play with the dog. That was just fine with me. But one of our roommates, Ellen was forever getting into trouble for treating the puppy like a baby. So, David insisted that Vader be chained up outside. A few months after I moved out of the house, I went back to visit and discovered that even Ellen was afraid to go into the backyard because Vader was actually turning into a viscous guard dog. She told me that David had been leaving Vader chained up for longer and longer periods of time and no one in the house would dare to go out into the back yard to feed Vader. I found out from the others that even though they’d tried to get David to pay more attention to Vader, he insisted that it there was nothing wrong with the way he was treating Vader. For months David left Vader chained in the backyard for days at a time and as the dog got bigger and bigger, the three roommates that were left in the house with David became more and more afraid of the dog and eventually they had to insist that David move out.  A few months later, I heard that David and Vader had parted ways. It seems that Vader had taken a chunk out of David’s arm and David had to have the poor creature put down. For some reason Jesus’ parable about Lazarus reminded me of Vader the Doberman.

In Jesus’ story Lazarus is a poor creature who is treated very much like Vader. There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day and then there was Lazarus. Lazarus should come as no surprise to us at all. We see Lazarus every day. Lazarus was sick, “Covered with sores,” probably from malnutrition. Lazarus longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. In other words Lazarus didn’t even get the scraps and even the dogs would come and lick his sores. Two human beings, tied together by a story. And just as my former roommate David had a hand in making Vader the viscous snarling creature that he became, the rich man must have had a hand in the plight of Lazarus. The rich man may have tried to isolate himself but he could neither go in nor out of his house without passing right by Lazarus, who lay, because he didn’t have the strength to sit or stand, at the rich man’s gate. Lazarus was tied to the rich man by his need and his desire just to have something of what fell from the rich man’s table.

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told this story to those who loved money and all that money could buy for them. But not even the walls that money can buy and build separate us from the poor of this world. That’s right, I said separate us from the poor. You see whether you like it or not this story is about us. We are the rich. I know we don’t like to think of ourselves as wealthy, we like to look at the millionaires and the billionaires and point at them and say it’s them, they are the rich ones not us. Well to those of you who don’t believe that you are rich, I suggest that you take a little trip on the Internet and go to a site called, www.globalrichlist.com   When you get there type in your annual income and the computer will calculate your standing in the world.  My annual salary, it’s a matter of public record, so I don’t mind sharing my standing with you. It seems that even on my modest pastor’s salary I am the 16,101,447th  richest person in the world.  That’s right my salary puts me in the top .24% of the richest people on the planet. We are rich: rich beyond the wildest dreams of most of the people on this planet. And just like the rich man in Jesus’ story if we ignore the poor people on this planet we too will end up in hell. 

Recently, I was trying to explain to some Confirmation what salvation means. I told them that salvation means being healthy and whole in body, mind, and spirit and having a good relationship with God and with our neighbors. In the stories that have been handed down to us, Jesus is deeply concerned with our salvation. Jesus doesn’t want us to end up in hell. Now before I go any further, I should let you know exactly what I mean by hell. When I talk about Hell I’m not talking about that mythic place down below where Satan is busy tormenting poor souls as they stoke the fires. I believe that Hell is about being as far from salvation as you can get. Hell is about being broken in body, mind and spirit, and severing our relationships with God and with our neighbors. Hell is not a place we go to in the afterlife. Hell is here on earth.

I believe that if we ignore people who are in need we end up in hell. Despite every wall that we put up, we right here, are connected to the poor in our world. There is no excuse for ignorance.

Every time we buy a banana, or a shirt, or a pound of coffee, we participate in a relationship with the poor. We can gate our communities, and put up stricter border controls and send back every refugee claimant salvation, or wholeness does not include borders that imperial our fellow human beings.

There are millions of Lazaruses out there, at our gates, right now and most of them are longing to eat the crumbs from our tables. The rich man in Jesus’ story is not what we would call evil.

There is no evidence that he ever did anything we would call cruel to the poor man.  He simply ignored him. The rich man had become so accustomed to seeing the poor man at his gate, that the rich man no longer noticed him. The rich man was not intentionally mean. He was just a man who was so absorbed in himself and his family that he was insensitive to the needs of others—even others right at his front door. The primary message of this parable is all too clear—painfully, even frighteningly clear. Ignore the needs of others and we end up in a hell of a mess—if not in hell itself.  There are destructive and painful consequences that come—not just form doing the bad deeds we ought not to have done, but also from failing to do the good deeds we should have done. The rich man found himself trapped in hell not because of the evil he had intentionally done but because of the good he had failed to do because of his insensitivity that grew out of his self-centeredness.

If our lives are to avoid being a living hell, then we need to open our eyes so that we can see the needs that are at our gates. For there to be anything approaching lasting peace in the world, we as individuals and as nations must be concerned with more than just, “me” and “mine” and “us” and “ours. The world has become a dangerous place, but it seems to me that we who are rich have to take some responsibility for the creation of those dangers. We have ignored the poor for far too long. We have turned our heads away and insisted that it is not our responsibility or we have become so numb by the sheer numbers of people living in poverty that we have turned away in desperation. But unlike Lazarus who waited for the next life to escape his torment, the poor of this world are growing tired of our neglect and just like that scary dog Vader they are ready to lash out.

Is it any wonder that those who would inflict terror on the world do their recruiting among the poorest of the poor? Poverty has become a breeding ground for terrorists.  When we ignore people who are in need, we end up in hell. In the midst of so many starving people is it any wonder that so many poor unfortunate creatures are turning to violence to feed their hunger.

To what lengths would you go to feed your children if you were standing knee deep in mud, and the stench of rotting corpses was overpowering you, while the world looked on from the safety of their living-rooms, would you not lash out in anger?

I believe that Jesus was deeply concerned for our salvation. Jesus told this story not to condemn us but to save us; to restore us to heath by healing our relationships. In the story that Jesus told, Abraham explains to the rich man that there is nothing that can be done to help his brothers because there is such a wide chiasm between the rich man and poor Lazarus and that chiasm is so wide that no one can cross it.

In Christ, who embodies the Love that is God, the chiasm that exists between rich and poor and you and I now have a way to bridge the gap. Christ is our bridge. We do not have to be as insensitive as the rich man in the parable. We have the ability to see the needs of others and we have the ability to act. We really can be the people God intends us to be. But it will not happen if we allow ourselves to be overcome with guilt or numbed by the sheer magnitude of the needy. Our guilt will not feed the poor. And if we are numb to the pain of those at our gates we will be incapable of reaching out in love to feed those who long to eat even the crumbs that fall from our table.

The world is in a hell of a mess. But all is not lost. In Christ who embodies the Love that is God, we can bridge the gap between rich and poor. We can go out to our gates and see who is there, and what they need and out of the abundance of gifts that God has showered upon us we can supply the needs of those who are longing for us to extend our arms across that chiasm.  In his letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul said it so much better than I:

“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

My wealthy sisters and brothers, do not be haughty, do not isolate yourselves from the world. Look around and you will discover that Love has put in your hands the means to cross that chasm that divides us from the poor. Stop setting your hopes on the uncertainty of riches, and let your hope rest in the Love that is God, embody that Love so that we might become whole. Be generous and ready to share and store up for yourselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that together rich and poor can take hold of the life that really is life and all may know the joys of Heaven here on earth.

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Through the Lens of Grace Held Firmly in 21st Century Frames

Homecoming Sermon September 22, 2013

Creation IV – Proverbs 8:22-31, Colossians 1:15-20, John 6:41-51

Companion from the Latin “com pinionem” for “with bread” or “bread fellow”

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Jesus Was and Is an Absolute Fool – a sermon on Luke 15 for Pentecost 17C

imageHow appropriate that preachers all over the world will be preparing sermons this week on the gospel text Luke 15. These parables of the lost will have us remembering the work of a beloved scholar whose work on the parables influenced generations of preachers. Robert Farrar Capon died on Friday and looking over the various sermons that I have prepared over the years on Luke 15, I for one am grateful to have been influenced by such a great theologian!   I am also indebted to two beloved seminary professors for the formation of this sermon: Dr. Donna L. Seamone and Dr. Ed Riegert. All preachers stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us!!!

Jesus was and is an absolute fool! An absolute fool, I tell you!

Among the teachings of Jesus, the parables of the lost and found are so well known, so familiar that we are in peril of failing to hear the foolishness they advocate.

Although only a few of us have had the opportunity to tend a flock of sheep, most of us at one time or another have been responsible for the welfare of a flock. Whether that flock be sheep or co-workers, clients, customers, students, friends, or children none but the foolish among us would leave 99 to the perils and dangers of the wilderness in order to go looking for one idiot who’d been stupid enough to get themselves lost.

We may not keep our coins at home, but I daresay that most of us have felt the sting of loosing a drachma or two or three in this recession. Only a fool would waste a moment searching for our losses when our portfolio’s are so full. I dare say that if we managed to find or recoup our loss, we’re hardly likely to invite the neighbourhood to a party that would in all likelihood eat up more than we had found.

Many of you are parents, and all of us have been parented, so we know the wisdom of parents not rewarding bad behaviour. Most of us are law-abiding. I dare say we all want what is best for our own parents, and so I don’t think any but the foolish among us would consider celebrating the return of someone who has hurt our parents in the past.

These parables of the lost and found are outrageous. None of us would get very fare in life if we lived by these teachings. It is better to put the welfare of the many above the needs of one. It is pointless to cry over spilt milk. Sometimes its better to cut your losses and move on. The best accountants learn quickly to write off losses that would be too time consuming and costly to recoup. Children need to learn that they can’t always get what they want; that there are consequences to their actions, that dues must be paid, that we need to ask for forgiveness and make amends for our crimes, that rules need to be followed, and laws cannot be broken. That doing the right thing will be rewarded. And yet along comes Jesus, spouting such foolishness that even we who are predisposed to agree with him, even we can sympathize with the self-righteous and wonder how anyone could be expected to live like this. The chaos that would ensue if we followed the teaching of these parables as law would be horrendous. What Jesus is advocating is foolishness itself. It makes no earthly sense. So, we confine these teachings to Sunday morning sermons and let the preachers drone on. We nod as experts dissect the historical and social context of the words. We hear the details unravelled and we smile as we confine the teachings of Jesus to the lives of sheep and shepherds knowing full well that the likelihood of our ever having to tend a flock of sheep will absolve us of ever having to go looking for a wayward baaing creature. We hear the details of a woman seeking a lost coin and we scoff at the idea that we would ever waste our time looking for a coin, when we have so much more than ten in our purse. We hear of the wayward child and we smugly give thanks that our children would never behave like that, or we resolve never to demand our share of our parents wealth, and whether we fold our arms in righteous indignation or not, we breath a sign of relief knowing that this particular problem could never happen to us. And so the foolishness that Jesus advocates remains on the pages of our Bibles, or in the sanctuaries of our churches, or in the halls of the academies where they busy themselves arguing of the historical minutia and we smile as the familiarity of the text washes over us from time to time, but we know full well that this is not the way for any self-respecting, 21st century person to live in the world. These are just parables after all and we can’t be expected to live by them. We’d be fools to try. After all we are not Jesus! And anyway look what happened to him!

So, the foolishness that Jesus taught is reasoned into irrelevance and confined to the recesses of our consciousness. But what if we didn’t approach these parables with the idea of pinning down their meaning. What if we approached these parables without feeling the need to wrestle the wisdom they contain to the ground so that we can extract from them rules to live by. What if we allowed these parables to simply touch us? What might the foolishness they prescribe evoke in us? How might we respond to their touch? In brushing up against these parables of the lost might we feel the touch of the ONE to whom they point?

I have come to believe that only those who have known the fear, the pain and the joy of losing and finding can really feel the touch the parables of the lost. But then again, I’ve come to know that it is impossible to go through life without knowing the fear, the pain and the joy of loosing and finding again and again and again. `Jesus came teaching in parables. The parables of Jesus come to us to “show” us what God is like and to call us to a way of being in the world. These parables, of the lost sheep, and the lost coin and the lost sons, have about them a “ring” of foolishness.

“Only a fool….Would leave ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost. Only a fool…Would leave the ninety-nine unguarded: to wander aimlessly, to be ravaged by some unknown predator, to fall prey to God knows what. Only a fool would leave to search for the stray who might be wounded, damaged, dying, not interested in being rescued. Only a fool…Would risk a reputation as a wise shepherd, a careful guardian of the known and secure, to seek one lone sheep. Only a fool…Would find. Would restore, would be a shepherd, foolish enough to care enough to save the lost, the wandering, the lonely, the one outside the bounds of the flock. Only a fool…Would sweep and sweep and sweep, leaving the purse unguarded, to search for one lone coin. Only a fool…Would search and look and scour and puzzle, bend and peer, lift and move everything, to find a single coin. Only a fool… Would resist the contentment, the satisfaction of a purse fat with nine shiny, weighty coins. Only a fool… Would rather be relentlessly looking – for one small, lone coin when nine, known and countable, are all that are really needed. A small but secure fortune in hand. Only a fool… Would fret about the loss of a small insignificant coin. Only a fool…Would know the joy, the absolute delight of finding — what really isn’t needed. Only a fool would rejoice with such extravagance. Only a fool would be such a steward as this. Jesus teaches by showing us in these parables: in such foolishness as this God has broken into our world and does so again and again. Only a fool would welcome home with joy and abandon a wayward child who had used, rejected, dishonoured and then returned only to try to use them again. Only a fool, would run head-long, open armed to kiss such a wayward fool, extravagantly bestow more household treasures, and expect the faithful to join in the rejoicing. Only a fool, would cajole the self-righteous, indignant child to join the celebration.”(D.L. Seamone)

The Lucan parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons, point us in a direction of foolish and passionate abandon. The seeking shepherd who rushes off to find one sheep shows us the God who cares for us so much that the safety of the secure flock is risked so that the stray might be brought home. The mark of the reign of God will be foolishness such as this. In the time of God’s reign shepherds will care less about flock security and principles of good management and more about the vulnerability of the odd one out. In the time of God’s reign the keepers of fortunes will not be at rest unless every penny can be accounted for in the ledger. In the time of God’s reign everyone will counted valuable enough to be cared for. In the time of God’s reign every stone every clump of dirt, every thing, every one will be counted as valuable. In the time of God’s reign among the keepers of households, fathers and sons, parents and children, there will be no unforgivable sin. There will be no unrestoreable fracture. In the time of God’s reign there will be less begrudging and more rejoicing.

Today, as we do every Sunday, in worship, we gather in thanksgiving for the reign of God. In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost children we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. If only our lives could embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love.

“In the telling of these parables, we remember that none of these stories is of the stuff of everyday fare. None of us can do this kind of relentless, reckless abandon constantly. But there are times, there are times when … The risk must be taken. The grasp on the known must be released to reach for, find and restore the lost the abandoned the wayward and yes even the self-righteous. Those we have every right to leave alone. In one frame of reference the shepherd should have been guarding the flock, faithful to home duties, and the woman sweeping should have been investing the fortune she had in hand and the parent should have been instilling a sense of self-reliance and respect in children who would need to learn how to get by in the world. But in each of the parables there is a moment that grips, a moment in which what might be choice is no choice. There is only abandon and care, compassion and joy… There is only a moment of foolishness and then…. love.” (Seamone)

These are not only words for individuals they are words for the collective, words for institutions and those of us who make up institutions. The parables were spoken to the Pharisees by Jesus whose comfort with the outcasts and sinners made those keepers of the gates of righteousness squirm in their holy seats. It was foolish action Jesus was about. The wisdom of the righteous was ossified righteousness. Theirs was the wisdom of those entrenched in their own role and task so deeply they could not see some new foolishness of God, as wisdom. These were people lost and in exile for most of their history over and over again called and delivered by God. These were the ones whose memory of deliverance could not release them to be delivers. These people were very much like us.

The Apostle Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. These parables challenge us to be reckless and relentless in our loving and in our witness. The wisdom of the world that lurks in us is challenged — down to every last maxim: – charity begins at home. – God helps those who help themselves. – Count the cost or pay the price. – “They should just pull themselves up, by the bootstraps. You fill in the rest… These parables challenge our notions of repentance. Does the Lost sheep repent? Can a coin repent? Can the self-involved, self-righteous really repent? Like the sheep and the coin, like the wayward and the self-righteous, we are first found by God and then in reaction to God’s reckless act of love we turn again toward our lover, and the relationship is restored and the rejoicing can begin. The worldly wisdom insists that repentance must come first. The worldly wise fold their arms in disgust at the foolishness that would openly welcome those who have not at least confessed their sin. Institutions have laid it all down and we know the need to repent but we have forgotten the simplicity of the act of repentance. Burdened with centuries of rule-making we are trapped by the rules into forgetting that resentence is the simple act of turning around of returning. Coming home if you will. Only the foolish can rush with open arms toward those who have sinned against them. Only the foolish can celebrate reconciliation that has not exacted a pound of flesh from the wayward. We are called as individuals and as a church to an uncalculating and foolish love.

We are called to be vulnerable in our ministry, vulnerable to those outside the boundaries of our private lives and our community of faith: to give with no expectation of reward, to love without demand for return, to reach out to those in need with unrelenting care, to release preoccupation with the cares and concerns of our own lives (or perhaps through these cares) to reach out in love to those who are not easy to love. We are called to do all this in delight and with joy and in so doing we mirror the foolishness of God. St Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. By God’s grace we are the weak and the foolish.

Today in the retelling of these parables we give thanks for the reign of God in our hearts and lives. We give thanks for the hope of the fullness of that reign that sustains us in each moment of our breathing. Most of all in the retelling of these parables we give thanks to God who sustains and calls us to live toward the vision of this reign. Today we gather in thanksgiving for the Reign of God. In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost children we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. We pray that our various ministries in the worlds in which we live will embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love. May we declare the foolishness of God by reaching out in love recklessly, and with great joy. Moment by moment….let it be so!

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Jesus You’ve Got to be Kidding!!!

choose lifea sermon Luke 14:25-33 and Deuteronomy  30:15-20 for Pentecost 16C

Now large crowds were travelling with Jesus and he turned and said to them,  “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when the foundation is laid and the tower cannot be finished, all who see it will begin to ridicule the builder, saying, “This person began to build and was not able to finish.’  Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?  If not, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.  So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all you possession                    Luke: 14:25-33

Jesus you’ve got to be kidding! “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple?…None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions?”

Hate your father; hate your mother; hate your wife; hate your children; hate you brothers; hate your sisters; hate even life itself and oh yes while you are at it give up all you possessions and then, and only then will you be ready to take up your cross and follow Jesus. What is Jesus talking about? Has Jesus forgotten about the fourth commandment? Are we to forget about honouring our parents? Wasn’t it Jesus who said that we are to love our neighbours as we love ourselves? Didn’t Jesus try to talk people into loving their enemies?  Has Jesus forgotten that God is love? Why does Jesus rant and rave about hating our father’s, mothers, children, sisters, brothers and even life itself?

It is difficult to recognize the Jesus in this text. This is not the gentle Jesus of my childhood. This is not the happy Jesus who smiled out from the pictures in my illustrated Bible.This is not the Jesus that the rightwing conservative Christians point to when they harp on about family values. This is not the gentle Jesus we have come to expect. This Jesus sounds to harsh. This Jesus wants to turn us into religious fanatics who hate everybody and give up everything, even life itself.

For a few years now, there has stood on the shelf above my desk a quotation from Deuteronomy 30. I put it there so that these word’s of God might guide me in my decision making. According to the writers of Deuteronomy, God says:  “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”. God says “Choose life!” How do I reconcile this to the Gospel lesson in which Jesus  says whoever does not hate even life itself, cannot be a disciple of Jesus? Why was Jesus so harsh?  What is going on here?

According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.  The gospel writer tells us that huge crowds were following Jesus; clamouring for his attention; pleading for his healing touch; anxiously waiting for the next miracle; and pledging to follow Jesus where ever he was going; hoping against hope that Jesus could save them from all their problems. Only Jesus knows where they are going. Only Jesus knows that he is on his way to Jerusalem; headed straight for the cross. Only Jesus knows what horror lies ahead.

Jesus looks out at the large crowds who were travelling with him and Jesus throws a huge bucket of cold water all over them. At that moment Jesus may well be their saviour and they may want to follow him to the ends of the earth. But Jesus knows exactly what following him will mean and so he asks the crowds to think carefully before they follow him any further. Jesus cautions the crowd:  “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” What is Jesus talking about? Is Jesus contradicting the scriptures, is he contradicting himself? Does Jesus really want his followers to hate?

According to the dictionary the word “hate” is defined as “intense hostility and aversion; distaste coupled with sustained ill will”. Well if that’s what Jesus is asking for — then count me out. I don’t have the greatest relationship with my family but I am not prepared to summon up intense hostility, aversion and distaste coupled with sustained ill will. There may well be days when I don’t exactly like life, but hate even life itself?   No way!

This passage has troubled me so much that I went back to the original Greek to try and discover just what it was that Jesus was saying. The writer of the Gospel of Luke uses a Greek phrase that comes from a Semitic expression meaning, “to love less, to turn away from or detach oneself from.”Jesus is warning the crowds that following him means that they must turn away from the people they love and detach themselves from the life they have known. Jesus is trying to shock the crowds into some sort of understanding of what’s to come. Jesus knows that most of the crowds will not be able to follow him to the cross. Jesus’ words are designed to shock the crowds into an understanding of the cost of following him. Jesus knows that the messiah seekers and salvation hunters don’t really want the type of leader who is headed for a cross. Jesus’ words are designed to shock the crowds and unmask their idolatry.And now, these provocative words provoke us. These shocking words shock us. These difficult words unmask our idolatry. For we too seek salvation everywhere but in Christ. We want desperately to justify our existence. We want desperately to know that our creation was not in vain. We want to know that we are not merely a waste of space. And like those who went before us, almost without fail, we turn to our families to provide justification.

Think for a moment of the family in which you grew up in. Where was your place in your family? Were you the eldest; the youngest; the middle child; how much jockeying was there for position in your family? Did mommy love you best? Were you Daddy’s favourite? How many of us got caught up trying to justify our existence by trying to live up to impossible expectations? How many had a demanding father? Or how about the mother who can still make us feel like nothing with the words:  “Are you going to wear that?” How many of us have spent our lives trying to live up to or reject the family expectations? How many of us replaced family expectations with society’s expectations and are still trying to measure up to some advertisers’ idea of the perfect person?

When I was a little girl, I loved my father dearly. In my eyes my father could do no wrong. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to please him. I worshipped and adored my Dad. One of my father’s hobbies was cycling. He used to build his own bikes and ride all over the country-side on them. When I first started school my father would hoist me up on to his bicycle’s cross bar and give me a ride to school. I longed for the day when I would get my own bike and ride along with him. I knew that if I only had my own two-wheeler, then I would be somebody.

We moved around a lot when I was a kid and there was never much money so I spent a long time longing for my bike. I knew that every thing would change once I could ride. When I was about six, I talked a playmate into letting me borrow his two-wheeler and all by myself I learned how to ride it.  I was proud of my accomplishment but somehow I knew that if I only had my very own bike, things would be even better. When I was ten, we moved into yet another new neighbourhood.  I hated being the new kid in town.  It was hard.  The evening before we were supposed to start at the new school, my parents arranged for the next-door neighbours to keep an eye on us while they went for a walk. My parents were gone for quite a while and I remember wondering if they were ever coming back. My brother and I were playing in the front-yard when my parents came riding down the street. My father was sitting on a shiny red bicycle and my mother on a sleek blue bicycle. They were brand spanking new bikes.

This was 1967, long before 10-speed bicycles were all the rage.  In those days you rarely saw such bikes. These bikes were three-speeds and they had hand brakes.  They were magnificent. I asked my Mom if we could ride them and she said, “I don’t see why not, they are your bikes after all.” I could hardly believe my ears.  My bike.  This beautiful blue two-wheeler, with three speeds, hand brakes and everything was mine. Dad explained that we had to take good care of these bikes.  They were the best that money could buy.  I can still hear him explaining that the frames were Czechoslovakian racing frames, that these bikes were special and that he expected us to take good care of them.

That night I could hardly sleep as I imagined riding up to my new school on my sleek, blue, Czechoslovakian framed, three-speed, hand-brake, racing bike. On such a bike, I knew that I was somebody.  My Dad had found me the best bike that money could buy and on the week-end, I would ride with my father.  I would make him proud. The next morning my brother and I left early for school.  Side by side we rode. Sitting straight and proud on our bikes.  We took a few detours along the way, just so that we could try out all three of our gears. We were almost late, so we poured on the speed and as we turned into the school yard and headed towards the bike-racks, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was a sea of bicycles.  But none of them looked like ours.  There was row upon row of what, in 1967 was considered to be the coolest bike on the road. Some of you may have owned one yourself.  How many of you remember “Mustangs”.  They were the short framed bikes with the high-handle bars and the long seats we used to call banana-seats.  In the sixties these were the bikes to have.

I cannot tell you how far my heart sank when I rode into that school-yard.  My sleek, blue, Czechoslovakian framed, three-speed, hand-brake, racing bike stuck out like a sore-thumb. I was mortified.  I wanted to blend in.  I wanted to be like all the other kids.  I did not want to be the new kid with the weird bike.

After-school was over, I headed straight for the bike-rack and tried to get out of there as fast as I could so that no-one could see my weird bike. When I pulled into our drive-way, my Dad was there to greet me.  I jumped off my bike and demanded to know why he had made me ride such a stupid bike. I told him in no uncertain terms that I hated this bike and I demanded to know why he couldn’t have bought me a bike just like the ones all the other kids had.

My father just stood there in stunned silence.  I went storming up to my room, threw myself down on my bed and cried.  I cried because I wasn’t good enough.  I cried because I didn’t fit in.  I cried because life was hard. I cried because my Dad had made a mistake.  I cried because the man I looked up to.  The man I worshipped and adored; the man I thought could do no wrong; this man who I thought would protect me and save me from all harm, this man had made a mistake.  I also cried because I now knew that this man could be hurt and that I was the one who hurt him.

It took me a long time to realize that my Mom and Dad couldn’t save me from harm.  It took me even longer to realize that I couldn’t justify my own existence by living up to other peoples’ expectations.  It has taken me a long time to stop trying to live up to my family’s expectations.  It may take me even longer to learn that my possessions cannot save me from harm or provide me with salvation.

How many of us have spent huge chunks of our time trying to justify our existence by living up to expectations? Maybe your mother always wanted you to look your best and now you are never satisfied with how you look. Maybe your father pushed you to always do your best and you always feel like you could do better if only you tried harder. Maybe it was an older brother who excelled in sports and now you refuse to play, convinced that you are a clutz. Maybe it was a sister who got straight A’s and you feel like she got all the brains in the family.

How many of us are constantly competing with someone who we are convinced is, smarter, prettier, funnier, harder working, better dressed,  sexier, or happier that we are? Or how many of just give up and try to justify our existence by taking care of someone, watching out for them, showing them the ropes, making sure they never get into trouble?

Some of us spend our lives justifying our existence by our careers.  We have turned earning a living into earning the right to live.  We struggle to maintain the illusion that we are in control of our own destiny. Not one of these relationships can save us. It is time for us to stop spending our lives trying to justify our existence.

Martin Luther urged us to put our old self to death.  He urged us to remember our baptism. Baptism isn’t  just a ritual moistening that we preform on new babies to thank God for the gift of new life. Baptism is a ritual drowning.  In baptism, the old self, with all its struggles to justify its own existence, is drowned, put to death. Following Jesus means dying to self. Bonhoeffer said that “When Christ calls a person, Christ bids them come and die.” The cost of discipleship is everything.  Not just everything you have, everything you are. But following Jesus – discipleship, baptism–also means being raised with Jesus.

It means understanding yourself to be a new creation in Christ’s image, with all the potential to be all that we can be. It is as if, God scoops us out of the waters of baptism and says, “Yes!  This is exactly what I had in mind when I created you”. Turning away from and detaching ourselves from people, possessions and work so that we can follow Jesus means that: suddenly we no longer work to justify our own existence, we work simply because there is work that needs doing.  We work because God has given us work that no one else can do, and because if we don’t do it, it simply won’t get done.

Suddenly our possessions no longer prove our worth; they are simply gifts from God.  They are given to us to serve God and God’s people:  our homes so that we can provide hospitality to strangers, our wealth so that we can share it with others. And suddenly our families no longer justify our existence, they merely surround us with love and care. Our fathers are not there to be lived up to, but to love us and accept us. Our mothers love us not because we deserve it, but simply because we exist. Our sisters and brothers can be companions for the journey, walking alongside us enjoying the scenery. And children can be more than just something we put our stamp on and raise to be just how we want them, the can be signs that God is at work in the world, constantly bringing new life, constantly opening up the future. Following Jesus means dying to self, to everything we have, to everything we are.  But it also means being reborn, and receiving all of life as a gift.

God says:  Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. In God, the gift of life is ours. It is up to us to receive the gift of life.  To get on our bikes and ride for the sheer joy of riding.  To be with our families and love for the sheer joy of loving.  To follow Jesus for the excitement and the challenges that Christ offers. God has set before us life and death, choose life.  

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The Guests Watched Jesus Closely: sermon – Pentecost 15C – Luke 14:1, 7-14

I have often heard Jesus’ teaching about who sits where at a wedding feast used to encourage a kind of humility that requires those who would follow Jesus to take a back seat or better still adopt a cloak of invisibility lest we be mistaken for the proud and self-righteous.  Canadians have a special affinity for this particular way of interpreting this text. It seems to me that the image of Canadian humility suggests that Canadian Christianity has had a huge impact upon our national psyche. I know that there are many who would insist that our humble national character is a direct result of living in the shadow of the Americans, whose national identity is anything but humble. I have to admit that the constant drumbeat of “We’re number one!”, “We’re number one!” coupled with a patriotism that champions the idea of American Exceptionalism which is the notion  that the United States alone has the right, whether by divine sanction or moral obligation, to bring civilization, or democracy, or liberty to the rest of the world, by violence if necessary. With such pride of place, you can be sure that each and every one of our American cousins is endowed with the confidence on knowing exactly where they belong at the head table. So, is it any wonder that living next-door to a nation that instills such patriotic ardor in its citizens, that we Canadians would find a more humble approach more appealing.

Don’t get me wrong; I know that stereotypes rarely express the full character of a nation and so, it would be a mistake to paint all Americans with the same brush. But I dare say that you’d be hard pressed to find a Canadian who would disagree that even the most enlightened of our American cousins who might be found from time to time to speak softly, doesn’t underneath it all carry a big stick. Where Bravado flows through our American cousin’s national character, most Canadians prefer a quieter, softer, gentler approach, lest we be confused with the worst of American stereotypes:  “the ugly American.”

So, renowned is our Canadian reputation for humility, that Americans who themselves are afraid of being treated like Americans, have been known to impersonate Canadians while traveling. I can still remember, backpacking around Europe and running into young American’s who’d sowed Canadian flags onto their packs, so that Europeans might not treat them like the quintessential Ugly American. I used to take great delight in trying to help these imposters, who would often insist that they were from “To-ron-to.” I remember coaching more that one or two American interlopers that in addition to adding the odd eh, to the end of their sentences they should learn how to say, “Toranna,” or “Taranta” rather than “To-ron-to.” But alas, so many of our American cousins remain blissfully unaware of their apparent ugliness as they belly up to the front of the line, insisting on their divine right to feast at the head of the table.

As repugnant as the stereotypical Ugly American might be he pales in comparison to the stereotype of the “Ugly Christian” who although they are not confined to the American variety of the species has without a doubt been perfected by our Bible-believin neighbours to the south. For I dare say that while the average Canadian has learned to take being confused for an Ugly American in our stride, we’d never in our wildest nightmares want to be mistaken for one of those Ugly Christians. You know the type I’m talking about.

Those bible thumping, simple minded, fundamentalist, self-righteous, judgmentalist, killjoys, who’d make the good Lord himself want to run a mile, rather than risk listening to them harp on about being saved.

Lord help me Jesus, but don’t let them think we’re one of those. Canadians might be humble, shy, and retiring, but the average Canadian Christian, is so humble, so shy, and so retiring when it comes to their Christianity, that you’d hardly know we’re here. That’s just the way most of us would like to keep it. Who can blame us when you see how those loud-mouthed Christians who are so quick to condemn with their holier than thou attitudes are shunned in our ever so polite Canadian culture? Who wants to be mistaken for one of them?

Is it any wonder that the average, middle-class, mainline, Christian has learned the so well the art of keeping our mouths shut when it comes to our religion?  We want people to see us as fun-loving and easy-going. We don’t want people to think we’re one of “those Christians”. No not us. We’re the live and let live types.     So rather than be confused for one of “those Christians” we keep our mouths shut. We don’t want people to think we’re simple-minded or delusional.

So, even though our Christian faith is of the 21st century variety with a more enlightened nuanced approach to life, that allows us to engage our minds in faith, rather than blindly accepting the dogma of the past, we’d rather not get into all that. So, we get by, by keeping ourselves to ourselves. Trusting that as humble Christians, all will be well, if we just keep our mouths shut, and we strive to live our lives, in splendid isolationism, where our religion is banished from the workplace, from the market place, from politics, and from polite company itself. Our fear of being mistaken as an Ugly Christian has turned most of us into Invisible Christians.

The only trouble with our attempt to hide from the perils of being mistaken for an Ugly Christian is that the more invisible we become the more visible they become. So omnipresent are the Ugly Christians that soon, they will own the brand itself. Why if things are allowed to continue, soon you won’t need to even bother designating some Christians as narrow-minded, judgmental, self-righteous, hypocrites, because they will own the brand and the word “christian” will become synonymous with narrow-minded, judgmental, self-righteous, hypocrites. Soon, if we remain invisible, Christians will no longer be known by their love, but by the hate-filled rhetoric that makes up so much of what passes for Christianity.

While we’re busy patting ourselves on the back for being the quieter, gentler types,  actually taking pride in our humility,  confident that by not even asking for a place at the table, we will be honored for our more humble approach, the table itself is being redesignated as a place for the strong, wealthy, doctrinally pure and self-righteous, where the weak and the broken need not apply, unless they check their brains at the door, and swear alliance to the born again, bible-thumping, rhetoric that condemns all those who fail to comply to the fiery pits of hell for all eternity, confident in the knowledge that their God is almighty and swift in his judgment of those who are of course guilty not only of sin but of uncertainty and Lord ain’t it hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.

While we’re busy being humble in our approach, we’ve forgotten the most important thing about humility.

When Jesus came to eat a meal in the house of one of the leading Pharisees, the guests watched him closely. Jesus was not invisible. Jesus did not blend into the background. Jesus did not keep his mouth shut.

Jesus was anything but polite. They were watching him. Actually the text says that they watched him closely. In Greek it says, that they watched him closely out of the corner of their eyes. Jesus was anything but invisible. The ironic thing about humility is that humility must be seen in order to be known at all as humble.

I dare say that most of you are anything but invisible. No matter how much you’d like to remain anonymous about your Christianity; no matter how far you’ve tried to distance yourselves from those Christians, people know who you are and they’re watching you. No matter how gently or softly we Canadians are in our approach to the world, we are not invisible. The world continues to watch us. The world continues to look to us to see how we engage the issues.

Canadians are not invisible.  When we provide inspired leadership people notice. When we fail to provide inspired leadership the world expresses it’s disappointment. No matter how much we’d like to simply mind our own business, the world is watching us. And no matter how much you’d like to think that you can remain invisible when it comes to your faith, let me assure you that people have noticed you. Your kindness has not gone unnoticed. Your generosity has been felt. Your leadership has been appreciated.

People have seen you in action and they have wondered how you do it. So, unless your prepared to let them believe that your faith has nothing to do with who you are, you might want to help them to connect the dots. I know I’m suggesting that you act out of character.

Believe me I know how difficult it is to expose our Christian identity. A while back I was delivering some grocery vouchers as part of our LOV Ministries’ effort to respond to the needs of our neighbours. I stopped by on my way home from church and so I was wearing my collar. The person I was helping asked me, why minister’s wear the collar. It’s a question that I have struggled with and will probably continue to struggle with. I know that some of my colleagues have given up wearing the collar because they think it’s too formal or that it sets them up for special treatment. Some think we shouldn’t wear it out of a sense of humility. When I first became a pastor, I rarely wore a collar. Oh, I wore it on Sunday mornings, but that was mostly because people expected me to wear it on Sundays and it helped me to remember who I was. There’s nothing like a collar to choke you into remembering that as a pastor people are watching you, lest you forget and do something that would bring the office of pastor into disrepute. When you’re wearing one of these it changes how you act. For example, when you’re driving and someone cuts you off, you can’t give into the urge to give them the finger, because it wouldn’t just be you who is giving them the finger but the church. When you wear a collar you represent the church. Wear it badly and it’s not just you that people see misbehaving but the whole church. So, I try my best not to misbehave when I’m wearing a collar. Except of course when I want to be seen misbehaving. And so, I always wear a collar to a protest march, so that the church can be seen to be on the side of peace, or justice, or against poverty, or war; or so that the church can be seen to be in solidarity with the poor, with environmentalists and with our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. It’s part of my job to make the church visible in the world.  I didn’t really understand that role until one day I was caught wearing my collar in the most unexpected place. You see in the beginning, I limited the wearing of the collar to Sundays and to protest marches, and maybe to the hospital, because in hospitals the collar makes it easier to get people who are otherwise too busy to do things for patients. But I was always uncomfortable wearing the collar and I suppose if the truth be told, I didn’t really want people to confuse me for one of those holier than thou types.

One day, I needed some candles and so I dashed into the Zellers over the road to quickly grab a couple. I was having difficulty finding just the right candles when a store clerk came up to me and asked me if I would come with her. I figured that I’d been lingering over the candles for so long that she must have mistaken me for a shoplifter, but as we hurried along, she explained to me that there was a man in housewares who was abusing his wife and child. I’d forgotten that I was wearing a collar, but the reality of what this clerk was asking me to do choked me into realizing that the collar had lead her to believe that I could actually do something.

Not knowing what she expected me to do, I told her to call 911. She assured me that they had already called, but that in the meantime perhaps I could help. We stopped just before the aisle where the abuse was taking place. The store clerk whispered that, “they are just over there.”

As she pointed, I realized that she wanted me to go on alone. So, not knowing what to expect, I took a deep breath and walked in on a scene that was way beyond my abilities. A big burly guy was twisting the arm of a woman while a little girl of about 4 or 5 stood crying. The man was yelling obscenities when I interrupted him.

When he looked at me, I saw the fear in his eyes as he immediately let go of the woman who fell to the floor. The little girl ran to her mother. I expected the man to turn on me, but instead he just stared at me, as he began to cry, “I’m sorry pastor, forgive me.”

It wasn’t I who stood before him, but the church, his church, the church that had taught him right from wrong. The collar I wore made the church visible to him and made it impossible for him to forget who he was. As a child of God, he couldn’t continue what he was doing. As a child of God, he knew in his bones that he was wrong. He wept until the police arrived.

From that day on, I’ve known the power of the collar to make the church visible in the world and so I wear it a lot more often than I’d ever expected I would. Now I know that it is part of my job to make the church visible in the world. But I also know that as part of the priesthood of all believers it is also your job to make Christ visible in the world.

Each of you at your baptism were marked with the cross of Christ forever, and ordained to the priesthood that we all share. While some of us have been called to represent the church as clergy, we all share a higher calling to represent Christ. Each of you have been called and ordained to be Christ here and now. And whether you like it or not you are not invisible. People are watching you. The way in which you represent Christ will be noticed. The Christ you reflect will impact the image of Christ that the world sees. So, let the world see Christ in you. Christ who is humble.

Oh and by the way, let me remind you exactly what it means to be humble. Humble comes from the old English word humus, which literally means , ground, or earth. To be humble is to be grounded, as Christ was grounded in the earth.    To walk humbly is to remember who you are, Children of God, who is the ground of our being. As children of God, reflect the beauty of what it means to be created in the image of God who is love. Make Christ visible in acts of love. Not for your glory, or for the church’s glory, but for the glory of God who is LOVE.

Change the stereotype. Remember: the ironic thing about humility is that humility must be seen in order to be known at all as humble. Let all the world know that you are Christ’s with humble, acts grounded in love.

Let all the world know that you are Christ’s by your love.

 

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Bent Over Woman – Luke 13:10-17

bentover woman1

It was hot. Already the sun had parched the earth. The air was still. The ground beneath her feet radiated the heat. She was tired. Earlier she had thought about staying at home. Her weary body could use a rest. All week long she had toiled in the heat of the sun. On this Sabbath she longed to rest her crumpled, aching body. She tried to ignore the weakness she felt. She had suffered long and hard. She couldn’t even remember when or how she had become so weak. Over the years, her weakened spirit had left her body bent and crippled. The evidence of her heavy burdens could be seen in her crooked spine. She was ashamed of her appearance.

It had been eighteen long years since she had stood straight and tall. She vaguely remembered running when she was a child. She ran everywhere back then. She ran faster than anyone else in the town. She loved to run. Running made her feel free.

Her mother used to warn her not to run. Her mother tried to stop her. But she was so full of life. She wanted to see everything. She wanted to do everything. She wanted to go everywhere.

Her mother warned her not to be so curious. Her mother tried to keep her busy. Her mother tried to keep her out of trouble. But it was no use, no matter how many tasks her mother gave her; she always managed to find time to explore. She had so many questions. She wanted to know how things worked. Life was so very exciting. She dashed from one adventure to the next. She ran everywhere, everyday. Except of course on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath she walked. She walked with her family to the synagogue. She loved to go to the synagogue. As her father and brothers took their places at the feet of the rabbis, she sat quietly with her mother and sisters and the other women and girls in the back of the synagogue. She listened carefully as the men and boys talked. 

She longed to ask questions, and for the longest time she did not understand why she was not allowed to speak. She longed for the freedom to speak. When each of her brothers went in turn to learn to read from the Torah, she longed to sit with the rabbi and learn. She tried to satisfy her longings with questions. She asked so many questions. At first people were amused by her curiosity, but eventually they became annoyed. In time their anger grew.

She doesn’t remember when she stopped asking questions, any more than she remembers when she stopped running, it just sort of happened, without her really noticing it at all. She accepted that she was not free to ask questions. She no longer felt free to run. Her mother may not have been able to give her enough tasks to stifle her curiosity, but her husband and children provided her with so many tasks that she could barely keep up.

Maybe they were right. Maybe she didn’t really need to know. Maybe she was annoying. Maybe she shouldn’t be so demanding. Maybe she shouldn’t question the way things were done. Maybe she should just accept her lot in the world. Maybe she should just make do with what she had. She felt so trapped. Maybe they were right.

Gradually she stopped asking questions and she resolved to carry her burdens in silence. She settled into the routine that life offered. She even stopped running. These days there weren’t so many tasks. She was alone. Her husband was gone. Her children were grown with families of their own. But even the small tasks seemed difficult for her now. Just getting out of bed was more than she could manage some mornings. What was the point?  Why bother? She was so very tired.

Going to the synagogue was one of the last pleasures she had. The familiar words and sounds provided some comfort. Sometimes she could forget her burdens for just a moment. Faint hope seemed better than no hope. She had waited until she knew that the others would have left before she set off. Although she could no longer look into their faces, she wanted to avoid the pitying glances that she knew in her heart were there. She could not bear to hear their whispers. She knew that they blamed her. She knew that her ailment frightened them. She would have avoided the synagogue altogether but she knew that he was going to be there. The whole village had been buzzing about him all week long. He had been speaking in the village and his words had stirred people. There were rumours that he had healed many people. Some said that he was the greatest storyteller who had ever travelled through these parts. Surely such a great teacher would be asked to speak in the synagogue, on this Sabbath. For just a moment, she felt a pang of the old curiosity.

She wondered just what it was about this man that had set their tongues to wagging. So she trudged on in the heat. Her bent and crippled body weighed down by the burdens she carried.

The ground beneath her was familiar. For eighteen years her hunched back had limited her vision. Her face looked out at a limited world. She could not see the tops of the olive trees. The sky, even the sun that beat down on her were beyond her vision. What she could see of the town was empty. Everyone was inside the synagogue. She quietly slipped in the side door, relieved that she had once again avoided contact with her neighbours.

As she made her way to the back of the crowd she heard his voice. She could not see him, but somehow she knew that the voice she heard was his. Perhaps it was the authority with which he spoke. Perhaps it was the trace of a Nazarene accent. She barely had time to wonder. He was calling her. She felt the crowd part. She heard him call. Fear turned her feet to stone. She could not move forward. She felt her neighbours’ eyes upon her and she began to tremble. Each breath she took she thought would be her last. Suddenly she felt her old friend curiosity begin to stir.

Why was he calling her? Why was he singling her out? Was he going to chastise her? Was he going to point out her sin? Was he going to tell them that her ailment was punishment for her refusal to accept her lot in life? Was he going to point to her and warn them not to step out of line? She felt the questions rising up in her. She could not stop them. Her feet began to move. She could see them moving and she wanted to run. For the first time in eighteen years she wanted to run. But she knew that she couldn’t run.

She wanted to run right out of there. But slowly, her feet moved her tired aching body closer to him. She stood before him and watched as his chest moved up and down. She wondered what his face looked like. Was he angry? Was he about to lash out at her? Or did he look down on her with pity in his eyes? She focussed on the steady movement of his chest and when the word came she was startled.

“Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

“Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

What was he saying? Could it be true? After so many years of longing? Was she finally free? She felt his hands upon her. Gently he rubbed her tired shoulders. And then all of a sudden she felt it. He had called her. Jesus had called her. Jesus had called her up to the front of the synagogue and in front of all the men and women of her village Jesus had declared that she was set free. Immediately she stood up straight and she began praising God. Praising God in the synagogue!

She, a woman who had been suffering from an inner poverty that had left her incapacitated for 18 years;  she whose weakened spirit caused her body to respond in kind, leaving her bent forward, unable to stand, she was released from her prison and she stood up straight and she began praising God. She praised God, in the synagogue. Until the leader of the synagogue stood up.

She looked him straight in the eyes and she waited. He was indignant because Jesus had dared to cure on the Sabbath, and he kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” For the first time in eighteen years she looked closely at their faces. She saw their smug expressions. She was about to bow her head when Jesus shouted, “You hypocrites!  Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or your donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? Shouldn’t this woman, a daughter of Abraham who has been bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

The words of Jesus put all his opponents to shame. Standing tall and proud, tears of joy streamed down her face as she remembered that she was a daughter of Abraham and of Sarah. That she too was an heir to God’s promises. Overcome with joy she, once again began praising God.  The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing. Relived of her burdens, set free from her prison, standing tall and proud as a daughter of Abram and Sarah, secure in the knowledge that she too was an heir to all the promises of God, she praised God.

There are days; you know the kind of days, the days  when we can see ourselves as this woman. There are days when I wonder when the burdens of life became so heavy that I became crushed by them. When and where did my childish enthusiasm for life disappear? When did I stop running toward life? When did I become so cautious? When did I let my many tasks bare down on me and cause me to just trudge on. When did I stop demanding answers and resolve to carry my burdens in silence? When did I settle into the routine that life offered? There are days when even the small tasks seem difficult and just getting out of bed is more than I can manage. Then there have been those days when I simply can’t bear to look into the eyes of my neighbours, when I want to avoid their pitying glances. Days when I couldn’t bear to hear their whispers, because I knew that they blamed me. Days when my burdens weighed me down.

And there are other days when I can see myself as the leader in the synagogue. Those days when some child dashes under the altar and I try to crush that child with. Or when some rule somewhere is tossed aside or trampled on and I can’t hold my tongue. And there are those days when I self-righteously quote scripture at some poor sod who has gotten under my skin. Those horrid days when I can’t summon up the grace to be anything more than just a hypocrite. Sadly there are even days, when I am threatened by another person’s freedom and I want to cling to the rules, because the rules are familiar and the rules provide order and the rules mean I don’t have to think and I can just put myself on automatic pilot and all will be well.

And then there are those glorious days, when the burdens of life are lifted and I want to dance with the pure joy of life and praise God without ceasing. Like that day when the doctor said I was cancer free, I ran like the wind that day. Or the day I quit my job to go back to university, I danced that night. Or that first day at university, I walked tall around the campus that day. Or that first day at seminary, standing in the chapel singing God’s praises as the faculty processed in decked out in their academic robes. I sang loudly that day and for days after I was full of questions about everything. Or that glorious day when the phone rang and the voice on the other end said, they voted to call you. I felt like I’d been set free that day, free to embark on a glorious adventure.

We’ve all had days when the burdens of life have weighed us down and we’ve all had those horrible days when it seemed easier to heap burdens upon others because the best we could muster was some kind of hypocrisy that enslaved a sister or a brother. And we’ve all had those days when we have been set free to be the people God intended us to be and we can’t help but sing God’s praise. But if this were just a story where you could relate to a crippled woman who is healed and a few hypocrites who want to spoil the party it would just be an ordinary story and we could, depending on the kind of day we are having be satisfied with identifying ourselves as either blessed of burdened.  But this is not just an ordinary story. Because we are gathered here in this place;  and here in the church, which is the Body of Christ, each of us is called to be Christ to one another. Which means that in addition to identifying ourselves with the one who is healed and the ones who are hypocrites, we are also called to identify ourselves with Christ for we are called to be healers. We are called to set one another free! We are called to lift one another’s burdens! We are called to lift the burdens of injustice, disease, sadness, poverty, and even the burdens of death.

Like Christ, we are called to challenge the religious practices and beliefs of our day that are insensitive to peoples’ suffering.

We worship a God who created us to stand up full and free and have the courage to look God in the eye and to ask God to share our burdens. We worship a God that wants us to stand tall and look one another in the eyes; set one another free, call one another to account and rejoice in God’s steadfast abundant grace. So do not let your burdens weigh you down. Do not let rules and regulations and law turn you into self-righteous hypocrites. Rise up! Rise up, look around and in the faces of your sisters and brothers see the face of Christ and let them see the face of Christ that is in you.

 

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Doubt: Preparing to Preach on Hebrews 11:1-16

Looking over the readings for this coming Sunday and the subject of faith jumps out from the Hebrews reading (Hebrews 11:1-16) which begs questions about doubt.  I recently read and blogged about Richard Holloway’s “Faith and Doubt” and Lesley Hazleton’s insistence that “Doubt is Essential to Faith” and both posts provide an interesting jumping off point. This little video of Richard Holloway on “Why doubt is a good thing” drives my thoughts toward preaching on doubt as the foundation of faith??? 

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Hosea: the Coronation Street of Ancient Israel  August 4, 2013

Coronation StI am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong for his insights into the Book of the Prophet Hosea. Without Jack’s thoughtful portrayal of Gomer, I would not have recognized her as the Leanne Battersby of her time. Also, thanks to Marcus Borg for his definition of the verb “believe”!

Listen to the sermon:

For those unfamiliar with Corrie, here’s a sample of the first 50 years:

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catching starsPrayer: Connections – a sermon for Luke 11:1-13

Pentecost 10C – July 28 2013

Listen to the sermon here

https://pastordawn.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/pentecost-10c-jul-28-2013-sermon.m4a

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three queens

Three Queens, the Birth of Laughter, and the Non-Existent Kitchen – a sermon for Pentecost 9C

Scripture Readings:  Genesis 18:1-15 and Luke 10:38-42

Worship Bulletin pdf here (to be printed double-sided and folded into a booklet)

Listen to the sermon here

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“Martha, Martha, Martha!” – Preparing to preach on an all too familiar text!

From an Academic Paper to a Sermon

martha 2I am usually on vacation at this time of the year. So, I have only had one opportunity to opportunity to preach on this coming Sunday’s gospel text (Luke 10:38-42). The story of Jesus’ sojourn at the home of Mary and Martha is such a familiar text, which over the years has been used and abused by preachers to inflict such harm on their listeners. During my seminary years, this text awakened the feminist in me in ways that I am still unpacking. So, in preparation to write only my second sermon on this text, I went back to my seminary years to uncover an academic treatment of this text that I included in my Masters Comprehensive paper in 1998. Reading the paper took me back to a time when I seriously doubted my call to ordained ministry. Back then I was unsure about my ability to tolerate the institutional church or indeed whether or not the institutional church would be able to tolerate me. I am happy to report that there are pockets of the institutional church were feminists can thrive and I have been blessed to be called to serve in one of those pockets. 

The only time I preached on this text was in 2004 and so I post both the academic paper and the sermon based on the paper as a resources for those of you who will take up the text this week. I have not edited the sermon, despite my inclination to do so. Old sermons provide a snapshot of old preachers. Like most snapshots, I’m not altogether happy with the picture of myself. The good news is that this week I have the opportunity to create another snapshot.

You can read the academic paper here   and   the sermon here

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Imagining Fred Phelps as the Good Samaritan – Sermon Luke 10:25-37

love-your-neighbor-as-yourselfPentecost 8C – Sunday July 14 2013

Listen to the sermon here

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children's future

Only in Canada Eh?

Canayjuns, Injuns, Paula Deen,

the N-Word, and Racism

a sermon for Canada Sunday

I am indebted to Father Jim O’Shea for his article in the Huffpost and to Robert LoveLace for his parable about Chickens which appeared in The Rabble.

Listen to the sermon here

Worship Bulletin PDF here

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A 69 Chevy Nova, Tea and the ONE In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being

chevy novaA sermon on Galatians 3:23-29 and Luke 8:26-39

I am indebted to John Philip Newell and his book: A New Harmony for the insights that lie at the heart of this sermon.

Listen to the sermon here

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Open Hands – Pentecost 4C Sermon

open handsI am indebted to Dr. Martha Ellen Stortz for the metaphor of open hands.

Listen to the sermon here

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In the Sweet By and By, I’ll Fly Away!

Metaphor - pastordawnThird Sunday after Pentecost

June 9, 2013 – Readings: 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Luke 7:11-17

Listen to the sermon here

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Wolf Blitzer Learns that there are

Indeed Atheists in Fox-holes!

This Trinity Sunday sermon owes much to John Shelby Spong’s book a “New Christianity for a New World”

You can listen to the sermon here then watch the tail end of the Wolf Blitzer interview mentioned in the sermon.   

We sang Shadow and Substance as our Hymn of the Day: view it here

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The Athanasian Creed and an Unholy Trinity – A sermon for Trinity Sunday

I don’t remember the first time I ever saw him. I was barely 18 months old when my brother Alan arrived. Despite the fact that he ruined my gig as an only child, Alan and I grew close over the years. We moved around a lot so we became one another’s best friends. But we went our separate ways when we became teenagers. When I tell the stories, I say that we went our separate ways because Alan became preoccupied with sports.  I suspect that when Alan tells the stories, he says that we went our separate ways because I became preoccupied with the church. Either way you tell it, family and friends used to say that it was hard to believe that we grew up in the same household. Alan developed a reputation for been a bit of a redneck. I developed a reputation for being a bit of a radical. Alan drove four-wheel-drives and went hunting. I drove old beat up cars and lived at an ecumenical retreat centre.  Alan learned a trade, settled down and raised a family. I travelled the world and didn’t get around to figuring out what I was going to be when I grew up, I went back to school at the age of 30.

Alan and I didn’t get around to understanding one another until we were in our mid-40’s. When I grew to appreciate the gentle man that he has become and Alan began to respect the person I’ve become. We still love to talk politics, but these days we tend to agree more than we disagree, I’m not sure who mellowed, the redneck or the radical. We don’t talk much about religion, though. Growing up, Alan would claim to be an atheist, and scoffed at my involvement with the church. These days, Alan, calls suggests he is an agnostic, and although he’s come to respect my life in the church, he still scoffs at the hypocrisy of the church.

I still remember the very first time that I saw Manjit. Her face was the colour of pure milk chocolate. Her jet-black hair was long and wavy. She sat at the very back of the classroom. When the teacher introduced me to Manjit, her toothy grin welcomed me. We were twelve years old. I was the new kid in town and Manjit was the only East Indian in the class. We were to share a double-desk for the remainder of the school year. I remember my first trip to Manjit’s home. A science project needed our attention. I can still smell the aroma of Manjit’s home where exotic curries released their pungency into the air. Over several meals at Manjit’s, I learned to like my food hot and spicy. Manjit’s mother would blend her own spices and she never forgot to send a package or two of her specially blended curries home with me.

Manjit is a gentle soul who introduced me to the wonders of her faith. Manjit is a Hindu. Manjit never tried to encourage me to become a Hindu.  Although over the years she would remind me of the Hindu saying that admonishes Hindus to be better Hindus, Muslims to be better Muslims, Jews to be better Jews, Buddhists to be better Buddhists, and Christians to be better Christians.  Manjit grew into a kind and gentle woman. She works as a social worker in Vancouver’s rough east-end neighborhoods. The last time I saw Manjit she was patiently guiding the students of a confirmation class that I taught, around her Temple. Later that evening Manjit and I talked a long time about Jesus. Manjit told me that she’d always been fascinated with Jesus’ teachings and that she had no problem believing that Jesus is God, but then she explained that Hindus have a thousand god’s.

I can still remember the very first time that Henry walked into my office. A long black beard together with the yarmulke that he wore on his head gave Henry away. So, from the very beginning I knew that Henry was Jewish. But it took a few years of working together before I discovered that in addition to being a graphic artist, Henry is also a rabbi. Henry became a dear friend of mine and over the years he shared so much of his wisdom with me. Many a night Henry and I sat up to the wee hours discussing the Scriptures. Henry even arranged for me to study Hebrew at his Yeshiva. I learned a great deal from Henry. We often talked about Jesus. We rarely agreed about Jesus, but we often talked about him.

Alan, Manjit and Henry, some would call them an unholy Trinity. But to me they are, each of them, sacred. Trinity Sunday is my least favorite Sunday of the Church year. It’s the only festival of the church year that is designed to celebrate not God, nor Jesus, not even the Holy Spirit, but rather a doctrine of the church. The notion that God is One in Three; a doctrine that was created by theologians to explain the inexpressible, a doctrine the church “fathers” began to cast in stone in the words of the Apostle’s, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.  Three Creeds that make up an unholy trinity in and of themselves. Three Creeds that the Lutheran Church continues to hold as articles of the faith. Three Creeds that continue to hold sway in our church.Three Creeds that in my humble opinion make up an unholy trinity. Three Creeds upon which the doctrine of the Trinity rests.

The Apostles’ and Nicene creeds are familiar to most people who’ve spent time in the churches of Christendom. But it’s the 3rd creed of this unholy Trinity that makes Trinity Sunday my least favorite Sunday of the Church year and for me calls into question the entire doctrine of the Trinity. I still remember the first time I actually heard the third creed. I was about 20. I’d been attending church for about five years and I’d already learned to recite the Apostles creed which we used almost every Sunday and the Nicene Creed which we used on the high holy days like Easter, Pentecost and Christmas. But somehow in those five years I never came across the Athanasian Creed. I must have missed a few Trinity Sundays because in the Lutheran Church tradition dictates that on Trinity Sunday the Athanasian Creed be used. So, on this particular Sunday after the Hymn of the Day the pastor instructed us to turn to page 54 in our Lutheran Book of Worship.   

Now those of you who are Lutherans will remember that in the old LBW the most commonly used setting of the liturgy began with the brief order for confession and forgiveness found on page 56 at the front of the hymnal. Well after 5 years in the church, I had no idea what lay on pages 54 and 56 and boy was I in for a rude awakening.  Most of the Athanasian Creed is totally incomprehensible. But there was one part of the creed that stuck in my throat in a way that has made it impossible for me to ever recite. Now I know that it has been a long time for most of you and indeed there are many of you who have never recited it. So, I’m going to do something that I never thought that I would do. I’m going to read the Athanasian Creed to you.

(Read the whole thing. Slowly and deliberately. Try not to gag)                                 a copy can be found here

Upon hearing this creed recited by my home congregation I heard my dear brother, my friend Manjit and my dear friend Henry excluded from God’s grace. Suddenly the God that I thought I knew looked very small indeed. I felt like I was standing at the edge of a precipice.  The ground ahead of me disappeared into a fathomless void. “One cannot be saved without believing firmly and faithfully that God is Trinity.” Indeed in the words of the Athanasian Creed “Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable will doubtless perish eternally.” Visions of my entire family and all those I hold dear perishing eternally quickly disappeared as I began to fear for my own salvation. Believe this or risk perishing for all eternity. The fires of hell were sure to capture me!

Up to that point I actually thought my biggest problem with the creeds was the virgin birth. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is wrong. God may indeed be a Trinity.  And I can say with absolute certainty that I have experienced God in three persons. But then, I cannot even begin to count the number of persons in whom I have experienced God.

Try as I might, I cannot wrap my brain around the doctrine of the Trinity. I must confess to you that I’ve actually stopped trying to reconcile myself to this ancient doctrine.  Any doctrine or notion about the nature of the creator that is set up as an absolute requires a kind of fundamentalism that I don’t have the stomach for. I cannot tell you, nor can I believe that anyone can tell you what God is. But I can tell you that when people start insisting that they know what God is, you should begin to worry. And when someone insists that if you don’t believe what they believe about the nature of God that you are dammed to “perish eternally”, well that’s precisely the kind of fundamentalism that I believe Jesus warned us against.

If the doctrine of the Trinity helps you to understand or articulate some of the aspects of God that you have experienced, then by all means celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity. But if the doctrine of the Trinity gets in the way, then move beyond it. If the doctrine of the Trinity causes you to damn a fellow creature or to look upon someone who is seeking wisdom by another way, then take another look.

Re-think your notions about God and do so without fear. For if I’ve learned anything about the nature of God it is that our God is beyond our abilities to describe. Our attempts at describing God are only as good as the effect they have on the way we live in communion with God and with all that God loves. 

So, I don’t recite the Athanasian Creed and as for the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, well I don’t recite them anymore either.  I know them well and I studied them intensely and I will continue to study them. But not as boundaries that mark who is in and who as out, rather, as testaments to the faith of our “fathers.” “Fathers in the faith” upon whose shoulders I stand. But the thing about standing upon someone’s shoulders is that it’s far from the most comfortable place to be. Sooner or later you’re going to topple over.  When one person falls over, we all fall down. So, all though I’m willing to crawl up there on those shoulders from time to time to see what the view is like from that vantage point, I’m not prepared to stay up there for long. I prefer to stand upon the ground: the Ground of Being. For the God that I know, and I say know with all humility, the God that I know, if ever so slightly, is in the words of Paul Tillich,  the God who is the Ground of our Being. The God who I have seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the God who lives and breathes in with and through creation, and in the presence of the Ground of Being, there is no creed or doctrine that will suffice and so, all I can offer up is silence.  Holy and blessed sacred silence in the presence of the, One who is was and ever more shall be in the words of Augustine: LOVER, BELOVED and LOVE itself. And were LOVE is concerned, no one will perish eternally, for the power of LOVE is grace and in all things God’s grace is sufficient. And that changes everything. I can no longer divide God into your, God and my God, his God or her God, Alan’s God, Sam’s God, or Henry’s God.  

As my Hindu friend Manjit taught me, “God is beyond the beyond and beyond that also. Or as Bonheoffer said, “God is the beyond in our midst.”  God is beyond Trinity and that must change everything. That calls us beyond our own form of fundamentalism.

Now, to those of you who would say, “Why worry about this stuff?  Nobody out there in the “real world” really cares about theology. Let me tell you a story that illustrates why I believe this stuff really matters out there.

A while ago, before I knew that I too suffer from fundamentalism, I realized that in a very tangible way that we need to travel beyond our creeds. It was September 14th 2001. Barely 3 days had passed since that fateful day when our world was blown apart by religious fundamentalists. I was late.  Once again, my inability to navigate the streets of Toronto had led to too many wrong turns and the need to backtrack. Being lost in the city is something that I’ve gotten used to.  It doesn’t usually bother me.  But I didn’t want to be late.  I was unsure about just where I was going and just what was going to happen when I arrived.

The meeting had been hastily called.  Clerics from various faiths were meeting together to discuss how to go forward in these troubled times. I was too busy to be attending one more meeting.  But like the prophet Jeremiah, my eyes had been a fountain of tears and I had been weeping night and day.  I hoped that this particular meeting would help me to spring into action so that in doing something I could find my bearings once again. I spent the early part of the week trying to figure out just what to do.  How do you mourn for so many?  How long do we mourn for so many? I found myself lost in the images of terror.  Lost somewhere between the rubble and the war that would surely come. Lost in front of the TV set, hoping against hope that someone, anyone would find a solution that would not mean more violence, more terror, more death, more innocent lives lost. Lost somewhere between the patriotic declarations of American cousins and my own desire to cry out for peace. Lost somewhere between a desire to bear witness to the historic events of those days, and the desire to block it out and return to normal. Lost between knowing that so much had changed, and wanting to pretend that everything would be fine if everyone just went about their business.

When I finally made it out of the depths of the subway, the sun was shining. The very same sun that shone down upon the rubble where so much was lost. The very same sun that shone in the mountains of Afghanistan. I wandered, in a daze, consumed with thoughts about what might happen next.

Trying to figure out what a war on terrorism would look like on the streets of Toronto. I wandered into the skyscraper that bore the same number as the hastily written note that I held in my hand.

I made my way into the elevator and pushed the button that would let me out on the twenty-second floor. Lost in thought, I couldn’t help thinking what it would be like to descend from a tower by way of the stairwell.

I was not alone.  A woman was riding up with me. She wore the hijab. She was staring down at her feet. Two women standing in close quarters.  One wearing the hijab, a traditional head-scarf of a Muslim woman.  The other wearing a black shirt and white collar, the traditional uniform of a Christian cleric.

Two women standing in close quarters. One, staring down at her feet.  The other, struggling for some words. She didn’t look up. 

I said, “Hello.” She just stared at her feet.

I said, “I’m so sorry.”

Her head nodded up and down.

Again, I said, “I’m sorry.”

She looked up, a tear ran down her cheek. And as she spoke, my own tears returned. “Thank-you” she said.

I extended my hand in greeting.  And from deep in the recesses of my memory came the only words of Arabic I have ever learned.  “Salam a lakem”. She clasped my hand in both of hers and said, ‘Salam a lakem, Peace be with.”

We got off on the same floor, and said nothing to one another as we made our way into the same meeting room. There we listened as the leaders of various faiths tried to deal with the madness that had struck our homeland. We listened as several Imams told us that they were advising the members of their mosques to stay inside there homes whenever possible. We listened to the stories of hatred and ignorance. We listened as Muslim clerics and lay people expressed their fears. A Hindu priest explained how he had narrowly escaped the wrath of several adolescent boys who insisted that he was responsible for all the terror.  The Hindu priest declared that under normal circumstances he would have been somewhat annoyed to be mistaken for a Muslim, but on that day he was tempted to masquerade as one, so that he might stand in solidarity with his sisters and brothers.

We listened as anxious parents desperately asked how they were to protect their children from their neighbors.  We listened as a Jewish rabbi suggested that perhaps the Christians among us would consider sitting vigil on the parameters of Mosques and Synagogues. We listened as a Christian professor asked how long it would be before it was safe for his Muslim students to return to their classes. We listened as a young man told of an encounter in the streets. He was on his way to work his two-year-old daughter at his side, when two men in a pick-up truck pulled up on the sidewalk and called out in their hatred, words that I will not repeat in this sanctuary.

The woman from the elevator stood up, and told us that she had been chased in the subway by a gang of young men who warned her that she had better keep on running until she made it back to the desert where she belonged. Each story made my heartsick.  For the first time in my life I felt lost; really lost; lost in the land that I love. It hardly seems possible that almost a dozen years have past since those first horrible days of the War on terror. Canada may have escaped the war on Iraq, but Canada did join in the war in Afghanistan, and still there is no end in sight to the war against terror. We should have known that you cannot defeat terror. If Jesus stood for anything he stood for achieving peace through Justice and yet in the name of peace we have allowed our own notions of justice to take a back seat to fear. And so we are left longing for the Shalom that Jesus spoke of and yet will to use any means necessary to preserve a way of life that puts it’s faith in power and might to ensure that we have the freedom to believe what we choose to believe. And so there is no peace. There is only the status quo, which we struggle to preserve. The status quo that at any moment can be laid to waste by the wildness by religious fanatics who are convinced that their God is mightier than our God.

As we continue to point the finger at our enemies and suggest that all would be well if they would only give up their religious fundamentalism, we continue to cling to our own version of fundamentalism as if by virtue of being ours it is somehow a kinder and gentler fundamentalism and so is beyond the need for change. Humanity has evolved a great deal since the 4th century when our Christian creeds were first developed with their carefully held notions about the nature of the Trinity. There is so much that we know that the Fathers of Christianity did not know and yet Christianity refuses to allow our conversations about the nature of God to grow beyond the feeble attempts of our ancient forbearers to describe the indescribable. So, one form of fundamentalism continues to battle another form of fundamentalism.

Trinity Sunday will continue to be my least favourite Sunday of the church year because our carefully held notions about the nature of the Mystery that lies at the heart of all creation continues to keep us bound to the status quo, and the status quo is simply not good enough for a world that is desperate for the kind of Shalom that Jesus pointed to.

As creation continues to evolve, we can continue to evolve alone the lines that the old Roman Empire held to be true and we can continue to seek peace by way of the sword in a feeble effort to hold onto our carefully held beliefs about our Creator and creation. Or we can follow the path of Jesus which threatens to open up our tightly held grip on what we believe to be true and open us to a realm of possibilities that holds the promise of shalom. Shalom the kind of peace that surpasses understanding. The kind of peace where wisdom is prized above power and might and where questions and not doctrines lead us into a fuller and deeper relationship with our Creator who is beyond our abilities to imagine and who calls us into a deeper relationship with our fellow creatures. A kind of peace that lies far beyond the limitations of the doctrine of the trinity. The kind of peace where the peoples of God have the wisdom to stand in the presence of the Creator of all that is in humble awesome silence.

In the presence of the Mystery that lies at the heart of all that is, perhaps we can achieve the wisdom to utter not doctrine but the rather the desires of all that is for:  Shalom, Irene, Salam, Shanti, Hewa, Ahimsa, Peace. Let it be so dear God.  Let it be so. 

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Global Engagement, Chaos Theory, the Butterfly Effect and a New Pentecost

Expands God's BeingThis sermon speaks to the experience of our Global Justice Team’s attempts to respond ethically to global injustice. We were guided by the Rev. Jonathan Schmidt of the Canadian Churches Forum for Global Ministries. John Philip Newell’s recent book New Harmony: The Spirit, The Earth, and The Human Soul provided new insights for the vision of a New Pentecost. The Gospel reading from Mark 2:1-12 replaced the regular Pentecost reading.

Readings can be found here

Listen to the sermon here the audio begins with the Acclamation Veni Sanctus Spiritus

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SHE Who Dwells Among Us – a Mothers’ Day Sermon

Womb-like God

Mothers’ Day Readings which include the Mothers’ Day Proclamation  here

Listen to the sermon here

Worship Bulletin here

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Jesus was wrong! Can I Get an Amen? – a sermon for Easter 7C – John 17:20-26

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.

During my second winter at seminary, one of my professors asked me if I would be interested in attending a meeting that was being held by members of a Pentecostal church that she was studying. I had only ever attended one Pentecostal service before, and that service had made me very uncomfortable.  The level of energy and excitement was amazing.  There was lots of shouting and jumping about.  People waving their arms about and yelling “Praise the Lord”.  Alleluia, Praise Jesus.

Based on that one experience and what I had read in books or had seen on television about Pentecostals, I had made all sorts of assumptions about what Pentecostals were like. To be honest I would have to say, that I would not have agreed to attend the meeting if the only thing that I knew about this congregation was that they were Pentecostal.  What really attracted me was that the congregation was made up of Caribbean Canadians.  I wanted to hear just how that old that old time gospel music would sound with a calypso beat.

It was explained to me that the congregation was inviting white people to meet with them because some of their members were concerned that their congregation was entirely black and they felt the need to reach out to the white community to become a more inclusive church.  So my professor, who was studying their community, was asked to invite some of her students to attend a small group meeting.

The meeting was held in the home of a lay leader of the church and it was there that I met Verna for the first time. Verna greeted us at her door with a warm embrace.  Inside we met half a dozen members of the church and their pastor.  After the introductions were complete, Verna began the discussion with the question, “What is Christianity today, for you?”. 

The question struck fear into my heart.  Images of enthusiastic testimonials began to cloud my vision. All of the assumptions I had made about Pentecostals were swimming around in my brain.  I was convinced that no matter how I answered the question it would not be the answer that they wanted to hear.  Fortunately, a fellow student was asked to answer first and I had some time to think.

When my turn came I said something about Christianity being relational.  I remember trying to keep my answer rather vague, so as not to offend.  Even though, I sensed some dissatisfaction with my answer, I was relieved when my turn was over.  Then one by one, others in the room gave their replies.  Several other questions were posed and as the conversation continued I began to relax.  By the end of our conversation we were sharing funny stories with one another.

Before the evening was over, my professor mentioned that I was scheduled to preach for the first time, at the seminary chapel the following day.  I told the group how nervous I was about preaching for the first time in front of my peers and my professors.  The group encouraged me with some kind words.  Before the evening was over, we all joined hands and began to pray.  It was like no other prayer I had ever been part of.  Prayers darted from one person to the other. Bodies swayed back and forth.  Different prayers were offered up at the same time. A rumbling went out from and came back into the group. Finally Verna prayed that I might be anointed with the Spirit to preach the next day.  Then they were all praying that I might be anointed. The prayer seemed to sway back and forth in the small circle that we had become.  Then just as it built in intensity, it was over and it was time to share some food and drink before going our separate ways.

Before we left, our hostess, Verna confirmed that she would be attending the chapel service the following day. I was pleased that Verna was planning to come, but it also made me very nervous.  You see, I was really starting to like Verna, but the sermon that I planned to preach the next day was not a sermon that I thought Verna would approve of. I had written what I thought to be a radically feminist sermon about the anointing of Christ by the unnamed woman.  I convinced myself that as a Pentecostal, Verna would be too conservative to appreciate the nuances of my sermon.  I was also worried that some of what I had too say would offend Verna.

The passage on which I had based my sermon, ends with Jesus response to the woman’s act of anointing him with oil.  Jesus said that, “Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her”.  However, the gospel writer has failed to mention the woman’s name and her identity has been lost to us.  So I began my sermon by stating that, “Jesus was wrong.”

When I wrote my sermon I assumed that I would be preaching to an in house crowd.  I was deliberately trying to provoke my seminary colleagues into thinking beyond the traditional interpretations of the text. I was nervous about the radical nature of my sermon.  I was nervous about preaching for the first time in front of the preaching professor. I was nervous about preaching in the midst of so many gifted preachers.  But none of this compared to how worried I was about how Verna would respond to the sermon. I made all sorts of assumptions about how her theology and her piety would dictate how she would respond.  I never once looked passed Verna the Pentecostal to see Verna the woman.

When I got up to read the gospel lesson, I could see Verna’s smiling face encouraging me from a front pew.  But, I was convinced  that she wouldn’t be smiling for long.  My knees were shaking and I tried to remember to breath as I stumbled through the gospel lesson.  Then I took a deep breath and launched into what, for various reasons, I thought might just be my last sermon.  In a loud voice, before God and everyone, I boldly declared, “Jesus was wrong”.

To my surprise, Verna said, out loud, “that’s right child”.  You preach it sister!” Her smile beamed encouragement, so I carried on.  From time to time Verna would continue to shout out,

“that’s right child” or “preach it sister”  “Amen”  “Praise the Lord”  and all the while Verna nodded her head and smiled encouragingly.  After a while, the history professor, decided to join in the action and added his shouts of Amen to Verna’s.  Before long several others, ever so quietly joined in what was for us a foreign practice. There they were died in the wool Lutherans, shouting out in church.

But as remarkable as their outbursts where, it was Verna who provided me with my biggest surprise that day. Before my sermon was over, Verna had shattered all my assumptions about her.  For the first time I began see Verna.  Not the image of Verna which I had created based upon my assumptions about Caribbean-Canadian Pentecostals.  But Verna, just as she is in the world. Verna my sister in Christ.  I know that there are things about my theology that she probably doesn’t agree with. Just as there are things about her theology that I don’t agree with.  But our relationship was not based on what we might disagree over. It was based on what we share together.

The Apostle Paul says that we are ambassadors for Christ.  The dictionary defines ambassador as someone who is an authorized representative or messenger.  It is not easy to be an ambassador.  All too often our assumptions about others get in the way. Sometimes our imperfect understanding of the one whom we claim to represent gets in the way.  I do not claim to know how to be an ambassador for Christ. I can only aspire to be an ambassador. But sometimes I have seen an ambassador for Christ.  In Verna’s encouraging smile, I saw the one whom she represented.  And maybe that’s how we do it: one person at a time,  one action at a time.

Over the years, I have paid close attention to ecumenical dialogue.  I have watched as religion continues to tear the world apart.  I have mourned the deaths of friends and relatives who have been killed in the city that once was my home.  I have listened as denominations argue over how best to achieve Christian unity.  And we have all experienced the lack of unity in our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada as the conservative folks among us dig their heels in and we progressives insist on dragging the church into the 21st century. We are no closer to achieving Christian unity on the denominational level and so we must echo the prayer for unity that we heard Jesus pray. The writer of the Gospel of John puts this prayer on the lips of Jesus as part of what is called Jesus’ farewell discourse. On the night before he dies, Jesus asks that we may be made one. Sometimes called the high priestly prayer it is often used by those who seek Christian unity. Perhaps the writer of the Gospel of John had Christian unity in mind when he wrote his gospel to the fledgling Christian community at the turn of the first century. But I believe there is a lesson for us here in the 21st century that goes way beyond the desire for Christian unity. Jesus prays that the children of God may all be made one—that we may be made perfect in unity. I don’t believe that prayer works because of a so-called all powerful, supernatural being that we call God just happens to be listening and deigns to grant our wish. I believe that prayer works on our own hearts, calming us enough to hear the wisdom of God that lives in us. By working in us, and opening us to the Spirit of God that lives and breathes in with and through us, prayer has the power to transform us. Prayer can reroute habits and habitual responses. Prayer helps us to find good in all that we can not change and to see the light in each person, no matter how difficult they may be in our lives, or how different and strange the may seem to us.  Prayer working in us has the power to change us and in doing so, prayer has the power to change the world.

The prayer that the writer of John has Jesus prayer is about so much more than unity or sameness or church union. This prayer is a radical re-imagining. Re-imagining of the world as a place where sharing instead of hoarding is the norm where enough food even for a day is better than no food, where harmony instead of discord is healthy, where peace instead of war is a reality. The prayer prayed by John’s Jesus was an invitation for John’s congregation to be inspired to re-imagine a way of being in the world. It is also an invitation for us, here and now. It is an invitation for us to let the prayer work in, with and through us so that we can begin to re-imagine the world.  If we look to the one we are to represent as ambassadors, we see Jesus: Jesus who told us to love our neighbour as our self, Jesus who calls us out of ourselves. out of our assumptions, out of our carefully held views and opinions, Jesus who calls us out of our denominational commitments and bids us love one another, Jesus who taught us that love is not something we can just talk about.  Jesus who expressed love as action.  Jesus who calls us to put our love into action.  Jesus who carefully explained to us that he has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold”.  Jesus who did not tell us to only love our Christian neighbours as ourselves.

If we are to be Christ’s ambassadors, how best can we represent Christ? How best can we be ambassadors for Christ to our Islamic brothers and sisters, to our Jewish brothers and sisters, to our Buddhist brothers and sisters, to our Hindu, Sieke, atheist, agnostic, and Christian sisters and brothers?  How best can we be ambassadors for Christ?  Maybe by following Christ and meeting our sisters and brothers one person at a time and responding to them one at a time with acts of love. Maybe then we will be able to see that in Christ there is a new creation.  That everything old has passed away — everything!  Everything has become new.

It’s not easy, I know, for I have many powerful assumptions of my own.  But, perhaps by the power of prayer the Holy Spirit can work in with and through us so that we can become ambassadors for Christ.  So, in the words of Jesus high-priestly prayer, let me just remind you, that: Christ has revealed God’s holy name to you and will continue to reveal it so that the love God has for Christ may live in you.”

Let us continue to pray that we may be made perfect in unity, so that we may be made one and as one we will finally learn to love our neighbours as we love ourselves; not just some of our neighbours, but all of our neighbours. As my friend Verna might say.  “Praise the Lord!  Alleluia! Praise Jesus. Alleluia!  Can I get an Amen?”

 

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Remembering Who We Are: a sermon for Easter 6C

Inner Peace Kempis

Readings: Acts 16:9-15; Merger Poem (Judy Chicago); John 14:23-29

Listen to the sermon here

Merger Poem (The Dinner Party) by Judy Chicago

And then all that has divided us will merge

And then compassion will be wedded to power

And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind

And then both men and women will be gentle

And then both women and men will be strong

And then no person will be subject to another’s will

And then all will be rich and free and varied

And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many

And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance

And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old

And then all will nourish the young

And then all will cherish life’s creatures

And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth

And then everywhere will be called Eden once again

 

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Nanny’s Mugs: The Agony of Dementia: Easter 5C

NANNY'S MUGSIn my kitchen there are some teacups that we call Nanny’s mugs. They are smaller and more delicate than all the other mugs in the cupboard. Whenever I drink tea from them, I think of my Grandmother. That first summer, I moved to Newmarket; some 3,000 miles from my home, my Grandmother decided that she was going to move in with me.  She lived with me in the parsonage for about 3 months.  It was an impulse decision on her part; a decision that I had very little say in. Nanny decided that I was the only one in the family she could trust and so she would move in with me. She was in her late eighties at the time. I didn’t fully understand her lack of faith in the other members of the family. I never dreamed that her suspicions about the relative trustworthiness of our relatives was the beginning of the end.  I loved my Nanny and I was determined to provide a home for her. I was delighted when she arrived. I was always delighted when my Nanny arrived. I remember as a child, I would long for Nanny to arrive.

Nanny was always full of fun and I have all sorts of wonderful memories of usImage 19 getting into trouble together.  Nanny was all of 5 feet tall, she was just a wee little woman, but there was more power and strength in that wee little woman from Belfast than in most of the women I’ve ever met in my life. She was kindness and fierceness all rolled up into a woman who loved nothing better than a good laugh. Nanny was born in Belfast the oldest of 14 children. When all three of her children ended up living in Canada, even though they were well into their sixties she and my Grandda immigrated to Canada to begin a new life in a new country. Immigrating at any age is an incredible undertaking, but immigrating in your 60’s takes guts. I was twelve years old when my Grandparents arrived in Vancouver. I watched my Grandda begin a new job and my Nanny try to make the best of life far away from everything that was familiar to her. Nanny’s homesickness was palpable.

But as powerful as the longing for home was it was not as powerful as her desire to be near her children and grandchildren. So while Nanny longed for the place she always referred to as “back-home” she did her best to have a good laugh in this strange land. Nanny missed almost everything about back-home.  After about nine years of struggling in a new land, my Grandda died and Nanny’s longing for back-home became an ache that she new would never heal. Sometimes you could see her longing for back-home settle in on her face, as if an old friend had dropped by to remind her of a great loss.

By the time Nanny came to live with me she’d spent more than two decades longing for everything back-home, so I was determined to make her feel at home with me. The truth is that it was Nanny who made me more at home here in Newmarket. But while I longed for everything back-home, my back-home was Vancouver. Nanny took one look at the meager furnishings in the parsonage and set about making it homier. After one of our many trips to the furniture store Nanny insisted that my chunky old mugs weren’t much to write home about and they were even less suited to sipping tea from than she cared to tolerate. So, she insisted on buying some new lighter, smaller and more delicate fine china cups. The cups were so fine and so delicate that all but one of them cracked and broke shortly after my Nanny moved out. But even though they are too fine and delicate for my rough use, I have long since replaced the broken ones with identical mugs. I have no idea which one of them is the one that Nanny bought so each of them are referred to as Nanny’s mugs. Sipping tea from one of Nanny’s mugs while trying to get a handle on today’s gospel lesson, I was stuck by the words of Jesus as they appear in the text.

Sometimes, particular words jump out of you and cause you to hear the Word of God in a whole new way. I don’t know why I’ve never noticed it before. Perhaps it’s because the words are so familiar that I’ve always just heard them the same old way before. But this week sipping from Nanny’s mug and reading the gospel text, the words positively jumped out at me: “Love one another. I give you a new commandment:  Love one another.” I’ve always heard theses words in the Gospel according to John as the Golden Rule. “Love your neighbour as yourself.” The Golden Rule: words to live by. Words that Jesus a Jew would have been familiar with. Words that Jews, Muslims and indeed people of all sorts of faith hold as sacred. “Love your neighbour as you love your self.  Do onto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Except the words of the Golden Rule are not the words that appear in the Gospel according to John. According to the writer of John, Jesus adds a new twist to the familiar Golden Rule.

“I give you a new commandment: Love one another, just as I have loved you.” That’s some twist: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Harder words were never spoken. For who among us can love as Jesus loved? Jesus’ idea of loving is hard-edged.  Infinitely tender. Nearly impossible. These words haunt me. When I think about loving as Jesus loved, I begin to second-guess my ability to love.

Running my fingers around the rim of Nanny’s mug, I wonder how I could have loved her better. Did I love as Jesus loved when I—put Nanny back on a plane to Vancouver, or later when I supported her 3 children my Mother, aunt and uncle as they put her in a nursing home. Love is not simple. Clinging to Nanny’s mug, I wonder how we could have known that her suspicions about her relatives were just the first signs of the dementia that would rob us of her presence. I think about the disturbing accusations that my dear sweet wee Nanny hurled at her children, grand-children and great-grandchildren and I wonder how we could have loved her better, we didn’t mean to be unkind, you know that was the last thing on our mind.

What was the last thing on her mind as she clung to life in a care facility no longer able to recognize her children and still longing for back-home? Glancing beyond the rim of Nanny’s cup I can see the picture of Nanny back-home walking with my Grandda, they look so determined, so ready to face whatever comes their way, and yet lurking in the background of that old black and white photograph is the shadow of something menacing. I can hear her saying the most horrendous things about her own children. I still see the vacant look in her eyes, and wonder about the disturbing hallucinations. Dementia is awful. The golden years, but nothing glitters.

“Love as I have loved you,” Jesus said. But I hated those last visits when she lay there in the bed not knowing where she was or who I was. Clinging to life. 99 years old and clinging to life. I could barely stay in the room. “Love as I have loved you,” Jesus said. How?  How do we love? How many situations do all of us have, as common as they are utterly unique, where loving another—the Golden Rule with Jesus’ twist—is among the hardest things we do? Jesus spoke simply, and yet no true love—whether golden or not is simple.

Tracing the rim of Nanny’s cup, I remember her dementia. The way she beganViolet Anderson hording little things, suspicious that loved ones were stealing from her. When the diagnosis did come and we all realized that dementia had been incrementally destroying her mind for years, it was almost a relief to know that it wasn’t Nanny making those horrible accusations but the disease.  And yet it was Nanny. All those moments when various members of her family tried to hide her behaviour behind feeble excuses designed to hide the bitter truth of dementia’s cruel plan to transform our beloved into a stranger. On more than one occasion, I wanted to shake the cruel accusations from her, determined to reach the wee woman I loved, but I was unable to get past the fog. 

Tracing the rim of Nanny’s mug, I wonder …when was the final time I engaged in a lively, give-and-take conversation with Nanny. Was there a day, some, lazy summer evening, before dementia’s subtle, unrelenting grip, that we experienced a last, real talk?  Was it trivial… was it important?  I can’t remember. But at some point I wasn’t talking to my Nanny just the illness.

Dementia is only one of the many things that rob us of our loved ones. Illness and disease, bring with them, pains that can rob us of the person we love, long before we must part.  Each one of us is wounded by these losses in our own way. Many of us are haunted by the questions of the quality of our love for those we love. Did we do enough? Could we have done more? Did they know how much we loved them? Do they know how much we miss them still? For some of us the questions are more immediate. Are we doing enough? Is there something more we should be doing? Do they know we love them? How should we love them? Is this love? Why am I so angry with him? Why can’t I help her? What should I do? What can I do? Love them as Jesus loved me? Harder words were never spoken.

“Then I saw new heavens and a new earth. The former heavens and the former earth had passed away, and the sea existed no longer. I also saw a new Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God, beautiful as a bride and groom on their wedding day. And I heard a loud voice calling from the throne, ‘Look!  God’s Tabernacle is among humankind! God will live with them; they will be God’s people and God will be fully present among them.   The Most High will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  And death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more, for the old order has fallen.’ The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Look!  I’m making everything new!’  and added, ‘Write this, for what I am saying is trustworthy and true.’ And that One continued, ‘It is finished. I AM the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To those who are thirsty I will give drink freely from the spring of the water of life.”

I wish I could remember the last real conversation I had with my Nanny. But I can only remember the last time I saw her, a tiny remnant of herself, confined to a bed in an anonymous ward. Family members were bustling about, Nanny was agitated and I desperately wanted to leave. I kissed her forehead and struggled to say something anything that might penetrate the chasm between us.

I struggle to remember something anything that might comfort her. I snuggled in close to her ear and whispered. “It’s time to go back-home Nanny…it’s all right you can go back home now.  Go back home darling.”

Love one another just as Jesus loved us. Harder words were never spoken. Loving is not easy, but we do not love as ones who have no hope. God dwells with us in the loving. The Holy One will wipe every tear from our eyes. And death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more. Our God will make all things new. Let it be so dear God.  Let it be so for Nanny, and for all the wounded ones, for those who live in our hearts and minds and those who live with us here and now. When the time comes let them go back-home. Wipe every tear from every eye. Let death, mourning, crying and pain be no more. Make all things new dear God, make all things new. Let it be so. Amen.

 After this sermon we sang the hymn of lament by Mary Louise Bringle:

When Memory Fades to the tune FINLANDIA

“When Memory Fades and Recognition falters.

When eyes we love grow dim and minds confused.

Speak to our souls of love that never alters;

Speak to our hearts, by pain and fear abused.

O God of life and healing peace, empower us

with patient courage, by your grace infused.

As frailness grows, and youthful strengths diminish,

in weary arms which worked their earnest fill,

your aging servants labor now to finish

their earthly tasks, as fits your mercy’s will.

We grieve their waning, yet rejoice, believing,

your arms, unwearied, shall uphold us still.

Within your Spirit, goodness lives unfading.

The past and future mingle into one.

All joys remain, un-shadowed light pervading.

No valued deed will ever be undone.

Your mind enfolds all finite acts and offerings.

Held in your heart, our deathless life is won.

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A Tough Week for the Planet: Earth Sunday Sermon

earth-day-2013

On the heels of Peter Rollins visit to our congregation last weekend, this Earth Sunday sermon flows out of Peter work. You can listen to Peter sermon which is the jumping off point for this Earth Day sermon here

Listen to the Earth Day sermon here

Worship Bulletin here

The readings are here

The video of the excerpt from Chief Seattle’s Response is below

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The Raising of LOVE: the “more-than-literal” meaning of the Raising of Tabitha

a sermon on Acts 9:36-41

A sermon I preached three years ago on the Raising of Tabitha which is 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 and 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 space ship. 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 space ship 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 their 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.

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?

Stories like the raising of Tabitha make a lot of us uncomfortable. It’s stories like this that make the bible so difficult to deal with.  According to New Testament scholar Marcus Borg: “In the last half century, more Christians have left the church because of the Bible than for any other single reason.”

Biblical literalism which despite popular opinion is actually a modern and not an ancient approach to scripture has boxed many 21st century minds into a proverbial corner from which the only escape is to reject the Bible as a source of wisdom. From the very beginning of Christianity the Scriptures have been understood as a complex mix of historical, metaphorical, allegorical, and symbolic writings that reflect the relationship between the Creator and creation.  It is only in about the past 200 years or so that the notion that the bible must be accepted as the literal factual historical truth.

The stories about Creation found in the book of Genesis are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sinking the beliefs of the faithful. Unable to check their brains at the door, many Christians have simply refused to cross the threshold of the church and disengaged from even trying to relate to texts that appear locked in a mindset that is trapped in a bygone age. The predominance of Biblical literalism has left so many Christians desperately clinging to the Bible fearing that if one single portion of the text is determined to not to be the literal factual truth that the whole house of cards will come tumbling down and their faith will be lost.  So the arguments about the truth of the Bible have come to overshadow the wisdom that is to be found in the sacred texts and in some stories positively bulges between the lines of the scared pages.

Sadly the preoccupation with the literal factual truth of scripture has become a distraction that has kept so many from exploring the more-than-literal truth and the wonders of metaphor, allegory and symbol have been lost to all but the brave few who dare to challenge the lopsided approach to truth.

I believe that when we narrow this particular story down to the choice between believe whether or not Peter actually physically raised Tabitha from the dead, we actually limit our vision of the truth in such a way as to blind us to the truth that is revealed in the text. So, for just a moment forget about the question of historical factual reality and by that I don’t mean put your brain on hold and simply try to believe. But rather engage your brain and explore more deeply so that believing becomes a moot point as the truth is revealed. Let’s look at the more-than-literal and more-than-factual meanings of this story to see what truths they reveal.

The story begins in Joppa, which today is known as the cosmopolitan city of Jaffa. Jaffa is a city on the coast of the Mediterranean and at the time the Acts of the Apostles was written at about the end of the first century, Joppa was every bit as cosmopolitan as it is today. A first century audience would have heard in the name Joppa a clue that alerted them to the fact that the followers of Jesus were venturing beyond the predominately Jewish realm of Jerusalem. In Joppa the followers of the way would encounter a very gentile society where issues about mixing with non-Jews was very much an issue.

Joppa was the city from which the prophet Jonah set out for Tarshish on his ill fated journey to escape the will of God and for this reason along the name Joppa conjured up images of Joppa as a city on the outer edge or the boundary of the Jewish faith. But I’ll return to the notion of boundaries in a moment.

Now, I’ve told you before that when every you are dealing with an ancient text whether its sacred scripture or an ancient tale like the Iliad, names matter. Just as surely as the name Adam literally means earth, or Abraham literally means father of nations, or Jesus, which comes from Joshua literally means YAHWEH, names are important. There’s a reason the unknown father of Jesus was given the name Joseph, it is designed to point the listener to the Joseph of old who like his more modern counterpart was also a dreamer who fled into Egypt, but not to worry because out of Egypt will come the mighty saviour known as Moses (which literally means deliverer) to whom the very name YAHWEH will be revealed. Which literally means I AM WHO I AM. Everything is in the name and just incase you forget that, the writer of Acts spells it out for you in both Aramaic and in Greek when he introduces the woman named Tabitha –Dorcas in Greek—which literally means “gazelle.” Gazelle a word that literally comes from an older Arabic word for “LOVE” is the name given to that splendid creature we sometimes call an antelope.

I know that we don’t often encounter gazelles in Canada and if we do it’s likely to be in a zoo. But gazelles are very common in the Middle East especially the variety that has become known as the dorcas antelope, which literally means the love, love. But wait it gets even better. Because the writer of the book of Acts would have known just as well as his listeners that the mere mention of a dorcas antelope would have conjured up images of religious controversy. Gazelles you see inhabited a strange sort of boundary when it came to Jewish dietary laws. Gazelles are four-footed cloven-hoofed animal that chews its cud. Now this puts the gazelle in a category known as “clean” which means that it could be eaten. But because the gazelle is not a domesticated animal it could be hunted and eaten but it could not be sacrificed in the temple. Wild animals could not be eaten in connection with any religious rite.

The gazelle which inhabits the land on the boundaries of the cities and towns, living on the fringes of civilization was hunted for its meat, and although it was deemed clean and therefore to eat it was permissible it was also wild and so it needed to be kept well away from any religious ceremony, because it could not be consecrated.

Now I realize that I’m running the risk of loosing some of you with too much detail, so let me give you a clue here. The early followers of the Jesus were in a quandary as to how to deal with gentile converts. Could they eat with the uncircumcised and risk ritual impurity.     Could they let the uncircumcised come to the table? So you see, arguments about who can commune and who can’t go way back.

But in addition to bringing up issues of ritual purity the gazelle would have also provoke images of something or should I say someone far more crucial to the Jewish listener. I told you before that the word gazelle literally means LOVE. So who else was called LOVE? God is LOVE right.   Well in Jewish art the gazelle is used as a symbol for YAHWEH.

But even more interesting than that, the gazelle was used to illustrate the life-giving aspect of YAHWEH.

In a culture where the majority could not read, pictures were used to represent the details of the faith and the life-giving aspect of YAHWEH who is LOVE was depicted by images of the gazelle.

Now there’s so much more that I could tell you about the symbol of the Gazelle, but I simply don’t have time. Suffice it to say that the writer of Acts was determined that his listeners not fail to see that, and I quote, that “Tabitha—that is Dorcas in Greek” is named for YAWHEH who inhabits the boundaries of the Jewish faith. By giving the name in both Aramaic and in Greek the author practically hits us over the head with the fact that this woman symbolizes something far greater than we can even begin to imagine, for she bears the name of YAHWEH who is LOVE.

So if you need to limit her to being an actual living breathing human being who if you traveled back in time you could take a picture of her and say here she is then you are going to limit yourself to the literal truth, and you will fail to see the more-than-literal truth that this story is trying to tell you. The author has set his listeners up for a story that is expresses more than words can tell.

Need I remind you that the literal meaning of metaphor is that which is “beyond words”.  Meta means beyond and phor means word.  So listen up you are about to hear a metaphor about Joppa a town on the boundaries of Judaism where Jews and Gentiles mix and the lead character in the story is Tabitha—Dorcas in Greek who is by her very name a both Aramaic and Greek a product of the mixing of race and religion, whose very name represents a creature that inhabits the fringes of civilization, and is by nature both clean and unclean, acceptable and yet not, and whose very name symbolize YAHWEH who is LOVE.

Clearly this story is so much more-than-literal. So let me give you one more fact to throw into the mix.

The antelope has horns and in the Middle East the Dorcas Antelope uses its horns to dig for water. Water is the stuff of life.  Indeed the early followers of Jesus referred to Jesus himself as the Living Water. Tabitha—Dorcas in Greek is described as a disciple who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. She represents the gentile convert to Christianity who at the time inhabited the fringes of the early Christian communities. At the very time when Christian communities were debating the lot of the gentiles, Peter is called upon to raise this gentile convert from the dead.

To demonstrate her value to the community the townswomen showed Peter… (whose name literally means rock, indicating that he is the rock who will serve as the foundation of the church)……the women, show Peter, the fruits of Tabitha’s faith. In the various garments that she wove together, Peter sees all the evidence he needs. And so he tells everyone to go outside, then knells down and prays.

Turning to the body, Peter said, “Tabitha, stand up.” And here the first hears of this story would have heard the echo of an earlier story in which Jesus uttered the words, “Tilitha cum”. Which literally means “little girl stand up.”    And just encase you’ve forgotten the literal meaning of the word that gets translated into English as resurrection is “stand up”. And low and behold Tabitha opens her eyes, (remind you of anything…it should…gazelles and eyes open…mean life!  Divine life!)

With her eyes open, our text says Tabitha “sat up” but in the Greek the word is the same for as the word for “stand up” or resurrect. Divine life is restored to a gentile convert.

This story is not about the resurrection of an individual. It is about more than that. It is about the gift of divine life being extended beyond the boundaries of Jewish religious life. And just incase you still don’t get it the writer of Acts tells you in the last line of today’s lesson that, “Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.” Now incase you missed it Simon was Peter’s name before Jesus gave him the name Peter.  And if you still don’t get it, this Simon is described as a leather tanner. Every self-respecting Jew would have known that contact with a leather tanner makes you ritually impure because tanning leather requires contact with corpses which is a no no if you’re an observant Jew.

And so, the writer of Acts sets up his listeners for the next story, which describes Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and Peter’s dilemma about what the followers of Jesus can and cannot eat, and who they can and cannot eat with.  Just encase you’ve forgotten Peter’s vision, suffice it to say that LOVE wins out in the end.

LOVE, antelope, gazelle, Tabitha, Dorcas, YAHWEH all intimately and divinely intertwined to reveal the very nature of our Creator who breaks all our boundaries; so that we can dwell in LOVE with all our neighbours.

That dear friends is the more-than-literal truth about the raising of Tabitha. As for me, “I don’t know if this story actually happened this way, but I do know that it is absolutely true!” (Borg) God is LOVE and LOVE triumphs over boundaries. And as for little green men, well if you should happen to meet any, invite them in and break bread with them and let LOVE triumph over the boundaries of your imagination. Creation is a marvellous, wondrous thing, and just because you’ve haven’t yet encountered all of creation, doesn’t mean its not out their to discover.

Shalom, which by the way literally means peace!

         Benediction:

God is LOVE and LOVE triumphs over boundaries.

Resurrection is limitless so live it now.

Put your faith in that which is beyond words,

GOD who will be who God will be.

YAHWEH the  great I AM  

CHRIST who is the LOVE of God,

And the HOLY SPIRIT who breaths divine life

in with and through all who believe in LOVE.

Amen.

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Humpty Dumpty, Doubting Thomas, and Resurrection

humpty dumpty

Second Sunday of Easter – April 7, 2013

I am indebted to Bernard Brandon Scott’s reminder of the story about Humpty Dumpty in  Frank McCourt’s novel “T’is”

Listen to the sermon here

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Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Laugh! – Easter Sunday Sermon

Easter Roll away the stone

I am indebted to John Claypool’s sermon from back in 1997 for the story of Eugene O’Neill’s play “Lazarus Laughs” and to Henri Nouwen’s “Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring” for the “Parable of the Twins”. 

Listen to the Sermon here

Download the worship bulletin here

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The Echoes of Jesus’ Cry and Giving Up the Theories of Atonement:

a Good Friday sermon

Crucifixion 3

I am indebted to Michael Morewood for his theological insights in his newly released book “It’s Time: Challenges to the Doctrine of the Faith” for helping me to see beyond the idols in my head!

Listen to the sermon here

Listen to the full worship service here – Special thanks to the Rev.Susan J. Thompson for her leadership. As always our worship was empowered by the magnificence of our gifted musician Marney Curran. Special thanks to Gary Curran for his solo.

Download the worship bulletin here (3 pages, print double-sided and fold into a booklet)

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Faith and Begorrrah – A St. Patrick’s Day Sermon

Lent 5C March 17, 2013

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

St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t often fall on a Sunday, but as our congregation’s Annual Meeting would begin immediately following our worship service, I decided to be somewhat playful and irreverent with a sermon designed encourage folk to think beyond words on a page. The first reading brought the wonderful story of the Daughters of Zelophehad to church and as this reading does not appear in the Revisedirish Common Lectionary it was fun to play with these feisty woman. The reading from the book of Acts is actually the prescribed reading for the commemoration of St. Patrick and the Gospel text is prescribed for Lent 5C. The Guinness was just for fun! Enjoy.

Listen to the sermon here

 

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Be Extravagant for Christ’s Sake – John 12:1-8

A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Lent

March 22, 2010

John 12:1-8 read the gospel story here

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

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

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

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, a small town just outside of Jerusalem. Six days before the Passover the roads and pathways would have been crowded with people heading to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The Passover falls on a Friday, so six days before the Passover puts us at the Sabbath.  It is Jesus’ last Sabbath meal with his friends before his death.             We have been told that the religious officials are seething with hatred and intrigue, plotting to arrest Jesus, just waiting for the right moment in the confusion of crowds and activities that marked the feast day. Time is running out.  Jesus has six days before the conspiracy closes in on him and he is betrayed and executed. 

The raising of Lazarus from the dead has only complicated matters:  now the officials want to kill both Lazarus and Jesus because Lazarus’ resurrection has caused many to believe in Jesus. In the midst of all this we are told that Jesus’ friends, the only three who are specifically named in the gospels as individuals whom Jesus’ loved:  Martha, Mary and Lazarus, provide a dinner for Jesus who is on his way to certain arrest. Martha served them.  Martha, is the head of the household, the eldest of the three friends of Jesus, and she has sent her servants away and honours Jesus by waiting on him and his followers. It is her way of expressing her gratitude, her joy at her brother’s return to life.  Martha serves the Sabbath meal. 

In those days the Spirit of God was known as the Shekhina, which means She who dwells with us. The Sabbath is when Shekhina the one who waits in exile with the people of God until the coming of the Messiah–goes to visit- or to dwell with the righteous who gather to celebrate the Sabbath, to remember the promises, and to tell again the stories of God’s compassion and justice. For the duration of the Sabbath, the Shekhina–the Spirit of God, who is sometimes called the Word of God, abides with them at the table. Martha would have been the one to light the candles, to summon the presence of the Shekhina, and begin the ritual celebration of the Sabbath meal. It is a sacred meal; a sacred time, Jesus’ last Sabbath with his friends. Many of the words from the Torah that were to be used in the upcoming Passover ritual would have been in their minds. 

Suddenly, Mary enters.  She takes a pound of incredibly expensive, perfume made from genuine nard. Mary goes to Jesus at the table and pours the perfume on his feet, and wipes his feet with her hair.  The whole house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Mary spends a fortune, her fortune, she makes herself poor for Jesus. 

To unknowing and unseeing eyes, she is acting rashly, and recklessly. Judas angrily accuses Mary of wasting perfume that could have been sold for a market value equal to one year’s salary. Judas is indignant at such an extravagant waste of resources.  At first his rationale seems innocent, even righteous–the perfume could have been sold, the money could have been given to the poor.

The text goes on to tell us that Judas could care less about the poor and that he is a common thief, taking from the common purse that was used to give alms to the poor–in essence, Judas steals from the community, and from the poor. This description of Judas sheds light on his accusation about Mary’s extravagance.  It reveals his greed and a mean-spiritedness in him that must publicly try to shame someone else’s good deed.

At this point we are told that Jesus spoke up.  Jesus will not allow such a statement to go unchallenged. He speaks loudly enough so that everyone in the room, no matter what they may be thinking, will know precisely what he thinks of Mary’s actions.   “Leave her alone.  She bought the ointment so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.   You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  Over the years these words have been used and abused by those who wish to defend behaviours that Jesus would never have endorsed. They have been quoted to mean that the poor will always be with us so there is nothing we can do about it, revealing a lack of faith, revealing selfishness and non-involvement with the needs of the poor. They have been used to validate spending enormous amounts of money on houses of worship and extravagant accessories while the poor go hungry. But those who know the scriptures know that Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy. On the Sabbath before the Passover; on this Jesus’ last Sabbath with his friends, Jesus quotes the words of scripture. The book of Deuteronomy gives the following commands to the Israelites for the celebration of the Sabbath.

“If there is anybody poor among you, who lives in your cities in the land that Yahweh gives you, do not harden your heart or close your hand, but be open-handed and lend them all that they need. The poor will be with you always.  Therefore I give you this commandment:  you must be open-handed to your brothers and sisters, to the needy and to the poor in your land.” (Deut.15)

Jesus is trying to tell them, what Mary probably suspects, that his death is imminent, that his presence will soon be harshly and violently taken from them. Jesus acknowledges Mary’s generous, open-handed and open-hearted gift of anointing him for burial. The highest act of mercy, in the Jewish community, was anointing for burial because the ones who performed the anointing of the dead were declared to be ritually unclean.  To touch death made a person ritually impure and they had to stay away from the community while they performed the ritual of cleansing and purification.

Mary’s gift is an extravagant one.   Mary’s gift is outrageous. Outrageous that a household member, a woman from a respectable family, would pour ointment over the feet of a dinner guest. Outrageous that any respectable woman would appear in public with her hair unbound.  Mary of Bethany loved Jesus with a passion that was outrageous. To her, the opinions of others regarding her behaviour toward Jesus meant nothing. She had heard his words, “I am the resurrection and the life” spoken before Jesus restored the life of her beloved Lazarus. Despite the dangers that surrounded them, despite the fact that Jesus was determined to go on to Jerusalem where the powers that be were sure to take Jesus from her, Mary knew first hand that Jesus already was the resurrection and so she anointed him for his burial while he was still with them. But Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus with more than just oil. In the intimacy of her touch Mary communicated her love for Jesus as he faced the most difficult of ordeals. 

When I was doing my hospital training, our supervisor told us about a little girl who was in need of a life saving operation that would also require a blood transfusion. She had a rare blood type and only her brother could give her the blood she so desperately needed. So the parents and the doctor explained the procedure and after considering it for a few minutes the little boy agreed to give his sister his blood. After the blood was taken from him and transported to the operating room the boy turned to his mother and asked,  “So when do I die?”            It was only then that they realized that the little boy thought that by giving blood to his sister he would actually be giving up his own life and he was actually willing to do just that. 

Some gifts are extravagant and some gifts are not. Years ago when doctors were struggling to diagnose an ailment, I had to undergo many painful procedures. Now my fear of cats is nothing compared to my fear of needles so you can just imagine the level of my anxiety when the time came for me to undergo a spinal tap. The doctors needed to extract spinal fluid in order to achieve a diagnosis. To this day I can remember the pain, but I also remember a nurse. A nurse who when things got really bad offered me her hand. As I lay there totally vulnerable and scared to death that nurse said, “just take my hand and squeeze” and as the tears rolled down from my eyes she gently wiped them away. I didn’t even know her name, but deep empathy flowed through her hands as she watched the procedure and felt it with me. And in a strange way, the pain seemed to flow away from me into my hands and beyond them into her hands. When the doctor asked me how I was doing, I realized that the nurse’s touch was helping.                  The nurse was there to hold my hand during a difficult ordeal.

A little boy was willing to give up his life so that his sister would survive a difficult ordeal. A nurse’s tender touch made a painful ordeal bearable.  Mary of Bethany was there to anoint Jesus as he faced a difficult ordeal. As we face suffering in our lives, it is Christ who comes to us and who is there to help us face difficult ordeals. Christ comes to us through the incarnation and in the Body of Christ of which we are all members. Christ comes to those in need through you and through me. 

Some of us will be called to give outrageously extravagant gifts. Some of us will be called to simply give. Just look at Lazarus, who sat at the table with Jesus in fellowship.  When the writer of the gospel of John tells the story of the anointing of Jesus he includes Lazarus in his story. According to the writer of John, Lazarus has just been raised from the dead. Lazarus, like his sisters Martha and Mary has a special relationship with Jesus, so special that he is the only man the gospel writers name as being loved by Jesus.  The gospel writer’s inclusion of Lazarus is key. In the previous story the writer describes a scene in which only the King James version captures vividly enough, when Martha declares that Lazarus’ tomb should not be opened, because he’s been in there for 3 days, and “he stinketh!.” And so the writer takes us from stinketh to the overwhelming scent of costly perfume.  From the tale of a rotting corpse that is called back into life by Jesus to the tale of Mary preparing Jesus’ body for burial. It’s priceless storytelling at its best. Storytelling that’s designed to communicate the wonders of the Jesus experiences.  Lazarus’ presence is key. Lazarus’ gift was presence.      By his presence and fellowship with Jesus, he expressed his friendship and his love. The gift of ourselves is often the best offering we can make. Lazarus was just there, enjoying the gift of life, with the memory of the dark tomb vivid in his mind.

We too are called to give the gifts of our presence. So often people will come to me and tell me that a friend or a loved one is in distress and they don’t know what to say to them or what to do for them. The most important thing we can do for our friends or loved ones when they are in distress is to give them the gift of our presence. When people are suffering they need to know that they are not alone. 

Martha’s gift of love was a practical one.  She served the meal and tended to the Sabbath prayers. Many of you know exactly how to offer hospitality. Whether it’s with a meal, or a cup of tea, or even partaking of a wee dram together. And most of us know how to tend to the prayers, and if we don’t know the right words to say, well we can just say that. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say, but I’m here and if there’s anything you need, I’m here.”

All of us can give the gift of a friendly ear, we can all listen. When we need to rant and rave in anger at God, sometimes we need someone whose going to hear our anger and raise a fist to God on our behalf. Sometimes when we are suffering the deepest torments, the most horrendous of losses what we need more than anything else is for some one to listen to us. When people are suffering Christ will come to them through us. 

In this story we are told that Mary broke open the jar of ointment and we are also told that the smell permeated the entire house. Symbolically, this beautiful act of love left a scent strong enough to last until the final day of Jesus’ life. Symbolically, this beautiful act leaves the faint but certain smell of love wafting through this worship space and surrounding all acts of love the extravagant ones and the simple ones. Sometimes life just stinketh, and the only way to overcome the stink is to break open extravagance so that the sweet sent of compassion can fill us with the love we need to endure. The scent of our own loving deeds can often last far longer than we might expect.

Often our gestures of love are remembered long after we have forgotten them or out of proportion to what we thought they meant. In response to God’s extravagant love; in response to Christ’s presence in our midst, we are called to respond with love.

You know, the poor, and all the other problems in this world of ours—they’re not going to go away. Taxes, bills, the concerns you have about your health and your kids and your job and the mess we’ve made of the world—those things are always going to be with you. But that moment when you look at someone and see them, and know what they are going through, and you have a sudden, spontaneous impulse to do something generous and crazy and good—that moment is not going to come again.

So do it! Do that beautiful thing, the thing that love requires. Do it for the love of God. Even if other people don’t understand it. Even if they complain and criticize you for it, just like in the stories about the extravagant women who dared to be outrageous in their giving. Be extravagant like Mary of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, and the unnamed woman.  Do that beautiful thing, in memory of her, for Christ’s sake! 

We are called to give and not count the cost. We are called to follow the path to the cross so that we can be christs to one another; we are called to follow the path to the cross so that  we can also gather in celebration beyond the cross, at the empty tomb. We are called to be extravagant in our loving so that in us the fragrance of Christ can overcome that which stinketh, and together even the poor will be able to bask in the sweet aroma of extravagant love. So, toss caution to the wind and be as extravagant as you can be. Let the fragrance of Christ breathe in, with and through you.

A Benediction:

We are called to give and not count the cost.

We are called to follow the path to the cross

so that we can be christs to one another;

we are called to follow the path to the cross

so that we can also gather in celebration beyond the cross

at the empty tomb.

We are called to be extravagant in our loving.

So, toss caution to the wind

be as extravagant as you can be

Let the fragrance of Christ breathe

in, with and through you.

In the name of  YAHWEH, Christ, and Spirit, One, Amen.

 

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Lost and Found – Lent 4C

Lost-and-found

This morning I tried something very different – in place of the sermon I tried an interactive exercise designed to help the congregation experience the parable. I was inspired by a lecture I heard down in Chautauqua when Jewish New Testament Scholar, Amy-Jill Levine  was exploring the parables.  

Listen to the interactive/sermon here

You can watch Amy-Jill Levine’s lecture which inspired me to challenge the congregation to move beyond allegorizing this parable here (look real close and you’ll see me down near the front, just soaking it al in!

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The Foolishness of God – a sermon for Lent 4C – Parables of the Lost

Among the teachings of Jesus, the parables of the lost and found are so well known, so familiar that we are in peril of failing to hear the foolishness they advocate. Although only a few of us have had the opportunity to tend a flock of sheep, most of us at one time or another have been responsible for the welfare of a flock. And whether that flock be sheep or co-workers, clients, customers, students, friends, or children none but the foolish among us would leave 99 to the perils and dangers of the wilderness in order to go looking for one idiot who’d been stupid enough to get themselves lost. We may not keep our coins at home, but I daresay that most of us have felt the sting of loosing a drachma or two or three in this recession. Only a fool would waste a moment searching for our losses when our portfolio’s are so full. I dare say that if we managed to find  or recoup our loss, we’re hardly likely to invite the neighbourhood to a party that would in all likelihood eat up more than we had found. Parents, and all of us have been parented, so we know the wisdom of parents not rewarding bad behaviour. Most of us are law-abiding. We all want what is best for our own parents, and so I don’t think any but the foolish among us would consider celebrating the return of someone who has hurt our parents in the past.

These parables of the lost and found are outrageous. None of us would get very fare in life if we lived by these teachings. It is better to put the welfare of the many above the needs of one. It is pointless to cry over spilt milk. Sometimes its better to cut your losses and move on. The best accountants learn quickly to write off losses that would be too time consuming and costly to recoup. Children need to learn that they can’t always get what they want; that there are consequences to their actions, that dues must be paid, that we need to ask for forgiveness and make amends for our crimes, that rules need to be followed, and laws cannot be broken. That doing the right thing will be rewarded. And yet along comes Jesus, spouting such foolishness that even we who are predisposed to agree with him, even we can sympathize with the self-righteous and wonder how anyone could be expected to live like this. 

The chaos that would ensue if we followed the teaching of this parable as law would be horrendous. What Jesus is advocating is foolishness itself.  It makes no earthly sense. So, we confine these teachings to Sunday morning sermons and let the preachers drown on.  We nod as experts dissect the historical and social context of the words. We hear the details unravelled and we smile as we confine the teachings of Jesus to the lives of sheep and shepherds knowing full well that the likelihood of our ever having to tend a flock of sheep will absolve us of ever having to go looking for a wayward baaing creature. We hear the details of a woman seeking a lost coin and we scoff at the idea that we would ever waste our time looking for a coin, when we have so much more than ten in our purse.            We hear of the wayward child and we smugly give thanks that our children would never behave like that, or we resolve never to demand our share of our parents wealth, and whether we fold our arms in righteous indignation or not, we breath a sign of relief knowing that this particular problem could never happen to us.  And so the foolishness that Jesus advocates remains on the pages of our Bibles, or in the sanctuaries of our churches, or in the halls of the academies where they busy themselves arguing of the historical minutia and we smile as the familiarity of the text washes over us from time to time, but we know full well that this is not the way for any self-respecting, 21st century person to live in the world. These are just parables after all and we can’t be expected to live by them. We’d be fools to try. After all we are not Jesus! And anyway look what happened to him! So, the foolishness that Jesus taught is reasoned into irrelevance and confined to the recesses of our consciousness. 

But what if we didn’t approach these parables with the idea of pinning down their meaning? What if we approached these parables without feeling the need to wrestle the wisdom they contain to the ground so that we can extract from them rules to live by? What if we allowed these parables to simply touch us? What might the foolishness they prescribe evoke in us? How might we respond to their touch? In brushing up against these parables of the lost might we feel the touch of the ONE to whom they point?

I have come to believe that only those who have known the fear, the pain and the joy of losing and finding can really feel the touch of the parables of the lost. But then again, I’ve come to know that it is impossible to go through life without knowing the fear, the pain and the joy of loosing and finding again and again and again. 

Jesus came teaching in parables. The parables of Jesus come to us to “show” us what God is like and to call us to a way of being in the world. These parables, of the lost sheep, and the lost coin and the lost sons, have about them a “ring” of foolishness. Jesus teaches by showing us in these parables: in such foolishness as this God has broken into our world and does so again and again. 

The Lucan parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons, point us in a direction of foolish and passionate abandon. The seeking shepherd who rushes off to find one sheep shows us the God who cares for us so much that the safety of the secure flock is risked so that the stray might be brought home. The mark of the reign of God will be foolishness such as this.

In the time of God’s reign shepherds will care less about flock security and principles of good management and more about the vulnerability of the odd one out. In the time of God’s reign the keepers of fortunes will not be at rest unless every penny can be accounted for in the ledger. In the time of God’s reign everyone will counted valuable enough to be cared for. In the time of God’s reign every stone every clump of dirt, every thing, every one will be counted as valuable. In the time of God’s reign among the keepers of households, fathers and sons, parents and children, there will be no unforgivable sin.There will be no unrestoreable fracture.In the time of God’s reign there will be less begrudging and more rejoicing.

In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost children we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of  loving. If only  our lives could embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love. In the telling of these parables, we remember that none of these stories is of the stuff of everyday fare.       

None of us can do this kind of relentless, reckless abandon constantly. But there are times, there are times when the risk must be taken. The grasp on the known must be released to reach for, find and restore the lost the abandoned the wayward and yes even the self-righteous. Those we have every right to leave alone.

In one frame of reference the shepherd should have been guarding the flock, faithful to home duties, and the woman  sweeping should have been investing the fortune she had in hand and the parent should have been instilling a sense of self-reliance and respect in children who would need to learn how to get by in the world.

But in each of the parables there is a moment that grips, a moment in which what might be choice is no choice. There is only abandon and care, compassion and joy… There is only a moment of foolishness and then…. love.

These are not only words for individuals they are words for the collective, words for institutions and those of us who make up institutions. The parables were spoken to the Pharisees by Jesus whose comfort with the outcasts and sinners made those keepers of the gates of righteousness squirm in their holy seats. It was foolish action that Jesus was about. The wisdom of the righteous was ossified righteousness. Theirs was the wisdom of those entrenched in their own role and task so deeply they could not see some new foolishness of God, as wisdom. These were people lost and in exile for most of their history over and over again called and delivered by God. These were the ones whose memory of deliverance could not release them to be delivers. These people were very much like us.

St. Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. These parables challenge us to be reckless and relentless in our loving and in our witness.  The wisdom of the world that lurks in us is challenged — down to every last maxim:    – charity begins at home.    – God helps those who help themselves.    – Count the cost or pay the price.    – “They should just pull themselves up, by the bootstraps. You fill in the rest…

These parables challenge our notions of repentance.  Does the Lost sheep repent? Can a coin repent? Can the self-involved, self-righteous really repent? Like the sheep and the coin, like the wayward and the self-righteous, we are first found by God and then in reaction to God’s reckless act of love we turn again toward our lover, and the relationship is restored and the rejoicing can begin. The worldly wisdom insists that repentance must come first. The worldly wise fold their arms in disgust at the foolishness that would openly welcome those who have not at least confessed their sin. Institutions have laid it all down and we know the need to repent but we have forgotten the simplicity of the act of repentance. Burdened with centuries of rule-making we are trapped by the rules into forgetting that repentance is the simple act of turning around of returning. Coming home if you will.

Only the foolish can rush with open arms toward those who have sinned against them. Only the foolish can celebrate reconciliation that has not exacted a pound of flesh from the wayward. We are called as individuals and as a church to an uncalculating and foolish love.  We are called to be vulnerable in our ministry, vulnerable to those outside the boundaries of our private lives and our community of faith: to give with no expectation of reward, to love without demand for return, to reach out to those in need with unrelenting care, to release preoccupation with the cares and concerns of our own lives (or perhaps through these cares) to reach out in love to those who are not easy to love. We are called to do all this in delight and with joy and in so doing we mirror the foolishness of God.

St Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. By God’s grace we are the weak and the foolish. Today in the retelling of these parables we give thanks for the reign of God in our hearts and lives.  We give thanks for the hope of the fullness of that reign that sustains us in each moment of our breathing. Most of all in the retelling of these parables we give thanks to God who sustains and calls us to live toward the vision of this reign.

In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost children we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. We pray that our various ministries in the worlds in which we live will embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love. May we declare the foolishness of God by reaching out in love recklessly, and with great joy.

A Benediction:

Let us heed the call to foolishness!

Let us give ourselves away

For the sheer joy of loving!

Let all the world know that

God loves you beyond measure,

Christ has released you and set you free

       to delight in the joy of the Holy Spirit.

Rejoice O fools for Christ!

Rejoice!  Amen.

(I am indebted to a sermon I heard Donna L. Seamone preach in a  time long-ago for the foolishness of this sermon)

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Help Me Jesus, Help, Help Me Jesus – Sermon for Lent 3C


only you o god

Lent 3C – March 3, 2013 sermon – a sermon in memory of Marlene Healy-Ogden

Listen to the sermon here

Listen to Only You O God here

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Bows and Arrows – Sermon for Lent 2C

Lent_2 Feb 24 2013 Readings: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Capaxi Universi- Capable of the Universe by Thomas Aquinas; Luke 9:28-36

Listen to the sermon here

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Don’t Give up Chocolate, Give Up God for Lent

Eckhart rid me of God

Yesterday’s article by Brandon Ambrosino in the Religion section of the Hufington Post sent the wheels in motions. I am indebted to Pete Rollins new book the Idolatry of God as well as his video Atheism for Lent for providing me with the courage to preach this sermon.

Lent 1C – February 17, 2013 – Listen to the sermon here.

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We are ONE – Ash Wednesday Homily

antennae galaxies

Ash Wednesday February 13, 2013

Listen to the homily here

To help remind us that we are stardust, our worship began with video: The Call of the Pleiades – Gerald Jay Markoe

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Just an Old Fashioned Love Song – Transfiguration Sermon

transfiguration

Transfiguration Sunday – February 10, 2013

Listen to the sermon here

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You Have the Power to Transfigure the Face of God 

Two years ago, the Strange History of Transfiguration Sunday inspired this sermon. I offer it here because the words of Desmond Tutu speak volumes as I work on this year’s Transfiguration sermon.

When our images of God are tied to the idol of a supernatural sky-dweller who has the power to solve all our problems, despair is sure to follow as our super-hero fails time after time to impress us.

When I was a very little girl, I was absolutely convinced that I had the power to change the mind of God! Confident that I held such power, I never missed an opportunity to exercise it. Now, I’ll grant you that like most children, I was also convinced that the universe itself actually revolved around me, so believing that I was powerful enough to change God’s mind, wasn’t exactly much of a stretch. In fact, when I was a child, it wasn’t all that difficult to change God’s mind. For instance, I could stop God from breaking my mother’s back simply by leaping over a crack in the pavement. “Don’t step on a crack and break your mothers back.” Now, in my young mind the only one powerful enough to crush my mother’s powerful spine, must be God. I also knew that God wasn’t particularly fond of ladders, and that if I refrained from walking under them, God would smile upon me.

I had no idea why black cats, or spilling salt, or breaking mirrors, or opening umbrellas inside, or leaving hats on the bed, or putting new shoes on the table, would annoy God, but I knew enough to avoid doing such things. I was absolutely sure that God would respond positively if I managed to pull a turkey’s wishbone apart in just the right way so that I was left holding a piece larger than the piece my brother was left with.  God also responded well if I knocked on wood, or caught sight of a falling star, or if I crossed my fingers and hoped to die.

I didn’t need to understand why my activities worked to influence the heart and mind of God, I simply knew that they did and would continue to do so just as long as I continued to avoid the necessary evils and indulge in an apple a day, and managed to blow out all the candles on my birthday cakes.

The universe that revolved around me might have been full of all sorts of rules, but it would continue to revolve exactly the way I wanted it to if I managed to placate the old guy up in the sky who was pulling every body else’s strings. I never once considered that that old God in the sky was pulling my strings because I was absolutely confident in my ability to do what was necessary to pull God’s strings.

But as I grew up, I began to learn that despite my best intentions, the universe did not revolve around me. Little by little I learned that I didn’t have what it takes to influence all of the things that were having an impact upon my life. And just as surely as my powers waned, so too did the powers of God.

I can still remember sitting in the back seat of the car and wondering why God despite the fact that I always lifted my feet up each and every time my father drove over a railroad track, my parents simply couldn’t find the money we needed to buy our happiness. Surely God must know that I was doing my part to do what was necessary to make God shine his smile upon my family.

So each and every time God failed to do exactly what I wanted God to do, God’s power was diminished in my eyes. As I grew, I gave up trying to influence God and I took off after God’s son. After all Jesus was far more fun to be around than his old doddering Father. For starters Jesus actually liked children. And Jesus had way better party tricks than his Dad. Jesus could turn water into wine, make the blind see, and the lame walk. And if the cupboard was bare, no need to worry, cause Jesus was even better than my Mom at turning nothing into something. Where Mom could make a meal out of almost nothing, Jesus could make enough to feed 5000. And there was always that trick to beat all tricks, cause in all my young life, I never heard tell of anyone else who ever came back from the dead and brought tons of chocolate with him. I mean that old doddering guy in the sky simply didn’t stand a chance against Jesus. Santa Claus was about the only one who could come close, and everybody knew that Santa would be nothing without Jesus.

So, somewhere along the way, that I had no need to worry about stepping on a cracks, or spilling salt, or dropping forks, because these things were nothing more than superstitions. Besides, who needs to worry about superstitions when you’ve got Jesus for as your friend? My buddy Jesus was all I needed to keep my world on an even keel. So, I walked with him and I talked with him and we were so happy together, until stuff started to happen that made me begin to doubt Jesus ability to change the world.

A few weeks before my eleventh birthday, Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby Kennedy and for the second time in my life, I saw my father cry. I was only six-years old when the shooting of Bobby’s older brother made the adults in my life cry. Their tears changed something in me. I listened more intently to what was going on in the world around me. I needed to know what was happening so that I could do something to change it. A year after Bobby Kennedy was shot, I went to my first protest march. I was just twelve years old, but I knew that Vietnam was wrong and had to be stopped. I believed that my presence together with the presence of hundreds of thousands, could make a difference.

I left my buddy Jesus playing in the garden. I began to listen to the radical Jesus who spoke truth to power and called us to follow him so that we could change the world. As a teenager I knew that we had to end the war in Vietnam and even though the sixties were drawing to a close, and the flower children would soon be trading in their incense and beads so that the could find jobs and climb the corporate ladder, we marched. And when in 1975, the Vietnam war ended in defeat, I actually naively believed that public opinion had caused the powers that be to change their minds.

So, I continued to work for peace, only this time it was nuclear proliferation that we needed to stop. It was somewhere during the Regan years that I gave up the notion of changing the world by marching in the streets.  Iran Contra put an end to my naiveté.  Jesus and I retreated. Literally.  I mean we literally retreated. A few friends and I worked together on a retreat center. Seabright Farm was a Christian retreat centre designed to nourish people who were trying to live their lives in the world. Jesus was our guide. We wanted to live in this complicated world of ours, the way that Jesus might live. So we dedicated ourselves to learning. Learning all we could about Jesus, Christianity, the church, theology, living responsibly, ethically. Our attempts to change the world took on a more modest approach. We set out to change the world, by changing ourselves.

Eventually, my work at Seabright Farm, brought me into seminary, where I suppose I thought I could change the world by changing the church. Along the way, I must confess that over the years I’ve become more than a little jaded and cynical.  There are days when I don’t really believe that anything will ever really change. But there are moments, moments when I actually believe that it’s possible not only to change the world, but to actually change God.  

Transfiguration Sunday is a strange festival in the Church calendar. The story of the Transfiguration is the story of Jesus climbing a mountain with his closest friends. On the mountaintop Jesus has a profound experience. There is a dazzling light, a cloud that overshadowed them, and the cloud terrified them. That same cloud appeared generations earlier and overshadowed one of the fathers of the Jewish people. That same cloud appeared generations later and overshadowed the father of the people of Islam.

As we read of that cloud today, we should do so with the same fear and trembling of our sisters and brothers who over the generations have encountered that cloud. For Transfiguration Sunday may be a festival of the church, but it’s history is steeped in the political and religious intolerance of the world. Before the fifteenth century, only a few Christian communities kept the feast of the Transfiguration. The festival hadn’t caught on like other festivals.

In all of Christendom only a handful of congregations marked the day and we would not be celebrating it today if it weren’t for a terrible battle. On the sixth of August 1456 news was announced in Rome that John Hunyady had defeated the Turks near Belgrade and the bells of churches rang out in celebration of the slaughter of some 50,000  Muslims.   Overjoyed, Pope Callistus ordered the whole church to commemorate the victory against the infidels by celebrating the feast of the Transfiguration.

For generations the church commemorated the battle by celebrating Transfiguration Sunday on August the sixth. Some church’s still celebrate Transfiguration on the sixth of August. However, shortly after the end of World War II protestant churches discretely decided to  move the festival of Transfiguration to the last day of Epiphany. They did so, because of the infamy of August 6. In 1945 a slaughter of a different sort was inflicted on a different people.

On August 6th 1945, someone climbed not a holy mountain, but into the cockpit of a plane—a machine of war. There had been a lull of a week in the fighting between the Allies and Japan. The Allies had a new secret weapon and they wanted to us it with the maximum psychological effect. They had prepared three atomic bombs. On the 16th of July, the first bomb was tested in New Mexico.

As a terrifying cloud rose up from the earth, the father of the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheim quoted from the Hindu Scriptures a line from the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now, I am become death the destroyer of worlds.”  On August 6 the second bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and three days later the third one was dropped on Nagasaki. 150,000 people lay dead. Thousands more died later from the effect of atomic radiation. 75,000 buildings were destroyed. Two cities were devastated. The world will never be the same. The date for the festival of Transfiguration was moved.

The shape of that awful cloud hangs now forever in our sky. If you close your eyes you will see that cloud; rising up from the earth; a mushroom more poisonous than anything created by God. It is the new tree of knowledge of good and evil. We have eaten of its fruit and we shall never be the same.

We live in fear of everything that emanates from that terrible cloud. Is it any wonder that the vision of that cloud was invoked by the leaders of our neighbours to the south as they tried to convince the world to go to war against the people of Iraq. Weapons of mass destruction! Yesterday, the memory of the cloud hung over Iraq. Today, the memory of that cloud is being used to isolate Iran and Korea.

Has the memory of that poisonous cloud obliterated from our minds the memory of another cloud? Do we no longer remember the story of another climb, another light, another voice, another cloud? Jesus was there speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Jesus was speaking of his death, his destruction by another tree. Do we not meet on Transfiguration Sunday today under the shadow of that tree, to break bread and to proclaim the victory of Christ’s death over every evil, even the total annihilation by human evil.

Friends, I trust that we will be led out of this morass of fear and hatred by a pillar of cloud; a cloud that transformed Moses and a band of refugees in the desert into a people;  a cloud that rested upon Jesus declaring Jesus to be the embodiment of all that God had tried to say for generations; the same cloud that carried on Mohammad into the heavens, leaving behind a people who would take on the name Islam, which itself means peace.

Memories of clouds… Sorry, but I’ve looked at cloud’s from both sides know and like the song says I really don’t know clouds at all. I’m still wondering if its possible to be the people God created us to be? I’d given up wondering whether or not it’s realistic to hope, but rather whether it’s even possible to hope that the world can be changed. The poor will always be with us. Wars will keep breaking out just as surely as the sun rises in the east. Bad things will continue to happen to good people. And just when I think that hope is pointless…that the powerful will always abuse the powerless…just when I’m about ready to join the ranks of those who say live for today and forget about tomorrow…some people half a world away, begin to turn the whole world upside down…and dictators begin to loose their grip…and I begin to wonder, what if? And I feel the hope begin to stir in me.

In his book, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Home for Our Time, Desmond Tutu tells about a transfiguration experience that he will never forget. It occurred when apartheid was still in full swing. Tutu and other church leaders were preparing for a meeting with the prime minister of South Africa to discuss the troubles that were destroying their nation. They met at a theological college that had closed down because of the white government’s racist policies.             During a break from the proceedings, Tutu walked into the college’s garden for some quiet time.  In the midst of the garden was a huge wooden cross. As Tutu looked at the barren cross, he realized that it was winter, a time when the grass was pale and dry, a time when almost no one could imagine that in a few short weeks it would

be lush, green, and beautiful again.  In a few short weeks, the grass and all the surrounding world would be transfigured. As the archbishop sat there and pondered that, he obtained a new insight into the power of transfiguration, of God’s ability to transform  our world.  Tutu concluded that transfiguration means that no one and no situation is “untransfigurable.” The time will eventually come when the whole world will be released from its current bondage and brought to share in the glorious liberty that God intends.

Just over a week ago, many of you followed Jesus out of your comfort zone and down to the Inn From the Cold. You worked very heard to prepare over 200 meals to feed the hungry. But you did so much more than just feeding your neighbours. I believe that you actually achieved a transfiguration of sorts. Shortly before that evening, some of us watched Desmond Tutu talk about the need to change our image of God. I’d like to read back to you the words that Tutu said: The images that we have of God are odd because God—this omnipotent one—is actually weak. As a parent I understand this. You watch your child going wrong and there’s not very much you can do to stop them. You have tried to teach them what is right, but now it is their life and they are mucking it up. There are many moments when you cry for your child, and that’s exactly what happens with God. All of us are God’s children.

I frequently say, I’m so glad I’m not God! Can you imagine having to say, “Bin Laden is my child. Saddam Hussein is my child. George Bush is my child.” Oh!   All of them, including me. Can you imagine what God must have felt watching the Holocaust? Watching Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Watching Rwanda? Can you imagine God watching Darfur?  Imagine God watching Iraq and saying, “These are my children here, and they are killing my other children.  And I can’t do anything because I have said to them, ‘I give you the space to be you and that space enables you to make choices. And I can’t stop you when you make the wrong choices. All I can do is sit here and cry.’”    And God cries until God sees beautiful people who care, even if they may not do earth-shattering things.

There is a fantastic story of a so-called colored woman who was driven from her home and ostracized by her family because she had HIV/AIDS. She came to live in a home for people who suffered from the disease, and there were white men there who would help her because she couldn’t do anything herself. She was all skin and bones. They would carry her like a baby and wash her, bathe her, feed her. Then they would put her in front of a television set and hold her. And this was during the apartheid years. I visited this home and said, “What an incredible lesson in loving and compassion and caring.”

It was transfiguring something ugly, letting something beautiful come from a death-making disease. When God sees that, a smile breaks forth on God’s face and God smiles through the tears. It’s like when the sun shines through the rain. The world may never know about these little transfigurations, but these little acts of love are potent.            

They are moving our universe so that it will become the kind of place God wants it to be. And so, yes, you wipe the tears from God’s eyes. And God smiles.” You people have transfigured the face of God on more than a few occasions. By following Jesus out into the world, to reach out to your sisters and brothers, you have transfigured the face of God.” (see the video below for the full context of this quote)

So, on this Transfiguration Sunday, let me remind you of God’s ability to Transform the world precisely because God dwells in with and through you! Do not give up hope:  no one and no situation is “untransfigurable.” The time will eventually come when the whole world will be released from its current bondage and brought to share in the glorious liberty that God intends.  Continue to give hope to the hopeless, reach out and love the world that God loves, and always remember that you have the power to transfigure the face of God!

A Benediction:          Always remember that you have the power

to transfigure the face of God!

You can wipe the tears from God’s eyes.

You can make God smile.

Reach out with love.

Be the compassionate people God created you to be!

Receive the blessing of  God whose love knows no boundaries,

Christ whose peace you embody,

And the Holy Spirit, whose power breathes

in with and through you,

To transfigure the world with love!

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Ash Wednesday – A Wakeup Call

We’ve all been there. Driving down the road – distracted by thoughts of this and that, when all of a sudden it happens, a car comes at you out of no where and you slam on the breaks or you quickly swerve to avoid a disaster. You could have been killed. You could have killed someone. Your life or someone else’s life could have been radically changed in an instant. As you pull back into traffic you are ever so conscious of the weight of you foot on the accelerator and you swear that you’ve got to be more careful.  You begin to scold yourself.  What were you thinking? Why weren’t you paying attention? Wake-up you could have been killed.

Welcome to Ash Wednesday. What have you been thinking? Why weren’t you paying attention? Wake-up — you are going to die!!!  Ash Wednesday is your mid-winter wake-up call. Some of you may not need the wake-up call. Some of you know all too well that death is all around us. Some of you have lost someone dear to you. Some of you have felt that fear in the pit of your belly when the doctor suggests a particular test. Traditional Ash Wednesday worship would require us to focus on the brevity of life and remember that none of us will get out of this life alive.  Our ancestors in the faith, entered into a morose season of Lent by via the awesome reminder that they came from dust and soon they shall return to the dust.

Lent was a season of lament and repentance based on a particular understanding of what it means to be human. Since the 11th century most of Christianity has understood the human condition as that of those who have fallen from grace. But we live in a post-modern world. We no longer believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans. We read Genesis not as history but as myth. We understand that humans evolved over millions of years. There was no perfect human condition for us to fall from.

What happens when you reject the theological construct of original sin?  What happens when you embrace the idea that we are fiercely and wonderfully made? What happens when you see humanity as originally blessed?

Once you open up Pandora’s box you can’t just walk back out of the room and pretend that the theory of evolution doesn’t have something to teach us about what it means to be human. If we see our selves as incomplete creations rather than fallen sinful creatures, how then do we deal with our mortality?

Perhaps we can begin to express what it means to be human in terms that reflect our need to evolve in to all that we were created to be. Perhaps the brevity and uncertainty of life can begin to wake us up so that we can seize each and every moment. This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

All that we love and care for is mortal and transitory, but mortality is the very reality that can become the inspiration for celebrate life and to love. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our human condition of mortality. But we should also remember the reality of creation itself is transformed by death and is constantly renewing itself. There is an eternal quality to creation, just as there is an eternal quality to life.

Tonight we embrace the promise that in death we are transformed into a new way of living on in God.Trusting that here and now we are living in God, we delight in the knowledge that in God we share in eternity. We are constantly dying, but we are also constantly living as we reflect God’s vision in the world of the flesh. This day, this moment is eternity for God is here, revealed in the wonders of creation; in the face of our neighbours, in the beauty of the earth, in the magnitude of the universe and in the miracles of sub-atomic particles. Tonight is our wake-up call.

We will not pass this way again. If we’ve been hibernating its time to take a deep breath and let ourselves be filled with the Spirit so that we can live fully, love extravagantly and be all that we were created to be. Yes we are dust, but we are earthly dust, springing forth from a multi-billion-year holy adventure.

Dust is good, after all; it is the place of fecundity, of moist dark soil, and perhaps we are as various scientists are suggesting:  “star-dust” evolving creatures emerging from God’s intergalactic creativity. We are frail, but we are also part of a holy adventure reflecting the love of God over billions of years and in billions of galaxies.

So, how can we fail to rejoice in the colour purple, or pause in wonder at a baby’s birth? How can we fail to enjoy the beauty of a sunset or the splendor of a mountain range? How can we fail to embrace the sorrows that surround us with love? How can we remain deaf to the cries of our neighbours, or the pleas of our enemies? Tonight is our wake-up call?

Life is here for the living. This is eternity; right here, right now!!! Let the ashes we receive be the ashes of transformation; of awakening to the beauty and love of seizing the moment and living it to the fullest.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Let the memory of your incomplete humanity awaken you to the wonders, joys, sorrows, and pain of life.

Let it be said of you that here in this little part of eternity that you lived fully, loved extravagantly and helped humanity evolve into all that God dreamed we can be!             Amen.

An Ash Wednesday Benediction

 Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Let the memory of your incomplete humanity

awaken you to the wonders, joys, sorrows, and pain of life.

Let the ashes you wear be the ashes of transformation;

of awakening to the beauty and love of seizing the moment

and living it to the fullest.

 Let it be said of you that here in this little part of eternity

that you lived fully, loved extravagantly

and helped humanity evolve into all that God dreamed we can be!

 You are fearfully and wonderfully made

In the image of the ONE who is was and ever more shall be

Creator, Christ and Spirit ONE,    AMEN

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Ash Wednesday – Stardust

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” are the words that are spoken during Ash Wednesday’s Imposition of Ashes. I have always thought of the dust of the earth, funerals, and death during this age-old ritual. But last year during our worship, we added a new reading to our Ash Wednesday Liturgy. This new creation story embraces a perspective on reality that is all together different than that of our ancestors in the faith. This new perspective turned my thoughts toward life and eternity.

More and more I have come to believe that unless our worship together can embrace reality as it is viewed in the 21st century, we will fail in our efforts to make worship relevant in the 21st century.   

The Star Within

a creation story by Dr. Paula Lehman & Rev. Sarah Griffith

In the beginning, the energy of silence rested over an infinite horizon of pure nothingness.

The silence lasted for billions of years, stretching across aeons that the human mind cannot even remotely comprehend.

 Out of the silence arose the first ripples of sound, vibrations of pure energy that ruptured the tranquil stillness as a single point of raw potential, bearing all matter, all dimension, all energy, and all time: exploding like a massive fireball.

It was the greatest explosion of all time!

An irruption of infinite energy danced into being. It had a wild and joyful freedom about it, and like a dance it was richly endowed with coherence, elegance, and creativity.

The universe continued to expand and cool until the first atoms came into being. The force of gravity joined the cosmic dance; atoms clustered into primordial galaxies.

Giant clouds of hydrogen and helium gases gathered into condensed masses, giving birth to stars!

Generations of stars were born and died, born and died, and then our own star system, the solar system, was formed from a huge cloud of interstellar dust, enriched by the gifts of all those ancestral stars.

Planet Earth condensed out of a cloud that was rich in a diversity of elements.

Each atom of carbon, oxygen, silicon, calcium, and sodium had been given during the explosive death of ancient stars. These elements, this stuff of stars, included all the chemical elements necessary for the evolution of carbon-based life.

With the appearance of the first bacteria, the cosmic dance reached a more complex level of integration.

Molecules clustered together to form living cells!

Later came the algae, and then fish began to inhabit the waters!

Thence the journey of life on land and in the sky.

Insects, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and mammals: all flourished and diversified and elaborated the themes of life. And now it is our time, too.

This is our story.

The story of our beginning, our cosmology.

And so we commence our Lenten Journey this night – this Ash Wednesday, with open hearts in the midst of our Creator.

As we partake in our daily things of life may we see them as sacred.

May we be empowered to perform simple acts of concern and love, and real works of reform and renewal.

Let us love deeply the earth which gives us
 air to breathe, water to drink, and food to sustain us.

May we remember that life is begotten from stardust, radiant in light and heat.

We are all one – all of creation, all that now live, 
all that have ever lived.

Remember we are stardust, and to stardust we return.

Remember we are part of the great mystery.

Remember we are stardust and to stardust we return!

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Spinning Wheel – A Sermon on Luke 4:14-21

Blood Sweat & Tears

Third Sunday after Epiphany January 27, 2013

Listen to the sermon here

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Intoxicated on Life – Epiphany 2C Sermon

Intoxicated on life

The Wedding at Cana – Water Into Wine?

Listen to the Sermon here

January 20, 2013

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Beloved, Lover and Love

waters 4

Baptism of Jesus Sermon

Sunday January 13, 2013

Listen to the sermon here

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You are the Light of the World – Epiphany Sermon

epiphany

Listen to the Epiphany sermon here

The text of the “Our Greatest Fear” Williamson quote is here

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Joy to the worldFirst Sunday after Christmas

Sunday December 30, 2012

Listen to Pastor Tom Doherty’s sermon here

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The First Nativity – Cheap, Small, and PlasticA Christmas Eve Sermon for Progressive Christians

First Nativity for My First Appartment

Listen to the sermon here

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Fourth Sunday of AdventWOMAN DOVE

December 23, 2012

Listen to the sermon here

Greatest Birth Story Ever?

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Loss of Innocence and Innocents Advent 3

BLUE HEAD 3An Advent Lament for Newtown

Listen to the sermon here

I am indebted to Rabbi Evan Moffic for reminding me of Kafka’s story of the lost doll.

We also sang Carolyn Winfrey Gillette’s “A Prayer for Our Children” which can be found here

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Don’t Just Hear the Words of the Prophet, Become the Prophet!

jokulsarlon-glacier-lake

Second Sunday of Advent

The figire of John the Baptist looms large during the first half of Advent. This angry misfit shouts and us, convicting us of hastening the end. Do we have the courage to join him? Do we have the stamina to become a prophet of doom?

Listen to the sermon here

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antennae galaxies

Christ Will Come Again, and Again, and Again

First Sunday of Advent   

The sermon is preceded by a solo performance by Gary Curran of Every Valley from Handel’s Messiah

Listen to the sermon here

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HomelessReign of Christ Sunday

Leftover People – Pastor Tom Doherty

Listen to the sermon here

Leftover People our Hymn of the Day: Leftover People

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Baptism: A Celebration of our Humanity

waters 4Baptism Sermon Nov.18, 2012

Listen to the sermon here

I am indebted to the Rev. Robert Hensley who provided the turn of phrase “nothing butter” to describe reductionists and directed me to the work of John Polkinghorne whose book Quarks, Chaos and Christianity provides all of the physics cited in this sermon. I first discovered Polkinghorne’s work in his 2003 publication: Living with Hope: A Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas & Epiphany and since then I have enjoyed his gentle way of opening my non-scientific mind to a plethora of possibilities. 

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peacemakers

Remembrance Day Sermon

I am indebted to Walter Wink for his excellent work on Jesus’ radical teachings on nonviolence.

Listen to the Audio here

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All Saints’ Sunday Sermon

What Kind of Saints Are We?

Listen to the sermon here

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I Must Confess that I Am Not a Christian. I Aspire to Be a Christian.

Reformation – Confirmation Sunday

Listen to the sermon here

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 Agape Sunday – Oct. 21, 2012

Readings  here

Listen to the Sermon here

Link to information about the book-banning here

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October 14, 2012

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost Pastor Tom Doherty takes us to the opera where we discover an image of God who invites us into living recklessly generous lives.

Listen to the sermon here          Readings for this Sunday here

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Thanksgiving Sunday October 7, 2012

This sermon was inspired by Monty Python’s “We were so poor that…” sketch also known as the Four Yorkshiremen, and Joan Chittister’s book Uncommon Gratitude.

Readings for Thanksgiving here

Listen to the Sermon here

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Back to Church Sunday September 30, 2012

The Big Bang, Darwin and God

This sermon is inspired by the work of Joan Chittister on Evolution and God.

Readings for Sunday here

Listen to the Sermon here

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PEERING INTO THE HEAVENS – September 23, 2012

Creation III – Sky Sunday

Readings for Sky Sunday here

Listen to the sermon here

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HOMECOMING SUNDAY – September 16, 2012

Who Do You Say That I AM

Listen to the sermon here

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CREATION II SUNDAY – September 9, 2012

We Are Stardust!!! Billion Year Old Carbon!!!

Creation II – Celebrating Humanity

Great to be back in the pulpit following a splendid four month sabbatical!!!

Thank-you to everyone who contributed to the fabulous welcome home!!!

Listen to the Sermon here

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SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER:  Practicing Resurrection

Sermon transcript and audio here

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EASTER SUNDAY:  WELCOME TO YOUR VERY OWN RESURRECTION!

Listen to the sermon here

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GOOD FRIDAY – Jesus Did Not Die For Your Sins

Good Friday 2012 Sermon audio – here

Good Friday Worship bulletin – download here – to be printed double sided

MAUNDY THURSDAY

A Strange Night:  sermon transcripte here

PALM SUNDAY

Palm Sunday Sermon Audio  here

Palm Sunday Worship Bulletin here  to be printed double-sided

LENTEN SERMON SERIES: ANCIENT WISDOM – MODERN PRACTICES

Click on the link to listen to the sermons:

LENT 1 – Laughter    LENT 2 – Lament – Transformation  LENT 3 – Anger-Protest

LENT 4 – Letting Go – Confession    LENT 5 – Dreaming: Nightmares & Visions

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO:  ASH WEDNESDAY SERMON

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO:  TRANSFIGURATION SERMON

SERMON SERIES ON PRAYER

Prayer Sermon Series:  The transcript of the first sermon in the series is found below.

To listen to subsequent sermons click on the links:

Sermon #2 Pray to a Super-natural Deity or a Panentheistic God?

Sermon #3 Corporate Prayer  Sermon #4 Awe   Sermon #5 Healing

Sermon #6 – Pray without ceasing

Prayer #7  –  Prayer transforms us – a reflection on the series 

Prayer #1  –  Bath Qol – The Daughter of a Sound

Mark 1:4-11

And so John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camels’ hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey.

In the course of his preaching, John said, ‘One more powerful than I is to come after me. I am not fit to stoop and untie his sandal strips. I have baptized you with water, but the One to come will baptize you in the Holy Spirit. It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my Beloved, my Own.  On you my favor rests.”

The sermon began with Pastor Dawn asking the congregation

to sing a cappella from memory the familiar hymn:  I Come to the Garden.

 

I come to the garden alone,

while the dew is still on the Roses;

And the voice I hear,

falling on my ear the Son of God discloses.

And he walks with me, and he talks with me,

and he tells me I am his own,

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

Non other has ever known.

 

He speaks and the sound of his voice

Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;

And the melody that he gave to me

Within my heart is ringing,

And he walks with me, and he talks with me,

and he tells me I am his own,

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

Non other has ever known.

 

I’d stay in the garden with him,

Though the night around me be falling;

But he bids me go;

Through the voice of woe

His voice to me is calling.

And he walks with me, and he talks with me,

and he tells me I am his own,

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

Non other has ever known.

 

            The season of Epiphany begins and ends with stories of Jesus’ hearing the voice of God.

            In this morning’s story of Jesus’ baptism, Jesus hears the voice of God as a dove descends from the clouds.

            On the last Sunday of Epiphany, we will hear the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop when the voice of God is heard speaking from out of a cloud.

            Both times the voice will say essentially the same thing:

            “This is my beloved”           

            The word Epiphany is a Greek word which means “manifestation or revelation” of the divine.

            Over the years, the word epiphany has been used to describe those “a ha”  moments in which something quite obvious is revealed.

            The phrase, “I saw the light” springs to mind whenever I think of the word Epiphany.

            I’d like to say that I associate that particular phrase with the word epiphany because, in the season of Epiphany is the season when plunged into the darkness of winter the church celebrates light.

            But the truth is the word epiphany makes me think of cartoons I watched as a child, when a light bulb would appear over the head of a character when the cartoon character had a bright idea.

            When that light-bulbs appear in cartoons, it’s a sure sign that the character is headed for trouble, because bright ideas often get us into trouble.

            So, you’d think I would have known better when, earlier this week a light-bulb went off and I had a bright idea that during the season of epiphany I should begin a sermon series on the subject of prayer.

            I mean, what better season than the season of epiphany to tackle a subject that people have been asking me to address for months now.

            Ever since we set off on this grand journey of re-thinking our theology, trying to understand Christianity in the 21st century, the issue of prayer has been lurking in the background, almost haunting us.

            As we’ve explored ancient and mystic, understandings of the reality that we call God our cherished notions of God as a grand puppeteer in the sky who intervenes from above to change the course of history, have been challenged.

            As we’ve come to understand God as more than our images of God could ever even begin to capture, we have explored the possibility that God is more immediately present in with and through us.

            As we begin to see God’s work in the world grounded in the world, there are moments when I really miss that grand puppeteer in the sky.

            It is certainly easier to talk about prayer if your talking about appealing to an other-worldly creature to fulfill your longing for a divine parent to solve all our problems.

            Because seriously folks, when you give up the idol that we’ve created of a god who controls all things from up in heaven, a god who listens to our prayers and then decides what is and isn’t good for us, and answers those prayers according to some grand plan he devised eons ago, in which all we are required to do is believe that whatever happens its God’s will, and we shouldn’t question but simply believe because in the end all will be revealed, well when you give up that particular image of God, the question that haunts me, and judging by the questions and comments I’ve heard from a good many of you is,

            Who or what do we pray to know?

            Should we pray, and how should we pray?

            And more importantly who or what will answer those prayers?

            Honestly, I must confess that all week long in addition to regretting that I mentioned to anyone that I was going to tackle the issue of prayer during this epiphany season, I have found myself longing for the good old days when God was safely ensconced in his heaven and all I had to do was figure out the correct formula for prayer to entice this god to hear me, and respond in exactly the way I wanted him to respond.

            All week long I’ve been wishing that this epiphany God would speak to us from on high. 

            I’ve even found myself humming old hymns as I seek epiphanies of my own with regard to prayer.

            One thing I have discovered is that there are no easy answers when it comes to prayer.

            So this morning we are going to simply scratch the surface.

            This year the season of Epiphany lasts until February 19th so in addition to today, there will be seven more sermons on the subject of prayer.

            Today, I simply want to invite you to embark on this journey with me as together we try to work out what a life of prayer might look like in the 21st century.

            But before we set off on this journey I want to make something very clear, because we are going to be straying in to new and dangerous waters and I’m sure that some of you may begin to wonder if the journey is too perilous and you might begin to fear that prayer is an illusion, or that faith is hopeless.

            So, I want to say this at the outset.  And I may have to say it over and over again because, I want you to remember it as we travel through these unknown waters.

            Despite what you may infer as we travel along, I want you all to know that I firmly believe in the power of prayer.

            I pray each and every day.

            My goal in life is to learn to as the Apostle Paul has written, “pray without ceasing”.

            Prayer is now and has always been at the very heart of my life.

            Indeed, if the truth be told, I probably became a pastor so that I could learn to pray.

            And while my praying together with my understanding of prayer has changed over the years, my desire to pray has not diminished anymore than my need of prayer.

            So, today, I want to begin by talking about our desire for prayer.

            Over the course of the next seven Sundays we will delve deeper into the waters and explore various aspects of prayer.

            We’ll use the scriptures as our guide, through the deep waters of our tradition.

            We’ll explore the history of prayer in the Christian church, as we drink from the refreshing wells of the mystics.

             We’ll open ourselves to the crashing waters of creation as we try to open our eyes to the world around us through prayer.

            And hopefully we’ll be ready to journey up to the mountaintop to drink from the babbling brooks that flow down to refresh the earth.

            As always our journey will be punctuated by stories.

            Remember that the waters flow swiftly, there will be rapids, and falls that lie ahead and like all flowing waters our journey will lead us to the ocean where the waters run so deep.

            But before we set off on our journey, we should perhaps take a look at the safety we have come to know at the shore.

            I think my earliest memory of prayer is a distant memory I have of skipping along the sidewalk chanting a familiar refrain:

            “Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back.”

            Most of us can remember a moment from our childhood when a superstition was instilled in us that caused us to perform some ritual in order to placate the unseen power that could determine our fate.

            Whether it was avoiding cracks, or walking under ladders or black cats, we were trained from an early age to believe that there were powers out there that could determine our future.

            Now, I don’t remember whether or not I was trying to avoid a crack in the sidewalk or not, but I do remember going ass over tea-kettle and smashing my skull on the ground.

            By the time I reached my mother, I was still crying that soundless cry that emanates from a kid when they are in so much pain and shock that even though their mouths are wide open no sound can be heard.

            I was really small, perhaps 3 or 4, but I have a vague memory of my mother shouting, “Ah holy Jesus”.

            Now whether this was a curse, a cry for help, or just my Irish mother punctuating a moment in her Irish way, I remember hoping that I was not going to die from the pain that was emanating from my skull.

            So, right then and there I asked God not only to save me but to stop the pain.

            After that, my remembered prayers began to take the shape of bedtime requests to take care of Mommy & Daddy, Nanny & Granda and all the other loved ones in my life.

            I remember thinking that if I forgot to name one or the other of my loved ones, terrible things would happen to them, so I worked hard to make sure they all got a mention.

            I remember once being so angry with my brother that I deliberately left him out of my prayers.

            But just before I fell asleep, I had a vision his nose bleeding as it often did, only this time because I had not named him in my prayers God let his nose go on bleeding and worried that I might be the cause of my little brother bleeding to death, I got out of bed and down on my knees to pray for my brother.

            I never went to church as a child so what I learned of prayer and of God and Jesus came from my parents, grand-parents and various aunts and uncles.

            God was to be feared, appealed to, and feared.

            God functioned as a kind of grand disciplinarian in the sky; a kind of boogie man who would visit all kinds of tragedy upon me and upon my loved ones if I did not behave.

            God was definitely an old man with a white beard who spoke with an upper-class English accent.

            Sometimes when I wasn’t busy being afraid of God, God functioned as a sort of Santa Claus, or as I knew him, Father Christmas, who could bring me all sorts of presents if I prayed just right.

            Jesus on the other hand was kind of like my buddy.

            Jesus was the one who I prayed to when I was too afraid to pray to his Father, or when I thought what I was praying about wasn’t important enough for his Father to bother with.

            Jesus was far more friendly than his Father and way more understanding.

            But both of them, Jesus and especially his Father, had the power to bestow upon me anything I asked for and when they said no, it was clearly for my own good.

            God had a plan and it was up to me to figure out what that plan was and be happy about it.

            Later, when, as I believed then, God’s plan led me into the church at the tender age of 15, my prayers became more formal.

            As I learned to read my bible and pray every day, pray ever day so that I would grow, grow, grow.

            I began my days with prayer, and tried to remember to issue up little prayers during the day, and then continued praying before falling asleep at night.

            Each Sunday I would begin by going to the garden alone.

            Literally, I would go outside for a walk and sing to myself.

            My song was a sort of prayer to get God’s attention and then I would prayer about all the traumatic stuff that a teen ager prayers about.

            Then I’d faithfully go to church and there I would participate in the prayers of the church, which for the most part were a slightly more formal version of the prayers I’d prayed in the garden alone.

            Over the years there were disappointments when God failed to do what I had faithfully asked God to do, but I was willing to believe that God had a plan, and one day I’d understand why God had said, “no” and I’d be grateful to God for having loved me enough to say, ‘no’ to me.

            There were times when the suffering of loved ones caused me to shake my fist at God in anger.

            But my faith never wavered.

            I figured that God must like a good argument, cause the bible was full of stories about people arguing with God, so I walked, with him and I talked with him, and he told me I was his own, and from time to time, I shouted at him, and I argued with him, and I cried with him, and always knew that no matter what I could always go to the garden alone while the dew was still on the roses.

            Looking back on it know there was a distinct pattern to my prayers.

            I would talk and God would listen.

            God never got a word in edgeways.

            I would talk and God would listen.

            God would answer me one way or another, but I would talk and then God would listen.

            Church reinforced this model.

            In the beginning the pastor would talk, while God listened.

            Sometimes the congregation would talk, while God listened.

            Today, before we head off into the crashing waters of creation to see what we can learn about prayer, I’d like us to begin not by going to the garden, whether it’s alone or together to walk and talk with God but rather to pause for a moment to listen.

            I said before that epiphany begins and ends with the voice of God.

            So that’s where our epiphany journey will begin and end with the voice of God.

            In the scriptures the voice of God is named in the Hebrew as the bath cole (bat cole).

            Which literally translates as “the daughter of a sound”.

            The daughter of a sound.

            I’d always imagined the voice of God as a deep bass booming from on high.

            But our ancestors imagined the voice of God as the daughter of a sound.

            Elijah hears the Bat Cole when the presence of God passes by him and the Hebrew for daughter of a sound has been translated as a still small voice or the translation that I love, is Elijah heard the sound of the thinnest silence.

            The voice of God, the daughter of a sound is the sound of the thinnest silence, a still small voice, clearly beyond the boundaries of speech.

            I know that some of you have heard the bat cole.

            I also know that in order to hear the daughter of a sound, the thinnest silence, the still small voice, you must begin by listening.

            I suspect that if all you can hear is the booming baritone from on high you might miss the thinnest silence of the daughter of a sound.

            Over the years, I have come to believe that if we listen we will hear the bat cole .

            For the God I am coming to know is the God who lives and breathes in with and through us.

            The daughter of a sound can be heard if we listen.

            When I was a child, I remember being handed a large seashell.

            I was told that if I put the seashell up against my ear I would hear the sound of the ocean.

            As I grew up, I learnt the that the sound that I was hearing was not actually the ocean.

            I learned this the day that I cupped my hand over my ear and heard the very same sound.

            I learned that it was a sound that emanated from deep inside of me.

            While I still love the notion that I might be able to hear the ocean, I am even more intrigued that I can hear a sound that emanates from deep within.

            Sometimes when I can’t for the life of me, hear the Bat Cole, when the still small, daughter of a sound eludes me no matter how hard I’ve been trying to listen, I will cup my hands over my ears and then that sound that emanates from deep with in will help me to hear the Bat Cole.

            And so before we leave the garden on the shore, before we leave behind the booming, tones of God as he walks and talks with us, we need to pause, take some time to listen.

            Cup your hands over your ears if you need to be reminded of the sound that emanates from deep within.

            Listen to your life.

            Listen to what happens to you, because it is through what happens to you that God speaks.

            It’s often difficult to hear, but its there, powerfully, memorably, unforgettably in ways that will nourish, ground and sustain us as we wade in the waters of life.

            This week, I encourage you to linger on the shore, only keep your mouths shut, and listen.

            Listen for the daughter of a sound, who will speak to you in the thinnest of silence.

            And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.

            Shuuusssssshhh!

           

           

           

            

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