A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent – Luke 1
Recognizing that many do not make it to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, we usually read the entire birth narrative on the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
The quotes in this sermon are from Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and Joseph Holub’s “Fear Not” The Acclamation sung, on the audio recording, prior to the sermon is “The Magnificat” from Holden Evening Prayer, by Marty Haugen, featuring Gary Curran and Linda Condy: Listen to the sermon here
This week as millions of people flock to theatres all over the world to see the latest Star Wars epic (Rogue One), I am reminded of the old joke: you know you might be Lutheran if, when you hear: “The force be with you.” you must fight the urge to say, “And also with you.” While I confess that I have not yet seen the new Star Wars movie, and my memories of the original Star Wars movie are decades old, my social media feeds have been filled with allusions to “The Force”. Over the course of the past few days, I’ve read more than a few articles from would be theologians, which insist that “The Force” of Star Wars is akin to the way many progressive Christians describe our understanding of God. While it is true that may of us who have long since given up images of God the portray the super-natural being who lives off in a galaxy far, far, away, who from time to time meddles in the affairs of earthlings, and many of us have indeed have embraced notions of God that reflect early Christian teachings about the One in whom we live and move and have our being.
The panentheistic view of God as the one who both lies at the very heart of reality and permeates reality so that God is in all and yet more that all, the one who lives and breathes, in, with, through, and beyond us, may on the surface bear a slight resemblance to “The Force” I can assure you that God is so very much more than the limited notions of “The Force”.
Right about now, I expect that some of you are wondering, why on earth I am rambling on about a childish science fiction movie just days before Christmas when I have all the ramifications of the greatest story every told from which to draw a sermon on this the fourth Sunday of Advent. Well bear with me for a bit, and if we are lucky and the force is with me, I try to explain just how Mary’s response to an angelic annunciation relates to our cultures fascination with “the force” and maybe just maybe assure you of the Good News that the God in whom we live and move and have our being is so much more of a force than the force that would be Jedi warriors all over the planet are embracing. The little that I do know about George Lucas’ force is that it inhabits a dualistic universe that is divided into to camps. On one side, we have “The Empire”, the dark evil side represented by the Sith, on the other side, the good side, the Rebellion, represented by the Jedi. The Force, is the name given to the collection of the energies of all living things that are fed into one Cosmic Force. The Force that is available to both Jedi Rebellion and the Empire of the Sith because The Force has two sides. The Force is neither malevolent or benevolent, neither good nor evil it has a bad side involving hate and fear, and it has a good side, involving love, charity, fairness and hope. The Force can be used for good or for evil. The Force is if you will, humanity write large, or the human psyche deified. The Force is nothing more than our collective strengths and weaknesses writ large.
Listen to the sermon here
I’ve known more than a few heralds in my times; modern heralds whose voices have cried out in the wilderness. Heralds whose voices have made ready a way through the desert. Heralds whose voices have cleared a path and made the rough road smooth. These voices crying out in the wilderness haven’t always belonged to characters that look a lot like I imagine John the Baptist to have looked. They may not have all been wild, wooly, but they were all driven, passionate people, who talk about their passions as if our very lives hang in the balance over every word. If the truth be told, I’m partial to these wild and passionate types. These prophets who lend their voices to seemingly lost causes and dedicate themselves to seeking and proclaiming the truth no matter what it costs them personally. Passionate prophets tilting at windmills trying to open up whoever will listen to them, to the wisdom that lies beyond the ways of the world are a rare breed. I’m sure that if you think back, most of you can remember a John the Baptist in your own lives who has opened you up to pathway beyond the limits of conventional wisdom. I’m sure that each one of you could weave a tale of a prophet who has been able to make the rough places smooth, by filling a valley, or leveling a mountain that has stood between you and the wisdom you needed in order to embrace the future.
The first herald I can remember didn’t drape himself in camel’s hair or consume locusts and wild honey, but he did wear leather pants and I’m pretty sure that he consumed more than his share of magic mushrooms. My grade nine English teacher let’s call him Mr. Ripple, just in case he’s still teaching, and because I’m sure he’d rather I didn’t use his real name; Mr. Ripple wasn’t like any teacher I’d ever met before. In addition to the black leather pants and tie-dye t-shirts which he wore despite the fact that all the other male teachers wore boring old suits, Mr. Ripple had a long unkempt mustache which made him look a little like a cartoon bandit. I remember the very first class I had with Mr. Ripple shocked me into believing that he might just be some sort of joke the principal was trying to play on us and that Mr. Ripple wasn’t actually a teacher at all but an imposter who just needed to hide out for a while. My suspicions were only heightened when Mr. Ripple insisted that we call him by his first name. This John went on and on about pushing beyond the barriers imposed upon us by the system. John insisted that we needed to… get to really know who we are because in his view self knowledge was crucial to living a life that was worth anything at all. John also insisted, that in order to find out who we really are, we need to take chances. To give us the courage to take chances, John guaranteed that each and every one of us would receive a B in his class just for showing up and asking questions. I never really liked Bs. A’s were more my style. So, I put up my hand in order to ask what it would take to get an A in his class. John said, we didn’t need to raise our hands in his class, just shout out. Then he assured us all that students who demonstrated that they had learned something about themselves would get an A+ from him. I said, “I thought we were supposed to learn something about English Literature in his class.” John insisted that studying literature was all about learning about your very own self.
W O H Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind, had been listed in the published syllabus for the course and many of us had newly purchased copies of it sitting on our desks. John suggested that we could read it if we wanted to kowtow to the system or we could read something more challenging of our own choosing. This annoyed me, because I’d purchased “Who Has Seen the Wind” and read it during the summer break, anticipating that this would help me towards my goal of an A in English. John suggested that rather than reading books that the school-board gave their stamp of approval to, we might like to read some books that over the years had been banned by more than one or two school boards. He then opened up his cupboard and revealed all sorts of books free for the taking as long as we promised to pass them on to someone else when we finished reading them. That year I read, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and learned to love Hemingway, “Catch-22” and contemplated the horrors of war, Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Ginsberg’s “Howl.” My own love of books had met its match in John. Continue reading
Reading over sermons I have preached about John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, I came across this “cry for the wilderness” that I preached six years ago. Sadly, the wilderness has an even greater need today for prophets who are willing to cry out on its behalf! I offer my plaintiff cry here to inspire my colleagues as they prepare to prepare the way on this coming Sunday.
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.
Take 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. Continue reading
This sermon relies on the work of John Philip Newell in his book, The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings. On this, the first Sunday of Advent our readings included “The Star Within” a creation story by Dr. Paula Lehman and Rev. Sarah Griffith, Luke 21:25-36, and John 3:1-9. A deliberate choice was made not to use the traditional Advent reading from Jeremiah so as to avoid the trap of the false Christian appropriation of the Hebrew prophets as foretellers of Jesus as the Messiah. Listen to the sermon here
A very happy new year to you all! On this the very first Sunday of the Church year, in churches all over the world, congregations have sung out their pleas for advent. Advent from the Latin verb “to come:. O Come, O Come Emmanuel, loudly and with gusto, or softly but with earnest desire, that Emmanuel “God with us” would come and put an end to our anxious longing to escape the darkness. I love all the blue, with just the hint of evergreens. I love the images summoned up in our liturgical silences, of darkness, wilderness, longing and expectation. I love the idea of coming in here as sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of our consumer culture’s lead up to the Christmas season. I love the music, I could sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel during all four Sunday’s of Advent and never tire of all eight of its plaintive verses. Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord, Preee—pare Ye the way of the Lord, There’s a Voice in the Wilderness crying, Comfort, Comfort Now My People, Each Winter As the Year Grows Older, we’ll have no Christmas carols in Advent even if you please!!! Soon and Very Soon, we are going to see our God, wait, wait, wait, for it ….let the malls over-dose you with carols…let us wait… Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.
People, Look East, Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding! Let the world fill up on Christmas cheer, shop till they drop. For we in here are Lost In the Night. Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah. Hark, the Glad Sound! Prepare, Prepare, Prepare, we’re not there yet! Wait! Awake! Awake! As the Dark Awaits the Dawn. Wait for the Lord. Prepare the Royal Highway. Four blue Sundays, contemplate, keep silence, get ready to Fling Wide the Door, the Unexpected and Mysterious, Creator of the Stars of Night, let the silence speak to us, as our Ancient Love, prepares the way for our God. Hope, Joy, Love, Peace shall be ours if we but wait.
Every year while the church heralds Advent, the world greets Santa. For years I’ve loved this valiant attempt to hold on to allow the child to gestate, while the world casually tosses the baby into the muck and the mire of busy streets, crowded malls and boisterous, drunken, celebrations. I still treasure the memories of my first Advent seasons. I came to the church when I was just fifteen years old. I had never even heard of Advent. I was excited about my first Christmas in the church. I wanted to soak it all up. I expected Christmas carols, and stories about the Christ Child. I had no idea about the darkness of the wilderness. My first inkling came on the Saturday before the first Sunday of Advent. The Lutheran church where I was introduced to life in and among Christians, was comprised mainly of Scandinavians who had more Advent traditions than you can shake a Yule log at. Don’t get me started on the lutefisk!!! No, gelatinas lye fish for me if you please, just save the rullupylsa for me, and maybe just maybe I’ll have a little pickled herring, but pass the aquavit and let a few icy shots loosen us up and before you know it … off da… we’ll all be warm from the inside out. Continue reading
In the preface to her beautiful children’s book, “But God Remembered: Stores of Women from Creation to the Promised Land” Jewish writer Sandy Eisenberg Saso tells this revealing story:
“Before God created man and woman, God wanted to create Memory and Forgetfulness. But the angels protested.
The angel of Song said, ‘Do not create Forgetfulness. People will forget the songs of their ancestors.’
The Angel of Stories said, ‘If you create Forgetfulness, man and woman will forget many good stories.’ The Angel of Names said, ‘Forget songs? Forget stories? They will not even remember each other’s names.’
God listened to the complaints of the angels. And God asked the angels what kinds of things they remembered.
At first, the angels remembered what it was like before the world was formed. Then as the angels talked about the time before time existed, they recalled moments when they did not always agree.
One angel yelled at another, ‘I remember when your fiery sword burned the hem of my robe!’
‘And I remember when you knocked me down and tore a hole in my wing,’ screamed another.
As the angels remembered everything that ever happened, their voices grew louder and louder and louder until the heavens thundered.
God said, ‘FORGET IT!’
And there was Forgetfulness.
All at once the angels forgot why they were angry at each other and their voices became angelic again. And God saw that it was good.
God said, “There are some things people will need to forget.’
The angels objected. ‘People will forget what they should remember.’
God said, ‘I will remember all the important things. I will plant the seeds of remembrance in the soul of My people.’
And so it was that over time people forgot many of the songs, stories and names of their ancestors.
But God remembered.”
As we approach the First Sunday of Advent, I can’t help wondering why the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary (the list of prescribed readings for Sunday worship) have failed to remember the stories and names of our foremothers? End times and John the Baptist strutting across the stage are featured prominently in the Advent lectionary. We have begun a new cycle in the RCL in what is know as Year C the lectionary Gospel readings will focus upon readings from the Gospel according to Luke. neither of the women of the Luke’s first chapter make an appearance without a great deal of effort. Unless worship planners are prepared to tinker with the lectionary Elizabeth and Mary will have to cede the stage to John the Baptist. So, all you worship planners and preachers out there, I say to you, “TINKER AWAY! TELL THE STORIES!” Unless worship planners are prepared to tinker with the lectionary Elizabeth and Mary will have to cede the stage to John the Baptist. So, all you worship planners and preachers out there, I say to you, “TINKER AWAY! TELL THE STORIES!” Continue reading
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Outside the world is hurtling toward the Christmas; toward the celebration of the birth of a baby. While the world prepares for the birth, the church says, “wait”. Wait, keep watch, and beware, for the world is ending. While the church cries out:
“Signs will appear in the sun, the moon and the stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish, distraught at the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the earth.” the world sings: “You better watch out, you better not pout, you better not cry, Santa Clause is coming to town.” And all the while we declare the mystery of our faith, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
Somewhere between our deepest fear and our deepest longings we wait, the world prepares and we wait and watch, knowing all the while that, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” knowing that because the world will end, our hope lies in the knowledge that Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah, will come again.
Advent, the very word means come; tis the season of coming. Advent is not about waiting; waiting for Christmas, or waiting for the birth of a baby; Advent is about coming, the coming of Christ. In the darkness of the end, we long for Christ to come. Yes, we will have to wait for Christmas to come; but Christmas will come as it always does. The point is not the waiting, the point is in the midst of darkness, in the trials and tribulations of the end, Christ will come; the point is Christ will come. In the midst of the darkness of the end, our deepest longings are stirred up, our longings for hope, for peace, for love and for joy.
All around us we can see the signs of the end; death is everywhere. Galaxies collide and stars die, and there is darkness, the end. Dreams die, and there is darkness, the end. Barriers go up, bullets fly, bombs explode, people die; there is darkness, the end. Words are spoken, promises broken, hopes are dashed; there is darkness, the end. The work dries up, the job ends, funds are exhausted, the bills pile up; there is darkness, the end. Illness overwhelms, shadows on x-rays frighten, scans scare, falls break us, dreams are dashed; there is darkness, the end. In the darkness of the end, we long for hope, for peace, for love, for joy.
I remember, when I was a kid; I was about thirteen, we’d just moved to the West Coast and I can still remember it as if it was yesterday. I set off on my bicycle in search of the perfect Christmas I was as moody and emotional as any thirteen year-old could be. I was lonely, because we’d moved around so much that my only close friend was my younger brother; and what thirteen year-old girl, wants to admit that her only real friend is her eleven year-old brother. My parents were worried sick about money. We’d moved, Dad’s job was unstable and Mom’s job barely paid anything. About the only good news in my life was that I was twelve and back in those days, at twelve you were considered old enough for babysitting and babysitting meant money. Every weekend, I would babysit. Looking back on it now, I can’t believe that at thirteen, I was actually left in charge of little children. I remember getting a couple of bucks for babysitting on Friday and Saturday night; and I do mean a couple of bucks, two dollars for two nights of babysitting.
I remember, calculating that by the time Christmas arrived, I should have $27 dollars saved up. Twenty-seven dollars should be just enough to buy presents for my Mom and Dad, my brother, my aunt and uncle, and my two little cousins. I still remember heading off on my bicycle, into the bustling metropolis of Ladner. Ladner was just a small fishing village back then. There were just three stores worth looking for Christmas presents in: Perry’s Department store proved to be far too expensive for my blood. So, I headed off to the 5 and 10 store. For those of you who don’t know what a five and ten store was, just think dollar store, only back then it was the 5 and dime and you could actually get stuff for five and ten cents. I spent hours in there trying to figure out the perfect gifts for my brother and my two little cousins. I left thinking that I could take care of their gifts with about five dollars. So it was off to the drug store to figure out what to get for my Mom and Dad and Aunt and Uncle. That took another couple of hours as I agonized over the various Old Spice gift sets. I could just about afford a 3-piece set for my Dad that included saving cream, after-shave and a soap-on-a-rope. Surely my uncle would be happy with a soap-on-a-rope. Then it was a Yardly gift set for my Mom, dusting powder, perfume and soap all for about six dollars; which would leave enough left over for a small bottle of perfume for my aunt. Continue reading
It was one of those marvellous sunny days on the West Coast, when you can see the mountains rising in the distance, their snow-caps reaching up to the sky. Joan was delighted that the weather had chosen to co-operate. It had been a long hard week and a day on the beach was just what the doctor ordered. Her boys were even co-operating. Chatting away in the back seat, arguing over which one of them was going to build the biggest sandcastle. Jimmy, her eldest, considered himself quite the little builder. He approached the construction of a sand-castle with the kind of vigour that made his engineering father proud. Just six-years old and already Jimmy knew the importance of careful preparation. He was explaining to his little brother David that you have to pick just the right spot for your sandcastle. You have to make sure that you build your castle close enough to the water so that you can make the sand all mushy, but not too close, or else once the tide begins to come in, your castle will be flooded too quickly.
Joan smiled to herself. She was delighted that now that David had finally made it through the terrible twos, he and Jimmy seemed to be getting along much better. She had absolutely no idea that every word of their childish conversation would be etched into her memory for the rest of her life. She didn’t see the car that hit them. To this day, Joan has no memory of how it happened. All she can remember is Jimmy’s last agonizing cry. Little Jimmy, who in his six short years, grabbed onto life with such intensity, was killed instantly. On a beautiful sunny day on the West Coast, Joan’s world ended. Life as she had known it was over. Joan’s world ended when Jimmy died.
Karen and Bill had been working for hours on the new nursery. There wasn’t much time left. The baby was due in just eight weeks and so very much still needed to be done. But at least they had finally finished the painting and papering. They were admiring their handiwork when Karen’s water broke. In the car on the way to the hospital, Karen tried to reassure Bill. Over and over again she told Bill that lots of first babies arrive early. After 20 long hours, Michael was born. The doctors carefully explained that Michael’s spine had not developed properly. They assured Karen and Bill that he would be alright, but unfortunately, he would never be able to walk. On the morning their son was born the life that Karen and Bill had looked forward to was over. Karen and Bill’s world ended when Michael was born.
Mary loved her job. She was a high-powered executive with a company that was expanding at a phenomenal rate. She worked hard to get where she was. She poured all her energy into her work. She barely had time for a personal life, but that didn’t bother Mary. She knew there would be plenty of time for that after she had gotten where she wanted to go. Ten years and she was already playing with the big boys. She was a mover and a shaker. She loved her work and as good as she was at her job, she just didn’t see it coming. She was stunned when the announcement came. Apparently, the company had expanded a little too quickly. Bankruptcy put an end to the life that Mary loved. Mary’s world ended the day she lost her job.
I used to think that the end of the world would come in a blaze of glory. I used to think that when the world ended there would be plenty of warning. I used to think that if you paid enough attention to what was going on around you, you would be able to tell when the world was going to end. But that was before a doctor came into a room and told me that they had found a tumour that needed to be removed immediately. The end of the world came quietly without any fanfare at all. It hit me like a ton of bricks, without any warning what so ever. The world came to an end. It hardly seems fair that the world can come to an end so suddenly. I for one would have liked a little notice.
Today, the media is full of news that heralds the end of the world. There are wars and rumours of wars as explosions end the world for hundreds and thousands of people in faraway places. The world comes to an end every single day. It hardly seems fair that the world can come to an end so suddenly. When I was younger, I always wanted to know how a story ended. As a kid, I would often flip to the last chapter of a wonderful book to see just how things ended. I can still remember watching movies on TV that my father had already seen before and begging him to tell me how it all ends. Sometimes, my Dad would oblige, but more often than not he would tauntingly tell me to just watch and enjoy the movie, because it would all become clear soon enough. Continue reading
Preparing for Reformation Sunday? Some of these posts might be useful:
A Reformation Day Nailing to the Internet – John Shelby Spong
A Prayer for Reformation – Thomas Berry
Together, learning to be LOVE in the world! As we explore the connections between Progressive Christianity and the Church, Brian McLaren’s question: “What if Churches became schools of LOVE?” provides insights into the church’s task to become communities where we can learn to become the most LOVING version of ourselves. This is the last of our BRUNCHtalks for this summer. We have explored what it means to be Progressive in approach: Christ-like in action.
You can find the all the slides from the presentation for this BRUNCHtalk here
Click on the link to listen to the audio only – here
When last this text appeared in the lectionary, it was, as it is this weekend, a holiday weekend here in Ontario. So, in the midst of our relaxed worship, I decided not to preach the sermon I had written and simply spoke briefly in response to the video animation which was shown after the reading of the Gospel John 6:24-35. You can watch the video: The Stonecutter here and listen to the recording of my comments here. The sermon which I prepared but did not preach is printed below.
Following the video The Stonecutter (1960) Japanese Folklore view here
Jesus said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Food that endures for eternal life: WOW! Talk about satisfying. Who wouldn’t want some of that? Who isn’t hungry for food that does not perish but lasts for eternal life? No wonder the people cried out to Jesus. “Sir, give us some of that.” To which Jesus replied, “I AM it!” It’s clear that were not talking about ordinary food here. Jesus said to them, “I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
But isn’t hunger and thirst the very stuff of life? Isn’t hunger, thirst, desire, longing, yearning, the very thing that drives us all? Don’t we all hunger for a better, fuller, more satisfying life? Don’t we all want to feed that emptiness that lies within? Aren’t we all looking for something?
If I were to try to tell that ancient Japanese fable in our modern Canadian context what might it sound like? You’re driving along in the car, widows open, listening to some tunes thinking hey look at me, I’ve got it pretty good, when all of a sudden a guy pulls up along side of you in a beautiful in a sleek e-type jag convertible, woe! If I could afford a car like that, just think about how great it would be to pull away from all the other traffic, the wind blowing through my hair, wouldn’t that be great. Well you save your pennies and you finally get the car of your dreams, and your driving along and you see this house, not just any house, but the most beautiful house in the neighbourhood, and you know there’s just got to be a pool in the backyard, and you wonder maybe, just maybe there’s a Jacuzzi in one of the dozen or so rooms and you know that if you could come home to a place like that, well then you’d be really happy. So you work hard and you scrimp and you save and one day, you get your hearts desire and you turn the key in the lock an all of a sudden your living in the house of your dreams. But there’s the pool to clean, and the gardens to maintain, and a lot of rooms that need dusting and you see that your neighbours have a pool boy, a gardener, and a housekeeper and you know if you could only afford to hire some help then you’d be happy. You know that with just a few more bucks in your bank account you’d be happy. So, you wish and you wish and one day you win the 649 and you have millions of dollars, several beautiful cars, lots of staff to keep everything ticking over, and no one to share it with. Continue reading
My granddaughter Audrey is just four years old. A couple of weeks ago, I received a text message from Audrey’s mother Laurel about a conversation over dinner. Said four-year-old Audrey, “Who made the world?” Her mother Laurel responded, “God made the world.” To which Audrey asked, “Who is God?” Audrey’s Dad, Jeff is a lawyer responded with a marvelous answer, “God is an all-powerful spirit who is everywhere. He made everything including you.” My brilliant granddaughter Audrey took her father’s answer in her stride and just like a four-year-old does, she pushed her parents even further by asking, “Who made God?” Jeff and Laurel answered in unison, “You should really talk to Gran.”
While I chuckled with delight at my granddaughter’s ability to stump her parents, I couldn’t help hoping that they might have spared me the prospect of trying to answer the unanswerable question of the ages. Little Audrey’s line of questioning echoes the questions of all the generations that have gone before her. I suspect that her parents swerved her theological challenge to their answers in much the same way as generations of parents have, by passing the question back to the generation that went before them; perhaps hoping that there might be an inkling of an answer that they might have missed along the way. But even though as Audrey’s Gran, I have spent the better part of my adult life dwelling in Audrey’s questions about the nature of reality, when it comes to questions about who made us, and who made God, all I can really do is look back to the wisdom generated by the generations who have gone before me. Just like my granddaughter, each answer that I discover, only generates a deeper more piercing question that leaves me to cope with the MYSTERY that lies at the very heart of reality, that which is beyond every answer, beyond the beyond, and beyond that also. So, this morning as we peer back beyond the beyond, we turn our attention to a story that has been handed down from generation to generation.
Genesis, the very name of this the first book of the Torah, genesis means the beginning. But don’t let the name of this ancient book fool you into believing that it will reveal the answer to age old questions. For we know that Genesis is but the beginning of a multitude of questions. Most of us have heard the answers that have been wrestled from Genesis so many times that we have already formed opinions about the stories in Genesis based on arguments about whether or not the creation stories are literally true. I have little or no interest in such childish arguments, as our friend Dom Crossan insists, it “is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” Let’s just agree that the mythological stories contained in the book of Genesis were told to symbolize the nature of reality. Continue reading
The gospel reading prescribed for this Sunday (Mark 3:20-35) paints a daunting picture of the perceptions of the people of Jesus’ hometown. The folks who knew Jesus, including his family worried that he might just be “out of his mind.” This is indeed a contrast to the ways in which Jesus is typically portrayed. This is a dangerous Jesus who ran the risk of being perceived as deranged. In his book “The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus” Robin Meyers captures some of this danger when he points to Mary Oliver’s poem “Maybe” in which Jesus’ “melancholy madness” is seen by his fellows as more dangerous than a storm. Safely ensconced in our imaginations, Jesus is rarely allowed to threaten the status quo to which we cling for dear life. Are we prepared for the stormy waters that would be stirred up should we take Jesus at his word? Maybe…
From desert cliff and mountaintop we trace the wide design,
Strike-slip fault and overthrust and syn and anticline…
We gaze upon creation where erosion makes it known,
And count the countless aeons in the banding of the stone.
Odd, long-vanished creatures and their tracks & shells are found;
Where truth has left its sketches on the slate below the ground.
The patient stone can speak, if we but listen when it talks.
Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the rocks.
There are those who name the stars, who watch the sky by night,
Seeking out the darkest place, to better see the light.
Long ago, when torture broke the remnant of his will,
Galileo recanted, but the Earth is moving still
High above the mountaintops, where only distance bars,
The truth has left its footprints in the dust between the stars.
We may watch and study or may shudder and deny,
Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the sky.
By stem and root and branch we trace, by feather, fang and fur,
How the living things that are descend from things that were.
The moss, the kelp, the zebrafish, the very mice and flies,
These tiny, humble, wordless things — how shall they tell us lies?
We are kin to beasts; no other answer can we bring.
The truth has left its fingerprints on every living thing.
Remember, should you have to choose between them in the strife,
Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote life.
And we who listen to the stars, or walk the dusty grade
Or break the very atoms down to see how they are made,
Or study cells, or living things, seek truth with open hand.
The profoundest act of worship is to try to understand.
Deep in flower and in flesh, in star and soil and seed,
The truth has left its living word for anyone to read.
So turn and look where best you think the story is unfurled.
Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the world.
— Catherine Faber
I am indebted to Jim Kast-Keat, a pioneering preacher who inspired me to open this sermon with the video below. I am also indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong for teaching me more that I can articulate with words. His excellent book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic opened the Gospel According to John in ways that have helped me to see aspects of the Divine to which I was once blind. Much of the sermon consists of extensive quotes from chapter 9 of Jack’s book.
Readings: John Chapter 2 and John 3:1-17
Watch the video below carefully before reading or listening to the sermon the sermon below.
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So, before tackling the story of Nicodemus, I want to toss two balls into the congregation. The first ball I want to toss over here to this side of the congregation represents something all too familiar, biblical literalism. We know all too well that this particular ball has been distracting the church and most of the western world for the past few centuries. The second ball I want to toss over here to this side of the congregation represents historical biblical criticism. This particular ball is newer. It’s only been seriously tossed about for the past couple of centuries, but it is a really serious contender for our attention. But these balls have acquired a rather rhythmic bounce that tends to mesmerize us. Add to that these other balls the balls of church doctrine and theological dogma and before you know it we are so distracted that we forget what game we were trying to play in the first place as we try to keep up with the various passes made by players that have taken on a professional edge that leaves us watching from the sidelines unable to focus one of them.
None of these balls commanded the attention of the early Christians. They simply weren’t interested in taking the scriptures literally, nor were they particularly interested in the historicity of the scriptures. As for doctrine and dogma, well they were left to the professionals who only came to town on those unpleasant occasions when the league needed to ensure that it’s franchises continued to rake in enough money to keep the game on a sure footing. The scriptures, like all sacred writings, were about so much more than words scribbled on a scroll. The scriptures, like all scared writings, are about the mysteries of life. But these balls have been served up for us to play with and literalism and concerns about historical accuracy have done a magnificent job of distracting us from what really matters in these texts. Our fascination with the details of the fight-patterns of the balls that are tossed around whenever the stories in these texts play through our lives, have caused us to miss so many moon-dancing bears over the years.
Please don’t get me wrong, I love tossing these balls around and over the years I’ve learned to play ball with the best of them. But when a moon-walking bear dances onto the court, at the very least, we ought to notice the bear’s moves because the only way we’re going to learn to dance with these bears is by paying attention. Continue reading
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I cannot begin to explain to you what happened on that day in Jerusalem, without explaining to you who I am. My name is Mary and I come from the village of Magdala. You may know me as Mary Magdalene. But you have no idea who I am. There are many stories that have been told about me. Some of the things that have been said about me make my head spin. Over the years, thanks to the twisted interpretations of the men in the church that I helped to give birth to, I have gained quite a reputation for being a prostitute, a whore, an adulterer. Now I will lay claim to being a sinner and God knows I have had my share of demons, but prostitution, adultery, whore, where do people get these ideas? It seems that all you need to do is use the words sinner and woman in the same sentence and all some people can think about is sex.
Read your bibles and you will discover that, people have made me out to be something that I am not. It does not say anywhere in the New Testament that I, Mary of Magdala was ever a prostitute, the New Testament doesn’t say that, the men of the Church did that. The New Testament simply says I was a sinner who just happened to come from the city. If you insist on calling me a prostitute based on this evidence, that says more about you than it does about me.
You see, I come from a good family in Magdala. Magdala is a wealthy city on the Sea of Galilee, just south of Capernaum. My family made a lot of money in the fishing industry in Magdala. While I was growing up I lacked nothing. But I was not happy. I was sick. I would sit around the house moping and complaining and make everyone miserable. I was so distraught. Often, I was so upset that I pulled out my own hair. Sometimes I would be so excited that people couldn’t stop me from talking. I ran up all sorts of bills in the market place which my parents had to pay. I was always cooking up some mad scheme or other. I would rant and rave at the slightest provocation. From time to time I would become ill and stay in bed for weeks on end. I knew something was terribly wrong and nothing seemed to ease my anxieties. I was a prisoner inside my own mind. Then I met Jesus. Continue reading
Pentecost Sunday is a day for stories about the nearness of God. So we begin with the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11:1-9, then make our way to the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Luke’s story of the early followers of Jesus’ encounter with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21, and then the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call John’s story of Jesus’ insistence that he and God are one, before rounding off with Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s excellent children’s book God In Between.
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There’s a children’s Book that I love. I won’t tell you the name of the book because the book’s title is also the book’s ultimate meaning. I will tell you that the book is written by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who just happens to be the second woman to be ordained as a rabbi back in 1974. She is also the first rabbi to become a mother. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso brings the wisdom she has learned as a rabbi to her children’s books. As the Christian celebration of Pentecost is intimately tied to the Jewish festival of Shavout, when the Jewish people read the Book of Ruth, it seems fitting to read to you from the book of a Jewish Rabbi. Shandy Eisenberg Sasso’s story begins:
“Once there was a town at the foot of a hill with no roads and almost no windows.
Without roads the people of the town had nowhere to go, and they wondered what was on the other side of the hill.
Whenever they tried to leave their homes, they would sneeze through tall tangled weeds, tumble into deep holes and trip over rocks as large as watermelons.
Without windows they would sleep late into the day, and they often wondered when the sun turned night into morning.
Their houses were closed up like boxes sealed with tape.
They could never look out and their neighbours could never look in.
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Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. Birthday celebrations lend themselves to the telling of stories. So, we begin with a parable by the radical theologian Peter Rollins. So, sit back and try to imagine that you live not at the beginning of the 21st century but at the middle of the 21st century; say about 2050. The world has changed quite a bit. “It seems that in the future laws will be passed declaring that all those who follow the teachings of Jesus are subversive. Churches have been banned and to be a follower of Jesus is illegal. You have just been accused of being a believer. You’ve been arrested, and dragged before a court. You have been under clandestine surveillance for some time now, and so the prosecution has been able to build up quite a case against you. They begin the trial by offering the judge dozens of photographs that show you attending underground church meetings, speaking at religious events, and participating in various prayer and worship services. After this, they present a selection of items that have been confiscated from your home: religious books that you own, worship CDs, and other Christian artifacts. Then they step up the pace by displaying many of the poems, pieces of prose, and journal entries that you had lovingly written concerning your faith. Finally, in closing, the prosecution offers your Bible to the judge. This is a well-worn book with scribbles, notes, drawings, and underlinings throughout, evidence, if it were needed, that you had read and reread this sacred text many times. Throughout the case you have been sitting silently in fear and trembling. You know deep in your heart that with the large body of evidence that has been amassed by the prosecution you face the possibility of a long imprisonment or even execution. At various times throughout the proceedings you have lost all the confidence and have been on the verge of standing up and denying Christ. But while this thought has plagued your mind throughout the trial, you resist the temptation and remain focused.
Once the prosecution has finished presenting their case the judge proceeds to ask if you have anything to add, but you remain silent and resolute, terrified that if you open your mouth, even for a moment, you might deny the charges made against you. Like Christ you remain silent before your accusers. In response you are led outside to wait as the judge ponders your case. The hours pass slowly as you sit under guard in the foyer waiting to be summoned back. Eventually a young man in uniform appears and leads you into the courtroom so that you may hear the verdict and receive word of your punishment. Once you have been seated in the dock the judge, a harsh and unyielding man, enters the room, stands before you, looks deep into your eyes and begins to speak. “On the charges that have been brought forward I find the accused not guilty.”
“Not guilty?” your heart freezes. Then, in a split second, the fear and terror that had moments before threatened to strip your resolve are swallowed up by confusion and rage. Despite the surroundings, you stand defiantly before the judge and demand that he give an account concerning why you are innocent of the charges in light of the evidence. “What evidence?” asks the judge in shock.
“What about the poems and prose that I wrote?” you ask. “They simply show that you think of yourself as a poet, nothing more.” “But what about the services I spoke at, the times I wept in church and the long, sleepless nights of prayer?” “Evidence that you are a good speaker and an actor, nothing more,” replied the judge. “It is obvious that you deluded those around you, and perhaps at times you even deluded yourself, but this foolishness is not enough to convict you in a court of law.” “But this is madness!” you shout. “It would seem that no evidence would convince you!” “Not so,” replies the judge as if informing you of a great long-forgotten secret. “The court is indifferent toward your Bible reading and church attendance; it has no concern for worship with words and a pen. Continue to develop your theology, and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world. We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christlike endeavor to create a better world. So, until you live as Christ and Christ’s followers did, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then, my friend, you are no enemy of ours.” “
Rollins insists that this parable is true right here and right now. We don’t have to imagine a world were Christianity is illegal for this parable to be true. Rollins insists that: “If you or I were really to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, would we not sooner or later, find ourselves being dragged before the authorities? If we were really to live a life that reflected the subversive and radical message of love that gives a voice to the voiceless and a place to those who are displaced, if we were really to stand up against systemic oppression perpetrated by those in power, then would we not find ourselves on the wrong side of the lawmakers?” Continue reading
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I am currently enjoying a continuing education leave in Belfast, Northern Ireland and so, it seems only right that I should begin by telling an Irish story. This particular story comes from the Irish author Frank McCourt. Some of you will be familiar with his most famous book, Angela’s Ashes. But this story comes from his autobiographical book entitled “Tis” McCourt was a school teacher and he tells this story about a particular class in which he was challenging the assumptions of his young students.
The story begins with a familiar nursery rhyme: “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; All the king’s horses And all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
McCourt asks his young students to tell him what’s going on in this nursery rhymed. The hands are up like a shot. “Well, like, this egg falls off the wall and if you study biology or physics you know you can never put an egg back together again. I mean, like, it’s common sense.
McCourt asks: “Who says it’s an egg?”
“Of course, it’s an egg. Everyone knows that.
Where does it say it’s an egg?
They’re thinking. They’re searching the text for egg, any mention, any hint of egg. They won’t give in. There are more hands and indignant assertions of egg. All their lives they knew this rhyme and there was never a doubt that Humpty Dumpty was an egg. They’re comfortable with the idea of egg and why do teachers have to come along and destroy everything with all this analysis.
“I’m not destroying,” insists McCourt, “I just want to know where you got the idea that Humpty Dumpty is an egg?”
“Because,” Mr. McCourt, “it’s in all the pictures and whoever drew the first picture musta known the guy who wrote the poem or he’d never have made it an egg.”
“All right.” Says McCourt: “If you’re content with the idea of egg we’ll let it be, but I know the future lawyers in this class with never accept egg where there is no evidence of egg.”
The story of Humpty Dumpty and the missing egg has a great deal in common with the story of Jesus and the missing sacrifice for sin. When it comes to the written word, we tend to see what we’ve been conditioned to see. Today’s gospel text is a good example of our seeing and reading into the text things that are not there. The gospel of John was written at the end of the first century; at least one possibly two generations after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We know that the gospel of John is not what we 21stcentury dwellers would call history. We know the story-teller that we call John wrote his interpretations of the Jesus experience to address the needs of his community who were struggling under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. We know that the gospel storyteller that we call John relied heavily upon the stories, myths and history of the Hebrews to convey the magnitude of the impact Jesus life, death, and resurrection had on the small band of followers of Jesus, who were struggling to survive in very troubled times. Continue reading
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 scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest 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! Continue reading