He was screaming at me like some kind of lunatic. Clearly, he was furious with me. His face was beet red. He kept jabbing the air in front of my face with his index finger. The veins in his neck were raised and throbbing. He kept going on and on and on and on about how wrong I was. I tried to calm him down, but he could no longer hear anything I was saying. He was so inflamed by my original statement that nothing I could say or do short of falling to my knees and begging his forgiveness for having been so wicked would suffice. So, I just stood there, hoping that eventually he would wear himself out and quiet down long enough for us to agree to disagree. But his enthusiasm for his cause was stronger than I’d anticipated. He knew that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life and that NO ONE, NO ONE, NO matter who they are, or how good they may be, NO ONE COMES TO THE FATHER EXCEPT THORUGH JESUS CHIRST, WHO IS THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AN DTHE LIFE! The sooner I confessed Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and quit trying to figure out ways to get people into heaven through the back door the better off I would be. Furthermore, unless I was willing to confess the error of my ways, then I had no business calling myself a Christian, because I was clearly damned to hell.
I can still see the anger and hatred in my old friend’s face. Anger that seemed so out of place. We were on retreat in the mountains of British Columbia. We had just listened to a sermon about the Many Mansions that God has prepared for the people of the world. Not surprisingly my friend took exception to the preacher’s emphasis on God’s different ways of including the different people of the world into God’s Reign. Over lunch we argued about just what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. NO one comes to the Father except through me.” My friend it seems had all the answers. Those who did not accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior will never be acceptable in the sight of God, they will never be included in the Kingdom of God, for indeed they are damned to hell!
I could not accept that a loving and gracious God could be so cruel. So, I walked away from my friend and his theology. I ignored Jesus’ words about how to get to the Father and focused on God’s many mansions. After all, the Bible is full of contradictions and to some problems you just must admit that there are no answers.
That method worked for me for quite awhile. Then one day, while I was studying for an under-graduate degree in Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia, I was confronted once again by Jesus’ words. Words I believed to be incompatible with the gospel of grace and mercy. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I was studying the history of inter-faith dialogue. Our class was made up of Hindu’s, Muslims, Jews, Taoists, Sikhs, and one lonely Buddhist. Together, we discussed the problems that have happened down through the centuries when people of different faiths encounter one another. One day we were given a particular assignment. We were teamed up with a member of another faith tradition and asked to bring to the table a piece of sacred scripture from our partner’s faith tradition that we found intriguing. Of course, that meant that we had to read the sacred scriptures of another tradition.Continue reading →
Way back when I first began going to church, I had one of those bibles…and I dare say many of you have probably had one too…I had a red-letter bible. For those of you who’ve never had one, a red-letter bible is a bible where all the words of Jesus are printed in red and for a long time I actually believed that if it was printed in red, then Jesus actually must have said it and there are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of Christians who still believe that if they are printed in red they are the actually words of Jesus.
When I first began reading the New Testament, many of those red-letter words were difficult to read. The 14th chapter of the Gospel according to John was just one of the many texts that I read with great trepidation. “I am the way, the truth and the life no one comes to the Father except through me.” These particular words in red led me to believe that my family and most of the people I loved, were doomed, because they didn’t believe in Jesus. So, you can imagine my delight when I went to a young adults’ retreat and one of the pastors told us that just because words are printed in red, it doesn’t mean that Jesus actually said those words. I remember going back to my home parish and asking my pastor why he never told us about the things he was taught at the seminary about the words of Jesus and I can still hear him answering, “Most laypeople aren’t ready to hear that. It would destroy their faith.”
It’s an old argument amongst the clergy. It’s as if some of, “them” whoever “they” are, believe that the world as they know it will come to an end as they know it if they were to let lay-people in on the secrets of the trade. Should we or should we not teach laypeople about the historical critical methods that we all learned in seminary. When I say we all learned, I’m talking about the vast majority of clergy from the mainline denominations, like the Lutheran church, the Anglicans, the United Church, Mennonites, even Roman Catholics, and I dare say more than a few Baptists. We all learn the historical critical methods that academic scholars have been perfecting over the years. But the sad truth is that very few of us actually teach the historical critical methods that we have learned when we get into the parish. Many of my colleagues still argue that either laypeople aren’t ready to hear it, or that they don’t want to hear it. Either way, they’re not about to start preaching it from the pulpit and run the risk of destroying people’s faith. Besides, the folks who clearly don’t want to hear any of it just might run them out of town.
I’ve never really understood this attitude. I think perhaps the fact that as a layperson I was relieved to hear that Jesus didn’t actually say all the stuff that’s printed in red. So, from the beginning, I’ve always tried to teach the historical critical methods that I have learned to apply to my own study of the bible.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 →
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.
I did not know her. She had been calling the church for years and I had been responding to her calls for help for, I’d say about three years. But I did not know her. She was just another woman down on her luck who needed help to buy food for her family. She would call, almost every other week and because she did not have transportation, I would drive over to whatever hovel she and her two boys were living in. But I did not know her. She was just another woman who couldn’t seem to get her act together and so she relied on hand-outs from the church to supplement her social assistance. Whenever I went over to wherever it was that she was living, she would always invite me in and I would always agree, but just for a moment, I’d tell her I was very busy and I had other places to go and other people to see. But the truth is, the places where she managed to find shelter always smelled so band and I usually just wanted to be on my way so that I could escape the odors that permeated the filthy apartments in musty basements. Her various homes were so depressing that I could not bear to sit down. She would always offer me tea and I would always politely refuse, claiming that I’d just had a cup, thank-you very much. I did not know her.
I suppose I did not want to know her. Maybe I’ve met too many women just like her. Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe the thought of becoming immersed in the sinkhole of sadness that is her life was just too much to bear. So, I’d just smile and give her a handout. I’d learned a long time ago not to ask too many questions; her problems were more than our meager resources could handle. I’ve been down that road before, so I’d hand over the grocery vouchers and indulge in some small-talk. I did not know her. I did not want to know her.Continue reading →
There was a commercial that a while back on the TV and each time it came on, I couldn’t help myself, it made me smile and if I let myself, it made me laugh. It was 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 the DIVINE is delightfully refreshing.
I must confess that I don’t spend much time laughing with God. Listen to this quote from the writings of St. Teresa: “Just these two words God spoke changed my life, “Enjoy Me.” “What a burden I thought I was to carry—a crucifix, as did Christ. “Love” which is Teresa’s name for God. “Love once said to me, ‘I know a song would you like to hear it?’ And laughter came from every brick in the street and from every pore in the sky. After a night of prayer, God changed my life when God sang, “Enjoy Me.” Enjoy Me. What a different place the world would be if we could only hear God beseeching us, “Enjoy Me.”
We are a serious lot we Christians. Duty, responsibility, guilt, and consternation have left us precious little time to “Enjoy!” We’ve got things to do, stuff to learn, values to instill and standards to uphold, so we’ve put enjoyment on the back-burner. After all, God is far too high and mighty to be trifling with, we daren’t laugh in the presence of our God. And yet, God continues to tickle us. Over and over again, with the most absurd wonders, and we can’t help ourselves, but smile. Creation is so full of laughs. Life is so funny! And church, I mean, whenever I think of the ridiculous things we get up to in church, well its enough to make you laugh until you cry. So to those of you who insist upon personifying our Creator, don’t you try to tell me that the Creator of all that is or ever shall be, the one who is responsible for creating humour itself, doesn’t just roar with laughter at the stuff that we get up to. So, isn’t it just possible that when it comes to laughing babies, God has plenty of scope for delighting in us? Surely, laughter is one of the most sublime forms of prayer? We ought to lighten up and enjoy our time with God. Cause lord knows, serious people are all well and good but who wants to spend time with a bunch of folks who can’t enjoy a joke.
So with that said, let’s turn to this mornings Gospel reading. This story is a real tickler! But in order to get the jokes, you’ve got to know some of the stuff the insiders knew. It’s a bit like trying to understand British humour, sometimes you don’t quite get the joke, if you don’t know something about life in Britain. The Gospel of John is full of stories that play on the local humour of Palestine in the first century. This story, about the Woman at the Well is full of double en-ton-dras. Indeed, this story is so outrageous that when the powers that be were sitting around deciding which books would make it into the New Testament, The Gospel of John almost didn’t make the cut. This story was far too racy and I mean racy in both senses of the word, this story was about race and it was far too risqué for the likeings of the religious authorities who were functioning as the thought police for the early church. So, sit back and allow yourselves to be tickled as I let you in on the jokes. Continue reading →
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.
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 →
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. Continue reading →
Like most people my age, I remember the days when families had only one television set and when I was just a kid, it was a black and white television. When I was eleven or twelve, we got one of those new-fangled colour TV sets. Back then kids functioned as remote controls; Mom and Dad decided what we watched. How else would I have seen all those grainy black and white documentaries? My parents were hooked on history and as a result my brother and I were introduced to some pretty incredible characters by way of those old grainy black and white films Many of the documentaries were about the majesty of the British Empire that dominated much of the world in those old grainy days. I can still remember being impressed by a little man, wearing what looked like a diaper and causing quite a commotion wandering around Britain and talking about home rule. I remember how excited my father was when the film showed this little fellow Gandhi talking to some striking Welsh miners, encouraging them in their fight against the mine-owners. It was the beginning of a long love affair with a giant of a man.
Back then, I loved reading biographies so the next time I was in the library I picked up three biographies about Gandhi and I’ve continued to read and watch whatever I can get my hands on about the life and teachings of Mohandis K. Gandhi. It was reading about Gandhi that caused me to take my first serious look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Up until then, I didn’t know much about the teachings of Jesus. We didn’t go to church, so what I knew about Jesus I’d picked up by osmosis; growing up in a Christian culture meant, I knew who Jesus was, but very little of what he taught. But reading about Gandhi, I discovered just how much of an influence Jesus had been on Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. I knew that Gandhi’s methods had brought the British Empire to its knees, so I began to wonder about Jesus’ methods. You’ve got to remember when I was a kid, the Vietnam war was raging and the world was under constant threat of mutual annihilation as the American and Soviet empires threatened to blow us all into oblivion. Non-violence was more than just an intriguing idea; back then non-violence sounded like a life-line.
And so it was, that my interest in the life and teachings of a non-violent revolutionary from India, sent me scurrying to find the little Bible that I’d received as a gift from the Gideons when I was in grade five so that I could read Jesus’ sermon on the mount. I’d read that Gandhi had said that, if all he knew of Christianity was the Sermon on the Mount he himself would be a Christian. I had been told that we were Christians, but other than Christmas and Easter, I had no real evidence of my Christianity.
It has been said that Gandhi read both the Sermon on the Mount and Chapter Two of the Bhagavad Gita every day. He is reported to have said that “Much of what passes for Christianity today is a negation of the sermon on the Mount.” Gandhi asked, “Isn’t it is more important to do what Jesus wants us to do than to call him “Lord, Lord?”
As a faithful Hindu, Gandhi was unwilling to accept Christian dogma, but in Jesus, Gandhi recognized a great prophet; a prophet who pointed beyond himself to a world in which non-violence was more than just a dream, non-violence was necessary in order that men and women could live together in peace in order that they might live in union with God. In the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi discovered something that those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus so often miss or deny. The church, the very institution that Jesus’ teachings gave rise to, has for centuries left the salt out of Jesus’ teachings and offered up a flavorless dogmatic dish aimed at pleasing the palates of the powers of Empire to which it has been tied for centuries. As a result, the followers of Jesus all too often forget Jesus call to be the salt of the earth. Sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of the treasures we possess.Continue reading →
Most 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. Continue reading →
When I was in my early twenties, I grew weary of sharing space and I decided that I wanted an apartment all to myself, despite the fact that I couldn’t really afford an apartment all to myself. But I was determined and that’s how I ended up living in a very rough neighborhood in the east end of Vancouver. My parents weren’t’ very happy about the neighbourhood and worried about the unsavory characters that lived in the run-down building where I found a spacious one bedroom apartment that I could just about afford. The apartment was just a couple of blocks away from the office where I worked, so I was able to walk to work. I ignored all the warnings of my family and friends and I convinced myself that I could handle anything that came my way.
In my heart of hearts I was rather pleased to be living in such a poor rough and tumble neighbourhood. I was young and foolish and the neighbourhood was exciting. Every Sunday I would make the trip back to my home church in the suburbs. Sometimes I would make a second trip out during the week to attend a Bible study. Like so many young people, I was harsh in my criticisms of the elaborate life-styles of my elders. At bible studies, I was always bringing up the plight of the poor and the oppressed and challenging people to do something. Various members of my own family often accused me of being a bleeding heart liberal. I wore their criticism with a certain amount of pride, convinced that I was living out my beliefs.
Although I walked to work each day, I didn’t know any of my neighbours, until one morning I was surprised by a knock on my apartment door. I wondered how anyone would get past the lock on the front door. So, I peered through the peephole and was relieved when I saw a young woman at my door. I unbolted the door and in swept Brenda. Brenda was all smiles and laughter as she explained that she and her roommates were out of coffee and she wondered if I might be able to lend them some coffee. When I explained that I had just used up the last of my coffee making my own morning brew, Brenda told me not to worry, she and her roommates would be happy to join me. When Brenda returned, she introduced her roommates, Janice and Sue and we all sat down together for our morning coffee. Continue reading →
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 ever 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. Continue reading →
Wading into the waters of baptism is no simple matter for a progressive Christian. Once you leave the myth of perfection in some distant garden back there in the mists of time, reject the notion of humanity’s fall from grace as a result of original sin, and give up worshipping the sadistic image of a god who demands a blood sacrifice, it’s difficult to navigate the waters of baptism without spouting notions that the institutional church condemns as heresy. But today is the day when the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the stories about the baptism of Jesus that have been handed down to us by our ancestors suggest that on this day of all days, we should have the courage to follow Jesus into the river of life even if it does challenge some of our long held assumptions about what it means to be a child of God.
I venture into these troubled waters as someone who treasures the sacrament of baptism. Long before I ever entertained the idea that I might one day respond to the call to become a baptizer, I became a lover of this particular sacrament of the church. I am now, and I have always been one of those people who find it almost impossible not to shed a tear or two at baptisms. The beauty of all that hope and expectation all wrapped up in the guise of a tiny little human has a way of generating in me a watery contribution as my tears join the sprinkling to wet the babies head. When the baptized is an adult my tears flow even more bountifully. Let’s face it folks these days the reality is that infant baptisms are rare enough. Adult baptisms, especially in mainline churches are so rare that the nostalgia alone is enough to send us into spasms of uncontrollable weeping for seer joy at the thought that it is even remotely possible that someone has been able to see beyond the church’s doctrine long enough to embrace the amazing possibilities of the sacrament to provide any benefit in this the twenty-first century.
When we look back to the stories told in the synoptic gospels about the baptism of Jesus we are sometimes so distracted by the opening of the heavens, the descent of the dove and the voice of God declaring Jesus to be the beloved, that we miss an important detail of the way in which the early followers of the Way chose to tell the story of Jesus public coming out party. New Testament scholars remind us that the stories told by the writers of the gospels were written at the end of the first century; a time when it would have been clear to all those who had ears to hear, that by going down to the river Jordan to be baptized by John would have stirred up the political and religious waters. John the Baptist was a revolutionary who made no bones about the fact that the religious authorities and the political rulers were leading the people down the wrong path. John’s shouting in the wilderness was his way of warning the people to repent; to literally turn around and follow a different path. John was doing far more than ranting when he condemned the religious authorities as a brood of vipers; he was calling on the people to reject the teachings of the authorities. John’s insistence on repentance was a call to revolution, a revolution designed to overthrow the status quo. John was out there in the wilderness because it wasn’t safe for him to spout his own particular brand of incendiary fire and brimstone rhetoric within earshot of the authorities. By going down to the River Jordon and submitting to John’s baptism of repentance Jesus was choosing to identify himself with a political revolutionary.
That the writers of the gospels chose to tell there story in ways that see the God of Israel give Jesus a shout out, and the very spirit of God descending like a dove onto the shoulders of Jesus, turns John’s baptism of repentance into a kind of passing of the torch from one revolutionary to the next. Yet, despite the gospel-writers having cast Jesus into the role of revolutionary torchbearer none of the gospel writers shows Jesus following the ways of his predecessor John. There is no record of Jesus calling people to repent nor is there any record of Jesus ever having baptized anyone. All we have is Jesus “Great Commission” which if New Testament scholars are to be believed, Jesus probably never even said, “go therefore and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, it’s true, most preachers, dare I say modern-day baptizers, learned in seminary that rather than being an instruction given by Jesus the Great Commission was actually added to the story by the early followers of Jesus. But I digress, the point I’d like to emphasize about Jesus’ trip down to the waters of the Jordan, is that by choosing to publicly submit to John’s baptism, Jesus was making an important statement about his own public ministry. For just like John, Jesus intended to challenge the religious and political authorities.
That the gospel writers have Jesus head off into the wilderness to find his own way prepares us to follow Jesus down a completely different path than the one his predecessor John pointed toward.
So on a day, when the church looks back upon the baptism of Jesus, surely we can take courage from Jesus’ example of wandering off into the wilderness to find our own way of challenging the religious authorities of our day.Continue reading →
The art of blessing is often neglected. The birth of a New Year calls forth the desire in us to bestow a blessing upon those we love. Several years ago, John O”Donohue, one of my favorite Irish poet’s created a New Year’s blessing for his mother entitled Beannacht-for Josie. It is a blessing of superior quality. And so, on this New Year’s Eve, may you all receive this beannacht with my added blessing for a peace-filled New Year in which the God in whom all of creation is held, might find full expression in your miraculous life!
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we try to reach beyond the lectionary to the folks who won’t make it to church on Christmas Eve or on Christmas morning by forgoing the prescribed readings in favour of reading the entire Birth Narrative.
Click on these links to find sermons I have preached on Advent 4. They may also inspire some Christmas reflections.
A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent: all around us the world is hustling and bustling toward Christmas. With less and less time devoted to the telling of the Christmas story, perhaps we in the Church might consider changing the lectionary so as to provide more opportunities to engage the birth narrative in Matthew. Advent 3 is a perfect opportunity to substitute two readings into the lectionary. Here’s what happened when we tried this:
Readings Matthew 1:1-17 and Matthew 1:18-24
Listen to the sermon here
It has been said that the shortest distance between humanity and the truth is a story. I would add that, the truth we find in a story teaches about our humanity. So, as we seek to embrace our humanity we would do well to pay close attention to the stories we tell. The unknown writer of the Gospel according to Matthew had a great story to tell and in order to get to the truth of who and what the man Jesus was, he chose a particular way to tell the story so that all those who heard the story would know the truth of who Jesus is in the grand scheme of humanity’s story. Sadly over the centuries that have elapsed since this story was first told have seen the tellers and listeners of this story haggle over the truth. Some have forgotten the power of story to bridge the gap between humanity and truth, and they have insisted that the truth will be found in the absolute accuracy of each and every detail. Fortunately, many more have remembered that stories are just that, they are stories and while we know that events did not actually happen in they way they are told, they happen just that way all the time.
So, as we begin in the beginning of the Gospel, the Good News according to Matthew, let me remind you that we know that the story of Jesus birth did not happen the way it is told in the story, and we know that birth is always happening this way. For the writer of the Gospel according to Matthew was a skilled storyteller and he wrapped the story of Jesus of Nazareth in the stories of his ancestors. Written in the style of his own ancestors the gospel-writer begins his story, with the same words that every one of his listeners would have remembered from the sacred book of Genesis which begins, “In the beginning”. A sort of once upon a time, if you will, the gospel-writer begins with, the genesis of Jesus the Messiah and then proceeds to connect Jesus to the ancestors of the Jewish faith, will making sure that the truth of Jesus’ connection to those outside the faith will also be made clear.
The gospel-writer’s inclusion of the women who Bishop John Shelby has dubbed the “shady ladies” would have alerted Jewish listeners that Jesus is a different kind of Messiah; a Messiah who will transcend race, creed, or clan. Rahab, who was a Canaanite; a foreigner, was known as the mother of Israel for saving Joshua in Canaan, just happened to run a brothel there. Tamar, also a foreigner, was married to Judah’s son who according to Genesis is killed by God, and as was the custom his younger brother married her to ensure that his older brother’s name would be carried on. When that son dies, Tamar is left a childless widow, a fate worse than death in a patriarchal culture. Tamar is known for impersonating a prostitute to trick Judah into knowing her, in the biblical sense of the verb to know, so that her father-in-law could impregnate her.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 was preached at Holy Cross Lutheran November 28, 2010, sadly racism continues to live on in ways that threaten so many lives and the question of this sermon seems even more urgent today. 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. Continue reading →
“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 Season of Advent, I can’t help wondering why the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL: the list of prescribed readings for Sunday worship) have failed to remember the stories and names of our foremothers? John the Baptist will strut across the stage again in this Sunday in churches all over the planet. We are about to begin a new cycle in the RCL. In what is know as “Year A”, the lectionary Gospel readings will focus upon readings from the Gospel according to Matthew. But followers of the RCL will not hear the names of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, or Bathsheba; no, not even Mary will put in an appearance despite the fact that all of these women are mentioned in the very first chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew! Last year was the same even though the RCL focussed upon 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!”
As this is the year of Matthew, why not invite onto centre stage those “Shady Ladies” from Matthew Chapter 1: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, verses 1-17 make an excellent reading! John Shelby Spong is an excellent resource, you can find a transcript of his excellent sermon here. At Holy Cross we will use Matthew 1:1-17 as our first reading and Matthew 18-24 as our Gospel reading. This will allow us to usher Mary onto centre stage. Then on the Fourth Sunday of Advent we will switch over to the Gospel according to Luke for all three readings: First Reading – Luke 1:26-38, Second Reading – Luke 1:39-45, Gospel Reading – 1:46-59.
I am forever hearing people despair about biblical illiteracy as clergy and church-insiders bemoan the collective forgetfulness of our culture. I suspect that the snippets of readings that we hear year after year may be a factor in the gaps of our collective memory when it comes to the women of the New Testament. Let this Advent be different. Invite the women of the gospels onto the stage. John the Baptist will be happy out there in the wilderness until his feast day in June!