As is our custom, during the season of Advent we journey into the darkness so that we might seek the Light. Together, in that sacred darkness we hear the voice of the one who cries to us from the wilderness. John the Baptist strides across the Advent stage to point us toward the One who is, was, and evermore shall be the Light. Each of the four Gospels highlights the plaintiff cries of this strange, wildman who shouts to us from the wilderness, which inhabits the darkest recesses of our collective consciences. According to the gospel storytellers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John this harbinger cries out warning everyone to repent, to turn around, to prepare the way for the One who is coming into our midst.
No one knows who wrote the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We can say that Jesus’ disciples did not write them. The names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were given to the books long after they were written. Scholars tell us that the gospel known as Mark is the oldest, written sometime after the year 70, Matthew and Luke are dated somewhere between 80 and 90, and the Gospel according to John was written anywhere between 90 and 120. Last week I told you about the horrific context in which these gospels were written. The Romans were waging a full-blooded campaign against the Jewish people. Between the years, 66 and 73, then between 115 and 117, and finally, between 132 and 136 war between Roman and the Jewish people raged in what Rome called the Bellum Judaicum, “the Jewish War.” The scale of destruction was staggering. According to the history books millions of Jews were killed, Judea and Galilee were laid to waste and Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean were attacked en masse. Some historians have gone so far as to label the Jewish War “the first Holocaust”. Rome perpetrated violence upon the Jewish people because the Jews refused to submit to Roman ways. The Jewish people refused to worship Roman gods, claiming YAHWEH is the one, true God, and refusing to worship the various caesars and longing for a Messiah the likes of David to save them from their Roman over-lords.
In the midst of this terrible darkness the gospel storytellers crafted their stories of one such Messiah. During this darkness, the carnage would have been omnipresent. Historians tell us that thousands of men hung on crosses and untold numbers of women were raped and forced into slavery, while a multitude of infants whose bodies were torn apart were left to rot so as to terrorize the people. Rome was just being Rome, demanding total submission of a people who refused to submit. This standoff reached a climax when in May of the year 70 the Roman’s responded to a particular Jewish uprising with the destruction of the Temple and the raising to the ground of most of Jerusalem. The Temple was the very heart of Judaism; both the religious center of Jewish worship and the cultural center of the Jewish people. It was an apocalypse the likes of which would haunt the telling of the story of Jesus forever. All four of the gospels which have been handed down to us as canon were written in the midst of this apocalypse and born of the pain of YAHWEH’s people. The Temple dominates the story of Jesus because the Temple had been destroyed by Rome when the gospels were born.Continue reading →
While the world out there is caught up in the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, we here in the church embrace the season of Advent. Our Advent worship invites us to slow down so that we can take a journey into the darkness. Last week, I talked about the importance of darkness in the birthing process; for the seed needs the darkness of the earth to germinate and grow just as surely as we humans need the darkness of the womb to develop. So, as we prepare ourselves to give birth to the Christ, I invite you into the darkness precisely because in the darkness gestation happens and gestation gives rise to birth.
This Advent, our liturgy’s lectionary, the prescribed readings for worship in most mainline congregations, turns to the Gospel According to Mark. All year long, except for a few Sunday’s a reading is selected from the Gospel according to Mark. The Gospel of Mark was written in the darkness. We don’t know who wrote the Gospel of Mark. Tradition did what tradition often does and this writing was attributed to Mark because it was customary for important writings to be attributed to an important person. The technical term for this is pseudepigrapha; a fancy way of describing the ancient practice of attaching the name of an important person to a piece of writing to ensure that that piece of writing garners some of the respect the name has acquired over the years. That’s why even though the four gospels were written long after the disciples of Jesus were around, each of these gospels bears the name of an Apostle. The gospels were not written by the disciples of Jesus. Scholars tell us that the Gospel according to Mark was written sometime after the year 70. That’s at least 40 years after the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth.Continue reading →
Holy Week marks a sharp uptick in visitors to this blog. In comments, messages, and emails I hear from fellow preachers who, like me, are daunted by the task of preparing the Good Friday sermon. That task is even more daunting for those of us who serve progressive communities. My fellow progressive-christian-preachers tell me of the dearth of progressive-christian Good Friday sermons to be found on the internet and encourage me to re-post my own attempts to rise to the occasion. So, here are the links to some of the Good Friday sermons I have preached over the years of my journey with the progressive community that I serve. The people Holy Cross Lutheran Church have over the years provided an invigorating space for me to pursue my questions. They have also provided the resources which make this blog possible. So, if you find the work posted here of value to you and your community, please consider supporting this ministry of Holy Cross. I rarely solicit donations. But Holy Cross is a small community that continues to give to others in so many ways and your encouragement is greatly appreciated!!! (Holy Cross Lutheran Church, 1035 Wayne Dr., Newmarket, On. L3Y 1N3)
Follow the links to Good Friday sermons and feel free to use/adapt/repost
2016 I’m still working on getting my body out of the tomb in which it was laid all those years ago. – reflecting on everyday crucifixions click here
2015 Not Salvation! Solidarity and Transformation click here
Holy Week marks a sharp uptick in visitors to this blog. From comments, messages, and emails I hear from fellow preachers who, like me, are daunted by the task of preparing the Good Friday sermon. That task is even more daunting for those of us who serve progressive communities. My fellow progressive-christian-preachers tell me of the dearth of progressive-christian Good Friday sermons to be found on the internet and encourage me to re-post my own attempts to rise to the occasion. So, here are the links to some of the Good Friday sermons I have preached over the years of my journey with the progressive community which I serve. The people Holy Cross Lutheran Church has over the years provided an invigorating space for me to pursue my questions. They have also provided the resources which make this blog possible. So, if you find the work posted here of value to you and your community, please consider supporting this ministry of Holy Cross. I rarely solicit donations. But Holy Cross is a small community that continues to give to others in so many ways and your encouragement is greatly appreciated!!! (Holy Cross Lutheran Church, 1035 Wayne Dr., Newmarket, On. L3Y 1N3)
Follow the links to Good Friday sermons and feel free to use/adapt/repost
2015 Not Salvation! Solidarity and Transformation click here
According to the American novelist, Joyce Carol Oates: “Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions.” Following last year’s Maundy Thursday worship, I received a very rude reminder of our all too human habit of investing passion and authority in invented symbols. Our efforts to remember the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth are bolstered year after year, decade after decade, century after century by the symbols we followers of the Way have invented and invested with passion and authority. So, after our regular Maundy Thursday ritual of removing invented symbols from the sanctuary, I went looking for our own sacred Good Friday symbol. Each Maundy Thursday, we followers of the Way get together to remember Jesus by focusing upon the symbols which represent to us the events of the night before Jesus died, when he gathered his followers together to eat the Passover meal. At that supper Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it and the rest as they say is history. Our Maundy Thursday Eucharist is packed with symbols, from the hand-basins in which we ritually wash one another to remember Jesus washing of his followers feet, bread and wine which we ritually consume as Christ given and poured out for us, to the ritual stripping of the sanctuary of all of the symbols in which we have invested passion and authority, in our efforts to re-member Jesus.
The rituals of Maundy Thursday prepare us for the rituals of Good Friday and so after our worship, I went downstairs to venture into the cupboard under the stairs to retrieve the stark symbols of this congregation’s Good Friday rituals. It is the same every year, a rough-hewn cross, fashioned out of the trunk of a Christmas tree that once adorned this sanctuary. A Christmas tree – evergreen, a symbol in which we invest our passion for everlasting life, stripped of it’s branches so that only the trunk remains and then cut so that the top section can be lashed with twin to the main section to fashion a cross of sorts. A rough-hewn cross in which we invest our passion for what we have come to call the passion of Christ. Each year, once the sanctuary is stripped of all the symbols which we have invented to facilitate our ritual remembering, I journey down beneath the stairs to retrieve our rough-hewn cross to facilitate our Good Friday remembering. This year, I had designed our remembering ritual, so that we could pay particular attention to our rough-hewn cross. This sermon was built around an exercise of re-membering which I hoped would help us to participate in the very act for which symbols are invented. Symbols are created to point beyond themselves, to direct our focus to that which lies beyond the symbol. This year, my Lenten sermons had focused on a definition of Divinity which describes God as beyond the beyond and beyond that also. So, this Good Friday sermon was written to use our rough-hewn cross to examine the work of the cross in the lives of the followers of Jesus, so that we might see beyond the symbol to the One who is beyond the beyond and beyond that also. I planned to place the rough-hewn cross here on the floor of the sanctuary, right in the middle of our circle so that as the Gospel according to John’s symbolic narrative, which has become known as the Passion Narrative, was read you could gaze upon our rough hewn cross and as my sermon began I would literally and figuratively take apart our invented symbol so that we might peer beyond it. I planned to sit here in the midst of you and unlash the vine that held our rough-hewn cross together and as I untied the vine, I would do my level best to untie the bonds that our religious tradition have placed upon the symbol of the cross and perhaps encourage you to question the passion and authority which is all too often invested in this invent symbol of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Then with dramatic flare, I planned to put it back together again. As I used the old Christmas tree trunk to pull together our history and tradition, and the withered vine to lash our troubled attempts to remember back into the form of the cross in the hope that we might see the cross from the perspective of the 21st century followers of the way which on this day of days we struggle to be.Continue reading →
In this sermon, I attempt a method of interpretation which places one story beside another in order to reveal the sacred. The modern legend of Joshua Bell playing Bach in the subway told alongside the story of the baptism of Jesus provides epiphanies about the sacred in the other and begs questions about the way in which we tell our stories. This sermon was preached last year in the wake of tragic events in Paris. Listen to the sermon here
In April of 2007 an article appeared in the Washington Post, which earned its author, Gene Weingarten, a self-described “heathen” a Pulitzer Prize. The story went virile and over the years I have read and heard all sorts of sermons that include a version of the story loosely based on Weingarten’s article. For reasons, which I hope, will become clear, I’d like to quote Weingarten’s article without any of the usual embellishments.
“HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L’ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play. It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant. Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?
On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend? The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls. The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant.
The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician’s masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang — ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.”
Some of you may recognize this article and those of you who do will know that the violinist was Joshua Bell. In the course of his article, Weingarten goes on to describe the complexity and the beauty of the 6 classical pieces that the virtuoso Bell played, which included masterpieces from Bach, Massenet, Schubert, Ponce, and Mendelssohn. What happened in the Washington Metro station is the stuff that legends are made of. If you read or hear this story from the 169,000 posts on the web, you will read a fairly consistent tale, which lends itself well to repetition and is the stuff great sermons are made of. However, in the retelling of this story, the details have been exaggerated in order to make a point.
There is a video of the events, which took place, so the facts can be checked. But when have we ever let facts get in the way of a good story; especially when we are trying to make a moral point. In the popular version of this story, the greatest violinist on the planet, played for 45 minutes and thousands and thousands of busy rush hour commuters passed by without paying any notice what so ever, except for one middle aged man, who slowed down and paused for just 6 seconds, later a women threw a dollar in Bell’s violin case. The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year-old boy. His mother dragged him along, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head al the time. This action was repeated by several children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on. In the 45 minutes that Bell played, only 6 people stopped and paid any attention, 20 tossed money as they hurried by. No One applauded and no one recognized Joshua bell.
These are the details of this popular myth. However, the Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize winning article and the videotape tell a more modest story. Exactly 1,097 people passed by, not thousands and thousands. Several people stopped and paid quite a bit of attention; one woman was heard to say that she really didn’t want to leave. As for the child, he managed to delay his mother for only 3 seconds, no other children appear on the video to take any notice and Joshua Bell was in fact recognized by a woman who couldn’t believe her good fortune and waited around until Bell’s magnificent performance was over to introduce herself to Bell before placing a twenty-dollar bill in his violin case. For his virtuoso performance Joshua Bell earned a grand total of $52.17 and a legend was born. Despite the exaggerated details in this legend, the essence of truth remains: One of the greatest violin players alive today, played some of the best music ever written, on one of the best violins in the world, and most of the people who where there that day never even noticed.
When I read the stories about the Baptism of Jesus, I get the impression that something similar has happened to this myth. The fantastic details as they are told by the gospel-story-teller known to us as Mark are pretty incredible. I don’t mean the characterization of John the Baptizer who is described as wearing camels’ hair and a leather belt around his waist, and who ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. According to the gospel-story-teller we know as Mark, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by this wild-baptizer John. Immediately upon coming out of the, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favour rests.”Continue reading →
I have just completed reading James Carroll’s latest book “Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age” for the second time. I know that I will read it many more times as I continue my own work of articulating an understanding of Jesus for the 21 century. Carroll’s way of exploring Christianity has always been enlightening and refreshing because he has the courage to question the tradition from the vantage point of someone who has lived the tradition with passion. Carroll is former Roman Catholic priest who now serves as Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University and is a columnist for The Boston Globe, whose books include: “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews,” “American Requiem: God My Father,” and the “War That Came Between Us, Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War,” “Toward a New Catholic Church: The Promise of Reform,” as well as eleven novels.
Carroll’s critique of Christianity is infused with a sense of responsibility for the ways in which our anti-Jewish texts have misremembered the story of Jesus. His exploration of first century history points to the profound influence of the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. upon the way in which the gospel-storytellers crafted their accounts of Jesus for their late first century communities. Insisting that we must measure everything we say about Jesus now against Jesus’ Jewishness, Carroll asks a compelling question: “What if the so-called divinity of Jesus lays bare not so much the mystery of God as it does the majesty of what it means to be human?” Carroll sees that the divinity of Jesus in some way suggests the Divinity in which we all participate. Carroll’s work is a must read for those of us who are working to articulate a 21st century Christology!
The video below was recorded at First Parish in Cambridge on Wednesday, December 10, 2014