I am indebted to John Philip Newell’s book “The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings” for inspiring this sermon. The Season of Creation is a relatively new addition to the Church calender and the first and Gospel readings are those prescribed for Forest Sunday: Genesis 2:4b-23 and John 3:1-16. The contemporary reading is from John Philip Newell. The Scripture readings were taken from ‘the inclusive bible: The First Egalitarian Translation” which opens a new way of understanding both the Genesis story and the Gospel According to John simply by using more inclusive literal translations of the Hebrew and Greek. You can find all three readings here
The Season of Creation is a very recent addition to the Church Calendar. We first observed it, here at Holy Cross, just two years ago. So, this is the first opportunity we have had to observe Forest Sunday. It seems odd to me that in a country like Canada where the forests are so vast and have such a huge impact on the history of this nation, that up until just a few short years ago, did not set aside a day dedicated to the celebration of our forests. Indeed, that churches around the world, should have failed until recently to set aside a season dedicated to the celebration of Creation is not just astounding, but dare I say it, sinful.
So, I’d like to begin this sermon by summoning up visions of my favorite forest. Now, I’m well aware that there are hundreds of brilliant forests in these parts, but it won’t come as a surprise to many of you that my favorite forest is located on the West Coast.
This particular forest is special not only to me, but it also stands tall in the annals of Canadian forests; indeed, it stands out among the forests of the world. It is located just north of West Vancouver and I’ve been walking in this forest since I was a teenager. This deep, dark, rich, rain-forest is one of the few old-growth forests in Canada and many of the trees are over 600 years old. This particular forest has managed to survive uncut thanks to the erection of a lighthouse in 1875 on Point Atkinson. The authorities wanted to ensure a dark back-drop for the lighthouse so they banned logging in the area and the city of West-Vancouver has set the forest aside with the creation of Lighthouse Park.
My first trip to Lighthouse Park, I was but a child, taken there by my father for a family outing. I remember a dark, wet, gentle hike down to the water’s edge, followed by a half-hour’s uphill climb back to the parking lot, where my mother waited with our picnic lunch, of sandwiches and hot tea. Later, when I was old enough to drive myself, there were so many dark, wet, gentle hikes in this forest cathedral where I often retreated to for solace from the trials and tribulations of finding my way in the world.
Over the years, I have often returned to this living cathedral where the Douglas Firs and Red Cedars are hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of years old and looking up to see just how far they stretch toward the sky, makes you dizzy. I still remember the first time I took Carol into the depths of this sacred place. The sheer pleasure of seeing someone you love overwhelmed by the splendor of some of the biggest and oldest trees on the planet, was match only by the deep silences that are possible in such a place. It is without a doubt a thin place a place where the boundary between what is known and what lies beyond the know is so thin that you can feel the presence of the One who is both the source of all that is and who is Beyond all that is.
In this thin place, I have laid down burdens, wept, laughed, shouted, cried, rejoiced, slept, breathed deeply of the earth and lost my breath trudging up the dark, damp, fecund trails. In this thin place, this forest cathedral I have worshiped the source of all that is, been mesmerized by that which is beyond all that is, and been emptied of concerns, trials, tribulations and filled with joy, hope, peace and love. In this thin place, this forest cathedral, over and over again, I have been born anew. In this forest cathedral, and in so many forest cathedrals, I have come to understand what Julian of Norwich meant when she said that, “we are not just made by God, we are made of God.” for in these sacred thin places, in these forest cathedrals, in the sheer beauty and the magnitude of life that abounds from deep within the forest floors, up through the steadfast trunks to the skyward canopies, the One who is the Source of All this is also the One who is the Source of My Being.
But these thin places are not for the faint of heart. Over the years, I have made various pilgrimages to Lighthouse Park, only to find a sign erected warning those who dare to enter that a bear has been sighted in the area. Sometimes the authorities have posted a sign that because of the threat of a dangerous bear in the area that park is closed to all hikers. When I was younger, and much more foolish, I ignored those signs and ventured into the deep, dark forest despite the warnings. The sense of danger was palpable and added to the intensity of the experience of this dangerous wilderness. But the wisdom gained over the decades has of late caused me to heed the warning signs and so from time to time Carol and I have travelled to Lighthouse Park filled with anticipation only to be thwarted by a warning sign.
It seems appropriate somehow that a Thin Place should be so subject to warning signs. I’ve told you before about Rudolf Otto’s definition of God, whom he calls the Numinous. Otto defines the numinous in Latin with the words, “Mysterium, Tremendum, et Facinam” the One whose is the Source of all being is mysterious, tremendous and fascinating. Mysterious yes. Tremendous, literally makes you tremble, yes. But even though you tremble in fear in the presence of such great mysterious, you just can’t help but be fascinated by the One who is the source and ground of your being.Continue reading →
I am indebted to John Philip Newell and his book: A New Harmony for the insights that lie at the heart of this sermon. Listen to the sermon here
It was a beat-up 1969 Chevy Nova, I bought it for $640 in the hope that it would last long enough for me to complete my undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia. At the age of 32, I had enrolled at UBC in the hopes of obtaining an honours degree in Religious Studies. I couldn’t really afford a car. But nor could I afford the time it would take to travel on public transit between the university and the bank clearing house where I needed to work the evening shifts in order to pay for my education. I was living in a shabby basement suit, where the rent was cheap and the parking non-existent. When I was lucky, I found a spot in the alley behind the house, when I was unlucky, I’d have to park a few blocks away. Walking in the dark alley at night was frightening to say the least. Often, I would encounter an old woman, who as near as I could figure out was living rough.The back alley had a number of old sheds and garages against which this old woman would sometimes create a sort of tent out of old clothes and cardboard. We never spoke to one another, but we did recognize one another.
I knew that she belonged in the neighbourhood and she knew that I belonged in the neighbourhood. Neither of us was comfortable in the back alley at night, and it was almost a comfort to run into one another, rather than an unrecognized stranger. One morning as I was hurrying off to class, I heard the old woman moaning underneath her makeshift tent. I quickly unlocked my car and drove off to the University to study the religions of the world. My first class was Ancient Near Eastern Mythology, the Prof gave a 2 hour lecture on the development of Mono-Theism. I then had a 3 hour seminar in the methodology of Religious Studies. The seminar was made up of the my fellow honours students. The nine of us were receiving private instruction from the professor of Jewish Studies. Among my fellow students was a young man who would become one of my best teachers. Sannidhi was a Hindu who I suspect has traveled this earth in many incarnations. Sannidhi possessed a wisdom beyond his 20 years of age. Sannidhi taught me the Hindu understanding that all gods are but pale imitations of the ONE God who lies at the very heart of all that is. It was from Sannidhi that I first learned the Hindu description of the God that I have come to love above all other descriptions of God. I’ve shared it with you many times: God is beyond the beyond and beyond that also.Continue reading →
With readings from Julian of Norwich, Julia Ward Howe and the Gospel according to John 17:20-26, our Mothers’ Day was infused by Sophia! I am indebted to John Shelby Spong’s “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic and John Philip Newell’s “Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings” for insights beyond my own imaginings.
First Reading Revelations of Love, by Julian of Norwich
Again, our Lord showed himself to me, this time more glorious than I had seen him before. I learned that our soul will never find rest until it comes to the fullness of Christ’s joy.
So Christ said, again and again,
“I AM the one.
I AM the one.
I AM the one most honoured.
I AM the one you love.
I AM the one you enjoy.
I AM the one you serve.
I AM the one you long for.
I AM the one you desire.
I AM the one you yearn for.
I AM the one who is everything.
I AM the one whom the holy church preaches and teaches.
I AM the one who showed myself to you.”
There were so many words, I couldn’t understand them all. But the joy I had in listening to those words went far beyond anything I could think or desire. I won’t try to explain them, but, as the grace of God gives you love and understanding, you will know what God means.
Second ReadingThe Founder of Mothers’ Day
Julia Ward Howe’s
Mothers’ Day Proclamation (1870)
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears!
Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies.
Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience.
We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own.
It says, “Disarm, Disarm!”
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesars but of God.
In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.
When I was just a kid, my mother would ask me a question that would be the beginning of a conversation, a routine of sorts that comes out of my Mom’s own childhood in Northern Ireland. The routine goes something like this. Mom would ask me: “How much do you love me?” and I would answer as I’d been taught to answer: “A big bag of sugar!” To which my Mom would reply, “I love you more, I love you two bags of sugar!” To which I would reply, that I loved my Mom, “Five big bags of sugar!” Over the years I’ve met lots of people from Belfast who measure love in bags of sugar. As near as I can tell this loving conversation has something to do with sugar’s ability to make all things sweet and the fact that over the generations sugar was in short supply because most people simply couldn’t afford to buy sugar. I’ve also been told that during and after the two World Wars sugar was rationed, so a big bag of sugar was more sugar than most people ever saw. Sugar was a much sought after satisfying treat, that was essential to a happy life, so measuring love in bags of sugar is something that to this day, my great-nieces and nephews still learn from their elders. But these days even children know that sugar isn’t what it used to be. We all know too well the dangers of a big bag of sugar. Sugar in large quantities is bad for us! Loving someone today, often means limiting their sugar intake. I suspect that expressing love in terms of bags of sugar will soon go the way of Ring-around-the-rosie…while children still sing it they have no idea that it is all about the black plague that saw millions of children fall to their death…. Love measured in bags of sugar, like packets full of posey, is a thing of the past…vaguely remembered by only a few. Given a few generations and our ways of expressing things, like language changes over time. Take for example our way of expressing the Divine, the Source of All that IS and all that Ever Shall be, the names we give to the ONE who is responsible for our Creation, the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being, the ONE we call God, has been known by many names over the centuries. The earliest name for the ONE credited with our Creation is quite simply “El”…”El” is if you will, the generic name for “God” El a word found in both the Ancient Sumerian and Canaanite languages translates as, god. In the ancient manuscripts of what we know call the Hebrew Scriptures, but our parents called the Old Testament, the earliest expression used for the God we were raised to worship is, El Shaddai, which is all too often incorrectly translated into English as God Almighty, but which quite literally translates into english as “breasted one” or the more accurate translation, “She Who Has Breasts”. Elohim, often incorrectly translated as LORD, is the feminine plural word for “majesty”. El Shekinah, is the Ancient Hebrew expression for the presence of God, which quite literally means, “she who dwells among us”. Chokhma is another Ancient Hebrew expression which was used to express the feminine spirit of the Divine which was later translated in to Greek as Sophia, we translate as Wisdom. Ruach is the Ancient Hebrew way of expressing the very essence of God, in the Scriptures it is used in Genesis as the Ruach Elohim, which literally translates as the feminine, majestic “breath, wind, or spirit of God, which we now express as the Holy Spirit. All these feminine ways of expressing what is meant by the word God, were supplemented with images of God as a mother eagle, a mother bear, a mother hen, a birthing mother, a suckling mother, a comforting mother, a woman in labour, and yes even as a woman looking for her lost coin; all these feminine ways of expressing the very nature of our God, were lost to us for generations. Slowly, we are rediscovering these old ways of understanding the nature of our God who is LOVE. LOVE infinitely sweeter than any old bag of sugar. So, today as we read the words put into the mouth of Jesus by the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call John, in which Jesus insists that he and God are ONE, I can’t help wondering about the ways in which this expression has changed over time. Our Gospel text this morning comes from what is commonly called Jesus’ farewell discourse or the High Priestly Prayer. The story-teller we call John puts Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane just before the events that happen on what we call Good Friday. In this discourse Jesus prays for his followers, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all may be one, as you, Abba, are in me and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me that they may be one, as we are one—I in them, you in me—that they may be made perfect in unity. Then the world will know that you sent me, and that you loved them as you loved me. That we may be ONE…so often this fervent prayer has been interpreted as a plea for unity. Listen to what our friend Jack Spong has to say about the all too common ways this discourse has been used by Jesus’ followers: Jack writes: “The “high priestly prayer”..proceeds in three parts. The first is a prayer that Jesus utters for himself, the second is a prayer he prays for the disciples and the third is a prayer that is offered for those throughout history who will believe because of the witness of the disciples. The primary request in this prayer is that unity be achieved among believers. The desired outcome is not ecclesiastical unity,” (that is to say the unity of the church), which is how this prayer has been interpreted by the church. That interpretation, “that usage is always in the service of institutional power. Nor is it content or doctrinal unity, as various councils of the church have so often implied and sought to impose. It is not a unity imposed on any basis from outside the service of any agenda. No, the unity of which this prayer speaks is the oneness of the human with the divine that has been the constant theme of this gospel. It is the unity of the vine with the branches. That unity is found in understanding God, not as an external being, but as the essence of life. John even makes Jesus use the third-person name and title for himself to make his point: Unity comes in knowing “the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The Word of God comes from God, reveals the meaning of God and returns to God. It is a mystical experience of oneness-not a oneness in which individuality is lost, but a oneness in which individuality is affirmed, security is surrendered and new being is entered.” What our friend Jack Spong is trying to open us up to is the way in which Jesus followers understood Jesus to be opening humanity up to a new understanding of what it means to be human. A way of being in the world that understands our origins in the ONE, our existence as ONE, and our passage into the ONE. This radical expression of our humanity as being ONE with the divine, or seeing divinity in humanity changes everything. But most importantly, it changes the way in which we relate to God. God is no longer expressed as some far off distant super-natural being, but rather as an intimate, integral, being, in which we live and move and have our being. I reminded you at the beginning of our worship that today is also the feast day of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century woman who understood this ONEness in the same radical way. Julian of Norwich insisted that we are not just created from afar by a distant Creator. We are born from the very womb of the divine. John Philip Newell writes of Julian: “This is why Julian so loves to refer to God as Mother as well as Father. She sees us as coming forth from the essence of the ONE who is the Source of all things. What does it mean that we are made of God rather than simply by God? In part it means that the wisdom of God is deep within us, deeper than the ignorance of what we have done. It is to say that the creativity of God is deep within us, deeper than any barrenness in our lives or relationships, deeper than any endings in our families or our world. Within us—as a sheer gift of God—is the capacity to bring forth what has never been before, including what has never been imagined before. Above all else, as Julian says, the love-longings of God are at the heart of our being. We and all things have come forth from the ONE. Deep within us are holy, natural longings for oneness, primal sacred drives for union. We may live in tragic exile from these longings, or we may have spent a whole lifetime not knowing how to truly satisfy them, but they are there at the heart of our being, waiting to be born afresh.” We are not just made by God, we are made of God. Think about it. You and I are made of God. When we begin to see our fellow human beings as ONE with God, this has profound implications for how we relate to one another. For as much as you do unto the least of these you do unto me. Jesus is teaching a whole new way of being in the world. Jesus knew this intimacy, this ONEness with God, and sought to instil the wisdom of this Unity, this divinity that finds expression in humanity, into his followers so that all would know the truth of our ONEness in the unity that finds expression in each of us. The implications for how we live together are enormous. Bags and bags of sugar could not even begin to sweeten life in the way our ONEness with the LOVE that we call God offers to those who embrace this unity. God is not an external, distant entity; God is a life we enter, a love we share, the ground in which we are rooted. The call of Christ is not into religion, but into a new mystical oneness. Jack Spong puts it this way: “The good news of the gospel, as John understands it, is not that you—a wretched, miserable, fallen sinner—have been rescued from your fate and saved from your deserved punishment by the invasive power of a supernatural, heroic God who came to your aid. Nowhere does John give credibility to the dreadful, guilt-producing and guis-filled mantra that “Jesus died for my sins.” There is rather an incredible new insight into the meaning of life. We are not fallen; we are simply incomplete. We do not need to be rescued, but to experience the power of an all-embracing love. Our call is not to be forgiven or even to be redeemed; it is to step beyond our limits into a new understanding of what it means to be human. It is to move from a status of self-consciousness to a realization that we share in a universal consciousness. John’s rendition of Jesus’ message is that the essence of life is discovered when one is free to give life away, that love is known in the act of loving and that the call of human life is to be all that each of us can be and then to be an agent of empowering others to be all that they can be.” Jack Spong, like Julian before him, like the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call John, see in Jesus the expression of the ONEness of which we are made. How much do I love you? Well lets just say that once, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child. But when I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me. Where once a bag of sugar, was enough to express my love, now I am beginning to understand that I was not just created by love, I am created of love, a love beyond my ability to imagine, a love in which I live and move and have my being. The love that we call God, El Shaddai, the breasted one, Elohim, majesty, El Shekenia, She Who Dwells Among us, Sohpia, Wisdom, Mother of us all, Yahweh, I will be who I will be. The I AM, in which I live and move and have my being. And just as, if not more importantly, the I AM in which all humanity lives and moves and has being. The implications of this way of expressing Divinity and understanding humanity are as immense as the LOVE that makes us ONE. Amen.
This sermon speaks to the experience of our Global Justice Team’s attempts to respond ethically to global injustice. We were guided by the Rev. Jonathan Schmidt of the Canadian Churches Forum for Global Ministries. John Philip Newell’s recent book New Harmony: The Spirit, The Earth, and The Human Soul provided new insights for the vision of a New Pentecost. The Gospel reading from Mark 2:1-12 replaced the regular Pentecost reading.