We Are All ONE – Pluralism Sunday – John 21:15-17

A long time ago, I owned a beat-up 1969 Chevy Nova that I paid less than $700 for in the hope that that old car would last long enough to get me through my undergraduate years at the University of British Columbia. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t get around to doing my undergraduate degree until I was 32 years old, when I enrolled in the Religious Studies program at UBC. I was living in a shabby basement apartment, where the rent was cheap, but the parking was non-existent. If I was lucky, I’d find a parking spot in the alley behind my apartment. Walking in that dark alley at night was more than a little scary. Often, as I was hurrying through that dark alley, I would see this old woman who was living rough in a makeshift tent. It wasn’t much of a shelter, just some cardboard held together by old clothes and torn grocery bags.

The old woman and I never spoke to one another. After several weeks of seeing one another in that back-alley, we would quietly nod in recognition of 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 seemed almost comforting to see a familiar face, rather than running into some totally unknown stranger.

One morning as I was hurrying off to class, I heard the old woman moaning underneath her makeshift tent. I am ashamed to say that her moans frightened me, and I dashed to my car, unlocked it as quickly as I could, and drove off to the university so that I could continue my study of the religions of the world. The irony was not lost on my and I was ashamed.

I had some brilliant professors at UBC who taught me all sorts of things, but none of those wise professors ever taught me as much as one of my fellow students taught me. My classmate Sannidhi taught me more about religion than any professor. Sannidhi is a Hindu who I suspect has traveled this earth in many incarnations. Sannidhi possessed wisdom beyond his 20 years of age. To this day, some of what I learned from Sannidhi, I continue to try to teach others. It was Sannidhi who 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 MYSTERY that we call God, that I have come to love above all other descriptions of the DIVINE ONE. I’ve shared this description with you many times:  “God is beyond the beyond and beyond that also.”

Despite the difference in our ages and backgrounds or maybe because of them, Sannidhi and I became study partners. Together, we navigated the murky waters of Religious Methodology as we tried our best to move beyond our own religious practices so that we could learn from the religious practices of others. Sannidhi often spoke about his home in India and how he couldn’t wait to show me what India was really like.

One evening I offered Sannidhi a ride home in my car. To this day, I’m not sure whether or not he was teasing me or if he actually was seriously impressed with my old Chevy. I remember him running his hand over its white vinyl roofand making a sort of tutting sound as his head bobbed from side to side and he expressed his admiration for such a fine mode of transport. Driving along, our conversation about the nature and reality of God was so engrossing that I invited Sannidhi to stop off at my place for a cup of tea so that we could continue our conversation. That’s how we ended up talking to the old woman who live lived in the back-alley behind my basement apartment. turns out her name was Joanna. In just a few moments, Sannidhi had learned that she liked milk and just a touch of sugar in her tea. I myself had never dreamed of offering the old woman a cup of tea. Sannidhi never dreamed of not offering her a cup of my tea. Continue reading

LOVE Has Died. LOVE Is Risen. LOVE Will Come Again, and Again, and Again! – Pluralism Sunday

to listen to the audio only recording of the sermon here

A little girl held tightly to her grandfather’s hand as together they walked toward the centre of town.  Suddenly a tall, beautiful, woman dressed from head to toe in a long black flowing gown appeared in the street just ahead of them. The woman’s flowing gown gave the impression that she was floating rather than walking. Beneath the black flowing cloth which covered the woman’s head, was an elegant face encased by restricting starched white material. Below the smiling woman’s face, hung a slender silver cross. The little girl tugged on her grandfather’s sleeve and asked, “Who is that, Grand-dad?”  The little girl’s grandfather explained, “That my dear is a witch! Now mind you behave yourself or she will take you away and boil you in her stew pot”.  The little girl squeezed her grandfather’s hand tightly and resolved to stay far away from witches no matter how beautiful they looked.

I couldn’t have been more than about four years old when my grandfather and I encountered that Roman Catholic nun on the road in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I can’t tell you how many times as a child in Belfast, I was warned to behave myself or the nuns would come and take me away. Later I would learn that the threat of nuns was often used by protestant families to keep children in line.

For generations, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland have spent most of their fighting with their neighbours about how to love God that they’ve barely had time to love God and they’ve never really learned how to love their neighbours. When I was growing up, I was taught that there are good religions and there are bad religions. It wasn’t very complicated; our religion was a good religion and everyone else’s religion was a bad religion. My parents left Northern Ireland to avoid the warring madness between Protestants and Roman Catholics euphemistically known as the “Troubles.” I know all too well the mess we humans can get into when we forget that there is more than one way to live and move and have your being in the MYSTERY that we call God.

For just over ten years now, congregations that identify themselves as “progressive” have been celebrating Pluralism Sunday. Pluralism Sunday was conceived as an opportunity for churches to celebrate religious diversity and affirm that there are so very many pathways into the MYSTERY that we call God. I must confess that nun/witch that I encountered in Belfast all those years ago has haunted my preparations for this Pluralism Sunday. Life seemed so much simpler back then. Continue reading